Balancing climate pragmatism with moral clarity
The Breakthrough crew has another report (statement? manifesto?) out called “Climate Pragmatism,” co-written with a variety of other wonks, including Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute. Here’s the basic idea:
A new climate strategy should take a page from one of America’s greatest homegrown traditions — pragmatism — which values pluralism over universalism, flexibility over rigidity, and practical results over utopian ideals. Where the UNFCCC imagined it could motivate nations to cooperatively enforce top-down emissions reductions with mathematical precision, US policymakers should acknowledge that today’s global, social, and ecological systems are too messy, open, and complicated to be governed in this way. Whereas the UNFCCC attempted to create new systems of global governance, a pragmatic approach would build upon established, successful institutions and proven approaches. Where the old climate policy regime tried to discipline a wildly diverse set of policies under a single global treaty, the new era must allow these policies and measures to stand — and evolve — independently and according to their own logic and merits.
This sounds basically right to me. As I wrote in a recent review of David Victor’s new book …
… climate campaigners must abandon their scientism and take emission-reduction targets off center stage. National leaders cannot credibly promise particular emission levels in the short- to midterm. Emissions are determined by too many forces outside governmental control, including fossil-fuel prices, trade, and the pace of economic growth. The focus on targets is an invitation to empty grandstanding and lowest-common-denominator agreements. What leaders can credibly promise are policies, and policies, not numerical targets, should be at the center of climate accords, Victor argues.
It seems clear enough that going big — getting everyone to accept binding targets and timetables — hasn’t worked in either the U.S. and the UNFCCC. What is not as clear as the authors seem to think is exactly why those efforts have failed and what, if any, might succeed in their place. It comes down to how much you think those failures are attributable to policy and process vs. interests and power. There’s always the possibility that nothing could have worked, that the imbalance of power between energy incumbents and their challengers has simply been too steep.
The Breakthrough crowd doesn’t buy that; they think different policies and rhetoric could have and can do the job. Specifically, they think we should start with innovation (skewed toward basic R&D), resilience against extreme weather, and “no regrets” pollution reductions (i.e., cheap reductions using available technology). I gotta say, even if you buy the basic shift from top-down to bottom-up, as I do, that troika doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s a weirdly narrow focus, on policies that are already being opposed by the right. I’m not feeling the pluralism.
Be that as it may, it could be that working with smaller groups will shake loose the international process. It could be that innovation and conventional pollution control will succeed in the U.S. Congress at some point. We really have no idea, certainly no idea if it would ever add up to a sufficient solution, as both Michael Levi and Joe Romm emphasize. It’s a bit presumptuous to label such a fateful, uncertain gamble “pragmatism.”
What I always want to highlight is that there are several, separable questions crammed together in the Breakthrough stuff, questions of policy design, political economy, and messaging. The Breakthrough guys offer a particular set of answers, package them together, and brand them as the new, forward-looking, bad-boy environmentalism of the bridge to the post-partisan 21st century blah blah. Everyone who disagrees with any part of it gets rhetorically lumped in with the dowdy old pre-partisan 20th century environmentalists. That game of labeling has been great for their media profile, but it has cast far more heat than light, creating all sorts of faux disputes and imaginary “camps.”
I’m all for policy pluralism, if only because we don’t know what (if anything) will work. I’m also for opportunism, taking gains wherever they can be found and regrouping around strategies that show promise. I’ll happily admit that the climate movement has suffered from a deficit of both and would benefit from more pragmatism. But the rest of the Breakthrough policy and messaging recommendations do not follow from that.
What I’m not seeing is much of a theory of politics. Henry Farrell wrote recently that …
… a theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives). This is not to say that politics should rein supreme over policy — it is to say that there are often tradeoffs between policy benefits and political sustainability. As Max Weber says, politicians need to hold the ethic of ends, and the ethic of means in their head at the same time if they are to fulfil their vocation — in this instance they not only need to think about the abstract desirability of a policy, but whether it supports or undermines the coalition that makes this and other desirable policies possible. Sometimes, a politically costly policy measure is worthwhile (after all, politicians are elected to do something while they are in office) — but unless you have some theory of politics, you can’t begin to think about the pros and cons.
To be clear: big environmental NGOs, perhaps as much as any issue-based coalition in the history of politics, have sorely lacked a theory of politics. (Witness the horrific cap-and-trade fight.) So I don’t mean the Breakthrough crowd is unique in this shortcoming, only that a theory of politics around climate has been lacking and new policy proposals without an attendant theory of politics aren’t that useful.
According to the Bad Boys themselves, “we already agree” on the policies they propose. If that’s true, hell, I guess you don’t need a theory of politics after all. There won’t be any disputes! Problem is, the pretense is just obviously, empirically false. Republicans in this very Congress have, via riders and amendments, expressed their opposition to clean energy innovation, international adaptation aid, and conventional pollution reductions. (Oddly, I haven’t seen Steven Hayward out on the ramparts defending EPA.)
If the proposed Breakthrough policies don’t threaten the interests of the carbon status quo, it’s likely because they won’t have much impact. If they do threaten the interests of the carbon status quo, they need some kind of story about the political coalitions that will muscle the policies past the opposition.
The attempt to esc
ape politics extends to messaging recommendations. Watch the slight of hand here (from the report):
And where the old regime required that everyone band together around the same core motivation and goals, policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and pollution reduction as “climate policy.”
Insofar as there was ever a regime that forced everyone to prioritize climate change above all else, well, that wasn’t a reasonable demand. People care about all sorts of things and will support policies for many different reasons. But it’s another thing to say policymakers will succeed to the degree they disappear climate change. The Bad Boys put it baldly: “The best way to move forward on climate policy is to not focus on climate at all.” That is a much stronger predictive claim that depends on all sorts of questionable political economy assumptions.
Climate change is a polarized and polarizing issue, that’s true enough. But lots of people these days act like that’s an immutable fact of nature. It’s not — climate was rendered polarizing, by people explicitly seeking to do so. This is a well-known, well-documented story. People with political access, financial backing, and legal/regulatory advantage set out to make climate change controversial and they succeeded. Perhaps climate scientists and campaigners were as omni-inept as the Breakthrough crowd portrays them — that is, after all, the one unifying theme of everything they write — but those telling the truth about climate were not the primary agents of polarization.
How were the well-established realities of climate change rendered controversial? Is it something in particular about climate that made it vulnerable? Climate change is a unique problem in many ways, but that gets exaggerated, unless cigarettes, asbestos, and aerosol sprays share the same ineffable quality. In all those cases, economic interests clouded public dialogue in the name of delaying collective action. What they share in common is that once their dangers are acknowledged, a sense of urgency follows in their wake. Urgency — intensity — is what wins political fights. Climate change, once acknowledged, carries a frightful urgency. Carbon interests know that on some level; that’s why they went after it.
The right has quite deliberately, with enormous assistance from a self-contained media ecosystem, created an atmosphere in which standing behind climate reality brands one an “advocate,” a (gasp) liberal. Lots of people, for whatever reason, are extremely keen to be seen as reasonable, common-sense folk, not like those ideologues, certainly not like those hippies. (I have called them, somewhat awkwardly, “characterological centrists.”) They have a very visceral personal aversion to taking stances that get them labeled as partisans. So they are recoiling from climate change now. If it is polarizing, they’ve concluded, let’s drop it and emphasize things that aren’t.
The problem with that is twofold. First, the same economic interests will work to render polarizing anything that threatens their interests, just as they are now doing with innovation investment (government spending) and pollution standards (job-killing regulations). They are quite aware of the left-leaning elite’s characterological centrism and exploit it ruthlessly. If the balance of power is not altered, if the same interests have the same money, political access, and willing media, what will stop them from doing it again?
Secondly, backing off climate change sends its own political message: you win. You denied reality and we backed off. Running away from climate change now is “pragmatism” the way hiding inside to get away from the neighborhood bully is “pragmatism.” When you venture back out he’s just going to give you another noogie. In today’s tribal, post-truth politics, rhetorical and policy concessions do not secure political gains. They are chum in the water; they just attract more sharks.
What will create the political coalitions that can alter the balance of power? From whence will come the urgency, the intensity, to win the escalating political battles of the next decade? That, as Al Gore says, is what climate change adds to the discussion. That is why it’s controversial, because it carries within it a rebuke to normal politics. That’s not to say climate has to be central to every effort. Of course there are plenty of other reasons to act. Different ones will have different resonance in different circumstances for different actors. Yay for pluralism! But climate change will ultimately require an enormous, wrenching transformation and it is building the aggregate will to act boldly that ultimately counts.
I think the Breakthrough crowd would respond that winning small battles will create momentum and coalitions to win bigger battles. And let us all hope it is so: The bottom-up route is the only one that remains. It’s the kind of thing that is working in Germany (though Breakthrough types turn up their noses at Germany’s feed-in tariffs too, which, well, see Henry Farrell above). But in Germany, the employment and economic benefits of renewable energy are not all that count. What also drives the public’s willingness to pay for rapid change is the very real danger of climate change. It is the background condition that gives more fine-grained efforts their coherence and momentum.
Accepting paralysis on climate as a fact of life is incredibly myopic. In many ways, the dysfunctions of elite politics, in both the U.S. Congress and the UNFCCC, have obscured tectonic shifts beneath the surface. The climate crisis has captured the attention of large swaths of the business world, the U.S. military, the world’s great faiths, and a growing global youth movement. Things are changing in rapid, complex ways that are unpredictable and won’t be clear until the history books are written.
Cautious triangulating is pretty much what you’d expect from, as the report says, “a diverse range of political and ideological positions — from the conservative American Enterprise Institute to moderate Democratic think tank Third Way and the liberal Breakthrough Institute.” But outside Beltway think-tank land, there is a dire need for advocacy, organizing, art, storytelling, and monkey-wrenching. Great social transformations require require great social movements, and great social movements require a moral imperative.
That’s what climate change is: a moral imperative, a threat to the lives and welfare of our children and generations that will follow. That just isn’t the kind of thing you keep quiet about.