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Climate change: We have passed the 11th hour

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio — one of the few so-called celebrities in the world who seems to care about matters ecological — produced a disturbing film on runaway climate change called The 11th Hour, directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners. Like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth before it, it was a wake-up call, and in both cases it was largely ignored.

Now, seven years later, that indomitable and indefatigable Canadian investigative reporter, Naomi Klein, has published what must surely rank as one of the most important books on climate change — This Changes Everything (Penguin, 2014) — on the latest, irrefutable evidence that it is occurring before our very eyes and the complex web of denial and disinformation surrounding it. She also exposes the unscrupulous forces behind the denialist tendency on the part of the vast majority of people globally and the cynicism displayed by corporations and companies, some of which are already gearing up — can you believe it? — to make profit out of extreme climate conditions, when countries are likely to become ungovernable, and security companies are called upon by governments to move in and “restore order” (at a price, of course).

The latter phenomenon connects with the theme of her previous book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism of 2007, where she identified the latest phase of capitalist exploitation as consisting in pouncing at the precise moment when a natural or political trauma, such as the tsunami in Sri Lanka and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, has left people bewildered and confused. Under these circumstances, she showed with painstaking evidence-gathering, the capitalist forces of privatisation are/were rallied, for example to establish profit-driven charter schools (New Orleans) and resorts as coastal playgrounds for the rich where fishing communities used to live (Sri Lanka). This Changes Everything takes her work further, this time into the domain of “Capitalism vs the Climate”.

One of the most disconcerting things about Klein’s findings is her confirmation (to the more pessimistically inclined among us) that, instead of bringing human beings closer together (like World War Two did in Britain and in America, for example: a common threat was tackled with great social solidarity), it is now apparent that it is driving people further apart along the lines of the “haves and have-nots”. This is the case despite the fact that, as she points out, climate change is a “great equaliser” that affects everyone, from the poorest to the wealthiest.

What her research has uncovered is the current emergence of something fictionally anticipated by Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island (2007), where the rich have literally withdrawn into protected enclaves where they are sheltered from the worst consequences of climate change, while the poor have descended into barbarism (Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”, where life is “nasty, brutish and short”) on the “outside”.

Instead of the world’s “leaders” coming together in the face of the now incontrovertible evidence of probably catastrophic, anthropogenic climate change and forging a global, democratic plan to take the necessary, if for many privileged people unpalatable economic steps to restrict global warming to two degrees centigrade, NOTHING concrete has emerged from the climate conferences that have taken place, except, as she notes, talking and more talking. At these conferences the representatives of the wealthy nations “stare at their shoes” while those from poor countries desperately try to persuade them to take action. In relatively poor Bolivia, for example, the glaciers on which Bolivians depend throughout the year for drinking water, have melted to such a degree — largely because of global warming driven by the big emitters, chief among them the US — that they face a future of water scarcity.

It is pointless to dwell, yet again, on the accumulating scientific evidence for climate change (she has summarised it all) — it is freely available to everyone. What deserves one’s attention, rather, is the evidence of a different kind, ferreted out by Klein in the lion’s den, as it were (the Heartland Institute, among others), that the many, well-orchestrated denials of climate change — some of them by “scientists” — issue from well-funded, conservative think-tanks, driven by politically and economically conservative ideological agendas. For every new instance of climate-change evidence, in published or audio-visual media format, a carefully planned or prepared rebuttal is channelled to the media, with the result that today far fewer people believe that climate change is happening than did five years ago.

It is simply a matter of manipulating public opinion in the direction of believing something reassuring, albeit false, rather than what is the case, namely that we are rushing headlong into a state of affairs where water and food will probably become so scarce that people will enter into conflict over access to these. And guess who will win? Those with access to superior military resources.

But why take so much trouble to sway the public into believing that everything is hunky-dory? As Klein indicates, it is because the conservatives, far more than the ambivalent, hair-splitting liberals, know what is at stake: if climate change is in fact happening, and the future is really as bleak as scientists claim it is without urgent, globally orchestrated action to rein in global warming, the wealthy are those who would stand to lose MUCH more than the poor.

Moreover, the wealthy believe that even if potentially disastrous, extreme climate change is on the cards, they have the means to weather the storms that lie ahead, even if the poor don’t. In fact, the corporations are already preparing themselves to stay profitable even if the concrete results of sustained, high levels of carbon emissions prove to be disruptive of life as we know it. Who cares about the poor and vulnerable, anyway? Klein puts it this way (p. 50):

“And this points to what really lies behind the casual attitude about climate change, whether it is being expressed as disaster denialism or disaster capitalism. Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least for another generation or so.”

The cynicism behind the debonair attitude of the people she has listened to or interviewed while researching the book leaves one breathless. It is nothing unusual for such people to state explicitly that they don’t care about the millions who face starvation in light of the looming crisis: those exposed nations should “get busy making money” (p. 47), which is the only means for preparing for Armageddon.

The calculated denial of climate change has a gender side to it as well, which Klein highlights as follows, although she does not pursue its implications (p. 46): “One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes.”

Such men have been in positions of economic power to a disproportionate degree, and it is therefore no surprise that they defend the system. One can add that, as many feminists have argued, women’s approach to power is generally very different, less oriented to domination than that of men, and it is therefore a moot question, whether we would have been in this dire situation if society had been more egalitarian, if not woman-centred.

One would like to believe that the portentous agreement between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last Tuesday, to reduce carbon emissions, would yield fruit, at long last. If so, it would have to be in the shape of REAL interventions to arrest the acceleration of climate change towards what can only be a disaster for all living beings on earth. But I somehow doubt whether anything substantial enough to make a significant difference will happen.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.