This is the new climate war’ says Michael Mann, the Professor who a decade ago took the brunt of fossil fuel interests’ assaults on climate science. He continues ‘and it is just as dangerous as the old one which focused on outright denial of the science’. Michael Mann is referring to the recent changes in tactics by global fossil fuel interests, occasioned by the global successes of climate movements in providing recognition of what is now widely called the ‘climate emergency’.
Fossil fuel corporate disinformation ramps up
Outright denial was the tip of a well-funded iceberg of highly organised political coalitions whose goal was to undermine public faith in climate science and to obstruct US and other governments from regulating emissions. An American study of the Climate Change Countermovement (CCCM) showed over 2000 member organizations in diverse sectors. ‘Together they can pool their resources and execute sophisticated political campaigns to achieve their goals’ says the author, Professor Robert Brulle. Since 2015, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Total have spent more than $1billion on misleading climate messaging. To do that, you have to believe that climate change is real.
If we thought this was only the US, or only in the past, the UK Conservative government has recently been accused by its former senior adviser, Tom Burke of ‘aping the libertarian right in the US’. He said the government’s record [on the environment] was a disgrace. ‘[It] has systematically weakened the capacity of this country to manage its environment. It’s been done by stealth. They have taken a lesson, I suspect quite consciously, from the libertarian right in the US that you won’t win the argument about weakening environmental standards, so you don’t argue it. What you do is you weaken the capacity to make them effective.’
Nihilism and denials
You might be asking yourself why, when it is now obvious that more burning of fossil fuels, will bring the collapse of human culture, including the fossil fuel industries, they respond by finding more ways to burn more carbon. It is profoundly irrational. Paul Hoggett, following Gaby Hinsliff, suggests we use a different label for what is now happening: not denialism but nihilism, which he identifies as ‘the cultural logic of very late capitalism’. He comments ‘the markets have no answers except more of the same. Faced with the inevitable outcome of their activities, their only response is to accelerate the rate of this destructiveness. […] Whereas denial is rooted in fear, nihilism manifests what Yeats referred to as “laughing ecstatic destruction”’. Koch industries’ spend on lobbying against environmental protection regulation has increased by 20% compared to the same time last year. Ecstatic destruction? A form of sadistic fight back against perceived threat to omnipotent fantasy of mastery? A malignant narcissistic intolerance to any limit. Erich Fromm, who first coined the term malignant narcissism, regarded it as “the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity”.
At the same time, Shell, for example, engages in outright denial about its involvement in lobbying against climate change, despite being a key member of the Global Climate Coalition which worked to undermine the scientific consensus from 1988 until it was disbanded in 2002. The Australian government has taken a leaf out of Trump’s book, attempting to suppress mention of climate change in the face of ‘catastrophic’ wildfires. Denial is not just a psycho-social defence mechanism, a flight from unbearable truth, it is a calculated and cynical stance by those with vested interests in their attempts to manipulate climate discourses available to the general public.
New strategies of manipulation
A historic law suit is under way in New York where Exxon Mobil was charged with misleading about the impact of global warming. The revolving door relationship between government and the oil companies is exemplified by Rex Tillerson’s testimony: boss of Exxon Mobil for ten years, he left to become US Secretary of State. Now that these companies are on the back foot with a climate-aware public, frightened of worsening their by-now dire reputation for evil on a par with the tobacco companies, they have, Michael Mann argues, moved to two new strategies: no longer outright denial but doomism and deflection. Doomism attempts to sow helplessness and inaction. It involves a giddy shift from the recent dominant line “climate change won’t happen until far into the future and by then we’ll have found new technologies to counteract it” to “it’s too late to do anything, we might as well enjoy what we have”. This and nihilism appear to be close cousins.