Climate Change: It’s Worse Than You Think


On June 9, 2005, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson issued Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Executive Order 05-033. The order directed state personnel to assess the impacts climate change could have on New Mexico. The subsequent report, published six months later by an interagency taskforce, concluded that “projected climate changes by mid-to late 21st century include: air temperatures warmer by 6-12 degrees Fahrenheit on average, but more in winter, at night, and at high elevations; more episodes of extreme heat, fewer episodes of extreme cold, and a longer frost-free season; more intense storm events and flash floods; and winter precipitation falling more often as rain, less often as snow.”

Not surprisingly these effects, according to the report, “will disproportionally affect communities of color and low-income communities, thereby raising issues of environmental justice.”

According to a new report by Demos, a non-profit think tank and left-wing advocacy institute based in NYC, and written by Robert Repetto, currently a Senior Fellow in the United Nations Foundation’s climate and energy program, former Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and vice president of the World Resources Institute, a non-profit policy research center in Washington, D.C., “New Mexico’s current political leadership is undoing state and regional policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as the risks posed by global warming to the state’s economy and population become more evident.”

Echoing the EJ issues of earlier reports, Repetto notes, “The impacts of climate change on public health will result in thriving illnesses and disease, plummeting physical well-being, and soaring health care costs.”

Richardson also commissioned a report on the effects of climate change on the state’s water resources. Since the election of Susana Martinez, however, information on the effects of climate change is more difficult to find. The link to “Climate Change Information” was removed from one government site. While information on climate change is available, it’s cloistered over on an obscure “New Mexico Drought” website and buried in a link under “archives.”

Information by the Martinez administration on the potential impacts of climate change on New Mexico is hard to come by indeed.

But no worries. Martinez made sure to keep the “Drought for Kids” link where youngsters can play the Aquifer Game with Rio, the Water Detective, a cute conservation-minded chipmunk. And if that doesn’t resolve our climate predicament, they can just “Write a Poem about Water!”

Meanwhile Greenland melted last week.

Satellite image of the extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet. The image to the left is from July 8. The image to the right is from July 12. NASA recorded measurements from three different satellites that showed that about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface on July 8. By July 12, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed. Source: NASA

The NASA report comes on the heels of a recent report from the Neils Bohr institute at the University of Copenhagen in which climate scientists concluded, contrary to previous opinion, that temperature increase is related closely with the rise in the atmospheric CO2.

“The ice cores show a nearly synchronous relationship between the temperature in Antarctica and the atmospheric content of CO2, and this suggests that it is the processes in the deep-sea around Antarctica that play an important role in the CO2 increase,” explained an author of the report.

Despite the alarm of scientists, a recent University of Michigan report finds that Generation X could care less. Only around five percent of all those surveyed last year were concerned about climate change.  More than sixty-five percent said they weren’t even sure global warming was real. Ten percent knew for sure: it was a hoax.

What’s going on here? Given the science, where does this political intransigence come from and what explains the broad climate skepticism?

The radical political journalist Alexander Cockburn died last week. He was 71. In a career that included stints at the Village Voice, the Nation, CounterPunch (which he founded and ran with longtime collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair), and even the Wall Street Journal, Cockburn never shied away from a fight. He skewered friends and enemies alike if he thought they were on the wrong side of an issue.  And one issue he thought we were all on the wrong side of was climate change. He was one of the few, if not the only, climate change skeptics on the radical left.

Cockburn, a better political journalist than scientist, believed that anthropogenic climate change was hogwash. Concern among leftists for climate change was nothing more than political rhetoric that reflected a profound lack of vision. “This turn to climate catastrophism” as he called it, “is tied into the decline of the left, and the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme. The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.”

Cockburn may be wrong about the science, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the politics. His criticisms of climate politics provide one possible explanation for our current predicament.

He persuasively argued that the mainstream left had become so toothless, so completely lacking of vision and principle, and its politics so marginalized and irrelevant, that it has been unable to marshal a meaningful political argument. Unable to win a fight on the merits, and without the guts to wage a real political struggle, it has resorted to scare tactics. Hence, “the sky is falling” apocalypticism of much climate change politics on the left.

While I disagree with Cockburn on the science, I agree with him over what he calls climate change catastrophism. Because Cockburn didn’t believe climate change was real, the politics of climate change, too, wasn’t real. But even for those of us who don’t reject the science, it’s obvious that the political problem, as the mainstream left defines it, never quite makes sense when understood in the context of the science of climate change.

Case in point: Al Gore. In An Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 documentary about Gore’s climate change PowerPoint presentation, the former Vice President explains the science and the pending disaster of global climate change. According to his story, and most climate change stories, the increase in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases is a function of industrialization. Massive industrial polluters turned the atmosphere into a giant dump to which they gave themselves free access. So how do we solve this desperate problem? Just buy fluorescent light bulbs, Gore tells his audience. Buy more efficient appliances. Buy green products.

There are two unavoidable problems with arguments such as Gore’s. First, the problem is identified as an effect of capitalist relations and conditions of production. We have developed a political economy in which capitalist firms have access to nature in patterns that exhaust the very thing upon which production, and life itself, is based—nature. His argument is that we’re slowly destroying the atmosphere and nearing a kind of tipping point beyond which we won’t be able to sustain life on this planet. But then, instead of confronting this problem by refusing to let industry exhaust nature in its pursuit of profits, Gore wants us to buy a Prius, or screw in high efficient light bulbs, or plant a garden. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the mainstream left has recognized a frightening problem but doesn’t have the guts to make the difficult political stand. They’re like that middle-school friend who abandoned you when the bully showed up on the playground. Their stories are about death and human misery and their solutions are about protecting class privilege. Even when they focus their attention on the polluters, such as Kyoto, it’s only to protect their right to pollute, not to stop it. They’re capitalism’s sycophants. They’re worse than the polluters.

Second, because the solutions for climate change described by prophets of doom like Gore are really an effort to protect capitalism’s share of surplus value, it’s obvious to anybody paying attention that what he’s advocating is a kind of climate bailout. And the average consumer will pay the price. This is the crux of Cockburn’s criticism. He sees an authoritarian streak in the mainstream left—a “we know better what you need than you know” arrogance that no longer finds political purchase without the battering ram of scare tactics.

The result of all this is a profound resistance to the politics of fear that has manifested itself as apathy by Generation X, anger by conservatives furious that their tactics have been coopted, and paralysis by policy makers who lack a constituency to take on polluters.



  1. Hooray! A crucially intelligent argument brought to bear, no matter how marginalized it might be at this stage of the game.

    A difference, or at least an addition: To my shame, I haven’t really taken up the most advanced scientific thinking on this subject in books, journals, etc. But I have followed it in the popular press and there the “climate catastophism” has, in addition to the always helpful “the sky is falling in” arguments (Malthus anyone?), has led to the presentation of some pretty shoddy science: The popular example of Hurricane Katrina as proof positive that climate change is upon us finds its negation in years when there are no relevant hurricane related events. How to integrate singular events and long term trends is an on-going question for science, but there’s no effort to bring that level of inquiry to the table. And that’s just typical of the shlock that people get fed.

    One more point on official environmentalism to strengthen your and Cockburn’s political argument. In 1970 when the first Earth Day happened it was a joint venture of liberal Sen. Gaylord Nelson and arch-reactionary Congressman Pete McClosky who recruited 26 year old Denis Hayes to be the front man. In the words of Earth Day website, it “achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support of Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders.” It goes without saying that this event was widely, and correctly, interpretted by the broad spectrum of radically engaged people as a bid to siphon off energy from the anti-war, women’s, Black Liberation, etc. movements and into something way less controversial. So, it’s not surprising that Al Gore and his ilk have a ready made audience.

  2. I share the sentiment expressed by Mike S. This is an excellent critique of the mainstream left in the US (and it could be applicable in other countries, especially within the European Union) and it speaks very much to what we stand for at the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, which is dedicated to dialogue among leftists and environmentalists, among other things.

    My only reservation would be with respect to connecting the mainstream left’s two main problems and the “profound resistance to the politics of fear”. Is it really limited to resistance? I would surmise it to be the case, but only in part. There is also the process of reaction, meaning that the privileged react against anything that could even remotely seem to undermine their privileges. And one privilege enjoyed even by the more and more financially beleaguered US “middle class” is to screw over the rest of the world to maintain an standard of living predicated on resource theft and destruction largely elsewhere. This is including the “elsewhere” in the US, of course, as Environmental Racism activists know so well. This matter of reaction in defence of privilege (real or perceived) has been driven home to me in the classroom by a minority of white students who every now and then appear in my physical geography course and challenge “climate change” or “global warming” as a ploy by foreigners to impoverish the US “middle class”. This reactionary sentiment is much more diffuse than one may wish it to be.

    I would also add another suggestion for future discussion and/or analysis. Using Gore as exemplar may underestimate the problem. It is the McKibbens, Hansens, Diamonds, Sachses, Stiglitzes, and Lovelocks of the world have been just as lethal to both the mainstream and the not so mainstream left. They achieve this by contributing to the formation of intellectuals/activists on the ground who will resist questioning the very foundations of this society, even as a matter of principle, and spread more of the nonsense pointed out above.

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