THE DENIAL by Ross Clark THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
So I return to my neglected Unseen Academic feature, with what is (honestly) going to be a book review, honestly, but first some climate change context.
Climate change is a wicked problem, as defined by Rittel and Webber, in the sense that is massive in scale, complicated in nature and uncertain in solution. The geo-politics of the issue have only added to that wickedness as we have had decades of prevarication, non-binding targets, unmet commitments and excessively platformed and inexpert climate change deniers. This has been very well covered by Oreskes and Conway in Merchants of Doubt. Their key point – implicit in the title – is not that those who oppose action need to disprove the science, they merely need to sow doubt and let humanity’s natural apathy do the rest.
However, as we move into a new phase of the climate crisis where the reality is becoming impossible to deny, the erstwhile deniers have shifted to a new stance that Michael E Mann, climatologist and adviser to the film Don’t Look Up, has called “climate change inactivism”. In publications like the Green Market Revolution – with absurd statements like “Modern capitalism is the best friend of a fragile habitat”  – we are seeing more signs of this pivot from climate change denial to an acceptance of its reality, but with an insistence that the free market is how we can solve it. In true libertarian tradition, governments are portrayed as too slow, bureaucratic and frankly incompetent to match the agility and inspiration of the visionary capitalist entrepreneur. Part of this new-found acceptance by deniers of climate change’s reality is a desire to steer the nature, speed and extent of our response. Following the pattern identified by Oreskes and Conway, the intention of these erstwhile climate change deniers is not to prove their own approach is right, but to sow enough uncertainty to make people doubt the alternative arguments. Apathy will do the rest.
Climate change fiction – or cli-fi – is not a passive spectator or chronicler of this phenomenon. It is entangled in the politics of climate change. Michael Crichton’s notoriously polemic State of Fear was used almost as a handbook of climate change denial by Republican senator Inhofe. Kim Stanley Robinson has become such an advocate for addressing climate change within and beyond his works of fiction that some people actually ask him to respond to detailed science queries.
Adam Trexler in Anthropocene fictions in 2015 numbered over 150 Cli-fi works most of which have come out in the 21st Century. Trexler’s work describes how climate change is becoming an increasingly widespread and genre transcending theme in literature as the reality of climate change becomes not some distant imagined dystopia but our present lived reality.
Over the next few weeks, I aim to review four works of Cli-fi and how they fit into the shifting context of the climate change crisis.
Trexler, writing in 2015, identified George Marshall’s The Earth Party: Love and Revolution in a Time of Climate Change (2008) as one of the only climate change novels to describe an environmental activist group that forces political transformation. Ross Clark’s The Denial (2020) is another such book. The Cli-fi oeuvre is full of stories of dystopian futures where climate change has destroyed society and dark forces have assumed control because activist warnings have been ignored. However, examples where activist forces have seized control are – as Trexler noted – far rarer but, in the case of The Denial at least, hardly more positive.
The world of The Denial
Clark imagines a future world where responding to climate change has become the top UK government and international political priority. The UK has wound up its use of gas and now relies on wind and solar energy for its electricity – which have proven so fickle that the country has to rely on back up diesel generators and even then there are still frequent power cuts. The well-intentioned efforts to insulate homes have been undermined by cowboy builders who have done such widespread rip-off jobs that homes remain uninsulated damp, cold and poorly ventilated. Consequently, in winter people resort to open fires for heating which leads to the return of old-fashioned London smogs. These in turn – by obscuring the sun – reduce the yield of solar power still further.
The global fossil fuel corporations have been wound up, all their wealth extracted through lawsuits for reparations from those countries and individuals damaged by climate change. Fear of criminal prosecution has led many of the global chief executives of fossil fuel corporation to flee to South America and assume new identities while Climate Change denialism has become a crime.
Clark’s protagonist – Bryan Geavis – is a retired meteorologist living by the sea in Essex. Geavis’ past is complicated and compromised by the fact that he used to work for an oil company in a role using his professional expertise to predict weather around North Sea Oil rigs and so ensure worker safety.
The novel’s inciting incident occurs when Geavis, in the midst of an evening’s habitual scrutiny of livestreamed weather data, spots a dangerous North Sea storm making an unpredicted diversion towards the Thames estuary with the potential threat of huge flooding and loss of life. Geavis’ attempts to warn people initially fall on deaf ears. However, while the disaster proves not quite as devastating as initially feared, the failure of government meteorologists to predict it lead to Geavis being invited to interviews first on radio and then – with deep personal consequences – on a popular TV show.
Geavis becomes entangled in the politics and publicity of managing climate change, attracting social media opprobrium due to decontextualised quotes from his interview. Alongside Geavis’ travails, the wider UK situation becomes increasingly dire. Every attempt to deal with the colliding crises of energy, poverty, food shortages and public opinion manage to make things worse and increase public unrest. Politicians and activists seek to outdo each other, refusing pragmatic solutions and pushing purity of principles in a spiral of increasing climate extremism. The outcome is a UK embracing ever more draconian and deeply retrospective laws to punish those responsible for the consequences of climate change rather than tackle real issues, for example crops failing due to an inability to harvest them as the electric tractors aren’t strong enough and diesel is prohibited.
The retired Geavis becomes a symbolic figure of hate and is drawn into a ‘show trial’ that takes up much of the later part of the book. Clark’s depiction of it has resonances with A Man For All Seasons with Geavis playing a weary Thomas More type figure trying to reason his way out of a dilemma that is part-legal and part-semantic on which his detractors seem determined to spear him.
The book is essentially a vehicle for Clark to project his perceptions of contemporary climate change strategy and politics into the future and – in so doing – turn up the dystopia dial. The website desmog has collated an archive of Clark’s writings relating to climate change (https://www.desmog.com/ross-clark/). Somewhat unsurprisingly – a great number of the article taglines can be discerned as a plot or world building point in The Denial. The drive to compress polemic into fiction form (and The Denial is a mercifully short book) forces the writing and characterisation to play second fiddle to the elements of plot as we head hop around to showcase Clark’s particular preoccupations.
You may have gleaned the political slant of the book if you knew that Clark wrote for right wing press like the Express, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Spectator. That perspective is robustly underlined with a cover endorsement from none other than Boris Johnson, describing Clark as “one of the great unsung talents of journalism.” However, if you were ‘unaware’ of that tilt to the narrative (unaware seems to be a bit of a loaded term in politics these days) it quickly becomes apparent in the targets of the book’s satire.
We have the tropes of
- Activists being smelly and unwashed as the prime minister meets a delegation from the Huddle for Love Movement, “The only thing, thought Downwood, was that they did smell a little.”.
- A BBC which has been rebranded as Diversity TV where only ‘approved opinions are allowed’ though to be fair, in the broadcaster’s fairly abject surrender to prevailing government orthodoxy, it does resemble our contemporary BBC TV news output – it’s just the orthodoxy that has changed.
- A cultish climate change zeitgeist which means anyone who hasn’t signed up to a multi-section climate pledge is unable to access basic retail or hospitality services; companies have been hounded by activists into refusing service to anyone not on the centrally maintained pledge list. Though Clark stops short of using phrases like ‘woke’ or ‘cancel culture’ they are clearly visible between the lines.
- Hypocrisy in the climate change movement where accredited climate change influencers – who constitute the new elite – get enhanced carbon allowances to pursue their activism, including running cars and flying to Florida for conferences.
- Veganism as a cultural default – no one has the carbon credits for meat, even if eating it hadn’t become a socially abhorrent practice. Geavis resents the dull tasteless and nutritionally deficient alternative to meat diets he is obliged to eat along with necessary vitamin supplements.
- Hysterical semantics with the “Ministry for the Climate Emergency” going through a sequence of last names from “crisis” to “catastrophe” to “apocalypse” and finally “Armageddon” though the MPs on Clark’s back benches do wonder whether Armageddon is a greater state of disaster than apocalypse.
- Precocious children being given undue power, influence and reverence.
Some of Clark’s naming choices emphasise the one-dimensional nature of the characters or institutions being critiqued.
- Dave Bodger – the determined hard working ‘everyman’ who just wants the government to make sure people are fed and warm
- Zoe Fluff – the actress, social influencer and intellectual lightweight who stirs up vitriol against Geavis through her social media reach.
- Mob – the social media platform full of trolls and haters.
Some reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere were dazzled by this wit but, as you may have gathered, I doubt I am Clark’s target audience. That is why what were doubtless considered “Johnsonian zingers” at the time of writing fell as flat for me as a Jim Davidson uncensored gig (or to be fair – as flat as a Johnsonian zinger).
With reference to the power of novels in general and cli-fi in particular, Adam Trexler writes – on the one hand
“By assembling diverse things in the world, novels transform it in unforeseeable ways.”
And yet on the other hand he says
“If climate change novels do alter the world, critics could worry this signals a return to reading for that dried and shriveled fruit: the message.”
So, what messages did I draw from The Denial (always remembering one can understand a message without believing it) and what transformation does Clark hope to see it achieve in the world?
- The first is that his future world has been rushed into climate change action by a mixture of dogma, fashion and political cowardice. Every ill is being attributed to climate change where there are other potential causes including randomness, uncertainty in the science and incompetence.
- The second is that this rush has turned the UK into a country full of poor, sad, hungry people.
- The third is that we are both damaging children and trusting them too much. He portrays: the arrogant certainty and hypocrisy of 17 year old Bunty the climate influencer; the misery of 12 year old Amber – Geavis’s grand-daughter – caught in nightmares and an eating disorder as she refuses to eat any food that have damaged the planet in its production – “Night after night, Amber had been kept awake by fears for the planet’s future”; we have Amber’s friend Misha struggling with her duties as leader of the jury that tries Geavis yet also enjoying the high profile that ultimately propels her (still aged 12) to the post of prime minister in a country that has lowered the voting age to 10.
- The fourth is that we are too quick to overlook the many benefits and advances in civilisation that fossil fuels have brought since the industrial revolution, in consequence of which Geavis tells the children’s jury “You have been brought up warm and well fed, you have been brought up in a world that is almost free from hunger and pestilence.”
There are other none too subtle messages but overall then – where Crichton’s State of Fear was absolutely a work of climate change denial – The Denial is a work of climate change inactivism. Its central premise is that contemporary climate politics is making us worry too much, ineffectively and in the wrong way about climate change – thus driving us towards a sad activist led future.
Of course, this is a work of speculative fiction. That ‘fantastic’ nature was made absolutely clear at the plot point where a disgraced UK prime minister is forced to resign and immediately hands over to a caretaker PM and leaves office – Rather than, indulging in a months’ long valedictory tour of fanciful cosplay at the taxpayer’s expense involving fighter jets and hand grenades, while a very narrow selectorate chose his successor from a very shallow and murky pool of ‘talent.’ (btw the comedian Matt Green has an excellent take on that particular situation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcLr6NnLn-g ).
One shouldn’t metaphorically shoot the messenger just because you don’t like the message – but it is important to understand something of the messenger’s perspective to contextualise the message.
Ross Clark is a reporter who writes for generally right-wing newspapers including The Telegraph and The Spectator. While Clark bridles at having been called a climate change denier by Al Gore, his articles never seem to explicitly or implicitly accept that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.
“Older people have been around long enough to remember that we had hurricanes, floods and heatwaves before anyone thought to blame fossil fuel emissions for them, and therefore are less impressed when someone tries to cite a single extreme weather event as evidence of climate change.”
The articles catalogued on (https://www.desmog.com/ross-clark/) are exemplars of doubt sowing and it is beyond the scope of a simple book review to examine and address every assertion, bias or misdirection. However, in the context of The Denial it is possible to pick out a few of Clark’s recurring themes and suggest how in fact and in fiction his position appears internally contradictory or even a projection of current climate inactivism behaviours onto his fictional future government.
A key plot point driving Clark’s future UK into unrest and disaster is the failure of home insulation, due to an incompetent government being ripped off by cowboy builders who take the money and don’t do the work. Clark does not rebut the value of properly installed insulation. He only asserts that shoddy cowboy insulation and inadequate government oversight (one might call it regulation?) has made the insulation campaign ineffective. This would seem to be an argument for better regulation and against practices like, for example, giving crony PPE contracts to unproven suppliers through VIP lanes. In positing an incompetent government that is exploited by business (albeit small business rather than corporate moguls) Clark appears to be projecting current Tory behaviour onto a future climate aware government.
Emotive arguments and off-specialism scientists.
In further projection of climate denial strategies onto climate activists Clark suggests popular emotions are being manipulated with images of burned Koalas and an emaciated polar bear. On the latter picture Geavis observes “How do they know the bear’s not just old?” At the same time Geavis is ‘ambushed’ in a TV interview by an off-specialism scientist (an anthropologist) who is brought in to rebut Geavis’ years of meteorological expertise. The projection is almost painful to read. Oreskes and Conway have charted in Merchants of Doubt how similar off specialism scientists were used to cast doubt on issues from lung cancer and smoking through to encouraging climate change denial. While the platforming of scientific ingenues like Lord Lawson as having expertise somehow equivalent to climate experts has done much to delay climate action, the “you’ll be poorer and colder” message of the anti-net zero campaigns – reiterated in this book – is itself a fact-free appeal to emotion.
In another moment of projection, Clark has Geavis mournfully decry the impact of climate change measures saying, “It’s so obvious that we’re getting poorer as a country… it’s a self-inflicted misery.” This is a kind of spit out your coffee kind of moment as Clark – like most right-wing journalists – has been a fervent supporter of the Brexit disaster which – on the government’s own figures is a self-inflicted harm twice as impactful as the Covid pandemic and of apparently indefinite duration. I mean, forget The Denial’s food rotting in fields because of underpowered electric tractors, the Brexit that Clark espoused has led to food rotting in fields because of a shortage of EU workers – not just a poor endorsement of Clark’s judgement, but a huge irony.
But are Fossil Fuels all bad?
Through Geavis’s words, as through Clark’s articles, we are told that the world has been too quick to dismiss the many advances in public wealth, health and general wellbeing that he contends depended on the cheap energy that fossil fuels provided. Beneath that broad assertion are layers of elided nuance and obfuscation that lie beyond even the rather stretched scope of this book review. Suffice to say Clark does not touch on issues of inequality or exploitative capitalism which ensured that whatever benefits there may have been were far from evenly distributed. However, even if (a big if) fossil fuels were as universally benevolent in the past as Clark (and Geavis) suggest – the point is utterly spurious as it fails to address the impact of fossil fuels now and in the future. It’s like saying “he got the big calls right” (and for the record Johnson, did not) as if that excuses, dishonesty, corruption, covering for sex offenders and traducing standards in public life.
Furthermore, the fossil fuel industry that Clark eulogises so fervently did in fact know all about climate change and their role in it decades ago, which makes Clark’s attempted satire of their potential convictions for climate crimes fall a little flat.
Ross Clark’s The Denial, like much cli-fi, is entangled in the politics of the subject. Its stereotypes, projections and tropes, will doubtless resonate with a certain readership. They may overlook its inconsistencies, its failure to engage with the reality of climate change or offer any insights into how climate change should be addressed. They may embrace its comfortable apathy inducing endorsement of doubt, its implicit suggestion that those who protest are too loud and too wrong.
However, others will bridle at the gaps and misrepresentations in its messaging. It is no accident that the sets of climate change sceptics, Brexit proponents and Covid lockdown deniers overlap so significantly as to be almost indistinguishable. Nor is it coincidence that the groups Oreskes and Conway identified as opposing action on one health or environmental issue were groups that pivoted to oppose action on each successive issue up to and including climate change action. The same fundamental priorities underlie all this activity, the protection and enhancement of corporate wealth and influence. As Kim Stanley-Robinson put it, ”Climate change and capitalism are two parts of the same problem; they are effect and cause.”
When Clark suggested that the great wealth of the oil and gas corporations had been expended fighting lawsuits it was almost a laugh out loud moment for me. The wealth of the oil and gas corporations lies in their underground reserves (and the trillion dollars of subsidies they get). Ironically the essential fundamental climate action that we need to take – keeping the fossil fuels in the ground – would instantly impoverish the corporations, leaving them without the means to pay anyone climate damages. That is why the corporations themselves strive so hard to convince us we cannot live without fossil fuels and that there are ways we can continue to use them (and indeed increase our use of them) through fanciful technology and even more fanciful accountancy. Clark’s vouching for the fossil fuel industry is perhaps the most egregious aspect of a disingenuous work of cli-fi inactivism.
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