How to Address the New Age of Climate Denial

Written by Alex Casey | Published: November 19, 2021

How to Address the New Age of Climate Denial

A Summary of Key Takeaways from The New Climate War & Page Turners Book Club Meeting on November 18, 2021

In 1971, Keep America Beautiful ran a famous commercial known as the Crying Indian. The ad hired an Italian-American actor to play the role of Iron Eyes Cody, a Native American who paddled down an increasingly polluted river before walking toward a nearby highway. The commercial then cuts to a nearby car, where the driver rolls down his window and discards a paper bag filled with food wrappers. The ad cuts again to the ‘Native American,’ who by this point, has started to slowly cry.

Besides appropriating Indigenous culture to make its message more ‘authentic,’ this commercial was one of the first to borrow environmental rhetoric for the purpose of deflecting blame away from the most impactful polluters. Keep America Beautiful, a famous anti-litter organization, was funded by the U.S.’s largest beverage and packaging corporations, and later joined by Coca-Cola and Dixie Cup Co. Fifty years later, the underlying message of the commercial still haunts us: You are responsible for your consumption, and you have the power to reduce it, dispose of it properly, and make our collective future more environmentally just. We’ve seen this approach used by the National Rifle Association (“Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”), and in the tobacco industry’s use of “flammable furniture” as a scapegoat for cigarette-induced house fires.

The New Climate WarTo be clear, individual consumption is undoubtedly important to climate change — especially in high-income, high-consuming places like the United States and Europe. But individual impacts pale in comparison to the small fraction of the world’s fossil fuel corporations driving the climate crisis. According to the Climate Accountability Institute, just 20 companies are responsible for 35% of carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1965. Today, nearly eight billion people endure climate impacts for which a small number of polluting entities profit.

In The New Climate War, Dr. Michael Mann traces a history of targeted denial, disinformation, deflection, and doomism campaigns waged by the world’s largest polluters, or climate inactivists. These campaigns — aided by governments, lobby interests, and major corporations — have had broad success in maintaining business-as-usual, displacing blame on the individual, and halting impactful climate action. We talked about some of these campaigns at the most recent Page Turners Book Club meeting.

What to Watch Out For

If you’ve ever heard that geoengineering, nuclear power, or other technologies are our last hope to save the planet, think again. This is a common tactic used by climate inactivists who exploit people’s climate doomism to support potentially dangerous technofixes, according to Mann. Among other strategies, inactivists also try to sow division within the climate movement itself. In June 2020, Chevron and other fossil fuel companies used the Black Lives Matter protests to air a campaign about how the Green New Deal would hurt minority communities.

On the other hand, Mann argues that progressive, left-leaning climate policies that seek to integrate climate action with social justice initiatives often provide “irresistible” bait for climate inactivists and right-wing media. He cites the Green New Deal as an example of a policy that burdens the climate movement with a “laundry list” of social programs. He also critiques Naomi Klein, who has previously argued for overthrowing free-market capitalism as a means to solve both climate change and broader social injustices. Mann claims that both of these approaches undermine broader support for climate policy.

“Social justice is intrinsic to climate action,” Mann writes. “Environmental crises, including climate change, disproportionately impact those with the least wealth, fewest resources, and the least resilience. So simply acting on the climate crisis is acting to alleviate social injustice.”

Neither the Green New Deal nor Naomi Klein are perfect, but I found myself grappling with this sentiment. Acting on climate change alone does not always alleviate social injustice. Cap-and-trade, net-zero, carbon capture and sequestration; these are all terms and strategies touted by high-consuming countries that do very little to mitigate ongoing climate crises in low-consuming, vulnerable countries. If climate action does not simultaneously expand human rights, then it’s probably not serving those who need it most, and is not necessarily socially just.

Some Population Connection members expressed how the framing of climate change depends largely on the context and audience. People divorced from the hardest-hitting climate impacts are less likely to care about its social implications. Framing the issue as one that examines a collective personal stake — such as disparities in access to natural resources, changing agricultural patterns, and rising energy prices — is a more effective way to find common ground. 

Charting a Path Forward

Mann argues that global climate challenges today are neither tied to human intellect nor technological development; they stem from a lack of broader political will to change the status quo. Climate inactivists do everything in their power to refute scientific evidence, shift the blame to individuals, and construct their own versions of facts. So how do we, as a society, defeat deflection and effect tangible change?

The first step is viewing progress, however marginal, as a two-step-forward, one-step-backward, process. While governmental action against extractive industries is not happening nearly fast enough, if at all, there is hope to be found in youth-led collective action. In 2014, students at UC Berkeley staged protests to demand that the University divest from its fossil fuel holdings. Today, over a thousand college campuses across the U.S. have divested from their fossil fuel stocks — accounting for more than $11 trillion in holdings.

According to Mann, youth-led climate action that undermines deflection, division, delay, and despair-mongering campaigns is one of the best ways to create foundational change. Recentering conversations about climate change so that they emphasize ethical responsibility to future generations is also important — especially for older folks.

Population Connection members talked about some of the ways they sought to take individual action: phone banking, living in an ecovillage, driving electric cars, and voting. A few members argued that solving climate change meant changing the way humans interact with the environment, rather than furthering economic gain or consumption through market-based approaches.

Especially important to tangible climate solutions, according to Mann, is collective action that pressures governments toward broader systemic change. This can include behavioral change, incentivized by governmental policy, technological innovation, and binding intergovernmental agreements. By making these changes, governments can set the world on a trajectory for a more climate-stable and socially just future.

“We can not solve this problem without deep systemic change, and that necessitates governmental action,” Mann writes. “In turn, that requires using our voices, demanding change, supporting climate-focused organizations, and voting for and supporting politicians who will back climate-friendly policies.”

Here are some ways Population Connection members can get involved in climate justice on an individual level, while making a broader impact in your community:

  • Come to our book club meetings and virtual speaker series events to engage with experts on how to effect tangible climate action (they’re all free!)
  • Write letters to your local newspaper encouraging your community members to be more climate-conscious in their consumption habits
  • Donate your vehicle and go car-free!
  • Consider the climate benefits of smaller families, especially in high-consuming countries like the United States