The moral argument for curbing climate change
Robert Farley has a point I would like all environmentalists to have seared to the insides of our eyelids:
Simply because something must happen does not mean that it will happen … It’s not that people are stupid (although many are) or dishonest (although many are); its that the institutions make certain outcomes difficult to achieve.
Farley thinks that America isn’t in as bad straights as pre-Imperial Rome, but of course the bailout isn’t America’s only crisis at the moment. There is this whole "oh God oh God the planet is burning" thing we’ve got going on which America has shown precious little ability to solve. Then again, even the best countries haven’t been doing what’s necessary.
Nobody who reads this blog needs to be educated on the campaign of deception, denial, and delay that the carbon lobby has been engaged in for the last 40 years, but it’s worth considering just how profound a failure of politics this is. The outlines of the solution are clear: decrease CO2 emissions to zero using renewable energy, and then start pulling out the stuff we’ve already dumped in our sky-sewer. And yet the solution, clear as day, has eluded our politics.
America has faced problems like these before, and the record isn’t all good. Sure, the U.S. government stepped up to the plate during the Depression, and did rather nicely on that whole "winning World War II" thing, but I’m not sure those are the best analogies for our current troubles.
It’s been two years since David’s interview with Jeff Goodell, and I can’t shake Goodell’s comparison of coal dependence to the Slave Power. But of course as big a problem as coal is it’s not just coal, it’s oil and gas too. Just as ante-bellum America was built on the ruined backs of slaves, modern America rose on a tide of fossil fuels. There is simply no comparison between the central role fossil-fuel energy has in the American economy and any other sector. But there is an easy comparison between the central role of slavery in the first industrial revolution and fossil fuels in the second. Both were necessary preconditions. As Findlay and O’Rourke argue in Power and Plenty, it was the ever-expanding production of American cotton that allowed the massive expansion of the industrial super-product of the age, British textiles. Similarly, America’s industrial enormity of the 20th century was predicated on the availability of cheap energy of the dead-dinosaur variety.
Here’s why this comparison scares me at the same time as I think it illuminates so much: America’s political system failed, miserably, to square the circle of competing demands from abolitionists and the Slave Power, because the conflict was one of moral absolutes. America, as the man from Illinois said, could either be slave or free, but not half-and-half. And so America endured what was, up to that point, history’s bloodiest conflict.
We’re faced with a similarly stark choice today. We can either keep emitting GHGs and all die, or we can stop. And there are plenty of people, to borrow Rob Farley’s phrase, who would be content to see the world burn.
I don’t know how to reach leaders who still believe that the extraction of fossil fuels is an acceptable thing for public policy to encourage. (Clearly.) Here in Canada, the left-wing party had to quickly disavow comments from a rookie candidate who said that the tar sands would have to be shut down. Of course, he was correct, but we mustn’t say such things in public. Even on the left.
It seems unhip to say, but this is an argument that is going to be won or lost on a moral argument. Economics is, rhetorically speaking, enemy territory. Economic arguments are used to obfuscate as much as illuminate, when they aren’t being used outright to drive us over the cliff. National security is at least as dangerous, considering the military-industrial complex will never be an environmentalist’s friend. As Goodell says, decide what is right and proceed from there.
The alternative is simple: just as Christians believe our descent began with original sin, it will end with a terminal sin like that described many years ago by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth:
What the end of civilization, genocide, and extinction all have in common is that they are attacks not merely on the existing people and things but on either the biological or the cultural heritage that human beings transmit from one generation to the next; that is, they are crimes against the future … In its nature, human extinction is and always will be without precedent, but the episodes of radical evil that the world has already witnessed are warnings to us that gigantic, insane crimes are not prevented from occurring merely because they are "unthinkable."
In other words, just because something must happen to save us does not mean that it will happen.