Climate Justice And Stupid White Men

Parse that carefully because it can be too easy to become focused on the “Stupid” part. It’s S-t-u-p-i-d W-h-i-t-e M-e-n.

For completeness we should add “Old”, and “Rich” (and probably some other adjectives as well) because of course in addition to being a race and gender issue climate change is a class and generational one. Having said that, it is a very particular brand of ‘Stupid’ that we are dealing with and it deserves dissection.

Nowhere is this clearer than the recent U.S. Congressional House Energy and Commerce Committee vote that denied the existence of climate change. As has been noted elsewhere, they may as well have voted to deny the existence of gravity. While I have been known to compare climate change Denier’s intelligence to that of lobotomized rodents it is still breathtaking to see them literally taking it  to that level.

This is not garden variety stupidity such as found on thousands of Youtube videos (usually involving self-inflicted pain and injury, often labeled “funny”) or even the colossal idiocy honoured by the Darwin Awards. This descent to unprecedented levels of idiocy is politically motivated stupidity. It is intentional, albeit not necessarily consciously so, and it serves political ends far more important to the Republicans than merely pandering to their base.

That their stupidity is self-inflicted and deliberate is unquestionable. For example two years ago Christopher Monckton was chosen by the Republicans to testify before the Energy & Commerce hearing on climate change adaptation, and last year he was their sole witness giving “expert” testimony before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Let’s be clear here, Monckton is unique in that he is almost certainly the one person in the world most documented for not merely being grossly ignorant about climate science, but for being dead wrong in virtually every respect. Examination of a single article of Monckton’s found 125 logical fallacies, irrelevant statements, and outright errors.

The Republicans could have randomly selected any 8 year old not legally brain dead and gotten more credible and reliable climate change science than they get from Monckton. This is not hyperbole, it is literally true.

In earlier testimony before Energy & Commerce Committee hearings on climate change adaptation (and here) Monckton shared the electrifying news that “CO2 is plant food” (ie necessary for plant life). Hello! … Earth to Republicans! this “science” is taught at the Grade 3 or 4 level. While it is clearly a revelation to the House Republicans it would be hard to find an 8 or 9 year old who didn’t know it.

It’s not just Rep Shimkus (infamous for scientific ignorance) who seemingly never made it to middle school, this was apparently news to many Republicans.  Obviously Monckton was chosen as a witness because a randomly chosen 8 year old’s Grade 4 level science would have been way over their heads.

Indeed, the more certain the science gets, the louder, shriller, and more entrenched the Republican denial gets, and this has been going on for years.

ASIDE: Note that these are the people who accuse the scientific community of Groupthink ie in their view the thousands upon thousands of scientists who publish and discuss the facts publicly and address their opponents concerns directly are “protecting themselves from dissenting information”, whereas the Republicans see no problem in their accepting as “expert” a single source demonstrably grossly incompetent in every relevant respect.

This is such extreme self-delusion that words like “irony” are inadequate. Were a satirist to suggest that the Republicans did what they actually did, it would be regarded as insulting and not credible. The Republicans have taken idiocy to the point where it is impossible to parody because one cannot imagine anything more ridiculous or hypocritical than what they actually did.

Of course it is not just empty rhetoric, the Republican campaign to do nothing about climate change is very real:

So what is going on here?

It is too easy and I think misguided to point to corporate funding as a cause. While it is true that the corporate Deniers fund the Republicans, I submit that they are not Deniers because they get funding, but rather they get funding because they are Deniers.

Nor can it be said to be merely pandering to their base. It is true that politics showcases soliciting group acceptance and approval by expressing extreme forms of group values (See ‘Understanding Stupidity‘ for a humourous but nonetheless serious exploration of this phenomenon), but climate change denial is not a universal conservative rallying cry.

Indeed the Republican base is something of an enigma in many ways. Only about half of them are climate change Deniers (and there are more than a few good climate blogs by conservatives). A large proportion of the base are typically (and here) less educated, poor, rural, and have poor prospects.

Contrast this with the Republican leadership who typically have post secondary degrees (I balk at saying “are educated”), are wealthy, urban, and do well even when they are doing poorly (resigning in disgrace usually leads to lucrative corporate jobs and appointments).

What they do share is that they are frightened, particularly of change. For much of the base it is fear of further deterioration of their already precarious position in society. For the Republican elite it is fear of loss of their substantial privilege and power. Thus they are not united by any coherent ideology, but rather a common rallying cry that means a completely different agenda depending on who is voicing it.

For the rural poor “no change” is expressing a hope to protect what little they have, for the elite it means continuing to increase the already huge disparity between the haves and have nots. The former thinks “no change” is about preserving the current socio-economic conditions, the latter know it is about maintaining the current socio-economic trends.

Climate Justice

Hence the much touted conservative “war on science” is actually a class war, a gender war, a race war, an inter-generational war, etc. Every and all marginalized communities are and will be the first and worst affected by climate change. As a political issue climate change is a struggle for power and the lines are the same as for all of the other struggles for justice and equality.

The House Republicans are not “stupid” because they are wealthy, older, white males, but rather because they are wealthy, older, white males they have chosen to be stupid. Willful, self-inflicted stupidity is the easiest way to preserve their privilege with the added advantage that it completely avoids the necessity of examining why you are doing what you are doing.

Which is why many people, particularly younger activists (hint, inter-generational war) prefer to refer to what they do as “working for Climate Justice” rather than “working on Climate Change.” Scientists work on climate change, activists work on climate justice. Both are fact based, but other than that they are only tangentially related.

So What?

In the first place the political struggle is not going to be won with scientific facts. The science is critical in that it informs us about what must be done and keeps the climate movement reality based. It fundamentally determines our position sensu what we need to achieve and how we get there technologically, but it is almost useless in the political struggle.

That the conservative war on science is just part and parcel of their war on the disempowered (eg women) also tells us who our allies are or should be. Many disenfranchised communities are already aware of this and organizing accordingly (eg gender, race, class … yes, even sexuality) or starting to.

Those in the environmental /science community need to be doing a lot more to acknowledge our common struggle and be working directly with them. We need to be more educated and aware of their issues and be very clear that we seek to work for a common cause and not make the mistake of attempting to co-opt their issue with ours.

This reality also helps inform all of us about what are real solutions and what are not. Any climate” solution” that is not helpful to vulnerable communities is not a solution. It can and will only perpetuate the problem by further marginalizing those most affected by climate change.

We also need to recognize that anything that empowers a disenfranchised community is going to help the climate issue, even if not directly. All struggles for justice and equality are climate struggles because the same forces created the status quo for the same reasons.

Equally, the “yeah but” arguments against climate action “because it hurts …” which some (principally the right wing) use are false. Anything that stops or delays climate action is hurting the more vulnerable populations directly and severely, not helping them. These are misunderstandings at best, in most cases they are outright lies.

The most paradoxical lesson is that a significant portion of the Republican base are also our natural allies. In North America the rural poor are just as much in the frontline of the consequences of climate change as the urban woman of colour is, but they have been largely co-opted. Somehow we need to find ways to reach those who at the moment seem to be among our most strident opponents.

Like sexuality, being a white man is not a choice; but for the Republicans, being stupid and fighting to preserve white male privilege is.

The War on Science is really just part of the struggle to preserve existing power inequities and we in the science community need to recognize that and fast. As it is we are often fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons for the wrong reasons.

John Stuart Mill


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