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Jan 01 2014

Climate debate is an ideological war

I considered writing a wrapup of climate events in 2013, but it’d be much the same as my 2012 wrapup: more scientific warnings, more political backsliding, more public apathy (though there are some encouraging signs that Australians may be finally starting to wake up). So instead I thought I’d reflect on one of the key lessons I’ve learned in 2013 and the preceding years: the debate about climate change is a war between opposing ideas. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway write in their book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (pp. 253-254):

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cold Warriors looked for another great threat. They found it in environmentalism, which just at that very moment had identified a crucial global issue that required global response. In the early 1990s, global warming changed from a prediction about the future to a fact about the present. Global warming became the most charged of all environmental debates, because it is global, and it implicates everything and everyone. If the rules of economic activity are the central concern of contemporary, then global warming has to be central, too, because it stems from how we produce and use energy, and energy is involved in all economic activity.

Australia’s new Liberal government adheres to the same free-market ideology, so environmentalism is its natural enemy. Moreover, Prime Minster Tony Abbott has re-energized the Liberal Party by adopting a position of extreme opposition to the Greens. The Abbott government will try to use its bully pulpit to discredit or even silence climate scientists and activists, and move the perceived political centre in its direction – as we’ve already glimpsed in its attempts to shut down the Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority. And Abbott certainly won’t take any meaningful action on climate change if he can help it.

Unfortunately, Abbott and his ilk can’t wish away the reality of climate change. Denying reality will not end well for anyone in the long run. For those of us who recognize the need for urgent climate action, the realization that we face an enemy fighting an ideological war against us has implications for how we argue and campaign.

The argument will not be won by bowing to the present dominant ideology. Nor will it be sufficient to merely campaign for outcomes, especially if we continue to seek inadequate outcomes like protecting the emissions trading scheme. And we cannot afford to despair at the discrepancy between reality and the ideology of the political elite. The battle can only be won by debunking the beliefs that justify the existing system and policies.

Though the details can get very complex, at its heart our task is a simple one: replace their narrative (the fossil fuel industry is the cornerstone of our economy and not proven to be causing dangerous global warming) with our narrative (it is an obsolete industry that is driving dangerous global warming; destroying our environment, society, and economy; and must and can be phased out urgently). We must speak out against fossil-fuel-justifying ideology wherever we see it.

That is in a nutshell what I’ve been trying to do on this blog. In that context, here are some of my best posts from 2013, in reverse chronological order (I’ve listed a larger number from the latter part of the year because they are more up-to-date):

I will continue to counter fossil-fuel-justifying ideology in the new year. Stay tuned!

2 comments

  1. Sam Rendell

    I agree we need to phase out the fossil fuel industry and keep more fossil fuel deposits in the ground to limit global supply and force change. However I think we need to recognise that there will be social and economic impacts of making such a big change and we will need to develop alternative sources of jobs and wealth for Australia. To phase out fossil fuels and also be more sustainable generally people will have to accept changes in their lifestyle and standard of living where by they live more simply and consume less material goods, recycle, use less energy and will need less of a throw away society.

    1. James Wight

      That may well be, but my point is climate action is not going to destroy our economy as the deniers seem to fear. And any lifestyle changes etc will need to be made as an entire society, and there needs to be a widespread change in mindset to get that kind of systemic change. (I’m not dismissing your point, just clarifying my own.)

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