To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
July 3, 2017
RE: Cliff Mass and Charles Mudede debate what to do about global warming

"Socialist" elitism vs. "bipartisan" expertism:
a debate in Seattle on the climate crisis

  1. Two non-class perspectives on climate change
    1. Introduction
    2. Round 1: Facts are useless in emergencies (Also what happened to that dead pine tree?):
    3. Round 2: Power, the politics of climate change and the (failed) carbon tax
    4. Round 3: Technology vs. human behavior as a fix
    5. Round 4: Strong-arm alarmism? Or faith in the persuasive truth of science?
    6. Footnotes:
  2. Corrections to the July 3rd issue of the D/SWV list

Two non-class perspectives on climate change

by Eric Gordon, Seattle Workers' Voice


The May 31st edition of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger carried a debate between Cliff Mass and Charles Mudede (1). Mass is a Seattle atmospheric scientist and TV personality, and a professor at the University of Washington, while Mudede is a self-styled "Marxist" and staff member for The Stranger weekly newspaper. The edited debate is presented in four parts, and while The Stranger's habitual hip snarky style shows in how it presents the debate, this is not the usual ginned-up pseudo-debate between a "climate believer" and a "climate denier" that the bourgeois press usually presents. Both Mass and Mudede agree that climate change is a very serious issue caused by human activity, and their differences are in the area of approach and policy. But while they disagree on many things, we'll see that under this disagreement is a common lack of class understanding, and this leads both of them to take problematic positions.

Round 1 is titled "Facts are useless in emergencies (Also what happened to that dead pine tree?)":

The dispute in this section centers on a Seattle Times article (2) that drew a simple line between the death of a pine tree in the University of Washington Arboretum and climate change: "The cause of death was climate change". They point to "steadily warming and drier summers", which they say stressed the tree and gave turpentine beetles an opening to attack the tree.

Cliff Mass disputes this narrative, saying that actually Seattle summers have been only very marginally warmer (about a tenth of a degree), and significantly wetter, not drier. Mudede grudgingly concedes that "the tree situation was really complicated", but holds onto the basic narrative using the flimsiest of reasoning: "because I believe that climate change is happening, ... you can make that guess [that the tree died due to it]." In other words he elevates his belief above fact. Both Mudede and the Times article lean on simplification and an appeal to emotionalism, rather than argument based in facts, to try to manipulate people into support for some environmental action. This betrays an elitist disdain for the intelligence of the masses, who apparently can't be trusted to understand anything unless it's spoon fed to them. In fact, though, this disregard for facts by self-appointed environmental spokespeople  approach hampers the building of a mass environmental movement.

Mass's stand is more defensible on the surface. He holds that facts are important, and that people need "the straight truth" about climate change. But he only credits the most glaring data as having any validity. He cites the melting Arctic ice as proof of climate change, but in the fourth "round" he writes off the question of snow pack in the mountains as a "few bad years". In this way he ignores the overall trend on the west coast when it comes to snow pack: In reality there has been loss of glaciers in many areas in the Cascade Mountains, while scientists say there's going to be increased snow pack on certain Pacific Coast mountains or ranges due to ocean warming. So Mass's "straight truth" is very narrowly defined.

The second section is titled "Round 2: Power,
the politics of climate change and the (failed) carbon tax"

When in this section Mass says that "even in population, we're not a majority", he's playing loose with facts: Recent polls say that between 65 and 70 percent of people in the US think climate change is real and a serious problem. And he's stuck in the red-state-blue-state paradigm in which "bipartisanship" is the only way forward. In other words, he sees only the politics of the two capitalist parties as meaning anything, and this leads him to support the failed Washington Initiative 732 – touted as a "revenue-neutral" carbon tax – as a realpolitik solution. It also leads him to blame the left for torpedoing it; and to oppose mass demonstrations like the March for Science this April; and to blame "left-leaning types" as the main roadblock to enacting any solutions. But the Republican Party opposes not only regulation, but also taxes. What makes him think they'll line up behind this one?

Mudede opposes I-732 on a weak basis: he calls it "cosmetic" and "symbolic", but says nothing about it being ineffective, and makes no mention of the regressiveness of all carbon pricing solutions, supposedly revenue neutral or no. In his version of elitism, he seems to have no conception that raising the price of getting to work, basic consumer goods, and so on, are a great way to drive workers away from environmentalism: The crisis was created by the capitalists' insatiable drive for profits, why should it be solved on the backs of the exploited?

(As a side note, though The Stranger's headline for this section calls the carbon tax "failed", a majority endorsed I-732. Interestingly, there was sufficient disagreement on the editorial board over that vote that a minority published a rebuttal (3). Both positions agree that a carbon tax is a good thing, they only dispute over whether it should be revenue neutral. So when the editors of this piece say that carbon tax is "failed", they're apparently simply referring to the failure of I-732 to pass.)

In place of market solutions Mudede calls for "real organization of the economy that is orchestrated and conducted by the government with a complete indifference to the needs of the private sector." Yes, we need government regulation, and it needs to be organized and supervised my the workers so that it doesn't end up causing them hardship. But Mudede says very little about how this is to come about, here or elsewhere. He approves of voting and demonstrations, but nowhere that I could find does he talk about the path he conceives of for making a government whose very job is to foster and protect the needs of the private sector to do an about face and disregard those needs. We can do it, but it will take mass struggle.

Mass can only conceive of the politics of existing power institutions –- all of which are dedicated to preserving capitalist profit and class power. Mudede can only conceive of the top-down imposition of regulations which suppress bourgeois power and profit –- but apparently done by the very same institutions which Mass looks to: Mass's realpolitik is countered by Mudede's unrealpolitik.

The third section is: "Round 3: Technology vs. human behavior as a fix"

Mass denounces people who fly around the world, drive everywhere, and have second houses, and says "behavior change is a lost cause". But the question is complex: higher prices do change behavior, just not in predictable ways and not across the board. For example, higher gas prices may push some (poor people disproportionately) to take the bus, but only if it's available.

Mass looks to a purely technological fix. He says the funding for research is good, private enterprise interest in wind and solar is good, and with more of the same these technologies will become more economical than fossil fuels: i.e. with the right funding, technology can solve it. But looking to some future technological fix is an error: the technology already exists to change over to sustainable sources. What's lacking is the political will among the ruling class.

Mudede on the other hand looks to top-down propaganda to change behavior: "We became a car culture through a massive amount of social engineering, which are called car ads. These things are reversible." According to him the government hasn't been funding research into new technologies (it has, but of course it could do more), and you've got to (somehow) get rid of the "people who are clearly working in the interest of those who would lose if there is any massive change in the way society is currently configured." Again, in the absence of any discussion of how the masses might bring this about, it comes off as pie-in-the-sky. We need a growing mass struggle that gains independence from the ruling class, builds its own organizations, and forces the capitalists' government to act against the interests of its masters. Here and elsewhere he's pretty much silent about the many questions facing Marxists, and in this Mudede embraces Marxism more as a fashion statement than as a political philosophy or analysis to guide action.

The fourth section is titled: "Round 4: Strong-arm alarmism?
Or faith in the persuasive truth of science?"

In this section Mass claims that the only time any society makes a change is "when it won't adversely affect their way of life." He sees only a monolithic "society", and misses the class struggle that is going on all the time. Over the last 30 years the capitalists and their paid-for politicians have made sweeping changes: for example attacks on the "way of life" of the masses of people here by removing all the stops on destruction of the environment. Attacks which greatly benefitted the ruling class, to the detriment of the working class. But throughout this offensive the masses of people have struggled against it, and in many periods in the past they've made great gains, changes to halt the pillaging of the environment and for environmental justice among many other questions. The legacy of these changes took the form of those very regulations that have mostly been shredded since.

In other words Mass is blind to the class struggle. This shows in another way when he denies that climate change is an immediate crisis. It is already a major crisis for millions and millions of people around the globe. For example, it has been argued that the Syrian uprising was in part triggered by climate change, which brought drought and drove the farmers into the cities, where they found little work and faced terrible repression. But while the downtrodden die and are murdered, the elite look for "opportunities" to make money and that doesn't so much look like a crisis to them.

Earlier Mudede invoked an imagined benign "strong central government", and here he returns to the call for a "strong arm" to "change society from the top to the bottom." To which Mass slings the accusation: "you want to lie to people, to get a totalitarian person in to force them to do what's good for them. This sounds like Hitler or Mussolini". And amazingly, Mudede's embraces that epithet: "I'm a green Mussolini. Call me that." (Actually it would be more accurate to call him a Stalinist).

In sum, although they argue over the importance of facts, and how to treat facts, neither of them considers facts as the starting point for action. Neither of them sees any kind of political struggle, and even "Marxist" Mudede doesn't look to the masses as an agent of change. Mass sees only the ruling class system as having any significance, while Mudede dreams of a top-down dictatorship that will solve all our problems.


[1] An edited transcript of the debate is available online at and the full video is at

[2] The _Times_ article can be seen at

[3] The endorsement is here:,
the rebuttal here: <>

Corrections to the July 3rd issue of the D/SWV list

In the article "Mainstream historians and the continuing oppression of the black masses":

In the 7th paragraph, it should say that "...this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend [instead of "extent"] from one generation to the next."

In the 10th paragraph, it should say "The South's highly evolved system and custom of leasing slaves from one farm [instead of "form"] or factory to the next, bartering for the cost of slaves, and wholesaling and retailing of slaves regenerated itself around convict leasing in the 1870s and 1880s."

Correction to the article "More on the police murder of Charleena Lyles":

In the last paragraph it should say "There is a demand for revision of a state law which makes it almost impossible [instead of "almost possible"] to convict a cop of murder..." <>

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Posted on August 25, 2017.