David Mitchell on climate change

A couple of years ago, the issue of the consequences of climate change being very depressing came up here, given how dealing with the problem means giving up some excellent things, like being able to visit China or Hawaii on a whim and being able to concentrate our scientific efforts on neat things like space travel.

More recently, David Mitchell (of Mitchell and Webb) produced a funny video with a similar message:

David discusses why tackling climate change is always presented to us by people who either tell us off or patronisingly try to convince us that tackling it is “cool” or “fun”, when actually it’s just something we have to do, because of facts.

I don’t entirely agree with him – since I do see moving to renewable forms of energy as an opportunity. That said, I do like the delivery of his message.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

33 thoughts on “David Mitchell on climate change”

  1. I think late modernism is at the same time a wonderful high point for humanity, but at the same time, a catastrophic low point.

    Technology, learning, creativity and free expression – these are what characterize it as a high point.

    On the other hand, hypocritical support for imperialism, different standards applied to us vs our enemies, the destruction of community through individualizing propaganda i.e. capitalist desire production – this characterizes the low point, the catastrophe.

    I think the catastrophe of climate change is a godsend in that it offers us an opportunity to recognize the catastrophe of late modernism, without throwing out the great achievements. This is inevitably, I think, a kind of “spiritual revolution”. I don’t think that we can avert extinction without a fundamental revaluation, not only of values, but of our relationship to values (i.e. hypocrisy).

  2. “I want to see a global warming expert acknowledge that burning oil, and the various machines we’ve invented that burn oil, is brilliant and it’s a real pisser we can’t do it anymore. But we can’t, because of facts.”

    -David Mitchell

  3. hooray for things which aren’t fun?

    The trouble with presenting it as something unfun, but about which we haven’t any choice, is that actually everyone does have a choice. people find it extremely easy to ignore the facts.

    I’d rather everyone spontaneously chose to live in a sustainable way, but as you’ve pointed out, it’s hardly the exciting proposition when compared to jetting to the football in South Africa or cruising in a new corvette. What to be done? Take people’s choices away from them?

  4. If the government would take this advice, campaigners wouldn’t have to run around claiming that reorganising society would be fun. The problem is our politicians don’t have the balls to tell it as it is, and individuals won’t buckle down by choice until they know everyone else is making the same necessary sacrifices. Which requires regulation, which requires a government with balls

  5. It is true that there is sometimes a clash between what can honestly be said about climate change (like: “we need to cut global fossil fuel use to around nothing by 2050, to avoid dangerous climate change”) and what can be said that will be most successful in driving that outcome.

    People are quick to despair and give up, when they realize the scope of the problem. Many are also highly resistent to realizing that in the first place.

    Nobody can legitimately claim that the struggle to reach carbon neutrality will be easy. We just need to keep plugging away at it with as much energy and as many strategies as we can muster.

  6. While I agree that burning fossil fuels is fun, there are a lot of things which are fun which don’t involve burning fossil fuels. And, what we experience as fun, has a lot to do with our preconceptions.

    For instance, as a child my family went to a cottage every year where many people owned speedboats. We did not have a speedboat – we had a canoe. I’m surprised that I believed that being in a speedboat is more fun than being in a canoe. But, in fact, I think I had more fun in that canoe than I had later when we bought a gas guzzling speedboat. Certainly it was more conducive to adventures – and it made even short distances (i.e. 5 minutes at 30 knots) feel like a proper journey (you do the math; it took longer when paddling).

    So, while I don’t disagree with the video – I’m a bit more of a hippy than Mitchell in that I would encourage people to re-evaluate their notions of fun with respect to how their desires are produced by the forms of life late capitalism encourages them to participate in.

  7. “Which requires regulation, which requires a government with balls”

    This is a good way of formulating the problem. What are the conditions under which a government in Canada could have “balls”?

  8. A government with balls would be one that takes seriously its moral obligation to not pass along a degraded planet to future generations.

    The balls would be necessary, in order to stand up to all the people and organizations that want to keep behaving in ways that are in the process of producing that outcome.

  9. That’s a definition of what it means for a government to “have balls”. I asked what the conditions are under which it would be possible for a “ballsy” government to be elected or remain in power.

  10. A combination of two things, probably:

    1) People need to see practical benefits for themselves, as the result of government pursuing climate change mitigation policies. Probably, these need to go beyond important but invisible benefits like reducing deaths from air pollution from power plants. It needs to include things like jobs, profitable investments, and demonstrable improvements in energy security.

    2) People need to become instinctively aware of the risks and ongoing harm arising from climate change. If we continue on our present course, we will eventually reach a point where the damage is massive and undeniably climate-linked. If we get to that point, people will probably be furious with former governments, for having done nothing serious about the problem earlier.

  11. In my understanding, what it means for a government to “have balls” means having the balls to do the right thing, even when it is unpopular. You described two ways climate change mitigation could become more political popular. I don’t think these are bad conditions to fight for – but what does this have to do with balls?

  12. If you think governments should do what’s right – even when it is deeply politically unpopular – how can you remain a champion of democracy?

    Democracy and a government with balls, as defined here, seem fundamentally at odds.

  13. First of all, the value of “having balls” is not something I have directly asserted in this discussion. I said it was a “good way to formulate the problem”, which is different from saying, “it’s how I would formulate the problem”.

    But, there is a strange equivocation in your logic here – “political popularity” is not the same as democratic popularity. Political popularity includes the corrupt lobbying system, which supports parties that do not act in the public interest, or even according to popular opinion. Issues where popular opinion is at odds with the business interests are often not even discussed in political campaigns.

    Currently, it would be nice to have a government “with balls” in the sense that it acted in the public interest when that diverges from the business interest.

    If you think it “takes balls” for a government to have the opposite stand as its public, then Obama has huge balls for implying that the US public are “against the world” in their general belief that Iran has the right to refine Uranium in accordance with the non-proliferation treaty. In fact, every US administration since 1980 has had “huge balls” for not even discussing the issue of health care, despite overwhelming popular support for a Canadian style system dating back thirty years.

    I still wish Bush had lacked the “balls” to disagree with the majority of his own supporters that the Kyoto protocol was obviously a good idea.

  14. I would formulate the problem in terms of,

    1) The determining of the government agenda by elite interests, through party sponsorship, and lobbying


    2)The production of popular opinion by elite interest in accordance with the Propeganda model, i.e. Lippman and Bernays.

    I would formulate a solution in terms of

    1)Re-deploying existing capital in service of needs rather than “economic interests”.

    2)De-volving political and economic power, first to states, and eventually to provinces and communities.

  15. One persuasive point in favour of structural re-organization rather than band-aid solutions for capitalism: The existing division of wealth means in order to improve life for those least well off, we need economic growth. Economic growth means more labour, and more labour generally means more resource exploitation, etc… A different division of wealth would mean overall happiness could be greatly increased while productivity drastically declines – which is more easily in accordance with a transition to carbon neutrality.

  16. The pragmatic case looks something like this:

    If we have the public or political will to take a step towards carbon neutrality, we should take it. Right now, this includes things like deploying electric vehicles and experimenting with carbon capture and storage.

    If we have the ability to do something unpopular but necessary, we should do it. This would include creating a carbon tax, in many places.

    If something is necessary and unpopular to the extent that we cannot do it, we should try to change popular opinion or the relative influence of different elites until it does become possible.

    Where public suppors aids us, we should use it; where it does not hinder us, we should do what’s right; where it blocks us, we should change or circumvent it.

    This is all part of the broad strategy I sketched before.

  17. “If we have the public or political will to take a step towards carbon neutrality, we should take it. ”

    Right now, the public will is irrelevant, or US would have had Canadian style health care in the early 80s.

    The political will doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist not because people in positions of power are bad, but because the current power of capital, especially finance capital, sees carbon neutrality as a hamper on growth – and anyone who stands in growth’s way will be fired, marginalized, etc…

    If you want to see evidence of the “political will”, you just need to look at the massive funding for climate denial organizations.

    It’s possible that the greening of the economy could produce tons of wealth and growth, the problem is, the oil economy is producing lots of wealth right now – and capitalism is opposed to planning more than a Quarter in advance. Plan two quarters in advance and you’re fired – because you don’t own anything.

    This is essential, “Capital” today is not a person – but a relation between shareholders and executives. Executives need to keep mostly anethical shareholders happy through quarterly growth reports. If the shortsighted outlook on long term growth falters, they can easily be replaced.

    In my view, 19th century capitalism could have been much more adaptive to carbon neutrality than the current structure – the ownership of companies by people allows for better long term strategy. If you want to see evidence of this today, compare car manufacturers which are privately owned to those whose ownership and control is distributed through share capital.

  18. All that is secondary to the point about democracy.

    Either building public support is a hurdle to be overcome – as my pragmatic case assumes – or building public support is some vital moral task that must be accomplished before we can take action.

    Which is it?

  19. “The pragmatic case looks something like this:”

    I realize this is your blog, but a comment like this comes off as extremely arrogant. Of course you think your suggestions for a course of action are “pragmatic”. Everyone believes their suggestions are pragmatic – because if suggestions can lead to a practical solution that we can actually achieve and participate in, they are meaningless.

    In effect, when you call your suggestions pragmatic, you imply that any alternative set of suggestions are impractical – and this is something that can’t merely be asserted, but must be argued for. It’s not very different from saying, “The right answer is X”, without giving any response to a previous answer, which is now considered “wrong”.

  20. Again, this isn’t a direct response to the question.

    In relation to very important problems, like climate change, is the democratic legitimacy of decisions only instrumentally important insofar as it is necessary for us to succeed, or does it have some special moral importance in and of itself?

    If the latter, why? And how does that fit into the practical work of stopping climate change?

  21. I think the question about democracy is trivial, but perhaps for non-obvious reasons.

    Building a genuine democracy means getting away from the production of false needs and beliefs, because if said false needs and beliefs can be produced in people by small factions, they can be used to control an apparent democracy through the manufacture of consent.

    Beliefs such as: that climate change is not dangerous, climate change is not caused by humans, humans do not have a duty to the future etc… are obviously false. Again, it is so obvious that we should do something about climate change that people who voted for Bush in 2000 mostly believed that Bush was in favour of the Kyoto protocol. The extent to which public opinion now considers climate change a hoax, you can’t understand without looking at the incredible amount of effort and money being used to advance climate denial positions – largely out of the business sector.

    So, we should obviously try to save the species. In fact, this kind of an action doesn’t even require popular support. In any functional democracy the rights of future generations have to be respected, because its just an obvious condition for anyone to exist that your rights were respected by people in the past. You can’t even argue for this, it’s just obviously true. And, sure, it’s also true that the demand to save the species is more pressing than the demand for democracy. The demands are interrelated only because anti-democratic forces are currently the biggest obstacle to doing anything about climate change.

    Democracy is not about “everything the public says goes” – that’s populism, and populism is easy to control through the production of beliefs. In fact, thinking that a call for democracy is properly characterized as “through populist will, we will force climate action”, as though action on climate change were just something the public wanted and the elites didn’t want – is to dangerously mistake democracy for fascism. And, it’s an important reason why people on the left don’t talk about “climate change mitigation”, but instead talk about “climate justice” – because climate mitigation, if it populist and neutral with respect to justice, could become a fascist movement.

    But, you might say that there are other, more effective, quicker means to addressing climate change than the world justice movement. One might even think the fastest way to climate change mitigation was a fascist, populist coup – which would scapegoat some group for being the root cause of the carbon economy, and take quick action to cut emissions through expropriating that group’s assets.

    I think the danger of fascism in the 21st century is real, and that’s why I don’t think we should talk about climate change without talking about Justice. If we give up our ideals, we give up our strongest mode of resistance against those who would divide and slaughter us.

  22. If you want to see seeds of fascism in Canada today, look at the way “anarchists” are being condemned in the popular media – and specifically the way the actions of a few are being used to charge organizers with conspiracy (as far as I know, no one in jail now is charged with actually smashing anything), and defend police from criticisms of brutality.

    1) It’s scapegoating
    2) It’s being used to justify violence against peaceful, popular dissent
    3) It’s de-legitimizing the idea of anarchism, which is the most serious alternative to our current form of capitalism and has been advocated by moderates like Chomsky since the 1970s
    4)It’s being used to imprison the organizers of protest demonstrations
    5)It’s being used to draw the attention of media away from all of the real issues (both the concerns of the protestors, and the actual events of the G20 summit).

  23. There are some strains of anarchism which are environmentally problematic, but there is nothing in the idea of a voluntary federalism which excludes the idea of effective environmental regulation.

    Also, any form of communist anarchism advocates a shift of the economy towards the fulfillment of needs. This is even obvious in the Paris Commune, which was before the anarchist/communist split – the idea that the economy is primarily a social good, should serve social needs first. The switch to a needs based economy could very quickly alleviate stress on the environment – since it’s not the production of new things, but of new needs, that causes environmental disaster.

  24. It seems to be that the principal challenge within a democracy is protecting the rights of those who are not politically influential, such as members of future generations.

    While aspects of anarchism may be intellectually appealing, it is really hard to see how a system of government based on anarchist principles could effectively prevent those who are politically influential from taking advantage of those who are now.

  25. I think the democracy angle on this discussion might be illuminated by a brief consideration of different models of democracy. A more direct democracy (as seen for example in Switzerland) assumes that the populace themselves are making the decisions and that the entire voting population will have both the requisite knowledge base and wisdom to make effective political judgements. However, a more representative democracy (as exemplified in the historic Westminster tradition) doesn’t conceive of the elected representatives as merely mirroring the opinions of the general population (as though each piece of legislation is to be decided by opinion poll), but as having been selected by their peers and entrusted to make wise political judgements on our behalf, even where these might be unpopular (at least in the short term). This is what I understand by the desire for a political authority with balls; such a beast would be a body of elected representatives who put the common good (based on the best scientific knowledge and shaped by a coherent, communicable and admirable ethical framework) before either short term corporate interests or populist sentiment.

    Each system has dangers and drawbacks. The former (Swiss style) is perhaps overly optimistic about the wisdom of the collective population and their time, ability and interest to focus on highly complex policy matters. The latter (Westminster model) is perhaps overly optimistic about the integrity of elected representatives in making wise decisions for the common good without undue influence from corporate lobbyists. I think that the current dominant model in the English-speaking democracies with which I’m familiar is the worst of both worlds: populist in tone and yet unrepresentative in outcome (as Tristan has pointed out).

  26. Neither direct nor representative democracy seems likely to have an easy time incorporating the interests of future generations. Whether you represent yourself or appoint someone to do so, it is always tempting to ignore the welfare of those in the mid-to-distant future in cases where treating their interests seriously would be costly for those who are alive right now.

  27. Indeed, that’s why any such preferencing of the common good (including the good of the unborn) over short term populism or profit would take balls. Unfortunately, individual acts of political heroism are likely to be overwhelmed by structural failures that give the initiative to the status quo and vested interests.

  28. The courts may be a more promising mechanism for upholding the rights of future generations, when compared with elected legislatures.

    In theory, judges can do what’s right even when it’s unpopular.

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