Green gaslighting: Another face of climate denialism

All the talk about ‘net zero’ measures and ‘climate resilience’ investments is just a mass deception.

Paula Swedeen, a forest policy specialist for the Washington Environmental Council, walks through forest land adjacent to Mount Rainier National Park
A woman walks through a forest land adjacent to Mount Rainier National Park in the state of Washington, US, which is part of a project to sell "carbon credits" to individuals and companies - including Microsoft Corp - who are hoping to offset their carbon footprints [File: AP/Ted S Warren]

We are living in a moment of our planet’s history where carbon dioxide concentrations have peaked for the first time in 3 million years. Humanity is well on track to see an absolutely devastating temperature increase of more than 3C by the end of the century, which would drown coastal cities, render soils in some areas uncultivable, and produce even worse and more prolonged droughts, floods, and heatwave-induced fires. Addressing climate change requires a profound transformation of global economic and political systems. This needed to happen yesterday, not 10 years from now.

Commitment to immediate and comprehensive action should have been made at the much-awaited UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year. Instead, governments, financial institutions and corporations made pledges about reaching “net zero” emissions, building “climate resilience” and “ending deforestation”.

While these terms appeal to desires for a modern and ecologically-neutral society, they reflect 20 years of climate solutionism that has changed little to nothing beside filling the pockets of the wealthy. In fact, these words are used to obscure the climate crisis in an act of global gaslighting of epic proportions.

Green gaslighting

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the word “gaslighting” means “the action of manipulating someone by psychological means into accepting a false depiction of reality or doubting their own sanity”.

There has been a meteoric rise in the use of “gaslighting” ever since the 2008 global financial meltdown. In its aftermath, political elites spent billions in taxpayers’ money bailing out financial institutions which had engaged in various speculative practices, bringing executives and shareholders vast profits. At the same time, they imposed austerity measures that devastated working and middle-class households, while gaslighting them into believing that this is the only way to “fix the economy”.

Today, the same tactic is deployed vis-à-vis climate change: “climate solutions” that protect, if not boost, profits of big corporations are deployed and presented as the only way to combat climate change. Quite often, these very same corporations are responsible for the environmental devastation leading to the present climate crisis.

Green gaslighting goes beyond greenwashing, which constitutes the use of ecological themes as a marketing tool to cover up ecological harm of profit-making activities. Gaslighting does more than deceive the public, it also disempowers and undermines the potential to identify the root causes of climate change and ways to address them. In essence, green gaslighting is just another form of climate denialism.

Gaslighting over ecological concerns is also not a new phenomenon. Indian historian V M Ravi Kumar, for example, documented how in the 19th century British colonialists displaced Indigenous communities to cut down forests for shipbuilding across South India, which led to significant environmental degradation. When forest loss became a concern for their interests, they blamed the locals for it, planted monoculture tree plantations as a response and declared they had successfully resolved an ecological problem.

The current political and economic powers dominating the planet are taking a page out of the same colonial playbook. Those largely responsible for the current environmental disaster we are experiencing are seeking to gaslight the public into ignoring this fact and accepting the continuation of a dangerous status quo as a solution for it.

The ‘net zero’ deception

One of the policies that helps governments and corporations maintain the status quo is “net zero emissions”, which derives from the idea that carbon emissions and the natural processes of carbon absorption can be assigned value (as carbon credits) and traded.

COP26 will probably go down in history as the conference of the “net zero pledges”. There were many of them: from India’s desire to be carbon neutral by 2070, China’s by 2060, to the EU’s goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by the year 2030, to US commitments to cut emissions by 50 percent by the same year.

But these are all illusory climate action measures. “Net zero emissions” does not actually mean bringing emissions down to zero. Rather it refers to a set of policies that aim to compensate continued emissions with projects that absorb carbon elsewhere. These policies are supposed to help remove the extra emissions from the atmosphere through measures like tree planting, enhanced forest protection (i.e. preventing deforestation), and costly carbon capture and storage technologies.

The problem is that evaluating compliance with “net zero” goals is extremely difficult, and so is proving the full efficacy of these “carbon offsetting” measures. For example, over the past 20 years of discussions about carbon offsets, no solid solution has been found to the problem of verifying in a transparent manner how emissions reductions are achieved.

Furthermore, offsetting projects can have negative social consequences for vulnerable communities. The push for forest expansion, for example, could result in mass displacement of peasants and Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands and into peri-urban slums where devastating poverty awaits them.

Corporations are already eyeing land in developing countries for lucrative “carbon credit” projects. In a report entitled “Nature and Net Zero” by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and management consulting firm McKinsey & Co, published in January 2021, the “economic feasibility” of land around the world was mapped to establish its “carbon abatement potential”. The report assigns different value to different types of lands and estimated costs of realising “natural climate solutions” (i.e. carbon offset) projects on them.

“High feasibility” lands are considered those which are “low cost” – that is, real or potential agricultural rent from them is low and therefore, they would be more likely to be converted to forests, for example. But while the WEF and McKinsey & Co may consider such areas “cheap land”, for small-scale farmers, pastoralists and Indigenous communities, they are ancestral lands that often have significant cultural, religious and communal value.

Needless to say, the report does not mention the potential social and human cost of displacement and the economic and physical violence acquiring such land is likely to lead to. “Carbon credit accounting” standards that are being set up currently require that a forested area be at least 25 million hectares (roughly the area of the US state of Vermont) to qualify for carbon credits. One can only imagine what a reforestation effort trying to meet this standard would look like and the amount of forced displacement it would take to achieve it.

The report also does not address the fact that eviction of small-scale farmers from their “cheap land” might actually result in local food crises, given that a significant portion of the world’s population is fed by small farms. In fact, Oxfam and others have warned that the drive for and monetisation of reforestation may lead to worsening global hunger.

The WEF and McKinsey report, however, does make clear the potential for profit from “natural solutions” that can be monetised as “carbon credits” and “sold” to polluters. Governments and corporations have already jumped at the opportunity. Leading the way on carbon offsets through forest conservation is the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) coalition, which in November announced that it has met a target of $1bn in commitments to support forest-linked carbon offsetting projects.

The coalition was launched on Earth Day last year by the US, Norway, the UK and a number of corporations. It has already been joined by “carbon credit buyers”, such as AirBnB, BlackRock, Delta Airlines, Burberry, Walmart, Unilever, Amazon, Bayer-Monsanto, and Nestlé. Meanwhile some 23 jurisdictions and countries, including Ghana, Nepal, Vietnam and Ecuador, have initiated technical screening procedures to enrol into the offsetting initiative.

The standards that LEAF is set to observe in supporting efforts to grant these participants tradeable “carbon credits” sound promising. They are supposed to “promote transparency and prevent corruption”, “respect the rights of the Indigenous peoples and local communities” and ensure their “meaningful participation” in the “design, implementation and periodic assessment” of these carbon offset projects. But how many of these governments and corporations actually have a good track record of combatting corruption and respecting civil, land and Indigenous rights?

One would not be wrong to question whether this and other initiatives, donations and pledges are not just a fig leaf to cover up the intention of large corporations to continue their carbon-fuelled growth and profit pursuit unabated. It seems that these schemes would do little for the environment but they would enable an airline or an online retailer to continue their fossil-fuel-heavy operations by paying a minuscule amount of their profits for a reforestation scheme that may wipe out the livelihood of a whole rural region in the Global South.

The said corporations would get the “net zero” label, make their customers feel better about themselves and also retain bragging rights about how they are “creating jobs”. The general public would then be gaslighted to believe that this is the only way to address our pressing environmental problems.

Monetising ‘climate resilience’

Because governments and corporations know that they would never do what is necessary to rein in climate change, they have come up with a few terms to placate the masses: “climate resilience”, “climate adaptation” and “climate mitigation”. All of these refer to our supposed ability to respond to and deal with the effects of climate change and are based on the premise that humanity can actually pull through a climate catastrophe with minimal consequences, while maintaining the global economic status quo.

But “climate resilience”, “climate adaptation” and “climate mitigation” are no more than buzzwords that drive investment and profit. Unsurprisingly, they were prominently used at COP26, where one of the outcomes was the announcement of various financial pledges for “nature-based solutions for climate resilience”.

These terms also feature in reports by economists praising the monetary value of nature and calling for investment in it. For example, a 2020 report funded in part by National Geographic, found that the economic benefits of conserving 30 percent of the earth’s land and oceans outweighs “the costs by at least 5-to-1”.

The report frames nature’s value as a lucrative asset – “a single underexploited type of asset”, which provides $125 trillion worth of benefits to humanity. Its preservation can prevent economic losses from climate change by building “resilience” and generating profits in the form of booming tourism sectors, growing agricultural and forestry outputs, and regenerated fish stocks, among others. As one of the report’s co-authors concludes, it is time “to finance nature”.

This absurdity, however, does not stop at treating nature as a financial asset instead of the sole guarantor of human existence and survival that it is. The climate resilience/adaptation/mitigation mantra is also used to “greenwash” industrial and infrastructural projects that harm nature.

All of a sudden, proposed new real estate, airport, roadway, and shipping developments that increase the anthropogenic impacts on climate and ecological breakdown – are being spun as “green” investments – or climate “impact investments”. All they have to do is claim to “provide climate solutions”, “mitigate” climate change impacts or provide “sustainable living” and voilà… New swish developments are given the “green” light.

One example is Royalmount, a $7bn real estate project under construction in the Canadian city of Montreal, which promises “experiential attractions, retail, office space and accommodations… firmly rooted in nature, rejuvenation and sustainability-minded strategies”. It claims that it will be “carbon neutral”, will reduce energy consumption by 34 percent and plant 450,000 trees, shrubs and perennials.

That pretty landscaping is not the same thing as paying attention to ecology, that the project’s “impact” on Montreal’s residents, already struggling with high rents, will not be a positive one and that “nature” will certainly be better off without this new development are facts carefully obscured by “green investment” proponents.

In essence, climate “impact investing” that is meant to “build climate resilience” is no different from investing in traditional asset classes, as there is no way to guarantee that the sought-after “impact” helps nature or local communities. And just like the “net zero emissions” slogan, it is simply a deception meant to make people believe that those most responsible for the climate crisis – rich countries, venture capitalists, and multinational corporations – are in fact the most ecologically-minded.

While COP26 illustrated the extent to which these deceptions have captured the global discourse on climate changes, there are also signs that there is growing awareness of this ongoing green gaslighting. Less than a month after the conference concluded, the American film “Don’t Look Up” was released on online platform Netflix and broke the viewership record. Making a clear reference to our climate disaster reality, the motion picture portrays the absurdity of how corporate and political interests hold back humanity’s response to an extinction-level threat, while actively gaslighting the public.

We may not be facing an approaching asteroid, as the characters in the film do, but our climate change response must be just as urgent. And that has to start with resisting the green gaslighting that continues to waste precious time and tuning out corporate and elite-led solutionism.

We need to stop centring attention on the false “solutions” the wealthy and powerful are offering and refocus on the plight of the ordinary people who are already suffering from the climate crisis: the urban poor, peasants and pastoralists as well as Indigenous people. Their needs and struggles need to be central to a genuine ecological response that couples emissions reductions with degrowth, living wages and dignified working conditions, eliminates the use of fossil fuels, and reorganises the global economy away from neocolonial land grabs, resource abuse and underpaid labour and towards social justice. Anything short of this is smoke and mirrors. The people will not be fooled.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.