A Pocket Handbook of Soft Climate Denial

Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

In a recent piece, I introduced the concept of “soft climate denial”.  In soft climate denial, people acknowledge that climate change is real and threatening and may even be panicked about it.  However, in this cultural-political constellation with attendant states of mind, the solutions for climate change that are embraced are in no way commensurate to the acknowledged threats to human existence posed by anthropogenic global warming.   Consequently, soft climate denial leads often to hand-wringing or other ineffectual actions but no decisive steps taken towards meeting the challenge of human-caused and human-accelerated global warming.

I contrasted soft climate denial with conventional “hard” climate denial, which is, now well recognized as a phenomenon: the social, political and psychological process of denying that climate change is even a serious problem and/or that human beings have any role in what is supposedly some harmless natural variation in temperature.  In this terminology, “hard” climate denial is the conventional climate denial that is associated with think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute or the work of the fossil fuel lobby and the Koch Brothers to delay climate action of any meaningful kind.   I suggested that all well-intentioned people with regard to the climate are more or less tied up in soft climate denial and we, the well-intentioned, can only free ourselves via decisive collective action on every level of social and political organization.

Soft climate denial is the standard state of mind of individuals and standard political orientation of “concerned” governments regarding climate change for the past 20 years, with the exception of pockets of “hard” denial as well as those who have been simply unaware of climate change.  I ventured the hypothesis that soft climate denial and the thin gruel of climate action policies that accompany it may be functioning as a “face-saving” device to mask fundamental inertia or a deep manifest preference for inaction while continuing fossil-fueled business as usual.

My “discovery” of soft climate denial comes after years of observation of climate policy discussions and legislation in California and elsewhere as well as participation in action and advisory groups that never seem to fully face the climate challenge or to contemplate appropriate action in response.  I personally have the desire to not only write about the issue of climate change but to act decisively upon my observations and values.  What passes for climate policy and activism is piteous in comparison to the dire emergency that climate change has become.   The most well-organized political efforts to date are generally those that choose the most indirect route to climate action, for instance divestment from fossil fuel companies or a very gradual introduction of a carbon price.  It seems that the weaker the remedy proposed for addressing climate change the more organized and well-funded is the group.

On the other hand, more “radical” groups claim that they are either in opposition to the weak remedies offered by divestment or carbon pricing advocates, or offer a complementary alternative that is more powerful and effective.  But these groups, in my observation, often either miss the mark in terms of the climate challenge facing us or wrap themselves in communication strategies and “memes” that limit their potential influence on politics and policy.

There is, for instance, the climate justice framework that in my view is mostly a re-branding of the very worthwhile environmental justice framework rather than an explicitly climate-focused political movement.  While climate change is mentioned in passing by those in the climate justice movement, that movement tends to focus on visible, sensible pollution from the fossil fuel industry, like traditional environmentalists, rather than a climate system that has been unbalanced to everyone’s detriment by unseen and insensible greenhouse gases.  It considers itself a “justice” movement and, implicitly, a movement of the traditional or newer Left because it points out the differential suffering and differential benefits among social groups in the existing generations related to environmental degradation associated with fossil fuel extraction and use.  The climate justice framework takes a step back from the almost-universal problem of humans depending on fossil fuels to hold up as most important, divisions among members of the current generation rather than the exhaustion of the earth’s buffering capacity for our emissions to the detriment of the young and those in the future.

Provisional Anatomy of Soft Climate Denial

In the description based on personal observations that I am offering here, soft climate denial is a widespread net, a mat of good intentions interwoven with the details of life in a complex consumption-driven society.  Here below is an inventory of what I have observed in myself and others are twisted “threads” in that mat, the ways in which people remain stuck in soft climate denial:

  1. Psychological Isolation/Compartmentalization– In this main tendency within soft climate denial, the details of life superficially unrelated to climate change preoccupy the person to such a degree that the intellectual knowledge that our climate is being destroyed by human activity remains compartmentalized. This tendency is by far the most common form of soft climate denial that extends deep into civil society.  Those who isolate or compartmentalize climate change in their minds usually claim no particular commitment to action or extraordinary sensitivity to climate change.  This is the experience of seeing news reports about climate change, becoming concerned, and then shutting off that concern when the next news item or real-world event distracts.  People allow themselves to think about climate change for a few moments then turn to the pressing concerns of their daily life, as they may not see any practical means to do anything about climate change or don’t care enough to do something about it.
  2. Climate Providentialism – While Protestant Providentialism has a distinct history and meaning, the notion that the Earth and the climate “will provide” for human ends is a widespread assumption of many in industrial societies. This is distinct from the religious doctrine of Providentialism but I am applying the word to this secular phenomenon. Relatively freed of dependence on the fluctuations of natural cycles as are agrarian and hunter gatherer societies, those in the industrial or post-industrial developed world, think that the natural world will accommodate human wishes.  This leads to an assumption that the degradation of the climate will accommodate our timeframe and needs, that we will always have enough of a “carbon budget” to accommodate them.  It might also be called “Climate Egocentrism” or “Climate Anthropocentrism”.  A fundamental misreading of the climate science occurs, as regards action: only gradual changes are foreseen rather than likely abrupt changes in the climate system, which is according to most observations a far-from-equilibrium or multiple-equilibrium complex system, not a self-regulated homeostatic system.
  3. Carbon Gradualism/Approach Goal By Adjustment/Tweaking – As a direct consequence of Climate Providentialism, people believe that there is adequate time to adjust our existing way of life to a carbon constrained world and so we must “tweak” our existing society and technologies rather than transition directly to a net-zero emitting set of technologies and ways of life.  No abrupt changes in lifestyle are warranted, only gradual ones.  Thus, it seems reasonable based on these assumptions to only take “seriously” the modest adjustments of our current socio-technical and socio-economic arrangements as regards emissions.  Within the carbon gradualist framework, jumps to new net-zero carbon emitting processes appear “radical” when they are, on the contrary, the only prudent options.
  4. Substitutionism – In this slightly more exotic trend within soft climate denial, activists and concerned citizens substitute a high-minded pre-existing activist cause for the global struggle for humanity to cast off its fossil fuel dependence. In my view, the substitution has the immediate, and perhaps unconsciously rewarding, effect of a distraction from the contours of the actual new climate challenge facing us. Many green NGO’s have tended to repackage climate action as just another version of their other non-climate, local or regionalized environmental concerns, for which they have specific donors.  Many of these NGO’s seem to think that people are most concerned about the concrete, local effects of environmental degradation and little else.  The more left-ward climate justice movement, in my observation, tends to substitute laudable and important concerns about environmental justice and inequality for the future-looking fight to stabilize the climate.  Injustices and maldistribution of privileges and resources in the current generation (which are important struggles) tend to “paper over” or obscure the universal problem of moving together off of fossil fuels rapidly.  Some in the climate justice movement draw on the currently fashionable “intersectional” critique of Western civilization, to suggest that the climate challenge is simply an outgrowth of the struggle of people of color and colonized peoples against colonial and neo-colonial powers.  Another type of substitutionism is the social revolutionary variety of either a Marxist or left-anarchist type that sees the climate challenge as simply another outgrowth of a pre-existing critique of capitalism and the injustices of social class in capitalist society. The climate crisis is for them an “on-ramp” to their primary concern and it then becomes folded into that concern and agenda.
  5. Intellectualization – Associated often with a personal or professional commitment to an abstract and sometimes sterile intellectual framework like neoclassical economics or computer science as “tech”, intellectualization is another way to mire or obscure the visceral existential requirement to act quickly to stabilize the climate. This tendency may be particularly common as a component of soft climate denial as those who have grasped the science of climate models first tend to be those who are comfortable with intellectual abstractions.  The acknowledgement that greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere and represent a large net-positive (warming) forcing on the climate is itself an abstraction.  Effective action, however, requires an engagement with human “viscera”, with our emotional lives based on our “wet-ware”, which intellectualizers shy away from.  The production of intellectual discourse and ideation is no substitute for action, even though intellectuals may feel that this is what it is in their power to do and they are also rewarded for it within existing social institutions, many of which are committed to upholding some version of the fossil-fueled status quo.
  6. Localism/Virtuous Virtual Green Islands/Self-purifying Tendency – The “green” orthodoxy of the last forty-five years has worshiped at the altar of “small is beautiful”.  In the face of the human-caused imbalance of the global climate system, “small is beautiful” does not reliably deliver the solutions that its advocates hope it will.  Some, however, persist in offering up localism as the solution.  Others content themselves with local action or a vision of a 100% purified household or community.  Not entirely “wrong”, this impulse can only go so far in halting climate catastrophe if it is generalized as the sole or paradigmatic approach.
  7. Moral/Intellectual Narcissism – Also a component of other tendencies listed here, the idea that one is “superior to” hard climate deniers or other “less enlightened” people, either intellectually or morally or both, may reinforce soft climate denial. The mere recognition of the problem becomes a badge of superiority and then the “object” of the expression of concern about the climate or action has already been achieved for that individual:  the “job” (of narcissistic self aggrandizement or self-soothing) well done.   If individuals are motivated to “act” on climate by moral narcissism, the display of “concern” or “enlightenment” is all that is required for “success”.
  8. Confirmation of Pre-existing Worldview – Related to moral/intellectual narcissism and a super-set of a number of the above tendencies, it appears that soft climate denial is fueled also by people being comfortable with a familiar cognitive-emotional “set” embedded in a particular worldview. Facing the new contours of the climate challenge means relativizing the value of or dispensing altogether with received wisdom about a number of areas of life; soft climate denial allows for intellectual stasis with the partial inclusion of an ineffectual climate “concern”.
  9. Millenarianism– In this strain of soft climate denial, a distant goal or great transformation towards sustainability becomes the focus and day-to-day reality of changing stepwise the current society is neglected. Some of the Peak Oil community draws on strands of millenarianism, with the Millennium defined by the inevitable Oil Crunch.  I am concerned that those who focus on large-scale actions of national governments, a broad social mobilization, among which I count myself, might also satisfy themselves with the vision of the Great Mobilization and neglect day-to-day action.  As the climate worsens, we may expect more or more variegated millenarian climate movements to emerge.
  10. Sectarian Tendency – Not unrelated to millenarian tendencies, where the exact configuration of a future society is debated, there may also emerge sectarianism, as slight differences in worldview become reasons to shun or engage in endless arguments with others. The narcissism of minor differences as well as hypothetical situations distant in time rule in sectarian debates.
  11. Commitment to Hedonism – A retreat into the pleasures of the here and now might be one likely response to feeling overwhelmed by the climate challenge and its varying tasks.  Decisive action on climate change will put our pleasures into “play” for transformation or some form of self- or other-denial.  To protect those, we may be clinging to our pleasures as if to dear life.
  12. Entente with Nihilism/Defeatism/Depression – There are now nihilistic tendencies associated with hard climate denialism but additionally, those in soft climate denial might in an un- or semi-conscious cultural and psychological sense come to “accept” nihilism and defeatism as legitimate responses to the overwhelming climate challenge.  I am calling this an “entente” or friendly agreement or understanding.  Such an entente allows for co-existence with those who are either giving up or intent upon destruction of the global commons.

Relationship of Hard and Soft Climate Denial

I believe hard and soft climate denial are quite distinct as categories, yet they feed off each other in indirect ways, as implied above.  Soft climate denialists are wont to point to hard-climate denialists and other opponents as the sole or overwhelmingly dominant reason for the lack of significant climate action.  Hard climate denial becomes the operative “excuse” for soft climate denial.

Soft climate denialists present themselves as “better than” the paranoid, clumsily self-interested, mendacious hard climate denialists.  Soft climate denialists can project the self-representation that they are simply better and more advanced human beings than both hard climate denialists and those who are indifferent to climate change as of yet.  Meanwhile, they exonerate themselves from acting effectively, decisively and yes, disruptively to stabilize the climate by claiming that they are prevented from doing so by the hard-climate denialists and the fossil fuel lobby.

Also soft climate denialists, as the label suggests, seem to be genuinely cowed by the seeming conviction and aggressivity of hard climate denialists.  “Hard” climate denialists, whether out of delusional conviction or utter, stubborn selfishness, have been more effective as political actors, despite the ludicrous nature of their ideology and claims.  They have been persistent, as well as well-funded, though in my view have not really been tested by the climate action movement.  Those in soft climate denial have not had the gumption to directly confront the ludicrous claims of these people in a repeated manner and expose hard climate denialists and their funders to the effective public shaming they deserve.

Unfortunately many in the “soft” climate denial camp are fettered by liberal notions about niceness and moral relativism and are not prepared to fight an existential battle with forces that use all manner of tricks to confuse and win or maintain a grip on power.

Politically this has had the effect of “soft” climate denialists offering puffball climate policies in efforts to either snooker or gently persuade those influenced by hard climate denial and its often-attendant credulous pro-market ideology.  The group Citizen’s Climate Lobby, has a political strategy whereby the supposed bedrock principles of the Republican Party and its belief in free markets will be subtly turned towards climate action via its favored “fee and dividend” approach to climate policy.  Jim Hansen, who styles himself as a conservative, has been an advocate of this position, despite issuing dire warnings about the state of the climate in other settings.  In CCL’s and Hansen’s political strategy, we are supposed to accept as a “bedrock” their fanciful and reality-challenged beliefs about how the economy actually works.

Alternatively more “radical” groups have engaged in various self-defeating political behaviors that smother the effect of their campaigns before they even get started.  No engagement with hard climate denialists ever takes place because these “radical” groups erect a symbolic universe around themselves that shuts out interaction with hard climate denial or simple climate indifference in the general population.

In my view, this self-defeating tendency is on display in the use of countercultural or in-group symbols and language in conjunction with various climate campaigns.  While American Indian groups have played a critical role in spearheading some on-the-ground resistance to fossil fuel projects, the white European-American allies of these groups have tended to engage in hero-worship and cultural emulation of those American Indian activists rather than bring their struggle to the electorate at large.  At one recent rally in Oakland against the North Dakota Access Pipeline, an American Indian activist provided a counterpoint to this tone by saying “this is not just an Indian problem, this is a human problem”.  Unfortunately white activists have generally not been taking that ball and running with it.  There are too many who seem to be seeking a sense of “specialness” by association with Indian causes rather than more effectively transporting the human universal content from American Indian-led or other campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to the broader society.

Breaking Out of Soft Climate Denial

Individuals are, in my view, not alone capable of breaking out of soft climate denial but must work together in political organizations to transform government climate policy, so that we collectively can move off the use of fossil fuels.   The above “pocket handbook” does not contain a recipe for individual escape or the achievement of individual moral superiority.  We must break out of hard and soft climate denial together or our species is likely doomed.

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