GUEST BLOG: Douglas Renwick – Doomism and challenges for the environmental movement:

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Climate scientist Michael Mann’s recent book ‘The new Climate Wars’ argues that the battle to convince people that climate change is not caused by human’s has now largely been lost by the fossil fuel sector, and that several new strategies are now being used to prevent action on climate change.

One of the new wars is the ideology of doomism, which is the doctrine that is based on the claim that “it is completely hopeless, and nothing can be done about climate change”, and other similar claims and responses to the climate crisis. This doctrine is not solely pushed by the fossil business sector, it clearly benefits from it as it leads to the outcome of inaction, which is what they want. As pointed out in Mann’s book, it has come often from very intelligent, decent people, and Mann himself says he has been suspectible to doomism. Anyone that’s part of the environmentalist movement would have come across doomism a lot, and helplessness as an emotional response now ranks quite highly according to opinion polls such as this one as one of the main barriers to climate action, though it is still behind hopeful. There are also softer forms of doomism, like focusing on worse case scenarios and exxagerting the claims of methane bombs trapped under the arctic. This in large part is what Michael Mann focuses on in his book. Doomism is not to be confused with cynacism.

There are two questions that I will address; one is the question of whether there is any evidence to support doomism, and the answer is pretty clear that there isn’t. And the other is what exactly is the cause of doomism, and this is much more interesting. I’d like to give my own partial and speculative answer, as Mann’s focus in the book is quite narrow, in my view.

There are very clearly a lot of things that can be done about climate change, and those who claim that nothing can be done are completely untrue. To list some idea’s, you can look at the website drawdown.org, which lists one hundred climate solutions, all argued to be very feasible. In Robert Pollin and Noam Chomsky’s recent book, Pollin puts forth a Green New Deal plan that would meet IPCC recommendation targets, and cost a maximum of 2.5% of gdp from each government per year, until 2050. Paying for it according to Pollins plan really doesn’t look like it require’s changes that were as substational as the original New Deal policies that were adopted by countries in the 1930’s, and it would bring a lot of economic benefits outside of climate change.

Secondly, there happens to be a very large historical record of acheiving political gains through struggle, and we can look back and see that for example it was possible for women to get the vote, or that slavery could be abolished. And part of that was overcoming the belief that those acheivements could not be done. We happen to live in a society with a very high degree of freedom, where it is actually much easier to struggle now than it was further back in history, or in more oppressive countries. If you look at say Nigeria, or Hondorus, environmentalists there have been murdered. And so the claim that nothing or very little can be done, may well have some weight in those countries, but not ours or any of the others in the west.

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Now, why is there a semi popular beleif in doomism when there is very clear evidence that contradicts it? It is not just a result of the fossil fuel business’s, and doomsayers. One reason Mann gives, is that climate scientists like himself have focused narrowly on their on expertise, and very little on solutions:

It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. I learned this the hard way. For years my standard public lecture on climate change focused only on the science and the impacts, because I am a scientist. I would then pay lip service to “climate solutions,” with the obligatory final slide depicting a montage of recycling efforts, wind turbines, solar panels, and the like. I was fortunate that my audiences were made up of thoughtful and sharing folks. And when they would linger afterward to talk with me, I heard the same thing over and over: “That was a great presentation. But it left me so depressed!”

We could also put a lot of blame on those who are in a position to provide solutions; but give very underwhelming ones. (Like the climate change commission). In my view the economics profession are to a large extent to blame for this as well. A lot of them have provided solutions like a carbon tax, or trading scheme. This is a fine idea, Australia reduced emissions by a pretty reasonable amount with even a small carbon pricing scheme for the time they had one. But to offer this as a solution to climate change, and stop there, is basically like saying lets ruin the eco-system. It is clear that whatever the solution is to decarbonize the economy in time, it’s going to involve many policies, that actually have to go much, much further than a carbon tax, (as Robert Pollin does). So yes it’s fine to say you support a carbon tax, but only if you say this is a necessary and insufficient policy for dealing with the climate crisis.

As for the media coverage; over the last decade or so it has covered climate change much more, but the coverage has focused far more on the science, with little coverage on either who is behind the crisis and what the solutions are, at least according to this study. With the New York Times offering opinion piecesthat Bernie Sanders Green New Deal is “technically impractical, politically unfeasible and possibly ineffective.”, even though most American’s actually support a Green New Deal. And this would be a real GND, not say the watered down one that Biden has. Notably, most people have not even heard of it.

These two examples represent the mainstream picture that is fed to society over the last decade by the media: Climate change is no longer something that is debatable, but we won’t inform you about how to deal with it. That must be one of the causes of doomism and apathy, and in order to resist it people have to realize that this picture is not true and the doctrine of doomism doesn’t have any evidence to back it up. There have always been feasible solutions provided to the environmental crisis, and to go further, there have always been people providing solutions to capitalism and it’s evils, the consequences of inaction have never been more serious and it’s never been easier to act.

Douglas Renwick is a political activist trying to analyze the major problems of 21st century capitalism

16 COMMENTS

  1. There’s a lot of good analysis done on the economic impact, both primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, but probability multiplied risky stuff isn’t really addressing the costs in a real way.

    We have the primary costs – loss of land, storm damage, ect. Then there are the secondary costs – what we pay for resilience. New material science, rerouting roads, ect.

    Finally you have tertiary costs, which are the impacts climate change has on a more general level – impacts on crop yield, for instance, or the cost to reroute supply lines.

    The second and third are going to be the real expensive parts, and the ultimate driver of a solution as people seek efficiency. Mann’s actuarial things seems like a bad twisting of the primary cost only.

    • Actually, going by the above article, Mann’s book deals, rather, with the possibility of preventing or reducing climate change itself. Anyhow, that’s the impression it made on me.

      • What he says lines up well with Nordhaus’ projections. 45 trillion dollars net cost at an increase of 1.5 degrees. Of course, we’re already past that. The most obvious answer to that is that it’s not coming from the same purse. The other is that we need both.

        Governments sponsor research that may be generally useful, corporations spend money on research that may make them money. Profit is what drives implementation of alternative energy sources, governments can change the profit equation by things like subsidies but generally don’t actually build any other than for small-scale use – that’s how capitalism works. If the government starts building major things, you’ll quickly hear cries about unfair competition and communism. Subsidies tend to cause cries too, but divided into supporters who stand to gain and detractors who stand to lose.

        It’s also just not a good idea to halt research to funnel the money towards implementation. That doesn’t actually make much difference for implementation, but it makes a lot of difference for research – and we can still improve on alternative energy sources.

        The economic rationale for public R&I funding and its impacts The Directorate-General for Research & Innovation (DG RTD) of the European Commission regularly carries out policy-oriented in-house analyses on the economic impact of research and innovation (R&I) investments and reforms. The current paper highlights the economic rationale for public R&I funding, presents a number of empirical estimates about the impacts of R&I investment in general, and of public R&I in particular, and concludes that the impacts of public R&I funding are large and significant and that acts as a catalyzer to boost higher levels of productivity growth that are needed to accelerate economic growth and create more and better job opportunities.

        • Sam when the NZ govt built dams, built the national distribution network then where were the cries of “communism” and if there were any then so what. Being manipulated by name calling is indeed a weak response.
          Capitalism using the most viscous PR campaigns can rule the roost if you let them, keeping hands off calling them out for what they are and forging ahead to put changes in place that are sound and not following economists and fiscal tyrants who will manipulate if they can.

          Energy is the most stupidly handled harvesting we do. We need to use less energy and cut down on using Non Renewable Resources.
          Free energy is not really a win at all as we have to use resources to harness it and more resourcse to distribute it and use it.
          Its a trap in thinking.
          Many dwellings now use less than 1 KWH per person per day and some may use only a KWH per week.
          Some use none at all.
          Cuba had its oil supply cut off and the population lost weight but finally worked together independent of capitalists and grew food in local cooperatives.

          Basing thinking on what exists is very restricting..

          The only cost that is significant is the cost to the environment by human activity.

          • Extreme meterological incidents themselves aren’t the biggest threat; food crop shortage won’t be threatening to the global population either; the thing is more and more underdeveloped countries will grow less functional because of those two reasons, and in turn they will fail to normally interact with major powers – at best they will be development aid drains and at worst their insurgencies will lead to proxy wars between major powers.

            Because climate change deniers and climate change advocates often include isolationists or worse in their ranks, their “solution” to human impact can’t be much beyond “ignore the starving bastards and shoot whoever tries to raise attention.”

            NZDF think tanks have written a few things about the climate impact on near future war; they are effectively saying “there will be too many failed states and America’s partners risk losing their capitals to climate insurgencies.”

            One option is to prop the expected hotspots up by both supporting their regimes and their subsistance economy, but that’s the hard way… The easy way, apparently already chosen, is to wait for them to fail and threaten the developed world, then fight a morally justified eternal war with the insurgents.

            There’s nothing remotely moral about it. That’s just NZDF, not me, at all.

            If the change destroys technological civilization and drastically reduces our numbers, we become just as vulnerable to extinct events as any other species.

            Extinctions are often “one-two-three punch combo” like that; if a major plague or what ever kills off the survivors after a climate change collapse, then war for example.

            We just don’t know what the consequences will be 100% of the time. Humans have never existed in the climate we find ourselves in; we have no way of knowing how bad the effects will be or if civilization will be able to sustain itself.

            We’ve collectively flung ourselves off a cliff without knowing if there’s a lake, a slab of granite or a pool of molten rock at the bottom.

            We just don’t understand how the climate works well enough. For example, we don’t know if the weather will still be stable enough for large scale agriculture or some variation.

            Based upon our best expert judgement and most advanced models, climate change means going going towards something like a Star Trek lifestyle in 2100 to something like GATTACA at worst, but not to Mad Max. Human extinction, or even an intolerably tough lifestyle, aren’t on the cards at all. And that’s the worst case if we do absolutely nothing about it.

            So there is no need to feel the level of doom and worry you feel. This is not anywhere close to being the end of the world. That’s totally the wrong idea.

  2. Yes there are feasible technical solutions that belie the doomsters, but there are also the poo-pooers who argue that we don’t need to get rid of capitalism to save ourselves.
    Nature says differently.
    Technically we can stop climate change but we can’t do it under capitalism.
    Waiting for the fossil fuel industry to convert to sustainable fuel is like making a collective suicide pact. That industry is run by human fossils with sunk capital they want to rescue with greater profits.
    That’s why the capitalocene is a much better label than the anthropocene.
    The capitalocene means that it is capitalism is killing nature.
    The Green New Deal is only possible post-capitalism, it requires a real democracy of the working majority to expropriate the polluters and use their hoarded wealth to fund the restoration of nature.
    When we combine physical science with social science we can work out that we have ten years to get rid of capitalism and install survival socialism.

    • Personally I’m opposed to capitalism. Most green new deal proposals are anti neoliberalism but pro welfare state capitalism, like the one pollin suggested. There are also anti growth ones like jason hickels. I think it’s debatable whether we have to remove capitalism or not. I’d personally like that but a lot more people need to be on board before that happens, and we haven’t got to the first stages of even doing that yet.

  3. WANT AN ISM THAT DOESN’T TRICKLE ON US?
    “Yous gotta hate every ism and love freedom, be patriots” they said. Because They, the very few at the top of the heap, can be relied on to “trickle down” on Us – the great unwashed. So we are mushrooms are we, to be kept in the dark under the wash of being trickled on?

  4. The problem with your argument, Douglas, is that it lacks convincing evidence.

    It is probable that the Earth’s capacity to absorb the impact of industrial capitalism ran out sometime in the 1970s. The environmental damage inflicted – of which climate change is only a part – is now so severe that a general system collapse cannot be avoided.

    If humanity is lucky, it will retain enough organisational coherence to eventually discover a new point of equilibrium with the bio-dynamics of the planet. This will, however, be far below the lavish lifestyle settings of our present capitalist civilisation.

    If we are unlucky, human-beings will be reduced to the hunter-gatherer mode of existence which characterised their first 240,000 years upon the planet.

    This would not necessarily be “doom” for us, and it would most certainly not be doom for the planet.

    What is doomed, however, is the prospects of some sort of technical fix to the unfolding crisis. Green New Deals are as much a capitalist distraction as “doomism” itself.

    • What matters is that the damage done is minimized-as michael mann points out in the book, it’s not about if we are effed or not, but how effed we are. I don’t have expertise in the climate sciences but I havn’t seen any scientific consensus on the view that “general system collapse cannot be avoided”. I’ll be happy to accept that view if there is a lot of evidence for it.

      Don’t know what you mean by GND being a technical fix, it’s very clear that any sort of attempt to mitigate global warming requires serious change in the economic system. You could call it GND or call it something else, but the consequences of a GND are much different from the consequences of doomism-which is the continuation of the neoliberal economic system. So i don’t see why you’re equating the two.

    • Agreed in short form Chris. The one thing that is not mentioned is population reduction which is unavoidable.
      Either plan and implement or reach rapid collapse and a form of die off for many. will be expected.
      So looking beyond what ever form that takes, the longer we leave it then the less habitable the environment and available resource residue will be enabling how many will survive and what sort of existence will take shape. Most certainly capitalism will be dead.

  5. NZ and the world needs to stop spending money on subsidising business interests and start spending money on saving the planet. I would also argue that climate change is a very limited view on what needs to be done for the environment, aka environmental destruction is far greater than just climate change and solutions also involve decreasing pollution of air, sea, land and fresh water, increasing forests and natural places and increasing biodiversity outcomes in addition to climate change.

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