A single-issue movement won’t cut it
David Roberts has been writing about environmental talking points. But I think that skips a step. We need to examine what kind of politics the talking points are intended to contribute to.
I don’t think I have to persuade anyone reading this blog to forget about informed, competent insiders trying persuasion from the inside. Romm tried that with both government and business since the early ’90s. Al Gore spent decades as a Senator and Vice President of the U.S. playing insider baseball on the issue. Amory Lovins has been pursuing the “appeal to rational business self-interest” strategy since 1976!
The only thing will make change is a bunch of ordinary people getting together and exercising their democratic rights as citizens. And it is not just us dirty hippies saying that. Non-hippie former VP Al Gore says:
Yes, the new majority in Congress will be much more receptive on the importance of global warming. That’s the good news. But I know from personal experience that the only thing that will make Washington really take notice and do more than give lip service to the problem of global warming is the prospect of millions of committed citizens taking action.
Non-hippie Joseph Romm writes at the end of of Hell and High Water:
… the public — you — could simply demand change. This is vastly preferable to waiting for multiple disasters. Global warming is the gravest threat to our long-term security. More and more people are coming to this realization every day. When people ask me what they should do, I reply, “Get informed, get outraged, and then get political.”
The single biggest influence on corporate behavior is activism, and they will be the last to let you know that. Anything activists do to make people in organizations feel that they’re employed by a pariah is effective.
I’m pounding home a point that I think is pretty much settled: If we want to fight global warming, we need a serious grassroots movement.
At least part of that change has to be putting a price on carbon. That includes some sort of carbon tax, to end the subsidy of being able to emit carbon without bearing the full cost of doing so. It also includes ending other subsidies for carbon, like tax breaks for oil producers.
The mainstream is also starting to catch up with something dirty hippies have known for a long time: putting a price on carbon alone won’t do it. For various reasons, markets do not respond quickly or fully to price signals when it comes to energy. (This is known as inelasticity. That demand for some goods is partially inelastic in response to price signals may not be taught in Economics 101, but is well known once you get past the introductory courses.)
George Monbiot — a leftist with a strong preference for market solutions — ends up admitting in his new book Heat that decarbonization will need massive rule-based regulation and public initiatives in addition to some way of charging for the social costs of carbon.
Joseph Romm — a centrist Democrat who has worked with some of the world’s largest corporations — concludes that building, auto efficiency, and industrial efficiency standards will have to be part of any solution. Even the Stern Report(large PDF) reluctantly admits that:
Policies to price greenhouse gases, and support technology development, are fundamental to tackling climate change. However, even if these measures are taken, barriers and market imperfections may still inhibit action, particularly on energy efficiency. These barriers and failures include hidden and transaction costs such as the cost of the time needed to plan new investments; lack of information about available options; capital constraints; misaligned incentives; as well as behavioural and organisational factors affecting economic rationality in decision-making. These market imperfections result in significant obstacles to the uptake of cost-effective mitigation, and weakened drivers for innovation, particularly in markets for energy efficiency measures.
In short, anyone who seriously looks at the economics of tackling climate change comes to the conclusion that regulation (over and above putting a price on carbon) is required. Most end up supporting public initiatives as well.
This is needed even to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 550 parts per million, let alone the 450 parts per million most scientists agree is necessary.
This has political implications. Adding a price to carbon mainly threatens the carbon lobby: the fossil fuel companies, the auto industry, possibly the utilities as well. But when you add rule-based regulations, you threaten additional constituencies: the construction industry, which does not want to face tougher building codes; the real estate industry, which doesn’t want the cost of its products raised; appliance manufacturers, who don’t want new appliance standards; manufacturers in general, who won’t want to face new requirements for industrial efficiency. Plus you have the whole ideological constituency, which runs from glibertarians to centrist Democrats. “Regulation, ick! Old fashioned command and control! Tax and spend! Socialism! Dirty hippies!”
If you include public policy initiatives — long distance transmission lines, for example — you get even more opposition, because funding such initiatives will require cuts in war spending or raising taxes, probably both.
In short, once you move into what even a minimal solution requires, you take on quite an array of opponents — the vast majority of those with money and power, not merely the carbon lobby. I’m not saying some of the rich won’t support the hard choices required to end global warming, probably the same far-sighted wealthy minority that supports higher inheritance taxes on their estates. But it won’t be a majority, and for the most part it won’t be the wealthiest. For example, Bill Gates’ father supports preserving the inheritance tax; his far wealthier son (as far as I can tell) does not.
So we will need a large movement willing to take on the rich and powerful. Maybe we will have the industries most likely to take direct hits from global warming on our side — the insurance companies, agriculture. But even there, I wonder if we are really going to see Archer Daniels Midland and Aetna supporting higher taxes and tougher regulations. Realistically, it will have to a popular, bottom-up movement, perhaps with a few rich sugar daddies if we’re lucky.
Romm and Gore both support the idea of a single-issue movement around global warming. Stern, of course, wrote an official report at government request, and it would have been improper for him to outline a political strategy. Interestingly enough, Paul Hawken — who has been in business himself long enough to be cynical about the far-sightedness and altruism of large corporations — thinks a stand-alone environmental movement is obsolete and needs to become part of a larger progressive movement. Without buying all the details of Hawken’s vision, I think he is absolutely right on this.
I see two arguments, each devastating:
One is the improbability of getting a strong single-issue movement built around an environmental disaster, the major consequences of which will begin in twenty years at the earliest. For those who act primarily on the basis of self-interest, there will be many more immediate dangers during the next twenty years. For those who act primarily out of altruism, there will be many people dying from far more immediate causes during that time.
Yes, global warming has real potential for wiping out technological civilization within a century, perhaps within half a century. But I doubt people work emotionally in such a way that huge numbers will rally around something that far off, at least until they start seeing consequences that far exceed Katrina. I can see a lot of people wanting to do something about it as one of many issues. I just can’t see many people making global warming their first priority.
Another question is how powerful a single issue movement can grow when it’s not strongly linked to other movements. The most powerful single-issue movements in the U.S. are right wing — the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements. The anti-abortion movement has not yet succeeded in outlawing most, let alone all, abortions. The gay-bashing movement has succeeded in basically one issue — opposing marriage equality. But even there, civil unions are now the moderate position.
An equivalent level of success for the global warming movement would be if greenhouse emissions continued to rise until 2030, then leveled off until 2050, then began to drop. This is far short of even of the goal the Stern Review sets, let alone what’s really needed. And can you imagine the anti-warming movement getting to anything like that level anytime soon?
The only way for a movement that fights global warming strongly enough to come into existence fast enough is as part of a larger movement — one that explicitly supports other goals besides the environmental. I can’t see that movement being conservative, libertarian, or centrist, given that conservatives, libertarians, and centrists share anti-government biases that won’t let them accept strong rule-based regulations and higher taxes to fund new government initiatives. So I see no alternative but for an anti-warming movement to be part of a larger progressive movement — to join with liberals and leftists in seeking various goals, stopping global warming among them.
In short, there is no time for consensus building; we need to engage in majority building.
Most of the needed changes are essentially economic — taxes, regulation, public spending. Does that mean we should network only with other groups who base themselves mainly in economics – unions, health care groups, fair taxation organizations, social security preservation, and so forth?
We might also consider social justice, which includes but is not limited to economics. Women, gays, and racial minorities face economic discrimination, but regardless of class, they are also subject to various forms of direct violence. There is also the practical issue that women, racial minorities, gays, and the disabled tend on average to be further left than the U.S. population as a whole. It is a tendency, not a rule; there are many exceptions. But alienate these groups and you alienate a base you will need to win; building that majority becomes harder, not easier.
This need for allies does not just hold for environmental causes; it applies to any progressive group with demands that would require major social or economic changes. But I think what is required to minimize the global warming disaster is larger than for almost any other issue. We need unity with other groups more badly than your average lefty cause. And it is time to face the fact: it will remain a lefty cause. Yes, sensible conservatives may come to face the reality of global warming, as sensible centrists already have. I doubt they will go on to support tough new regulations over a large part of the economy and tax increases to support new public initiatives — at least I doubt they will do so and remain conservatives and centrists.
This analysis has something in common with the one in “The Death of Environmentalism.” But Shellenberger and Nordhaus understate the value of having independent environmental organizations that work within the larger context. We need coalitions, not “one big glop” organization. Imagine if feminists decided to to eliminate their organizations and dissolve into some giant glop! How much attention to you think women’s issue would get? Also, given the number of attempts to slip fine-sounding anti-woman measures into the debate, we obviously need the level of expertise full-time feminist organizations can provide.
The same applies to any political fight, including environmentalism. We need the expertise that comes with full-time devotion, which means having dedicated organizations.
In short, S&N’s objections seems to be to single-issue organizations. I think single-issue organizations are not only fine, but vital. My objection is to single-issue movements.