Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

A Teachable Moment: Criminalizing Everyone

A recent “dust-up” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between the school district and the police department ought to be an important “teachable moment.” But the opportunity to resolve institutional overreach and get back to basics is likely being ignored.

It all started when a highly respected middle-school teacher Marcy Slaughter allegedly threw a paperback book at a misbehaving student. A fire drill had just ended before the final bell of the day rang. The teacher asked her students to remain in their seats for the moment. As you may remember, fire drills are sometimes occasions for frolicking as preadolescent students become agitated by the activity, especially a few days before the end of the school year. According to most reports, four students in Ms. Slaughter’s class decided that she had no right to hold them after the bell and began walking out of the classroom. Their teacher, in frustration with their insubordination, threw one or more – “flimsy” by another student’s description – paperback books at them.

Escalation Unbounded
One of the students complained to her mother; the mother called the police – and the media! She did not call the school. Police immediately charged Slaughter with felony child abuse and charged Principal Marc Ducharme with obstructing a report of child abuse. Neither teacher nor principal were notified of the charges, nor were they arrested. An adequate investigation was not conducted prior to the charges being filed with the support of members of the office of the District Attorney. “Heavy-handed” is a rather mild characterization of these actions. Principal Ducharme had reported the incident to his superiors at the school board, in line with district policy, as he pursued his own investigation into the event.

There is certainly enough blame to go around in this incident. The students were blatantly disobedient to their teacher. The teacher clearly overreacted. The student who complained to her mother clearly ignored her own culpability, as did her mother. The police, instead of acting like “peace officers,” took a combative stance in seeking any basis they could for filing criminal charges. In several articles and columns in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, the unreasonableness of the behavior of various parties was widely acknowledged. Yet the institutional implications of this incident were barely mentioned and only in terms of resolving the inconsistency between school district procedures and police criminal procedures. This incident was a symptom of a much deeper dilemma. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of this teachable moment was missed. The blame game dominates too many institutions today, at the expense of problem solving. But there is more and it touches the very fabric of the social order. Why does something like this happen?

“Higher Authority” Usurps Functional Community
Compassionate resolution of disputes reflects a civil society. That is not how things are going in Santa Fe, in the nation or in the world. Conflicts are routinely escalated rather than resolved. Appealing to “higher authority” marks social-system failure. We humans are in serious trouble. Today, ever-increasing unwarranted authoritarian power is executed with bias, injustice, and abuse. Political power is widely enforced by expensive military and police command-and-control technologies – from “stop-and-frisk” and SWAT home invasions to drone attacks. Authority is claimed at the end of the barrel of an AK-47 or by suicide bomb. In this case, a relatively minor conflict in a public institution was escalated into a criminal case when instead, a conflict resolution process should have been initiated.

It is now common for “social control” to be exercised not by any democratic process or interpersonal negotiated consensus. Instead, arbitrary “rules” of increasingly totalitarian bureaucracies are simply “enforced.” That is a failure democracy cannot tolerate. A Los Angeles police officer, who was at the same time a member of the Crips gang, once told me, “The police are just another gang, but with more power.” In the current case, a police officer inserted himself into a minor case of civil conflict and forced an interpretation of “crimes” having been committed. The prosecutor’s office enabled that overreach. To what end? As a result of the media exposure of the absurdities involved, the prosecutor eventually dropped all charges. The media moved on to other news, but never addressed the implications of the incident for civil society or democracy.

Police are no longer “peace officers.” Instead, high school bullies are self-selected, recruited and trained to treat every citizen as the enemy. The New Mexico state Law Enforcement Academy trains cadets to embrace a paramilitary “warrior cop” mentality, with a strong emphasis on unrestrained use of force. Though it may seem extreme, especially to white middle-class suburbanites who rarely have contact with police, this combative police culture is not uncommon. Nationally, typical police cadets receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours on defensive tactics, but only 8 hours learning to de-escalate tense situations.

The cult of the warrior cop is all about confrontation. While the police were not in any physical confrontation in this case of classroom disruption, their behavior was nothing but confrontational. They should not have been involved at all until and unless some actual crime had been determined to have occurred based on a thorough investigation. Instead, they exhibited aggressive overreach. Similarly, a badly behaving adolescent whines to her mother, who immediately complains to the police – and to a television station – without even contacting the school. She sought vengeful “justice,” entirely ignoring her daughter’s misbehavior, thus encouraging police overreach. Such uncivil self-righteous anger is increasingly as common in America as is excessive police action.

Civil Democracy or Police State
Some conflict is inevitable in any society. Criminalizing one side of a civil dispute does not resolve it. Widespread unnecessary police homicides of unarmed vulnerable persons are symptoms of a dying democracy, as is the rush to criminalize everyone. The “charge first, investigate later” police approach in this instance stems from the same combative police culture that has placed police in crisis across this nation. Continued police intrusion into domestic and civil affairs is as dangerous as is foolishly expecting police to solve all social problems.

Santa Fe Police Chief Garcia and District Attorney Pacheco’s mutual buck-passing upon public exposure of their excessive practices reflects stubborn but embarrassed culpability. As Milan Simonich aptly put it in his 5/18/2015 column in The Santa Fe New Mexican, this problem should have been resolved the old fashioned way: a serious sit-down parent-teacher conference in the principal’s office resulting in well-earned apologies from both sides. That would be the civil solution, and would serve to strengthen community ties. But today’s overburdened regulatory environment of education and law-enforcement limits the principal’s and even district superintendent’s authority to solve problems. This further damages the community’s ability to function effectively and thereby weakens its institutions.

When police rush to criminally charge a teacher and principal in a dispute over classroom authority, the school becomes the dangerous equivalent of a police state. Santa Fe Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd did the right thing in confronting the police chief over this. This police intrusion into the internal affairs of a civil institution reflects an intolerable totalitarian mentality. Police and prosecutor both have a whole lot to reconsider if they are to salvage any credibility for their departments. However, we must remember that this is not some rare parochial incident. Instead, the behavior of police and prosecutor is notably symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem.

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.