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25 May 2022updated 31 May 2022 12:53am

Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?

Two new books trace the history of global inaction over the climate emergency, and seek to identify the culprits.

By Lola Seaton

“Our old world, the one that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years,” Mike Davis declared in 2010, “has ended.” A decade later, David Wallace-Wells sounded the same death-knell in his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth: “The climate system that raised us… is now, like a parent, dead.”

The official onset of the Anthropocene has been accompanied by many such requiems. But another kind of obituary has also begun to appear over the last decade, marking not only the expiry of our old world, but the closing of the political window in which it could still be preserved. Beneath the stream of eco-literature proposing solutions and strategies, an undertow of gloomy counterfactuals has emerged, whose titles speak for themselves: Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – and What It Means for Our Future (2014), Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization (2015), Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (2019), and Jonathan Franzen’s 2019 New Yorker piece “What if we stopped pretending?”

It’s an incongruous phenomenon. Official climate discourse is relentlessly future-oriented – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global authority on the subject, deals in forecasts, models, “scenarios”, “pathways” – and is characterised by perpetual deferral, its deadlines and targets periodically extended and updated as they are missed. Meanwhile, portents of progress, however glaringly inadequate, accumulate – from the huge youth protests of 2019 to the plummeting costs of clean-energy technology to governments’ net-zero pledges. The full transition to a post-carbon economy is becoming more cost-effective, technically feasible, existentially imperative and, seemingly, politically inescapable. Yet the failure to effect it “in time” is simultaneously being historicised as a fait accompli (or rather non accompli).

Few of these histories are nihilistic in spirit, urging not passivity but clear-eyed resourcefulness before an irrevocably altered reality. And some, such as Fire and Flood, a new “people’s history of climate change” by the veteran environmental journalist Eugene Linden, ultimately follow a redemptive arc. His tiered history charts the ruinous lags between four “clocks”: the reality of climate change itself, the “state of the science”, “public awareness” and the somewhat nebulous group, “the world of finance and industry”. The progress Linden recounts is halting, at times reversed, strewn with false dawns, but now, he writes, “a real dawn of climate action finally seems at hand”.

Meanwhile, even the most dedicated political strategising must, as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright contend in their book Climate Leviathan (2018), prepare to intervene in a world wracked by the consequences of our failure to do so earlier. Matthew Huber’s new book Climate Change as Class War – an incisive reflection on how to mobilise a working-class coalition behind a Green New Deal-style programme – begins from the premise that “we are ‘losing’ the climate fight. And losing badly.”

That we have failed to seriously mitigate climate change is self-evident. The failure is not only legible in emissions statistics, which continue their annual rise, only stalling in periods of economic recession or collapse (the Great Depression, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2008 crash and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic). Today it is also disquietingly perceptible, in extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and severe, in uncanny, subtler shifts – earlier springs, milder winters – and, most vividly, in raging fires, soaring temperatures and devastating droughts.

When did we begin to fail to halt climate change? We started burning fossil fuels at an industrial scale in the early 19th century – initially coal, led by the British cotton industry’s turn to steam power, analysed by Andreas Malm in his revelatory history Fossil Capital (2016), and later oil and gas. The heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been the subject of scientific speculation since around the same time, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that concern about releasing enormous quantities of the trace gas started to gain traction in the scientific community – the first (and extant) carbon dioxide monitoring station was established in 1958. By the end of the Sixties, as Dale Jamieson recounts in Reason in a Dark Time, a nascent consensus had emerged that “humans could destabilise the climate”.

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Climate change attracted presidential attention as early as 1965 – when Lyndon Johnson mentioned it in a special message to Congress – but its percolation into the upper echelons of the US government is often dated to a major 1979 review commissioned by the Carter administration. The Charney report concluded, with evocative understatement, that “if carbon dioxide continues to increase, we find no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible”. The starting point of both Eugene Linden and Nathaniel Rich’s histories is 1979 – the year by which, Rich claims, “nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood”. (Linden’s more detailed chronicle complicates the story somewhat: climate science, he explains, underwent a “complete paradigm shift” in the Nineties, when studies of Greenland ice cores ominously revealed that past climatic changes were not always “stately and incremental”, as scientists had assumed, but “could be dramatic and swift”.)

The fundaments of the science were established by the end of the Seventies – not only among scientists and technocrats but oil executives too. Executives at the US corporation Exxon were so certain about oncoming climate change that, even as they prepared to finance elaborate disinformation campaigns, they began planning for it – building elevated drilling platforms in anticipation of rising sea levels, for example. Yet it was another decade before global warming metastasised into a truly public issue. The year 1988 has become totemic for the dawning of climate consciousness: it was then that the IPCC was founded, and Nasa scientist James Hansen testified before a US Senate committee, contending (during, dramatically, a heatwave) that the “greenhouse effect” was already discernible. The following year, the climate activist and author Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, among the first popular books on climate change (and reissued in 2022 as a Penguin Modern Classic). And in 1992 the first UN Earth Summit was held in Rio, a show of global consensus that provided the groundwork for future international climate negotiations.

“As it turned out,” McKibben reflected in 2019, when the world was awakening to the threat at the end of the Eighties “we were on the edge of the abyss.” By then, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere had increased from a pre-industrial average of 280 parts per million (ppm) to around 350ppm. This was the level deemed “safe” by Hansen in late 2007 (by which time it was already 383ppm), and the figure after which the climate change organisation McKibben founded, 350.org, is named (though, disturbingly, the IPCC objective of keeping warming well below 2°C degrees implies a higher red line). Today, the number approaches 420 ppm.

By most estimates we’ve released more carbon dioxide over the past three decades than in the rest of human history. David Wallace-Wells distils this dispiriting fact memorably in The Uninhabitable Earth: “We have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance.” The failure to avert climate change, in the conventional telling, is a phenomenon of the last 30 or so years.

Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth deviantly locates our “excellent chance” to have dealt with global warming in the decade before it hit the headlines, and before the fossil-fuel industry had launched its extravagant crusade to undermine climate science, spearheaded by the execrable, now-disbanded consortium the Global Climate Coalition, formed in 1989. A suave, behind-the-scenes dramatisation of high-political dynamics, Rich’s story climaxes in 1989, with “the first major diplomatic summit on global warming”, held in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. Despite growing momentum in favour of emission-reduction targets, Noordwijk’s final statement was toothless and vague, and “a decade of excruciating, painful, exhilarating progress turned to air”.

But most accounts locate their various squandered opportunities, fateful decisions and unfortunate conjunctions in the 1990s and after. Inspired by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which had successfully curtailed the use of ozone-destroying CFCs, global diplomatic efforts to reduce carbon emissions began energetically with the 1992 Rio conference, followed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, through which the first binding targets for advanced economies were agreed. But this first expectant stretch of diplomacy culminated with the “debacle” of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, when a last-ditch deal, controversially brokered behind closed doors, did not produce binding commitments. (Although even Kyoto’s targets were hardly binding in practice: the US, uniquely, never ratified the agreement, and Canada withdrew in 2011 without facing sanctions.)

The year 2009 represented a “tremendous missed opportunity” in the US domestically too, Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything (2014). The newly inaugurated Barack Obama was enjoying his brief Congressional honeymoon before the deadlock ushered in by the 2010 midterms, while the global financial crisis conferred exceptional political licence and fiscal latitude. Yet Obama, who on securing the Democratic nomination in 2008 announced that this was the moment “our planet began to heal”, failed to affix a transformative piece of climate legislation to his $831bn stimulus package, the 2009 Recovery Act – just $90bn of which was devoted to clean energy. During his tenure the US became the world’s biggest fossil-fuel producer (“That was me, people,” he boasted in 2018), buoyed by the rise of fracking in the 2010s (in a 2012 speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, Obama gloated about having constructed “enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some”).

While 2009 might have been an opportunity to reverse course, that course was set, in Klein’s view, in the developments of the 1990s – namely, the liberalisation of global trade, whose infrastructure was being cemented in a series of treaties (the North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted in 1992; the World Trade Organisation, established in 1995, and China’s accession to that body in 2001). Not only would goods now travel vast distances in “carbon-spewing container ships and jumbo jets, as well as diesel trucks”, but the new agreements also paved the way for corporations to sue governments for imposing laws – such as anti-pollution regulations – that jeopardised their profits. The 1990s represented a “tragedy” for Eugene Linden, too: instead of powering their development with renewables, China and India took the “fossil-fuel-intensive path” to industrialisation blazed by the advanced economies. The world’s 20th- and 21st-century “factory” would, like the 19th-century “workshop of the world”, be fuelled substantially by coal. Between 1990 and 2019, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions increased fourfold, Linden notes, overtaking the US to become the world’s largest emitter, and India’s tripled.

These dismaying histories of missed chances, their authors maintain, are not gratuitous elegies to bygone political eras, but instructive exercises, yielding, in Andreas Malm’s phrase, “a realistic assessment of the obstacles to the transition” – or what Nathaniel Rich calls “the villains”. Who or what, then, are the villains named or implied by this history? While nations’ refusal to subordinate economic self-interest to the exigencies of the ecosphere appears a universal impulse, the United States has played a starring role. Having promised in a 1988 campaign speech to combat the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect”, George HW Bush nearly didn’t attend the 1992 Rio conference and, once there, avowed that the fossil-fuel-hungry “American way of life is not up for negotiation”. The US signed but then didn’t adopt the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, after the Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing a treaty. At Copenhagen in 2009, Washington “led the way in blocking all but the most limited, voluntary agreements”, as John Bellamy Foster and his co-authors recount in The Ecological Rift (2010).

With evidently pointless diplomatic tact – given the US’s notorious withdrawal from the accords under Donald Trump – the 2015 Paris agreement was expressly devised so as not to be binding on the US. More recently, Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which included climate initiatives, has stalled in the Senate, thanks to the intransigence of Joe Manchin, a former governor of West Virginia (the US’s second-largest coal-producing state) and a shareholder in the coal brokerage firm he founded, now run by his son.

Rather than indicting capitalism tout court, both Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben lay particular emphasis on its most recent, virulent iteration, neoliberalism, which, distinguished by deregulatory fanaticism and extreme disparities of wealth and power, has emerged as a conspicuous saboteur of action to temper corporations’ ecological destructiveness. Klein describes the climate crisis as an “epic case of bad historical timing”, since its advent as a political issue – and one patently demanding enlightened state intervention – coincided with the ascendancy of “extreme free-market ideology”. Linden similarly censures, in rather sloppier terms, “our modern market economy” (“amoral, blind and easily gamed”) and “consumer society”.

A final, junior culprit in these histories is the too-slow diffusion of knowledge about climate change. This encompasses not just the malign – the fossil-fuel industry’s disinformation offensive – but the mundane: Linden even reserves some blame for the slow and cumbersome nature of scientific inquiry itself. The climate crisis as a consequence of an information deficit occurs in more oblique guise in the influential notion that it amounts to a “market failure” – “the greatest and most wide-ranging” ever seen, as the economist Nicholas Stern dramatically described it in his 2006 review to the UK government. Prices, the idea runs, omit the true “cost” of consuming carbon – its “neighbourhood effects”, as Milton Friedman termed them, or “negative externalities”, as they are known in mainstream economics (which can be “internalised” by, for example, imposing a carbon tax). “If the markets had the incentives and penalties to price in the likely future costs of climate change,” Linden writes, “the world would have acted decades ago.”

The notion that failure to tackle climate change is a consequence of a lethal interlude between the science being settled and the burgeoning of public alarm – or a discrepancy between the real “costs” of burning carbon and the market “price” of doing so – is powerfully debunked by Matt Huber in Climate Change as Class War. Our inaction on climate change, he insists, is not “due to misinformation” but a “lack of power”. And the “villain” in Huber’s telling is not “consumerism” nor collective inertia, not the “market economy” nor the capitalist system in aggregate, but the “fraction of the capitalist class that controls the production of energy from fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive industries”.

The idea that we would already be living in a post-carbon world if awareness of the harm of carbon emissions had been more pervasive is underpinned by what Huber characterises as a “naive and highly liberal theory of social change”. In this world-view, public pressure (or even mere public consciousness) leads inexorably to an adequate reaction from politicians, just as price signals, correctly adjusted, spontaneously guide the economy away from carbon-intensive activity. Here, collective power is exercised in the accumulation of individual decisions. We exert social influence by expressing our preferences – in how we vote and what we buy – which are efficiently processed by putatively rational systems: the immaculate mechanics of the market and the perfectly representative electoral system.

We know what’s required to avert catastrophe, says Linden in asking “the existential question: will we?” “The ‘we’, of course, is humanity,” he submits with consummate insipidity. Huber’s bracing diagnosis complicates the bleached idea that climate change is something “we” have “failed” to “prevent”. The “small minority of capitalists” in carbon-intensive sectors “produce climate change”, he argues. Huber proposes a far more coherent and potent principle of aggregating individuals into strategic coalitions to defeat this fraction – not as consumers or passive conduits of alarm, but as a class structurally alienated from “the ecological means of life: food, housing, energy and more”.

This vision of social change as necessitating struggle against powerful groups that need to be coerced or overcome by a countervailing force, not merely enlightened or lobbied – let alone implored to “tell the truth”, as Extinction Rebellion’s first “demand” has it – is daunting. It’s certainly more demanding than the frictionless model of progress outsourced to technology, or the market, or responsive politicians. Eco-socialists are routinely chastised for their lack of realism or unhelpful combativeness – calling for improbable transformations while the planet burns. The irony is that ostensibly modest technocratic reforms, which so often omit to anoint a credible force that can compel their implementation, are beginning to seem the more irresponsibly utopian. Meanwhile, as a devastating global food shortage looms, inflamed by crop-withering drought and heat, the future is already here. If there is no such thing as “success” now, the urgent need remains to devise and ruthlessly pursue ways of failing better.

Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present
Eugene Linden
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20

Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet
Matthew T Huber
Verso, 320pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control