By Nick Lyth
Is it me, or is there a new shrill note of panic being introduced to news of climate change? I might be a poor judge of this, but several items have struck me as being new to the debate. The worst wildfire in the Scottish Highlands set me off. This looked serious to me, and the news item certainly sounded scary. It was only as I reached deep into the detail that it emerged this was both entirely under control, the threat had passed, and that wildfires in the Highlands are a naturally occurring regular regenerative event.
On the same day, however, I found myself reading an article on the much more serious wildfires in the US. “We now know who is responsible for a third of US wildfires: should we hold them accountable?” reads the accusatory headline. Apparently recent studies have “found that 88 of the world’s largest carbon emitting companies are responsible for a third of US wildfires since 1980!” (Will Lockett, Medium, 1st June 2023)
The article examines this data and discusses the question asked in the headline: should we hold them accountable? This apparently startling revelation with an explicit weight of blame and accusation is another symptom of what seems to me to be an increasing shrillness. We have moved from the mutually shared self-criticism inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school children’s protest to a far more insidious finger-pointing psychology of climate change. Perhaps it is a symptom of our world starting to become frightened that it is us who will suffer. Or perhaps we just want to shift the blame.
Who’s accountable? The supplier or consumer?
In either case, the argument that 88 of the world’s largest carbon emitting companies are responsible for a third of US wildfires since 1980 seems specious. It is self-evident that each one of these companies is emitting carbon because it is making something which it is selling, and that it is both making and selling a lot of them. The end-user of these products is the economy to which we all belong, whether or not they happen to be aimed directly at consumer markets. Global industry, to which these emitters belong, serves the global economy, and that means you and me.
We have moved from the mutually shared self-criticism inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school children’s protest to a far more insidious finger-pointing psychology of climate change.
If we wish to hold the companies accountable, we have to hold those buying the products sold by the companies accountable, and that means we have to examine our own role in the problem. Is that useful? Would it not be more appropriate to ask, why were and are these emitters allowed to continue to emit, and why were and are we allowed to continue to buy their products? That question has an answer. The economic system which permits this to happen is regulated and governed by national and transnational Governments.
Would it not be more appropriate to ask, why were and are these emitters allowed to continue to emit, and why were and are we allowed to continue to buy their products?
Do people get the government they deserve?
Here perhaps we find where the buck stops, and the finger of blame can legitimately point, because we can require, indeed insist, that corrections are made. This is exactly what Greta Thunberg did and does. Then we come to perhaps the hardest paradox to explain. Why do Governments the whole world over do so little to make the corrections? We are, after all, still doing more of those very things that repeat the actions of the 88 largest emitters in the world, and the consequences continue to get worse.
There is an answer to this question which might be unpalatable, but nevertheless perhaps reflects the ultimate reality. There is a theory that no Government can maintain its authority when the people it governs do not agree. This theory continues with the proposition that people get the Government they deserve. It seems, at first, to be a wholly unacceptable justification for different forms of totalitarianism and dictatorship. The violent dictators, of whom history has many examples, are the fault of the people to whom they dictate? That’s brutal. However, careful scrutiny puts this into a different and perhaps surprising perspective. In times of revolution, when the people disagree so fundamentally that they actually succeed in overturning the Government, it is notable how much support is actually retained for the traditional old guard, or ancien regime. Quite literally. In the early days of the French Revolution, a new Government, a new system, new representation, all were demanded. But the overwhelming majority of the revolutionaries and the people they represented also wanted to retain the monarch because, in their own terms, he was the Father of the People. They believed in his role.
There is a theory that no Government can maintain its authority when the people it governs do not agree. This theory continues with the proposition that people get the Government they deserve.
Perhaps the most violent revolution in British History predated the French Revolution, when the conclusion of the British Civil War also led to the judicial execution of the monarch. It too led to a radical transformation of British Government and society, with new systems, new codes of law and behaviour. Eleven years later, when the first opportunity presented itself, the British people restored the old monarchy and asked the dead king’s son to return and take the crown. They preferred the old system with some changes.
In more recent times, it is worth noting how much modern dictatorships have echoed the autocratic regime of 18th century France. Stalin was referred to – affectionately – as the Father of the People. (Admittedly there was a degree of self-promotion involved in the term.) Perhaps most notably, and always necessary to remember in the context of this discussion, Hitler was idolised when he came to power in 1933, and his decision to overturn the democratic systems governing the German constitution in favour of an absolute dictatorship were supported by the overwhelming majority of the German people at the time.
So when we see how little Governments are doing about climate change, once again, don’t blame them. Blame us. The Governments are our Governments, they reflect our wishes, they are in office as a result of our agreement and support. They are not imposed on us. When they ignore the problems, and the voices crying out for attention become increasingly shrill, they do this because we too are ignoring the problems.
Florida Facism and the Age of Extinction
The third article I came across in recent days caused me the biggest surprise. Once again, it was not so much the content but the tone that took me aback. The headline caught my eye: “The Problem of Extinction Age Fascism”. I thought it was an extreme term to use, and assumed it was criticising the Extinction Rebellion’s tactics of civil disturbance. But no such thing. It was looking in the other direction, actually deconstructing mainstream politics in the US, as practised by Ron DeSantis.
I don’t know much about Ron DeSantis, so this all came as a surprise to me. Apparently he is reducing tax levels in Florida by an astonishing amount in order to attract both residential and commercial incomers to the State, in spite of the increasing devaluation of property owing to the refusal of insurance companies to offer insurance at anything other than the most punitive rates, if at all. This is all because of climate change, of course, and its dire consequences for Florida. He is enjoying considerable success with this tactic.
But it is very short term. It means that Florida has less and less revenue raised through taxation to spend on public services, and it means that both residents and businesses are in danger of facing serious long-term threats to their financial stability, and even the safety of their premises.
But they are making the choice of short-term gain in full knowledge of long-term threats. Ron DeSantis might be accused of being exploitative, but not unscrupulous, much less dishonest. He is completely open about his policies.
However, the article goes beyond demonising him. He is treated as the harbinger of doom. The “Age of Extinction” is repeatedly referenced, as is neo-fascism, Nazi policies, and the power of the demagogue. The writer is explicit in this critical framework.
His language is intemperate in a manner that becomes self-defeating. “This is the trap politics in an Age of Extinction falls into…the bigots and supremacists who want to implode democracy…peace, prosperity, nonviolence, equality, truth, liberty – they all become distant memories. 21st century authoritarianism, for Extinction Age fascism, for demagoguery, lunacy, extremism and folly.” (Umair Haque, Medium, 31st May 2023).
Use news to talk productively about different routes in the climate change problem
There is nothing new in the politics of polemic, in using language to stir up hatred and opposition, in pouring contempt and scorn on those whose beliefs you disagree with, and whose practices and policies you fear. There is nothing new in what lies beyond polemic – violence, bloodshed, civil strife, warfare. This is our human history.
But there is something new that we require, which these articles do nothing to promote. We need to work together if we are to arrest and reverse climate change. We know this, and we are already starting to do it. Governments are starting to do it. We are still travelling too slowly, but if you compare what we are doing in 2023 with what we were doing in 2013, let alone 2003, we have come a long way.
There is nothing new in the politics of polemic, in using language to stir up hatred and opposition, in pouring contempt and scorn on those whose beliefs you disagree with, and whose practices and policies you fear.
We are getting better at working together, not worse. We might be struggling to find the right pathway to global safety, but we are exploring more and more new pathways in our efforts to find the right one. Innovation is happening at a quicker pace than ever before.
It will be better if we can allow differences of opinion in the interests of maintaining friendly relations. If we can keep talking, we can keep talking about different routes out of the climate change problem. We will not be able to talk to Ron DeSantis if we insult him. And so this article is making an appeal for civil discourse from everyone, with everyone we meet. Try to moderate your language!
A thought piece by Nick Lyth, written 1st June 2023.