The self-proclaimed climate change sceptics (a.k.a. contrarians, non-greenhouse theorists, etc.) are, in the greater scheme of things, really nothing more than a silly diversion. Spending too much time on them only results in a bruised head from excessive banging against recycled walls.
But as I’ve pointed out in a few recent posts, it is my firm belief that these climate cranks are not the real problem — not by a long shot. The biggest obstacle blocking meaningful action on climate change and securing a zero-carbon energy supply are those ‘well meaning’ people who on the one hand acknowledge the science of global warming and related problems of human impacts on Earth systems (often expressing their profound concern for the danger posed by worsening global change), yet on the other hand act in ways that indicate they understand or care nothing about its implications — or else they have constructed a form of self-delusion that ends up spawning the most damaging form of denial of all.
Whilst on my Xmas/New Year break, a family member showed me an interesting newspaper clipping that has further provoked my thinking about what causes this pervasive ‘denying while believing’ phenomenon. And the piece wasn’t about climate change — at least that was not its focus.
No, it was about the biggest news of 2008. As most of you would have already surmised, this was not global warming, environmental degradation or even the energy, water or food crises. Each of these got their fair share of attention, from time to time, but in the 2008 wash-up, all were swept away with the tide of media, political and societal interest (perhaps alarm or anxiety are better terms) surrounding the great global financial meltdown.
That’s what this newspaper article was about. It was called ‘Blame perversity for the meltdown‘, written by Fairfax columnist Leon Gettler (who has also written persuasively about global warming in other Op Eds). Please do read the original. But I think I can also illustrate nicely here how what Leon says about they psychology of managerial self-reward is equally applicable to our current bind in facing up to the climate crisis. The similarity of the two problems is, to me, quite striking. So let me paraphrase (with only a few key words/phrases changed, indicated in red, and some added hyperlinks):
THE market failure surrounding climate change has been blamed on greed, fraud and deceit; but the question is, why have they become so entrenched?
What’s been at play is the little-explored area of organisational perversity, collusion and turning a blind eye. In her book, The Perverse Organisation and Its Deadly Sins, RMIT academic Susan Long argues that organisations and corporations can create perverse systems, of which there are several forms.
First, there is the state of primary narcissism, where certain interests are pursued at the expense of the general good, and others are turned into objects to serve certain ends.
Second, there is a system where the awful truth is acknowledged and, at the same time, denied, echoing Freud’s view that there is a part of the personality that sees things realistically and another that is locked into a delusion.
Third, accomplices need to be seduced and set in place. These relationships need to be instrumental, turned into transactions. And perversion, she says, begets perversion. Which means collusion and turning a blind eye permeate the system.
Long sees organisational perversion working its way through the deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath and, in the case of captains of industry and politicians who represent shareholders, sloth and neglect.
Her thesis helps explain Labor’s climate change advisor Ross Garnaut’s mistake in thinking the Government would act to protect voter’s long-term interest over short-term special interests, ignoring the forces of primary narcissism.
In other words, he expected that forward-thinking decision-makers, presented with the chance to create an energy revolution and lead the world in working to fix climate change to boot, would focus instead on the greater good of society and not pursue their own interests. For Garnaut, it was a case of not letting reality spoil ideology. The ideologue turned into a zealot.
Long’s position also shows how the weakly regulated and opaque multi-trillion dollar global energy market, which allows companies to treat the atmosphere like an open sewer with no commesurate penalty, have left the climate system heading towards smoking ruins.
This was despite repeated warnings from the IPCC reviews over the last 18 years that human-cased emissions of greenhouse gases were geophysical weapons of mass destruction carrying dangers that, while so far relatively moderate in impact, are potentially lethal.
In similar keeping with the perverse system of acknowledging and denying reality, governments worldwide continue to embrace the WMD of carbon via deeply inadequate international climate treaties and distorted cap-and-trade systems which appear to regulate but actually do nothing to solve the problem.
The capacity to deny reality in the face of increasingly urgent scientific warnings tells us how governments and big businesses, intoxicated by years of fossil-fuel-derived profits, are allowed to continue to get away with emitting far more CO2 than the climate system can compensate for, and how they manage to convince voters that they are ‘striking the right balance’ when the climate system is hemorrhaging.
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Scientists tells us that the world’s climate system is teetering perilously and the fact that this advice is ignored shows what happens when governments and institutions pursue their own interests while ignoring the public interest.
The events of recent weeks have highlighted the need to overhaul governance and to stop the perverse systems. If nothing else, they have shown that a system where governments can pretend they are doing one thing but are actually achieving the complete opposite does not work. As Long’s thesis suggests, there needs to be more surveillance of political self-reward. Supervision by voters at occasional elections alone is not enough to deal with the perversity.
I’ll have more to say on this general problem early in the new year (with an example using ants!), because I think this issue, perhaps more than any other, really strikes at the core of the climate and energy dilemmas.
See you all in 2009.