Climate Change Denial

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January 7, 2008


George Marshall @ 5:38 pm

Roman Krznaric is amazed that political activists are ignoring the world’s greatest social justice issue.

roman.jpgIn the lobby of Congress House, home of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, there was a banner from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign with Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. A couple of Labour Members of Parliament, drinking tea out of plastic cups, were talking in loud voices about the great strides in social justice being made by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Where was I? At ‘Latin America 2007’, an annual gathering in London of activists, researchers, politicians and thinkers from the Progressive Left.

The first extraordinary thing I noticed about the conference, held in December, was the number of people. Hundreds and hundreds had come to hear speeches and take part in workshops with regional experts and visiting political and community leaders from Latin America. I hadn’t seen such a big turnout at a Latin America event in Britain since the mid-1990s, when IMF-imposed neoliberal economic policies were wreaking havoc, and peace processes were being negotiated to end civil wars in Central America.

The second extraordinary thing I noticed was this: NOBODY MENTIONED CLIMATE CHANGE. Looking through the list of workshops, there were sessions on anti-poverty programmes in Venezuela, land reform in Bolivia, violence against trade unionists in Guatemala and the legacy of Che and the Cuban Revolution. But on climate change there was a deafening silence.

Clearly the organisers did not believe climate change warranted special attention, despite the mountain of evidence that it is having major effects on the region, and threatens to reverse the human development gains of the past three decades. Many of these effects and threats have recently been documented in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2007/8. Link…

With respect to water scarcity, the report points out that the ‘accelerated melting of tropical glaciers will threaten water supplies for urban populations, agriculture and hydroelectricity, especially in the Andean region’. Peru and Bolivia, two of the poorest countries in the region, face the prospect of a dramatic decline in water availability, especially in the dry season. Climate change is also likely to have major effects on food security across Latin America. The report states that: ‘In Latin America, smallholder agriculture is particularly vulnerable, partly because of limited access to irrigation and partly because maize, a staple across much of the region, is highly sensitive to climate.’ The latest models predict smallholder losses for maize yields averaging around 10 percent across the region, but rising to 25 percent for Brazil.

The most disheartening moment for me was when watching a documentary about Hugo Chavez made by Che Guevera’s daughter, Aleida. Chavez was boasting about how he was using oil revenues to finance the fight against poverty in Venezuela. And then he pointed out that the future looked bright, since the state oil company had the potential to increase oil production through its access to the Orinoco Petroleum Belt, which is estimated to be the world’s largest oil reserve.

I care deeply about wealth inequality in Latin America, and understand the argument that since rich Northern countries have had the privilege of fossil fuel-based development, then developing countries should not be denied the same privilege. But shouldn’t we be at least discussing the impacts of climate change and the alternatives to fossil fuel-based economic and social development at a conference with the professed aim of helping the struggle for social justice? I can’t help concluding that the Progressive Left doesn’t yet really believe in climate change.

What explains the absence of climate change on the agenda?

One factor concerns hope. For the first time in years there is a sense of hope about Latin America amongst the Progressive Left. Neoliberalism is in retreat and left-leaning governments are being elected throughout the region. Chavez is challenging the US and the multinationals, and having an impact on poverty reduction. Bolivia has its first indigenous President. But none of this, I believe, is an excuse for ignoring climate change.

A second factor is that many activists and policy-makers continue to keep human development issues separate from what they think of as ‘environmental’ issues. If you are interested in tackling poverty in the favelas of Rio, it is quite normal not even to consider that climate change is a related issue. I think there is a real need for development agencies and activists on the one hand, and environmentally-oriented organisations and campaigners on the other, to merge their thinking to create a new Ecological Humanism, so that climate change and social justice are considered interdependent issues.

A third, possibly deeper factor, is psychological denial. As individuals, we have an extraordinary capacity to shut our minds to the realities of issues that we think are frightening or insurmountable. Climate change is one of them. The good news is that people in rich countries are starting to overcome their denial and accept that climate change is not only happening, but will change their own lives, and that they have to adapt to and embrace the changes. The bad news is that most of them remain in denial when it comes to the world’s poorest countries. As a recent Oxfam report points out, the rich world is sorely lagging behind in its response to the need for developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change link..

The time has come for us to take our struggle against denial a stage further, and recognise that climate change is a reality not only for ourselves, but for the world’s poorest people in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.

Go to Roman’s website,, for his latest reports on climate change written for the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Human Development Report 2007/8’, and for his essays on the Art of Living.

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  1. ximena ordonez says:

    A very interesting article! But I do think problems can be prioritised and in this sense, I can well understand that extreme poverty, corruption and other problems are being treated with priority if compared to climate change. This doesn´t mean that climate change is not important, it is only seen as not so urgent as other things..
    Best wishes,

  2. Ian says:

    Ordonez, nothing can be prioritised above climate change. If it is not adequately prioritised, it will undo progress in all the issues you mentioned. Chavez needs to be scaling down oil production, not increasing it (and probably felling large tracts of rainforest to do so) if he is really serious about development.

  3. Derek Wall says:

    Chavez is virtually the only leader who has stated we use too much oil and need to use less!

    His great speeches on ecology are one of the reasons why the right want to kill him.

    Having an economy which is 100% oil dependent is a big problem and Caracas is a hugely dirty city but the Venezuelan government are acutely aware of the problems

    have a look here

    or “Our cause has found an ally in President Hugo Chávez. He has dignified us, because he has said that our speech is language, our attire is clothing, our ideas and culture are valid, and our interaction with Nature can contribute to saving the planet. We have, perhaps, the only Latin American country that not only recognizes us as citizens, but as peoples.”

    ‘Un a cosa de tonto’ a thing of stupidity was Chavez’s phrase describing one person one car…criticise Chavez where he fucks up by all means but recognise he is aware of these issues.

    The recent Venezuela Information Centre and HOV conferences had enviromnental debates and speakers.

  4. Derek Wall says:

    Mind you, everyone has their own car: husband, wife, each has a car, and when their son turns 18 or 20, he gets one of the cars, and whoever doesn’t have a car feels unhappy. Then there are people who feel inferior because they have to get on a bus or a tube or a tram, take public transport.

    This model is unsustainable. Scientists have calculated precisely what will happen if the entire planet adopts the energy-consumption patterns and lifestyles of the developed countries of the north. The US, for example, accounts for only 5% of the world’s population yet consumes 25% of the energy produced. It’s sheer madness.

    Anyway, let’s suppose we all wanted to live that way and that, by some magic, we could. Let’s suppose that Nicolas Maduro, the president of the Venezuelan national assembly, was a magician and we could all wake up tomorrow with a US standard of living. “Ah,” someone would say, “Nicolas, you’ve produced the miracle of the century. Look, we’re all making a good living we all have a car and a house.”

    If that were to happen, do you know what else would have had to happen simultaneously? We would need to have found seven or eight planets like Earth in order to sustain that way of life. We have invented telescopes, the most powerful telescopes ever, yet we haven’t been able to see, in the Milky Way or any other constellation or galaxies, a single other planet like Earth. Not yet.

    Guess who said this!

  5. Josie says:

    Not strictly on the Latin America topic, but about climate denial in general:
    The other day I was in a lecture where a graph was shown of carbon emissions from the developed and developing world estimated to 2100. The point was to claim that the developing world will overtake the developing world in the not too distant future.

    “Does this estimate include the effects of climate change on the economies of developing countries?” I asked.
    “No” I was told.

    That is just one instance of many I have come across recently. The effects of climate change are ignored in predictions of everything unless it is actually predictions of the effects of climate change. And this is even in directly related areas like emission forecasts!

    From this I have deduced that real belief in climate change is actually very rare, including in academic and policy circles dealing with the issue. Whatever people say they believe, if they don’t include it in their predictions, they clearly do not. If I do calculations about my life at the age of 300 I clearly do not really believe in my mortality.

  6. Toban Black says:

    Hey Roman,

    Your observations about the progressive left in general (as opposed to people in or associated with Latin America per se) ring true with me. (As for anti-neoliberalism in and around Latin America, I’m not going to try to comment on that.) In my experience there usually are sharp divisions between lefties and greens (though there are a minority of us who straddle that divide; hence, we end up on each side of the chasm — the camp with the majority of greens in it or the camp with the majority of lefties in it — at one time or another).

    You observations on “what explains the absence of climate change on the agenda” are a helpful start. Some additional thoughts —

    Narrow-mindedness is rampant in the world today. People get caught up in various areas and shut everything else out. I experience this in the context of academic fields (e.g. Media and Communications, which some see as all that matters, whereas others are caught up in matters of state or what-have-you), but narrow-mindedness is a much broader condition of contemporary life. This happens because societies have been made so complicated (e.g. internationalized), and because there’s so little quality analysis that people pay attention to. Thought and discourse (e.g. journalism) is very shallow.

    Greens also often fail to engage the lefties (to oversimplify this with labels, and by making generalizations that actually are references to tendencies). Take this blog for instance. While it’s great (which is why it’s one of only four sites that I have on my blogroll ( right now), Climate Change Denial has a narrow green mandate which isn’t going to build bridges to the lefties, among others. And doesn’t your piece take a similar perspective? You suggest that the lefties should get acquainted with green issues (to oversimplify again), but not vice versa. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your piece though. Besides, environmental-issues-are-all-that-matters perspectives are a systemic problem, not a matter of any one piece or blog.

    In solidarity,

  7. Toban Black says:

    Actually, by indicating that climate change is an important “social justice issue,” and by advocating an approach in which “climate change and social justice are considered interdependent issues,” you do take a step toward forming bridges that can be crossed from both sides of the divide. It’s a start (or a hint of one).

    I say this in the spirit of responding constructively. My previous comment had instead exaggerated the extent to which you’re approaching these issues through global warming concerns.

  8. merrick says:

    The Left has a problem in that it has traditionally viewed everything in terms of industrial production and measuring welfare and progress in material terms.

    A union will stoutly defend indefensible industries if its members jobs are involved.

    during the Climate Camp last summer we saw the airline pilots union BALPA telling the most outrageous lies about aviation’s climate impact.

    In doing so, they bolster their members’ dependence on climate wrecking industries; instead, their members’ interests would be better served by moving for a ‘just transition’, retraining into something with a long-term and low-impact future. (I wrote a piece about that here.

    The aviation industry lobby group Flying Matters – another opponent of the climate Camp in media debates – is not only comprised of the airlines, plane makers, CBI and travel agents, but also the GMB, T&G and Amicus.

    For as long as present day jobs for local trade union members are the top priority, the Left will struggle to address climate change – or any other global issue – with the seriousness it deserves.

  9. Mike says:

    The left in developing countries are very concerned about the ecology. The problem with environmentalists of the North is the same problem that most in the North have towards the South — they cant relate and they think they know our problems better than the South knows its own problems. Paternalistic nonsense of course.

    Issues such as erosion, bad water quality, dangerous chemicals in industry and agriculture, urban mis-growth, rural displacement, no recycling, overpackaging (imports) and so on, are THE ecological issues in developing countries.

    Sorry if we havent caught up to your priorities, but you’ll have to wait until we manage to marshall all the resources necessary to tackle our environmental problems (better categorised under economic and social problems).

    In a word or two: Your priority list and solutions to environmental degradation are not necessarily ours.

  10. Marian says:

    The article states several truths above any doubt: progressive left is the good side; Chavez is good; Che Guevarra has left a legacy; right is wrong; Latin American leftist Government are having an impact on poverty.

    I do not beleive them above doubt. Actualy, I beleive Chaves is a dictator who couldn’t care less about environment than any dictator. Chaves, Ortega, Castro and Morales are all deepening their nations in poverty and underdevelopment.

    Che Guevarra was an idiot whose legacy is a course on guerrilla warfare, that got killed when it was to prove its practical value. The result of his fight in the Cuban revolution is that even today, the only cubans that live in freedom and prosperity are those who vote for republicans in Miami.
    The more you go to the left, the less they care about environment. China is the World’s most poluted country and it is ruled by the Communist Party. USSR provided some of the most devastating polution stories and its succesor, Russia, lives right up to the legacy of the soviets.

    So, give me a break with progressive left and its heros (read mass murderers and dictators).

  11. Mario says:

    Very interesting. I have translated the article to Spanish. You can link it here.

    Thank you George!!

  12. You have a point here but allow me to expose another reality. I am a militant of the Left Bloc, a left-wing party in Portugal. The last convention of the Left Bloc has defined climate change as one of the main priorities for the party. As of then, several groups have formed in the main cities to discuss environmental issues and we have even organized a big campaign during last summer dedicated to climate change. As a result of the work of volunteers like myself, we have a website ( dedicated to the environment.
    The road to this point wasn’t a safe one, however. Many groups within the left still think that the only priority is class struggle or something like that and view this evolution as a “social-democratization” of the party. On the other hand, most environmental activists have strong reserves towards politics.
    This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no room for an ecological left, a “red-green alliance”. The experience in Portugal, as well as in various other european countries, shows that the progressive left is learning from its past mistakes and starting to realize that climate change and other ecological problems should be a priority in their agenda.

  13. Paul says:

    I have just found your site and I am fascinated by the psychology of the climate debate. I want to read more about my own mental state of denial. I also look forward tremendously to reading what psychoogists have to say about the hysteria of global warming catastrophists. The next item on your page about the 100m-sea-level-rise mug and Al Gore’s scare stories that are not related in any way to what any climate scientists are actually saying are cases in point.

    Perhaps some explanation of why I (who would consider myself on the left of sorts) have a problem with climate hysteria might be:

    I am a sceptic by nature
    I have scientific training
    I am suspicious of people who claim to speak for everyone (the consensus argument)
    I am suspicious of people who exagerate
    I can see a difference of tone between those who are sceptical and those website like

    This scepticism causes me to look for evidence. All I read are riders and cautions that are ignored in the reporting. Followed by rampant exageration.

    A case in point:

    I read today in the Guardian that there may be ‘3000 extra deaths due to global warming’ in the coming years. This is based on some statistical likelihood of a repeat of the canicule of 2003. No mention of the huge (really huge) increase in death rate that occurs in Britain each year over the winter months due to the cold. No explanation of how this likelihood is increased hardly at all by any climate model prediction of a fraction of a degree change in average temperature. In fact, pure nonsense by people on high wages who need to justify their jobs and who need to appear to be prepared for coming catastrophy.

    The climate scaremongers have obscured any real human-induced climate change with their wild predictions.

    Hope that can explain something of why many people are sceptical despite the fact that they are told daily that they have a mental problem or don’t exist at all.

  14. Paul says:

    On the topic of why the left might ignore climate change.

    In politics you need evidence that somebody has actually done something so you can argue that they stop or change what they are doing.

    In terms of rain-forest destruction or oil companies the arguments have always been there in the left. i.e. Stop the destruction and the polluting.

    In terms of climate change, what is the suggested course of action?

    This brings me to my second point. Guilt politics. It is far easier to change the purchasing habits of other lefties and people in general in the ‘developed world’ than it is to change the entire politics of capitalism. It is easier to put the guilt on car drivers and workers (like the recent ‘study’ that blamed swedish men for global warming because they do more driving). It is so fundamentally god-damn hard to get rid of capitalism, let alone agree on what system might replace it.

    Hence, people want to believe in a coming disaster that they can avert through their shopping (for local produce and efficient light bulbs) and by turning off their lights (easy to do) and using eco-flush toilets. Much harder to believe that the world’s problems might be structural in that people can’t afford to go shopping, don’t have electricity, or water or toilets at all in much of the world.

    The psychology of what is going on in the global warming debate on the left at the moment is indeed fascinating.

    PS – My solution. We should spend our research budgets on sustainable energy sources not another round of nuclear power. And we should work hard to avoid the really big impending disaster – biofuels plantations. Hysteria makes both these objectives the harder to achieve.

  15. Kevin Brown says:

    Great comments!

    Lots of strings to the conversation, but here are my views on some of them:

    The “north” does commonly misunderstand the problems of the “south” – so few people in northern societies have any meaningful experience with developing countries – but wait! I have a problem with describing a country like Canada as “developed.” Begs the entire question of what we have developed into: which is the country that has changed in 300 years from one of the most resource-wise (had to be to survive), to one with with the greatest per capita use of resources, and the greatest dependence on primary resource industries…

    Still: people in the richer countries do not have meaningful experience with people in poorer countries, or understanding of what it is like to live elsewhere, what the real issues of concern and survival are, how to actually engage in the world without having a deleterious impact on the others.

    It is this world view that prevents us from dealing with large, global issues in ways that are effective.

    Constricted world view, or frame of reference, is also a symptom of people engaged in “traditional” political action/debate/advocacy. Thus the ads for more nuclear power supported by a union of electrical workers, the support for clear cut logging by the forestry unions, and etc, etc. Thus the knee-jerk reaction against anything promoted by environmentalists from conservatives; the knee-jerk reaction of the environmental left against any solution proposed by any business interest and etc. But how human, and how hard to argue against.

    It is so difficult for people to fight for justice of any kind, to face a long struggle, to win some, lose lots, sacrifice so much, and then to be faced with the reality that here, in a new set of difficulties and issues, are impacts potentially so huge as to make all that was worked for before, all that was said, and written, and argued about over empty bottles late into the night – suddenly irrelevant. Dwarfed by the ice shelf falling into the sea, the disappearing lake, the new desert, the crop failure…

    And how intrinsically human to deny that something might happen, something big, after so long thinking that a) everything is fine, or b) everything is shit, but if we just do THIS, then everything will be fine. Either way, we delude ourselves as a way of simply surviving.

    The key problem, for me, is to sift through the junk – the junk science, junk politics, junk lobby – to find actual information that will guide me in the future. Thanks for getting me along the way.

    And cheers to everyone – from everywhere – for posting. The blogsphere is alive and well!

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