Living in the Web of Soft Climate Denial

Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.


  1. Conventional “Hard” Climate Denial
  2. A Web of Soft Climate Denial
  3. The Foundations of Soft Climate Denial in Economics
  4. Settling on Neoliberal, “Market-Based” Carbon Gradualism
  5. Soft Climate Denial, Fossil Fuels, and the Hedonic Self

1. Conventional “Hard” Climate Denial

The Rio Olympics opening ceremony highlighted global warming as a major theme of international concern even on an occasion of diversion from the cares of the world.  That most Brazilians understand intuitively and uncontroversially that climate change is a real threat contrasts with the still substantial fights that occur in parts of the Anglophone world regarding the reality of human caused climate change.  A powerful minority in that world, strongest in the United States and Australia, holds to the idea that climate change is a hoax.   The Republican governor of Florida, a state that almost certainly will lose population centers and land area to rising seas, has, for instance, banned the use of the words “climate change” by state employees.  Meanwhile we are, due to a strong El Nino and climate change combined, experiencing record average global temperatures and are seeing signs that we may be approaching tipping points in the destruction of the habitable biosphere to which we are adapted as a species and civilization.  Due to the ravages of 2016’s heat, the Anglophone world even might now eject climate deniers from the arena of legitimated public discourse.

When encountering the writings or public presentations of vociferous, activist climate deniers directly, it is not too hard to recognize them because they will announce various conspiracy theories about climate science and climate action, usually pairing these attacks with paeans to the “free” market or other institutions they claim to hold dear.  Alternatively they will express “doubts” about climate science unsubstantiated by scientific analysis and conscientious review of the scientific data.  Another group are less strident, more strategic, wealthier deniers, such as the Kochs, who are funders of a climate denial industry.  That industry, a combination of “doubters” and fanatical, florid deniers, spreads a fog of, for some paralyzing, uncertainty and traffics in smears of scientists and well-known climate action advocates.   The climate scientist Michael Mann has now chronicled in two books, most recently in The Madhouse Effect, how climate science has been twisted and climate scientists have been harassed by a generally well-funded campaign of climate denial.

Donald Trump has in the last few years converted to climate denialism, perhaps to garner right-wing fanatic votes and shock the liberal intelligentsia with whom he as a New Yorker has had so much contact.  His earlier “concern” about global warming was probably a means for Trump to conform to elite opinion in New York City, also the headquarters of the UN, rather than a deeply held conviction, of which Trump apparently has very few.  The Republican Congressional delegation has been in recent years very solidly in favor of climate denial, aided by fossil fuel company lobbyists that fund think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute.  The alliance of the Republican Party with the fossil fuel and extractive industries remains very strong, even as the evidentiary basis of their campaign to throw up doubts about human-caused climate change completely disintegrates.

The GOP and further-right denialists and the supporting infrastructure for their denial, I am calling here “hard” climate denialists.   “Hard” climate denialists stubbornly and publicly proclaim a belief that anthropogenic climate change is either unsupported by scientific evidence or, more frequently, an elaborate hoax.  “Hard” climate denialists demonstrate a “soft” or slippery relationship to physical and scientific reality because they will clutch at almost any piece of information that seems to them to disconfirm or discredit climate science and climate action.  Hard climate denialists continually spin various stories to support their fixed or proclaimed (but insincerely held) belief that humans are not responsible for the upcoming climate catastrophe.   Alternatively, the cleverer deniers that want to retain their own respectability in the public sphere, such as MIT-educated Charles Koch, allow others to do the tale-spinning or funding of climate denial from their extensive donor network.  The deniers’ belief that humans have no responsibility for climate catastrophe then is, in the terminology introduced here, “hard” and fixed around which these climate deniers construct a tissue of lies and attacks on others who challenge their beliefs.  There is nothing “hard” about the evidentiary basis in reality of their beliefs, which is exceedingly soft, but “hard” describes only their stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality.

While “hard” climate denial is without basis in scientific and, increasingly, observational reality of the hundreds of millions of people experiencing a changed climate over the past several years, climate denialists have been extremely well-funded and have targeted their efforts at slowing recognition of the negative effects of fossil fuel combustion on the global climate.   Recent revelations of the degree to which oil-company scientists knew in the 1970’s and 1980’s , before many academics did, that fossil fuel combustion would lead to likely alterations of the global climate, and then obstructed public understanding of global warming, give us an important historical perspective on how we have arrived at our current situation.  Recently, 19 Democratic US Senators have created a series of presentations and a campaign called “Web of Denial” that exposes the links between various “hard” climate denial organizations and fossil fuel interests in contemporary politics.  Efforts to expose hard climate denial should continue and be intensified given the magnitude of the climate crisis.

2. A Web of Soft Climate Denial

But there is another, perhaps more troubling web of climate denial, that is far more widespread both within and outside the Anglophone world.  I will call this type of climate denial “soft” climate denial and it is now a few orders of magnitude more common than “hard” climate denial.  While hard climate denialists can be fingered and excoriated, soft climate denial represents a wide-ranging diffuse “climate” that surrounds much of our lives in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  There are relationships between hard and soft climate denial but the latter is not entirely a product of the former.

Soft climate denial takes a few different forms but it is remarkably easy to define:  soft climate denial means that one acknowledges in some parts of one’s life that climate change is real, disastrous and happening now but in most other parts of one’s life, one ignores that anthropogenic global warming is, in fact, a real existential emergency and catastrophic.   Soft climate denial can be practiced by individuals and groups alike, in fact, it is as much a group phenomenon as it is an individual defense mechanism.

The critical defining feature of soft climate denial is the pairing of recognition of a dire state of the global climate with inadequate means to address that dire state or humanity’s impact on the climate.  Soft climate denial is defined by the disconnect between the recognition of an apparent climate emergency and the psychological repression or the dismissal of appropriate responses to that emergency.  There are many political positions that fit into this “space”, including the embrace of various carbon pricing systems as the single “silver bullet” to address climate catastrophe.  Other political positions emblematic of soft climate denial are those that maintain a narrow focus on divestment from or removal of subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

A pragmatic but slightly cynical view of soft climate denial is that it allows people to enjoy both the benefits of appearing smart, well-informed and ethically sensitive, with acceptance in the broader society, while still living the lifestyle of the high-consuming middle and upper classes in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  Soft climate denial enables people in the developed and rapidly developing world to “have their cake and eat it too”: to appear responsible and concerned without, in my view, taking political and personal responsibility for shedding our fossil fuel dependence.  In individual psychological terms, much everyday soft climate denial is a form of the defense mechanism called “isolation”, where emotionally freighted matters and disturbing thoughts are cordoned off from other thought processes.   This defense mechanism has developed as an adaptive response to trauma and disturbing thoughts but it is, in the current climate crisis, potentially killing our species.

Right-wing, hard climate denialists are likely to claim that soft climate denial is simply a form of elite liberal “hypocrisy” but I don’t think, at this time in history that label exactly fits.  “Hypocrisy” denotes a set choice between “right” and “wrong”:  a hypocrite claims that they are doing the right thing or are “good” when they do the wrong thing and don’t admit they are doing that thing.  With action on climate change, the “right” or effective choice has been covered over by decades of misinformation, so we don’t have yet a set “right” choice that is being avoided.  Also action on climate is a collective action, so there would need to be a comprehensive movement for change in a large group of people for the “right” choice to be available.  So, while a personal sense of guilt should come into decision making on facing climate change, hypocrisy is, still, too strong an accusation, especially as it triggers a moral perfectionist framework that is unhelpful and paralyzing for many people.

The fundamental danger associated with soft climate denial is not that individuals at times use various inevitable psychological defense mechanisms but rather soft climate denial’s “macro” effects on political discourse, social movements for change in civil society and of government policy on climate itself.  What soft climate denial has enabled is that a massive, world-wide social/political/environmental problem has been yoked to a set of inadequate responses to that challenge.  Soft climate denial enables weak and ineffectual climate policy to continue largely unchallenged in the public sphere, thereby delaying effective climate action.  I have called one of the results of soft climate denial, “carbon gradualism”.  Soft climate denial is as or more dangerous than “hard” climate denial, though both are to be vigorously combatted and, step-wise, overcome.

To begin to escape from both soft and hard climate denial, people in concert need to work together, mobilizing via social movements, and invent new and revitalize existing political and government institutions, i.e. use all relevant social resources, to cut emissions to zero within a decade and stabilize climate processes via a variety of technological and practical interventions.  Such effective climate action must draw from our roles in civic life, in work, in leadership of public and private enterprises, and in consumption.

“Hard” climate denial can potentially be discarded by individuals: it is an individual choice.  But “stickier” soft climate denial requires a widespread, concerted effort to overcome.  That effort is increasingly described now as a “war” on climate change or a wartime-style mobilization of social and economic resources.  The degree to which we as individuals, social movements and a society as a whole can mobilize ourselves to fight climate change (via a number of distinct changes in our society and government policy), is the degree to which we can overcome both soft and hard climate denial.  Whether “war” is the best metaphor or description for the actions we must take is debatable.  Yet it in our current conceptual world expresses the priority, funding mechanisms, and urgency of the actions required.

It was Paul Gilding and Joergen Randers, who in 2009 first used the wartime metaphor in relationship to climate action, in drafting a “One Degree War Plan”.  In Australia, where Gilding is based, there has since then developed a community that sees climate warming and destabilization as an emergency, a “code red” situation. Though I was unfamiliar with Gilding and Rander’s work in 2013, I moved from a position that might be called “Climate Keynesianism” that I held since 2008 to in 2013 calling for a full-scale government-led mobilization called “The Pedal to the Metal Plan” and then “the US Climate Platform”.  In the United States, the first political group to push for a wartime-style climate mobilization, the Climate Mobilization, was founded in 2014 by Margaret Klein Salamon and has just published a comprehensive draft “Victory Plan”, authored by Ezra Silk, which is the group’s proposal for government action against climate catastrophe.  I am an activist with and offer strategy and economic advice to the Climate Mobilization.  Australian and American groups are also petitioning for a declaration of a climate emergency by their respective governments.  A full-scale mobilization of social resources is not thinkable without a widespread recognition of a climate emergency.

The idea of a war on climate change and wartime mobilization has received two  very significant boosts recently in the United States, one of the “homes” of hard climate denial.  Several Bernie Sanders delegates to the Democratic Platform Committee, including Russell Greene, introduced language into the Democratic Platform that calls for a national mobilization against climate change which was accepted into the platform.   Perhaps inspired by these actions, the veteran and one of the most famous global warming activists and authors, Bill McKibben, came out in favor of treating climate change action like a war.  In an article for the New Republic, a magazine close to the Democratic Party, McKibben said that wartime mobilization was the only hope for our civilization.  With this article and turn towards government-led action, McKibben now joins a small but growing community that sees that rapid government policy change and leadership is a critical component to “in time” action on climate change.  The large network of activists and organizations, closely associated with McKibben, may add this call for a war-time style mobilization to its campaigns.

All of these writings, including my own and to-date small-scale, political actions remain only beginnings in building a road out of soft climate denial.

3. The Foundations of Soft Climate Denial in Economics

When climate change burst into public consciousness and the news cycle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the neoliberal era was still in its early development as a governing philosophy.  Yet, already, with the global warming challenge, neoliberals seized on this new social/environmental problem as a testbed for their economic policy ideas.  Neoliberalism is the political-economic philosophy that attempts to solve social and economic problems by inventing new markets or reintroducing old ones.  It is distantly related to American political “liberalism” and therefore the label “liberal” thrown about in political discourse in the United States and other parts of the Anglophone world.

Neoliberals, often of the right-wing but also of the center-left, see the abstract ideal of markets as the optimal form of social organization and would, as political leaders, use government institutions and changes in laws as disposable supports for market processes and to serve private businesses, particularly, in actual practice, the financial sector and large established corporations.  Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama are political leaders who have governed according to neoliberal assumptions despite their different political and personal styles.  Hillary Clinton, like her husband, appears to be almost completely enmeshed in neoliberal ways of thinking but we can only hope that pressures from social movements and reality will pull her likely Presidency away from neoliberal dogma.

The common but lazy use of the term “market” for the private sector as a whole, adopted by neoliberalism, is an ubiquitous ideological mislabeling, that enables the diverse assemblage of economic actors in the private sector to claim that they represent the virtues of the supposedly optimal economic organization of “free” markets.  The conception of society embedded in neoliberal ideas is based on the ahistorical abstractions of neoclassical and Austrian economics in which society is either already or should soon be a “free” or minimally-regulated market.  The simultaneous, paradoxical assertion of the not-yet-achieved model ideal and the already-existent reality of an all encompassing market, in real political practice, tends to hide from public view, the dealings within the private and public sectors of the wealthy, the financial sector and non-market and quasi-market corporate monopolies and oligopolies.

Market institutions, in their abstract and misleading form found in neoclassical economics, are imagined to be the composite of ideally independent rational, entirely self-interested economic decision-makers, both households and businesses. These economic actors are thought to meet in a quasi-democracy of the market place where no one actor or group of actors will dictate the terms of exchange to other actors.  The ideal market actors are thought to behave entirely according to a system of incentives and disincentives, most often the relative prices of goods and services.  To those indoctrinated in the economics 101 (neoclassical) view of the world, market processes are thought to be the sole and/or solely important and solely desirable social institutions and forces.  The political tendency libertarianism to which the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel and Ron/Rand Paul adhere is thoroughly dependent on either naively or cynically holding up the ideal of the never-achieved yet assumed-to-be-really-existing market-society.

Entirely missing from this conceptual universe are any realistic assessment of the roles of government, of collective or group actions, and of moral or emotional bonds with others and with humanity as a species as a whole.   Furthermore, missing is any conception of human economies resting on and thoroughly dependent upon an external geophysical world and biosphere.  That real physical context, the biosphere and geophysical climate systems, represent the interactions of complex systems constituted by irreversible thermodynamic processes, which push the “arrow of time” always in one direction, i.e. forward into the future.  Ahistorical neoclassical models suggest an economic universe composed of abstract entities with no history and where all processes are unrealistically reversible, i.e. entirely unlike physical biological beings in a complex, chaotic world.

Also missing in the worldview imparted by Economics 101, critically, is a workable “macroview” of the economy and of the world as a whole that supports and surrounds human economies.  Within academic economics, the independence and integrity of the discipline of macroeconomics has lately been fragmented and politically undermined by the neoliberal/new neoclassical emphasis on “microfoundations” meaning the attempt to adduce the behavior of the whole as simply the summation of individual households or businesses acting independently of each other, i.e. microeconomics.  Utilizing this “particulate” view of reality, a recognition of the economic and social role of, for instance, ecological support systems for an economy is nearly impossible to include or value highly, except, in some variants like carbon pricing, as a source of external costs and benefits to individual market actors.  All of these systemic or aggregate features of existing reality are thought by adherents to neoliberalism/neoclassical economic thinking to becloud or impede the ideal functioning of market forces and individual household or individual business action.  Systemic operations, the role of ecological systems in supporting an economy as well as the behaviors of collectivities of people are then mostly ignored, almost always misrepresented, and often disparaged as not living up to the fetishized market ideal.

4. Settling on Neoliberal, “Market-Based” Carbon Gradualism

With the public “discovery” of global warming in the late 1980’s, during the early 1990’s there was still little public alarm about global warming and reactions to global warming would conform to the spirit of the times rather than to the specific requirements of the challenge of making fossil fuels obsolete while rescuing civilization.  The concrete negative effects of global warming still seemed distant so the “outsourcing” of climate action to the United Nations, to a specialized set of international bureaucrats, and in turn to neoliberal market-based ideas about the economy didn’t seem like such a violation of ethical standards in what was predicted to be a slow-moving but accelerating existential emergency.  Furthermore with 1989-1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet system in all countries except North Korea, the notion of viewing government and large-scale collective action led by government as a positive force in the economy were seen as either dangerous pro-Communism or simply passé. Even those countries that maintained Communist one-party rule, like China and Vietnam, were quickly marketizing their economies, even as their ruling parties kept a tight hold on political power.

When the UN settled on an international framework and targets for addressing global warming, the resulting policy framework, the Kyoto system based on a cap and trade mechanism, turned out to be inadequate and ineffectual though tuned to neoliberal preconceptions.  Kyoto measures were, at the beginning, supposed to operate in the background and remain distant from everyday life for most inhabitants of developed and rapidly developing countries.  The Kyoto mechanisms, with the target of reaching 80% reduction of 1990 emissions by 2050, now instantiated in ineffectual cap and trade systems in a number of regions, remained ultimately unchallenging to the fossil fueled status quo in all high-emitting countries.   The central mechanism of the Kyoto protocol, emissions trading and carbon offset “farming”, has become, in practice, a means of postponing the hard task of transitioning off fossil fuels.

Some pundits embedded in the neoliberal market ideology protest that these systems were never “properly” implemented yet, contrary to this view, postponement of hard decisions has always been explicit “features” of emissions trading:  private sector actors are to lead the push to cut emissions (not government) and these cost-constrained actors are supposed to engage only in the “most cost-effective” measures to cut emissions.  No moral imperatives, based on addressing existential threats, in the form of direct regulation by government or direct government creation of public assets were allowed into the “high church” of what was thought to be “climate policy”.   “Market-based” has always been a term of both approval and also a standard of admission, perversely, to the high church of “climate policy”.  Climate policy has in reality been alternately an occasion for delay of emissions cutting as well as substantial intellectual self-congratulation and self-gratification by policy analysts and economists, whose thinking had already been shaped and limited by neoclassical economics and neoliberalism.

The theoretical “engine” of Kyoto and similar frameworks has been that private sector actors, mostly businesses, would continue to invent and refine over time, lower and lower carbon technologies in response to the increasing price of carbon in the permit trading markets.  The effect of permit-trading markets under a descending cap (cap and trade) was supposed to be analogous to the never-tried, more theoretically “pure” alternative of a rising carbon tax, which was the preferable but by no means complete solution to the impending carbon crunch and climate chaos.  Businesses would become more inventive as the cap tightened and permit prices rose.  In turn consumers would favor the lower-carbon technologies until such time as only lower- and then eventually zero-emitting technologies and processes would dominate markets for all goods and services.

This idealized picture of how markets and innovation work left out some of the key sites and sources of innovation in capitalist economies:  the role of research and development facilities funded by government or by some large corporations that are insulated from market competition, either oligopolies, monopolies, or those subsidized directly by governments to innovate.   The photovoltaic panel, for instance, was invented in the 1950’s by a lab funded by the US private telephone monopoly, a non-market private sector institution/corporation.  Neoliberal and neoclassical economic orthodoxy would tend to falsely attribute all private sector invention, such as the photovoltaic panel, to “the market”; they have little concerned themselves with the actual reality of businesses and government in the economy and, alarmingly, seem untroubled by this lack of attention to reality.  “Green” innovation has, more than most other forms of innovation, been produced almost entirely via these forces that are not accounted for in the “market-based” vision of climate action offered by advocate of carbon pricing.

In addition, as the real, geophysical climate has heated, become more destabilized and emissions have not peaked or declined, the inadequate nature of targeting 80% of 1990 emissions (or 2005 emissions) by 2050 has been exposed.  We would need to cut emissions by 10% or more per year in an emergency program that would achieve net zero emissions for developed societies within a decade or less, for all uses including agriculture, forestry, international travel and transport.  Increasing extreme weather events and signs that we are closing in on tipping points for positive feedback loops for warming, like the release of methane from the oceans and permafrost, all point to the need for an emergency program in cutting emissions very quickly.  The only instruments capable of designing and leading such a program are governmental institutions, backed by a majoritarian political and ethical sentiment that we have no higher duty and mission than to preserve a habitable biosphere for children and for those who have not yet been born.

The most powerful social institutions, including governments, during the 1990’s to the present seem so far to be uninterested in actually moving quickly and decisively to cut emissions and countenance the, some temporary and some permanent, lifestyle and economic changes required to achieve those ends.  I don’t want to minimize here the difficulty of decisive action and the challenges to our current culture and politics that it presents.  While some in the climate movement and on the Left would tend to locate the resistance to change exclusively in powerful private sector actors, like oil and coal companies, I believe responsibility is broadly but quite unevenly distributed among both the elite in the developed and rapidly developing world and consumers/citizens in those worlds, intent on immediate or short-term gratifications over long-term sustainability.  I have elsewhere suggested that there are three levels of responsibility for our climate catastrophe: primary, secondary and tertiary responsibility.  One can say that the first movers in terms of suppressing climate action have been the major fossil fuel industry corporations but they have had many more or less willing followers, even those who now condemn their climate denying actions and encouragement of climate inaction.

The economic “common sense” of climate policy to date has meant that individuals and societies as wholes have “outsourced” climate action to others, without major political confrontations at home or within national political institutions.  Furthermore these “others”, UN or other bureaucrats, have relied on a mythicized and little understood impersonal mechanism, the “market”, to deliver the emissions reductions that have almost never been delivered.  The intentional dismantling of our fossil fuel dependence in a planned and step-wise manner was ruled out because of this familiar but misleading, theory-based, economic common sense, which, as it turns out, is misguided as a guide to many kinds of policy both in ordinary and, now, extraordinary times.

Thus, it has become a matter of “right-thinking” common sense to endorse the stand-in for effective climate policy developed to conform to neoliberal ideas about markets and innovation as well as the preferred carbon gradualism.  That stand-in, various carbon-pricing frameworks, would then let politicians and citizens think that they had already “taken care of” or addressed climate by endorsing the feeble instruments that had emerged from this intellectual and political history.

“Conventional” neoliberal/neoclassical economic approaches to climate change have then helped undergird “soft” climate denial.  The notion that by simply acknowledging that climate change is a problem and voicing general support for some form of climate policy vs. the evil or willfully-ignorant hard climate denialists, soft climate denialists feel that they have discharged their duty towards posterity and maintaining the integrity of the biosphere for human life.  That climate policy has been next to useless and an obstruction to decisive action has not been troubling to elites or large swaths of the population, until region-by-region we are confronted by extreme weather, flooding, droughts, rising seas, the effects of disturbed ocean chemistry and high temperatures.  These in turn will produce famines, deaths by drowning and hyperthermia.  The notion of impersonal market forces achieving climate stabilization without messy political confrontations or personal struggle allows people to remain “comfortable” as long as possible with the fossil-fueled status quo.  Soft climate denial is a moral alibi for inaction.

5. Soft Climate Denial, Fossil Fuels, and the Hedonic Self

The effective fight against climate change requires a new understanding of the connections between macro-scale policy and our micro-scale subjective experience.  One access point to these connections is to look more closely at economic demand and its components.

One of the primary components of economic demand, with increased importance within our consumer-focused society, is human desire, which has both biological and sociocultural determinants.  A tendency in the current social epoch is to treat  our selves, as given by biology or as in some way natural, invariant, and ultimately inscrutable.  Neoclassical economics treats the individual as an insatiable, desiring “black box” oriented towards the consumption of goods and services though this is for the most part an abstraction of limited usefulness.

However, in world of actual economic practice, marketing and business management as well as the macroeconomic management of economies by governments must pay attention to the various conditions in which our desiring for goods and services is enhanced or is stultified.  Marketers and managers of businesses focus on the desire for their particular sales offerings while government officials and political leaders focus on the general conditions that enhance economic welfare as that is variously and politically defined, including the “aggregate desire” for goods and services and the economic tools to satisfy those desires within their economies.

In consumer societies, one could say that a primarily pleasure-seeking “self”, a “hedonic self”, is encouraged both by business leaders and government macroeconomic managers.  The more occasions and social situations at which an individual’s desires can be realized by monetary transactions with corporations or, as a support of basic needs, governments, the higher the gross domestic product, as a general rule.  This has led to an emphasis since the 1920’s in the developed world, on the development of hedonic selves in consumers that respond more readily to the possibilities of pleasure in the market.  Adam Curtis’s great documentary “Century of the Self” is one access point to this history. A wide-ranging infrastructure has been built in business and the culture more generally that has arisen from consumer society that educates and draws out desires from individuals, hoping to direct them in one way or another.

There are some countermovements to the development of the hedonic self within consumer societies but these are often, in my view, based on misleading or ultimately unhelpful critiques that are still in some way embedded in consumption-driven capitalism or a naïve conception of our desiring natures.  Anti-consumerist conservatives, who support the fantasy of a civilization with minimal government, of reducing government spending, and resulting austerity, like to blame Keynes and government welfare policy, viewed by them as “socialism” or, worse, Communism, for the focus on pleasure, ease and spending as integral to the economy.   Contrary to the pearl-clutching of these anti-Keynesians, Keynes, was proposing humane adjustments by government to an economy, that already in the 1920’s and later, had committed itself to stimulating the consumer and thereby growing the economy.   Keynes was saving capitalism from itself, but incorrigibly vain, pro-rentier-capitalist reactionaries have never been able to forgive the suggestion that capitalism needed help from government.

These reactionaries’ and “deficit hawks’” counterposition against rise of the hedonic self, is the repeating call to austerity and government frugality, as these austerity advocates neither understand government budgets nor understand the hedonic basis of both private and public sectors.  Meanwhile, such self-styled “conservatives” are only too happy to harvest or celebrate the harvest by the already-wealthy of the “savings”/income that comes from selling consumer products to others and trading in assets that increase in price due to favorable government policy yet with little added value from their work or enterprise.  Preserving or enhancing the private opulence and political power of the rentier class seems to be the political motivation behind the false virtue of austerity advocates.  Right-wing anti-consumerists hold the business sector harmless while blaming government for all the personal and social failings associated with consumer society.

There is also a left-leaning green anti-consumerism, which points out the damages to the environment and non-human species associated with a throwaway consumer society.  This green anti-consumerism supports its own forms of consumerism, some of which is “better” and lower impact and some of which is simply alternative fairly high impact forms of consumption (think jet or offroad vehicle travel to exotic or remote locales to commune with non-human nature and tribal-based societies and thereby disturb or distort them).  Rather than lower impact, much green alternative or anti-consumerism is a set of niche markets within the broader consumer culture, appealing to perhaps a more introverted and “biophilic” customer.   One of the hallmarks of green anti-consumerism/alternative consumerism is an embrace of the “small is beautiful” philosophy and localism both in physical/technological arrangements and in sociopolitical preferences.  Green anti-consumerism’s fetish of the small and local may doom it as a guide to the massive coordinated actions and technological achievements required to stabilize the climate.

But our “mixed-up-ness” about our own desires extends beyond membership in these counter-movements to consumerism (either right-wing austerian or green campaigns against waste and overconsumption).  There are secular waves of permissiveness and then repression of individual wishes and wishfulness pulsing through our global civilization.  These cultural waves are based on our own difficulties in identifying and regulating our desires, which tend to drive us and our courses of action into the future.  An accounting of, reflection upon and modulation of our own desires is difficult or maybe impossible for any individual but it seems consumer societies are particularly conflicted about desiring, with a pendulum movement swinging “for” and “against” both within individual lives as well as between social epochs of indulgence (booms) and contractions in demand (busts).

In early capitalist/Victorian times it was easier to create a conceptual framework around desire, when Freud conceptualized psychoanalysis as the means to unearth, express, and modulate desires.  The early capitalist era in which Freud’s ideas emerged were a time when socially repressive mores, sexual and otherwise, were the norm; people were encouraged “to keep their insides to themselves”.

From the mid 20th Century to now, the early 21st century, the bias, contrary to early capitalist/Calvinist repression of desires, is towards harnessing more aspects of internal life to commerce and public expression.   Now, via mobile phones and the Internet, our interests and possible desires are tracked or anticipated almost before we become aware of them.  Yet, at the same time, countermovements to the expression of individual and consumer desires emerge, sometimes as vicious and destructive as ISIS and other religious (of all religions) extremists, that see as their nemesis a life lived purely according to hedonic precepts.  Our global civilization then is caught on the one hand, between an economic system that seeks to stimulate desires and regulate them in favor of accumulation of capital, which advantages the already wealthy, the holders of capital, and, on the other, various movements that condemn, in the name of established pre-capitalist religious doctrines to move against human desiring for material goods and consumer culture, often in ways that are themselves confused and contradictory.  Many modern cultures, even before we consider our self-made climate catastrophe, are, to say the least, conflicted about our desiring natures.

In our current wasteful society, critical for the realization or satisfaction of a vast majority of desires that involve the material world and human interaction is the use of fossil fuels and resulting carbon emissions.   Transportation of people and goods is largely dependent on fossil fuel use and the fabrication/preparation of goods, services and the capital goods that produce them is also largely dependent on the combustion of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have become the great enabler of human desires for now the last two hundred years at least (and reaching back to the 16th Century in England and Scotland).  Yet we are now facing an enormous precipice upon this route for realizing human wishes; it is therefore quite understandable on an emotional level that carbon gradualism and soft climate denial would be very popular and widespread.

Beyond politicians’ protection of the interests of large fossil fuel companies and other major stakeholders in the fossil-fueled status quo, it appears as though all attempts at climate policy have fallen far short of making the “v-turn” towards sustainability and lowered emissions that is required.  One reason may be that we, the citizenry, are, in advanced consumer societies, treated by political leaders and, in addition, we treat ourselves as fragile hedonic “vessels” which produce via our work and our desiring, the economy in which we live.  No one wants to get off the carousel or yell “stop”, challenging the fragile hedonic balance of our individual lives and the economy and society more generally.  Alternatively, some yell “stop” at others, without looking at their own contribution to the mess that we are in.

That required “v-turn” away from fossil fuel use endangers our satisfactions in the developed and rapidly developing worlds.  Faced with a meaningfully decisive climate policy, it will not be lost on people that some sacrifice and bargaining with oneself and others is necessary to reduce fossil fuel use substantially and quickly.  Even acts expressing the best intentions and realizing the most cherished values of our societies depend on the use of fossil fuels currently.  Very little will remain untouched by the necessary turn away from the use of fossil fuels and the wasteful use of the natural world of which fossil fuel use is one instance.  By contrast, especially without serious, reality-based public discussions of these themes, soft climate denial seems like a “good” solution.

A transformation and reordering of some of the values that are currently dominant in our society is inevitable if we want to preserve a habitable planet for human beings.  We will need to cultivate our “agapean” (from the Greek “agape love” or duty-based love of others/humanity) selves, a more duty-driven personality than a primarily hedonic one that seeks fulfillment mostly in sensual pleasures.  Such a commitment to agape over a commitment to maximizing individual “utility”, would enable us to be able to anticipate the accelerating catastrophe we are causing by continuing the fossil-fueled status quo.  We must, among other things, learn to define happiness in a way that emphasizes longer term and relational satisfactions rather than ego-driven, narcissistic, pleasures.  Still, we cannot in the long run place ourselves completely in opposition to our own pleasures, as has been encouraged by Calvinism and anti-hedonic countermovements.  Instead, we must very quickly move to put our own pleasures into a realistic geophysical and macro-social context, while accepting that they must find some form of expression and satisfaction.

A long road is ahead for humanity in adjusting to our new circumstances but we must now act at times before we are comfortable doing so.  Such is the nature of our climate emergency.

12 Responses to Living in the Web of Soft Climate Denial

  1. Andrew Anderson

    Speaking of denial, how do Progressives manage to deny facing that government privileges for depository institutions, aka “banks”, systematically loot everyone but especially the poor, for the benefit of the banks themselves and for the most so-called “credit-worthy”, the rich?

    And that usury requires exponential growth to pay the interest and that therefore we should not have government subsidies for private credit creation? Since those endanger the whole environment? As well as peace and sustainable prosperity?

  2. Pauline McKelvey

    Thankyou for this comprehensive treatment of climate denialsm. I find it very useful.

  3. Michael,
    Good paper and at a critical time. The G-20 in Hanzghou, China too the BIG step forward due to many reasons but one are the reports from the B-20 Task Forces (I am on the Finance one). I was there, saw and heard much of what has been reported — but not all. Climate change and the need for green energy (remember my book, The Green Industrial Revolution was translated and then published in Mandarin, Aug 2015 after the longer English version came out in Dec 2014) hit your points directly and more. My last book, Smart Green Cities (March 2016) came out with cases around the world. That is what the G-20 concluded including my concerns about economics: as you know, I refer to myself as a Qualitative Economist since economics need to be a science that is both quantitative and qualitative. Hence the need to move off western “neo-classical economics” to one that the G-20 repeatedly noted as needed, “civicise capitalism” meaning not “public-private partnerships” because governments have ALWAYS been involved in economics of infrastructures and energy among other sectors. And need to continue to be for oversite, supervision and validation of work, costs and results. Woody

  4. “We will need to cultivate our “agapean” (from the Greek “agape love” or duty-based love of others/humanity) selves, a more duty-driven personality than a primarily hedonic one that seeks fulfillment mostly in sensual pleasures. Such a commitment to agape over a commitment to maximizing individual “utility”, would enable us to be able to anticipate the accelerating catastrophe we are causing by continuing the fossil-fueled status quo. ”

    Very true. On the left, a major issue is that so many people don’t know how to work together with others. There are so many people that can mouth the words “solidarity” and “mutual aid,” but when it comes to actually living their life are unable to display any sense of duty to others. All the “anti-oppressive” language and nice philosophical concepts are meaningless if people can’t actually have baseline human relationships.

    • Michael Hoexter


    • Andrew Anderson

      Also agape can in no way include our current money and credit system whereby the rich and other so-called creditworthy are allowed to legally steal the purchasing power and investment opportunity of the poor and other so-called non creditworthy via extensive government privileges for depository institution, a.k.a. “banks.”

      Yes, the current system has created a lot of wealth but also the embarrassing problem of the grossly unjust DISTRIBUTION of that wealth.

  5. Excellent.

  6. Michael Hoexter

    Thank you!

  7. Thanks for this important contribution to climate policy discourse by encouraging discussion of “soft denial.” Market-based solutions undermine moral arguments for changing behavior creating a social understanding that human activities that harm human health and ecological systems are acceptable as long as prices are adequate. A lot more can be said about this. The article has triggered my desire to go deeper.