By Eric Lindberg
Myth #1: Liberals Are Not In Denial
“We will not apologize for our way of life” –Barack Obama
The conservative denial of the very fact of climate change looms large in the minds of many liberals. How, we ask, could people ignore so much solid and unrefuted evidence? Will they deny the existence of fire as Rome burns once again? With so much at stake, this denial is maddening, indeed. But almost never discussed is an unfortunate side-effect of this denial: it has all but insured that any national debate in America will occur in a place where most liberals are not required to challenge any of their own beliefs. The question has been reduced to a two-sided affair—is it happening or is it not—and liberals are obviously on the right side of that.
If we broadened the debate just a little bit, however, we would see that most liberals have just moved a giant boat-load of denial down-stream, and that this denial is as harmful as that of conservatives. While the various aspects of liberal denial are my main overall topic, here, and will be addressed in our following five sections, they add up to the belief that we can avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate disruption without changing our fundamental way of life. This is myth is based on errors that are as profound and basic as the conservative denial of climate change itself.
But before moving on, one more point about liberal and conservative denial: Naomi Klein has suggested that conservative denial may have its roots, it will surprise many liberals, in some pretty clear thinking. [i] At some level, she has observed, conservatives climate deniers understand that addressing climate change will, in fact, change our way of life, a way of life which conservatives often view as sacred. This sort of change is so terrifying and unthinkable to them, she argues, that they cut the very possibility of climate change off at its knees: fighting climate change would force us to change our way of life; our way of life is sacred and cannot be questioned; ergo, climate change cannot be happening.
We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life. Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created. And so do Democrats and Republicans stay together in this unhappy and unproductive place of emotional self-protection and planetary ruin.
Myth #2: Republicans are Still More to Blame
“Yes, America does face a cliff — not a fiscal cliff but a set of precipices [including a carbon cliff] we’ll tumble over because the GOP’s obsession over government’s size and spending has obscured them.” -Robert Reich
It is true that conservative politicians in the United States and Europe have been intent on blocking international climate agreements; but by focusing on these failed agreements, which only require a baby-step in the right direction, liberals obliquely side-step the actual cause of global warming—namely, burning fossil fuels. The denial of climate change isn’t responsible for the fact that we, in the United States, are responsible for about one quarter of all current emissions if you include the industrial products we consume (and an even greater percentage of all emissions over time), even though we make up only 6% of the world’s population. Our high-consumption lifestyles are responsible for this. Republicans do not emit an appreciably larger amount of carbon dioxide than Democrats.
Because pumping gasoline is our most direct connection to the burning of fossil fuels, most Americans overemphasize the significance of what sort of car we drive and many liberals might proudly point to their small economical cars or undersized SUVs. While the transportation sector is responsible for a lot of our emissions, the carbon footprint of any one individual has much more to do with his or her overall levels of consumption of all kinds—the travel (especially on airplanes), the hotels and restaurants, the size and number of homes, the computers and other electronics, the recreational equipment and gear, the food, the clothes, and all the other goods, services, and amenities that accompany an affluent life. It turns out that the best predictor of someone’s carbon footprint is income. This is true whether you are comparing yourself to other Americans or to other people around the world. Middle-class American professionals, academics, and business-people are among the world’s greatest carbon emitters and, as a group, are more responsible than any other single group for global warming, especially if we focus on discretionary consumption. Accepting the fact of climate change, but then jetting off to the tropics, adding another oversized television to the collection, or buying a new Subaru involves a tremendous amount of denial. There are no carbon offsets for ranting and raving about conservative climate-change deniers.
Myth #3: Renewable Energy Can Replace Fossil Fuels
“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” –Barack Obama
This is a hugely important point. Everything else hinges on the myth that we might live a lifestyle similar to our current one powered by wind, solar, and biofuels. Like the conservative belief that climate change cannot be happening, liberals believe that renewable energy must be a suitable replacement. Neither view is particularly concerned with the evidence.
Conventional wisdom among American liberals assures us that we would be well on our way to a clean, green, low-carbon, renewable energy future were it not for the lobbying efforts of big oil companies and their Republican allies. The truth is far more inconvenient than this: it will be all but impossible for our current level of consumption to be powered by anything but fossil fuels. The liberal belief that energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels can replace oil, natural gas, and coal is a mirror image of the conservative denial of climate change: in both cases an overriding belief about the way the world works, or should work, is generally far stronger than any evidence one might present. Denial is the biggest game in town. Denial, as well as a misunderstanding about some fundamental features of energy, is what allows someone like Bill Gates assume that “an energy miracle” will be created with enough R & D. Unfortunately, the lessons of microprocessors do not teach us anything about replacing oil, coal, and natural gas.
It is of course true that solar panels and wind turbines can create electricity, and that ethanol and bio-diesel can power many of our vehicles, and this does lend a good bit of credibility to the claim that a broader transition should be possible—if we can only muster the political will and finance the necessary research. But this view fails to take into account both the limitations of renewable energy and the very specific qualities of the fossil fuels around which we’ve built our way of life. The myth that alternative sources of energy are perfectly capable of replacing fossil fuels and thus of maintaining our current way of life receives widespread support from our President to leading public intellectuals to most mainstream journalists, and receives additional backing from our self-image as a people so ingenious that there are no limits to what we can accomplish. That fossil fuels have provided us with a one-time burst of unrepeatable energy and affluence (and ecological peril) flies in the face of nearly all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Just starting to dispel this myth requires that I go into the issue a bit more deeply and at greater length.
Because we have come to take the power and energy-concentration of fossil fuels for granted, and see our current lifestyle as normal, it is easy to ignore the way the average citizens of industrialized societies have an unprecedented amount of energy at their disposal. Consider this for a moment: a single $3 gallon of gasoline provides the equivalent of about 80 days of hard manual labor. Fill up your 15 gallon gas tank in your car, and you’ve just bought the same amount of energy that would take over three years of unremitting manual labor to reproduce. Americans use more energy in a month than most of our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime. We live at a level, today, that in previous days could have only been supported by about 15