Ambitious Goals are Not Enough

I keep hearing about what an ambitious plan the Green New Deal is, how bold and grand its goals and the programs it points to are, implying that “in the real world” it is “impractical.” Granted, the Green New Deal was a giant step forward when you consider where the Congress, the media pundits have been on the issue – exactly nowhere.

Of course, in a society where the only sacred thing is “the economy,” anything that might disturb the corporate vision of “economic growth” talking heads deem evil, “socialist,” or just plain stupid.

Policy Dissembling

Even the supposedly progressive (yet corporately constrained) MSNBC commentators have little to say beyond vague political generalities about “climate change.” The Democratic presidential candidates have said little of any substance on the gravest existential threat to humanity ever – until the Green New Deal gained increasing national attention. In the first two rounds of the debates, the average time spent on climate crisis was under ten minutes in a three-hour event. The greatest existential threat to humanity was sidelined amid regressive jockeying around Republican talking points.

Just as with the gun control issue, genuine proposals specifying how to constrain carbon emissions from the global industrial-consumer economy have not seen serious public discussion, despite the unequivocal scientific evidence of imminent existential danger. Such talk is so far away from the public discourse that is is almost entirely out of sight. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction.

Aspirations or Action

AOC and Markey unveil Green New Deal

@AOC & Senator Markey unveil the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is, after all, an aspirational resolution in the Congress proposed by its most progressive Democrats. The attempt to get a genuine public political conversation going about mounting a national response to the climate emergency faltered amid claims that it would be too expensive or that it is a socialist plot to take away our (consumerist) freedoms. However, emergent social movements like the Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, along with outspoken new progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have gained significant public attention with their blunt talk on the climate crisis.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was the only presidential candidate to base his run for the nomination explicitly on responding to the climate crisis. Inslee posted on his website serious detailed proposals that extend beyond the other candidates’ lip service proclamations. He dropped out of the race because he just could not get enough traction amid the myriad candidates and sound bites on the stage. The debate moderators had presented the climate issue as somehow just another topic for a brief question. 

The Challenge

Jay.Inslee

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee and the vocal supporters of the Green New Deal have certainly brought the climate emergency to a public that is increasingly aware of the reality of damage already done by climate disruption. Elisabeth Warren offered a climate plan that Mother Jones Magazine gave a grade of C-Bernie Sanders has released a far more detailed extensive plan. Yet, in the short history of climate science, the fossil-fueled propaganda supporting climate denial has set us decades behind when we should have taken rational action. So, we can understand why some view the mere statement of the major actions necessary now, as “ambitious,” bold, or even “unaffordable.”

Yet, ambitious goals are not anywhere near enough. Only massive concrete societal actions will give us a chance to avoid total climate and ecological chaos leading to societal collapse. To curtail carbon emissions to slow global warming and ecosystem destruction enough to salvage some livable degree of climate stability, we need to take drastic actions that will necessarily transform the way we live, as well as the way we relate to each other and to the entire Earth System on which we depend for survival. “Ambitious” as used seems to imply unreasonable or unachievable. Yet, how ambitious is the goal of human survival, as conditions into the Anthropocene turn increasingly unlivable?

Power of Propaganda in the Face of Facts

On the first day of 2019, the Washington Post printed a story summarizing the numerous extreme signs of climate change in 2018. The list of extreme hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and heat waves around the world of unprecedented intensity, impressed even the most cautious scientists.

Most climate scientists are unwilling to attribute a particular event directly to global warming. It is far too complicated for that. The heating of the atmosphere affects the entire climate system, so it influences patterns of weather everywhere rather than “causing” single events.

Change in Surface Temp.1901-2012_IPCC-grap-02

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ~ Public Domain

Nothing is Normal Now

But, so many weather events now fall so far outside the normal range of weather that no other factor can explain it. They have grown more intense and frequent as humans pour more carbon into the atmosphere. That is why scientists are now willing to conclude that the frequency and intensity of such extreme events are due to global warming. Scientists are a conservative lot; they resist making claims without overwhelming evidence to support their assertions.

That is both good and bad. In ascertaining the validity of a finding, scientists rightly find it important that the evidence is overwhelmingly strong. Climate science builds its findings on the entire history of the physical sciences. They apply basic physics and chemistry to the extreme changes in climate conditions and events that have emerged over the past several decades. Global heat retention due to industrial-consumer economies pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere is the scientifically undisputed cause of those changes.

However, scientists have preferred, for the most part, just to report the facts and the projections of change into the future that they have concluded are justified by the evidence. They leave it up to the public and the politicians to develop policies to respond to the dangers inherent in the facts they report.

Power of Propaganda

Not only have climate scientists projections proved much more optimistic than later facts revealed, but the whole process is accelerating because of previously unaccounted for positive feedback loops. These include darker arctic seas absorbing more sunlight than the white sea-ice that has melted, and melting tundra releasing methane, to name just two.

Politician and citizen alike easily ignore extremely dangerous conditions projected into the distant future. Now, however, the most recent research reveals we have little more than a dozen years to reduce net carbon emissions to near zero to avoid catastrophic consequences for societies all over the world. The U.S. government’s most recent Climate Assessment Report concludes that the damage from extreme climate events will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the near future.

At the beginning of this past October, a special report by the IPCC revealed very disturbing findings. At current rates of carbon emissions (which have not slowed), sea rise from melting polar ice caps and the giant Greenland glacier will inundate coastal cities worldwide. Droughts and poverty will intensify. The data from numerous studies projecting the catastrophic consequences of inaction just keep piling in.

Science and Political Action

However, as the decades pass, more and more scientists have come to recognize that propaganda has effectively countered the facts. The fossil-fuel industries and their lackeys in Congress, extremist talk-radio, and partisan cable “news” outlets continue to dominate the politics of global warming. The climate-denying president attempted to bury the U.S. Climate Assessment Report by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving, a “dead” news day when so many consumers were out shopping for bargains in the industrial-consumer economy that is the primary cause of global warming.

At some point soon, the overwhelming impact of devastating events will overcome the propaganda of politically motivated climate denial. The problem is that soon it may be too late to prevent some of the most catastrophic consequences for planet and people, which humanity could have avoided if policies based on the factual evidence of science had prevailed over counter-factual propaganda.

So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

Chaos, Contagion, Hatred and Compassion

One way to gain control over institutions and violate laws is to take unprecedented actions to generate societal chaos. Demagogues know that chaos is contagious and susceptible to manipulation through fear and hatred.

We tend to think that a stable society results from the existence of laws and their enforcement by police. The facts are quite the opposite. Laws reflect social stability, to the extent that the people generally honor and follow them. That is because belief in moral and ethical behavior lead to the comfort of predictability, and thereby produce stable social control. Official malevolence, cruelty, and a perverse will to power can institutionalize immoral behavior, as the new normal, even to the extent of abusing children by tearing them away from their parents and locking them in cages, indifeently inflicting trauma that won’t go away.

Sociopaths, fascists, totalitarians, and racists find opportunity in fomenting chaos, fear, anxiety and the hatred they enable. Scapegoating and the denigration of vulnerable groups allows them to manipulate enough of the people to extend their political power.

The will to power knows neither limits nor compassion. Abusers and sociopaths enjoy the suffering of others, even sometimes the suffering of their allies. They escalate their violence to the extent that people tolerate them.

Sociopaths often become racists simply because they have no empathy or compassion. Their will to power is all that matters to them. They take pleasure in creating an enemy to hate. They reserve all empathy for themselves and maybe their closest associates, unless they find it expedient to turn on allies or subordinates despite the loyalty they demanded and received from cronies or underlings.

Fear and loathing are contagious. Authoritarian enabling brings hesitant haters, otherwise constrained by a culture of civility, out into the open. Explicit taunting and calls to discriminate against vulnerable groups is a classic fascist technique for fomenting hatred and mobilizing collective cruelty.

Trump.Huff.PostBuild the Wall!

“Throw ‘em out of here!”

“They are all criminals, rapists and M-13 gangsters!”

The resentful victims of the economy of exclusion are easy targets of authoritarian propaganda and are emboldened by such prejudicial, if coded, encouragement of racist hatred.

“This hurt is going to last a long time” lamented Dr. Marsha Griffin, member of the American Academy of pediatrics, practicing along the Texas border.

Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity

Over 20,000 scientists from 184 countries have now signed on to the second warning by scientists to humanity to dial down its profligate destruction of the ecosystems and environments upon which we all depend. In a short paper, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice, the writers of the second warning (the first was in 1992 and had little effect) initially garnered nearly 15,000 signatures of scientists endorsing the paper. Soon, the total number of scientists signed on exceeded 20,000. So, What’s the big deal?

Scientists and Politics

Most scientists prefer to stay in their labs or out in the field collecting data for the purpose of better understanding some facet of the domain in which their research specializes. Typically, they are not all that political. But things have gotten so far out of kilter in the relationship between science and public policy that the dangers of governments continuing to do next to nothing about the converging crises of our time spurred some scientists into action. Now, their warning is getting a great deal more attention than most publications of scientific origin.

Altmetric tracks the mentioning of scientific reports in diverse media. The paper was published in 2017 in the journal BioScience, not exactly a top favorite of social media. However, Altmetric reports that ‘the warning’ ranked within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric

Scientists Second Notice Graphic coverThe “altmetric attention score” is a measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. The score for the warning paper is 7382, which is in the 99th percentile of over 10 million research outputs Altmetric has tracked. It is the number 6 top paper published since global Altmetric records began, first of similar age. Most papers in the top 100 score below 600. In other words, people are paying attention, as well they might.

The warning paper is subtitled “A Second Notice,” because a first such warning was issued by scientists in 1992. The new Warning is short and to the point. As I mentioned above, the first notice was widely ignored. Things just kept getting worse as governments and some corporations gave obligatory lip service to “going green” in their business-as-usual operations, while dodging any serious policy questions.

Social psychologists have struggled with the difficult issues of how it is that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, so many people avoid or deny the reality of increasing climate instabilities. Of course, confirmation bias plays a big role for the individual who is part of a social group whose ideology or world view conflicts with the facts of climate science. However, the power of corporate media, which dominate most public channels of communication, from talk radio and cable TV ‘news’ to social media, steers how the little public discussion of the topic is framed and circumscribed. The corporate state frames the issue as “controversial,” as does the propaganda of the fossil fuel industries and their political allies and agents in Congress and the White House.

Messengers of scientific fact are generally sidelined; they do not get a seat on the Sunday talk shows. Discussion of the most urgent confluence of crises humanity has ever faced is stifled. Perhaps the exposure of this powerful document via online channels may be able to draw the attention it deserves.

Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

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Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

Bill.Gates_Photo by Platon_Pinterest

Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

Solar.Wind_Shutterstock

Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.

Fake Everything

With the proliferation of digital sources of “information” and technologies of communication, it seems more and more difficult to determine the difference between fact and fakery. Social media allow just about anyone to post outlandish claims and arguments without a shred of evidence. Fake evidence and false logic proliferate. If it is sensational enough or hits a sore spot for many people, a falsehood or an otherwise meaningless meme may “go viral.”

Fakery is not new, but its access to everyone has exploded with the advent of social media. Critical thinking and the weight of evidence are lost in the process. Powerful elites deny any verified fact that conflicts with their economic or political interests. Fossil-fuel industry campaigns of disinformation about carbon emissions, global warming and the extreme weather events they cause follow the model the tobacco industry used in its public relations campaigns to deny the scientific facts lung cancer caused by smoking cigarettes.

Fake News

Almost any news report today is subject to the accusation that it is “fake news.” The term’s recent growth in popularity may have originated when ‘liberals’ accused Fox News of prevarication when its stories were so biased that they did little if any justice to facts. Of course, the prevalence of propaganda has a long history. Fake news is not new, but it grew rapidly as the institutions of traditional journalism were folded into the entertainment divisions of the major networks and print newspaper sales declined.

The blatant false characterizations of “liberals” by Fox New anchors, and extreme right-wing radio “personalities” while their regular misrepresentations of facts drew mockery and ridicule from “liberal Democrats.” The fake news anchors denied the legitimacy of the “Black President,” with the lies that with the help of “The Donald” became known as “the birther movement.” At the same time, corporate interests exploit the resentments and fears of the declining white working and middle classes by funding the extreme politics and racism of the Tea Party movement, which the Republican Party embraced and began calling its “base.”

Fake President

Unsubstantiated claims, rhetorical tricks, exploitation of fears, and outright lies permeate the speech of the Fake President. Cheating and fakery characterized the entire

Fake President_image, Northern Sun

Image: Northern Sun

business career of the Dangerous Donald. Big lie or small, the Fake President simply repeats falsehoods in the face of publicly verified contrary facts. “Fake President”? Yes. What began as another attempt to gain more notoriety as a “celebrity,” unfortunately resonated with the anger and fears of many Americans. His open pandering to racism, misogyny, and hate brought the neo-Nazis and white nationalists out into the open.

“The system” had destroyed the aspirations of middle and working class white folks through job outsourcing, cultural marginalization, and political indifference. Corporate Democrats and Republicans both contributed to forming the corporate state against the interests of citizens. Each blamed the other for the plight of ordinary people; both were guilty of betraying the people while pandering to wealthy corporate donors. Trumpery arose by effectively exploiting the political chaos of fake democracy.

Fake Congress

Everyone knows that the Congress operates to serve the interests of the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, not the people. Senators and Representatives feign concern for the people while taking huge bribes in the form of “campaign contributions.” The Supreme Court abetted their corruption by the fakery of defining corporations as “persons” and allowing unlimited corporate money to influence

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Senator Inhofe faking climate denial, with the chance of a snowball in Congress. Washington Post photo.

elections. The Republican Party effectively used unfettered funding to influence elections by various forms of voter suppression and propaganda. They ruthlessly gerrymandered minority voting groups out of electoral influence. Russian bots and trolls abetted the chaos of fakery.

The Democratic Party elite, dependent on large corporate and Wall Street funding, stuck with Hillary, the corporatist candidate, suppressing the booming popularity of Bernie, the independent bearer of the old FDR-liberal policies. The desire of many democrats for a female candidate – the logical follow-up to the Black President – conflicted with the resistance to the corporatist party elite. Resentment resulted in many not voting and some even voting for the Fake Outsider, Trump, the master of demagoguery and economic exploitation.

Fake Experience

However, politics is not everything. It is merely a core driver of the fakery of modern life itself. Fake experience proliferates, from fake adventure (theme parks, staged ‘adventure’ vacations, and video games), from fake meaning in consumerism to fake

Virtual.Reality.Woman_The Guardian

Virtual Woman. Image: The Guardian

reality itself (so-called “reality shows” on TV and diverse digital “experiences” that mimic non-existent realities).

The fakery of suburban life, for those who can still afford it, reflects a trained incapacity to live beyond the illusions of the fake domination of nature that characterizes the consumer culture. The real world consists of the complex of ecosystems upon which all of humanity depends, but few recognize for its survival importance. Most remain insulated from real experience.

Revenge of Reality

It is all coming to a head. Reality has a way of eventually forcing itself upon us. We have lost our fake control of our environment, as the laws of physics, chemistry, and bio-systems continue to rule the material world from which we have alienated ourselves.

Growing numbers of people have become aware of their dissociation from reality. They realize at a gut level that the fake realities that digital technology generates are no substitute for the feeling of a warm breeze on a spring day. Reality impinges on illusion.

Growing numbers of IT geeks now carry physical notebooks to write in. Music lovers return to the analog sounds of vinyl records and live music. Children are discovering actual toys again. Who needs a “driverless car”? Smartphones, texting (while not driving), and Facebook are far from disappearing. Nevertheless, reality will continue to insert itself into our abstracted lives and disrupt our digital and social illusions. That is when the denial of reality will dissipate and a democracy grounded in ecological reality will return.