Climate Denial From An Oligarchic Perspective

I have been reading an excellent book by Jeffrey Winters, “Oligarchy”[1], which traces the history of oligarchs. By oligarchs, he means those with extreme levels of personal wealth that allow them to fundamentally affect a nation’s affairs. They both have an overriding need to defend that wealth and have the unique power resources for such a defence. As he puts it succinctly “this … helps explain why those most able to pay are also the ones most empowered to avoid doing so, and why ordinary democratic participation is an ineffective antidote.” Oligarchs are different to the political, business and military elites that may enjoy power through their positions, but may not have anywhere near an oligarchic level of wealth (although especially in the United States many senior executives have managed to amass oligarchic-style wealth). He identifies a U.S. oligarchy of the top 150,000 households (the 0.01%), which possessed an average income of $4 million per year in 2004. Even within this number there is a great concentration, the top 15,000 had an average income of $27 million, and the top 400, $345 million. Given the continuing outsized growth in the incomes and wealth of the rich since 2004, and the static incomes and wealth of the rest, their relative position can only have been enhanced further.

In modern nation states, such as the United States, property is protected by the state. This is a relatively new phenomenon that has meant that the oligarchs themselves do not have to arm themselves to protect their property, or accept a protecting lead-oligarch monarch, as they had to in previous eras. Instead, they employ an army of consultants to make sure that policies that affect their ability to benefit from their wealth, such as tax laws, are amenable to them. Another army of consultants is used to structure and hide their wealth so as to reduce their taxes to a minimum. Winters shows that the modern U.S. oligarchy is equal to that of the Roman Empire in the scale of its wealth and power relative to the rest of society. Recent changes to electoral funding laws have now made it even easier for U.S. oligarchs to secretly use their wealth to affect government policies.

Policies to combat climate change can be highly problematic for the oligarch’s core need to protect their wealth. The nature of the threat to their wealth, either direct or indirect, may affect the way in which they respond. For those whose assets are directly tied to the ongoing consumption of fossil fuels, the nature of the threat is a very direct one. This leads to “hard” climate denial, in an attempt to forestall the destruction of the value of those assets. For the rest, it is more an issue of making sure that a move away from fossil fuels does not impede economic growth. A lack of growth would greatly reduce the value of assets generally – such as equities, where the price is dependent upon future earnings growth. It would also threaten general economic and social turbulence that could foster threats to their wealth.

The Hard Deniers

The direct owners of fossil fuel assets, together with the massively paid fossil fuel executives would fall into this camp. Given the large-scale US-based fossil fuel organizations, such as Exxon Mobil (with executives that have oligarchic levels of compensation) and the privately held Koch Industries, this is a substantial subset of the US oligarchy. The United States is home to a number of very large private corporations, many fossil fuel based, that are owned substantially by an individual or a family, such as Koch Industries. This is different to other countries, such as Germany and Japan, which do not have such a large segment of local fossil-fuel oligarchs. Some of the more rabid laissez-faire non fossil fuel oligarchs, such as some hedge fund managers, who see climate change policies as an imminent attack upon property rights, may also join forces with the hard deniers.

In “Dark Money”[2], Jane Mayer documents how such a grouping of U.S. Oligarchs have used their wealth over a more than forty-year period to subvert the political and opinion-forming processes of that country. They have built up a large and highly effective network consisting of “independent” think tanks, activist groups, legal advocacy groups, heavily funded academics and academic departments, friendly commentators and news outlets, fake “grassroots” organizations, well-supported politicians, and operatives skilled in facilitating devastating attacks upon opponents. Through such things the oligarchs have been able to significantly change public opinion and political decision-making, such as the acceptance of the need to cost-benefit analyze any new regulations.

As long as the growth in renewables and carbon-reducing policies did not produce too great a threat to their assets, these oligarchs could use such power in a more indirect way to oppose “troublesome” regulations and to get their tax rates lowered. The success of the anti-pipeline and anti-coal initiatives, the Paris climate accord, the drive for much greater levels of fuel efficiency, support for renewables energies, the Obama-administration’s moves to regulate greenhouse gases and limit coal fired power stations; these all started to threaten the value of fossil fuel assets. It was not just such current actions, but also the message they sent about the scale of possible future actions. This raised concerns about the impingement of future earnings from such assets, as well as providing a greater role for government regulation. The wealth redistributing possibilities of “carbon tax and dividend” proposals also concerned the more laissez-faire oligarchs.

The hard deniers had to take a more direct role to stop this threat. They were aided by the removal of any controls upon oligarchic and corporate funding of politics, allowing the money takeover of U.S. societal decision-making to go into overdrive. The aim was no longer to cost-benefit regulations, but to directly defund and curtail the operations of such government departments as the Environmental Protection Agency (greenhouse gas emission controls and many other regulations) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (climate change research). To take direct control of the political process at all levels. The Trump presidency, for all its talk of “draining the swamp”, is greatly furthering the agenda of the hard deniers. With such things as the ex-CEO of Exxon as Secretary of State, and the large budget cuts to regulatory and climate-research organizations.

The Soft Deniers

The rest of the oligarchy whose assets are not directly dependent upon the use of fossil fuels, fall into this camp. For them, the main issue is that the reduction in fossil fuel usage must not impact continued economic growth. This would endanger current asset prices (e.g. stock prices dependent upon future growth rates), restrict future opportunities, and risk threatening social upheaval. Therefore, the move away from fossil fuels must not be too fast. The modern economy runs on energy, and will stall rapidly if that supply of energy is reduced too quickly. The rate of reduction in fossil fuels must allow for renewables and efficiency gains to fill the gap. In addition, changes must be driven through market forces. A carbon tax is somewhat acceptable, as long as it is not high enough to impact economic growth and can be easily skirted by the oligarch’s extensive income protection industry.

The last time that there had been a threat to oligarchic property had been with the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. This was a period of rapidly increasing government intervention on behalf of the non-oligarch majority and the environment. The response was the successful neo-liberal revolution, heavily financed by oligarch money[3]. The soft-denial camp is not ready to give up the gains won during the past few decades of neoliberalism.

Thus the market-driven, eco-modernist approach that is dominant in most major nations; the approach taken by the Obama presidency. A major requirement for this approach is that the official policy bodies, such as the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC), play along. They must support a position that a very rapid reduction in emissions, such as the 8-10% per year proposed by Kevin Andersen[4] [5], is not required. They must assume that we can even overshoot the carbon budget, and then suck the CO2 out of the air later with “negative emission technology”. Another assumption is that of no major positive climate feedbacks that will kick-in during the next few decades while we overshoot the carbon budget. There must also be an underlying belief in the ability of the market and technology to solve our problems. These assumptions are embedded in the official Integrated Assessment Models used to derive government policies, that assume no feedbacks, continued growth, rosy assumptions of market-driven renewables growth and efficiency gains, and a massive build-out of negative emissions technologies. The later real action is delayed, the more fantastical the models seem to become. As Andersen has noted, quite a few climate scenarios even assume that emission reductions started a number of years in the past[6].

The Soft-Hard Battle

What we are seeing played out in the United States is a battle within the oligarchy, between the minority hard deniers and the majority soft deniers. The strength of hard denial in the U.S. stems from the large share of oligarch wealth tied to fossil fuel assets, together with the scale of major U.S. fossil fuel based corporations (with oligarchical-scale remunerations for their top executives). A position possibly only matched by Russia within the major industrialized nations. In the other industrialized countries, the balance is much more toward the soft-denial position, reflecting the different constitution of oligarchic wealth and major corporations.

Until the soft deniers see climate change as a bigger threat to their wealth and security than direct government intervention (e.g. carbon rationing) that threatens property rights and the growth paradigm, they will keep up with the eco-modernist soft denial approach. The fight will remain between the hard and soft deniers, with little substantive advances made toward the deep changes required to stave off increasing levels of climate, and ecological, crisis.

The conundrum is that the later real action is delayed, the greater will be the threats to oligarchic wealth by the escalating actions that will be required. The outcome could well be continuing societal inertia, unless broken by other elite groups such as the military. Given the legally enforced focus of corporations on shareholder wealth (protecting oligarch assets) and the money-driven nature of U.S. politics, the other elite groups may be of little help. The only other option would be mass protest, difficult with a concept as amorphous as climate change.

Anders Hayden covered the policy limits of the eco-modernist approach in his book “When Green Growth Is Not Enough”[7]. As soon as the eco-modernist discussion veered towards what Hayden terms the “sufficiency” approach, that questioned ongoing economic expansion and property rights, it was rapidly pulled back. An example is the fate of individual carbon quotas that quickly disappeared from official discussion in the UK, never to return. Another is the complete official disinterest in the Contraction and Convergence approach toward a fair sharing of emission reductions between rich and poor countries[8] that could easily facilitate a discussion of the fair sharing of reductions between rich and poor people within nations.

The rest of the population may be merely spectators to the fight between the hard and soft denying oligarchs, as the reality of climate change intensifies before our eyes. China, with an authoritarian bureaucracy that still retains a level of independence from oligarchic and corporate control, may be the best positioned to move from a soft denial to realistic approach. For many reasons even such non-oligarchic elites may remain imprisoned inside a pro-growth, eco-modernization, mindset though. That is a topic for another piece.


[1] Jeffrey Winters (2011), Oligarchy, Cambridge University Press

[2] Jane Mayer (2016), Dark Money, Doubleday

[3] David Harvey (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberaism, Oxford University Press

[4] Kevin Andersen (2013), Avoiding dangerous climate change demands de-growth strategies from wealthier nations, Kevin Andersen blog. Available at

[5] Kevin Andersen & Alice Bows (2010), Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society. Accessible at

[6] Kevin Andersen (2015), Duality in climate science, Nature Geoscience 8, 898–900 (2015) doi:10.1038/ngeo2559. Accessible at

[7] Anders Hayden (2014), When Green Growth Is Not Enough, McGill-Queen’s University Press

[8] Donald Brown (2014), 10 Reasons Why “Contraction and Convergence” Is Still The Most Preferable Equity Framework for Allocating National GHG Targets, Ethics and Climate. Accessible at


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10 Responses to Climate Denial From An Oligarchic Perspective

  1. Nick G says:

    I looked at Kevin Andersen's discussion of the conflict between economic growth and emissions reduction.

    I don't see much evidence for his argument. He simply refers to a lack of evidence for a compatibility between growth and emissions reduction. He refers to Stern's discussion, which is also striking for it's very weak set of evidence. One bit of evidence was the Soviet Union, and the fact that emissions didn't fall much faster than it's economy. Another was France during it's move to nuclear power.

    In fact, none of the examples were of economies making a concerted effort to specifically and aggressively reduce emissions. All of them were aimed at other things: Brazil, for instance was not specifically aiming at CO2 emissions reductions when it pushed ethanol. It just wanted to reduce oil imports. The same, by the way, is true of Denmark and wind power.

    The fact is that we haven't tried an aggressive reduction of emissions. But, there's pretty good evidence that it could be done without harming GDP growth. For instance, the US reduced it's passenger vehicle fuel consumption by about 50% with CAFE regulations. Granted, the reductions probably weren't higher than about 4% per year, but we weren't hitting any kind of barrier at that point: that pace of reduction was achieved without any economic harm at all. There was absolutely no sign of a tradeoff between economics and emissions reductions. That pace likely could have been doubled without much problem.

    • rboyd says:

      Thanks for your comment Nick, you have prompted me to write a post on this very subject. The belief that we can rapidly decarbonize the economy without affecting economic growth, if only we would focus on it enough, is one that pervades the climate change policy space. I will answer your specific points in this comment.

      With respect to US passenger vehicle efficiency, the improvements were in new units sold not in the total fleet. The average passenger vehicle has an age of 11.5 years, so any improvements in new sales takes at least a decade to work their way through the whole fleet. The biggest gains seem to have been driven by price spikes in the price of oil (1975 to 1985 and after 2005) that drove consumers to purchase more efficient models. When oil prices fell in the 1990’s there was a rush to buy SUV’s and trucks, which were exempted from the CAFE standards (defined as light trucks rather than passenger vehicles). The actual CAFE standards may have been a secondary driver.

      It is very sad that Trump has ditched the Obama-administration’s much stricter CAFE plans, which would have done a lot to increase fleet efficiency. With low oil prices, the worry is that the automakers will keep selling bigger vehicles and people will drive more (there does seem to be some increase in vehicle miles driven recently).

      What Kevin Anderson is talking about is a 10% drop in emissions per year. Even if the efficiency of all new passenger vehicles sold gained by 10% the next year, and gained 10% per year from then on (highly questionable, unless sales switched wholesale to European sized cars and EV’s), it would be at least a decade until the first 10% drop was reflected across the whole US fleet. This is the issue with the in place inventory of higher emissions vehicles. During the next decade electric cars will still not have that much of an impact, given range and cost issues. Over the past 4 years EV sales have increased at an annual rate of 32% (doubling every 2.5 years), but this is from a very small base; only 160,000 vehicles in 2016 out of total annual light vehicle sales of 17 million. Even if EV sales kept increasing at that rate, they would represent less than 10% of sales a decade from now.

      The inventory issue is exacerbated when we move away from consumer durables to major industrial and infrastructural items such as electricity power stations and cement production facilities. These have economic lives measured in many decades, and would require massive investments to replace/refurbish. The other major use of fossil fuels is for space heating and cooling with natural gas, with reductions requiring extensive modifications to the current housing and commercial building stock to reduce heating/cooling requirements, and then the implementation of electric heat exchange systems (as they use in Quebec).

      A final issue is that a rapid move to a decarbonized economy will create extreme financial losses for fossil fuel oriented organizations, as well as seriously degrading the value of current fossil-fuel dependent assets. With the realization that demand for oil, gas and coal will fall dramatically and quickly, the reserves of the fossil fuel companies will lose most of their value. Companies such as Exxon Mobil, which have $100’s billions in debt (trillions across the industry) will be insolvent and in default on their debts. Added to this will be all of the companies that service the fossil fuel organizations, plus other related industries such as airlines. This would be a crisis bigger than the 2008 one. The secondary market price for the less efficient cars would also drop substantially, affecting both individual consumers (much less residual value to fund the next car) and leasing companies (big losses as residual values fall). These losses would crater the banking system, as well as pension and insurance fund portfolios.

      The fundamental problem is that we have waited so long to act (now over a quarter of a century) that we have telescoped the required changes into a very small time window (10-15 years). Such a scale of action in such a small time window would be incredibly disruptive for the economy, and would require at least short-term drops in consumption. That is why the IPCC scenarios now assume overshoot and the massive use of carbon capture technologies. That way they can assume continued economic growth (although they also vastly understate the probable shocks from abrupt climate change that they are risking).

      I find that Vaclav Smil covers the immense scale and complexity of the current energy system very well. I also follow Euan Mearns a bit, even though he is an outright climate change denier, as even though his analysis is slanted (annoyingly so sometimes!) it still has some useful points about the reality of changing the energy system.


      • Joe says:

        I like to think of it this way; the long term effects of a crash de-carbonization program are now even worse than rapid economic collapse.

        The required rates of decline in the use of fossil fuels are now so great, that as you point out, meeting them will destroy large swaths of the economy to disastrous effect. As you say, "a crisis bigger than the 2008 one", a crisis that would almost certainly destroy the global market economy.

        What makes attempts at large voluntary reductions in fossil fuel use even worse is that we would attempt to create substitute energy systems, temporarily boosting energy consumption, which would necessarily come from fossil fuels.

        For example, an accelerated vehicle fleet replacement program would require a lot of fossil fuels to make the new cars prior to the end of the service life of the older vehicles. Similarly, a massive renewables build-out would require huge amounts of fossil fuels for the new equipment involved. All this new carbon output is added to that produced by the ongoing business as usual.

        It would be far better for the climate and have about the same result in the long run if the global market economy just collapsed due to some financial or political crisis rather than attempt, at this late date, a turn toward a non-carbon energy system.

        Unfortunately, we now have a choice between two horrible alternatives. Attempt to transition away from fossil fuels and put the final nail in the climate change coffin, even as we destroy the economy, or watch the world economy destroy itself. Both alternatives imply rapidly increasing death rates, but simple economic collapse saves the climate (if it comes soon enough).

        I think we are 'lucky' enough to be on track for economic collapse without any significant attempt at transition to a non-fossil-fuel energy system. How distressing that such a thing is the best that we can hope for.

        • rboyd says:

          A managed decline would still be better than an unmanaged crash, if it allows governments to share the impacts relatively humanely (i.e. buffer the poorer citizens). In WW2 the rationing of food in Britain actually meant that the poorer families got to eat better! The widespread use of allotments and private gardens to grow food also helped. Would have to overcome the incredible selfishness, sociopathy and short-sightedness of many of the current elites though.

          You make a great point about the transition requiring large amounts of energy to build the new low-carbon infrastructure - so the cuts in the rest of the economy would be even deeper. The eco-modernists miss this point completely. It takes energy to build wind turbines, solar etc., and if done at an accelerating rate will not provide net new energy until the growth rate tails off. So a big chunk of the falling use of fossil fuels will go towards meeting this up-front energy deficit.

          Temperatures increasing by 1 degree per decade, sea levels by feet per decade etc. (all quite possible when the feedbacks hit hard, and probably much earlier than assumed) will make an economic crash seem like a small-scale rehearsal. The reality is we are 25 years too late already in taking real action.

          • Joe says:

            I think that the global economy is so much more widely integrated, hence more vulnerable to cascading effects, to have an economic decline be "managed". I just don't see the international cooperation required, especially during a time of maximum economic and political stress. We will be lucky to avoid a major war.

            If fossil fuel use went to zero within the next 10 years, we might have a chance of avoiding really extreme climate change feed-backs (fingers crossed). And I still think that negative feed-backs from enhanced vegetative growth might be bigger than is commonly assumed or else every interglacial would go straight to maximum temperatures due to the positive feed-backs everyone worries about. On the other hand, our rate of CO2 increase is so fast that natural cycles may not be very illustrative of what is likely to happen.

            As you say, we are many decades too late to take effective action without causing major economic disruption. On a personal note, I find it very difficult for a family to plan for avoidance of the worst effects of both economic collapse and global warming, but at this point every family or small community should try. Collective action by governments has been either untried or futile. Waiting for governments to act is a misuse of valuable time.

      • Nick G says:

        This is a complex argument, with a lot of points that could be covered. I'll give a couple of thoughts, and try to come back later.

        1st, this is a mighty theoretical argument. Current policy debates are very far away from the 8-10% reductions that Anderson suggested.

        2nd, the idea that dramatic reductions in FF consumption would cause serious harm to our economy is a FF industry argument: "FF is necessary to our economy: small reductions in FF would hurt the economy, and large reductions would crash the economy." In other words, "Drill, Baby, Drill".

        I suggest that we not accept FF industry arguments against FF reductions without very good evidence. If and when I have time I'll return with more detail about why and how FF could indeed be reduced without economic harm.

        • rboyd says:

          As Anderson and others have pointed out, the current policy debate is founded upon faulty assumptions, such as
          the UN IPCC explicitly ignoring positive Earth System warming feedbacks in reaction to anthropogenic warming such as soil/permafrost carbon loss and already-happening changes in Arctic albedo.

          I covered this in my post "Why we have already overshot the carbon budget"

          Plus the assumptions of truly massive climate geo-engineering in the future to mop excess carbon before we hot tipping points

          More recent research is also showing a more rapid response of the Earth System to warming, as with the example of land-based ice sheets.

          Taken together, they point for the need for rapid reductions in carbon emissions that are well above the current policy consensus. A consensus trapped by the economic and social impacts of such a rapid rate of decarbonization - espically upon the oligarchs and elites.

        • rboyd says:

          Instead of using the shoddy device of "FF Industry Arguments" you need to address the points that I have made directly. Realism may be painful, but very necessary.

          With truly democratic government the pain of rapid carbon emission cuts can be shared fairly - i.e. those that benefit the most from the current carbon economy should take the greatest burden.

  2. Another superb article Roger.

    We are coming out with a book presently, presentations to follow next month that put forth what we see as the few options left to salvage humanity/civilization in our (as you put it) TEST.

    The book is Climageddon and I could send you a reviewer's copy to see. (I would need an address to send it to, and you could let me know at

    The few options of help that we see are: (1) the concentrated wealth in Philanthropy that could validate and confirm the scope, scale and urgency of the climate/ecology/ economic/energy--all interlocking crises. (2) the Intelligence and National Security Agencies (after Trump resigns) validate and confirm the ssu. (3) the military validates and confirms the ssu.

    Simultaneously, we will need a mass uprising/movement triggered by survival/ evolution impulse. We do believe that we "KNOW" we are in deep do-do, but lack the will/purpose/understanding of how to respond.

    I could send you an article that features us, also that begins to explain how we begin to take our show on the road. And how we "open-the-door" to the necessary conversation.

    Thank you Roger for all of your great work,


    • rboyd says:

      I feel that it will take a massive crisis to kick the elites out of their current position, given the personal risks and losses that they will take by accepting the reality. Not even a "blue-ocean" Arctic event will do that I think.

      Right-wing populism is great at redirecting the masses, and there does not currently seem to be any real viable progressive organization that is mobilizing the masses. I still find too many of the climate organizations to be very hidebound within their current set of beliefs, and surprisingly apolitical.

      So the military perhaps, sad that it may come to that.


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