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Deep thought - Nov 7

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Superstorm Sandy—a People's Shock?

Naomi Klein, The Nation
Less than three days after Sandy made landfall on the East Coast of the United States, Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute blamed New Yorkers’ resistance to big-box stores for the misery they were about to endure. Writing on Forbes.com, he explained that the city’s refusal to embrace Walmart will likely make the recovery much harder: “Mom-and-pop stores simply can’t do what big stores can in these circumstances,” he wrote.

And the preemptive scapegoating didn’t stop there. He also warned that if the pace of reconstruction turned out to be sluggish (as it so often is) then “pro-union rules such as the Davis-Bacon Act” would be to blame, a reference to the statute that requires workers on public-works projects to be paid not the minimum wage, but the prevailing wage in the region.

The same day, Frank Rapoport, a lawyer representing several billion-dollar construction and real estate contractors, jumped in to suggest that many of those public works projects shouldn’t be public at all. Instead, cash-strapped governments should turn to “public private partnerships,” known as “P3s.” That means roads, bridges and tunnels being rebuilt by private companies, which, for instance, could install tolls and keep the profits.

...But the prize for shameless disaster capitalism surely goes to right-wing economist Russell S. Sobel, writing in a New York Times online forum. Sobel suggested that, in hard-hit areas, FEMA should create “free trade zones—in which all normal regulations, licensing and taxes [are] suspended.” This corporate free-for-all would, apparently, “better provide the goods and services victims need.”

Yes that’s right: this catastrophe very likely created by climate change—a crisis born of the colossal regulatory failure to prevent corporations from treating the atmosphere as their open sewer—is just one more opportunity for more deregulation. And the fact that this storm has demonstrated that poor and working-class people are far more vulnerable to the climate crisis shows that this is clearly the right moment to strip those people of what few labor protections they have left, as well as to privatize the meager public services available to them. Most of all, when faced with an extraordinarily costly crisis born of corporate greed, hand out tax holidays to corporations.

Is there anyone who can still feign surprise at this stuff? The flurry of attempts to use Sandy’s destructive power as a cash grab is just the latest chapter in the very long story I have called The Shock Doctrine. And it is but the tiniest glimpse into the ways large corporations are seeking to reap enormous profits from climate chaos... (5 November 2012)


Building a new environmentalism

James Green, Business Green
I am not a big fan of the prefix "neo"; it makes me think of Nazis, Marxists, and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. As such I instinctively bristled earlier this summer upon reading Paul Kingsnorth's critique of what he called "neo-environmentalists", not just because of the word he chose to use, but also because he was clearly criticising me, most of the things I believe, and the views of many of the people within the green movement whom I respect.

Kingsnorth's contention, and it is well worth reading in full, is that there is a serious hope deficit at the heart of the modern environmental movement, creating a vacuum that has been filled by so-called "neo-environmentalists". According to Kingsnorth, these "neo-environmentalists" are unashamedly "pro-business", subscribe to failed "Wellsian techno-optimism", "speak the language of money and power" beloved of the neo-liberal movement, are obsessed with placing human values on nature, overly-fixated on climate change, and kidding themselves if they think they can halt or even slow the "global industrial machine" and its continued destruction of the planet.

Now, for a signed up "neo-environmentalist" such as myself it should have been easy to dismiss Kingsnorth's attack as just another dose of understandable grumbling from an unreconstructed old school environmentalist who has fully succumbed to the defeatism embodied by his Dark Mountain philosophy and its nihilistic (although he would argue realistic) belief that attempts to "save the planet" are doomed to complete failure.

But for some reason Kingsnorth's diagnosis of "neo-environmentalism" stayed with me, prompting me to return to the article again and again, always with the same questions: is he right? Is there a "neo-environmentalism"? And if so, what is it? Is it the convenient cover for corporate exploitation Kingsnorth alleges, or is it something altogether different, something more positive and progressive? At the same time I have, as always, been talking to BusinessGreen readers from across the worlds of business, politics, and campaigning, and it has become increasingly apparent that at least the first part of Kingsnorth's hypothesis is accurate: there is something of a crisis afflicting the traditional environmental movement. (26 October 2012)


Reasons why climate change disasters might not increase concern about climate change

George Marshall, Climate Change Denial
In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.

This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern- and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.

I have heard many scientists, including the former UK chief scientific advisor Sir David King, go further and argue that real public and political attention requires such events. Climate change campaigners are already building their public communications around this assumption (for example a viral campaign ‘advert’ contrasts Romney’s ludicrous nomination speech with Sandy).

However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions- especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognise that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.

A few weeks ago I was in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history (by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes. The fires were directly related to the extreme drought and record breaking temperatures that struck central Texas in 2011. Causal links are always hard, but even the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon (who surely has one of the hardest jobs in climate science) made a cautious connection between climate change, the drought and the fires. I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

People did note that there was a change in the weather and most anticipated that the drought and fires could happen again. But they weren’t really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges. They had recovered remarkably fast and the local economy had grown (boosted by government recovery grants and insurance payments). The county is doing very well and continues to grow- incredibly, after entirely repeatable wildfires incinerated the homes of a third of the residents, it is said to be the fourth fastest growing county in the US.

I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.

...Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)

In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose. 

...Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

...Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).

People’s view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values. 

...Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines

Human psychology is strongly prone to creating patterns and comparisons based on the ‘availability’ of comparable events. In terms of environmental issues people tend to be very poor at noticing decadal change (and certainly intergenerational change) because of a shifting baseline.

Disasters create intense but isolated events after which, as the people on Bastrop said, things go back to ‘normal’.

...Repeated disasters generate hopelessness and powerlessness

The ‘Paradise in Hell’ communitarianism pertains to events that are relatively rare anomalies in an otherwise confident and successful society. If extreme events occur with regularity – especially if they occur too regularly for communities and economies to recover fully- they could generate a sense of despair and helplessness.

...Different kinds of extreme climate may have different impacts on public attitudes

It is important to differentiate between different kinds of climate event and suggest that they may have different outcomes in public attitudes. Droughts and heatwaves are extendedconditions that encourage the perception that there is a long term change underway (a change in the ‘normal’). What is more, although they generate solidarity in suffering there is far less of the ‘pull together’ cohesion that occurs in major disaster events. We could reasonably infer that they may be more likely to generate an increase in concern about climate change....

(6 November 2012)

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