The Road To COP21: Where is the “Locus of Control” of Effective Climate Action?

By Michael Hoexter

In the next several weeks, I will attempt through this series “The Road to COP21” to outline key issues facing policymakers and activists as they converge on Paris at the UN’s Conference of the Parties-21 starting on November 30th and possibly culminating in a global climate treaty by the end of the conference on December 11th.  COP21 is being viewed as a last chance for humanity to seriously address climate change in concert and thereby face humanity’s most serious and ominous existential crisis.  Human survival as a species may very well be at stake.

With the approach of COP21, policymakers and activists concerned about the climate will have a series of choices to make, choices perhaps that will seal the fate of humanity as a species.  These decisions will be influenced by the participants’ pre-existing or emerging ideas about who or what are the central players or forces in effective climate action and which are the social-political-economic dynamics that they will initiate or continue to maintain.  Alternatively if those participants are not sincerely concerned about the fate of humanity as regards climate, they may simply enact “some” climate policy as a fig-leaf or showpiece.  Seriousness, sincerity, and clear-headedness, would seem to be prerequisites for, at COP21 and surrounding events, both a successful negotiation as well as a design of an effective new international system to reduce human-caused warming emissions eventually to net zero or less.  So for the moment, in this discussion here, I’m going to assume that there are at least some people in positions of influence (a very large group) or political power (a few people) who sincerely want to cut emissions to stabilize the climate, employing a variety of means.

That we humans can influence our fate means that we have some capacity to choose between different options, a facility that involves our evolved mental processes, including our abilities to imagine alternate futures.  That area of choice means that we co-create our social reality, in some very subtle and mundane ways on an everyday basis, as well as in more dramatic ways that might make it into the historical record.  This ongoing co-creation of our social reality is part conscious and intentional and part semi-conscious or non-conscious and therefore “semi-intended”.  The choices we actually have are constrained but also made possible by the reality described by physics, chemistry and biology; only in the realm of imagination can we violate these scientific regularities that change only slowly, partially, if at all.  By contrast, the process of social change and evolution, sometimes quick and sometimes ponderous, is constant and on-going, again part conscious and part non-conscious.

As we face the oncoming climate catastrophe caused by human activity, different groups of people are focusing on different points in society upon which they think the outcome is more dependent, the “hinges” of history.  Instead of focusing on some random events, these beliefs about where “the action is”, influence, in turn, subsequent actions and the outcomes.  Our beliefs then co-create social outcomes via actions based on those beliefs, even if that outcome may not be at all what we first imagined.  As noted above, this co-creation is constrained by a social and natural reality that is not entirely malleable to our wishes and visions.  Our beliefs about where the “hinges” are, are critically important to understand and, I believe, to bring to our own awareness.  With that awareness and self-awareness, we may discuss in the public sphere where we together, with the force of many, can more likely shape reality, in this case, to lower our net emissions to zero over a short period of time, and maintain a habitable civilization for humanity.

An additional note is warranted for subsequent discussions regarding COP21 and likely policy mechanisms for reducing emissions.   In general, beyond the climate issue, different political tendencies often have differing beliefs about the capacity for human self-awareness and reasoning ability, i.e. whether our co-creation of reality is conscious or non-conscious.  If people feel or consciously endorse the idea that most of human change and choosing is semi-conscious or entirely non-conscious, in the current political-economic environment, those advocates and policymakers tend to choose various “market mechanisms” as the way to change (or make desultory attempts to change) society.  In the marketplace, after all, people “reveal preferences” via behavior by interacting with goods, services and their sellers; they are thought to be incapable, at least by ideologues of markets, of becoming conscious enough of their goals and preferences to discuss and plan them.  If, on the other hand, political-economic groupings think that we have the capacity to become conscious of our co-creation activity, our agency as human beings, they would then be more likely to opt for:

  1. Open discussion of the alternatives in a political forum and
  2. Some role for government planning, increased government investment, and strict regulation of some critical market activities.

So on the one hand, the belief in primarily a “market solution” to global warming means that people cannot sufficiently become aware of their own actions and propensities to discuss them, plan and then change those actions, both on an individual and on a societal level.  On the other hand, if we are thought to have the capacity to become aware of our own agency, then a public discussion in the polity is both possible and, in the case of this emergency, a binding mandate, following which some kind of planning and concerted action led by governments is possible.

“Locus of Control” and Politics

I believe some insight and terminology can be drawn from psychology, applied to politics more generally and climate politics in particular. Academic psychology, to which many undergraduates are exposed in Psychology 101, consists of a series of disconnected ideas and empirical research paradigms that have had their heydays and then are mothballed or renamed.  One such research paradigm is  “locus of control”, an idea that echoes concerns in the 1950’s about the waning of individual initiative in a mass consumer society, expressed in among other works, David Riesman’s 1950 The Lonely Crowd.

In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter invented the concept of “locus of control” to describe how individuals attribute the causality of events in their lives (“locus”= Latin for “place”).  Echoing Riesman’s inner-directed and outer-directed distinction, Rotter designed questionnaires that probed whether people had either “internal locus of control” or “external locus of control”.   Those with internal locus of control believe that they have it within themselves to control or shape events through their actions; those with external locus of control believe that external events control them and other people and their actions.  As with most psychological concepts, what was first “sold” as a binary distinction has been found to be something of a continuum: people have, to varying degrees, a sense that events control them or they control events.  Someone with extreme external locus of control will be fatalistic and tend towards passivity and even cynicism; someone with extreme internal locus of control will be action-oriented, sometimes to the point of ignoring real and significant constraints on their actions in the world.  The concept has lived on with different terminology in more contemporary cognitive psychology in the form of attribution theory, which is also used in the now orthodox psychotherapeutic approach, cognitive behavioral therapy.

Turning from locus of control as an individual trait or cognitive function, the idea of the “locus of control” on a group level can be applied with interesting results to political communication, political strategy, and theories of how society can change.   Where a specific political discourse or set of ideas locates the singular or an important “locus of control” of political and social events will determine how political actors who adhere to those ideas decide to agitate or not agitate for change.  Depending on political orientation and social theories different groups will come up with different answers to the question:  Where are the “hinges” or leverage points where political actions can have the most impact?  Where can power be exerted?

Some common areas in society that people believe are, with some reason, areas of control or power are:

  1. Political leadership of governments
  2. Various institutions of government and their bureaucracies
  3. The corpus of laws, their enforcement, jurisprudence and administration
  4. Military leadership and military-industrial complex
  5. Corporate boards or leaders/CEO’s of transnational corporations
  6. Big banks, Wall Street, financial markets
  7. Billionaires, other large individual and institutional investors, and their political activities and patronage
  8. A ruling elite or ruling class, usually now a capitalist class
  9. Large media companies and their owners/top-level managers
  10. Pundits, influential personalities, cultural and intellectual leaders
  11. The United Nations
  12. Labor unions
  13. Political parties
  14. Political gatherings and mass spontaneous actions
  15. Committed action-oriented groups
  16. Non-profit and political action groups with financial or substantial social resources.
  17. (Digital) information networks and institutions, corporations & government agencies that control, surveil or own cybernetworks.

Political groups will focus their efforts on one or more of these areas of society to exert pressure and, they hope, effect the changes they desire.  That different groups focus their efforts on different institutions (“places” or loci) in society, indicates that the locus of control idea as a political “trait” has validity as a tool of political analysis.  That where some groups locate the (imagined) locus of control and focus their efforts in places that correspond to existing or potential institutional or popular power means that those groups have a greater likelihood of achieving their intended objectives.

In addition, individual political actors and political tendencies also have, to varying degrees, an internal or external locus of control, in the more classic psychological sense of the concept.  Those who have a voluntaristic view of how history unfolds, that their wills will matter, have an internal political locus of control: they think they can influence the course of history.  Those who believe in the importance of impersonal forces, systems and institutions will have “less internal” locus of control, though one assumes if they engage in politics that they think that participating in, pushing on or redesigning systems and institutions will have some more positive effect than not participating in, pushing on or redesigning institutions.  The somewhat vague but popular term “empowerment” has a component that can be well-described by the concept of locus of control:  those who feel empowered feel that they have either in fact or at least in their own minds the ability to change the course of events.

An extreme internal locus of control in politics might be called “hyper-voluntarism” which can lead to political actors acting in a way that is entirely disconnected from or without direct communication with their political context.  Hypervoluntarism can lead to acts of terrorism (fundamentalist, right or left), vandalism or other forms of political violence.  While those with an extreme external locus of control would not engage in politics at all, those that tend towards an external locus of control will only sporadically assert their political will and will do so when they have been amply “protected” by the assent of large social groups, respected leaders, or institutional arrangements that provide them with an affirmation that it is “OK”.

Locus of Control in US Climate Politics

Many climate activists have often implicitly or explicitly located the “locus of control” of events regarding climate change and action in the corporate decisions of fossil fuel companies.  The divestment movement and, in particular, the intent focus on divestment as a leading edge of climate action, is predicated on this notion.

While Bill McKibben and have had the reputations of being inveterate opponents of the fossil fuel industries, they, paradoxically have located a lot of the “action” in climate action in the decisions of fossil fuel companies.   Whether directly inspired by or styling themselves as more radical than 350, the direct action community that Naomi Klein has called “Blockadia” is paradoxically “controlled in opposition” to the actions of the fossil fuel companies, defining their politics as opposing fossil fuel companies rather than making fossil fuels redundant as a part of our societies.  Good portions of the contemporary climate movement conceives of the various heroic actions of blockaders and others as targeting the decisions of these fossil fuel companies or at least holding them up for shame and ridicule.  While these various blockaders may be inspired by anything from neo-primitivism/pro-tribalism to environmentalism to various forms of anti-capitalism, the paradoxical message sent by some movement leaders is that fossil fuel companies are reformable or could be operating in a more environmentally friendly way.  It is an implied message of corporate social responsibility, surprisingly dressed up or tacked onto the colorful and radical-sounding tactics of various blockade and other groups.

The recent discoveries of Exxon’s criminal disregard for the planet and human welfare despite knowing better, has reinforced, temporarily at least, the leadership of the climate movement’s fascination with the decisions of fossil fuel companies.  There are now a spate of “what-if” scenarios that opinion-leaders like McKibben have engaged in, within it is imagined what the world would look like had Exxon not stood in the way of climate action and even helped with climate solutions.  McKibben still seems to hold out hope that fossil fuel companies would have become just energy companies, leaving behind their fossil fuel pasts.  He, luckily, does not imagine that this process of an energy transition would be easy nor would it necessarily have prevented the extreme weather we have lately experienced.

Missing in the focus on fossil fuel companies as potential saviors of humanity or at least corporate good citizens, is the role of government and an engaged citizenry in protecting ourselves and humanity from corporate destructiveness as well as protecting ourselves from our own love of convenience and an easy life upon which corporations have built their businesses.  It has never been the role of corporations to either save us from the effects of their products or, even more so, to anticipate problems that will arise in the future and endanger our safety.  The tobacco industry had to be regulated into publishing warnings and with various smoking bans in public places.  Still the tobacco industry remains recalcitrant under the watchful eye of governments, exploiting where it can the addictiveness of its products, now especially in the developing world.

During the writing of this piece, President Obama refused the permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been cause of celebration and, perhaps the reinforcement of existing movement “Blockadia” strategies against fossil fuel infrastructure projects.  However, the picture of the triumph of blockaders inspiring corporate behavior change and/or singlehanded defeat of those corporate “demons” is somewhat misleading.  Firstly, a spate of abandonments of “extreme” oil projects in North America coincides with very low crude oil prices caused by overproduction by OPEC nations as they seek to shut down their “extreme” North American rivals.  The role of activism against these projects must be seen against that background.  However, activism has played some role in making these projects more costly and, in particular politically costly.  Activists should note that the current (maybe temporary) victory was won on the terrain of politics, with Obama apparently deciding he cared about projecting an image of taking climate action, especially before COP21, and maybe across the dinner table from his daughters.  Activists through a variety of different channels helped make the approval or non-approval of Keystone XL a political symbol of caring about the climate, which, as it probably won’t be built, in turn may (or may not) help drive down emissions.   When the price of crude oil goes up, without real progress on climate policy, the political and economic pressure in favor of extreme fossil fuel projects will once again rise.  A political will must abide and grow stronger that reducing our overall fossil fuel dependence is priority number one.  If the climate movement recognizes that the locus of control of our future lies in political action and strengthening the polity in relationship to the management of our energy systems, they will, I believe, be more effective in taking steps towards an energy transition.

Despite healthy skepticism of the abilities of corporations to heroically abstain from their businesses or reckless pursuit of profit, I think an across the board anti-capitalism at this time is unhelpful. In an appropriately structured government-led climate mobilization, non-fossil fuel sector capitalist firms (that make wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, etc.) can help deliver some of the products and services we need.  However, it is entirely foolhardy and self-defeating for supposed climate activists to be focus on and imply that fossil fuel companies have something important to do with our energy future.  Their line of business must be ended, whether or not they choose to deploy their financial capital or aspects of their physical capital in non-polluting industrial sectors or activities.

The locus of control of effective climate action will be and always has been primarily in the decisions of political leaders and an active citizenry, i.e. within the polity, to build or not build a net-zero carbon emissions society via direct public investments and strong regulation of the private sector while moving to liquidate, stepwise, the fossil fuel industries.  It is entirely within the prerogative of government and of an engaged citizenry to take these actions, unlike the roles of consumers or bystanders to the workings of corporations that exist in large part to expand themselves and increase their profits.  In that process, the intentional and unintentional economic disruptions caused by a transition to a new energy basis of society must be managed via government’s orientation towards maintaining social welfare through a variety of strong social programs.  I have proposed such a plan, now on an emergency basis, for the US federal government.  It is up to activists, including myself, to organize around and push for such a plan.

In a discussion recently with a fellow activist about these matters, the issue came up of the non-profit 501c3 status of, now one of one of the critical coordinating organizations for the US and international climate movements.  As a 501c3, donations to are tax deductible in the United States, but this status limits the degree to which can engage in political activity regarding elections or voter education that may be seen to favor one candidate over another.  If this tax-exempt status is clung to and if and its leaders allow this status to define the movement’s agenda, this means that true citizen activism and empowerment vis-à-vis demands for specific legislative and electoral outcomes are excised from the repertoire of many climate activists.

To plead with, wheedle and cajole the fossil fuel industries, as “climate” politics, locates the locus of control for the future of humanity unrealistically and in a self-defeating manner in the boardrooms of companies with the most to lose from a transition to a post-fossil fuel society.  The activists who take this stance, also believe, erroneously, that “all of the money” is with the fossil fuel industries, not paying attention to governments’ monetary role for reasons of either ignorance or personal psychological preference.  To allot so much room for the fossil fuel companies is paradoxically liberal tenderheartedness taken to extremes at exactly the wrong place and time.  The result is activists applying elevated expectations for rectitude to functionally “sociopathic” organizations, as demonstrated by ExxonMobil’s continued behavior.

Will the UN Save Us?

In another arena of climate politics, there is, following the logic that controlling anthropogenic global warming can only be solved by a global “deal”, the notion that everything depends on what happens at COP21 and similar UN-sponsored meetings.  For a long period in the 1990’s and 2000’s, virtue in the area of climate action was measured as to whether or not a nation had both ratified the Kyoto treaty and made emissions reductions commitments per the Marakesh accords (COP7) in the first commitment period and the Doha conference (COP18) for the second commitment period.  Thus for a long time in the United States, the environmental NGO-based climate movement located the locus of control for climate action within the highest levels of our government that can ratify treaties and make international agreements and within the decisions of international bodies distant from the activities of everyday Americans.

In North American and in particular the US, there has been in my view an avoidance of a confrontation with national politics, in the hope that allowing the UN to be the moral and political conscience of the world would circumvent dealing with the messy love-affair that Americans (and Canadians) have with fossil fueled transport and conveniences.  The focus of 350-inspired or –affiliated groups on fossil fuel companies and heroically stoppering supply of fossil fuels is cut from the same politically-avoidant cloth:  just somehow “plug” supply and you won’t have to deal with a discussion of the role of demand and the positive enjoyments that people derive from the copious use of fossil fuels or the products and services they enable.

As I will discuss in subsequent parts of this series, the United Nations is long on good intentions but short on the actual power to enact substantive change in how the societies of the world use energy and the environment.  Because of its institutional structure, decisions by the United Nations have helped to stifle progress on global warming even as various UN bureaucrats and leaders have expounded upon the virtues of stabilizing carbon emissions.  One view of the UN might be as a place for governments to express all manner of worthy intentions without a sustained way to realize those intentions.

The intentions to cut carbon emissions and realize something like a sustainable development path are rife at UN meetings and coated with a sometimes-impenetrable bureaucratese.  The absence of motive forces to realize those intentions may be part of the function of the UN for political leaders that are primarily interested in maintaining themselves in office within their own countries and serving the powerful transnational companies and institutions that can damage or maybe improve their prospects for continued political survival.  As I will discuss in subsequent installments of this series, the UN’s climate change efforts have functioned as a holding pattern rather than a decisive transition into a new energy and land-use regime.  The impenetrable bureaucratese and bureaucracy is particularly thick around the climate change issue.

While we need international institutions like the UN to facilitate a global energy and land-use transition, the UN cannot function, as it has in the past, as a tar-pit or morass to entrap the good intentions of leaders and citizens worldwide to build a new energy and land use regime.  Whatever new international framework might emerge from COP21 or subsequent meetings, that framework must empower, i.e. locate the locus of control at, multiple levels of local, regional, national, and international social institutions.  A breathless expectation of “action” coming from occasional international meetings of leaders cannot hold up action on other levels.  Action must be happening, sometimes independently, on multiple fronts simultaneously.  (More on this in subsequent installments)

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