I wanted to write about the new US President’s decision to stop NASA conducting research on the earth’s climate, but word fail me, or maybe I them. Where to begin? It’s too depressing to even link to. It would require a command over language which I don’t possess. Maybe poets and other artists are better placed to develop the new forms of expression which will be able to address this new reality. Or perhaps I should get round to watching ‘Hypernormalisation’. Here are three writers who have tried to think through the topic (more or less) head-on.
In a certain sense, their endeavours will be moot, for it now looks highly probable that within our own lifetimes the problem of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ will, in one limited sense, disappear. It seems to me evident that the Trump administration will follow the lead of Florida Governor Rick Scott, who forbade government agencies from mentioning it, and former UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson, who refused to read any document containing either phrase. In any case future generations will be too busy worrying about ‘freak’ hurricanes, ‘storms-of-the-century’, ‘unprecedented’ deluges and ‘inexplicable’ droughts to care much about what these weird creatures ‘scientists’ used to think. Did I forget to mention wars? Energy, food and water shortages. More and more bloody refugees.
It’s nineteen degrees now, the end of November. Imagine Chad in the summer. It’s so frightening to think about that raising the subject will almost certainly remain as it is now, a social taboo. Naomi Klein reported in 2013 43% of US adults had never had a conversation about climate change. I suspect that number may even be growing. If you doubt this, just consider how many climate change conversations you have had in the last week. Now take a scroll through your Facebook feed. It’s very, very rare to meet anyone with a grasp of the basic facts, even among teachers, who are supposed to be training this miracle generation who will magic away all these problems for us. Every teacher knows how hard is to raise the subject in class and keep it in the air. But why should young people be better able to discuss it than fully-grown adults? George Marshall calls it the Spinach Tart problem. People prefer to talk about pretty much anything else: the unseasonal weather, the refugee crisis, the rise of the far-right. So why insist on making everyone uncomfortable? Why risk social ostracism? As Franz Kafka said, in the battle between you and the world, back the world.
This is why Trump won. People are scared of the future but expressing their fears is taboo. I’m no more a psychologist than I am a poet, but I know what happens when fears are repressed. They return in other forms. At the level of a party like the US Republicans, the level of delusion is so great that I do not consider it unreasonable to classify it as ‘psychotic’. Perhaps they thought that by electing a madman as leader their deranged agenda (language really struggles to hold on to meaning in such a context) would make sense. We have yet to see whether Trump’s own mental disorders are compatible with those of his sponsors. His comments this week to the effect that he ‘has an open mind’ about the changing climate were, as is now customary, dangerously misinterpreted across a range of media, with at least one noble exception. It’s an insult to the world’s children to accuse him of having the mentality of a infant. Trump’s supporters are mightily impressed at his derring-do in exposing his catastrophic ignorance on critically important subjects. No clothes! They twitter. Hee hee! This is trolling on a celestial or cosmological scale.
In this week’s classroom presentations two of my International Relations students chose to focus on the imminent inevitability of an all-encompassing world war. It would be too depressing to write about how depressing it was that they saw it as so unavoidable. When I asked them what they thought we can do to stop it their answer was to enjoy their global mobility – to study and work in other countries, ‘learn about other cultures’. I didn’t know how to suggest that our mobility is actually part of what’s at issue. An uncomfortable truth is that nowadays a great deal of people’s politics feelings are motivated by resentment of others’ mobility (both social and geographic), whether it be that of privileged elites or desperate refugees. The Brexit and Trump voters of 2016 are inspired by some of the same motives of the London rioters of 2011, principally frustration and resentment. They are not just frustrated consumers, but also frustrated global citizens, frustrated social climbers, frustrated tourists, frustrated expats…
We might hope that what undermines attempts to speed up the end of civilisation is also partly what inspires it. Climate change is at once the rallying cause and the Achilles heel of the far-right. Its appeal is partly based on denying something that will soon become undeniable (explicit censorship aside). Although we don’t hear about them, there must be those in countries like Russia who are aware of the facts. Even one of the ideological ‘news’ sources online is occasionally forced to report on events which cannot be explained without explicit reference to the warming of the planet.
One central trope of the new far-right is a defence of ‘free speech’ – like ‘atheism’, this is one term that now rings alarm bells when it shows up in a Twitter profile as the person using it is almost certainly doing so dishonestly. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynahan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. Tragically, those who thought that it was a good idea to trumpet the idea that 97% of “climate scientists” “believe” in climate change did – and continue to do – humanity an enormous disservice. Who are the other 3%? According to George Marshall, they are mostly geologists, may of whom work for oil companies. It is like trusting a dentist to tell you you haven’t got cancer – specifically, a dentist who then tells you you should celebrate getting the all-clear by going to his friend’s nearby shop and investing in a nice new carpet. In the meantime, the figure lets us off the hook. As Daniel Kahnemann points out in one of the top-two most useful books I’ve ever read, human beings are loss averse. When the odds of disaster are so great, we cling to, exaggerate hope. And so, it seems, we are drawn to those who can encourage us in our folly – especially in a situation where no-one else around us appears to be panicking. There is, therefore, no need to wonder what Le Pen’s or Duterte’s positions on global warming are. Such people are telling us reassuring fairy tales about the future, ones which give us a horse and a spear and point us to where the enemy is to be found.
Nor has language helped us come to terms with the problem. Although at times climate campaigners have turned to words like crisis, chaos, emergency, and breakdown in order to try to begin to communicate the nature and scale of what’s at stake, the terms we most encounter are global warming (which sounds nice) and climate change (which seems pretty harmless). Sadly, other languages seem to take their lead from English – I’m not aware of any that has a proper scary name. As for images, it is now a truism in climate-campaigning circles that photos of polar bears only serve to make the problem into one remote in time and space. In terms of numbers, anyone who has been around NGOs understands that talk of ‘millions’ of lives at risk is far too much of an abstraction. Another major difficulty with communicating the risk of planetary overheating can be summed up as follows: apple pie Stockhausen 33.72. whhhhhiiiirrrrrrr banana space station pineapple; or, in other words, nobody is reading this because it’s about climate change. In the words of the poet, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
When it comes to denying global warming, we are all to some extent the offspring of David Irving. Or perhaps his brothers. One miserable side-effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership has been that it has drawn attention to his bastard sibling, Piers, who can fairly be described as a full-on batshit tinhatted lunatic and whose approach to dealing who anyone who tries to discuss climate change rationally is exactly the same as that of his Hitlerite counterpart: disrupt the discussion by screaming absolute nonsense at them. One very useful thing that Jeremy could do for the climate movement is denounce his brother as a bothersome and vexatious fraud. Trying to begin to start to attempt to come to terms with global warming is hard enough without some absolute prick shouting patent falsehoods in your ear.
As I suggested before in relation to Le Pen, it is no accident that those who deny the holocaust also deny climate change. Where does that analogy leave those who knew it was happening but failed to respond? Neither of the excuses used in relation to ordinary citizens under Hitler – that they didn’t know what was going on and that in any case dissent was far too dangerous – apply to us. We were in no physical danger, but we just wanted to get on with our lives unperturbed by a wholly inconvenient secondary impact of our lifestyles. As for our knowledge, I first found out about climate change in 1988, from the front page of the Guardian. The information was in the public realm long, long before that. Since then, despite some spurts of political activism, a lot of flights and far too many bacon sandwiches, I haven’t done much to respond to climate change. However does one begin? Luckily, in most cities in the world, there are groups of people who are trying to work out what we as a species must do next.
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Meanwhile, in the sequel to any number of disaster movies, a meteorite is heading straight for planet earth. In response, a crack team of US geologists gather with high-level politicians to hide the news from the public. At the very last minute, the huge rock smashes the planet to pieces and everybody dies. From way up in space, NASA astronauts look down on the spinning fragments of their former home in very great dismay.