Weather will never be weird enough to end climate denial

truck damaged in Joplin tornado

Joplin, MO was only one of the places in the US to see weird weather this year. Climate change or not? Photo: el clinto via Flickr.

When it comes to climate change “denial is still the dominant response,” writes Paul Gilding in The Great Disruption. “We won’t change at scale until the crisis is full blown and undeniable, until the wind really kicks up speed. But then we will change.”

When I read Gilding’s book I thought it would take something like this year’s historic storms and floods in the Midwest and South to wake Americans from their stupor on climate.

But now I’m not so sure if even climate disaster will be enough.

Undeniable tornadoes and floods

If there was ever was a time of climate disaster, now seems like a good candidate. “Relentless rainfall – a deluge that dumped five months worth of rain in just 14 days – and a massive spring snowmelt have had a devastating effect along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to take extreme measures,” as Public Radio International put it.

Demolition experts blew up levees along the Mississippi in a daring effort to protect cities and towns from record-breaking floodwaters. Meanwhile, states in the South and Southeast have been experiencing an unprecedented number of intense tornadoes. In April, nearly 900 tornadoes tore through the region – four times as many as usual. Before the tornadoes, the upper-Midwest was hit by near-record snow pack. When that melted, it sent a huge amount of floodwater down the Mississippi.

“This is all quite expected and due in part to a warmer atmosphere and climate change,” according to meteorologist Jeff Masters. There are near-record temperatures at the surface of the ocean on the Gulf of Mexico. The warm air from there is colliding with cold air from Canada to create extreme weather.

Learning the wrong lesson

“‘Americans won’t wake up and get serious about climate change until there’s a disaster.’ I’ve been hearing people say that for years, but more and more lately. There’s always an uptick after a political defeat like the failure of the climate bill,” David Roberts writes in Grist. But waiting for the definitive climate disaster may not be the foolproof strategy that some think.

First, disasters cause lots of suffering, and if there’s any way to stop them from happening in advance through political action, then we should take what action we can.

Second, really bad natural disasters will probably not bring in their wake considered, thoughtful and well planned efforts to cut greenhouse gases, save energy and make industrial society more resilient. As Roberts writes,

Even if there were one truly huge weather disaster, or a series of mid-level disasters in close succession, or something of similarly catastrophic impact, there’s no guarantee that our collective response would be benign, or move us closer to smart policy. People don’t tend to respond to trauma with good will and foresight. They respond with their amygdala: their fight-or-flight, us-or-them, zero-sum reptile brain. They become more susceptible to demagoguery, nationalism, and xenophobia, not less. I’m not sure a battered and fearful American public is one we can expect to embrace progressive change.

So, if the Big One hits, don’t expect President Obama to appoint Amory Lovins and Julia Butterfly Hill to convene a national roundtable on high speed rail, walkable neighborhoods and an Apollo Project to install solar panels and wind turbines.

Instead, expect martial law where FEMA and the National Guard start forced evacuations, set up refugee camps, and ration food and fuel. Then, when things calm down a bit, look for Washington to launch an all-out effort to get the economy going again by providing energy from sources that politicians think are most easily at hand — oil and gas, coal and nukes.

There’s always denying the undeniable

Some people are saying that the tornadoes and floods are just part of a normal La Nina cycle.

Which illustrates the biggest problem of all with the “Just you wait, ye of little climate faith” approach: Since the Garden of Eden, humans have shown a true mastery in arguing two sides of just about any issue, from Jehovah vs. Baal, to flat Earth vs. round Earth, to Great Taste vs. Less Filling.

The basics of climate science have been decided by the international scientific community. Yet, ever since big polluters began seriously funding climate deniers in the 1990s, climate change has become the ultimate two-sided issue in the mind of the American public.

“With so many scientists on both sides, I just don’t know what to think about man-made global warming,” says Joe Sixpack. “I guess we better not do anything drastic until we know for sure about global warming. Otherwise, we could hurt the economy for no reason at all.” And that’s just how big polluters want to keep it.

From Hurricane Katrina, to the hockey stick of rising temperatures and greenhouse gases to polar bears’ ability to find enough ice flows to hunt on, nearly every story about the onset of climate change is met with a counter-story from climate deniers who say it isn’t so.

No wonder climate crusader Bill McKibben has taken to sarcasm, as he did in the Washington Post last week. With Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico facing drought worse than the Dust Bowl, with megafloods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year and with the melting now for the first time in thousands of years, McKibben says NOT to connect weird weather to climate change.

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

There have been tornadoes before. There have been hurricanes before. There have been floods before. And we’ll have them all again.

So don’t worry about climate change, McKibben urges. Just go back to getting really pissed off about $4 a gallon gas.

Disaster won’t save us, even in an ironic way

For my part, I used to think that America would remain in climate denial until rising sea levels reached the Capitol steps.

But now I’m not even holding out for that. Because by then, I’m sure they’ll already have moved the federal government to Denver. And as long as the US Chamber of Commerce and their ilk tag along, then there will always be some other explanation for weird weather: natural cycles, solar flares, just dumb luck. Along with some good reason why cutting greenhouse pollution would destroy the economy.

And the band will play on.

Unless between now and then, ordinary citizens can dethrone America’s plutocracy and take back our climate and energy policy from Big Oil, Big Coal and nukes. The public overwhelmingly wants clean energy. And we’ve also shown that we’ll get on board with conservation in a time of pressing national need. That’s what we did during World War II. We did it again to get through the energy crises of the 1970s.

With peak oil here, we’ll have to pay more for energy in the future anyway. So it might as well come from solar and wind and not from tar sands, fracked gas and deepwater oil.

Someday $4 gas will sound quaintly cheap. And in a world punished by climate chaos, someday today’s storms could sound like a gentle summer breeze.

The weird weather is here. But the climate denial still isn’t gone. So we clearly can’t count on weird weather to do our political dirty work.

That means it’s time for ordinary citizens to release our own storm of whoop-ass on the Koch brothers and all the lying liars they pay to say that weird weather is just weird weather. Time to stand up for science and work for an end to America’s suicidal climate and energy policy.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks, Eric. A good synopsis of the denial psychology.
    Title for this comment: “Government will never be weird enough to end system failure denial.”
    Unfortunately, you forgot to apply the same logic to our failed government. When you do, you will see that our system of government no longer actually exists outside the corporate influence, and your last paragraph illustrates your denial. Buck up! You are not any more alone than the climate deniers are. 😉
    While they are comfortable in their denial of climate change (I prefer the term “climate stability loss” ) because they feel supported by the confidence and power of American Industriousness and the three branches of government, many Americans feel comfortable in talking about the dire predictions of climate change because they somehow feel that “somebody in authority will do something” before it’s too late.
    I don’t believe we have anything at all to support our future except localization and survivalism (the kind where neighbors scratch out a cooperative living, not the kind where we hide in the woods). I think our institutions are on the brink of collapse out of sheer specialization and overhead costs, let alone their lack of real understanding of complex systems, which has created a government that is barely different than a “Jack Ass” movie.
    I know you are doing good work and putting yourself out there for everyone like me to criticize, so I hope you take this with a sense of humor and realization, rather than as a slight against you.
    There is no ‘public’ to rise up and change our government because the public is just as dumb as the government. By the time the actual information about climate change, peak oil, and corporate control sinks into a majority of the public’s addled brain, it will be too late to do anything but help those who can be helped and bury the rest. We are at the mercy of our merciless pursuit of growth using heartless cash to make our decisions. When that system falls down upon us, we had better be living underground or wearing a helmet at least.

    • says

      Thanks as always for your thoughts, Auntiegrav. You may be right. Plenty of news stories do indicate that the public is too distracted by mass media infotainment on the one hand or just by their own financial problems in this Great Recession on the other that they don’t have time or interest to care about global warming and peak oil. And I think any family would be well advised to increase the resilience of their family and to help make their community more resilient too.

      At the same time, I for one am not ready to give up on state and federal government. Like so many of society’s systems, from food to the economy to finance, govt is indeed handicapped by its own massive complexity. Maybe we’d just be buying ourselves a little time by trying to reform it, just as Constantine did by splitting the Roman Empire a century before barbarians took the western half. But at very least, buying that time could give families and communities who are in the know a chance to prepare.

      And in a more hopeful scenario, loosening up plutocracy, as Americans have done in the past from 1776 to the 1830s, 1910s and 1930s, could make govt a tool of sanity instead of an instrument for societal suicide. I’d like to see a future administration enact Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Protocol. Stranger things have happened!

      • Auntiegrav says

        Thanks for your level-headed response.
        I think that it is important to stop for a moment and consider giving up on federal government. I think local governments and state governments have more chance of change, and they demonstrate it, but some state governments are a reflection of the self-destructive consumption culture, and we should also consider that they are without hope.
        In considering this possibility, we can actually evaluate which parts of the system are failed, which are worth saving, and what alternatives are available.
        When we don’t “give up hope”, we may be wasting precious resources and people on the ‘government problem’ which is only viable as part of the consumption culture. Once we consider abandoning things like government grants for education, health, farming, security, etc….then and only then do we consider how to build those things from the bottom instead of waiting for them to come from “on high”.
        As some people have aptly demonstrated, we don’t really understand what it means to live without a car until we get rid of it. We have become so accustomed to big systems that living without them seems impossible; yet it was done for thousands and thousands of years before this.
        There are many in the camp of “change our laws to thwart corporations”, and I salute them all, but even Annie Leonard fails to illustrate the real economic trench:

        That trench we are in is the fact that the rich get richer because the people buy their stuff. The corporations have power because the people give it to them in order to gain the resources which a corporation enables access to. The votes for peace and fairness we cast in an election are nullified and countermanded every time someone buys a Twinkie or a 2 liter bottle of corn syrup or a gallon of gasoline.
        I think there is one hope for federal government to act, and that lies in their ignorance. IF the Republicans can find enough support to follow their own chosen path toward less government interference, perhaps they will manage to pass the FairTax on the premise that it will promote a simple tax code and better business. My hope is that they won’t see it for what it is (a consumption tax) and will pass it on to a future government that will raise it until the air is clean and the majority of trade becomes local (black market and barter).
        That is my hope: that our government will do the right thing in spite of itself, for the wrong reasons.

  2. says

    In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the captains of corporate capitalism failed to change course in time to avoid the cataclysm of resource depletion and climate chaos — the basic source of their plutocratic power is the unyielding quest for profit and a witting or not blindness to the unsustainable ponzi-logic of infinite growth that profit requires.

    At this late point, I think I’m with auntiegrav — it seems to me, changing course on a national or global scale is a lost cause and we should be focusing most of our efforts on transitioning ourselves and our newly-emerging communities of like-minded people to localized ways of life that have a chance to weather the inevitable storms with resilience and human decency. I guess one could argue it’s not an either/or proposition, but given the dire strait of American politics and the corporate-controlled mass media, I feel better using my energy on things I know I can do: growing more food, powering down, creating local community, and imagining a benevolent path through the wreckage of modernity.

  3. says

    Nice piece! I completely agree…this is an issue of human psychology more than anything else. Why don’t we see the obvious, why do we cultivate bad habits, why do we ignore warning signs? It’s just part of our ability to apply cognitive dissonance, to allow our ego to rule, to be unconscious.

    Maybe we won’t change. May we’ll simply adapt as populations have done previously and we’ll have to hope that those who adapt create new systems the replace the old. In the meantime it will be business as usual.

    • says

      Raf, Thanks for the nice compliment and for your comment. A couple reasons why North Americans in particular may not see the obvious truth about climate change: until recently, our temperate latitude kept our weather relatively mild compared to both Equatorial and polar regions. But now, just as we’re starting to catch up with the rest of the world’s weird weather, big corporate polluters have kicked up their disinformation campaign to such a high intensity that our citizens are more confused than ever. If we can’t change, then I sure hope we can adapt. But if climate gets really bad, there may not be many of us left to do any adapting.

  4. MonkeyMuffins says

    when the Peak Community–such as it is–applies the same sarcasm and attacking style to their own moonbats (of the nine-eleven-was-an-inside-job variety, not to mention myriad other absurd, counterproductive, pseudoscientific and offensive conspiradroid moonbattery), i’ll take seriously the sentiments expressed in this article.

    until then, it’s nothing more than hypocritical hot air.

    folks like:

    Michael Ruppert
    Matthew Savinar
    Alex Smith
    Richard Heinberg
    Carolyn Baker
    Jan Lundberg

    and many, too many others, have been publishing, promoting and in some cases profiting from crackpot crap for ever and a day and no one in the Peak Community calls them out for it let alone spurns them.

    it’s unconscionable!

    sites like the–when directly challenged about shilling for some of the above referenced clowns–apologize for these cretins using the, “open minded intellectualism”, defense.

    such obvious bullshit applies to the global warming deniers as well.

    if Michael Ruppert’s bilge is, “open minded intellectualism”, then so is all the garbage sold and bought by the Global Warming Deniers.

    you can’t have it both ways!

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