State Gaslighting in the Age of Climate Change

Finola Laughren - Politics & Economics

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American writer Joan Didion likened being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) - a chronic illness that damages nerves over time and disrupts messages sent from the brain - to the fear that often comes late at night while using the loo: that there is a man with a knife on the other side of the door, waiting to attack. Only this time, upon opening the door, Didion discovered that her fear was grounded. The man attacked. This is not altogether different from climate change. Like MS, climate change is a slow, drawn-out, ultimately destructive process. It is at once happening, and about to happen. It looms over the future, but equally, over the present. This is the context in which we now all live and in which politics is played out. Climate change impacts Australian politics in a number of ways. On one side, there is the burgeoning environmental movement(s), on the other, denialism and its partner, state gaslighting. This article offers a cautionary tale about state gaslighting around climate change - greenhouse gaslighting (pardon the pun). If current trends continue, Australia will witness an accelerated state attempt to negate reality.

Ever since Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) asked Gregory (played by Charles Boyer), “are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” in the 1944 film Gaslight, the notion of gaslighting has gained prominence. Now considered a genuine social phenomenon by fields as diverse as gender studies, sociology, philosophy, psychology, law and medicine. Gaslighting refers to:

“a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem.”

The state always presents events in a light favourable to its political agenda, but does this constitute gaslighting? Does it sow seeds of doubt in the public? Does it evoke cognitive dissonance? I believe yes. Before turning to examples, a general point about the value of discussing gaslighting in the context of climate change. Climate change is not particular in that it presents an existential threat to human life. We have had those before - Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) immediately comes to mind. Greenhouse gaslighting is worth discussing though, because climate change - although by no means the first in human history - is our existential threat.

As an existential threat, climate change is, as Al Gore says, an “inconvenient truth.” It is inconvenient that the system in which we currently live is inherently incompatible with the survival of the planet, from which, unfortunately, we are not separate. It is inconvenient that the system valorises, and creates global competition for profit above all else. This has led to natural resources being farmed and managed unsustainably, damaging lands irreparably, contamination of water and food sources, the loss of a number of species of flora and fauna impacting the holistic health of ecosystems, an increase in extreme weather events, the creation of a new category of refugees and ultimately, the absurd position in which we now find ourselves, in which we are caught between stopping climate change by ending capitalism or continuing down the capitalist garden path towards a dystopian nightmare.

This inherent incompatibility, between the system we live in and the system needed to survive, facilitates greenhouse gaslighting. It requires our day-to-day involvement in the negation of reality, tying us to a sinking ship. To function in the world today involves a level of cognitive dissonance to the reality of climate change. Cognitive dissonance is one of the effects of gaslighting. Broadly, then, the state’s negation of the reality of climate change has sown seeds of doubt in our collective consciousness. Indeed, to act in accordance with “business as usual” requires it of us. To use the metaphor of the man with a knife, we are coerced to act blind to his presence, even as he takes steps forward and sharpens his knife.

Let’s turn to specifics. During the 2019/20 bushfire crisis the Australian government used information overload to facilitate its greenhouse gaslighting. Now, Australia has far from a positive reputation regarding freedom of its press. Government documents are expensive to access via Freedom of Information requests. Even when accessed, significant parts of documents remain redacted. Yet there is still a lot of information to cipher through. Figuring out what is trustworthy and what is not, who pays for what perspective and why, and how to read “between the lines” is difficult. The fact that it is easier than ever to experience information fatigue facilitates greenhouse gaslighting. At the start of the crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in Hawaii on holiday with his family. Although swallowed by reportage on the Covid-19 crisis, it has been revealed that Morrison knew of the incoming early and extreme bushfire season but chose to ignore advice and go on holiday anyway. He only came back as a result of the public relations disaster his absence caused. Although he eventually apologised for any offence he maintained a level of dismissal towards public critique by stating that “I don’t hold a hose mate”. What this exposes is, in part, something that many of us have always known, that the Government lies to us. In my view, however, it exposes something more troubling. The very fact that Scott Morrisson knowingly went on holiday reveals the state’s modus operandi for gaslighting in an era of climate change. Lying is generally distinguished from gaslighting by way of intention. Lying is used for self-protection, and although self-protection seems undoubtedly one of Scott Morrisson’s driving forces, other more pernicious intentions are also clear. Namely, his actions intended to negate, invalidate and minimise public concern. In other words, to gaslight.

While the 2019/20 bushfire crisis demonstrates greenhouse gaslighting, it also exposes its current limits. The fact of decades of funding cuts to the Rural Fire Service became a point of contention during the crisis. First, Morrison resisted paying volunteer firefighters, stating that they “want to be out there”. Then, two volunteer firefighters died – Geoff Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, both of whom had small children. In response, Morrison and NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian mourned the men as “heroes”. This was met with public incredulity – the crack between the narrative of the state and the facts of the matter was simply too wide. As a result, 10 days after the men’s deaths, Morrison conceded funding to volunteer firefighters in NSW. At least for the moment, a separation between state narrative and public belief endures.

In the future, information overload and restricted freedom of the press will facilitate an intensification of state attempts to negate the reality of the climate crisis. In response, we need to build political movements that expose state gaslighting and work to create a more just world.

Finola Laughren is an activist and current honours students at the University of Sydney.

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