The climate deniers of the left

Coca Cola greenwash at the Copenhagen climate summit.

The scientific community has never been more united in its conviction that climate change is well on the way to rendering planet Earth a vastly less hospitable place for most species, including our own. Yet doubt about the gravity of the problem is, paradoxically, on the rise.

Recent polls in the US, Britain and Canada reveal that fewer people take the threat of climate change seriously than five years ago.

One likely reason is the insidious effect of the ongoing campaign — largely orchestrated and funded by the fossil fuel industry, and drawing support from a cast of right-wing pundits and politicians — to sow doubt about the existence of climate change or at least about the contribution of human activity to it.

The contrarians don’t all line up with the forces of reaction, however.

Alexander Cockburn, veteran left journalist and co-editor of online journal, resigned this year from a more than 40-year stint on the editorial board of the New Left Review.

His resignation was in response to the publication of Mike Davis’ “Who Will Build The Ark?”, a reflection on the implications of climate change, as the lead article of the illustrious journal’s 50th anniversary issue.

There are few issues that get Cockburn as hot under the collar as global warming.

He is by far the most extreme in his wholesale denial of the very problem of climate change, but Cockburn is not the only prominent leftist to dismiss the urgency accorded to global warming by progressives.

York university’s David F. Noble, historian of science and technology, critic of the corporate usurpation of the university and occasional contributor to Canadian Dimension, is equally irate over the Left’s attention to climate change.

And Slavoj Zizek, one of the world’s most prominent left-wing intellectuals, dubbed the “Elvis” of cultural theory, has at times articulated an agnostic position on global warming.

Each of these thinkers, who reflect a real, if marginal, minority opinion on the left, come at their climate change scepticism from different angles.

Cockburn maintains that global warming is a “non-existent threat” based on flawed science. He approvingly cites naysayers such as Patrick Michaels of the right-wing Cato Institute, fingered as a paid consultant of the fossil fuel industry.

Against the prevailing scientific consensus, Cockburn insisted in an April 2007 article: “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend.”

In his view, climate change is a fiction fostered by capital as part of a strategy to profit from higher energy costs at the expense of the poor — a notion bearing more than a passing resemblance to the type of conspiracy-thinking he elsewhere denounces.

He treats the left with contempt for not only being hoodwinked by the global warming “dogma”, but for being naive in seeing it as a tipping point in the direction of radical social change.

Noble’s emphasis is different, although he pursues the general theme of climate change as a false crisis fabricated by elites for their own purposes.

Tracing the history of the corporate world’s warming to the issue of climate change, he depicts it as a deliberate and successful effort by a faction of the ruling class to co-opt and derail the anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s.

He is especially contemptuous of the left for adopting what he sees as an uncritical view of science in relation to climate change, one that disconnects science from politics, and of buying into the dominant either/or logic.

Noble argues corporate interests have succeeded in creating a false polarisation of positions that leaves no space to reject both sides: he complains that one can either accept climate change as the principal problem of our time, along with the green capitalist solutions, or join the much maligned “deniers”.

Zizek, too, cautions against a naive view of science. However, he seems lately to be conceding more to the scientific consensus than in previous pronouncements, where he opposed any limits to development on the grounds of uncertainty about the science.

He argued that nature is inherently unstable and crisis-ridden and that ideas about any natural balance being upset by human activity are misguided.

He said ecology, insofar as it emphasises our finitude and calls for us to treat the Earth with respect, is inherently conservative and expresses a deep distrust of change, development and progress. He thus characterised it as “a new opium of the masses”.

In an April 29 New Statesmen article, Zizek seemed to shift gears. On the one hand, he repeated the assertion that nature is chaotic and there is no underlying natural balance to be perturbed by human activity. Science, he reiterated, is unreliable and its conclusions are subject to the pressures of capital.

But he asserted that our survival as a species depends on “a series of stable natural parameters that we tend to take for granted ... The limits to our freedom become palpable with ecological disturbances, as our ability to transform nature destabilises the basic geological conditions of life on earth.”

He appeared to jettison his opposition to placing limits on development when he wrote: “What is demanded, first, is strict egalitarian justice: worldwide norms of per capita energy consumption should be imposed, stopping developed nations from poisoning the environment at the present rate while blaming developing countries, from Brazil to China, for ruining our shared environment.”

Of course, both scepticism and the ability to change one’s mind are signs of intellectual vigour. And dissent, as US socialist Norman Thomas said, is “essential to the search for truth in a world wherein no authority is infallible”.

But there is a question of what motivates these dissenters.

Scepticism about climate change on the right is fuelled, particularly in the US, by the belief that global warming is a socialist Trojan horse, designed to destroy the free market by the stealth of environmental regulation.

What seems to unite the climate change sceptics on the left is the opposite belief — that climate change is distracting and deflecting the left from the project of radical social transformation.

It is reminiscent of the response of a significant part of the socialist left to the emerging environmental consciousness in the 1970s, which discounted concerns about pollution and the rate of resource consumption as a “petit bourgeois” affair with no bearing on the world’s masses.

But as countless scientists have stressed, the most devastating effects of climate change will be felt first of all by the poor in the global South, who are more directly and immediately dependent on the natural world for their living.

The sceptics are legitimately concerned that the ecological crisis will be manipulated by capital as a business opportunity.

There is no doubt that climate change will be exploited for profit by the corporate elite — just as the oil catastrophe in the Gulf is being turned to economic advantage by some of the companies responsible for the disaster who are now cashing in on the clean-up activities — but this fact should not lead us to discount the reality or gravity of the crisis.

What is called for is an anti-capitalist response to the ecological threat — not only to the survival of our own species but to the innumerable other species now at risk.

Left climate change sceptics seem to ignore the emerging ecosocialist current, which has taken up the challenge of wedding the critique of capitalism to an analysis of the ecological crisis.

As one pamphlet produced the time of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit pointed out: “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is but one symptom of a system ravaging our planet and destroying our communities.”

Far from being distracted by climate change, ecosocialists understand it as intimately related to the reigning global system of production that endlessly reproduces the unjust disparities of wealth and power that have always been the object of the left’s opposition.

How can Cockburn, Noble and Zizek argue with that?

[Abridged from .]

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