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4 lessons from climate history
Surprising learnings from a deep dive into a century of talking about climate change
Over the last two months, I’ve been working on the research for the 8-hour show I’m building around the upcoming IPCC assessment report.
This has meant going back and catching up on lots of stuff from the last century or so that we’ve been talking about climate change. Scientific breakthroughs, international treaties, protest movements, fossil fuel influence campaigns, the whole saga.
From this mass of reading and writing, a few surprising lessons have emerged. Here’s my top four.
1. CLIMATE CHANGE IS BORING
For most of my life, people have treated climate change as if it’s a subject best left alone - boring, depressing and guilt-inducing.
This has never made sense to me. Growing up around climate scientists, my relationship with the subject of climate was always charged and electric. I encountered global warming through passionate researchers arguing with each other about ecological tipping points, ancient collapsed civilisations, military threats, venal politicians, a whole world coming unstuck from its moorings.
The climate conversation was populated by heroes and villains, threaded with urgent drama. A federal politician calls my house at dinnertime to shout at my dad about the contents of a new climate report. On school holidays I go to visit an atmospheric research lab, and in the basement I see a hi-res computer model, bringing the planet’s weather into shocking focus. It was intense, frightening, absurd, but never boring.
In part because of that, I missed a lot of the more traditional ways that people learned about climate change. Now as part of this project, I’m catching up. This month, I finally watched An Inconvenient Truth (2006). At last I understand why so many people assumed climate change was dull.
All respect to Al Gore, the man has done outstanding work, but 90 minutes of slow, repetitive explanations of CO2 rise accompanied by footage of calving glaciers just left me numb. I’m glad the film exists, but I don’t blame anyone who saw it for associating climate change with polar bears and being lectured on your lifestyle by a wealthy politician in a private jet.
ASIDE: As part of my commitment to immersing myself in mid-2000s climate discourse, I went as far as watching the footage of Melissa Etheridge winning the Oscar for Best Original Song for her Inconvenient Truth theme song, ‘I Need To Wake Up’. Something about the banter between John Travolta and Queen Latifah here made me genuinely wonder if someone had spiked my drink:
From the vantage point of 2023, though, the most surreal moment of the film is the very end. Having spent 90 minutes telling us how desperate the global situation is, Gore concludes by saying, ‘But there’s something YOU can do:’ …and then holds up a lightbulb.
Remembering how much political energy was squandered in the 2000s on changing lightbulbs is a pretty queasy feeling. And speaking of…
2. PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN INDUSTRY TACTIC
In climate activist circles, there’s a perpetual debate about whether we should focus energy on minimising our personal impact or on systemic change. It’s kind of a red herring, because anyone you speak with seriously about it will say ‘we need to do both’. It’s impossible for us to address a global issue as individual consumers - but at the same time, we can’t solve the global issue without reducing the amount we consume.
Naturally, corporations and fossil fuel lobbyists argue that personal responsibility is the whole story. Right-wing pundits love to decry hypocrisy in activists, arguing that because an activist caught a plane or eats meat, they are disqualified from having an opinion on climate. It’s well known that BP promoted the concept of the personal carbon footprint, as a way to take the focus off their own business decisions.
What surprised me was how far back this tactic goes.
In 1971, on Earth Day, a group called Keep America Beautiful launched an ad campaign with the theme "People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It." In what later became known as the "Crying Indian" ad, the television spot features Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody as a Native American man devastated by the thoughtless pollution and litter of modern society.
Keep America Beautiful, the group behind the ad, was a consortium of glass and can manufacturers such as the American Can Company, the Continental Can Company, and Owens-Illinois Glass Co. Their campaign goal was to shift the blame for pollution on to consumers, while they actively opposed legislation that would make them return to reusable bottles. The Crying Indian ad is often regarded as the first piece of greenwashing.
This is not to absolve us of any responsibility regarding the impacts of our lifestyles. And the carbon footprint is a very useful concept - I recommend everyone try one of the online carbon footprint calculators (it takes less than five minutes), just to get a sense of where your biggest impacts are.
But it’s worth noting that this message has a long and successful history as a tactic used by companies to shift blame - carbon offsets being the latest iteration. It works very well to limit climate activism by making it seem hard, self-denying and exclusive.
In fact, the climate movement isn’t worried about policing your every lifestyle decision - believe me, there’s more important work to be done.
Eat a burger! Catch a flight! Just get involved. Spend less time apologising for your own life choices, and more time on the phone to your local politician making them answer for theirs.
3. THERE HAVE BEEN TWO PHASES OF CLIMATE DENIAL
From the 1970s to the 1990s, denying the science of climate change was a business proposition. Fossil fuel companies were scared of regulation, and so they funded scientists who were willing to say that global warming was not a threat. The better the scientist, the stronger the case. So in this era, the fossil fuel lobby sought out scientists with strong reputations, who could argue their case in an intelligent, coherent way.
By the turn of the century, the evidence for global warming had mounted to the point that no climate denier could be taken seriously in scientific circles. The ‘skeptics’ ranks had dwindled to a few cranks and frauds, and fossil fuel companies started distancing themselves from them. Even Exxon-Mobil reduced its funding for climate denying thinktanks.
But the middle of the 2000s saw a new generation of climate denier emerge. Instead of well-regarded scientists looking for a pay-cheque, the new deniers were climate amateurs - hobbyists, obsessives, trolls, shock journalists and outrage pundits. The reward for these deniers wasn’t money, but attention and notoriety. Climate denial had shifted from being a calculated way for industry to avoid regulation to becoming a core part of a certain political identity.
That shift is now complete. Denying the science of climate change is now a fundamental part of a whole package of beliefs of a certain identity, alongside beliefs about gender and race. And like other core beliefs, for those committed to it, that means that the reality of climate change is not something that can be altered by evidence.
The lesson for us here is that no amount of heatwaves, bushfires, floods, storms or rising seas will alter that belief. Climate denial will be with us for another generation at least. And those who hold that belief will inevitably look for other explanations for the rapid climate destabilisation we’re experiencing.
I predict that the conspiracy theories blaming climate activist ‘arsonists’ for spreading bushfires will gain strength in the next few years.
4. CLIMATE SCIENTISTS ARE STYLE ICONS
I did not expect this, but maybe the most critical lesson I’ve taken from the last month is that climate scientists are stylish as hell. These are looks we should all aspire to.
ADDENDUM: My brother Chris took me to task for my Inconvenient Truth critique. Here's what he said:
I'm gonna tentatively stick up for Gore a bit here.
The mid-2000s was dominated by a mainstream media fascination with he-said/she-said arguments about climate science. ABC's Lateline, for example, would typically have a climate sceptic and a climate scientist on for an extended formal interview. The conversations were about the hockey stick graph, the medieval warming period, validity of weather models. That's the political context within which Inconvenient Truth came along. It was a message pitched at the policy-making class and engaged public. The message was that it's no longer respectable to debate climate science. The science is settled and impetus for the public (and policy making class) is to take policy action to deal with it.
Of course it turned out that science being settled did not mean people would accept policy action to deal with it, and the rationalist 'third-way' solutionism that Al Gore might have envisioned would solve the problem clearly failed. However, we can say this with the luxurious benefit of 15+ years of hindsight. It was genuinely impossible to know that the impending GFC, long-term wage stagnation, the rise of China and the effects of social media would spawn an anti-politics/populist trend that would make climate policy making an electoral risk. Maybe instead if we had maintained ~2004 era economic growth rates for another decade or two, then Gore's approach would actually have worked fine.
And Inconvenient Truth certainly didn't propose any solutions. Although I wonder what Net Zero decarbonisation pathways were kicking around in 2006. A 2023 version of Inconvenient Truth by contrast could speak in granular detail about the precise mix of renewable deployment. But to judge him in his era, he surely comes out pretty solidly. I can't think of a single politician of a similar level of seniority in any country in the past 20 years who has identified themselves with climate as their main issue.
All fair points. And credit to Gore, his TED talk last month entitled ‘What The Fossil Fuel Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know’ goes as hard as you’d hope.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
I’m currently in Germany, hacking away at the scaffolding for the upcoming 8-hour finale to the You’re Safe series. As ever, grappling with a big writing project is an existential thing, so I’m having fun facing my insecurities and having minor crises every day or two.
I don’t think suffering, fear and self-doubt is a necessary part of pulling off a big project - but I’ve also never made anything good without experiencing all three. So I’m clocking my hours every day, writing as much as possible in notebooks to avoid screens, sticking index cards to the wall, and telling myself over and over that something good must come of this. We shall see.
Scripts for sale
In the meantime, as I shared last month, you can now buy scripts from my website.
Thanks to Karmin Cooper and New Best Friend, I now have an online shop where you can purchase three of my best works: Scenes from the Climate Era, 44 Sex Acts In One Week and Kill Climate Deniers.
These ebooks have been beautifully designed by New Best Friend, with intro essays by Eamon Flack, Eleanor White and Julian Hobba. Dive in!
Stephen Markley - The Deluge
I just finished this 900-page slab of a climate novel. It’s deeply US-centric, but in its detail and imagination I found it a total rush. A great counterpoint to Ministry of the Future, in that it charts roughly the same time period (early 2020s to late 2040s), but with a very different attitude towards politics.
Stars of the Lid - The Ballasted Orchestra
Brian McBride of Texan duo Stars of the Lid passed away last month, which is a good reason to go back and listen to everything they ever released. In the world of ambient drone, these records are all-time favourites - I’ve spent so many hours lost in their weightless, uneasy, narcotic bliss. Phil Sherbourne put together a great primer of some of their highlights, or else you can start with Ballasted Orchestra, my personal fav. I named a play after Sun Drugs after a song on this album, and I’ve spent plenty of 3:57am’s listening to Fucked Up (3:57am). Do it, do it.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.