Denying Time and Place in the Global Warming Debate

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by Derrick O’Keefe

By now, a number of respected activists have ably rebutted the spurious and provocative writings of Alexander Cockburn on the topic of human-induced global warming (George Monbiot by questioning his sources, and my Seven Oaks colleague Charles Demers by questioning his motives). On the northern front of climate change denialism, Znet contributor Justin Podur has politely dispatched the related writings of Canadian academics David Noble and Denis Rancourt.

There remains at least one further criticism to make of these “left” critics of those urging action on climate change, and that is with respect to their claims about the timeframe and geographic location of the debate about global warming.

Noble and Rancourt, when discussing the history of the issue, make a number of claims that are either wilfully dishonest or shamefully uninformed. Noble, for instance, introduces his argument by asking rhetorically, “How did such an arcane subject only yesterday of interest merely to a handful of scientific specialists so suddenly come to dominate our discourse?” (1)

In explaining the recent growth of public awareness of climate change as merely a corporate conspiracy, Noble wipes out decades of campaigning by the political Left, public intellectuals and environmentalists. I was 11 years old at the time, but I can clearly remember the wave of magazine articles, CBC radio specials, and general public concern about global warming that exploded in 1988. Many of my grade 6 classmates did projects on the topic. Popular writers like the late Carl Sagan were sounding the alarm and explaining the science behind global warming to all those who would listen.

In 1990, David Suzuki co-wrote an “alarmist” book, It’s a Matter of Survival, which quoted Stephen Lewis on the urgency of acting against greenhouse gas emissions:

“If we don’t take measures, then I suppose it could be the end of the planet as we know it. Assuming that we may have underestimated what is already in place and assuming we don’t get around to reversing the trend for another 10 or 15 years, that we play at the edges with 20 percent solutions for a number of years while the politicians protect their skins, it may be irreversible.” (2)

Almost two decades of government inaction later, the issue of climate change has again – finally – returned to the front burner of political discourse. Though there is, inevitably, a wave of “greenwashing” by corporations and elites that needs to be exposed, this fact in no way justifies describing the increasing scientific consensus and the confirmation of what progressive activists have been saying for decades as a “conspiracy” or a “myth”. The record of the Left’s principled advocacy on this issue does not deserve to be so cavalierly deleted from history.

Making an even more serious error than Noble’s inaccurate portrayal of the timeframe of the global warming discussion, Denis Rancourt completely inverts the geography of concern and activism, baldly stating, “Global warming is strictly an imaginary problem of the First World middleclass. Nobody else cares about global warming.”

He further asserts:

“The global warming myth isolates us from the people of the Third World and from all exploited people outside of our class, rather than creating meaningful occasions for empathy and solidarity…”

“Why have scientists and First World environmentalists bought into it with such conviction and dedication?” (3)

The idea that concern over global warming is the exclusive purview of Al Gore or First World environmental groups is analogous to the wrong-headed belief that the global justice movement began with the 1999 protests in Seattle against the WTO. Both ignore the reality that the most consistent leadership on both these fronts has come from the neo-colonial world and specifically from anti-imperialists in the so-called Global South. The countries of the South have been calling for action on climate change for decades, rightly contextualizing the issue as part of the massive ecological debt that Europe, Japan and North America owe the rest of the world.

Thus it was that Fidel Castro was reported to have received the loudest applause at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil when he lambasted the inequity inherent in environmental destruction:

“With only 20 percent of the world’s population, these societies consume two-thirds of the metals and three-fourths of the energy produced in the world. They have poisoned the seas and rivers, polluted the air, weakened and punctured the ozone layer, saturated the atmosphere with gases which are changing weather conditions with a catastrophic effect we are already beginning to experience…

“Let selfishness end. Let hegemonies end. Let insensitivity, irresponsibility, and deceit end. Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.” (4)

Many of the poor island nations of the South, including many politically conservative regimes, also long ago united to press for their very survival against rising sea levels and the indifference of the big polluters. While Rancourt would have us believe that global warming is a figment of the imagination of the West’s middle class, the more than 10 000 residents of the island state of Tuvalu have been facing the nightmare possibility of forced emigration and the real prospect of the end of their society (5). The reality of rising tides may chase the poor from their homes, but sadly the rising tide of reality seems to have left at least a couple of Canadian academics unfazed.
George Monbiot, the author of the authoritative and best-selling Heat (which Noble has the audacity to deride), accurately describes the paradox of climate change and its relationship to a world marked by grotesque inequality:

“The effort to tackle climate change suffers from the problem of split incentives: those who are least responsible for it are the most likely to suffer its effects.” (6)

It is amazing, and frustrating, that these things have to be reemphasized against the derisive comments about “First World” and “middle class” environmentalists. Noble and Rancourt are, of course, both First World and middle class themselves, but their use of the term to bolster their argument is symptomatic of an old sectarian habit on the Left wherein terms like “petty bourgeois” are assigned to the ideas and/or the people with whom one disagrees. The too prevalent use of the term as a mere pejorative degrades the language needed to articulate a class analysis, and generally lowers the level of debate.

Confronting the threat of climate change will require confronting the logic of global capitalism, with its resource wars, competitive pillaging and sanctification of great personal wealth and over-consumption. French journalist Hervé Kempf, in his new and unsubtly titled tract, Comment les riches détruisent la planète [How the Rich are Destroying the Planet], convincingly argues that the world’s ecological crisis can only be overcome by defeating social inequality. Accomplishing this huge task will surely require the truly international movement that the Left has always aimed to achieve.

It’s time to leave infantile contrarianism and rejection of scientific consensus behind, and get on with the task at hand.


(1) ‘The Corporate Climate Coup,’ by David F. Noble. Znet, May 8, 2007.(2) It’s a Matter of Survival, by David Suzuki and Anita Gordon. Stoddart Publishing (1990). p. 229.(3) ‘Global Warming: Truth or Dare?’ by Denis G. Rancourt. February 2007.(4) Archives of the Cuban Embassy website.(5) ‘Tuvalu is drowning,’ by Alexandra Berzon. March 31, 2006, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, by George Monbiot. Doubleday Canada (2006). p. 21.