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Hurricane Irma and why the only thing worse than climate change denial is acceptance

People don’t like to be reminded of their own moral relativism when their homes are underwater.

Climate change denial is not about facts. It is about faith, and faith comes in many forms, including the blackly comic.

This week, as the most devastating hurricanes on record pummelled the Caribbean and the southern United States, Scott Pruitt, the Republican politician and head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said that “the place (and time)” to discuss “the cause and effect of these storms” is not now.

He spoke with the self-confidence of a man appointed to head the very agency he’d spent the previous decade trying to destroy, and the bluster of one trying to pretend he hasn’t just tripped and fallen over an enormous carbon footprint.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the storms are happening because of climate change. There are other, less rational but more comforting explanations, such as the conviction being put forward by certain Christian evangelicals that this is all part of a prophecy about the end times somehow connected to the August eclipse and what we really ought to be doing is converting more sinners, rather than stocking up on safe drinking water. You and me are not like that, of course. We’re sensible people who believe in science. That’s why climate change denial is different when we do it.

If the middle of the most catastrophic weather event on American soil for years is the wrong time to talk about climate change, then it’s definitely the wrong time to talk about how similar catastrophes have been taking place on un-American soil for some time now without the world showing quite so much concern. People don’t like to be reminded of the ugliness of their own moral relativism when their homes are underwater. They definitely don’t like to be asked why they’re not as upset by the death of 1,200 people by flooding in South Asia as they were about the 70 fatalities in Texas during Hurricaine Harvey that same week. That falls into the realm of “things that are true but unhelpful”.

The propensity for human empathy to fumble in the face of enormous casualty numbers has been well-documented; Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at Oregon University, terms the effect “psychic numbing”. It’s why every article about a natural disaster starts with the story of a single victim, because you’re more likely to care about the death by drowning of one child with a name and a story than you are about a hundred children.

I suspect, however, that there’s a little more to it than that. Right now, Florida is no nearer to where I’m living than Cuba, but the press and BBC are covering the effects of Hurricane Irma on the US much more closely than the aftermath of the same storm in the Caribbean.

I’m not trying to shame anyone for their private prejudices. What matters is whether we let the limits of our empathy dictate our response. It is possible that the climate movement doomed itself from the start by assuming that human beings are rational political actors who can be moved by serious facts rather than hiding under the bed screaming about the Book of Revelations. 

Denial, of course, is one of the stages of grief, and when people face the loss of the simple certainties on which their lives are based, they respond as they do when they lose anything they love. They respond with disavowal, bewilderment, anger, depression – and with bargaining. Of these, bargaining is by far the most dangerous, and that’s where more of us get stuck on the way to the kind of acceptance that might still turn this ocean liner away from the melting icecaps of mutual destruction.

It’s easy to bargain with reality when your own appears unchanged. Yesterday, while people in the Gulf of Mexico were scrambling for shelter from two superstorms, I was eating spaghetti with friends in a chain restaurant in a nice, safe country in northern Europe, confessing a combination of guilt and relief that the worst effects of man-made climate change will not reach us for decades.

This is an awful thought to entertain, so awful that it’s tempting simply to claim you’re not having it, finish your carbonara and avoid the issue. Table it for another day. Decide that maybe Jesus just loves you and your friends and family a little bit more than he loves the millions of men, women and children facing death from heat stress in Indo-China in the coming decade. Decide that maybe you deserve to survive – of course, everyone deserves to survive, but maybe you deserve it a little bit more.

The trouble is that this attitude goes right to the top. A devastating investigation by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker magazine in January revealed how many of America’s wealthiest families are building themselves bunkers and putting escape plans in place for when the world as they know it ends. 

The sort of people who attend Davos did not get there by failing fifth-grade science. They know full well what’s coming down the tracks, which is why they plan not to be standing there when it hits. Whatever happens, they can be reasonably certain that they’ll have access to food, medicine and air conditioning. They inhabit a different planet, so they are prepared to gild their nihilism with the ashes of the one the rest of us still have to live on. The only thing more dangerous than climate change denial is climate change acceptance on the part of those who could, instead, choose action.

The way you may or may not feel in the cowardly corners of your conscience about climate-related catastrophe happening to hundreds of thousands of foreigners far away is exactly the way that the people who could actually stop this feel about you and me. They know that we’re at risk, too. And, of course, they care. They just don’t care enough to seriously inconvenience themselves by going cold turkey on fossil fuels, or putting plans in place to accommodate a billion climate refugees. All of that is going to happen to other people, people whose lives simply matter less. And this time, that includes you and me.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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Why is the government's Brexit approach so inconsistent?

It's her own time – and the United Kingdom's – that Theresa May is wasting.

Life comes at you fast. Just a fortnight ago, defenestrated Downing Street aide Nick Timothy wrote in his Telegraph column that "despite briefings that suggest otherwise, there is agreement in government about the Brexit strategy". 

This week, we're all at risk of a bad deal because Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond are at odds with the government's approach, says Nick Timothy in his Telegraph column. "Treasury 'talking down Brexit'" is their splash. 

At this rate we can look forward to a column from Timothy explaining why he backed a Remain vote on 23 June 2016 early in the New Year. The inconsistency and essential lack of seriousness typifies the government and his former boss's overall approach to Brexit.

Downing Street is hoping to keep a tight lid on what's in the speech but speculation is everywhere. In the Times, Sam Coates and Bruno Waterfield say that the PM will try to go over Michel Barnier's head to get a breakthrough in the talks. The flaw in this approach isn't that the EU's sequencing of talks between the first stage and the second doesn't create problems. It does, particularly as far as the Irish border is concerned. It's that Barnier's mandate already comes from the heads of member states, and while there are potential areas where the EU27's unity might be tested, on the issues currently holding up the talks – money and citizens' rights – there isn't a divide to be exploited. It's her own time – and the United Kingdom's – that Theresa May is wasting.

But as with Timothy's somewhat confused oeuvre, the underlying reason for both his contradictions and May's blind alleys over Brexit is that most of the government treats Brexit as a secondary concern, to either easing their path to Downing Street or taking revenge on those who helped chuck them out of it. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.