Burn, Baby, Burn

Climate Change Sceptics on the Left


Illustration by Ben Clarkson

Although the scientific community has never been more united in its conviction that climate change is well on the way to rendering planet Earth a vastly less hospitable place for most species including our own, doubt about the gravity of the problem is, paradoxically, on the rise. Recent polls in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada reveal that fewer people take the threat of climate change seriously than was true five years ago.

One likely reason is the insidious effect of the ongoing campaign – largely orchestrated and funded by the fossil fuel industry and drawing support from a cast of pundits and politicians such as right-wing columnist George Will, Lord Nigel Lawson, Czech President Václav Klaus among others – to sow doubt about the very existence of the phenomenon or at least about the contribution of human activity to it, and minimize the deleterious effects forecast by a host of prominent scientists.

The contrarians don’t all line up with the forces of reaction, however.

Alexander Cockburn, veteran left journalist, long-time columnist for The Nation, co-editor of the iconoclastic online journal Counterpunch, resigned this year from a more than forty year stint on the editorial board of the New Left Review over the publication of Mike Davis’ “Who Will Build The Ark?” a reflection on the implications of climate change, as the lead article of the illustrious journal’s 50th anniversary issue.

It’s curious that Cockburn, who has certainly been embroiled in numerous controversies on the Left, would be prompted to quit his place on the board over an essay on climate change, but there are few issues that get Cockburn as hot under the collar as global warming. And while he is by far the most extreme in his wholesale denial of the very problem of climate change, Cockburn is not the only prominent leftist to dismiss the urgency accorded global warming by progressives of all stripes.

To name only two noteworthies, York university’s David F. Noble, historian of science and technology, critic of the corporate usurpation of the university and occasional contributor to Canadian Dimension, is equally irate over the Left’s attention to climate change. And Slavoj Zizek, one of the most prominent left-wing intellectuals in the world today, dubbed the Elvis of cultural theory, has at times likewise articulated a rather agnostic position on global warming.

Each of these thinkers, who articulate and reflect a real, if marginal, minority opinion on the Left, come at their climate change scepticism from different angles: Cockburn maintains that global warming is a “non-existent threat” based on flawed science, in support of which claim he approvingly cites naysayers such as Patrick Michaels of the right-wing Cato Institute, fingered as a paid consultant of the fossil fuel industry, who discounts predictions of rising sea levels and melting ice caps. Against the prevailing scientific consensus, Cockburn insists that, “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend.”

Like peak oil, another hypothesis Cockburn rejects out of hand, climate change is, in his view, a fiction fostered by capital as part of a strategy to profit from higher energy costs at the expense of the poor, north and south, a notion which bears more than a passing resemblance to the type of conspiracy thinking he else- where excoriates. He treats the Left with contempt not only for being hoodwinked by the “dogma” of global warming, but also for being naïve in seeing it as a tipping point in the direction of radical social change.

Noble’s emphasis is somewhat different, although he pursues the general theme of climate change as a false crisis fabricated by elites for their own purposes. Tracing the history of the corporate world’s warming to the issue of climate change, he depicts it as a deliberate and successful effort by a fraction of the ruling class and its minions to co-opt and derail the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and re-establish the hegemony of the dominant ideology.

“If the corporate climate change campaign has fuelled a fevered popular preoccupation with global warming,” he writes, “it has accomplished much more. Having arisen in the midst of the world-wide global justice movement, it has restored confidence in those very faiths and forces which that movement had worked so hard to expose and challenge: globe-straddling profit-maximizing corporations and their myriad agencies and agendas; the unquestioned authority of science and the corollary belief in deliverance through technology, and the beneficence of the self-regulating market.”

He is especially contemptuous of the Left for adopting what he sees as an uncritical view of science in relation to climate change, one which disconnects science from politic, and of buying into the dominant either/or logic: according to Noble, competing cor- porate interests have succeeded in creating a false polarization of positions which leaves no latitude to reject both sides: he complains that one can either accept climate change as the principal problem of our time along with the green capitalist solutions now being proffered or join the much maligned “deniers.”

Slavoj Zizek, too, cautions against a naïve view of science, although he seems just lately to be conceding more to the scientific consensus than in previous pronouncements wherein he made the case for uncertainty about the threat of global warming and opposed any limits to development on the grounds that any attempt by scientists to quantify what constitutes a safe level of climate change is arbitrary because our knowledge is insufficient. He argued moreover that nature is inherently unstable and crisis-ridden and that ideas about any natural balance being upset by human activity are misguided. Ecology, insofar as it emphasizes our finitude and calls for us to treat the earth with respect, is inherently conservative, evincing a deep distrust of change, development and progress; he thus characterized it as “a new opium of the masses.”

In a recent contribution to the New Statesmen, Zizek seems to shift gears, however. On the one hand, he repeats the assertion that nature is chaotic and unpredictable and that there is no underlying natural balance to be perturbed by human activity. Science, he reiterates, is unreliable and its conclusions are subject to the pressures of capital. But virtually in the same breath, he asserts that our survival as a species depends on “a series of stable natural parameters that we tend to take for granted … The limits to our freedom become palpable with ecological disturbances, as our ability to transform nature destabilises the basic geological conditions of life on earth.” He thus apparently now concedes something to the biophysical processes that sustain life as more than human artifice and ideology. And he also evidently jettisons his opposition to quantification of limits on development when he writes: “What is demanded, first, is strict egalitarian justice: worldwide norms of per capita energy consumption should be imposed, stopping developed nations from poisoning the environment at the present rate while blaming developing countries, from Brazil to China, for ruining our shared environment.”

Of course, both skepticism and the ability to change one’s mind are signs of intellectual vigour. And how- ever much those of us persuaded by the enormity of the problem of climate change may be exercised by the small doubter’s camp on the Left, dissent, as Norman Thomas urged, is “essential to the search for truth in a world wherein no authority is infallible.”

But what may be relevant to engage with here is what appears to motivate the dissenters in this instance. Paradoxically, skepticism about climate change on the right is fuelled, particularly in the U.S., by the belief that global warming is a socialist Trojan horse designed to destroy the free market by the stealth of environmental regulation. What seems to unite the climate change skeptics on the Left is precisely the opposite belief, namely, that climate change is distracting and deflecting the Left from the project of radical social transformation.

It is redolent of the response of a significant part of the socialist Left to the emerging environmental consciousness of the 1970s, which discounted concerns about pollution and the rate of resource consumption as a petty bourgeois affair with no bearing on the working classes and masses of the world. But as countless scientists and scholars have stressed, the most devastating effects of climate change will be felt first of all by the indigent people in the Global South who are more directly and immediately dependent on the natural world for their living.

The skeptics are legitimately concerned that the ecological crisis generally and climate change in particular will be manipulated by capital as a business opportunity. But while there is no doubt that climate change will be exploited for profit by the corporate elite – just as the oil catastrophe in the Gulf is being turned to economic advantage by some of the companies responsible for the disaster who are now cashing in on the clean-up activities – the fact that the corporate world is willing and able to profit from a crisis should not lead us to discount the reality or gravity of that crisis.

On the contrary, what is called for is a distinctly anti-capitalist response to the clear ecological threat that human civilization, as it is currently constituted, poses – not only to the survival of our own species but to innumerable others now at risk from the degradation of global ecosystems. Oddly, our climate change skeptics seem to ignore the emerging ecosocialist current which has taken up the challenge of wedding the critique of capitalism to an analysis of the ecological perils besetting the earth.

As one pamphlet produced in the context of the mobilization around the Copenhagen climate summit last year pointed out: “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is but one symptom of a system ravaging our planet and destroying our communities.”

Far from being distracted by climate change, the ecosocialist Left understands it as intimately related to the reigning global system of production that endlessly reproduces the unjust disparities of wealth and power that have always been the object of the Left’s opposition. How can Cockburn, Noble, and Zizek argue with that?

This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Ecosocialism).



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