Climate camps

The reading I was most interested in this week was Wainwright and Mann on “Climate Leviathan.”  Categorizations like this help us to understand current debates and schools of thought about an issue as complicated as climate change and what to do about it.

A similar paper came out just this fall from Matthew Nisbet called “Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change.” Nisbet’s paper is much more U.S. based and discusses three camps: ecological activists like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, smart growth reformers like Al Gore and Jeffrey Sachs, and ecomodernists like Roger Pielke Jr. and Andy Revkin.

If I were to superimpose Nisbet’s analysis onto Wainwright and Mann’s, the ecological activists would likely fall into Climate X, while the smart growth reformers would fall into Climate Leviathan.  I don’t know where the economodernists would fall.  They seem to be most typified by an organization called the Breakthrough Institute, started by Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  I finally stopped following them on Twitter because I never saw them put forward a constructive solution, but only criticisms of why anything that anyone else put forward wouldn’t work.  At some point you have to stop attacking others and advocate something of your own.  They seem to like nuclear power, but so does James Hansen, who probably belongs in the Climate Leviathan camp more than anywhere else, since his main solution is a carbon tax.

Given these considerations, I think Wainwright and Mann’s analysis of the climate debate is more comprehensive both in terms of geography and history.  Wainwright and Mann clearly trace the line of thought they discuss back to their historical origins, not just with philosophers like Marx and Hegel, but even back to the Book of Job.  They also include a discussion of non-American responses to climate change, such as a possible Asian response through Climate Mao, or even the Islamist response which falls into Climate X because it works against capitalism.

I thought their discussion of all four possible responses to climate change was really interesting and right on point.  Yesterday’s elections certainly showed Climate Behemoth.  Now that the Republicans have taken the Senate, the worst climate denier in Congress, James Inhofe, is in line to head up a key environmental committee.  Congress is likely to put bills in front of President Obama to fund the Keystone pipeline and gut the EPA’s carbon pollution standards.

Whether Obama will stand strong and veto these measures, or try to “compromise” by passing some of what the climate deniers want, is an open question.  Certainly people who care about the environment, such as the 400,000 of us who showed up to march in New York City, will need to make our wishes known.  Now is not the time to give up or go inactive.

The Climate Mao discussion was also interesting, especially in light of actions in China since this paper was published.  Wainwright and Mann point out that the major advantage to Climate Mao is the state doesn’t need the approval of Congress or anyone else to enact laws and measures to lower carbon emissions and control pollution.  They can just do it.  China did it in Beijing just before the Olympics, and they are doing more of it to address the terrible smog and pollution problems that plague the country.  The Chinese government knows it is not completely immune to civil unrest, and it doesn’t want these problems to lead to a rebellion.

I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new book, “This Changes Everything,” yet – that’s planned for Christmas break.  But it sounds like she would fall into the Climate X camp as Wainwright and Mann call for it.  If everything went the way Wainwright and Mann describe, and a new world order could be created based in social justice and opportunity, that would be incredible.

But honestly, I just don’t see that happening, at least not in the near term.  We can certainly use the climate crisis to try to push this agenda, whether overtly or covertly.  The Green Climate Fund seems like one mechanism to do this, but as we read, it has a lot of problems – chiefly, who is going to fund it?  So I’m not getting my hopes up about a new utopia of climate justice.

Instead, I personally put my hat in with the smart growth reformers.  For now I feel like the best hope of lowering carbon emissions is a massive switch to renewable energy and a price on carbon.  You can argue both programs within the capitalist framework that so much American identity revolves around.  Renewable energy creates permanent, well paying jobs while preserving our natural resources, and it makes us energy independent while a cleaner environment improves human health.  A price on carbon addresses the market failure caused by the externalities of dirty fuels not having to pay for the costs they impose on society, and if the money is redistributed to America families, it would boost the economy and create jobs.

All of this seems like a much more palatable way to advocate for programs that would reduce carbon emissions.  Unfortunately other than on a volunteer basis, most Americans simply don’t care if Tuvalu vanishes into the sea or millions of Bangladeshis are flooded out of their homes.  The stock issues in any election are economy and jobs.  Fortunately, climate change can be addressed through those frames, and without having even to mention climate change itself, which has become politicized beyond all recognition.

The price of solar panels is continuing to come down, and soon I hope we will start to see a shift toward their use.  Of course the utility companies will try to fight this.  But letting people derive their own energy from the sun so they can be independent appeals not just to liberal environmentalists, but libertarian Tea Partiers.  There may be new alliances to be forged.

One thing is for sure: People who care about the environment will need to think openly and creatively, and not dismiss an idea or an alliance just because they haven’t used it before.  This is a time when all hands need to be on deck and all ideas on the table.

One thing Wainwright and Mann are also right about is the Climate Behemoth stance is not sustainable.  It is reactionary, but they don’t have programs or solutions of their own.  If smart growth reformers put forth real solutions, communicate them effectively, and make alliances even within the typical base of the Behemoth, they have a chance of success.

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