Cornell Sustainability Fellow Jennifer Carlson discussed the politics of contemporary climate change denialism in a lecture Tuesday.

November 1, 2018

Climate Scholar Jennifer Carlson Calls for the ‘Democratization of Climate Justice’

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Cornell Sustainability Fellow Jennifer Carlson discussed the politics of contemporary climate change denialism in a lecture Tuesday.

Carlson is a cultural anthropologist and researcher, visiting fellow at Rice University, and the author of Unruly Energies. She holds an A.M. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. Her talk was titled “Denial’s Authority: Anti-Environmentalism and the Aesthetics of Negativity in Contemporary Climate Politics.”

“You could say it’s kind of a Frankentalk, which is appropriate for the day before Halloween,” Carlson quipped, encouraging attendees to engage in difficult conversations — including ones about the end of the world.

Climate denialism is predicated on a number of factors and cannot be ended by simply presenting denialists with scientific information, Carlson said. Instead, “it is necessary to unpack the underlying reasons that we disagree about climate action before we can find constructive ways for acting politically in the world,” she said, paraphrasing climate geographer Mike Hulme.

“We have to get the politics right before we can act,” she said.

Scientific consensus on the environment has been used to justify suspending democratic norms in regions affected by climate change, thus exacerbating global inequality, Carlson said.

Incorporating climate denialists into discussions of climate action can inform how societies fight climate change, Carlson said. Without legitimizing the denial of scientific consensus, it is useful to understand the roots, manifestations and consequences of climate denialism.

Denials of climate change include refusal to believe climate change exists, as well as disillusioned convictions that the end of the world due to climate change is imminent and inevitable, according to Carlson.

Climate cynicism is perpetuated by rampant national, regional, and global economic inequalities, Carlson said. Those at the top of the global socioeconomic hierarchy can buy mansions in the areas climate change will destroy last, and climate change is not a main priority for low-income people.

Carlson argued that “when we stop thinking primarily of denial as a deficit to be remedied, and instead invision it as a negative move that grounds a positive, if ecologically problematic, sociality, we can gain greater perspective on consequential formations of power and capital.”

The most recent United Nations climate report states that emissions and consumption must be radically cut for humans to survive, which will require fundamentally changed economic, political and social structures and an end to contemporary laissez-faire capitalism.

“Existing strategies of climate governance are not only insufficient to safeguard humanity’s survival, they can also work to undermine the very sustainability they set out to promote,” Carlson said. “While contemporary climate governance relies on accurate science, fostered in long-standing and committed collaborations that are often extremely arduous, the technocratic apparatus through which that governance takes shape has fallen strikingly short of its aims.”

“A growing number of scholars have called for the democratization of climate governance,” Carlson said.

In order to engage our societies to salvage the planet, “we don’t need transparency: we need conversation,” Carlson proposed. Attempts to enforce adherence to a singular narrative of how to fight climate change have constructed a binary of being either with or against the fight for climate justice, which is a false dichotomy: climate denialists can still advocate for climate justice, she said.

Seeking to understand climate denialism as a societally predicated phenomenon rather than a lack of scientific understanding is more productive than viewing denialism solely as an environmental false consciousness, she said.

“By engaging with [our] differences, perhaps we can find new ways of allying… in collective action against climate injustice in ways that are incomplete, not always easy, not known in advance — this might open other avenues towards changing our ecologically harmful ways,” Carlson concluded. “And in so doing, maybe we can lend partial voices to a new story of action against global warming. Because our storytelling has been democratized, and democracy is an open experiment.”