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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.