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Our Climate Discourse is Gradually Normalizing an Atrocity

Corporate-friendly green buzzwords, empty promises, self-deluded storytelling: those who refuse to confront the status quo have many techniques for appearing to take climate change seriously while in fact trying to make us comfortable with catastrophe.

“Build back better.  Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah . . . .They’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah and where has that led us?” — Greta Thunberg

In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, Holocaust survivor Pavel laments: “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed.” We might ask the same question about climate discourse. We’ve known for decades that the planetary house that allows for civilization is burning down, but the more we talk about climate—indeed, the more that we learn about the problem—the more we spew forth the greenhouse gas that fuels the fire. More than half the CO2 ever emitted has been emitted since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out in 1990—most of it from burning fossil fuel. Since then, despite all the talk about renewable energy, the percentage of the world’s energy produced by fossil fuel has risen. Atmospheric carbon concentrations continue to escalate, now reaching levels last seen over 4 million years ago. Decade after decade, most recently at the Glasgow COP26, world leaders have soberly intoned serious warnings and congratulated themselves on making “ambitious” pledges—all so much “blah blah blah,” in Greta Thunberg’s pithy account. As they blather on, we race toward the point of no return. The way we talk about climate, that is, makes it hard to see that we’re living in the midst of an atrocity in process.

Of course, atrocity isn’t a word often used to talk about the climate crisis. But to continue burning fossil fuel is to cause unimaginable suffering and death worldwide. It is an act of depraved violence committed largely by the Global North, the source of most greenhouse gas emissions, against those in the Global South, where the effects of those emissions are, for now, most fully experienced. And while this has already killed many millions, the continuation of anything like fossil business as usual will condemn to death many more millions, and quite possibly billions, of people. And not only people. We will also commit ourselves to the mass extinction event we’ve already inaugurated—a period defined by paleontologists as one in which the “Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species.” If humans are likely to be among the species that do survive, our drastically diminished number would, in David Wallace-Wells’ detailed account, occupy a planet “close to uninhabitable.” Surveying the places that “today supply much of the world’s food,” for example, Wallace-Wells reports that extreme drought will mean that “none of these places … will be reliable sources of any” food.

Very occasionally, some writers have in fact registered the violence at the heart of  such anodyne terms as “global warming” and “climate change.” Almost twenty years ago, journalist Ross Gelbspan wrote in Boiling Point that fossil fuel executives were “criminals against humanity.” More recently, Kate Aronoff has argued that, because “fossil-fuel executives are mass murderers,” we “should put them on trial for crimes against humanity.” Natasha Lennard has surveyed efforts to define “ecocide” as an “international crime, on a par with war crimes and genocide, prosecutable by the International Criminal Court.” But the way climate change is generally contextualized remains largely unperturbed by such framings. If the ethical imperative to intervene in the crisis has not registered, then, part of the problem is that the crime isn’t named as such. 

Global warming first made “front page news” with James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1988.  Soon after, he asked himself, “How in the world can a situation like this be communicated credibly?” And after repeatedly trying to explain the science as best he could in futile meetings with government officials, he could only wonder again “how to portray the horror of that devastation in a way beyond graphs and numbers and phrases we have heard before, like ‘climate disaster’?” In his 2013 account of the history of climate discourse, Chris Taylor argues that while the climate discussion was indeed initially framed mostly as “graphs and numbers,” eventually there was a shift “from a technical to a technocratic discourse,” one that located climate change wholly within the “global and national economic frameworks” that have dominated since. Calling this prevailing economic approach a “neo-liberal” framework, Taylor observes that it has “attained an almost hegemonic status.”

Although in 2018 the IPCC called for “transformative system change,” that “hegemonic” framework still persists. For a stark case in point, consider the awarding of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics to Yale economist William Nordhaus. At about the same time that the Prize was announced, the IPCC said there would be catastrophic consequences if warming exceeded 1.5 degrees C (above preindustrial levels). For years, climate scientists have warned that plans to limit warming to even 2 degrees amount to a “prescription for disaster.” But, “rationally” measuring the economic costs of reducing greenhouse emissions against the benefits of maintaining economic business as usual, Nordhaus concluded that the economically “optimal” amount of warming was about 3.5 or  4 degrees. Nordhaus was awarded the prize, essentially, for concluding that disaster is good for the economy. 

As economist Steve Keen has explained, Nordhaus can reach this conclusion partly by assuming that climate change will significantly affect only what he imagines to be the “climate-sensitive sectors” of the economy—as if the non-sensitive sectors weren’t located on Earth. By this logic, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel points out, because “the sectors most vulnerable to global warming—agricultural, forestry, and fishing—contribute relatively little to global GDP, only about 4 percent,” it follows that “even if the entire global agricultural system were to collapse in the future, the costs, in terms of world GDP, would be minimal.” There are no accounts I can find that indicate Nordhaus’s work is in fact meant as a hoax.

If Nordhaus’s conclusion that ecocide makes good economic sense seems stupefying, it is perhaps no less so than the fact that it was awarded the Nobel Prize in the first place—or that, according to the New York Times reporting on the Prize, “the approach developed by Professor Nordhaus remains the industry standard.” The Times’ itself, however, remains unstupefied, failing to register the lunatic logic at the heart of Nordhaus’s conclusion and thus working to render that ecocidal logic as simple common sense.

This common sense is maintained by what we might call a vocabulary of normalized denial. Surveying a variety of ways that “’discourses of climate delay’ pervade current debates on climate action,” climate researchers William Lamb, et al. examine how, while “these discourses accept the existence of climate change,” at the same time they rely on “strategies” that “justify inaction or inadequate efforts.” But, beyond these strategies, the vocabulary of normalized denial operates even when it calls for action and for efforts that it implies are in fact adequate.  I’d like then here to identify a few especially pervasive specific elements of this vocabulary, to suggest how some of  the ways we talk about climate now help frame an atrocity in process as business as usual

The Restoration Narrative: We’re Back on Track!

Under Obama the U.S. was on the right climate track, Trump derailed us, and Biden is setting us right again—these are the elements of what we might call the Restoration Narrative. For the New York Times, Joe Biden’s appointment of John Kerry as presidential climate envoy meant “Restoring American Credibility,” just as, for the Sierra Club, it signaled that “the United States will once again take up the mantle of global leadership,” and as, for Al Gore, the appointment of Gina McCarthy as National Climate Advisor meant “The U.S. is back on task.” But to what extent did a pre-Trump U.S. actually enjoy meaningful “credibility” on climate issues, much less occupy a position of meaningful “global leadership”? The Restoration Narrative simply disallows that question. It erases a history in which, for example, the U.S. was the only country of the 192 Participants not to have ratified or accepted the first major Climate Treaty (the Kyoto Protocol of 1997), and still remains first by far among nations in accumulated CO2 emissions and near the top in per capita ones.

Bringing us “news” of Obama’s appearance at Glasgow (where he offered his own formulation of the Restoration Narrative), CNN reported that, in office, “Obama had championed addressing environmental issues,” but that Trump “attempted to remove many of the policy guardrails installed by the Obama administration to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases.” In the face of such Restorationist renderings of history, evidence cannot matter. As David Lapp Jost has detailed Obama—with Biden, Kerry, and McCarthy in his administration—was an aggressive champion of fossil fuel. Even out of office, and even after the IPCC had a month before defined the necessity of “transformative systemic change,” Obama proudly highlighted the “sudden talk of America’s leading role in oil and gas production,” and boasted: “That was me, people. Just say thank you.”

If we’re back on that track, it’s a track that’s still headed toward catastrophic worst-case scenarios. And the Biden administration’s incrementalism and “irresponsibility,” like the climate plan on which he ran, still represents a commitment to atrocity—even as the Restoration Narrative helps obscure that atrocity behind a discourse of “breathtaking ambition” and “great hope.” 

John Kerry: Climate Superstar

A rhetorical cornerstone of the Restoration Narrative is the routine enthusiastic reference to John Kerry as Biden’s presidential envoy for climate. The Environmental Defense Fund calls him “one of the world’s most effective climate champions,” indeed a climate “superstar,” and even a leader of the Sunrise Movement found Kerry’s appointment “encouraging,” because he “really does care about stopping climate change.” However much he may “care,” though, and however much he might speak of a climate emergency, Kerry has nonetheless long remained the very embodiment of denialism in the guise of common sense.

As Secretary of State, Kerry was a vocal booster of the unprecedented expansion of fossil fuel production during the Obama years, championing the export of technologies of extraction and enlarging upon the Global Shale Gas Initiative of Hillary Clinton, his predecessor. Out of office, in 2017, Kerry was appointed Chair of the Global Advisory Council of Bank of America, a bank that, from 2015-2020, in the five years after the Paris Agreement, funneled $200 billion into financing for fossil fuels. Upon being named to that position, Kerry said that, on the issue of climate change, “Bank of America has provided remarkable leadership as a corporate citizen.” Back in government, as climate czar, Kerry—who, up until March 2021, held almost a million dollars’ worth of fossil fuel stocks—remains committed to such through-the-looking-glass thinking. Fourteen years after Nicholas Stern diagnosed climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has seen,” Kerry blithely assures us that, as the planetary house burns down, “the solution is going to come from the private sector” and remains committed to “small tweaks” and a “milquetoast” incrementalism.

Of course, the jewel in Kerry’s Climate Crown in his crucial role in negotiating and signing the suicide pact known as the 2015 Paris Agreement.  

Celebrating Paris

Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, and when Biden rejoined the Agreement in 2021, this was everywhere conjured as an important and hopeful sign. One usually astute observer wrote that rejoining represents a “huge U-turn” for the U.S. on climate. As we’ve seen, however, we were speeding toward the climate cliff long before Trump: Paris represents not a U-turn on that road but, in fact, a plan to keep the pedal to the metal. 

The Restoration Narrative does allow that the Paris Agreement needs to be “strengthened,” as if, at its core, it weren’t actually a plan to maintain ecocidal business as usual. Even in the unlikely event that every nation met its purely voluntary emissions-reduction target, that would likely result in a warming of over 3 degrees C—utter catastrophe. Indeed, as environmental economist Clive Spash details, Paris demonstrates that “the primary  commitment of the international community” is in fact not to prevent catastrophic climate change but, rather, “to maintain the current social and economic system.” In its wake, what predictably followed, he shows, was “an unremitting and ongoing expansion of fossil fuel energy exploration, extraction and combustion, and the construction of related infrastructure.” It was “just days after the Paris Agreement was brokered in 2015,” Kate Aronoff notes, that “Obama signed a bill repealing the crude oil export ban, allowing the prodigious amount of fossil fuels being produced here to flow freely out of U.S. ports.”

This is exactly what one would expect from negotiations in which, Amitav Ghosh observes, “various billionaires, corporations, and ‘climate entrepreneurs’ played an important part,” drawing on premises “borrowed directly from the free-trade agreements of the neo-liberal era.”  A work of what he calls “great derangement,” the text of the Agreement document unsurprisingly “contains no clause or article that could be interpreted as a critique of the practices that are known to have created the situation that the Agreement [ostensibly] seeks to address.” Most revealingly, as Spash notes (and others have observed), in this document so roundly celebrated as a hopeful sign, “there are no mentions of GHG [greenhouse gas] sources”—indeed, “not a single comment on fossil fuel use” (emphasis mine). If this strains credulity, have a look yourself.

The Magic of Renewable Energy

“Renewable energy” and its rhetorical cousin “clean energy” are phrases that circulate in our climate discourse like talismans, as if rapid expansion of such energy would by itself save the day. While the rapid expansion of renewable energy is obviously necessary, however, it is far from sufficient. By itself, renewable energy does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; as logic and history tell us, simply increasing the amount of energy provided by one source does not itself decrease the use of another source. Under emergency conditions, the way to reduce emissions is simply to drastically and rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuel. But the emphasis on renewables for the most part decouples them from any mention of such reduction.

In one especially telling instance of this denialist decoupling, the White House Fact Sheet on Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offers as a “fact” that “The Recovery Act Made The Largest Single Investment In Clean Energy In History” and thus “spurred a major expansion of renewable energy generation.” Indeed, after his second term, one 2017 account of “Obama renewable energy legacy” enthused that, since 2009, “there’s nearly three times as much wind power (75 GW), and solar power has increased by an astonishing 2500% clip to 31 GW.”  But so what? That didn’t have anything to do with the administration’s enthusiastic, concurrent commitment to mining and burning more fossil fuel. As we’ve seen, Obama was quite proud of “America’s leading role in oil and gas production” during his years in office. As Forbes approvingly reported, “oil production rose during the Obama Administration at the fastest rate in the 150-year history of the U.S. oil industry.” Indeed, by 2014   the U.S. “passed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.”

In his 2020 election campaign, Biden brandished the 2009 Recovery Act’s investment in renewables to establish his climate credentials. And as President, he continues to feature “clean energy” decoupled from the crucial question of eliminating fossil fuel. In three speeches to the Leaders Summit on Climate he convened in April 2021, he stressed “clean” or “renewable” energy 11 times (Vice President Kamala Harris did so three times) and mentioned reductions of fossil fuel not at all. Indeed, amid all the boosterish talk of “clean solutions,” and despite collective pledges to “build back better,” G7 nations “have been pumping more money into fossil fuels than they have into clean energy” (my emphasis).

Better Dead than Decarbonized: Net Zero

Almost everywhere, climate goals are framed not in terms of “decarbonization” but in terms of achieving “net zero” emissions. To aim for net zero (or “carbon neutrality”), however, is not to aim for the rapid and radical but necessary reduction in the emission of greenhouse gasses.  Rather, net zero indicates merely the wild hope that, as such emissions continue, they will somehow be removed from the atmosphere and permanently “sequestered,” mostly by the development of Negative Emission Technologies (NET). Of course, to avoid the worst-case scenarios, there is an argument to be made for developing and deploying NET as a necessary supplement to a radical effort to stop greenhouse gas emissions. But these technologies simply  don’t now exist at a scale that could play a leading role in offsetting continued emissions, and they are very unlikely to do so in the future. Policies that depend on NETs thus function as justification for continuing to burn fossil fuel. Closely reviewing the history of climate policy, a trio of climate scientists recently concluded that “current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. These policies were and are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate” (emphasis mine). Rather than stressing the obvious need to drastically and immediately cut greenhouse gas emissions, the powerful purveyors of climate policies rely on a reckless gamble of perhaps billions of lives, one rooted in a fabulistic technophilia.

Letting the fabulistic technophilia cat out of the Net Zero bag, John Kerry recently told the BBC, “I am told by scientists … that ‘50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero by 2050 or 2045, as soon as we can, 50% of those reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.’” Responding to such thinking in general, 41 scientists explained, putting it rather mildly, that “it is irresponsible to base net zero targets on the assumption that uncertain future technologies will compensate for present day emissions.”  But among the critiques of Kerry’s approach as “frankly ridiculous,” it is Greta Thunberg’s response that perhaps captures Kerry’s delusional thinking most precisely: “Great news! I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!” 

False Alarm

Even when it highlights how, in the U.S., the climate crisis is increasing provoking “alarm,” the dominant climate discourse bleeds that term of any actual urgency.  Key here are the go-to reports provided by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  In 2009, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication first published its subsequently oft-evoked “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” which “categorized Americans into six groups”—ranging from the Dismissive to the Alarmed—according to their “attitudes” about climate change. It has updated its survey results periodically since then. As a typical CNN headline reported in 2020, the survey now shows that “More Americans are alarmed by global warming than ever before.”

Examining the category of the Alarmed in the “Six Americas” report itself, however, you’d have no idea that the house is burning down. In the initial survey, on the basis of which the category was defined, “the Alarmed rated global warming as the 4th most important national priority for the President and Congress, after the economy, health care, and the federal budget deficit.” How alarming can a fourth priority be? Indeed, only about half of the Alarmed (55%) saw it as even “their most important environmental issue,” and a quarter (26%) didn’t recognize it as an “environmental issue” of even “very high priority” (emphasis mine). Perhaps this is because, on the question of “how the climate system works,” only 25% of the Alarmed held (what the report fails to identify as) the truly alarming correct view—“the threshold model, in which the climate system is stable, but only within certain limits or tipping points.” It is because of the presence of such tipping points that, in all probability, there is such little time left for avoiding the more extreme scenarios. But because the respondents think climate change is a linear, gradual process, they don’t seem to realize that we’re almost at the point of no return. 

Typifying the widespread response to the Project’s 2019 report, an article in Scientific America begins, “When it comes to concern about global warming, the good news is that a growing number of Americans are alarmed” while “the bad news is that most still are not alarmed.”  Perhaps the worst news, though, is that in this accounting, even the “good news” works to neutralize the real existential threat. Again, it’s hard to find much alarm in an Alarm that can be easily enough addressed by, say, raising climate change to a top-4 national priority, just behind the budget-deficit.

We’re “back on track,” led by those who take the crisis seriously like climate superstar John Kerry, building on the historic foundation of the Paris Agreement, supporting clean energy, aiming for Net Zero, driven along by America’s increasing “alarm”—these are some of the currently key terms of a vocabulary of normalized denial. 

It is easy enough to see the gaudy denialism of the sort typified by the Republican Party. But in pointing the finger mainly at this easy target, Democrats and others who decry only such obvious denialism thus construct themselves as the ones taking the crisis seriously. And in this, they obscure how that crisis is rooted in, and is escalated by, a business as usual defined by its fundamental commitment to fossil fuel. Republicans may deny climate change more or less directly, but President Biden has been approving permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands at a faster rate than President Trump.

If disrupting that ecocidal business as usual might depend partly on disrupting our discourse itself, the ethical imperative to intervene might then also be understood as an imperative to challenge the terms of the debate—to go beyond the blah blah blah that constitutes the way we talk about climate now. Jost compellingly details Biden’s climate “irresponsibility,” and Lamb et al. usefully focus on the “strategy” of “’climate delay’ discourses” like those that “push non-transformative solutions.”  It is past time to forego euphemisms like “irresponsibility” and “strategies” and ”delay” and “non-transformative solutions” and to call the irresponsible non-transformational solutions that define climate policy business as usual what they are: acts of atrocity.

Lee Zimmerman is Professor of English, Hofstra University and Editor of Twentieth-Century Literature.

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