Are Progressives in Denial About Climate Change?
If you listen to right wing commentators, you might think American progressives are leading the charge to protect our planet from climate change. Would that it were so!
All around the country progressives are fighting to make our world a better place to live. In the midst of an ascended right wing and the dominance of corporations over our daily lives, progressives continue to fight for affordable housing, better wages and working conditions, social justice, clean water and many other solutions to the ills that have long plagued their communities. And yes, most of us progressives also support policies to cut greenhouse gasses and thereby reduce climate change.
But climate change is not just another “issue.” The earth is in the midst of a radical shift that will affect our country and society more severely than other great upheavals such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II. It represents an existential threat to every human and every community on the planet. It threatens every job, every economy in the world. It threatens the health of our children. It threatens our food and water supply.
The disruption of the earth’s climate appears in many forms. Often they seem contradictory -- heat waves and snowstorms, floods and droughts. But there can be no reasonable doubt that greenhouse gasses are raising the earth’s temperature and thereby making its climate more unstable and extreme. At this very moment, the effects of climate change are all around us: Texas is withering under the driest seven months on record; flooding from the Mississippi river has devastated a huge swath of the South; food prices are sky-rocketing due to dueling droughts and flooding worldwide.
But much of the progressive community either has not realized or is refusing to accept the implications of this escalating crisis. When you read progressives’ proposals, examine the legislation they are supporting, and listen to their conversations and speeches, it seems like only a minority are leading the charge on climate change. It’s as if a Tsunami was about to strike and wipe out an entire city, and local activists decided to go ahead with their planned meeting of how to stop Walmart from opening up a new store.
As the crisis escalates, the failure of the progressive community to face the magnitude and far-reaching implications of climate change is teetering dangerously close to a new form of climate denial. Here are seven ways of thinking about climate change that we frequently hear expressed by progressives that miss its true significance:
Climate change isn’t proven: The arguments that block progressives from really taking on the climate crisis begin with the anti-science climate denialism of Alexander Cockburn. A longtime columnist for the Nation Magazine and co-founder of CounterPunch, Cockburn regularly ridicules climate scientists and activists. In 2009 during the Copenhagen climate negotiations, he argued in an article entitled Anthropogenic Global Warming is a Farce,” that: “Changes in atmospheric CO2 do not correlate with human emissions of CO2, the latter being entirely trivial in the global balance, with no relation to science or reason...Properly speaking, it's a farce. In terms of distraction from cleaning up the pollutants that are actually killing people, it's a terrible tragedy.” Fortunately, Cockburn is largely alone amongst the left in his parroting of Exxon-funded studies designed to confuse the public and stall efforts to switch to renewable sources of energy. But many progressives are reluctant to recognize the full implications of the scientific prophesies that are today being fulfilled far faster than most scientists anticipated.
Climate Change is an environmental issue: The next argument that hamstrings progressives from fully addressing the climate crisis is the notion that it is essentially an environmental issue, similar to the campaigns to protect animals, trees and streams. The environmental community is partially responsible for this view, having often framed their climate-related campaigns primarily in terms of protection of nature. Climate change does indeed threaten polar bears, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t threaten us humans, too. In the next 40 years alone, scientists predict a state of permanent drought throughout the Southwest US and climate-linked disease deaths to double.
Climate Change is just one issue among many: Most progressives recognize that climate change is an issue of concern, but treat it as simply another issue to add to their progressive laundry list. The problem is that the climate crisis is not akin to other issues we’ve faced as a society. In fact, it’s not an “issue” at all. It is a transformation of the relation between human beings and the basic conditions of life on earth. The locked-in effects of our failure to reduce greenhouse gasses are already catastrophic and irreversible. But much worse lies in store if we fail to radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions right now. Of course the full range of progressive issues is important, but even the greatest victories will be ashes in our mouths unless they are won in the larger context of averting climate catastrophe.
Climate Change is primarily an issue of social justice: Grassroots activists at both the national and international levels have primarily been framing the climate crisis as an issue of “justice.” They see themselves as organizers of a new “Climate Justice Movement” demanding that poor and marginalized peoples be sufficiently protected from the negative effects of climate change.
While supporting the most vulnerable is a critical element of climate protection, we need to ask ourselves: What is the role of climate justice in the broader struggle to avert climate catastrophe?
Climate change affects the less oppressed as well as the more oppressed. The less oppressed are part of the broad force necessary to combat it. If the climate movement uses its power solely to protect the most vulnerable, the climate catastrophe will continue unabated for everyone, including the most vulnerable. A progressive approach to climate should start from the common interest everyone has in common survival -- while fighting to be sure that protection for some doesn’t mean victimization for others.
The way to gain support for climate protection is avoid talking about climate change: Many of the biggest players in the climate movement argue that to save the planet we need to purge the words “global warming” and “climate change” from our talking points and educational materials. Poll-oriented groups like the Breakthrough Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund argue that public opinion surveys prove Americans care most about jobs and lack the capacity to act on some distant threat. They maintain that instead of being prophets of doom, climate protection advocates should gather around a “good news” agenda that limits our messaging to green jobs, national pride, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. If the number one issue for the public is jobs, then we should campaign for green jobs and avoid antagonizing the public by discussing inconvenient truths.
But public concern about climate has plummeted in direct correlation with the “stop talking about climate change” strategy. In 1998, before Al Gore tirelessly began traveling the country with his doom and gloom slideshow, only 50% if the country considered climate change a major worry. By 2008, a year after Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize, two-thirds of Americans said they “worry a great deal or fair amount about climate change.” But meanwhile, many major climate organizations and spokespeople were persuaded that they should stop telling the truth to the public about the real dangers of climate change and instead just talk about the positive benefits of a new energy policy. By March 2011, the proportion of people concerned about the climate had dropped back down to 51%.
If we want to gain public support for measures to mitigate climate change, we need to educate people about the crisis and the rationale for new policy. At the same time, as the climate crisis deepens, many people are likely to pass directly from denial to despair. Fear can make people hopeless and immobilized. If they don’t hear realistic explanations of what the climate crisis is all about, combined with rational proposals for what to do about it, they will be vulnerable to fantasy-based explanations and irrational solutions.
Don’t admit that some people will need protection in the transition to a green economy: Environmentalists and some in the labor movement often argue that a transition to clean energy would create far more jobs than it would eliminate. While that is true, it misses a crucial point. The fact that some people get new jobs provides little solace for the people and communities who have lost theirs. As Carl Wood of the Utility Workers Union of America put it "Workers are used to being ground up and spat out by any change in society. In the United States there is no safety net for the victims." Failure to develop and advocate for robust just transition policies to protect workers will continue to drive working class voters into the arms of the Tea Party and others who have successfully framed climate legislation as a “job killer.”
Progressives must focus all their resources on beating the right: A common refrain amongst progressives is that our most urgent priority must be defeating right wing forces. The assumption is that if we concentrate our efforts in the electoral arena, we will be able squash conservatives and enact our laundry list of reforms -- including the climate mitigation policies required to save humanity.
The problem is that defeating the right may enable us to enact some progressive reforms, but will most likely be insufficient to avert climate disaster. The dynamics of climate change are far more complex than the politics of right vs. left. At the global level, there are forces traditionally allied with the right wing, such as the US military, that are deeply concerned about the geo-political implications of the climate crisis. On the other side of the political spectrum, a leader like Hugo Chavez funds his progressive social reforms with oil money.
Here in the U.S, it’s not just the extreme right wing that is blocking climate reform measures. Sectors of the labor movement -- long supportive of the liberal wing of Democratic Party -- worked to weaken climate legislation in Congress and now oppose efforts by the EPA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even on the heels of his 2008 presidential victory, when he was still showing his progressive stripes, Obama proposed emission goals that fell far short of the targets scientists say is required to avert disaster.
It will be heartbreaking if we defeat the right and win our long-sought after reforms, only to see them evaporate. Imagine, for example, if we passed labor law reform and by 2040 union density was back up to 35%. All this new found power will be for naught if our communities and workplaces are caught in cascading waves of drought, hurricanes, and floods. All we fought for would be lost because we failed to heed the ticking time bomb of the climate crisis.
The climate crisis requires a paradigm shift for humanity -- including progressives. All the concerns that progressives address, from housing to jobs to healthcare and beyond, remain as important as ever. But the effort to address them will be pointless unless they are addressed in the context of a global transition to a climate-safe economy.
Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher are co-founders of the Labor Network for Sustainability. They are also co-authors of GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW and IN THE NAME OF DEMOCRACY. Smith is an oysterman and author. He has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — both as a senior legislative aide and staff on the U.S. House Banking Committee — as well as a broad range of trade unions, grassroots groups and progressive politicians. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social history and has received five regional Emmy awards for documentary films.