On Climate Change and Journalism
An Interview with Axel Bojanowski: Or how a conversation about the weather can get lost in religious phantasms
We will start posting our German Podcasts as Englisch transcriptions beginning with Im Gespräch mit ... Axel Bojanowski as our initial offering…
When we talk about climate change, we're inevitably confronted with how apocalyptic thinking has spread within an enlightened, secular society – how a discourse has developed requiring ‘deniers’ pitted against those who pretend to follow the science. In any case, if left to the meteorologists alone, this talk about ‘the weather’ becomes far too short-sighted when considering the role of the media, making Axel Bojanowski the obvious choice to talk with about his experiences with this phenomenon. With degrees in oceanography and paleoclimatology, Bojanowski has a quarter century of scientific journalism behind him, writing for Geo, Die Zeit, Nature, Der Spiegel, Bild der Wissenschaft - and, since 2020, for Die Welt. And as Axel Bojanowski is very amiable, we had an in-depth conversation about how this question, requiring both technical and scientific solutions, can lead to catastrophism, even to Apocalypticism, resulting in an approach to this phenomenon of strange perceptual distortion, that was clear and without any zeal or anger. It’s no coincidence there’s less discussion regarding the details of climate change (which no one wants to deny, certainly not Bojanowski) and more focused on the debate's blind spots: The lack of interest in concrete solutions, the almost religious excitement that takes over the activists - with this most astonishing insistence on intellectual and moral supremacy (leading imagined ‘opponents' like Bojanowski to be expelled from the stage without further ado: Out of sight, out of mind!) What may be a short-term gain can turn into far greater dangers in the long run – something Joseph de Maistre aptly captures with ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ When we look closer at the Attention Economy corseting of journalists, the group dynamics at play become readily apparent. If the moderates leave the debate, the activists equip themselves to such an extent they lose their ties to the real in phantasmatic forms. Could it be that a contemporary Don Quixotism is brewing here - a moral panic that’s less concerned with the future than a fight against the Giant’s overpowering Monsters? And, if this is the case, then this postmodern Divine Comedy wouldn't be without a certain irony, namely that your riding with Windmills against Windmills.
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Axel Bojanowski, whose homepage can be found here, has published a number of books. He regularly comments on technical issues relating to climate change on his Substack page Klimawandel-Hintergründe and currently working on a book about this very subject. He can be reached either at his Substack page or through his Twitter account.
Martin Burckhardt: Axel Bojanowski, there isn’t anyone in Germany better suited to analyze the subject area we’ll be discussing to discuss today. You’ve been in German journalism for over 26 years – after freelancing for Geo, Zeit, and Nature; you worked as a science journalist for Der Spiegel, Bild der Wissenschaft, and Natur and, since 2020, have been at WELT – that’s a long time. What led you as a young Scientist studying the Sunder Shelf’s sea-level depression during the Last Glacial Maximum into journalism?
Axel Bojanowski: Well, I’d found Natural Science, in general, very fascinating. As a scientist, you need a narrow, specialized focus. And, you know, what initially interested me in Natural Science was this possibility of knowing the breadth of fields like Geo- and Environmental sciences – I was totally fascinated by this romantic approach that many conservationists have. Like many critics of the Environmental Movement, I came from this milieu where you see nature as something worth protecting. And I then saw in Journalism the real possibility of getting to know that breadth of the field from which you can tell people interesting stories from science – that you can really help the public understand science by writing relevant stories. That’s what I found such an interesting task because it offered me the advantage of going into this breadth of exploring my chosen fields of geo-environmental sciences...
MB: Let's do a little science fiction experiment. If you were sent directly from the 1990s to the present through a time portal, what would your first impressionistic reactions be to the state of affairs, or, more precisely, how would you report on them?
AB: Well, the first reaction undoubtedly would be fright as I’d be shocked at what’s now become of these sciences, and I’d probably consider taking up another profession. But my second reaction would probably be surprised at how these relatively dry subjects of meteorology and geology have become the determining topics of our time – even the defining Political Issue. I mean, once you got past being the Weatherman, these topics were only academic specialties, and now they’re the major talking points in world politics. Every news broadcast serves up weather events as being politically relevant, which is striking. I think my third reaction would be curiosity about how this came about? As a time traveler, I’d be asking what happened there. How could this happen? And I’d want to explore it – which is I’m exactly what I’m doing as a journalist now.
MB: I must confess I’m utterly uninformed regarding the technical side. But the weirdness of these happenings caught my interest relatively early on. Not least because these gaps in thought should have jumped directly into the eye of a disinterested observer such as myself. For example, it was clear to me, who’s studied the history of digitalization, that questions about the underpinnings of climate modeling rely on something left under the table – and out of the discussion – for the sake of pure doctrine. Even worse, looking at Dennis Meadows and Paul Ehrlich’s forecasting, we can only agree with Mark Twain that forecasts are difficult, especially when they concern the future.
AB: Yeah, we should have learned from Meadows and Ehrlich’s models, whose predictions in the 60s and 70s were so catastrophically wrong – they were even known to be faulty at the time and immediately received scientific criticism for being inaccurately based on much too simplistic models. But we also saw this scientific criticism was virtually short-circuited, as it didn’t lead to critical public discourse. So scientific conversation – as in today’s climate debate – was ignored by the public, which made it politically advantageous. What’s so scandalous is that Ehrlich and Meadows, despite their catastrophic forecasts, went on to have incredibly successful careers. Paul Ehrlich's population theory had how many bad outcomes? How many women were sterilized, how many family tragedies, how many countries adjusted their population control policies – all as fatal consequences of bad science that wasn’t ever dealt with adequately. Instead, they’re still sitting on talk shows today, saying the same things. I mean, honestly – Ehrlich, who never retracted his theory, continues to emphasize it because you can always push further into an unknown catastrophic future. And Meadows continues his talk of dwindling raw materials that haven’t been born out in reality. He said, based on his models, that we’d run out of the most important natural resources by 2000. Ehrlich even lost a bet with Julian Simons about this in 19801 , proving in the 90s that this theory wasn’t valid. But Ehrlich and Meadows both still successfully survived this falsification.
What’s so curious to me is that, while Science conducts critical discourse about climate models – there really isn’t one in the public space.
The public nature of the Ehrlich-Simon bet should have resulted in a very necessary public discourse about how scientific models are constructed and the Scientist’s advisory role – instead, this discourse was politically hijacked. And today, doomsayers are dominating the debate for political exploitation – especially since, using a framework of science; you can pretend to be preventing an Apocalypse while introducing political measures close to your heart.
MB: The absurd thing is that in an interview with me, André Thess complained about Dennis Meadows’ having just five variables for his simulation. Even a Settlers game, or any computer strategy game for that matter, has more variable complexity than that...
AB: Immediately after The Limits to Growth’s publication, there was criticism published in Nature from colleagues showing that not only were there underlying assumptions and modeling flaws – there were actually wrong figures in the study. This totally grotesque strawman study was being critically shot down in the scientific press. But unfortunately, this strawman became the De-Growth political movement of disappearing resources based on Neo-Malthusianism, showing that it isn’t really about factual arguments. Instead, here the science is used more as a Trojan Horse – it ultimatley uses this dramatic staging of nature, the environment, and the Environmental Apocalypse to negotiate other social issues – it’s where you can find other useful political arguments using these ecological issues as camouflage.
MB: That brings us to a psychological problem that needs some explanation. What’s behind so many prominent climatologists buying into this alarmists' game? Especially since it destroys the most precious thing giving them legitimacy in the first place? And what about someone like Roger Pielke, Jr., who does good climate science, is committed to presenting clean data about actual arguments, and has paid the cost...
AB: ...yeah, but I’d like to defend science here. There are very few scientists who expose themselves as alarmists or as skeptics, and most are actually neither. Most scientists do their job and argue in very nuanced, clearly differentiated ways. But, you know, in public debate, it’s the scientist that effectively connects with the media, who appears on stage as if presenting these warnings of doom – making them the ones that journalists quote more often. Communication research clearly shows that scientists linking political messages with scientific results are cited more frequently. And Der Spiegel, for example, has engaged a climate researcher whose theses are extremely controversial in the scientific community; but as a commentator, his line of alarming argumentation is very medially connectable. And Der Spiegel's magazines, in particular, can legitimize using this controversial figure more or less.
Ultimately, it benefits the media and politicians to pick out individual scientists like Paul Ehrlich and the Meadows, whose personalities enjoy being involved in public affairs and politics. And since you don’t know if something is really their opinion, if they just feel flattered by the attention, or if they’re trying to read the science in a way that serves these given political opinions – that’s what makes it so hard to take their opinion legitimately. I find it fascinating that Scientists are exploited – and some like being exploited.
Roger Pielke, Jr. is a prime exemplary of this great environmental scientist, who often did studies getting in the way of the climate debate’s top dogs – meaning he found facts that didn't fit into the climate catastrophe’s narrative. And while Pielke isn’t a skeptic, he’s unequivocal that you can't defend the truth with lies. It was precisely this staging of weather catastrophes as climate catastrophes that he questioned – and he showed that yes, there are weather catastrophes – but when you normalize their damage data, you don’t see that there’s been any increase in damage to date. You can really learn a lot from how he was utterly unobjectively vilified and incorrectly discredited on the homepage of the White House in the most defamatory way by the highest authority possible: by an Obama advisor. And that’s only one example of many. Pielke is, shall we say, a very robust character who doesn't shy away from any debate and publicly fights back.
Because you see, there’s rarely such alarmism from the science itself standing behind the shadow of its facts – and there’s rarely grave skepticism to be found – rather...there’s a lot of criticism of the climate models, for example, in climate research – although the public doesn't believe any of that because, in their minds, criticism of the climate models is like climate denial. While skepticism towards your own models is entirely normal in science because you always know that it’s not about prediction, that instruments are tools with which we can, perhaps, at best, describe specific effects.
MB: There’s a beautiful saying by Roland Barthes that desire writes the text. Following this logic, the climate debate is an ideal projection apparatus. The revolutionaries who wanted to liberate the tormented proletariat at the end of the 1960s found that the workers themselves weren’t interested in this kind of redemption, which is why the revolutionaries were often aggressively told, ‘You’re reading the situation all wrong, so go away and leave us alone.’ 2 In contrast, unlike the lower classes, Nature can’t answer for itself. In this sense, it’s an ideal ally for the climate policy vanguard because One is in league with a higher power and practicing Speech Acts of Political Theology.
AB: That's precisely the basic theme behind all these environmental policy debates. Nature as the ultimate authority is the strongest political argument there is. Preserving creation as environmental protection means no one can say anything against that – making it virtually an unbeatable argument. That's why John Stuart Mill noted that 'unnatural' would become one of the most vituperative words. This assertion is a claimed despotism: ‘If you say it's natural, it's good.’ This short-circuiting that you can despotically claim nature is something good – or that there’s a natural state we must achieve and preserve – is just disgraceful! That clouds the real issues today, especially in Germany, where the main argument against nuclear power is that it’s unnatural. In Germany, as part of our esoteric traditions of homeopathy and alternative medicines, it’s how chemically composed drugs and genetically modified food are considered evil by some anyway. And this discourse is behind the whole debate – how should humanity be organized according to natural laws? That was also the question of the Enlightenment’s political debate – and that means you have to think about it as the crucial point in the climate debate.
If someone can claim, or more precisely: if someone can gain credibility by speaking in the name of nature using speech acts, as the Environmental Movement has managed to do, then you can't really win the debate with arguments anymore – because the opponents only want to save the world.
It’s misusing this decisive issue that makes the climate debate so strong – because we all agree that protecting nature and our livelihoods is essential, making environmental protection such a vital issue. It’s the exploitation of this issue that’s the problem. So, the supporting milieu for the Environmental Protection Movement was always represented by its establishment in the USA and Europe. And why did they pursue environmental protection associations? Actuality, they were high society instruments of preserving the national parks as hunting grounds, to keep the rabble and the masses out of the beautiful landscapes, and so on. That’s what was behind it initially, which can still be seen in today’s climate movement structure as it’s real elitist support – meaning there are often personal interests of power and influence behind it. That's a huge issue that we need to discuss further as it’s ultimately about these social issues and conflicts being played out on the environmental debate stage.
MB: Let's go a step further back...in the 1990s, I was already thinking about the delicate effects the attention economy would have on our media landscape. You don't have to be a prophet to do that as it’s already priced in as the attraction. In click-baiting, it simply pays to sacrifice reality for hyperbolic truth, as Donald Trump has called it. What’s the impact of this on reporting?
AB: Quite decisively, as the media's appetite for environmental catastrophe is legendary. So Der Spiegel just did a title: Germany is running out of water. Yes, that’s the title. That's exactly the sound we heard back in the 70s as well. To say that water is getting scarce in Germany, you have to come up with a really good idea to sell it because Germany always stays in the west wind zone where there’ll always be plenty of rain. In fact, rainfall is more likely to increase over the course of global warming. And that there’s a water shortage in Germany isn’t questioned when put on a magazine cover: This demonstrates there’s no critical authority.
This means if you can simply claim something like an environmental catastrophe as a speech act, then you can always get away with it in the media. That's almost a given, isn't it? Even about the most absurd things – even that Germany is running out of water is possible now…
MB: What you’re describing makes a phenomenon like Claas Relotius quite understandable. It’s where one no longer deals with what is (or, as Der Spiegel's slogan used to be, write what is) but with a fictionalized worldview. Only that you no longer have to deal with a Beautifying effect but with a Horrify filter. Scandalization, trivialization, and banalization are all inevitable. Now, your colleagues aren’t stupid; they’re alert observers to whom the unfolding of this dumbing-down machine couldn’t have gone unnoticed. There’s actually only two possibilities here: you get cynically involved in this game – or you try to slip your own message under the people’s noses in an attention-optimized package. If you were chatting as you would in school, how could I imagine your colleagues reacting to this kind of tense situation?
AB: Personally, that’s become one of the most fascinating facets of this debate: the construction of knowledge in journalism. That's a kind of phenomenon that happens completely differently here than how it does in science. In journalism, the strongest driving force is peer evaluation – your career depends entirely on your colleagues’ assessments, which means factual evidence can hurt you. If you write something factually correct, but your colleagues don't like it – then you have a problem. And vice-versa, if you write something factually wrong but your colleagues like it – then you don't have a problem. And that’s precisely what Relotius did so perfectly that he’s become the metaphor for it. Yes, Relotius was a brilliant author, so bright that no one questioned whether his writing was true. He wrote precisely what the editors thought was great and expected; in other words, he confirmed the theses existing there in Der Spiegel's editorial team’s epistemic cultural space, and he packaged it perfectly in stories that warmed people's hearts. And it was all made up, or at least most of it was – that’s what led to its absurdity. And that’s precisely what comes into relief as problematic when you compare scientific discourses to discourses in the media. The codes and values are different – and in journalism, evidence is not the primary driving force.
MB: But the fairy tale’s return is already a phenomenon. I have to say that Relotius was such an astonishment for me. Because when I think back to the 80s and 90s, I couldn't have imagined it happening in that form.
AB: I would say that at a publication like Der Spiegel with an activist agenda, where the pressure from colleague’s assessment is particularly massive, these phenomena are more likely to happen --- because you have to conform there. So, if you have a different opinion at Der Spiegel than the hegemony – that isn't easy. But I'm at WELT now, where it's not so difficult to present a different opinion or, let's say, not in line with the editor-in-chief's or my peers. That's the pluralism required to keep things honest. In some other media, it's much more homogeneous, and the people are also a bit oppressive in certain spots. And that makes it fantastic when someone like Relotius writes such great stories that are more or less in the spirit of that milieu. That's precisely what we always said. It’s the moment when everyone is quiet because they think they have the story in black and white, and the best reporter writes it up. This occurrence really illustrated that problem – and even though they tried to rectify it afterward, in my opinion, the recurrence of this kind of phenomenon is still the same there.
It’s a milieu where people like to see a story’s confirmation conform to their beliefs, and getting out of that mindset isn’t easy.
This is particularly noticeable in the case of the climate debate where you don’t really have any evidence to confirm the issue where...how should I put it? The interest in evidence isn’t very widespread because it's dangerous, especially with this topic. You go against your own milieu. Such a climate...
MB: The filter bubble, that's how it works...
AB: This media bubble, yes: people tend to see themselves as left-wing, which is also sometimes a bit odd. That they see themselves that way is a kind of interpretation, so to speak. And people try to give themselves the appearance of belonging to it with certain identity characteristics. And climate catastrophe has become such an important identity feature; that anyone coming up with some kind of study saying there's uncertainty about the issue – well, he or she...you don't become more popular, let's put it that way.
MB: (laughs) So Relotius was a glimpse of things to come – meaning you wouldn't subscribe to the public’s faithful belief that the journalist crowd has gone into a practiced self-criticism ...
AB: The journalist crowd never goes into itself because it’s such a social process. So we’re...the main thing in journalism is to be accepted by your colleagues. That's ultimately the decisive evaluative driving force.
MB: Sigmund Freud makes a wonderful distinction between neurosis and psychosis. His exemplar, which is a thought experiment, is this. There is a young woman that loves her sister’s husband. Unfortunately, the sister dies. So she’s there, standing in front of the sister's deathbed, gazing down at the dead sister, and Freud asks himself, what would a neurotic do? A neurotic, of course, gets a guilty conscience about loving her brother-in-law now that the sister is suddenly dead. She could say: ‘Here’s my free path of fulfillment,’ – but that doesn't work because of the guilt. So, what does the psychotic do now? Freud's answer is wonderful. The psychotic says the sister isn’t dead at all. What’s the psychotic moment in this story? It’s a loss of reality. And the problem really is when a loss of reality gains a foothold in a place like that, where the colleagues crowd around certain things there in a moral panic, then you're actually in a socially psychotic state. Which I think is incredibly fatal.
AB: Yes, but this description fits quite well, and I think it's actually quite apt because...if there's no longer a corrective movement, and you're always just confirming yourself, so to speak, then it can turn into a psychosis. Some debates in the media strike me as unworldly. In the case of the climate, coming back to my special animal, I sometimes think, when I read the Guardian, or something like it, what I read has little to do with the science at all – instead, it's the pure evocation of a thesis again and again with different, new events – but it's always interpreted in the same way. And yes, I do think that could be called psychosis if you want. You know, it's hard to criticize because when you do – and even though I do criticize it – you always get into the position of being called a climate denier, not wanting to admit we have to protect the climate. There’s always this false dichotomy. That's precisely the problem with the whole debate – that it's so polarized and all that. But, in reality, of course, it's fatal to use incantations instead of information and psychosis instead of analysis. So I think your allegory is not that far-fetched.
MB: In our preliminary conversation, you mentioned a little scene that just ran through my head. There was a young journalist, mid-20s, I think, an activist that was clueless on the issue. And yet, at an event that you’re both at, she feels empowered, despite knowing nothing about climatology, to attack the organizers for giving a podium to someone like you who does. What can we understand from such behavior if we want to unravel it psychologically?
AB: I think she was in her 30s, but still a younger colleague. And yes, I found it a totally fascination. She said this on the podium at quite a large conference: ‘That he’s allowed to be at this conference is a scandal.’ You know, I’ve been involved with climate research my entire professional life, having studied the subject beforehand and always trying to present as many perspectives as possible. And well, there's no real perspective to be had – but I really try to inform people by offering contexts and perspectives...and here’s this colleague who is just starting out and had been looking at the topic of climate because she just was...well, I guess that’s how you make a career now; you just get on with making it so-called climate journalism---which becomes a real problem because if you have this job, then you have to confirm again and again how you’re relevant to it, and now you do that by...
MB: --- through scandalization.
AB: With every extreme weather event, the climate journalists tell us, ‘Yes, this is what we expected here.’ And then we get the same old climate scientists quoted – that's a self-reinforcing behavior. So, to psychologically interpret this behavior, that’s how to say? Well...first of all, I admire this self-confidence that you could stand there and say, ‘I am right, and he is wrong, and I belong to the good guys, and he belongs to the bad guys.’ I think this way of thinking is fascinating in that you can take it upon yourself to say you're definitely for sure ‘in the good guy's group.’ And then, from that perspective, you can defame others – which is ultimately about influence, which is really about power and domination. That's why this is such an interesting case because it shows on a small scale how the climate debate works on a large scale.
It's all about social exclusion. And, you know it's challenging to get the facts straight about such a complicated and complex issue like the climate debate – like when you're in your early 30s because it’s something you can't do in such a short time – so it’s a funny thing when people who’ve never had anything to do with climate research or natural science come into the field from the outside. And because they can't judge it professionally, it's a matter of social approval and validation instead. So you try to defame people or find social characteristics that supposedly prove why legitimately credentialed colleagues can’t be allowed to participate in the debate.
And it’s because of some rumor about maybe a climate denier who has talked to someone at a conference where climate skeptics were also present – ‘that’s why that fellow is not allowed to speak to us here.’ ‘That guy is contaminated and soiled or something’...the debate is almost always about these kinds of arguments. You know, it's just worrying how rarely people actually talk about the scientific details of climate change on the talk shows, about what climate change actually is. What are its details? It's always so much just about this kind of social...
AB: And that she just said I should leave there means...as soon as people come with insults and defamations, it is a sure sign that factual arguments are missing.
MB: How did the audience react to that?
AB: Most people kept still. You can see it so well on social media where, if you can get shot of it – or if people somehow harass you with a shitstorm, then you get support from behind. Some people then write emails and say, ‘You’re right.’ I also know climate researchers privately that agree with what I say but aren’t going to publicly step into the breach because then they’ll also be under fire again. So the audience was quiet, but afterward, some came up to me and said, ‘This is bad, this kind of debate, that the moderator took her side because he was also an activist.’ So my reaction was: I was surprised. But I wasn't particularly shocked as I get insulted now and then in nasty ways precisely because people have no factual arguments. This means they have to attack – and the harsher the attack, the greater the effect. I know several well-versed colleagues who are climate experts but hardly ever write about climate anymore because they’ve told me it’s simply too dangerous. It’s ruinous to your reputation when you appear as a troublemaker or kind of skeptic – and that's not good for business in the media because then it could give the impression that you're somehow on the right. And climate has become a question of right and left, which is absurd because it concerns technical knowledge. Anyway, you’re somehow right-wing if you say climate models are not perfect, even though that’s part of good science and being a good scientist.
MB: My observation is that a moral economy has replaced the political economy of the 1960s. It’s really something new. A collective state of excitement in which it's no longer about the argument but the higher social inspiration that counts. And, because we know the story of the emperor's naked clothes, we also know it’s the mouth of babes that speaks truth. As early as 1992, at a climate conference in Rio de Janeiro, a twelve-year-old drew attention to herself, ‘the girl,’ as she was called at the time, ‘who silenced the world.’ And now Greta Thunberg is the Saint of the Last Days who’s brought it to true greatness and popularity. However, when I personally follow Greta Thunberg's prophecies, I find myself floundering. She said – and I think this is wonderful: ‘The great things are easy. Much more difficult,’ she said, ‘are the daily decisions, such as which socks to wear in the morning.’ The question is, what does it say about a society needing such saints that have difficulty deciding which socks to wear in the morning?
AB: Yes, that's so significant. Because it isn’t just in the environmental debate that children are often sent ahead as the Vanguard, a colleague calls it the phenomenon of Pedophrasty, where children say what adults actually want to say because children bring with them this authority that you don't contradict them.
So when Greta Thunberg stands in front of the UN and says, ‘I want you to panic, and you've stolen my youth’ or whatever, all you can say is these are a child’s emotions. What else are you supposed to say because children's emotions are justified, and as such, you can't disagree with them? But this also means these children’s feelings are being instrumentalized.
I mean, even though Greta Thunberg has allowed herself to be instrumentalized, and that she also stands by it, I find her admirable as a person – but she’s still instrumentalized, and this aspect needs to be put on the table. She and her parents have said the climate issue has ‘helped her get over her illnesses’ and that she suddenly felt better, which is great, of course, but it’s also something people don't like to talk about because it distracts from the purity of her save the world mission. The interesting thing about Greta Thunberg and the girl who saved the world in 1992 is that an American president was the opponent. So these girls come to big conferences as little citizens of the earth and confront who? The most powerful man in the world! And that's a great staging because, of course, it's obvious who the more sympathetic figure is. In 1992, George Bush Sr. said the American way of life wasn’t up for negotiation. And now Greta Thunberg has confronted Donald Trump at the UN conference. And he repeats it, ‘We don't negotiate about American jobs.’
MB: Now, going back 30 years. I’ve analyzed what happens to a society when confronted with a new operating system. Put concretely, Medieval society, which, when it was faced with the driver of the mechanical clock, had to discover it was dealing with all kinds of ghosts – ghosts that, in fact, it couldn’t deal with. Exemplary was the incessantly ticking clock with its formula time is money that operationalized as money demanding interest. Because the 14th century couldn’t contain this, it became necessary to rebuild heaven by creating purgatory as an intermediate floor where the usurious could work off their sins – or buy indulgence letters. But all this, the Purgatory, the self-flagellation, and the indulgence letters remained in vain. And so people sought salvation through miracles, in a Joan of Arc, for example — or tried to cope with the strangeness through witch trials. When I look around today, the world really does seem that way to me: we have green-washing and pink-washing; a strange saint and children's crusades; all as a never-ending self-flagellation – and, as in the 15th century, we need scapegoats to take the fall. In fact, the kids who apocalyptically call themselves the last generation strike me as being like Savonarola's child soldiers who terrorized Florentine society with their purgatory of the vanities. Does this description seem plausible to you?
AB: Yes, I think that's also a topos coming up repeatedly in the staging of these environmental debates. You need the sinner and opponent, and it's often about self-dramatization. You also have to see that Environmental Activism is a good way of keeping up with social status – and if you find it difficult to achieve something in other fields, it's a good way to become successful by exactly fighting those who are successful on the social stage to garner fame. I think these are key to understanding how the Environmental Movement became so powerful. Because it's actually about something good, about everyone wanting to protect the environment – but it's also always about how it’s accomplished, too, isn’t it? How the Environmental Movement saw itself as a counterpoint to capitalism. I mean, there was a tremendous economic upswing during the first two decades after the Second World War, what in Germany is called the Wirtschaftswunder3, when there the nouveau riche developed this new capitalist upper class as a result of the upswing. And this posed a challenge to the old rich, nobly aristocratic families and the intellectual classes, whose status was also in question because, I mean, these other people could suddenly afford everything they couldn’t before – cars and houses and travel and the like. And you didn't necessarily belong to high society yourself anymore. And these things all play into it if you want to understand why this debate is so sharp because, ultimately, it's about self-assertion of social status.
MB: Sure, moral economy.
AB: Exactly. It would be best if you had a sinner – as the Environmental Movement found in the capitalists and their industries. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that, in the long run, capitalism, and industry ultimately make the environment better than any other system known to man – while also bringing about a period of prosperity and well-being unparalleled in history. Of course, there’s an insane number of weaknesses in the economic system, but it can also heal itself – or at least try to.
But instead, you see it fought head-on using the sinning scapegoat because it’s...how shall I say it...it’s much better for your social status if you can claim you want to overturn the system and identify yourself as an enemy of the system with a clear opponent; namely the nouveau riche industrialists who’ve become rich through capitalism. I think this is very important to put on the table if you want to understand more about the mechanics behind the escalating climate debates.
If you look closely at who’s the drive behind today’s climate movement, you’ll find it’s high society’s children and wealthy foundations who want to tell other people how to live. So it's that old rivalry. That thematic polarization has been in the Environmental Movement since its very beginning. It's always been about the sinners as the evil capitalists and industrialists and you on the good side with the bourgeois nobility. This isn’t to say that the environmental degradation caused by this capitalism doesn’t exist, far from it – but to understand why they are attacked in this way, you have to see the advantage this struggle offers in terms of social status and not scientific merit...
MB: Yes, moral economy. The question is really abysmal – can you still actually analyze the climate debate without adopting a religious-theoretical point of view? And isn't this the great weakness any respectable climate researcher à la Pielke, trying to be rational and sober, has to face? That they’re dealing with an opposition inclined to some Apocalyptic order of faith which constitutes an asymmetry of the weapons, so to speak...
AB: Yes, this element of religion is a significant part of the climate debate argument. One of the voids in Western societies is atheism, as, after the death of religion, certain human needs aren’t served anymore. And you could say that environmental climate issues offer religious substitute material. In scientific reports, some scientists stage themselves essentially as Saints bearing God's message. I once read a lead article on the climate debate in the American Physical Society that said the evidence about climate change was now incontrovertible. That becomes religion because if you can't disprove something in science, then it's not science anymore. It’s a lightly-handed claim like this that crosses the line into religion. Risky Climate change is real, physically plausible, and scientifically well proven – but there are facets resembling religion like the Apocalypse, sinning and the original sin, the taboos, the food fetish, the devils, the elect, and the supernatural...
MB: The ostracism also, the exclusion of sinners.
AB: Exactly. Yes, yes, it's all very fascinating. If you listen to the speeches of these apocalyptic preachers, you find they resemble so many of the facets and details of religious discourses. And, of course, this dimension makes it so overwhelming that people want to immediately join when they see the enlightened climate mover’s faces from the last generation. And it’s clear that it’s all about something else because factual arguments are so unreachable – I think this is the behavior of religiously enlightened people – making the debate more difficult because you can no longer talk to them objectively.
MB: I wrote a science fiction novel in 2013 that’s set in 2039. And, of course, you have to ask yourself the question when you write something like that, ‘what will the future be like?’ I looked at everything in 2013 that was even remotely climate-related. Because, of course, it was an important question – and you ask yourself, ‘How can you solve this?’ And there are such very simple questions to consider, like concrete, for example. Concrete is responsible for 30 percent of CO2 emissions, and there are excellent techniques for making lightweight concrete. But all these solutions haven’t played a role in our debate at all. That's the bizarre thing. There's an absolute ignorance of what concrete --- or even about SLAM4 agricultural technologies where drones fly over fields, so you see precisely what needs to be irrigated where. And you also can create maximum production with a minimum of material using vertical farming techniques. All these things fascinated me, and I thought, wow, these are actually the solutions. But it was even more fascinating that these ideas just didn't matter – or even enter the debate...
AB: That’s what's so fascinating because it’s so completely typical. This area of technological solutions and adaptations to climate change is mostly left out of the climate debate. And while talking about them is considered climate denial, they're actually something that should have much more attention – because there are technological solutions doesn’t mean CO2 emissions shouldn't be curbed, far from it!
The problem is that people are being led to believe they’re helpless, which, in turn, only increases the power of the apocalyptic preachers.
Because if you say, ‘yes, it all depends on CO2, and that’s our thermostat,’ so to speak, ‘for the happiness of humanity’ – and if you say how much you have to save and where to save it from, then you’re the social guideposts to happiness. I mean, that's a great way to put people in charge, of course. But if you really wanted to help people, you'd have to talk about technological solutions. And if you look at the last 150 years, the vast success story has been about reducing deaths from weather disasters. The probability of dying from a weather disaster has dropped by more than 95 percent through better forecasts, infrastructure, architecture, and prevention – despite a multiplication of the world's population. And that's just with people who don't want to be flooded. People aren’t stupid. There are more extreme rains, but there's still no more flood disasters and much fewer flood disaster-related deaths. But that’s something often simply left out of the debate. It’s often said that ‘with two degrees more in our overall global temperature, there’ll be so-and-so many more disasters’ and so on. But we don't know that because we don't know how humanity will innovatively adjust using technology. Never before have people not put on a jacket when it got cold – nobody’s that stupid.
MB: If I take a structural view of the political task to solve, it would have to be undertaking nothing less than constructing an energetic Internet. That is a Smart Grid that intelligently manages the energy fluctuations from renewable sources by coupling itself with a conventional powered backup system – ideally a nuclear-powered source until fusion becomes practical. Oddly enough, even after the proclamation of our German energy transition after the tsunami that destroyed Fukushima, we’ve been asleep at the wheel for the past ten years. And now the politicians can’t think of anything better than enforcing control of electrical demands with massive threats of punishment. I believe that in your many years working as a journalist, you’ve repeatedly dealt with politicians of all stripes. Why don't you paint a psychogram of this contemporary politician for our viewers?
AB: Yeah, so I'm not a fan of politician bashing and mocking because that's a tough job. But I think the energy transition in Germany – the so-called Energiewende5 – is an example of where opportunism can lead them. Yes, because opposition to the energy transition was, or is so frowned upon. I mean, André Thess, whom you’ve interviewed here, is one of the most respectable energy researchers there is. He’s also politically defamed for his criticism of the Energiewende.
Because the advocates in Germany have managed to equate the energy transition with nature conservation to market renewable energies as eco-energies, which is utterly absurd considering the resource and landscape requirements. This political opportunism let the abolition of nuclear power plants happen without any contradictory thinking in times of energy crisis and climate change when low-CO2 technologies are needed the most – this is where you can see how dangerous opportunism can be.
And, of course, the media is quite crucial – so I think its failure in terms of the nuclear power and energy transition debate is monumental. Any critical examination of the energy transition was considered right-wing and therefore hostile, and now you see where that’s led us. But that’s how it seems to be...I mean, in our age of social media, it's very difficult as a politician to criticize these debates and put forward ideas that run counter to the mainstream social stage. Some politicians stand up to the mainstream, especially regarding such important technological and scientific issues, and don't allow themselves to be politically pinned down. These are, after all, the loyal subjects of the technological and scientific search for truth where it's really all about factual arguments – where nuclear power isn’t on the right, nor is wind energy on the left. You have to be able to talk openly about the pros and cons of both energies, but that isn’t possible in Germany any longer. And that's why Germany is now the country that’s shown how not to manage an energy turnaround, how you make it expensive and C02-intensive. That’s already devastating. I believe this is a failure by politics and the media.
Translation: Hopkins Stanley and Martin Burckhardt
Axel Bojanowski, whose homepage can be found here, has published several books. On his Substack blog Klimawandel-Hintergründe (Climate Change Backgrounds), he regularly comments on technical issues related to climate change. He is currently working on a book on the subject.
In 1980, the controversy over the "limits to growth" led to a much-publicized bet between the economist Julian Simon and the biologist Paul Ehrlich. At stake was the price of five metals: Chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Given the predicted shortage, would their price rise in the following ten years, as Ehrlich surmised? Or would human ingenuity already have found ways out of the crisis, as Simon postulated? The bet had a clear winner because, in 1990, the price of all five raw materials was lower than ten years earlier. [Translator’s note]
The communist revolutionaries were often told Geh doch nach drüben, which means ‘Why don’t you go over there.’ [Translator’s note]
Wirtschaftswunder [Economic Miracle]. [Translator’s note]
A stereo visual simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) system that efficiently works in agricultural scenarios. [Translator’s note]
Energiewende [Energy turnaround]. [Translator’s Note]