Eric Dean Wilson’s ‘After Cooling’

March 22, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

What kind of collective action is likely to be most effective in mitigating climate change? Switching to electric cars? Installing solar panels? Planting trees? Giving up flying?

These are of course the solutions we usually hear about. But according to the army of experts who compiled the 2017 report Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming the top solution is something quite different. The editor of the report was almost embarrassed about the finding. ‘“The official number one, I’m sorry to say, isn’t very sexy,” she said. “It’s focused on refrigerant chemicals.”’

In his revelatory new book, After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, And The Terrible Cost Of Comfort (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2021) Eric Dean Wilson explains that sequestering or destroying chemical refrigerants could prevent emissions of ‘89.74 gigatons of carbon dioxide…. For scale, total global energy-related CO2 emissions for 2019 were about 33 gigatons. Though the solution of refrigerant management is only one of many, its magnitude is as hopeful as it is daunting: addressing this one sector could radically lower global emissions.’

After Cooling is full of revelations of many kinds. I was not aware, for instance, that there exists a thriving black market in Freon in the United States. Woven into the book is a fascinating first-person narrative in which Wilson follows a Freon-hunter through the dark by-ways of this market.

Particularly interesting is Wilson’s account of how the United States became the first country to integrate air-conditioning into every aspect of daily life. The very idea of tampering with the air was once regarded with revulsion by most Americans: it was through a long and carefully engineered change in the conception of what constitutes ‘comfort’ that they – and later the world – came to be persuaded that air-conditioning was a necessity. Needless to add, the process was closely enmeshed with race and other structural inequalities; and it hardly needs to be added either that the persuasive machinery of capitalism was instrumental in bringing about the transition.

The man most responsible for effecting America’s transition to mass air-conditioning was a chemist by the name of Thomas Midgely Jr., or ‘Midge’. Although little known today he may have had a more devastating impact on the planet than any other human being in history. A British quiz show host once ranked Midgely at the top of the list of historical figures who have done the greatest ecological damage, ahead of all the usual environmental criminals. He said of Midgely: ‘He put millions of tons of lead, into the atmosphere, harming millions of people [and] not content with that he also invented the first of the Freons, but what did he not know it was also doing? Destroying the ozone layer.”

Today the story of the ozone layer is usually told as a hopeful tale since international concern about the issue eventually led to the Montreal Protocol of 1987. This is often cited as an example of a successful international initiative on the environment.

Why did the Montreal negotiations succeed when so many other environmental summits have failed? Wilson suggests an answer: ‘the success of the Montreal Protocol… rested on the public framing of the crisis as targeting, first and foremost, white skin.’

Wilson shows that in the run-up to the negotiations in Montreal, the ozone problem was often framed as a threat primarily to White people, because it increased their chances of contracting skin cancer. He quotes, for example, a prominent Massachusetts doctor, who, at a Senate Committee hearing in 1987, ‘defined Australia, whose population was directly exposed to the Antarctic ozone hole, as “nature’s experiment of taking a white, susceptible population and moving them to a tropical environment and then having them be outside all the time.” Speaking at the 1990 London conference to assess the Montreal Protocol, NASA’s Dr. Robert Watson highlighted the pigmented difference: “For white-skinned people, every one-percent ozone depletion increases by three to five percent the number of people who contract non-melanoma skin cancer”.’

Wilson concludes: ‘The Montreal Protocol would not have happened without the support of Australia, Canada, the United States, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe—the major producers and emitters of Freon. Not coincidentally, those major producers and emitters of Freon also contained—and were controlled by—the largest numbers of fair-skinned people on the planet.’

Some of the countries on this list, most notably Australia and the United States, have of course, led the way in resisting, and even undoing, international accords on climate change. In light of Wilson’s conclusions it is worth asking whether right wing leaders in Australia and the United States might have been less resistant to those accords if climate change had also been perceived as a major threat to White people. But global warming is not seen in that way – largely because climate change has long been presented as primarily a threat to black and brown people in poor parts of the world.

This perception is now firmly embedded in the public mind, even though it is evident today that some of the regions that are being most adversely affected by climate change are wealthy areas in wealthy countries – for example, Houston and its surroundings, southeastern Australia, parts of California, and the Po Delta in Italy. Why then is climate change so often framed by activists as a threat primarily to poor people in places far from removed from wealthy countries? I suspect that the messaging arises out of the well-meaning, liberal belief that appealing to the consciences of the wealthy and powerful will bring about a large-scale change of heart in rich countries.

This is, in my view, an entirely misplaced expectation. Centuries of colonial history have given Western elites some extremely sophisticated tools for what the historian Priya Satia calls ‘the management of conscience’. These tools have allowed them to inflict all kinds of structural violence, ranging from genocide to famine, on the poor and colonized, while persuading themselves that their actions were perfectly moral and high-minded. It is unlikely to be any different in relation to climate change: indeed the arguments offered by certain ‘denialist’ Western leaders are straight out of the toolbox of imperialist conscience management. Wilson’s conclusion in regard to the Montreal Protocol suggests that the framing of global warming as a threat mainly to poor, non-white people, although well-intended, may actually have dampened concerns among those who believe they are not directly threatened.

Nor is it the case, as Wilson also shows, that refrigerants have ceased to pose a threat to the ozone layer; far from it. For one thing the gases that replaced Freon were by no means environmentally friendly: pound for pound, their presence ‘in the atmosphere contributes significantly more to global warming than does carbon dioxide or methane or almost anything else on the planet… Their capacity to retain heat far exceeds other substances … [and they] could account for as much as 20 percent of global warming in the next eighty years.’

In effect ‘rather than lessening environmental destruction, the replacement refrigerants may have exacerbated it. In the short term, they quelled the ozone crisis. In the long term, they encouraged the habits that required world-altering chemicals, the habits of constant work, constant comfort, and individual safety within a small, enclosed space, an unwavering investment in personal, individual choice at the expense of the long-term comfort and safety of the general public.’

Some of the other effects of air-conditioning are more insidious: ‘The world before Freon was a world in which the people of the planet understood how to handle the heat—not just personally but as a community. If you were rich, the way to deal with the hottest months of the summer was easy: slow down and migrate to your summer home in the Hamptons or your vacation estate in the mountains… But even lower-income urbanites through the 1901 New York heat wave made it through without leaving, if only because they had no other choice. They slept on roofs or fire escapes or in the parks under the stars. They modified their work habits. They wore considerably less clothing. They opened fire hydrants. Some even stood under streetlamp-sized showerheads connected to the city’s water supply, once provided by the municipal government but now long gone. And they managed together. In some cases, as in 1950s Bronzeville, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Chicago, they not only managed together but thrived. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg cites one description of the pre-air-conditioning Bronzeville summer as “ ‘an unrelentingly public world’ in which ‘summer evenings were one long community festival, involving just about everybody on the block’ and ending with people ‘sleeping on fire escapes to avoid the heat’ ”—a “simple strategy,” he claims, that kept the mortality rate of one 1955 heat wave at half the mortality rate of the 1995 Chicago heat wave.’

The most important lesson of Wilson’s book is that many technological developments that are initially sold as ‘progress’ appear as exactly the opposite when placed within the wider time frame that is usually requires for their unintended consequences to be revealed. Worse still, they also have the effect of destroying the traditional coping mechanisms that have historically helped human beings adapt to difficult conditions.

Wilson’s book appears at an important moment, a time when Western elites have started to forcefully advocate geo-engineering as a necessary technological solution to the climate crisis. If there is one thing we can be sure of it is that the unintended consequences of such interventions will be even more disastrous than the problems they are intended to solve. But Western elites have the power to do what they will, and in the future, as in the past, they will absolve themselves of culpability by saying ‘We didn’t know it would turn out like this; our models didn’t predict it.’ To which any humble farmer or hunter-gatherer might well respond: ‘But we could have told you.’

Meticulously researched and engagingly written, After Cooling is essential reading for the planetary crisis.

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