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Does climate change doom us to a post-truth world? (III/III)

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 6 min read

This is part two of a three-part series on post-truth accounting. You can find part one here, and part two here.

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

Is there something particular about climate change that makes it vulnerable to post-truth accounting? Yes, I would argue – two things, in fact. Firstly, climate inherently resists being fully known; secondly, it threatens our addiction to a politics of pleasure. 

We can see both these drivers at work in the climate politics of the UK today.*

Climate as hyperobject

“The more we analyse, the more ambiguous things become,” when it comes to climate change, proclaims Timothy Morton. To grapple with this problem, Professor Morton defines climate change as a “hyperobject:” so massively distributed across space and time, so interconnected and dynamic, that it is impossible to ever get our arms around it entirely. It's simply too big. 

This explains why it is so amenable to post-truth accounting. If the category of climate itself is always somehow unknowable – can never be reduced to a fixed, contained set of facts and numbers – then why not just do away with the hard, frustrating work of factual accounting and embrace the easier, more satisfying post-truth alterative?

Accounting for the UK’s decarbonisation record

Rishi Sunak’s 2023 climate policy pivot illustrates this nicely. Because the UK was reducing emissions “faster than any other G7 country,” the UK Prime Minister declared, (a 46% cut against 1991 levels) the UK should slow down its decarbonisation efforts whilst extending new oil and gas licenses. Yet just a few months earlier, the UK Climate Change Committee announced that current decarbonisation rates were too slow and must double – from 3% to 6% per annum - to meet 2030 targets. 

Sunak knew that his logic ran counter to reality – the CCC report was written for him to read – but he made no attempt to hide it. Illogicality is almost part of the appeal to his right-wing base, who have famously “had enough of experts.” 

That said, there is also a hyperobject problem here. The global climatic system is simply too complex and borderless for a single emissions accounting system to contain. Nationally Determined Contributions, for example, are geographically bounded, and do not count imported carbon emissions. The UK is one of the largest per capita net importers of carbon globally at 4 tonnes/year. The government’s own measures show that, when imports are counted, the UK’s emissions actually peaked thirty-five years later than NDCs suggests (2007 versus 1972), and were higher in 2014 than in 1991. That 46% reduction is a fantasy number. 

Because the hyperobject of climate is so uncertain, we also largely ignore the fact that meeting UNFCC decarbonisation targets usually means just a 2/3 chance of avoiding a given level of warming. It’s like saying that Russian Roulette is perfectly safe – if you round down! 

This is not to say we shouldn’t use these methodologies (whilst lobbying to improve them). But we should recognise how politically difficult it is to communicate the hyperobject of climate change. The UK electorate get that – they subconsciously know they haven’t halved their consumption since 1991! – and so Sunak’s use of it is recognised as another wink against climate accounting in general. 

If the numbers will never really add up, who cares? 

Hegemonic pleasure vs. the certainty of defeat

The second issue is that we still don’t believe we can solve climate change. Whatever we say consciously, on a subconscious level we are haunted by the imagined certainty of defeat.

This naturally interacts with one of the key drivers of post-truth culture, an idea best termed ‘hegemonic pleasure.’ To drastically simplify a complex argument, some academics see post-truth not as a dark conspiracy imposed on an innocent populace by manipulative politicians, but an aspirational narrative co-created by audience and communicator together. 

The goal is to maintain a political version of the pleasure principle; it is more important for our political experience to be enjoyable than truthful. This drive is mortally threatened by the idea that climate change is real and unsolvable. As a result, electorates conspire with their politicians to construct an alternative accounting.

Covering the damage

This is illustrated by the UK’s approach to climate justice. As I’ve written about before, last year’s COP opened with a fanfare announcement of $700m in funding for the new Loss and Damage Fund. The UK proudly announced $75m in contributions for the new fund as proof it remained committed to a just transition. 

This $75m figure was, it turned out, neither new nor additional. Instead, it was relabelled money from the UK’s existing International Climate Finance (ICF) commitments. To make matters worse, this existing funding has actually been cut by £1.6bn since it was promised, through various accounting smudges: including core funding to multilateral development banks (worth £920m); counting 30% of humanitarian aid to vulnerable countries as ‘climate finance’ (£542m); and counting 41% of funding to (the profit-making body) British International Investment as climate finance (£159m). Presumably there are climate-fighting chocolate shops that need the money!

The government must have known that this $75m would be called out as misleading almost immediately. After all, they themselves publish the true data with which it was fact checked! But the politicians and their supporters don’t care, because the $75m number (in the context of all their announcements about aid cuts) served its purpose: placating to meet demands of a consensus ethics they dislike – with a wink.

For this wedge of the electorate, hegemonic pleasure existed in a pre-climate past. They now accept that is no longer recoverable; so the grounds of hegemonic pleasure have shifted from undermining the problem – contending that climate doesn’t exist – to the solution – claiming we are doing something, without having to do anything. This is the necessary illusion that post-truth accounting enables. “We’re not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people,” in the words of Sunak’s Home Secretary. 

A hopeful way forward

If climate is particularly susceptible to post-truth accounting, is there anything we can do about it?

Like the mystery object that suddenly appears in the sky in a sci-fi film, there is nothing we can do about climate-as-hyperobject. It has arrived, and we must face it imperfectly. Hegemonic pleasure, on the other hand, is more addressable. At bottom is this insight from Hannah Arendt: the distinction between telling the truth and lying doesn’t matter if your life depends on the lie. 

The truth is that our lives depend on solving global warming. The trouble is that our culture’s politics (and politicians) believes the opposite. Thus post-truth accounting becomes just another ‘patriotic forgery’.

This opens an avenue for action. Can we convince people that a regenerative future is possible, affordable, and aspirational? In so doing, we need to move beyond making the case with ever more accurate numbers (as important as they are) because the post-truthers have eroded their value too. Instead, we should meet the problem on its own terms – emotion and psychology. 

We need to tell better stories. Do that, and the emotional drive that feeds post-truth will fade. This fever can pass. 

*The UK is an ideal case study because Brexit was, along with Trump, one of the original handmaidens of post-truth politics. “£350m a week for the NHS” may in fact be the ultimate example of modern post-truth accounting, neatly combining a frustratingly unknowable hyperobject (the EU) with a threatened hegemonic pleasure (an NHS  buckling under the strain of a sick and ageing society).

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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