In post-truth politics, lies become “alternative facts”
This newsletter is heavier in outward-looking content than usual. This reflects all we have to process in these times. But, as always, it has three objectives: to collect the news, to offer a psychological commentary and to highlight CPA’s activities.
At the end there are details of CPA’s plans for an exciting and innovative members and guests day on 10th June. Do check this out and save the date.
To ensure it is not lost, here is a headlining of the statement near the end of the second section of this letter:
“Climate psychology has a role to play, starting with a recognition that there is as much scope for a fatal denial of the political process which we are witnessing as there is for denial of climate science.”
We are reeling, our CPA colleagues in the US even more, from the daily, or more than daily, unfolding of what the current presidency holds. In post-truth politics, lies become “alternative facts”, Reuters crowd photos denounced as fake and the press corps castigated for making embarrassing comparisons between the presidential inauguration crowds and Women’s March numbers. White House press secretary Sean Spicer is known to be pugnacious, but not previously a liar, which tells us something about the new White House culture. On his first assignment he gagged and bullied the reporters, tacitly invited the President’s supporters to disbelieve the photographic evidence and (as later research seems to confirm) sowed confusion amongst the undecided. It looked like a leaf from the Kremlin’s book. If this is the shape of things to come, as predicted by Paul Hoggett’s article ‘The Birth of a New World (Dis)Order’ we can be all the more sure of an increase in the mischief being made with more complex issues such as climate change.
Messengers like climate scientist Michael Mann have been getting shot at for years – metaphorically and with literal threats. Whilst he has recently obtained some legal protection from defamatory attacks, the undermining of science looks certain to get worse. NASA, with its unique and impressive array of data collection satellites, is already on notice that its climate monitoring funds will be curtailed. War against commercially inconvenient science has been prosecuted for decades. Now it has become official. It can be hard to resist despair. Scientists have already begun fighting back and this effort will need to grow.
The bad news is mounting daily and this newsletter will be out of date by the time it is sent. At the time of writing, the administration had just issued a directive to the EPA freezing all grants and contracts. There may still be doubt in some minds as to just how seriously we should be taking all this - is it a step toward Oreskes and Conway’s dystopic vision of a future where climate scientists are being prosecuted for their anti-social message? Or is it more like the story of Elvis Presley in a drug- or alcohol-fuelled rage shooting his TV with a hand gun because he was annoyed by what it was broadcasting? But these takes on what is happening are not mutually exclusive – the clearly infantile elements in the new President’s character attract widespread ridicule, but that by no means guarantees failure of the machine that is now running the executive branch of American government. The man and the machine may self-destruct as with Watergate - the recent West Wing leaks suggest that morale amongst White House staff is low and confusion is high. In the meantime a growing fear after one week of the presidency was that authoritarian populism is heading towards dictatorship. The resilience of the US constitution looks like being tested as never before. Ridicule can be a strong weapon in open societies, but there are examples in history of it accompanying a disastrous under-estimation of threats that were all too real.
Even the prospect of a DT with access to the nuclear weapon codes didn’t prevent his election. The much more gradual climate threat, whilst it has already hit the United States repeatedly, is easier to dismiss. "The strong man will keep us safe and sweep away nonsense" was the successful message. Madonna had a bad press for her lack of clarity or gravitas and fantasies of dynamiting the White House. But aren’t many of us silently hoping that there is a conspiracy within the American high command to neutralise DT if restraint fails? The very posing of such a question reflects the malignity of what we are beholding and its borderline psychotic tinge. That borderline element surely feeds on a widely sensed, if generally repressed, knowledge that we are well down a road of self-destruction.
This Is War
Liberal politicians and activists, whole countries in the front line of climate disruption, civil rights campaigners, women, racial minorities, climate scientists, environmentalists, the left-leaning media are all having to wise up rapidly to the reality of a war on reason and justice. We’re talking now about the USA but it’s not contained. The situation demands overcoming our liberal abhorrence to any notion of war, our desires for a quiet harmonious life. It means ensuring that any beliefs we hold in the inherent goodness of humanity do not blind us to the current reality. It means understanding what the perceived enemies and targets are of this reactionary ascendance. It means knowing what the weapons and powers are that are being used or are likely to be used. It means a lot of thought and action about our own options. Climate psychology has a role to play, starting with a recognition that there is as much scope for a fatal denial of the political process which we are witnessing as there is for denial of climate science. Those of us who hold dialogue and empathy as core values need to recognise that we are confronted with a deadly struggle for the highest of stakes.
What would it Take to Mobilise Sensible Republicans?
This might just be the most important political question of all. An earlier newsletter quoted Ricken Patel’s phrase ‘the corporate capture of government’. This article by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democratic senator for Rhode Island gives inside confirmation and an elaboration of the fossil fuel lobby’s financial stranglehold. He reckons that the only solution is for the corporate ‘good guys’ to counteract this. George Marshall would say we need to appeal to their emotions and values, but Whitehouse’s point is that the sums of dirty money involved outweigh every scruple in the recipient and that, given the way that US politics are saturated in money, there is no alternative but for counter-funding to underpin the political survival of those who would like to break free.
The Darkest Hour
One of the most optimistic UK press articles about the USA political scene in recent days came, surprisingly from Owen Jones. He envisages a rebirth of the American left. Jones makes the point that there are non-malign versions of populism, adding that DT’s position is quite weak. The Democrats, he argues, must now pay proper attention to how well Bernie Sanders did in the primaries; they must abandon compromised centrism, give their own serious thought to those in the country who have felt forgotten as well as those who now feel most threatened. Naomi Klein makes a similar point about the weakness of DT’s position in this typically incisive article. She adds that the sickening preponderance wrong-doers in the administration is actually a sign of fear, in the face of the opposition that had been mobilising against them. One question which this leaves for us to consider is whether the Democrats have it in them to fully embrace the issue of climate change and to seriously fight the perception that it’s a luxury item, a preoccupation of the liberal elite – people who are supposedly free from anxieties about housing, jobs or health. Given that it remains such an inconvenient truth, this would be a leap of faith and courage. At the heart of it is that climate change has massive implications for housing, jobs, health and food, but that needs spelling out carefully. Sanders’ voice on climate change is as clear and strong as ever – witness his interrogation of Scott Pruitt at the latter’s confirmation hearing for the EPA job. But that voice does not hold decisive power in the current political climate.
Another critical point in Paul Hoggett’s article is that, just when we were agreeing that outright climate denial was giving way to softer forms of avoidance, cynical denialism and shameless public lying is back with a vengeance. Jones’s analysis could be taken to suggest that we are witnessing the darkest hour before a new political dawn, but even this view accepts as inevitable yet more delay and weakening of action, on top of the lost decades engineered by the fossil fuel industry and its friends. We might be seeing the last surge of denial, preceding a new sense of reality and willingness to act, as Porritt predicted for just these years. The opposing possibility is that, at the very time when the chances of containing the climate emergency appear to be slipping away if not already gone, the out-and-out denialists in America have triumphed in their promotion of ignorance, confusion and wishful thinking. What we can be sure of is that they have every intention of consolidating their position.
One of the undeveloped ideas behind CPA’s November 2016 conference on climate leadership was to consider the possibility that market democracies are a busted flush when it comes to any hope of serious climate action. This is both a debatable and complex matter. Is the “corporate capture” to be seen as endemic in market democracies, with covert influence and power just another market force – inevitable but not open? A linked but different question has recently been posed by the English Conservative John Gummer, a stalwart of the Committee on Climate Change who has recently argued that it is the twisting of the market in favour of fossil fuels and failure to price in their true costs that is at the heart of the problem. His point is true but the fact remains that market capitalism, whatever benefits it has delivered, has never been a reliable source of human or ecological protection.
China affords us an opportunity to judge a different system. Just as there are different forms of populism, there are many degrees and versions of dictatorship. Again it is a complex picture, with multiple human rights issues that are troubling to a Western eye. On carbon emissions, the devastating health consequences of poor air quality from coal burning are probably still the most powerful social driver of change. And talking of leaves out of books “China First” is, by many measures, a precursor of “America First”. But enlightened self-interest is by definition a hell of a lot better than the murderous self-interest of the American fossil lobby. The final weeks of 2016 saw a number of speeches, urgings and leadership claims on climate from the Chinese government. More recently, President Xi Jinping, at a UN meeting in Geneva, sent a coded message to the USA government-in-waiting to get real. China must now demonstrate how far and how fast in can go, both in following its own advice and in rallying global support. Both objectives will be a challenge, given the country’s still colossal dependence on coal.
Believers in a miraculous ramping up of climate action, despite the headwinds from Washington, also cite the progress of individual cities and states in America, including Republican ones, which are leading the way on renewable energy. They point to the fact that the energy markets have been moving decisively in that direction and regard promises to revive the coal industry as undeliverable. These views align with the messages from COP 22 in Marrakesh that the rest of the world will not be daunted by the attitude of the current US government. It is just conceivable that adversity will serve as a spur, but those adverse winds are blowing in Britain and Europe too. Even in the more hopeful atmosphere of 2015, we were nowhere near a global deal on transport or agricultural emissions, carbon pricing or curtailing extraction. We should not be surprised at conclusions by scientists that there is no longer a cat in hell’s chance of achieving the arbitrary 2 degree heating limit, despite that being well into the danger zone. This stark headline was drawn by Andrew Simms, from a large sample of climate scientists. Andrew will be the guest speaker at CPA’s annual Members Day in London on 10th June 2017.
In a 23rd January Carbon Brief interview with Leo Hickman, Labour MP Barry Gardiner condemned suggestions that 2 degrees is now implausible as a “counsel of despair”. There’s a little psychological riddle here, similar to that attaching to Clive Hamilton’s 2010 title Requiem for a Species, which has drawn the same criticism. These dire “conclusions” can be read as serving a similar purpose to a paradoxical injunction in psychiatry. Though the message sails close to the wind, one senses that the motive is not to engender despair. On the contrary, by pointing starkly to the course we’re on it seeks to concentrate the mind of the recipient, with a challenge to think hard about the choices that remain. This takes us back to very familiar territory: to not be frightened at the moment requires ignorance or delusion, but if fear just evokes demoralisation or a defensive reaction then nothing useful is achieved.
A brief Update on the Science
Reports of Arctic temperatures some 20 degrees above the norm were coming thick and fast late last year. Here is a small news sample, the first “The Arctic is Unravelling” – Bob Berwyn for Inside Climate News, and two other items: methane surge – Jonatan Amos for the BBC, ‘atmospheric rivers’ and deadly floods – Ian Johnston for the Indy.
More about Emotion
“I’ve maintained a wall between my job and my emotional response to it, but this month I’ve felt dread rising about looming disaster, and it’s an awakening.”
Michael Slezak, climate journalist writing in The Guardian.
CPA has played its part in challenging the dissociation, the taboo which seeks to exclude emotion from the communications of scientists. Ro Randall’s and Paul Hoggett’s work with climate scientists included a question about what it feels like to be dealing with such information and to have it ignored, distorted or pilloried. The tensions can only have grown in the context of post-truth politics and media and the subject of how climate scientists feel has become more visible. The recent signs of increased militancy amongst them are part of the picture. John Richardson’s 2015 Esquire article about Jason Box (who featured in Di Caprio’s ‘Before the Flood’) recounts the scientist’s publicised alarm at what he was discovering in the Arctic, his move from climate-denying America to Denmark and his fear of losing his job there (despite it now being in one of the most climate-aware countries of the world). He was reprimanded for speaking too bluntly and over-alarming the population. Small surprise that he has since become more wary in his public utterances.
Lest we Succumb to Hate
Broadly speaking, depth psychology recognises hate as an existential fact, a normal and necessary, though highly variable and often dangerous response to certain situations. To condense centuries of reflection on the matter, the trick is to stay self-aware and not to lose ourselves in our own hate responses or be trapped by the hatred coming our way from outside. 350.org’s ‘Bridges not Walls’, The Climate Coalition’s recurrent campaign ‘Feel the Love’ and Michelle Obama’s ‘They go low, we go high’ are all in their different ways calls not to succumb to hate. In these days of war, there is an essential and difficult balance to be found between the hate, objectively and subjectively, that we need to feel and the humanity we must retain.
Climate Psychology Alliance – the Work Goes on
CPA, following its successful leadership conference last November, is in a phase of multi-level expansion. This involves meetings and small events, publications and collaboration with a growing number of groups and people around the world. Building on the involvement of colleagues in America over several years, we are looking forward to the launch of CPA-USA. What our unique character and contribution is and how we can best hone that is a matter of constant questioning and renewal. More concrete announcements will follow.
CPA Members (and Guests) Day – Saturday 10th June 2017 - a Date for your Diary!
Theme for the day: Stories of Climate Change
Guest Speaker Andrew Simms: Telling Better Stories
Provisional venue: The Guild of Psychotherapists, Nelson Square, London SE1 0QA.
All very welcome: Members (free) and guests (small fee)
Andrew is the author of several books including ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’ and is a regular contributor to the Guardian.
Confirmation and further details to follow, but this is also advance notice that we would like to invite members to contribute their stories of coping with, responding to, thinking or feeling about climate change. CPA members interested in presenting should submit a 100-200 word summary of what they propose, to Sarah Deco -
1st February 2017 7pm in Waterstones in Oxford - CPA Member Sarah Halford on Psyche’s Seasons: Jungian psychology and Climate Change
2nd February 2017 CPA member Julian Manley is speaking at an all day event at Glasgow School of Arts, Community Engagement Topic Support Network on the topic From denial to disavowal. What does a psycho-social understanding bring to our ability to face the challenges of climate change? He is also holding a social dreaming matrix.
3rd February 6.30pm in Waterstones in Birmingham - CPA member Judith Anderson on “The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Responding to Climate Change and why we find this difficult.
Later on this year
13th-16th July 6th Edge of Wild ecopsychology event: Fraktured Psyche.
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Judith Anderson, Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson
Image source: Reuters