Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Napoleon and Moscow on fire, artist unknown

Napoleon views Moscow on fire, artist unknown


I’m in the process of reading War and Peace for the first time—what breathtaking range!—and just came across a passage that helps explain climate change denialism. It occurs when the citizens of Moscow hear about Napoleon bearing down on the city.

First, let’s take note of how unhinged our rightwing denialists are. It’s not just Pope Francis, President Obama, and left-leaning political parties that are calling for action. According to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, even the world’s major conservative parties—all, that is, with the exception of the GOP—acknowledge the danger and recommend that proactive steps be taken:

new paper by Sondre Båtstrand studies the climate-change positions of electoral manifestos for the conservative parties in nine democracies, and finds the GOP truly stands apart. Opposition to any mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions, he finds, “is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party, and hence not representative of conservative parties as a party family.” For instance, the Swedish conservative party “stresses the necessity of international cooperation and binding treaties to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, with the European Union and emissions trading as essentials.”

Okay, you might say, that’s just Sweden. But all of the other non-American conservative platforms follow similar themes. Germany’s conservative platform declares, “[C]limate change threatens the very foundations of our existence and the chances of development of the next generations.” Canada’s, writes Båtstrand, “presents both past and future measures on climate change. The past measures are regulations on electricity production, research and development on clean energy (including carbon capture and storage), and international cooperation and agreements including support for adaptation in developing countries.” Even coal-rich Australia has a conservative party that endorses action to limit climate change. 

Commenting on Jeb Bush’s stated plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions on carbon pollution, Chait writes,

In any other democracy in the world, a Jeb Bush would be an isolated loon, operating outside the major parties, perhaps carrying on at conferences with fellow cranks, but having no prospects of seeing his vision carried out in government. But the United States is different. Here in America, ideas like Bush’s fit comfortably within one of the two major political parties. Indeed, the greatest barrier to Bush claiming his party’s nomination is the quite possibly justified sense that he is too sober and moderate to suit the GOP.

The GOP, in other words, is opting for the second option of the two described by Tolstoy:

As the enemy closed in on Moscow the attitude of the inhabitants to their situation, far from becoming all serious-minded, actually became more frivolous, as always happens with people who can see a terrible danger bearing down on them. At the first approach of danger two voices always speak out with equal force in a man’s heart: one tells him very sensibly to consider the exact extent of the danger and any means of avoiding it; the other says even more sensibly that it’s too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate the danger, since it is not in a man’s power to anticipate future events and avoid the general run of things, so you might as well turn away from the nastiness until it hits you, and dwell on things that are pleasant. Left to himself a man will usually listen to the first voice; out in society he listens to the second one. This is what was now happening to the good people of Moscow. It was years since there had been so much fun in the city.

Tolstoy’s passage reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” which may have influenced him. Although plague is stalking the land, the guests of Prince Prospero are madly partying. Or rather, they are partying because the pestilence is getting nearer.

Listening to the second voice while in the company of others is what today we call an information bubble. The GOP may not be having fun railing at environmentalists, scientists, the president and the pope, but it is certainly indulging in frivolous and irresponsible behavior. After all, rising seas, killer droughts, and storms of increasing severity represent a “nastiness” that is “too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate.”

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