Climate and Energy

The Melodrama of Climate Change Denial

The far right likes to position itself as the ultimate good, a hero standing up to an evil world. Melodrama is its genre of choice, through which it tells of its fights with environmentalists, feminists, and minorities. Political scientist Cara Daggett explains how this thinking shapes right-wing politics in the US, what environmentalists can do to tackle it, and why the importance of storytelling must not be underestimated in the green transition.

Green European Journal: In the past you’ve spoken about how the main genre of climate change denialism is melodrama. Can you explain?

Cara Daggett: I have been studying the new kinds of stories that the far right is telling about climate change, and how these are shifting as people start to experience increasingly intense planetary changes. I am specifically interested in the relationship between misogyny, fossil fuel support, and climate denial on the far right. These elements are often analysed separately – for instance, the #MeToo movement on one hand, and environmental destruction on the other. Instead, I have proposed the concept of “petro-masculinity” to think about how this group of problems are related, how gender anxiety slithers alongside climate anxiety.

I use genre to help explain this relationship. I am interested in genre, or storytelling more generally, because social genres help people organise their experiences and turn them into shared meanings. Genres can produce a sense of community. They tell people what to pay attention to, what is connected to history as part of a pattern, and what to expect in the future. Especially when living through crisis moments, you can see how genre-making can be important politically.

Intersectionality also helps us understand a key tactic that has been used to defend the genre of Man: divide your opponents, ensure that they remain fragmented.

Melodrama, for a long time a powerful political genre in the US, appears to be a key genre for the American far right. I came to appreciate its role in US politics through Elisabeth Anker’s book Orgies of Feeling, where she shows the dominance of melodrama after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Melodrama is a highly dramatic and emotive form that constructs polar opposites of good and evil – like the “Axis of Evil” after 9/11.1 Melodrama idealises the morality of the audience. Unlike tragedy, it does not ask for self-reflection. The heroes are purely good, and villainy and evil are “outside” the community. It is not surprising then that melodrama is often co-opted by authoritarian movements, although you can find it in democratic publics too.

You have mentioned that this genre can reflect on a wide range of topics. Can you tell us about this intersectional component of melodrama?

Another influence for me came from Sylvia Wynter’s work on how the human is also a genre.2 For Wynter, genre is a way to theorise this kind of intersectionality where race, gender, class, and sexuality could all be seen as criteria that determine who is to be counted as fully human, and who is to be excluded. Wynter maps out these stories across Western imperial history as “genres of Man”, and they tell us what counts as human achievement, as being worthy of membership in the community. We still see these stories circulating today in the celebration of figures like the breadwinners, the investors, the entrepreneurs, or, in the categories of a popular phrase in the American right, “the makers versus the takers”. From this perspective, the resurgence of the far right today is only the latest instance of movements across Western history that have been hell-bent on defending the genre of Man, on maintaining all the exclusions that privilege white men and Western capitalism.

Intersectionality also helps us understand a key tactic that has been used to defend the genre of Man: divide your opponents, ensure that they remain fragmented. Wynter shows how those exclusions are interconnected from the start, meaning that they also need to be dismantled together if new genres are to emerge.

Today, environmental justice movements worldwide (like the Sunrise Movement in the US) are insisting on the intersection of these different kinds of violence and are putting them on the agenda together. They show how environmental violence depends on social injustice, which is why people of colour and poor communities suffer the most from climate change. We should never forget how important it is to build alliances across social justice movements, not just because it amplifies our voices, but also because these different kinds of violence are best addressed systemically.

What exactly is the meaning of climate denial in the genre you outlined?

What I see in the far right is not always denial. In a 2018 paper I called it climate refusal,3 but perhaps climate defiance would be a better term. An attachment to the righteousness of fossil fuel lifestyles seems to bring about a desire to not just deny, but to defy climate change. Defying climate change is different from ignoring or downplaying it, which is what many people do who otherwise acknowledge its reality, myself included.

Climate defiance occurs when people understand the threat but refuse to change, doubling down on the violence. This is partly a way to defend elite interests and profit, but it’s also a psychological defence mechanism, a way to manage threats to powerful identities and to channel feelings of impotence onto more vulnerable bodies.

Using fossil fuels can feel like a moment of agency, of control, in a world that feels increasingly out of control.

Ignoring climate change is dangerous but it is a passive disposition, often connected to emotions of confusion or fear. Defiance on the far right is active and angry. Defiance can no longer rest at defending the status quo but must accelerate fossil fuel use until the last moment.
And this may often require authoritarian politics.

This speaks to the more general pleasure taken in the fossil authoritarianism of America – it feels good because it bursts the constraints of liberal, Western hypocrisy. Using fossil fuels can feel like a moment of agency, of control, in a world that feels increasingly out of control.

You said that climate refusal is more of an issue than denial. Have the deniers become completely marginal?

I do not think denial is marginal. Many people in power still regularly circulate denialist narratives. Just think of Scott Pruitt, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly untenable to deny that the climate is changing.

Denial coexists with a host of other responses on the Right, many of which contradict each other. A conservative politician or fossil fuel executive might say something that acknowledges climate change, and then enact policy or make another statement that promotes business as usual. But denial is still useful at moments, especially if it brings shock value and public attention. This makes sense in a US administration that has embraced the reality TV aspects of politics.

The complexity of climate narratives on the Right, and the cognitive dissonance they require, are important to study because they challenge the usual assumptions made about climate science communication. Many researchers have faith that once people truly understand the problem and its urgency, once they are shown how denial was manufactured by fossil fuel interests, then they will support a politics of mitigation. I don’t think this faith is entirely misplaced, otherwise I would not be teaching in higher education. But this doesn’t reflect very well what we see on the far right, where it seems that recognising climate change only fuels a violent and ethno-nationalist reaction.

The only effective way to mitigate climate change is through joint international efforts, but far-right forces are mostly unwilling to cooperate with other nations. Is this one of the reasons why they decided to defend fossil consumption?

Yes, that is true. A lot of the rhetoric around climate defiance is based on the acknowledgment that climate change requires global coordination and cooperation, which the Right dismisses as “globalism”, a term loaded with anti-Semitic connotations. Indeed, climate change is a hard problem for the American right because addressing it would require a politics counter to the interests of big donors like the Koch brothers, whose money is sunk in a fossil fuel future. It also requires an investment in a global political system that is at odds with ethno-nationalism and white supremacy. So, climate change provokes anxiety about both fossil-fuelled capitalism and about the particular conception of American sovereignty that drives them. This conception of American sovereignty is based on the belief that the US can and should have complete control over cross-border flows, and even over transnational flows abroad. That fantasy is increasingly untenable in a globalised world for many reasons, not just climate change.

If neoconservatives had reflected on the gra­vity of climate change, they could have advocated imposing some form of American climate leadership on the rest of the world, the same way the Bush government aimed to export democracy in the 2000s. Is this kind of thinking absent from mainstream American conservatism?

Some ecomodernists are certainly trying to drum up support by arguing that America needs to become a global leader in green technology and innovation. But by and large the American right sees any form of environmental policy leadership as an infringement on US power, and particularly US corporate power, given that they have successfully overturned many important environmental regulations domestically.

The American right sees any form of environmental policy leadership as an infringement on US power.

I’ll add that climate change forces the US to reckon with its historical accountability. The Right understands the US as a beacon of good in the world, but taking climate change seriously requires understanding how America has contributed significantly to the problem, historically and today, while simultaneously extracting wealth from elsewhere. Therefore, this kind of globalism requires more than just a set of new policies. It has to come with taking responsibility for a history in which the US was not always on the good side, something which would mean practising humility. Because how could those who caused the problem expect to have the best ideas for solving it? This is not to say that the US has no role to play in innovation, but rather that it should recognise that historical culpability probably produces blind spots – like the national faith in capitalism – in terms of thinking creatively about building a more sustainable future.

Another challenge would be for people to give up their comfortable ways of life. Does that play a role in the genre?

Yes, absolutely. But in terms of building political alliances, we may want to differentiate between agents and their degree of responsibility in climate change. There are, on the one hand, those who are knowingly pushing denial and defiance, and are profiting monumentally – a relatively small group of people and corporations that participate in fossil fuel boosterism, many of whom we can name. Then there are many others, including me and you, who participate with our daily activities, especially in Europe and North America where per capita consumption is so much higher than in the Global South. That is responsibility too, but addressing these different kinds of complicity brings different political problems and it is important not to collapse them. Focusing too much on consumerism as a cultural practice can distract us from that narrow focus on corporate and elite power which is such an important fulcrum for change.

This often brings me to Gramsci and his thoughts on hegemonic ideologies that make people complicit in a system that is hurting them.4 Being able to consume like Americans – cheap, mass products, delivered to your door by Amazon – provides many comforts and pleasures that cushion people from an otherwise cruel and unjust system. This is why environmental movements should be careful to not talk about consumption without also talking about social and economic justice. More than that, though, they need to talk about different practices of pleasure – all the things that people stand to gain from transformed political and economic systems that are fairer and more sustainable. From life expectancy to suicide and depression rates in the US, there is plenty of evidence that many people are hurting in the current
system and stand to gain a lot from system transformation.

Can you give us an example of a good, progressive counter-narrative?

In Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism, she reflects on the experience of living through moments of disruption, when our old social and political genres that make sense of life are broken, but we are nevertheless still attached to them. We do not have new genres yet to describe the emerging reality, and the old genres give us a sense of unfounded security (cruel optimism). For example, the American “good life” genre is anchored upon consumption and middle-class status symbols like home ownership, a car, a career that pays a living wage – all of which are increasingly out of reach for most Americans (while for others, they were never really possible). These old genres break many of their promises, like the narrative that if you work hard you will get a job and achieve the dream of security. Berlant highlights the need for a proliferation of new genres, but also emphasises how difficult that is to achieve. A genre has to provide people with a sense of love and connection to a place and a community.

The current youth climate movements on the rise worldwide are providing us with visions of a green transition that give me more hope than I have had since I began studying this topic. The kinds of stories that young people are telling are different from the horror and dystopia that dominated how we talked about climate change five or ten years ago.

How can progressives use Gramsci’s concept of hegemony?

Many progressives are attentive to Gramsci and the importance of addressing hegemonic ideology as part of systemic change. I’m interested in what this says about the role of art and aesthetics – something fascist movements usually excel at, and which will need to be countered. For instance, during the first New Deal in the US of the 1930s, art was understood to play an important role in communicating the new economic model to the public. The government hired artists, photographers, graphic artists, and writers to engage with the public and to depict New Deal imaginaries, just as they hired engineers or economists. I saw a similar attention to aesthetics in a video made with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to promote the Green New Deal, in which she teamed up with video and graphic designers to imagine the story of a little girl who grows up in a world in which the Green New Deal has been enacted. It was, in fact, creating an alternative genre of future American well-being. That’s just a small example, but it is important not to underestimate the significance of aesthetics and art because pleasure has to be part of the story. We need new genres that reconceptualise pleasure as something different from consumerism. These may be built upon the pleasures we have lost in today’s economic system: time, community, leisure – and not leisure activities premised upon retail.

Your latest book, The Birth of Energy (2019, Duke), traces the genealogy of energy back to the 19-century science of thermodynamics to challenge the underlying logic that informs todays uses of energy. Could you tell us more about it?

The book is a history of energy; and by that, I mean not a history of fuels but a history of the concept and the science of energy itself. It describes how energy came to be both an object of science and an object of politics. In my research, I found that the concept of energy did not emerge until the middle of the 19th century, when experiments with steam engines were already up and running.

People conceive of energy as a universal, trans-historic fact of nature, while the book shows that energy enters science only as a particular kind of situated knowledge, one that becomes possible in the interplay of humans and steam engines at the time of industrial imperialism.

Productivism has become more than a technical goal; it is also a dominant modern ethos according to which everyone and everything – not just humans but also the earth itself – should be put toward being productive.

Rethinking the history of energy is particularly important because there are many ways of defining energy – even scientifically. But we are nevertheless using one particular logic of energy: an engineer’s logic. This logic is all about the maximisation of work and the minimisation of waste. In The Birth of Energy, I show how this practical goal, which may have its uses in certain circumstances, slips very easily into a moral valuation about work and waste.

How is this notion related to our current narratives about the environment?

It can help explain the ecomodernist position which values productivism above all else. Productivism has become more than a technical goal; it is also a dominant modern ethos according to which everyone and everything – not just humans but also the earth itself – should be put toward being productive. Productivist values are rarely called into question or challenged, I think partly because they have a whiff of physics about them. The dominant logic of energy seems to certify them. Therefore, I want to unsettle the naturalness of energy, and show that this logic of energy has a history. It is not universal, and it does not prove that energy-at-work is inherently superior, either ethically or ecologically.

You can see quite clearly how productivism serves the American right in their defence of fossil fuels. Anytime there is a threat to a pipeline, or to extraction, the defence revolves almost entirely around jobs and economic growth. Given this focus on jobs, in my book I stage a conversation between the politics of energy and post-work political movements that have tried to unsettle the assumption that the sine qua non (an indispensable and essential ingredient) of life itself is work, and that your status as a citizen is connected to your status as a worker. If we can unsettle the connection between work, productivism and moral value, if we can expand our notion of citizenship and wellbeing, and if we manage to put some practical things on the agenda, such as reducing working hours and a basic living income – which both have their flaws but still point in the right direction – it will help us to multiply new genres for a green future.

1. The term “Axis of Evil” was first used by US President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address and was repeated throughout his presidency to identify foreign governments such as those in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as common enemies of the US, and to rally public opinion behind the War on Terror.

2. Sylvia Wynter is a Jamaican writer and cultural theorist who is best known for her writings on the theories of history, literature, science, and Black studies.

3. Cara Daggett (2018). “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire.” Millennium, 47(1), pp. 25–44

4. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Communist politician and philosopher. His concept of hegemony refers to the process through which the bourgeoisie uses its moral and intellectual ability to subordinate the working classes by making them subconsciously consent to a system of values that do not benefit them.

This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

Newsletter

Sign up to the newsletter for handpicked highlights of articles, interviews and translations published each month.

Select the language(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Select the theme(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

The Melodrama of Climate Change Denial

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.