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Feb 9, 2017

Rundle: why climate change activism has failed (and how it can be saved)

Increasingly, the excluded classes see science as abstract, alien and oppressive.


Five minutes before we were due to leave, while 40 or so of us were gathered on the open station platform, beneath the big Montana sky, the train exploded. Well, not the whole train. Not even the whole engine, a huge two-storey Amtrak beast with stairways and running boards, pulling 20 double-storey carriages and another engine. But they’d started the electrics up, the lights had come on and pftttang, a huge burst of sparks and bits of flying metal had come out of the stairwell we were about to board through. The conductors, burly men in their retro-chic choof-choof peaked caps, paled a little and looked at each other. One of them put on thick boots, and thick gloves to the elbow, climbed gingerly aboard, and switched the whole thing off.


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42 thoughts on “Rundle: why climate change activism has failed (and how it can be saved) 

  1. Wayne Robinson

    As a book eviscerating AGW denialism, I’d suggest Robert Henson’s ‘the Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change’. It’s not short, at 516 pages, but it does have the advantage that it has short clearly marked sections, such as the evidence for ‘is the planet really warming up?’ in chapter 1.

  2. aswann

    Agree with all this. Thing is climate change is just the tip of the iceberg – a discrete problem that is defined and tangible and measurable and it’s even easy to fix, in theory. Of course it’s a freaking crisis and most scientists I know are totally tearing their hair out. But many, many more crises are waiting in the wings as a result of the human population overtaking the earth, and they are going to keep coming thick and fast. What’s needed is not just a fix for climate change, which will become clear enough after metres of sea level rise and desertification, but an acceptance of the fact that if we want to keep living on this planet, we need to care for it and treat it seriously as the fragile life support system that it is. No time for magical thinking. I don’t know if the human psyche is capable of it, but if we put hyper rational robots in charge of the place it might be alright.

  3. ricowling@bigpond.com

    Would you also link fear of the educated to Mao’s Coultural Revolution and Pol Pots killing fields?
    Re succinct statement of Climate rebuttals etc, try looking through “Climate Spectator” back issues.

    1. aswann

      The thinkers are the most dangerous to such regimes, so are usually targeted first.

  4. Richard

    Good idea.
    Try Skeptical Science..
    Do you really think that most people would bother to buy such a book?
    If they can or will not trust scientifically literate friends, why would they shell out and have to read real ‘science’?
    Large part of the problem is the media dumbing down, with more emphasis on promiscuous and/or socially awkward people doing things to each other, than the really important issue of the survival of the species beyond the next season of “Married over smashed avocado drizzled with cucumber jus, after First Blind Fuck in the newly renovated Kitchen come Garden.”

    1. Wayne Robinson


      The complaint wasn’t that there’s no reference source on the Internet that dissects the false claims of AGW denialists (there are many). The complaint was that there’s no single volume bringing together all the arguments against the false and misleading claims.

      Obviously my suggested book won’t be read by AGW deniers to any great extent It might be read by people who are interested in learning about AGW. It would also be read by people who agree that AGW is happening, and will probably have dire consequences, and are looking for a single convenient reference source.

  5. Mildred

    A challenge for schools then

  6. Bob the builder

    Bullshit! Anyone in regular contact with the non-urban world knows the climate is changing and don’t need science to tell them. The fact that they don’t believe it is real is the victory of a massive corporate-funded propaganda campaign, not some disdain of science. People have just been told incessantly by people they find the least untrustworthy that climate change is bullshit. Most of those same people (in rural areas) would say GM is wonderful.
    It’s hard to credit “science” (as opposed to a more general knowledge-techno class) as being part of the ruling class given their utter failure to do almost anything about climate change – the big multinationals are still the ruling class, not their facilitators in the knowledge-techno class.
    I agree that their needs to be more robust activism – but less pious – but don’t agree about the green techno-fantasy. Life will not continue the same – just lots more solar panels and wind farms and everything squeaky clean – it will be fundamentally different and we have to prepare for a low-energy future. That work is equally important to activism, as when the shit hits the fan, the poor and vulnerable will be most hard hit.

    And about being able to repair something mechanically – a few short generations ago engines were the software of their day, baffling and unwelcome, the province of experts. Soon enough every tinkerer will carry a mini-diagnostics computer in their toolkit and be able to fix engines – in fact if you look online at car mod forums, that’s been happening for ages already.

    1. mainsbridge ray

      Try Twenty-eight Climate Change Elevator Pitches, by Rob Honeycutt of Skeptical Science and available through iBooks. Useful recent article on the book and what it’s trying to achieve by John Abraham in the Guardian.

    2. graybul

      Bob, . . . bless all the builders!

  7. mikeb

    This used to be on the Govt Climate Change website but is no longer there:

    1. Lord Muck

      Plimer is a dangerous man providing a very poor educational outcome at our expense. I know former geology students of his who peddle the volcano myth. If Plimer is still on the academia gravy train and lecturing, he should stick to lecturing on geology and pipe down on climate science – or first learn more about it.
      IMO the climate change revelation will unfortunately only come to the mass of people in the form of worse heat waves, akin to smokers only quitting once they are actually diagnosed with cancer. This may be a little too late.

  8. zut alors

    ‘ There’s something about a minor disaster, the interruption of failure, that is more enjoyable than the actual purpose of the trip itself.’

    Ain’t that the truth.

    An inspiring piece, Guy. All four suggestions (but particularly # 3) are practical and would be effective if implemented.

  9. Roger Clifton

    Good one, Guy. Such manifestos do exist, however partially. There’s Tom Blees’ “Prescription for the Planet” for one. They do need a common perception of urgency that is lacking so far.

    Indeed, there is denial in our own ranks. The experts at Paris COP21 said we must achieve “net zero emissions” in the lifetime of today’s rug rats. Instead our neighbours believe it sufficient to “reduce” emissions, mainly by converting from coal to gas. I’m including wind-backed-by-gas there, as it is so wasteful of gas as to be only a token reduction, but it is an ostentatious reduction, consoling our conscience. Even the Greens Party avoids demanding the elimination of “coal and gas”.

    Common perception of urgency will eventually be provided by a series of punishing disasters telling the world that the climate has turned angry.

    1. AR

      Wow, Dodger managed a whole post without gushing about his beloved nukes – there is hope for even the most deluded yet!

  10. Peter Strauss

    Thanks for having that conversation on the platform. Great article.

  11. Will

    I’m confused by your class analysis here, Guy.

    If the knowledge class is already the ruling class, then the class struggle is over. It’s won! The wealth class has been toppled, and rational climate policies can be instituted. There’s no need for the knowledge class to try to win allies among the middle and working classes to overcome the wealth class’s climate change denialism.

    Obviously not. When you say the knowledge class is the ruling class you don’t mean that in terms of actually being the controlling power in society. You mean that it’s the controlling power in waiting.

    But then, why would the lower classes ally themselves with the knowledge class to wrest power from the wealth class? Far more likely isn’t it that the wealth class will divide and conquer the knowledge class, and never lose controlling power to them?

    1. AR

      As one of the 19thC US railway robber barons,Jay Gould said, “I can always hire enough of the working class to coerce the rest.”.

  12. Robbo

    Guy with respect to your request for an “ephemeral pamphlet” setting out the rebuttals to the common climate skeptic denials, there is an Australian made app called Skeptical Science which tries to do this. Needs a bit more regular updating (eg a rebuttal of the “pause” referencing 2010 as the hottest year on record) but a good primer.

  13. Draco Houston

    I am increasingly hearing people say that they don’t care or believe in global warming because its a Scam to make money. My father’s fave handwavey dismissal of it all is currently ‘if it’s so important why is no one doing anything about it?’.

    Against that last point, I can’t argue world leaders are not being insincere when they talk about combating global warming. That is an Objective Fact any mug can see. What the hell is an ETS going to do? We’re going to decarbonize by burning methane? They’re just washing the coal and calling it green? Meanwhile we chop down big, very old forests.

    It would be easy to blame obstructionists of the elite strain of climate denialism, but I would also point the finger at the advocates for action against global warming. It has all been too little too late, unambitious programs and targets easily overturned by the next fossil fuel fan to come into power.

    It is probably easier to think it is just a scam than to believe as I do that there’s 0 chance to avoid ruining the world.

    1. Jackol

      That is an Objective Fact any mug can see. What the hell is an ETS going to do? We’re going to decarbonize by burning methane? They’re just washing the coal and calling it green?

      Maybe you should take Guy’s first point and apply it on the topics you want to rant about.

      The are potentially many different types of ETSs, to begin with, so it might help being more precise. If you mean a ‘cap and trade’ ETS, as we had but which was torn up, it works by (as the name says) setting a cap on emissions and allowing emitters to trade the permits issued between themselves in a way that provided a price on carbon emissions and encouraging those with the best, lowest cost, technology to use it to replace carbon emitting technologies (which they would need to purchase permits for) with lower emission technologies. Cap-and-trade is very attractive because you’ve got the goal front and centre – you issue the permits that meet the reduction commitment you have made as a country, and with rigorous auditing you can be confident you’ll meet that commitment. The commitment still requires an aggressive target setting, clearly, but as a tool to achieving the necessary transition an ETS is a good way to go. And it will “do” plenty in that respect.

      As for methane – it depends very much on where it comes from. Burning fossil methane is clearly not “decarbonizing”, although if it replaces coal burning then it represents an improvement – a transitionary measure, potentially. But methane is produced in other ways, and if we produce methane by using bacteria growing on the waste products of agricultural production, for example, then you potentially have a closed loop where carbon is extracted by the growing of plants for crops that are then turned into methane and burnt to return the same amount back to the atmosphere – it can be a zero net emissions technology, and of course doing so has the advantage of reusing existing infrastructure in terms of gas plumbing etc.

      I assume you were venting about fracking rather than actually making a point about methane.

      Coal, yes, clean coal is the stupidest concept ever. Coal burning we have to stop regardless of what else we do. No one who seriously wants to tackle AGW talks about clean coal.

  14. Will

    Which has got me thinking . . . .

    Schematically speaking, class analysis, per Marx, causally grounds power in the relative wealth of groups. Elite analysis, per Weber, digresses, causally grounding power in the relative superiority of individuals. Hence (as every undergraduate is taught), the expression ‘elite class’ is a category error: it conflates fundamentally opposing explanations for why power is unevenly socially distributed. And why also, where class analysis conceives emancipatory potential in class struggle, elite analysis foresees only failure – of worse – from any seizure of power by the (inferior) masses.

    Now, where does the concept of a ‘knowledge class’ fit here? It seems to causally ground power in the relative knowledge superiority of groups. It consequently looks neither Marxian nor Weberian, but instead like the product of their impossible mating: an ‘elite class’.

    Is this why Guy’s knowledge class is both the ruling class, and yet somehow not (and so needs class allies to prevail in the climate war)? Else, what purpose class struggle; and what point class analysis?

    Or, is the knowledge class simply the working class of a post-industrial society, because an automation-based economy requires predominantly mental rather than physical work? On the cusp of a post-industrial society (but only halfway there), to the industrial working class the knowledge class ‘look like’ new rulers (having so much more power than them), but they’re actually not. They’re just comparative class winners. When the transition to a post-industrial society is complete and no more of the industrial working class remains, there’ll just be a wealth-wielding ruling class, and a knowledge-wielding working class (with the likes of Nancy DeVos ruling over the US Education Department a sneak preview of that dichotomy).

    As much as I firmly believe that Marx asked well but answered poorly, I’m beginning to have some serious difficulty getting my head around this concept of a knowledge class, and specifically what it means politically in terms of emancipatory class struggle.

    1. AR

      TL;DR;too daunting – can you do a precis?

    2. Draco Houston

      Guy’s idea is not a new one, people were writing about this class as it was emerging in the early 20th century. Marx even remarked on how the capitalists were relinquishing their direct control of the production process, keeping it at arms length through publicly traded shares.

      A way to think about it is, like you’ve attempted, to relate it to the industrial proletariat. This class was actually quite powerful, due to their relation to production. No workers, no production, especially skilled workers who could not be easily replaced with scabs. But within the working class, there were individuals that you could characterize as a ‘labour aristocracy’. This is similar to how there are stinking rich people and small business owners and yet despite that gap in power they are both part of the bourgeoisie.

      Here especially the labour movement was a key part of society and all politics revolved in some way around them. Unions were able to integrate with the state to a degree rarely seen elsewhere. Through the movement and its party the labour aristocracy were, and in some ways still are, part of the ruling classes. This could happen at the same time as some random unskilled worker being exploited and having no direct control over society or even their own life as an individual.

      The ‘knowledge-culture-policy’ class relates to production differently than the working class, they don’t perform concrete productive labour directly, but facilitate it. The processes used for production are so complex that specialists, engineers, managers, bureaucrats, think tankers and Content Creators have become indispensable. In becoming indispensable, they were able to integrate with the state much like the Australian labour aristocracy. The upper crust of this class compete with the old labour aristocracy and bourgeoisie as one of the ruling classes.

      Like urban industrial workers and capitalists there are a mass of this new class that haven’t got much sway as individuals, but as a class they are mighty and have ways to throw their weight around. Different countries have a different balance of power between the classes, here we see it mostly expressed as a nanny state, in the US members this class are often appointed straight into the executive branch.

      You could consider this class a working class in -some- ways, because many of them do some sort of work. But they are distinct from the urban industrial worker just as much as proles are distinct from the old peasant class or artisans. They’re a different kind of worker for a different kind of work, and their interests do not always dovetail with that of the proles.

      1. Will

        Draco, I would give you an award in poetry if it were within my power.

      2. Peter Hannigan

        I really like the conception of knowledge workers as a new form of digital age working class that Will and Draco are suggesting. However what implicitly goes with that is that most of the rest of the population are ‘surplus to requirements’ – something loosely identified in Mitt Romney’s famous comment about the 47% who he and others saw as a nett drain on the economy in the USA. So for people who fall into the ‘surplus’ category what future do they see? Even if they are not fully conscious of it there would be plenty of messages that the current form of society does not want them.

        1. Bob the builder

          I think the knowledge workers are more like the 19th century knowledge workers – the middle class that weren’t managers, but lawyers, doctors and other ‘enablers’ and creators. In Russia they played a big part in the anti-serfdom movement, got sent to Siberia, created amazing literature, agitated against the predominant political structure – in the US they crawled up the greasy pole and deified ‘positive thinking’ and ‘getting ahead’.
          In the US they eat organics and worry about their kids socialising with the girl whose parents feed her hot dogs, think Clinton is a feminist icon and bury themselves in meaningless identity politics. In Australia they’re not quite as bad, but could go either way…

        2. Will

          It’s scary to think how large that ‘surplus’ of workers could be in a decade or two, Peter, as automation and robotics substantially replace physically work, and information technology begins to seriously replace even knowledge work (with everyone from accountants to lawyers to doctors apparently on the chopping block). A dystopian future of a tiny wealth-knowledge power elite ruling ruthlessly a great mass of knowledge-impoverished, minimally-placated (chemically castrated?) plebs doesn’t seem implausible. But then again, that power elite might just all hop on board a fleet of Elon Musk’s Space-X rockets, and leave the masses to deal with the Earth’s by then climate calamity as best they can.

          1. graybul

            @WILL. The scenario scoped by yourself and many others in projecting future challenges . . . indeed deeply challenging if not breath sucking scary. But would it be more scary than say beginnings of French Revolution when peoples literally given only one choice by then ruling class . . . die where they fell from starvation, or die on the streets? Our choices may not be so confined. A universal wage provided by government may address food and shelter concerns but would certainly fall short of purpose, self value and social, participatory and interactive recognition needs? In short: what would be the point of such an existence?

  15. AR

    I think I met “the new old new left..etc in, the 60s, 70s, 80s then again recently. Even they’d had the sense to recede from view in 1990-2010 rather than be run over by the digital bulldozer.

  16. zut alors

    Maybe there’s a silver lining to the current power outages in South Oz (&, potentially, in other states). When enough people can no longer rely on air conditioners &, stewing in their own juices during a heatwave, are confronted with the reality of Nature perhaps there will be sudden converts to the global warming theory. No pamphlets needed in that instance.

    1. Jim O'Pines

      More likely they’ll swallow the ‘renewables did this’ line and demand more coal-fired power plants pronto.

  17. Peter Renshaw

    This article misses the point that dominant vested interests in oil and coal remain commitment to a carbon economy and promote the misinformation and denialism that saturates public discussion. We now have the Trojan horse of “power security” as the tool to combat renewables and justify further coal-powered power stations. The tactics of climate activists pale into insignificance in this context.

  18. larry hill

    Bravo Guy, you should be the first in line to learn about climate science. The rot started in 2009 just before Copenhagen with the infamous ‘hide the decline’. Exactly how does one scientist explain to the great Montanans that three word phrase? Is there any other explanation other than if we have a piece of data which does fit the catastrophic warming script, then we will just hide it! Even the simple superstitious cowboys can understand the meaning of the word ‘hide’. Whenever did the great edifice of enlightenment science tried to hide anything??

    And while you are learning climate science, think on this? If 90-95% of the proposed warming imbalance is sequestered in the oceans with miniscule (hundredths of a degree) overall temperature effect, why would that not continue indefinitely? In fact why would it not continue until the earth’s imbalance turned to cooling, in which case the heat will come back out of the oceans and mitigate some of the atmospheric cooling on its way out to space? You might also learn about Stefan Boltzmann and how that law works to radiate heat to space in proportion to the 4th power of the Earth’s absolute temperature, which is a much more powerful cooling curve than the posited logarithmic warming effect of CO2 concentration, preventing any possibility of a ‘runaway greenhouse’ or catastrophic warming. Anyway Mick Mann is in Australia, so you might start lessons with him.

    1. Roger Clifton

      @ Larry Hill. The logarithmic warming curve is an empirical fit to the (partially absorbed) radiation getting through the atmosphere. It is an approximate fit to the theoretical Stefan-Boltzmann (two people!) Law that predicts that equilibrium temperature is proportional to the fourth root of the radiation in the cavity (atmosphere). Doubling the CO2 wont double the eq. temp. increase, but it does cause net warming, not cooling.

      Paris COP21 set a target of a maximum 2 kelvin increase in the equilibrium temperature instead of a maximum concentration of atmospheric CO2. You and I and the journos can track the concentration of CO2 on the “mean monthly CO2” graph at NOAA website. But we will need to be listening to our climate experts to notice the eq. temp. target looming.

      Get clear of your anti-science “friends”. They are no friends of our grandchildren.

  19. Reilly57

    The corn god still rules whatever Monotheists may think. A good season brings good crops and new children and bad one – misery. The bad seasons used to be cold outliers and now they are the hot dry ones. Coping with global warming will require the greatest income redistribution in human history. We have done it as tribes now we must do it as a global community. Nothing less will suffice. I wonder what odds Nate Silver would give for such a proposition prevailing. Good work Guy – the best writer/thinker on Crikey.

  20. Graham R

    It’s just not that hard to understand:

    1. We live, working people live, in a post-Enlightenment rational society that runs along planned and scientific lines

    2. That society fucks you up, stymies wages growth for 40 years, exports your job and imports foreigners to do the remaining jobs

    3. You abandon the rule of reason because it is doing you no good.

    Simple. That is why there is a new wave of dumbness in America. If reason doesn’t appear to work, let’s try superstition.

  21. Will

    Quite so, Graybul. Excluded from economic life, at best minimally placated with a universal wage, denied a public sphere’s access to state power, fed a fantastical diet of meaningless culture-industry distractions, and then (because, why not?) chemically castrated to prevent reproducing further such ‘pointless’ system burden. Hardly a future worth contemplating, I agree.

    So, what agent can lead in resisting this horror movie-worthy future? Obviously, not the industrial working class. It’s now seriously diminished as a political force in the West (but still serviceable as a wedge, as Brexit and Trump have just amply demonstrated). It just has to be the knowledge class. But it, ironically, has to learn what the industrial working class already ‘knows’: that such a grim, meaning-starved future is all that awaits it (unless it goes into action).
    Consequently, the knowledge class absolutely must NOT be taught (as Guy’s article argues) to self-define as the ‘ruling class’. That’s a recipe for passivity and self-satisfaction. They must rather be convinced that they are the last best hope of overcoming the ruling class – not to deliver communism, of course – but to deliver democracy.

    I don’t disagree though with any other single suggestion that Guy makes in his piece here though. In particular, the knowledge class must urgently turn to the working class as allies in the climate-culture wars (which is why green = jobs must be demonstrated, not merely promised). But first, by becoming self-aware that as a class they have usurped the position of the industrial working class in the power hierarchy of the West, they must recognise how distrusted they are (not by having become the defacto new ruling class, but – like all younger generations – by simply having technological progress on their side).
    The ruling class exists on account of its monopoly on wealth, not on knowledge. Knowledge isn’t power. Wealth is. Marx totally got that right. (And which is why postmodernism is almost entirely bunkum.)

  22. Graham R

    Everything else may happen, but chemical castration will not – otherwise who will provide the cannon-fodder for the next bankers’ war? The same reason we don’t just shoot the unemployed

    1. Will

      No. We’ve leave them to shoot up.

  23. CobargoArt

    As a rural dwelling, TAFE taught chemist/land manger/civil engineer I am caught in a maelstrom. Fiercely independent non-bureaucratic country people are contemptuous of government for a start, a result of perceived malfeasance in tax money distribution as applied to business, services and infrastructure. City folks, in their heat islands, are acutely aware of heat due to increased energy usage on thirty degree plus days. To country people this is simply climate variability. My approach has been to discuss the issue of climate change in calm and empathetic terms, it seems to work with all but die hard denialists. Frequently committed Christians. You are correct, know your stuff, simplicity and clarity are keys in bridging the knowledge gap.

  24. Gavin Moodie

    Do we really need ‘“flat ephemeral” pamphlets’ – wont blogs do, or even pdfs which can be printed if the reader wants?

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