Climate Change Denial

March 26, 2014


George Marshall @ 1:30 pm

The Ukrainian crisis is not just about geographic territory- it is about consolidating control over linguistic territory. It is not often that you can see narratives, fuelled by confirmation bias, forming in front of your eyes. Speaking to journalists after the Ukrainian Nuclear Security Summit, yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron mobilised the Ukrainian crisis as a security frame to justify increased fracking for oil and gas. He appealed to patriotic values, saying that it was “our duty” to support “energy security” and said that “I think something positive should come out of this for Europe which is to take a long hard look at its energy resilience, and its energy independence.”

Security and independence are powerful identity markers for conservatives. Research work on communicating climate change, such as the excellent report by my colleague Dr. Adam Corner, identifies security as a leading frame for conservatives.  Republican communications guru Frank Luntz, argues that it trumps all other arguments for a transition to renewables. However it is deeply problematic and prone to backfire when mobilised around fossil fuels. Adam Corner suggests that it should be seen “through the lens of increasing resilience“- but Cameron’s application of this normally environmental word suggests a form of linguistic annexation. Watch out for more territorial gains and a lot more talk about sustainable energy supplies.

The Ukrainian debacle is exactly the kind of crisis that induces shifts in the political discourse- described by Joseph P. Overton as a swinging ‘window’ that defines what is politically possible to say or do. Or, as Naomi Klein argues in her book the Shock Doctrine, we could see these crises as deliberately stoked in order to justify radical measures. Fracking was already on the political agenda and well within the window, but the Ukraine is being used to move it up the agenda- as Cameron says from “tier five” to “tier one”.

It is no coincidence that the former American ambassador to Ukraine , Carlos Pascual, now leads the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources which, according to the NYT, was created with “the purpose of channelling the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool”.  Now America asserts power through its eagerness to export its surplus frack gas and Robert McNally, former energy adviser to George W. Bush, talks about how America has grown from being the “arsenal of democracy in World War II, into “the arsenal of energy.”

It is always tempting to see the manipulations of oil and gas interests behind these arguments (and they are, indeed, very keen to push gas exports so that they can sell their US production on the more lucrative world market). But I don’t think we should underestimate the role of status struggles, social norms and confirmation bias among senior politicians and their policy advisors. It is no coincidence that Cameron was speaking in this way after he emerged from intense (and, no doubt, for him intoxicating) session of geo-political power broking.

So these are big boy conversations in which the dominant narratives have already been set by in-group culture. The consensus building process itself will also lead to a concentration of values and intense pressure to conform. It would be interesting to know what would happen if one of the “world leaders” started arguing in these negotiations for a massive programme of energy conservation to reduce gas dependence (which, in truth, could generate results faster than domestic fracking or increasing American exports), but I would bet every crisp in my packet that this could not happen because such proposals simply do not exist anywhere in the discussion. They are a non-topic, a generated silence, a Terra Nullius that is no more than a rough outline on the edge of the cognitive map.


  1. Christine Robins says:

    Thanks, George, for connecting the dots again.

    In public discourse, “new energy sources” and “renewable energy” have certainly replaced “conservation”, which hardly anyone mentions these days.

    The last politician I recall urging energy conservation was Jimmie Carter.

    And “security” does seem the magic word now. I’ve often wondered about the popularity of over-sized SUVs in the US since 9/11. These monsters are expensive and hard to maneuver. But I think drivers feel more “secure” wrapped in all that metal.

  2. It’s a surreal irony that seeking “security” impels so many to extract unconventional fossil fuels, thus guaranteeing species extinction within a few centuries.
    You said, “… we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them.”
    I believe we can reframe security as protection from the global complex system in which these “big boys” are embedded. Conservatives have feared world government, but this nefarious entity is far more pervasive and powerful a threat to them.
    Profs. Justin and Derek Ruths, from Singapore University of Technology and Design and McGill University respectively identify three kinds of complex systems. We’re faced with the first kind for which “…, it is hard to control individual parts of the system in isolation.” [emphasis mine]
    Important and complex systems, from the global financial market to groups of friends, may be highly controllable
    Let’s collaborate with activists across many fields, with a complex systems expert. Until activists for global justice, sustainability, population control, political reform, corporate reform, and finance reform grasp the larger system parameters, and create a unified perspective, we have no hope of controlling this Global-system-of-death. Let’s map out the institutional systems arraigned against us and their connections, in order to identify the dominant pressure points to push in this complex system. Focus coordinated activism on critical pressure points, with a coherent vision for the activist community and public.
    In short, we can invent a cultural mechanism to “accept” the enormity and nature of the problem confronting us, thus uniting disparate reform communities and pointing the way toward effective action.

  3. You will need to be brutal in addressing popular loyalties where the nation state is concerned (competition between the states may be more important than competition between corporations). No politician would dare tell people how little the nation state can do on its own. I suspect that if popular loyalty were weakened the institutional systems would have to adapt.

  4. Byron Smith says:

    Great post.

    “a Terra Nullius that is no more than a rough outline on the edge of the cognitive map”
    And whose indigenous inhabitants are at best sub-human and barely worthy of consideration, let alone negotiation.

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