Why Environmentalism is 'Unethical', Anti-Human, and Elitist

It’s not often we agree with George Monbiot.

We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits … I have always been deeply suspicious of the grand claims made for consumer democracy: that we can change the world by changing our buying habits.

But then again, it’s not because his insight is all that profound…

A change in consumption habits is seldom effective unless it is backed up by government action. You can give up your car for a bicycle – and fair play to you – but unless the government is simultaneously reducing the available road space, the place you’ve vacated will just be taken by someone who drives a less efficient car than you would have driven (traffic expands to fill the available road-space). Our power comes from acting as citizens – demanding political change – not acting as consumers.

It seems that Monbiot is against consumer democracy because it seems to rob us of our power as citizens, and requires government intervention in order to make it work.

(Actually he means ‘ethical consumerism’. ‘Consumer democracy’ means treating the voter as a consumer, whereas ‘ethical consumerism’ means treating the act of consuming or buying as an act with the potential to create change. But we nit-pick here.)

This is interesting. George rightly draws a distinction between consumer demand, and demand for political change. The former is problematic, because it requires government action.

Seems George would only be happy if the government is responding to demands from citizens, rather than from consumers. Again, we find ourselves in agreement with Monbiot here. But since when was he against government action that didn’t enjoy popular support?

Last year, following the Climate Change Committee’s report, Monbiot criticised what he felt were targets that were inadequate.

My reading of the new projections suggests that to play its part in preventing two degrees of global warming, the UK needs to cut greenhouse gases by roughly 25% from current levels by the end of 2012 – a quarter in four years. But how the heck could this be done? Here is a list of measures which could be enacted almost immediately. They require no economic or technological miracles; but they do demand that the government is brave enough to govern.

His proposals for a ‘brave’ government were

1. Immediately renegotiate the European Emissions Trading Scheme

2. Use the money this raises for:

a. A crash programme for training builders.

b. A home improvement scheme like Germany’s, but twice as fast.

3. Announce that incandescent lightbulbs will no longer be sold in the United Kingdom

4. Increase vehicle excise duty for the most polluting cars to £3000 a year (from the current £400). Use the money this raises to:

a. Start closing key urban streets to private cars and dedicating them to public transport and cycling.

b. Increase the public subsidy for bus and train journeys.

c. Train thousands of new coach drivers and public transport operators.

d. Scrap the airport expansion programme.

5. Stop the burning of moorland

6. Stop all opencast coal mining and rescind planning permission for new works.

On the one hand, George wants a mass movement of people to demand the government acts. On the other, he wants the government to act ‘bravely’, ‘top-down’, in spite of the absence of demands ‘from below’.

This is something we’ve explored a lot on this blog. The green movement isn’t really a movement at all. At best, it is a phenomenon of individuals whose only thing in common is their sense of disconnect and disorientation. At worst, it is a self-serving elitist club. Yet their shrill demands for ‘action’ count for more than the disinterest of the vast majority, and virtually the entire political establishment has been remarkably sympathetic to the green cause. Hence, the very existence of the Climate Change Committee, whose report Monbiot didn’t feel was sufficient. It was created to set the UK’s emissions targets after the fiasco of attempting to set the target politically, in Parliament, democratically. The Labour government proposed that the Climate Change Act would commit the UK to a reduction of 60% by 2050. The Conservative Party responded, by claiming that they would reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. The Liberal Democrats said that they would create a 100% carbon neutral Britain by 2050, and ban the petrol engine and ban nuclear power. Each side in this game of politics-by-numbers claimed to have the very same science behind them. Yet it produced different results. The implication is stark: climate change has very little to do with responding to crisis, and everything to do with striking a pose. To recover from this embarrassing state of affairs, the government amended the bill, so that targets would be set by an ‘independent’ panel – the Climate Change Committee. The House of Commons, recognising its own impotence, voted overwhelmingly for the bill, with barely a hint of scrutiny, debate, or questioning. Except, of course, from environmentalists, who claimed that the new legislation didn’t go far enough.

Thus, democracy in the UK defers to imperatives issued by environmentalism, even though it has comprehensively failed to capture the imagination of the mass of citizens. And where democracy does still function in such a way as to represent their wishes, you can expect Monbiot to say something quite, quite different. ‘Why do we allow the US to act like a failed state on climate change?’ he asked in the Guardian, back in June.

It would be laughable anywhere else. But, so everyone says, the Waxman-Markey bill which is likely to be passed in Congress today or tomorrow, is the best we can expect – from America.The cuts it proposes are much lower than those being pursued in the UK or in most other developed nations. Like the UK’s climate change act the US bill calls for an 80% cut by 2050, but in this case the baseline is 2005, not 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose from 5.8 to 7bn tonnes.

Monbiot seems to have forgotten his desire for the people to demand from the government. He forgets that the Climate Change Act and its goals – which he doesn’t think is sufficient anyway – was not produced by a democratically accountable body, and was not the subject of democratic contest. He forgets that, just as in the UK, the green movement is not a popular movement. He forgets that the bill was not produced by a movement of citizens, but a clique of US politicians. Just as with the UK’s Climate Change Act, however, Monbiot nods his approval at it.

I would like to see the bill passed, as it at least provides a framework for future improvements. But why do we expect so little from the US? Why do we treat the world’s most powerful and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even the faintest suggestion of common sense?

So we can see Monbiot comprehensively in contradiction with himself. If ‘consumer democracy’ is wrong because it requires the intervention of the state in lieu of autonomous political expression, then so too must the climate change act – and anything like it – be wrong. They are not the expression of ‘the masses’ rising up to demand change. Its precepts and values have not been tested democratically. Yet Monbiot approves, although reservedly, and disapproves of the lack of bravery shown by elected representatives in their face of their electors.

In order to wriggle out of this contradiction, Monbiot must find a way of explaining environmentalism’s total failure to create a popular mandate for itself. He goes on in the same article to say:

Thanks to the lobbying work of the coal and oil companies, and the vast army of thinktanks, PR consultants and astroturfers they have sponsored, thanks too to the domination of the airwaves by loony right shock jocks, the debate over issues like this has become so mad that any progress at all is little short of a miracle. […] A combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps America in the dark ages. This bill is the best we’re going to get for now because the corruption of public life in the United States has not been addressed. Whether he is seeking environmental reforms, health reforms or any other improvement in the life of the American people, this is Obama’s real challenge.

That is to say that environmentalism is a failure because the public have bought the message given to them by powerful propaganda machines, working on behalf of oil companies, etc, etc, blah, blah blah.

This is another constant theme of Monbiot’s writing. In December last year, in an attempt to explain the same failure, he wrote that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’:

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

We wrote at the time:

Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club. Second, it is transparent to most people that Monbiot is mischaracterising the arguments of the people he sets himself up in opposition to – he doesn’t answer objections, and he makes straw men out of the flame-war battlefield that is the comments section on commentisfree instead of picking up on the arguments that are actually being made. Third, he clearly overstates the relationship between these messages and a conspiracy of vested interests. Fourth, he diminishes the moral character of anyone who takes a different perspective to him. Fifth, he diminishes the intelligence of anyone who sees things differently to him. But the biggest problem for Monbiot is that the second, third, fourth and fifth are, he seems to believe, logical and necessary consequences of the first. He seems to think that, because the Met Office ‘predicted’ the 2008 temperature record (and they didn’t), then he is right to characterise his opponents as he pleases, he is right to think that silly comments on blogs represent the influence of an oil-industry conspiracy, and so on.

In summary, Monbiot believes that the reason that the masses have not risen up to demand action on climate change is because they have been hoodwinked by a conspiracy to subvert the public understanding of the issues, paid for by vast corporate interests. The public are simply too stupid to have seen through this.

This creates a second problem for Monbiot. Now that he has explained the failure of environmentalism as the consequence of the public’s fecklessness, he can no longer make any claim to be at all interested in the public demanding anything from government. Any such political expression might be wrong – it doesn’t create, as it were, its own legitimacy by being a demand for government ‘by the people for the people’. Instead, it might just as well be the result of a corporate conspiracy. Mass action needs George’s approval before it can be considered as a legitimate expression of autonomous political organisation. He needs to check its credentials first. Meanwhile, he’s prepared to accept legislation that lacks such democratic legitimacy, because he knows what’s in the public’s best interests.

Anyway, so far this post has been something of a pre-amble. Albeit a rather long one. What struck us about the article referred to at the top of the thread, other than Monbiot’s misconception of ‘consumer democracy’, is that he points to research that apparently demonstrates scientifically that ethical consumerism does not work. Monbiot explains:

So I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments. First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.

The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.

Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.

The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.

The title of the study is “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”. The abstract reads as follows.

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

(Read the whole study here)

The study appears to find that if you think you’ve done the right thing – buying green products – then you allow yourself to do more of the wrong thing – taking more money for your efforts than you were entitled to.

If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. Rather than ‘moral offset’, we might be talking here about an effect better described as ‘moral displacement’.

Because if it is true that people are receptive to ideas about morality, when ethical and moral values are grounded on environmental precepts, it is no surprise that people behave accordingly. After all, what would Gaia say about taking a few more pennies than you were supposed to have? Or for that matter, what would Gaia say about creating political institutions with control over people’s lives without their consent? Of course, She wouldn’t give a hoot, just so long as the polar bears are happy, and the sea-level remains static.

After all, what is ‘democracy’, when the planet needs saving?

What’s the point of having an argument, when you already know you’re right?

What’s the point of debate, if all it is going to mean is that the wrong ideas get an airing?

Why have a free media, if all it means is that poisonous conspiracies will be allowed to infect the minds of the masses?

The environmental imperative seems to destroy any principles that preceded it.

This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’.  We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something. This experiment, if it says anything at all, only shows us the redundancy of environmental ethics.

These are not, so to speak, ‘intuitive’ ethics. They are elite ethics. They are the basis of environmental politics, which constructs political institutions – organisations, laws, regulations and so on – to reproduce its objectives.

So it should be no surprise that, just as the subjects in the experiment felt entitled to lie and cheat, so it goes that politicians, journalists and other environmental activists do not feel bound by conventions and norms when they embrace environmentalism. The rotten heart of this philosophical framework allows them to act as though they were ‘above’ normal politics. For instance, environmental politics is not the subject of democratic scrutiny (e.g. the UK’s Climate Change Act, described above). International frameworks are being sought that will limit the potential of domestic politics, so that resistance – precisely the kind of ‘bottom-up’ demands that Monbiot claimed to desire – to eco-zeal can be ignored. The normal business of politics can be deferred in order to serve the greater good: ‘saving the planet’. Self-serving politicians and vapid moral warriors (Monbiot) can flatter themselves with a sense of purpose, while having nothing in fact to offer. Environmentalism really is immoral, anti-human, and elitist.

The Well Funded World Wide Fund for Fear

We reported earlier in the year how claims that a ‘denial lobby’ had influenced public opinion on climate change were totally at odds with reality.

The UK’s Royal Society, for example wrote an open letter to Exxon in 2006, accusing it of funding these sceptics. The image of oil barons distorting the truth for pure profit was appealing to an environmental movement desperate to account for its own lack of popular appeal. Through their site ‘Exxon Secrets’, Greenpeace ‘exposed’ the millions of dollars that had allegedly been given to think tanks and other deniers to brainwash an unthinking, gullible public.

But as we pointed out, the $22 million that Exxon allegedly gave away between 1998 and 2008 is peanuts compared to Greenpeace’s $2.2 billion income over a similar period.

Following our post yesterday about the WWF’s use of a rather dodgy scientific measure to secure headlines and public attention, we thought we’d have a quick scan of their accounts, too.

Income ($US)
2003 370,245,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwffinancialrpt2004.pdf
2004 468,889,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwfintar005.pdf
2005 499,629,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwfannualreport.pdf
2006 549,827,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_ar06_final_28feb.pdf
2007 663,193,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_annual_review_07.pdf

The accounts prior to 2003 aren’t available online. (If you have access to them, we would be grateful if you would let us have a look). But the point stands. The WWF has an enormous amount of money behind it – far more than any dirty ‘denialist’ organisation has been able to get its hands on.

Even more surprising is the source of their funding. One thing that might be said in Greenpeace’s defence is that it apparently doesn’t accept money from Governments. But a closer look at WWF’s regional sites shows that a significant amount of funding does come from the state. For example, WWF USA:

And in the UK:

It is curious that the WWF, who are so sharply critical of the US, UK and EU Government, should take such a large amount of money from them.

For example, a headline from the site on the 15th May tells us that “US government: climate change threatens polar bears” And today, the site urges that “The government must act to ensure that no new coal-fired power stations are built in the UK until carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been proven to work on a large scale and can be installed from the outset”.

This is especially curious, because the environmental movement has been telling us for somewhile that, apart from ‘manipulating’ public opinion with distorted science, the establishment is reluctant to act on climate change. Yet here we can see that the government is handing over cash to that same movement.

And it’s not just the WWF, which is just one of nine environmental NGOs that constitute a “Green Ten” that are beneficiaries of EU funding.

We work with the EU law-making institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers – to ensure that the environment is placed at the heart of policymaking. This includes working with our member organisations in the Member States to facilitate their input into the EU decision-making process.

Membership contributions are an important part of the finances of Green 10 organisations. We also receive core funding from the European Commission, except for Greenpeace. Furthermore, some member organisations of the Green 10 receive funding on a case-by-case basis for specific projects from governments and foundations. Some organisations also receive specific donations from industry. Greenpeace does not request or accept financial support from governments, the EU or industry. All Green 10 organisations are externally audited every year.

The members are:

What is stranger than Green lobby groups being happy to take significant wads of dosh from the very governments that they accuse of being climate criminals is that those governments should want to fund the enemy within to the tune of tens/hundreds/thousands of millions of dollars annually.

Could you imagine the fuss, if the sceptics had had nearly 5 billion dollars, to do ‘scientific research’, and were contracted by the government to ‘inform the public’?

Time and again, year after year, and in spite of the billions of dollars available to the environmental movement, polls show that US and UK publics are not interested in being eco-hectored. (And here’s another example courtesy of Philip Stott).

Governments, on the other hand, seem to enjoy being told what to do. Or, more accurately, to enjoy paying people to tell them what to tell other people to do – it saves them the trouble of having to work out for themselves what to tell people to do. Environmentalists might like to think they are part of some sort of grass-roots, popular, and radical movement. But what kind of grass roots movement needs such huge handouts to spend on PR? Environmentalism is rife at all levels of society except one – the electorate. It is anything but a popular, mass movement. The Environmentalist’s superficial radicalism, and the bogus urgency of calls to ‘save the planet’ have been attractive to politicians only because their endless and desperate search for popular policy ideas has consistently failed to engage the voters. But they are mistaken. Environmentalism is very much part of the establishment.

The AGW Debate Descends to 'Science'

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement last month, outlining its position on global warming…

The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. 

The AGU does not explain what a “balanced” climate is supposed to be, nor do they offer any explanation as to what a “natural rate of change” is. This is, of course, because neither statement is scientific. The idea that the climate is “balanced” is an assumption, but with almost mystical significance, as is the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” rates of change.

Andy Revkin ran a post about the statement on the New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, the responses to which constitute an epic online battle between some high-profile sceptics and warmers. (The link follows, but BE WARNED: the conversation is a gigantic 1050+ posts long, and it is likely to cause your browser some problems. HERE. )

Environmentalism’s public enemy #2, Marc Morano, raised the point that the statement cannot be representative of the organisation’s 45,000+ membership. This then led to a comment from Raymond T. Pierrehubert, a member of the climate modelling blog team, Real Climate. (A fine example of newspeak, that climate modellers call themselves ‘Real’ Climate”).

In response to Mr. Morano, I’ll echo one of the other commenters in pointing out that AGU is a democracy, and the officers are elected by vote of the entire membership. If any significant part of the leadership were notably out of tune with the membership, they would be voted out of office pretty swiftly, or would never have risen to the posts they have. To deny the significance of this statement on the grounds that it is a product of the council is like denying the legitimacy of US law because we have a representative democracy. 

It emerged during the conversation that the AGU statement was in fact written by a committee, appointed by the AGU’s council, agreed ‘unanimously’ by the elected council after a seven-month process. That’s less than a paragraph every two months, yet it possesses zero explanatory power. No science. It could have been written by any old eco-warrior. It is a political statement.

It is striking that the truth of the statement was defended on the basis of the AGU’s democratic organisational structure, as though material facts can be determined in this way. Voting is a test of mandate, not a test of truth. The AGU leadership only needs to demonstrate legitimacy to its membership in a small way. You wouldn’t expect earth scientists to divide themselves on political matters, as though, for example, plate tectonics was a “left wing” theory of geography, and the nitrogen cycle a piece of neoliberal political philosophy. Earth science is about studying the material world, and it seems hard to imagine why differences of political ideology should split that study. However, the last paragraph of the statement says,

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

The statement asks for the world to put earth scientists at the centre of a political process involving “all aspects of society”. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to admire their political ambition. The AGU statement attributes change to humans, and takes the unscientific view that change will spell disaster for human civilisation, unless, of course, we surrender sovereignty to earth scientists because,

Members of the AGU … have special responsibilities … to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

If making statements such as “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming” is “communicating clearly and objectively”, then god help us. Such alarmist and unscientific language give all of us good reason to challenge statements like this. Which is unfortunately what didn’t happen, back at the NYT blog.

The conversation did not answer any problems with the AGU’s statement about the science (what is a “balanced climate”, etc) and nor did it answer the political questions raised by such politicisation of science. Instead, it avoided both by descending into wranglings of the eternal “it is happening”/”it isn’t happening” variety, with increasingly bitter accusations being hurled at and by either side. This seems to be how any discussion about climate change ends up. It resorts to “science”. But it is science that has been neutered. It is not science with explanatory power, it is science which is used to legitimise a course of action. The logic appears to be that if it is, once and for all, comprehensively proven that humans had influenced a change in the climate, the rest of the argument – that we put earth science at the heart of our political process – follows from it. But even showing that climate change “is happening”, doesn’t explain a “balance” or “stable” climate. As it happens, sceptics and warmers do find plenty of science to argue about – which is a good thing. Perhaps if climate scientists didn’t put their names to statements which appeal to “balance” and “natural” rates of change, those arguments would be harder for the sceptics to have. You don’t actually need to be a climate scientist to know that it’s bullshit.

Political arguments about the way to respond to climate change get deferred to scientific arguments. This takes the form of “the science is settled, and anyone who doubts it has a political agenda” followed by “it is happening” versus “it isn’t happening”. If the conversation at the NYT blog was just a battle of received wisdoms of the kind you can find all over the web, then it would not be significant. But the blog was populated by many of the “qualified scientists” that we’re being asked to store so much faith in, and who posted to the blog to register their support of the AGU statement. These were no amateurs. Warmers ought to realise that, although they may not believe themselves to be arguing from an ideological position, what they are arguing for is deeply ideological; they want to reorganise society around a new system of values. No amount of science and fear mongering legitimises that intention.

If you challenge politicians or public figures on climate policy you will hear the answer that it is the view of the majority of scientists. We have pointed out many times before that public statements on climate rarely match the reality of what has been said by the IPCC, even when it’s high-profile scientists (such as Lord Ma
, or Lord Rees), not politicians, who are doing the doom-saying. They ought to be answering questions about what kind of world that would be. Even a world dominated by climate-scientists-as-politicians would not have a “stable” or “balanced” climate, nor will that world be any better informed as to what a stable or balanced climate actually is.

Scientific Theory or Sinking Ship?

According to a new theory, people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

Many people know about the dangers of global warming, but only few act… On the one hand, human beings get stubbornly comfortable in their habits. On the other, the human species is biologically programmed to act in its own best interests – and its members aren’t very different from common rats on that point.

But this ‘explanation’ for our behaviour, put forward by German psychologist Andreas Ernst, says more about environmentalism than it does humans.

An additional, crucial key to changing behaviour across society, however, is committed political engagement, said Ernst. The European Union could for example “turn the screws” incrementally to increase energy prices and reduce emission tolerance levels, he said. … the human tragedy and economic losses that resulted from Kyrill, the cyclone that formed over Newfoundland and blasted damage and death across Europe in January, and Hurricane Katrina, which levelled New Orleans in 2005, could help raise human consciousness about the huge problems of climate change, Ernst noted.

Ernst’s is a very degraded sense of engagement. It is one in which the public is treated like an animal, disciplined and coerced by tragedy and punishment. It is not one that encourages an understanding of individuals as agents of their own future. People are not asked to commit to a vision of a better society, but forced to behave by the spectre of its collapse due to natural disaster. The choice on offer is not between different ideas about a better future, but between a nightmare future and survival – exactly the same future rats have. In spite of his appeal for political engagement, Ernst undermines fundamental principles of democracy, the process through which consent is tested and achieved by negotiation, debate, and active political engagement. His understanding of politics owes more to Pavlov than to, say, JS Mill. Ernst cannot be wrong any more than the dogs knew better than Pavlov when it should be supper time. It is the minds of the masses that have the shortcomings. This is deep arrogance, not scientific investigation. Any tinpot political theory can justify itself in this way.

In fact, it is true that reducing carbon emissions blamed for global warming depends on changing behaviour across society, but even that conviction seems to be missing, Seidl said. “Most people still don’t have confidence in the ability of collective action to bring about change,” he said.

Ernst and his colleagues have identified that people are disengaged from politics – which is certainly true. But they ought to see environmentalism as a symptom of that phenomenon, not as some way out of it. The alarmist appeals to urgency and the anti-humanism of this movement reflect the poverty of ideas in the political sphere; they are typical of the way in which political leaders justify themselves today. Environmentalism, which appears radical and alternative because it shares some history with the left is in fact no different to the mainstream in this respect. What Ernst and his colleagues don’t seem to have considered is the possibility that people have understood environmentalism, yet, as they have with many other political movements, simply not been moved precisely because it treats them in this way. The widespread public cynicism about politics is more than matched by politicians’ cynicism of, no, contempt for the public, and nowhere is that more true than in the environmental movement. Nobody can argue that the environmental message hasn’t been given enough air time.

Yet environmentalists need to create stories about why they haven’t achieved the success they feel their alarmist narratives should entitle them to. This is sometimes achieved by conspiracy theories about industrial capitalists paying scientists and media companies to misinform. In this case, it is achieved by simply saying that people who do not see things in shades of green lack the brains to properly consider their own interests. But both of these arguments depend heavily on reducing humans to animals, and defining the public as a problem needing to be controlled – we’re either too stupid, or too greedy to take a wider view. By redefining the political problems that environmentalism has in persuading people that it knows what their best interests are as a problem of human nature, theories like this can be used to justify acting without consent, and treating the public like naughty children.

Even more unpleasant is the implication that the good people who take environmental threats seriously are less like rats than the rest of us. The idea is that environmentalism doesn’t just offer to protect people from the climate, but also from themselves – or rather, from the swarming masses. When a select few are capable of understanding the complexities of climate science and the remainder have no more cognitive ability than rodents, the role of government is to modify behaviour, and to manage human nature.

If humans are just like rats – interested only in short-term benefits – then so too must be the environmentalists. Indeed, long-term, considered and contested worldviews tend to frighten environmentalism – after all, they stop us responding to short-term environmental alarmism. As Ernst’s colleague Roman Seidl puts it: ‘Families with small children are especially receptive to the message: “Climate change won’t affect us, but our children and grandchildren.”‘ Such emotional weaponry is not the stuff of careful consideration, it is blackmail. He might as well say ‘if you don’t act now, your baby will die, and you will be responsible’. There is nothing sophisticated or hard to grasp about his message. It has not been absorbed is because the public are far better at filtering out shrill nonsense than environmentalists give them credit for, and they know that being treated like rats is not in their interest.