Hayley Stevenson – Global Climate Governance in an Age of Bullshit

Holding leaders to account for their lack of ecological integrity requires greater local and global democratic engagement.

Hayley Stevenson is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cross-posted from Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI)


It has become a truism that climate change is the greatest challenge society faces. There is no shortage of declarations, pledges, and policies promising ambitious reductions of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And yet, emissions continue to rise, and mitigation actions fall far short of the ambition required to ensure a stable climate.

What we have is a significant deficit of ecological integrity: an explicit recognition of the mismatch between rhetoric, intentions, and actions. This deficit defines global climate change governance in an age of bullshit. Multilateral negotiations are driven by political feasibility, not ecological rationality. The resulting inconsistency of words and actions can be understood as ‘climate bullshit’.

The American philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, triggered scholarly interest in the nature and role of bullshit in public life with his 1986 essay ‘On Bullshit’. He argued that the bullshitter speaks and acts ‘without any regard for how things really are’. It is this indifference to truth which Frankfurt suggests is the ‘essence’ of bullshit and is ultimately more pernicious that straight-out lying.

He saw this as ‘one of the most salient features of our culture’. It reveals a deliberate carelessness with the truth; it is not a lapse into laziness but rather intentionally to say whatever will advance one’s interests. The protagonist is indifferent to whether the words they articulate reflect reality or not; they only want the audience to believe they are true. No attempt is made to confirm their accuracy or attend to all relevant facts.

Jerry Cohen shared Frankfurt’s concern but not his emphasis on motive. One might innocently repeat bullshit under the false belief that it is true; such a person is not indifferent to the truth, merely mistaken. For Cohen, it does not make an utterance any less bullshit simply because the speaker did not aim to deceive. Whenever someone articulates nonsense, or arguments that are ‘grossly deficient either in logic or in sensitivity to empirical evidence’, they are bullshitting.

This can manifest in various forms: saying whatever will advance one´s interests, irrespective of whether it reflects reality; making a promise while implicitly or explicitly reserving the right not to perform accordingly; nonsense statements; unclarifiable discourse; illogical arguments that are insensitive to empirical evidence; irretrievably speculative comments; and an inconsistency between statements and practice produced by the lack of genuine effort to ensure consistency.

In global climate change governance, bullshit is pervasive, and it manifests in several, and potentially all, of these forms. Sometimes it is plainly obvious: for example, the United Kingdom Parliament declared a ‘climate emergency’ this year, while remaining firmly committed to building a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

But detecting climate bullshit often requires a combination of constant scrutiny and specialised knowledge. Consider the scientific basis of climate change pledges under the UN Paris Agreement. A concerned citizen may assume that her government’s pledge to limit warming to 2°C reflects an ambition to drastically reduce GHG emissions. But most emissions modelling and scenarios are now based on large-scale deployment of ‘negative emissions technologies’ from 2020 onwards. While still unproven, these technologies are expected to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scenarios that exclude them are based on a much larger reduction of greenhouse emissions by 2050: 60-75% reduction relative to 2010 levels, compared to 40-60% reduction if negative emissions technologies are used.

The assumption that such technology will be deployed and will work injects considerable wriggle room into emissions pathway planning. It is the equivalent of adopting a drastic weight-loss goal while only moderately reducing calorie intake because future medical innovations should be able to offset the excess brownies and burgers. Climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters warn that, despite their ‘pivotal role’ in mitigation scenarios, negative emissions technologies are ‘almost completely absent from climate policy discussions’.

Climate bullshit is also present in the annual G20 summits. Every year, the world´s largest economies meet and agree to a raft of principles and actions on economic development and financial stability. From 2009 until Trump joined the scene in 2017, the G20 repeatedly reiterated its commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. It took the election of a climate change-denying US president to bring the Group’s words more closely into alignment with its actions, which effectively deny the urgency of climate change.

But this has not removed the bullshit from the annual summit declaration. The inclusion of climate change and, more recently, reference to the Paris Agreement, is typically met with cheer among concerned observers. But this will remain empty rhetoric until member-states cease propping up the fossil fuel sector with large subsidies. Estimates of their scale vary because different actors use different definitions of subsidies. The IMF estimates that US$4.7 trillion (6.3% of global GDP) was spent on them in 2015. Any governmental statement on fossil fuel subsidies should be read with a huge dose of scepticism, not least because governments consistently underestimate their own! Germany, for example, has identified 22 tax breaks and budgetary transfers that favour fossil fuels to the value of US$17.6 billion annually, yet civil society estimates put the figure at between US$40-50 billion.

Harry Frankfurt concluded that human society cannot flourish in the face of pervasive bullshit unless we heighten our ability ‘to discriminate reliably between instances in which people are misrepresenting things to us and instances in which they are dealing with us straight’. This message is compelling in the context of climate crisis. Until we can better detect bullshit about climate change mitigation, it will continue to suppress more nuanced democratic debate about how we can effectively confront this challenge.

There are no easy solutions for mitigating bullshit in global climate governance. But what is clear is that this is not a task that can be left to political leaders and negotiators. For thirty years, the UN climate body (UNFCCC) has proven incapable of recognising and rectifying inconsistencies in its approach to mitigating climate change. Holding governments to account for climate bullshit requires much greater democratic engagement in climate change governance than we have seen to date. Promising options lie in nested accountability arrangements that stretch from the local to the global levels.

These would facilitate communication between international, national and local levels, and encourage scrutiny and accountability. This could be formalised in nested councils or forums, where members of civil society deliberate on rhetoric and action at different scales. But, in the short term, more informal arrangements involving knowledge and accountability brokers are essential. The participation of respected scientists in Extinction Rebellion is one example.

The recent efforts of the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, are also instructive in this light. Greta stands on the shoulders of scientists. She is well-informed and speaks eloquently and passionately to the powerful and the ordinary alike. She goes beyond the usual exaltations for greater action by pinpointing precisely where leaders are failing, and where their words are inconsistent with their actions.

Exposure of her words has had an extraordinary impact on public consciousness, triggering student protests in cities across the world, and inducing ‘flight shame’, which has led to an 8% rise in Swedish rail travel. We can’t all be Greta, of course, but more well-informed and articulate knowledge-brokers like her would enhance our collective ability to call political leaders to account for their bullshit and enhance integrity in global climate change governance.

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