The founding document of the AWL is a polemic against the passivity of the Militant tendency: “The patient is suffering from sleeping sickness and blurred eyesight. But Doctor Militant is obsessed with a patient who suffers from hysteria and an extra sensitivity to the light. The prescription? Sleeping pills and dark glasses!”
I was reminded of that image when reading Zack Muddle’s article in Solidarity 567 “Overdoing doom saps activism”. Commenting on my book review in Solidarity 565 he suggests (on the basis of a review of another work by Wallace-Wells with the same name) that The Uninhabitable Earth is “alarmist, imprecise/unclear and misleading”. The scientific criticism of the earlier 2017 article prompted New York Magazine to issue four minor corrections and publish a fully annotated version of the article. In a later face-to-face debate, Wallace-Wells’ most high profile and vociferous critic, world-renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, described the article as “excellent journalism”. Following the minor corrections, Mann was satisfied that Wallace-Wells’ science was sound. He would have preferred greater explanation of the different types of uncertainty about climate predictions: a fairly nuanced area of disagreement. To my knowledge neither Mann nor any other climate scientist has raised any concerns about the book.
Despite that, Zack’s purpose is to make a point similar to Mann’s early polemics: foregrounding the worst case scenarios is an irresponsible way of communicating climate science. It is an important debate about how to communicate climate science with three overlapping themes:
• Credibility — talk of worst-case scenarios creates a problem of credibility because often these scenarios are, by definition, based on uncertainty.
• “Scientific reticence” — some, such as NASA scientist James Hansen, have argued there are systemic biases that lead mainstream climate science to underestimate risk.
• Consequentialism — the worst case scenarios instil fear which in turn instils paralysis so its politically counter-productive.
For now I will focus on Zack’s main consequentialist argument. Michael Mann also made this the central criticism of the Wallace-Wells’ article. Mann based his position on research that showed “fear” of climate change is a poor motivator for support for green policy initiatives. What Mann fails to mention is that the same research finds the best emotion for engaging people in green policy initiatives is “worry”.
The authors explain that fear is a more intense emotion than worry, “typically experienced in response to a perceived immediate threat and primes the body for immediate action, including the fight or flight reflex.” Read in this light, Mann appears to be making the absurd claim that reading Wallace-Wells’ article could trigger an adrenaline-fuelled physiological panic response whereas his measured approach provokes a more productive low-level worry. The paper goes on to a banal conclusion that best combination of emotions for generating political engagement are worry and hope.
Both emotions concern our assessment of the future, how we perceive risks and potential opportunities. They are not mutually exclusive; you can experience worry and hope simultaneously. Deciding what is “most likely” within climate science is to a large extent a political, rather than a scientific assessment as it depends in large part on how much carbon is emitted. Mann’s criticism of Wallace-Wells boils down to the fact the original article did not clearly demarcate the uncertainty derived from not knowing how much carbon we will emit from the uncertainty contained within the science due to the limitations of climate modelling. This latter uncertainty is a key reason why Hansen and others have argued the case for scientific reticence: scientists are unsure how exactly ice sheets melt or when we will reach certain tipping points so they are reticent to speak about them. But Wallace-Wells’ worst case scenarios rest largely on the political uncertainty and a realistic appraisal that the political climate makes those worst-case scenarios much more probable.
Based on the past record, there is no indication that the current political order is going to stop emitting carbon or start sucking it out of the air. There are substantial political reasons to think that it will not: competition between nation states, private ownership and control of land and other means of production, the wealth and political clout of the fossil fuel industry, the dependency of so much infrastructure on fossil fuels etc.
Michael Mann is a very courageous man who has been at the forefront of defending climate science against denialists. He has received death threats and taken on powerful interests in court. Interestingly, he has argued strongly for discussing the “fat tail of climate risk”: precisely what Wallace-Wells has done with this book.
But it seems to me that Mann, like many climate scientists, is politically utopian: he believes in a magical political fix in the same way that many bourgeois politicians believe in a magical technological fix. His approach also strikes me as being similar to the stereotypical right wing trade union bureaucrat: painting false illusions in the reasonableness of the capitalist class and over-stressing the importance of messaging and the art of persuasion. Mann hopes his precision messaging will mobilise world leaders. Zack’s approach is a left-wing version of the same mistake. Zack’s wishes to avoid discussion of worst case scenarios because he believes it will provoke despair among workers who might otherwise be mobilised into action.
At root it is an argument about optics. But feelings of despair and impotence do not come from knowledge about the worst-case scenarios. They come from a lack of effective political strategy. If your strategy has to manage the messaging so tightly that it fades out the worst-case scenarios, then it is probably an inadequate strategy. Hope surely lies in a political strategy that is robust enough that it can succeed regardless of occasional flaws in presentation.
The reality is that the left, including the AWL, has not even begun to explore what the most likely climate-change scenarios might mean for the future shape of politics and working-class struggle, let alone developing political strategies to respond to a warming world. To give one example, a recent editorial of Solidarity argued that the recovery from coronavirus should involve “green jobs” that “curb carbon emissions”.
It seems to me that the equation of “green” with “reducing carbon emissions” is an old habit that radically underestimates the new reality. Turning productive life to adapt to a warming world is now a much bigger task than merely curbing emissions and has been for some time. Ten years ago Mike Davis wrote “worldwide adaptation to climate change, which presumes trillions of dollars of investment in urban and rural infrastructures of poor and medium income countries, as well as the assisted migration of tens of millions of people from Africa and Asia, would necessarily command a revolution of almost mythic magnitude in the redistribution of income and power.”
This is surely what is meant by climate change as “hyperobject”. It is not impossible to understand, but a future that necessarily requires a “revolution of almost mythic magnitude” is nevertheless hard to grasp, to think about and face squarely. Its hard to break down the complexity into some tasks for political activists to engage in today that might open up the possibility of that future. It is hard even to keep up with the shifting curve of probabilities, where every day the most hopeful scenarios are foreclosed as possibilities and the most extreme catastrophes become more likely.
In his book 1905, Trotsky says: “Russian Marxism can be truly proud of the fact it was alone in pointing out how things were likely to develop, and predicted the general forms of that development at a time when Russian liberalism was living on a diet of the most utopian of ‘realisms’ and Russia’s revolutionary populists nourished themselves on fantasies and a belief in miracles.” Precisely because climate change will dominate the future and so radically change life on Earth, we have the potential to “predict the general forms of development” with some clarity. Because we understand history as a process of class struggle and have assimilated the lessons of past workers’ struggle, we have the potential to see the social consequences and political dynamics of the coming period with more clarity than the climate scientists or our political opponents.
But that work has barely begun. Hope will come from developing a political strategy, rather than utopian dreams of a political or technological fix that will happen independently of our efforts, generated from unknown unknowns.
I remain convinced that study of The Uninhabitable Earth will aid that effort, but if Zack’s comments have dampened your enthusiasm then Michael Mann has a new book out in January. Heterodox Trotskyists should read one or the other, or both, and set our minds to tackling the issue that will completely dominate the future.