William T. Vollmann: What If the Leftwing Hoaxers Are Right?
On Climate Change Denial and the Resurgence of Carbon-Fueled Ideology
In the time when I lived, it was still possible to meet Americans who disbelieved in global warming, although the ones I knew became shyer and rarer in about 2013. In 2016, they helped elect Donald Trump president, upon which their various carbon ideologies naturally came roaring back.
“We sure need a good Sierra snowpack this year,” said a contractor friend of mine. “Skiing was lousy last year and the year before. If we can only get some snow, that will make those global warming people shut up.”—That was just before Christmas. Come spring, the snowpack was six percent of what we had been calling normal. But why not call California a special case? Up in Washington the snowpack was a full 16 percent of what it should have been; and by May, “seeing things happen at this time of year we just have never seen before,” Governor Inslee declared a “statewide drought emergency.”—Fortunately, my contractor friend was vindicated, and those global warming people utterly foiled, for after a long dry year, the subsequent winter blew flurry-rich, and by January the Sierra snow level had reached 115 percent!
February turned unseasonably warm. The leftwing hoaxers got impudent again. As for the skeptics, they took strength in the fact that carbon forecasters of other stripes had been wrong before, in token of which I quote from my grandfather’s Mechanical Engineers’ Handbook, copyright 1958: Petroleum would soon run out! “The peak of production in the United States should come about 1965. . . World shortage of petroleum may be expected to begin about 1960.”—If only!—As for coal, in predicting that American production would reach its height in about 1975 the Handbook was not far wrong, but it anticipated that a world shortage of “total world fossil fuels. . . would be noticeable” around that same year, which is precisely when a build-your-own-alternative-style-house primer warned us all: “A Federal Power Commission staff study, released in January of 1975, concluded that natural gas production from the 48 contiguous states has reached its peak and will decline for the indefinite future.”—We were all on the verge of getting cold!—But in 1993 the National Coal Association announced that “at present rates of use” our coal reserves “can be expected to last nearly 250 years. There are about 1,000 tons of recoverable coal for every man, woman and child in the United States.” Then came fracking, which afforded gas enough to toast us in our planetary oven.
In each of these dull and distant comedies, we got condemned to future deprivation, and then the diagnosis brightened! The prior errors of prophecy proved that no one knew anything about anything; therefore, climate change was the merest hot air.
In 2014 my friend Philip, a cheerful, hardworking realtor in his early forties, allowed that global warming might exist, but that it was natural and “evolutionary”; the human race had little to do with it. For years we had drunk together and listened to each other, so I asked him to tell me more. “Why should I concentrate on anything that stresses me out?” he demanded, and when I saw that the subject might dent his cheerfulness, I changed it.
Kindred sorts reassured me that our new weather was “natural” and cyclical, and therefore required no action. Indeed, precious little action was taken. “For more than 40 years, Homer City [Generating Station in Pennsylvania] has spewed sulfur dioxide from two of its three units completely unchecked. . . because it is largely exempt from federal air pollution laws. . . Last year, the facility released 114,245 tons of sulfur dioxide, more than all of the power plants in neighboring New York combined.” This pollutant was both a killer of many organisms and a dangerous “precursor” gas with unpredictable effects on the climate. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency finally demanded that Homer City clean up. After threatening “immediate and devastating consequences” and losing a lawsuit, the utility found a way to comply—without even raising its electricity rates. When I read this tale in the newspaper, my first emotion was happy astonishment that mitigation had proved so practicable—after which I felt all the more amazed that Big Coal kept digging in its heels against reducing harmful emissions elsewhere—and was allowed to do so—while Big Oil and Big Frack behaved much the same.
“The prior errors of prophecy proved that no one knew anything about anything; therefore, climate change was the merest hot air.”
Anyhow, the gloom-and-doom hand-wringers like me, the climate change deniers and the consoling weather-cycle asserters, we were all outnumbered by ordinary practical folks for whom cheap energy and a paycheck incarnated all relevance. One fellow wrote in to the newspaper: “My son works in the coalfields of southern West Virginia[;] he supports my two grandchildren by mining the coal that keeps the lights on in America”—this last phrase being often used by my nation’s carbon ideologues. “So I know firsthand the importance of winning the war on coal that Obama declared five years ago.” Whether it was truly Obama who started it, who our enemy was, and whether America’s lights might beneficially be dimmed here and there, failed to encumber him. The maintenance of his two grandchildren trumped other arguments; their needs caused him to “know firsthand” the small selfish thing that he knew. I will not celebrate him, but I decline to blame him, either. Why should his kin go hungry? (You in our future can go hungry instead; after all, we don’t even know you.)
A Russian woman opined that the winters of her city, Saint Petersburg, were often just as severe as formerly, but their duration had diminished from five to four months. A fellow Californian who had backpacked the Sierras for decades returned from a hike in June, when he would have expected to see wet green meadows, and then snow at the high elevations; this time he told me: “A lot of trees dead and dying. Kind of alarming, actually.” A businessman in Bangladesh asserted that 20 percent of his country would lie underwater within 35 years. (You from the future might know that more of it sank faster.) And as we waited to board our Amtrak train in Sacramento, I asked the old lady who stood beside me on the platform whether she believed in global warming, to which she said: “Oh, absolutely. Even the children are getting sunburned more easily. When you wear black pants you feel the sun sooner. We’ve done too many things not knowing what the effect would be.”
“What should we do about it?”
“Pray. That’s all we can do.”
As the Unabomber calculated in his manifesto: “When a decision affects. . . a million people, then each of the affected individuals has, on the average, only a one-millionth share in making the decision.” So we couldn’t do anything. Or else we just didn’t want to. In 2015, when the price of crude oil decreased by half, the US Congress might have increased the fuel tax, however modestly, and employed the proceeds on funding renewable energy (or, if nothing else, on building seawalls). In its customary elevated style, Time magazine announced how everything would actually play out:
CASHING IN: THE DROP IN OIL PRICES IS EQUIVALENT TO A $125 BILLION TAX CUT. HERE’S WHAT THAT MEANS:… BIG CARS ARE BACK.
For a while our powerlessness got represented and recapitulated up through various levels of government. In 2014 the Attorney General of West Virginia announced: “The Office’s end goal is to stop the EPA from hurting our state, and if we can’t do that, we plan to at least gum up the works enough so that it limits the damage that the Obama administration can inflict on our citizens.” The defiant frustration in his utterance, which played well to certain interests, must have been felt in greater measure by the White House’s feeble occupant. (Near the end of his second term he sadly remarked: “There’s this notion that there’s something I might have done that would prevent Republicans to [sic] deny climate change. . .”) You see, we were all feeble! A West Virginian delegate (who happened to be a coal miner) complained that Obama “speaks as though the Earth’s climate ends and begins at the shores of the United States, while willfully ignoring the fact that China is revving up its economy by using coal”—some of which came from the United States, a fact he willfully ignored. In other words, we Americans could hardly make a difference; therefore, nobody should make us try.
Accordingly, carbon’s ideologues empowered themselves when and where they could. In 2015, a Wisconsin “agency that manages thousands of acres of state land. . . banned its employees from working on climate change issues while on the job.” The only person who voted against that ban, Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, was a scientist. In other words, he actually possessed the competence to determine whether or not our actions could “put up enough smoke to make a difference.” Remarking that climate change was in fact altering forests, he decried “the trend of public officials who, either out of ignorance or out of political expediency, deny climate change.”—And so denial led happily to silence.
“The future for which I write will most likely also be a more radioactive time.”
In that year the Norwegian Parliament, the Church of England, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the French insurance entity AXA all decided to divest in varying degrees from coal-associated businesses; fortunately for order and tradition, these measures would have little or no impact on the vast market capitalization of most companies.
So the War on Coal rolled on, until we all lost.
The future for which I write will most likely also be a more radioactive time. Just as we continued mining the coal, fracking the shale and drilling the oil that kept the lights on in America, not to mention Bangladesh, even as carbon dioxide levels crept up and up in our atmosphere, so it was that even after Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima, plenty of Japanese kept assuring me that nuclear power was “necessary.” It might have been “better,” at least. According to the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, “low level radiation is probably less ‘dangerous’ than the emissions from burning coal.” Anyhow, I hope that you in the future have learned how to make your spent fuel rods safe.
I who send this letter to the future hereby plead that we were no more evil or even selfish than anyone else. Some of us lived in a fairly robust democracy of opinion, but lacked any democracy of ideas, let alone of policy. Our various educational systems failed to impart the minimum knowledge which a citizen would have needed to judge coal, nuclear power and other methods of keeping on the lights. This knowledge would have entailed some competence in the following procedures: carrying out simple mathematical conversions, marshalling facts, comparatively quantifying energies, emissions and efficiencies; performing risk-benefit analyses, deducing the specific material interests of each carbon ideologue, recognizing omissions, inaccuracies and outright lies, positing and testing relationships between facts, verifying and disproving all claims, including our own—and, most crucially, deciding what we needed to know, and how to seek that information. Some apparent phenomena would still have resisted measurement and much would have remained arguable. But the less we measured, the more conveniently we could argue—while the threat continued to become a calamity.
Of course we did it to ourselves; we had always been intellectually lazy, and the less asked of us, the less we had to say. Again, we were no worse than others. (If anything, we might have been less rigid in our ideas than the Assyrians.) In our time the sky never stopped raining claims and counterclaims. We came to think that we had heard them all. Had we in the teeth of our complacent miseducation arrived at any common conclusion, we lacked the power to enact it. So we lived private lives, not worrying about the unpreventable, while the “experts” kept cashing in.
So did I. When I lived, the profit motive was unanswerable. An unemployed West Virginian told me: “Well, I can’t blame them coal companies for going away. I mean, business is business.”
For those who couldn’t aspire to profit, mere survival was even harder to argue with. An art teacher in that same county (the high school where he taught sat right on top of a mountaintop removal mine) remarked: “It’s cultural devastation to lose families in the coal mines and it’s cultural devastation to have families break up when men can’t feed their loved ones. When you make a product, and you base it on the labor of men’s backs, and then you take it away, you turn us into a Third World country.” Naturally he did not want the coal companies to take it away. Coal was poison, sure. It poisoned the rivers when it got cleaned. His solution: “Why do you clean coal? It’s got dust on it. Why not make the Chinese clean their own coal?”—He was another good man, who couldn’t see that what hurt the Chinese would eventually hurt us. Well, maybe he saw it and didn’t care. Were I in his shoes, or in his pupils’ shoes, I might have behaved the same. I might have said: “It’s going to be a hungry winter, and the baby’s sick, and I can’t pay the electric bill. Let me worry about my own.”—Isn’t that how it must be for you in our starving future?
From No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies. Used with permission of Viking Books. Copyright © 2018 by William T. Vollmann.