Neoliberalism, Solution Aversion, Implicatory Denial and Predatory Delay | Bill Henderson

neoliberalism word cloud

Below is a selection of quotes from a long essay explaining how neoliberalism, solution aversion, implicatory denial and predatory delay have frustrated needed effective climate mitigation. Hey you XR kids, these quotes (and the docs they are from) explain why we have failed to implement effective treatment for at least three decades; this is why you are instead on a ‘slow transition’ to oblivion.

(L)ooking back at the history, that it’s not really a failure of human beings and human nature that’s the problem here. It’s a hijacking of our political and economic system by the fossil fuel industry and a small number of like-minded people. It was our bad luck that this idea that markets solve all problems and that government should be left to wither away crested just at the moment when it could do the most damage.

Bill McKibben

Despite the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally if we are to lower the risks of catastrophic climate change, wealthy industrialised nations persist with a widespread public silence on the issue and fail to address climate change. This is despite there being ever more conclusive evidence of its severity. Why is there an undercurrent of inaction, despite the challenge of climate change being ever more daunting? One element is denial.

Kari Marie Norgaard

George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production put forward during international climate negotiations. From the very outset fossil fuel production lay outside the frame of the discussions and, as with other forms of socially constructed silence, the social norms among the negotiators and policy specialists kept it that way.

George Monbiot

Global climate leadership is being redefined. There is a growing recognition that you cannot be a climate leader if you continue to enable new fossil fuel production, which is inconsistent with climate limits. If no major producers step up to stop the expansion of extraction and begin phasing out existing fields and mines, the Paris goals will become increasingly difficult to achieve. Wealthy fossil fuel producers have a responsibility to lead, and this must include planning for a just and equitable managed decline of existing production.

The Sky’s Limit California: Why the Paris Climate Goals Demand that California Lead in a Managed Decline of Oil Extraction

The (emissions reduction) curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.

Alex Steffen

“A fast, emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safeless warming that we presently experienceis non-existent. And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions. Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change, to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world.”

David Spratt and Ian Dunlop

It is genuinely difficult to wrap your head around the scale of action needed to avoid catastrophic changes in the climate. It would mean an immediate, sustained global mobilization of a sort that has no precedent in human history. If something like that mobilization were to happen, it would not be gentle or pretty. It would not unfold according to the best-laid plans of wonks. Some people, landscapes, and legitimately worthwhile priorities would suffer in the short- to mid-term.

David Roberts

Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that man-made climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it.

George Monbiot 

If governments proved willing to impose carbon prices that were sufficiently high and affected a broad enough swath of the economy,  those prices could make a real environmental difference. But political concerns have kept governments from doing so, resulting in carbon prices that are too low and too narrowly applied to meaningfully curb emissions.

Maybe one day carbon pricing will be the best tool for fighting climate change. But the planet doesn’t have time to wait. To the extent that the carbon-pricing experiment lets policymakers and the public delude themselves that they are meaningfully addressing global warming, it’s not just ineffectual; it’s counterproductive. The time has come to acknowledge that this elegant solution isn’t solving the problem it was designed to solve. In the toughest environmental fight the world has ever faced, a good idea that isn’t working isn’t good enough.

Jeffrey Ball

Under neoliberalism, climate change is extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

The options that do not violate the neoliberal worldview are few, which explains why so many governments resort to little more than mild carbon pricing that stops well short of what is needed, the Trudeau government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change being a stellar example of this. Even when facing the end of the world, neoliberal governments would at most tinker only marginally with already low levels of industry and trade regulation, taxation, public investment, economic planning, and so on. Anything more would risk interfering with a society maintained for the wealthy in the name of market liberty and efficiency.

And so, the version of the climate crisis that mainstream neoliberal governments present to the public ends up being a minimized one, reduced to something that can be accommodated within the neoliberal rulebook.

Those even further to the right will predictably erupt in histrionics — about unconstitutionality or government moralizing or national uncompetitiveness or creeping totalitarianism — and the result is a nice symbiosis, as we see in Canada; in prominently and acrimoniously disagreeing about whether to have too little climate policy or none, the major parties monopolize the national conversation and contain the climate responses under consideration to a tight neoliberal consensus. Anything outside of that gets deemed, as Coyne put it, insane.

Arron Saad

But in one respect there has been absolute certainty and consistency, notably in the commitment, by politics and business alike, to a policy of predatory delay.  Alex Steffen put it succinctly: “Those in positions of power understand only too well the need to change, but they simply argue for delay, on the basis that to change too quickly would be unfair to them. This allows them to been seen as responsible and caring. They want change, they claim; they just think we need prudent, appropriately paced change, mindful of economic trade-offs and judiciously studied — by which they mean cosmetic change for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, they fight like hell to delay change of any real magnitude, attacking not only the prospects of our kids and kin in the future, but increasingly of our society in the present. Their delay has real, serious human consequences, across generations. They’re taking, not creating; the harm they cause is immeasurable.”

Ian Dunlop

These personal processes are likely made worse for sustainability experts than the general public, given the typical allegiance of professionals to incumbent social structures. Research has revealed that people who have a higher level of formal education are more supportive of the existing social and economic systems that those that have less education (Schmidt, 2000). The argument is that people who have invested time and money in progressing to a higher status within existing social structures are more naturally inclined to imagine reform of those systems than their upending. This situation is accentuated if we assume our livelihood, identity and selfworth is dependent on the perspective that progress on sustainability is possible and that we are part of that progressive process.

Jem Bendell

The problem – and it’s an existential threat both profound and perverse – is that those who lead us and have power over our shared destiny are ignoring global warming to the point of criminal negligence. Worse than that, their policies, language, patronal obligations and acts of bad faith are poisoning us, training citizens to accept the prospect of inexorable loss, unstoppable chaos, certain doom. Business as usual is robbing people of hope, white-anting the promise of change. That’s not just delinquent, it’s unforgivable.

Tim Winton 

Because of the conservative character of the IPCC’s work, it leaves out more advanced approaches that try to make key uncertainties about the future behavior of the climate system explicit and reframe the discussion in terms of existential risk management. Its modeling treats temperature rise and the accompanying ecological effects in a largely linear way and mentions feedback loops and possible abrupt changes primarily as additional risks, the probability of which remain uncertain.

Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz

Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor to


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