Stuart Parker: Why wildfire season will produce more denialists if we don't change course

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      By Stuart Parker

      Ever since climate activists adopted the “no debate” policy with respect to climate denialists, and since the rise of the modern far right, we have seen an ongoing decline in Canadians’ belief that anthropogenic climate change is real.

      Since around 2010, the number of Canadians who actively disbelieve that our climate is changing due to human activity has climbed to between 25 percent and 30 percent of Canadians today, trending upward with other adjacent beliefs, like Young Earth creationism.

      But these increases have not been even or steady. The biggest jumps have been associated with developments like the “heat dome” that killed hundreds of British Columbians with extreme heat last year, the increasingly out-of-control wildfire seasons and, relatedly, the destruction of Lytton and near-destruction of communities like Fort McMurray.

      Similarly, increases in climate skepticism has not merely increased in reaction to extreme weather episodes; its increase has also been uneven geographically. Increased denialism is something we see as concentrated in the resource extraction periphery of the rural West, in a strip from Timmins to Terrace, taking in Lloydminster, Fort McMurray, Fort St. John, and the other hubs of extractive activity.

      Some might argue that as Canada increasingly realigns its cultural and politics to resemble that of the U.S., this is only to be expected as rural Westerners are swept up in the anti-intellectualism of the American Right. Others might argue that the region’s economic dependence on the fossil fuel industry for the government subsidies it can command is all that is driving this.

      But I want to suggest that these things are as much effects as causes and that the primary cause is a problem far more daunting than the Americanization of Canadian culture or the continued swagger of Big Oil in America’s crankiest vassal state.

      Climate denial increases when people are directly presented with evidence of the greenhouse effect, of the climate crisis, when it incinerates their home or that of their neighbours, when it incinerates the trees on which they were depending for work, when unexpected late and early frosts destroy the crops on which one depends. It also appears to increase when an environmental comorbidity becomes too palpable, too apparent, like the lack of mosquito bites on one’s arm or the lack of dead bugs on one’s windshield, and the eerie silence of a birdless forest. The people experiencing these things most directly are concentrated in the region where climate denial is greatest.

      In cities where people spend their days in climate-controlled spaces, where the birds and insects were already mostly gone, where gardening is a bourgeois pastime that exists primarily to demonstrate control of scarce land and not provide food, where only the smoke arrives from the wildfires because the region is already so heavily defoliated, climate skepticism is actually less.

      In other words, the relationship between firsthand evidence and belief is the opposite of what one would assume.

      This news is especially troubling because the environmental movement has always subconsciously relied on the climate event doing most of the work of mobilizing people to stop it, the way Marxists used to assume that the ever-increasing alienation produced by capitalism would do most of the work of mobilizing revolutionaries. But contrary to David Suzuki’s predictions in 1990, the approach of the climate event is increasing disbelief.

      Yet, strangely, climate activists are not merely unprepared for this reality; they are non-responsive to it. Because the movement embraced an “awareness” versus “conversion” approach to persuading the public—one so obtusely unwilling to consider how people narrate changes in their lives—it is especially unprepared and ill-suited to pivoting on this basis. But there are other reasons: most climate activists are especially likely to succumb to the psychological phenomenon we are witnessing, but in different areas of their lives, affecting different aspects of their political beliefs.

      The phenomenon we are witnessing is called “reaction formation”. It is a well-documented psychological response to manage protracted feelings causing discomfort, usually in the form of fear.

      For instance, a fear of death may manifest as a vehement assertion of the existence and importance of an afterlife. The intensity of a person’s professed conviction is not powered by belief in that conviction but rather, by its opposite.

      In other words, the more a person fears death, and the closer they come to that death, the more vehemently they will propound their belief in the afterlife, because the main person they are trying to convince is themselves, as a means of controlling their feelings of fear.

      Whereas fear of death has powered Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, fear of the climate crisis has powered “climate fundamentalism”.

      I want to suggest that one of the reasons the adoption of the package of beliefs that are included in conservative American thought is so popular in Canada’s northwest is because evidence of climate change is more immediate and frightening. The chance that your home will be destroyed in a wildfire, the chances that your job will be destroyed by extreme weather events, the chance that you will become geographically isolated by a flash flood, the chance that your food security is on the line as frosts and hails become more frequent and unpredictable—these things engender a kind of fear nobody in Toronto or Vancouver is going to experience, because our physical safety is more mediated by capitalism and the urban built environment.

      This is yet another reason that 1980s climate activist David Lewis (the firewood collector and giant, not the former NDP leader) was so far ahead of his time. He felt that the most important message the climate activist movement could deliver to people was that losses were inevitable but we would “share the losses” equitably and not leave communities behind.

      But instead, we have chosen to adopt the Hillary Clinton move and decide that the people living in our rural periphery are “deplorables,” something that came into sharp relief during the trucker “freedom convoy” in which Canadian citizens were referred to as “invaders” of their own country and smeared repeatedly based on falsehoods or massive exaggerations.

      The more we let our rural brothers and sisters know that we do not see them as full citizens of their own country, the more we will intensify the reaction formation that extreme weather events are already causing and the more climate denial we will breed. This is something we cannot afford to do at this time.

      If our political system were not completely captured, Greens or New Democrats would be touring rural areas offering government insurance against climate events, talking not about the “transition” of rural communities but the preservation of rural life in Canada. But instead, the plan is to call frightened people cruel names and condemn them as non-citizen interlopers when they try to express their anxiety to us.

      We must share the losses and we must develop a concrete plan for sharing those losses, not aspirational debt-leveraged nonsense like the LEAP Manifesto, claiming there will be no losses and everyone will get richer. The rural working class know what that’s code for: them getting screwed again. We must do this and do it soon or fear will grow in the communities that are being hardest hit by the greenhouse effect and that fear will intensify climate denial.

      Stuart Parker is a writer, broadcaster, and president of the Los Altos Institute. He's also a former leader of the Green Party of British Columbia. This article originally appeared on his blog. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.

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