Everybody knows that change is happening, but thanks to the fossil fuel economy, we are all having such a good time.
In describing Canadian politician Maxime Bernier recently, I called him a climate arsonist. A reader complained:
My first thought was, yes, climate murderer is not bad, not far off the mark; it does come next. But let's deal with two other terms first.
What the heck is a "climate arsonist"? Are we inventing new terminology now because "denier" has a negative connotation? What comes next after that? Climate murderer?
Perhaps a decade or two ago, one could accept that there might be climate skeptics, who honestly questioned the science of climate change and whether it was happening at all. Then you got climate deniers, who in the face of all evidence said 'it's orbital mechanics or sunspots or this always happens.'
It is hard to believe that today anyone still believes that nothing is happening or that it is sunspots. What we have now are people who just don't care, or have other interests that take priority. Arson defined in Wikipedia:
Arson is the crime of willfully and maliciously setting fire to or charring property. Though the act typically involves buildings, the term arson can also refer to the intentional burning of other things, such as motor vehicles, watercraft, or forests.
Climate Arson was a term I first heard from Seattle architect Mike Eliason, who used it on twitter to describe people who go beyond simply denying the reality of climate change, but through their actions actually abet it. A climate arsonist knows that what he is saying isn't true, but willfully does it anyway for personal or political gain. But perhaps it is not the best term; others are making the same point with "climate nihilist." Bernier, and American politicians who put the fossil fuel industry ahead of climate, probably fit in this. Charlie Smith wrote in the Georgia Straight last year:
At the root of climate nihilism is the endless pursuit of fossil fuels to power the economy, regardless of the ecological consequences.... The nihilists are basically saying: "To hell with carbon budgets in the Paris climate agreement. To hell with scientists raising alarm bells about the melting of the polar caps and ice on Greenland. To hell with farmers who are not going to have water to irrigate crops. To hell with the billions of people who rely on rivers fed by glaciers for their drinking water. To hell with plant and animal species that are going extinct. To hell with those who have to endure more intense hurricanes. We simply don't care."
The NRDC notes that climate nihilism is prevalent in the American government too. Last year, when gutting the fuel efficiency standards, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that the planet was warming, but that reducing carbon emissions from cars wouldn't make much of a difference, but would make cars cost more. So why bother? Jeff Turrentine writes about the difference between skepticism, denialism, and nihilism:
This is, to put it mildly, a twist on the usual rules of engagement between those who advocate for climate action and those who don’t. We’re used to fighting skepticism. But outright nihilism? That’s a new one.
We’ve been rebutting climate change deniers—and their faulty data and conspiracy theories—for years, and as disturbing as it is to see their ilk installed in the executive branch, we at least have a template for fighting back: Lead confidently with the science, never let a bogus claim go unchallenged, and have faith that truth will ultimately win the day.
But how are you supposed to respond when those who oppose climate action actually do accept the science behind global warming, and do understand that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind . . . but simply don’t care?
It is likely that, in fact, some of them do care, but they are making a choice. As Vaclav Smil noted in his book Energy and Civilization, fossil fuel energy drives everything, and the more we have of it, the cheaper it is, the more the economy booms.
To talk about energy and the economy is a tautology: every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows.
There is barely an aspect of our lives that doesn't involve fossil fuels, from the fertilizers on our cornfields to the plastic packaging that we get our food and everything else in to the transportation systems that deliver it all. There is probably barely a job in this country that doesn't depend on fossil fuels in some way. Fossil fuels have made us what we are, as Smil notes about our transition to an economy based on them:
By turning to these rich stores we have created societies that transform unprecedented amounts of energy. This transformation brought enormous advances in agricultural productivity and crop yields; it has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments have combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that have created a great deal of real affluence, raised the average quality of life for most of the world’s population, and eventually produced new, high-energy service economies.
No wonder these protests are probably wishful thinking, and why almost every politician is ultimately a climate nihilist; it is all just a matter of degree. Bill de Blasio isn't willing to do anything more than Donald Trump when it comes to dealing with cars; Justin Trudeau isn't willing to do anything less than Maxime Bernier when it comes to building pipelines; they know they won't get elected because every voter who has a job and a car has a stake in the energy economy, and the alternatives are too difficult to contemplate. As Smil concludes:
Such a course would have profound consequences for assessing the prospects of a high-energy civilization—but any suggestions of deliberately reducing certain resource uses are rejected by those who believe that endless technical advances can satisfy steadily growing demand. In any case, the probability of adopting rationality, moderation, and restraint in resource consumption in general and energy use in particular, and even more so the likelihood of persevering on such a course, is impossible to quantify.
This is why climate denier is no longer strong enough. I like climate arsonist, and it was coined by a friend, but climate nihilist is actually a better term. These people know the consequences of their actions, have decided that it is in their own interest, and the interest of a large enough number of voters, not to care. And inevitably, at some point, I will be calling them climate murderers.