With COP28 starting and this time hosted in one of the most intensely carbon polluting countries, it is time to reflect on the where and what of the climate movement.
Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund Universit
A terrible world
The thing about important insights is that they often hide in plain sight. One of my favourite thinkers and sages of modern times, Krishnamurti, often remarked in his talks, almost in passing, that the world is a terrible place. It is both a painful and very general thought, but if you accept it, you can often see things that are otherwise hiding in plain sight.
This does not mean that the world as such is terrible. If you detach yourself from your preconceptions, and see it just as it is, it is immensely beautiful. What it means is that your preconceptions and expectations do not necessarily have any impact on reality. Or in other words, even if something for us is too stark, too extreme, to seem true, it does not mean it cannot happen.
Let’s take denial for example. It is usually seen as the root cause of why it has taken humanity so long to find a meaningful response to the climate and ecological crises. Now that outright climate denial has become the exception, it may seem to us that humanity has taken a turn for the better in the face of the climate crisis. However, what we may not want to see is that denial is far more widespread and deeply ingrained in our society, so deeply in fact that in some form or other, most of us are fully immersed in it. And that this “soft” form of denial, when it comes to climate action, has proven as effective as the now almost defunct “hard” denial of the climate crisis.
We all know those kinds of responses: “it won’t be so bad, or if it will be, then my or my country’s contribution is too small to really matter”, or alternatively “it will be bad, but not for me”, “others are deniers, but I am at least doing something”, and most notably: “I need to sound positive, because otherwise people will not be motivated”, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
In this world of soft denial, the solution is always more and better disseminated knowledge, and more effective admonition to do the right thing. Be it about the environment, technologies, or ourselves. It is an ideal world where the good fight the evil – and the most evil are those spreading “disinformation”, the antithesis of knowledge. It needs more scientists’ warnings, more campaigners raising the alarm bell, and more courageous leaders taking radical steps. But it is also a hopeful one, where the good in the end prevail.
But what if denial is not a system failure, but one of its central features? What if it is the oil that makes the machine run smoothly? That giant machine made up of human leaders and helpers as well as real mechanical and electronic devices, with the sole purpose of maximising efficiency and profits within the logic of the market. A machine where “good” and “evil” are no moral categories, but something entirely soleless, the direct expression of a pre-programmed goal, like an abstract mathematical expression guiding a massive artificial intelligence? Good here is anything that increases efficiency, and bad what stands in its way. The individuals acting within it may have ideas about morality and care about future generations and the planet, they may even question the wisdom of the machine itself, but on a collective level such doubts are overwritten and smoothed out. And the lubricant that helps smoothing out such imbalances is denial.
In this dystopian vision of our currently prevailing civilisation, denial must necessarily exist in every group that functions as a guarantor of the system’s continuation. And that includes the same scientists that are doing the warning. So if there is to be any truth to this hypothesis, we would need to find forms of denial even in the climate and ecological sciences.
When big ice sheets melt, sea levels can rise very rapidly, up to four metres per century. Some of them sit on a bedrock below sea level, and are therefore vulnerable to warming ocean water. Nevertheless, I remember quite well from when I was at the peak of my active climate science career, how during the 2000s sea level rise was commonly seen as a matter of the oceans‘ water expanding because warmer water takes up more space, not of ice sheet collapse. And so, despite warnings, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet was seen as a matter for the next 1000 years, and the Antarctic as stable for a long time to come. – Now, less than two decades on, West Antarctica has recently been diagnosed as already unstable, parts of it have already started to collapse, and even parts of the East Antarctic, so far seen as the most stable region, have started to move. The International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the body entrusted with warning humanity about “dangerous climate change”, has a long history of downplaying the risks of sea level rise, or “erring on the side of least drama”. Evidence is now gathering that IPCC has also grossly underestimated the risk of another collapse in the climate system, the shutdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation, a gigantic system of ocean currents that warms and stabilises the climate in the northern Atlantic region.
In such a world with an economic-political system on auto-pilot searching for the ultimate efficiency in profit seeking, it would be no surprise but rather expected that the increasing urgency of the climate and ecological crises have already been factored in. A concerted effort by big corporations and their helpers to sow doubt about climate science has been well documented. But in itself it does not explain the ease with which climate emergency declarations and net zero pledges have recently proliferated. What I talk about is a more comprehensive plot, something more sinister, where all the energy by campaigners put into raising awareness of the climate and ecological crises is eventually being diverted into a direction that allows the continuation and expansion of profits while real action is being further delayed.
A cunning plan
Let us for a moment put ourselves in the shoes of a corporate leader, or other key actor relevant to the climate issue, from the late 70s onwards, when the climate issue first started to gain prominence. Our hypothetical leader would have the dual task of confronting a possible major crisis, and maintaining the health of the corporation or other entrusted organisation. It is not difficult to see the emergent strategy:
- Assess the climate problem and see if it requires immediate attention. Back in the late 70s, this is exactly what seems to have happened, and the answer was no, as described in Nathanial Rich’s book “Losing Earth”.
- Defend your position, even if it requires outright denial or downplaying.
- Once the problem cannot be ignored any more – around the year 2000 the climate warming signal had been detected in the temperature record – admit the problem and promote yourself as part of the solution.
- As soon as there is a genuine perception of an urgent crisis, use the panic to further expand profits and power by offering largely technological solutions.
There are signs that we have seen a recent change in tactics by corporate actors, such as the massively increased presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the UN’s climate talks. Within this scheme, we are currently in Phase 3.
The cynicism of this plan follows logically from its design – for example, delaying real action through distant promises in Phase 3 not only ensures continuing profits from fossil fuels, but also more climate heating, more urgency and therefore more scope for profiting from the panic and fear expected for Phase 4.
There is evidence that something analogous was going on during the COVID-19 pandemic: after an initial phase of decisive precautionary measures, much of the crisis has been exploited by big corporations to vastly expand their wealth at the same time as poorer people suffered serious setbacks.
It is easier and far more comforting to reject the idea of such a plan as conspiracy theory, and I do not have any proof of a conscious decision to put it into practice, at least not in its entirety. However, such a plan does not need to be written down anywhere, neither does it need to be consciously conceived. It simply follows from the logic of competition in a global system that values efficiency through free competition far more than stewardship and collaboration. When corporate and political leaders are put into a position where it is essentially their job to assure the continuation of the current economic and political system, no other plan will be viable for them.
The message is clear: “Worry about the climate crisis, but don’t worry too much because we have solutions if you just let us do the job.” The emerging, corporate led and government backed dual climate narrative constitutes a kind of centrist authoritarian radicalism, which is extremely difficult to counter, because it is able to denounce anything outside of it as extremist disruption, even terrorism. It is radical in the sense of the neoliberal coup carried out by the likes of Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as it addresses what they saw as the root cause of economic failure: any kind of intervention in the free competition of self-interested actors. Only that in reality, this neoliberal system has always been dependent on massive state support, and the market has never been ‘free’ in any real sense. As explained by Fabian Scheidler in his book “The end of the Megamachine”, it is a system that will ultimately destroy its very foundations, taking us all down with it.
Until then, however, we are dealing with a cunningly layed out trap: Raising the pitch of the alarm simply creates more calls for corporate led, state funded action. Pointing out inadequacies and greenwashing is immediately denounced as negativism, and calls or suggestions for improving standards simply help the strategy to take root even more effectively. The delay caused by corporate-sponsored climate denial, with all the suffering that has caused, is used as the very justification for why corporate action is now indispensable.
Know your enemy
It is important to understand that this strategy is crucially being backed by much of the scientific world, such as major parts of the IPCC. According to the Climate Action Tracker, current climate pledges would bring end-of-century warming to 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, or 2.0 in an optimistic scenario. Such statements convey an enormous sense of predictability and precision. They seem almost designed explicitly to calm us down, given the Paris Agreements goal of (well below!) 2 degrees. But other research has shown that even with those climate pledges fulfilled – and who really believes in pledges by elected or unelected politicians – we could still end up with 3 instead of 2.4 degrees of warming. Further, the same scenario that leads us to 3 degrees warming could also lead us to 5 degrees warming, plus there are further uncertainties related to the amount of carbon taken up by the oceans and the land plants. Finally, all those calculations and model simulations are by design based on the assumption that nothing unforeseen will ever happen in the future, such as tipping points, or major disruptive geopolitical events.
What is worse: we don’t even want to wish for the scenarios that are laid out within the latest IPCC report as the ones that keep temperatures at a safe level. In those scenarios, somewhere between 25 and 80% of current croplands would have to be diverted to grow crops on a planetary scale to be burned for energy, with the carbon dioxide captured and pumped into geological formations. Intervention on such a futuristic scale will lead to massive water shortages that outweigh the climate benefits, increase hunger, accelerate biodiversity loss and fundamentally threaten basic human rights. We are headed for a world of technological half-measures in the name of a climate emergency that will do too little to stop the further rise in greenhouse gas levels, while accelerating ecosystem destruction and inequalities between rich and poor.
If this plan, even if unspoken, is real – and I believe it is – or at least constitutes a major factor in climate policy and public narrative, the consequences for climate activism can hardly be overstated. It means that rich, powerful and well entrenched actors are going to demand vast sums of money from governments to finance their climate techno-fixes. It means further useless financialisation of nature. It means that powerful state and corporate actors are now about to take centre stage in anything related to climate and brush aside such ‘amateur’ groups as Extinction Rebellion, or Fridays for Future.
But it also means that the popular slogan of “listen to the scientists” will no longer work. The world of climate science is not necessarily your ally if you care about climate and ecological breakdown. Under the plan laid out above, scientists’ warnings cannot work, because they only play into the existing narrative.
Unless, that is, the warnings are accompanied by action that really embodies a sense of urgency, and is at the same time aware of the power structures we live under. And here we come to the bright side of this analysis. The unrelenting logic of competition and efficiency also makes future strategies by the upholders of the status quo rather predictable. And thus, if we are climate activists, we gain much needed clarity about our situation. Knowing your enemy is always better than being left in the dark.
At this point, I would like to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect on why the climate and ecological crisis has proven so intractable, as well as on the myriad of activists and thinkers who have grappled with this before. My foray into climate activism has been recent and most of my experience comes from more than 30 years as a climate scientist.
The vision that has emerged from this particular experience and that I am able to offer at this point is the following: the debates around the climate and ecological crisis that have been dominating the IPCC, the media and academia all have one common characteristic, which I would describe as a clinging on to the fantasy of knowledge, predictability and control. It is a deeply rooted feeling of entitlement to certainty about the future that has been passed down to us in the rich world through the generations. The over-emphasis on models by the IPCC is just one of its multiple manifestations. In order to make progress addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, this pattern needs to be disrupted.
Let me explain what I mean by using a recent analysis by the intrepid James Hansen as an example. It suggests that the current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already sufficient – if sustained over long periods of time – to make much of this planet uninhabitable for humans. Commentators quickly pointed out that this would not have much significance for the actual future climate course, because levels would at some stage have to subside. What is overlooked, however, is the intuitive significance of our current atmosphere being in a state that is potentially mortal for much of humanity. The typical reaction of an expert is to downplay and cling on to detailed knowledge, like believing firmly in the future ability of oceans and land to absorb the excess CO2. On the other hand, what I have observed is that with some basic knowledge of the subject, non-experts will immediately grasp what a dangerous game we are playing with the planet, even if there are minor aspects that might make the danger look less extreme.
Then there is also the fact that, from the start of the industrial revolution, an actual decline in the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas load has never been observed. We tend to be confused by graphs showing a temporary levelling off of CO2 emissions, not concentrations. But emissions would have to drop by around 45% for concentrations to start falling. And there are enough fossil fuels in the ground to sustain current or higher levels of CO2 for a very long time. Entitlement to future certainty means we are sure warming will stop at some stage, and we overlook that there is no guarantee whatsoever it will happen within the lifetime of our current civilization.
I believe it is the hubris of the entitlement of certainty which is at the core of the current crisis. To counter this, we first need to accept our own limits. And that means we need to recognise that it might be extremely difficult, even impossible to break through the current narrative of technological solutions. We might simply not know which strategy, if any, will work. But there are certainly many ideas and approaches already out there.
One of them acknowledges the need for fundamental change, but also that it will likely take too long to change the social order enough to save us from climate disruption. It is therefore better for everyone to coax corporate and political leaders to make wise decisions, even if under the risk of further entrenching technocratic solutionism and corporate takeover of the climate and the biodiversity crisis. It is a strategy that underlies the idea of stubborn optimism, and it may well be the only effective strategy with a reasonable chance of success.
The alternative to collaboration is of course resistance and disruption. There is currently in my native country of Germany a lot of popular resistance against government implemented climate policy, notably by the Green party economics minister. I am asking myself if this is really driven by climate denial, or by a general stance against any policies that are perceived as top-down, so that the resistance is more an expression of helplessness. And if the cure proposed by the IPCC is really worse than the ‘disease’ of planetary heating, denying the problem may in a perverse sense actually lead to positive outcomes. Denying that the problem even exists then becomes a powerful means of disruption, stemming more from a defence mechanism rather than a conviction. If this is true, such denial might eventually be overcome and lead to real action, if people are given the right agency and the threat is felt close enough – as documented in George Marshall’s remarkable book “Don’t Even Think About It”.
Another form of disruption is to deny that there is a solution. Adherents of this idea, that it is already too late to do something that will prevent catastrophic outcomes, are often marginalised as ‘doomists’. We need to take into account that this ‘too late’ narrative can take on many forms, from the idea of the possibility of human extinction, to the idea that it is too late to prevent societal breakdown at least somewhere, or that some form of decline has already begun and may result in eventual collapse. The disruptive nature of the ‘doomist’ narrative could also be seen for example in the almost comical calls for a ban of the film ‘planet of the humans’, which I consider to be a partly not very well done satire. In the current climate, what I have often observed is a deep reluctance of fellow climate scientists to openly embrace any kind of ‘too late’ rhetoric. This might have to do with the fact that official climate policy still talks about the possibility of preventing 1.5 degrees of warming – while I cannot remember a single colleague who would have been of that view (see also here). Therefore some form of ‘doomism’ is almost unavoidable. Indeed, the idea that it is already too late – for Western civilisation to survive, for example – is a narrative that underlies movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Letzte Generation, and Deep Adaptation, and is backed up by veteran climate scientists.
And there is of course the approach to question the very legitimacy of power holders. Recent tactics by Extinction Rebellion pointed in this direction. After their ultimatum to end any further fossil fuel expansion had been ignored, one of their spokespeople openly questioned the government’s legitimacy on television. For thinkers like Bayo Akomolafe, climate change is nothing but the ultimate expression of the continued violence that started with the slave ship. And academics like Vanessa Andreotti see the root causes of the crisis in deep seated inequalities that cannot be overcome by intellectual exercise alone, but only through thorough self-reflection and a continued commitment to letting go of privilege. There are entire schools of scholars concerned with a radical overhaul of our current governance system through citizen-led deliberative democracy, there is the Global Assembly project, and the French citizens’ assembly on climate. Another example is Extinction Rebellion’s central demand for a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice. Or the idea of a broad climate movement carried by ordinary people that is open to a wide range of views, united by their opposition against top-down dicates, such as the recently founded Climate Majority Project.
The radical authoritarian centrism of the mainstream, I believe, should be countered by an equally radical openness with the uniting theme of taking away power from those who are putting us in danger and making us poorer. It welcomes anybody seriously interested in more real influence for those who have effectively no say in decisions that determine our future – which is most of us. The only difficulty is that the dividing line can be blurred. Climate scientists can be on either side, depending on how much their work is influenced by power holders.
At a time when trust in institutions is declining around the world, rising feelings of anger at unfair decisions and top-down dictates should be leveraged for the climate cause. This could be a movement that derives its legitimacy from falling standards of living and reversal of progress. It is forward looking and sees continued public financing of fossil fuel interests and their net zero schemes as theft, at a time where the progress of renewable energy has become unstoppable. Only that what the movement aims for is the right renewable future, based on the vision of citizens not large corporations.
Here a number of strategic recommendations that come to my mind:
- “Step back and give it up!” The one central demand of climate activists should be for power holders to stop pretending they know what they are doing and take the consequences.
- Expose the hypocrisy. For example, the Paris Agreement’s ambition of limiting warming to 1.5C has failed because it was never meant to deliver. Continued expansion of oil, gas and coal extraction are proof enough.
- Expose the injustice on all fronts. For example, taxpayers in rich countries are being fleeced, and vulnerable groups in poor countries expelled from their land, all in the name of net zero policies.
- Reject dinosaur technologies and their lobbyists. The economics of renewables now mean fossil fuels are a dying system. Extending their life through political influence and subsidies will only make us poorer and sicker.
- Renewables can mean freedom for everyone. Today’s rigged energy system means helplessness in the face of rising energy prices, or destitution for those not connected. Renewables have the potential to change all this – if their deployment is controlled by citizens instead of corporations.
- Expose scientists’ collusion with power. Climate and environmental sciences are not a homogenous block. Instead of just listening to the scientists, expose how some parts of the IPCC reports further entrench existing power structures, while other parts advocate radical changes as unavoidable.
If the world that we are presented with is in fact far more wicked than we are able to admit to ourselves, then we need to grow up to that fact. We need to learn to search in ourselves for the points where false hope is keeping us from really expressing what deep down we are convinced of. In other words, we need to grow up and break the chains of self-censorship that we have grown accustomed to in a mindless, soleless profit-maximising society governed by robot-like politicians and ‘experts’.