‘Climate journalist’ Amy Westervelt claims that telling people to ‘follow the science’ won’t save the planet, but they will fight for justice. She goes on to say that the climate emergency has clear themes with heroes and villains and that describing it this way is how to build a movement. While that may be true, it is also a great way to build your opposition.
The biggest success of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign to push doubt about climate science is that it forced the conversation about the climate crisis to centre on science.
Come again? Just like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry was as quiet as a mouse. It wasn’t until people like Al Gore started spreading knowledge of global warming to the masses that oil companies began their propaganda campaign. Yes, they are very biased, presenting only what will support their own profits. Then again, the environmental movement are highly partisan as well.
It’s not that we didn’t need scientific research into climate change, or that we don’t need plenty more of it. Or even that we don’t need to do a better job of explaining basic science to people, across the board (hello, Covid). But at this moment, “believe science” is too high a bar for something that demands urgent action. Believing science requires understanding it in the first place.
“Believe science” is pure propaganda. Science is about understanding. It is not handed down on high from an ivory tower. The “believe science” crowd have a long history of hurting science, from germ theory to the heliocentric solar system. Even Einstein poo pooed quantum mechanics because he couldn’t believe that God would play dice with the universe, and turned out to be wrong.
In the US, the world’s second biggest carbon polluter, fewer than 40% of the population are college educated and in many states, schools in the public system don’t have climate science on the curriculum. So where should this belief – strong enough to push for large-scale social and behavioural change – be rooted exactly?
Elitist snobbery at its finest. The college educated do not have a monopoly on understanding science. In fact, most college educations do not include STEM. Most tradesmen (e.g. plumbers, electricians, mechanics) know more science than many college graduates. Social change must be rooted in the people, assuming one wants to avoid tyranny. This means that change must be in their interest.
People don’t need to know anything at all about climate science to know that a profound injustice has occurred here that needs to be righted. It’s not a scientific story, it’s a story of fairness: people with more power and money than you used information about climate change to shore up their own prospects and told you not to worry about it.
We all benefited (and continue to benefit) from the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. There is nothing unjust about radically improving quality of life of nearly all of mankind. That the benefits were not evenly distributed is a symptom of reality. Life is not fair.
That story is backed up by not only the internal memos of various oil companies, and the discrepancies between those internal communications and what they were telling the public, but also by their patents. In 1973, Exxon secured a patent for an oil tanker that could easily navigate a melting Arctic. In 1974, Texaco was granted a patent for a mobile drilling platform in a melting Arctic. Chevron got a patent for its version of a melting-Arctic-ready drilling platform that same year. Shell was a bit behind; it got its melting-Arctic drilling platform design patented in 1983.
Why wouldn’t fossil fuel companies promote themselves and take advantage of the changes our consumption of their products were leading to?
When she was shown this evidence of oil companies’ preparations for a warming world, Lori French was shocked. French’s… family and several other crabbers had signed on to support a lawsuit by their trade association against the 30 largest oil companies in the world for their role in delaying action on climate. Not because of science, but because of fairness. They were shown various documents detailing how the fossil fuel industry had been preparing to not just weather climate impacts but continue to profit as the glaciers melted.
I hold governments responsible for managing the commons, including international waters via treaties, for the benefit of all. If companies are breaking laws, governments should be punishing them. Instead, governments are still subsidizing these industries.
Meanwhile, in the same decade during which scientists’ warnings about climate change have grown more dire, social science researchers have discovered that there is almost no correlation between public understanding of climate science and risk perception, and thus little to no relationship between grasping the science of climate change, believing the scientists’ warnings, and doing anything at all about it.
This makes sense. The average person doesn’t care about climate science; the average person who does doesn’t understand it; and those of those few that do, many have no interest in change, because they are not personally being affected by climate change. Science alone is not a powerful lever.
There is a relationship, though, between Americans’ awareness of inequality or injustice and their willingness to support social change. A Norwegian study surveying the impact of various climate stories found that those with heroes and villains had “a large persuasive impact” on readers. A study of students in six countries found that a justice framework spurred young people to act on the climate.
Making propaganda more effective will motivate people. But just as those who feel heroic are moved to act, those who are demonized will be motivated to resist. A movement not based on fact is easy to resist.
For more evidence that a righteous sense of indignation, rather than a scientific understanding of problems, drives social change, you need only look at history. The US entering the second world war (the war effort people most like to compare with what’s needed to address climate change)? Check. The civil rights, consumer protection, women’s rights, anti-war and gay rights movements? Check again. All driven by moral outrage at the power being wielded by the few over the many.
The American decision to enter WWII was enabled by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, not moral outrage against American elites. Consumer protection and anti-war movements have largely failed in America. The equal rights movements succeeded because they didn’t affect the elite’s ability to profit from their positions. Making climate change a moral issue will fail if the one’s who are demonized are the ones with power.
Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will. Acting on it calls into question not just our energy source, but our power structures, catalysing widespread social change. The only thing that’s ever really succeeded in doing that are justice movements – public outcries over blatant injustice and a demand for change. If progressives and climate activists want to have any hope of spurring the kind of movement necessary to shift political and economic interests away from fossil fuels, it’s time to put aside “believe science” and instead embrace a broad fight for justice.
Justice for who? For farmers, who rely on fossil fuels to make their livings? For construction workers, who rely on cement, steel, and heavy equipment? For those who must commute to work, and can’t afford to replace their gasoline powered vehicles? For those who live in cold climates, and rely on natural gas to cost effectively heat their homes? A “justice” movement that places unjust penalties on all these people and more is doomed to fail.