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Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Progressive Politics of Climate Change Will Remain Impossible Right Up To The Moment When They Become Possible

Ezra Klein attracted quite a lot of attention this week with his enormously well-substantiated empirical survey 7 Reasons America Will Fail On Climate Change. Actually, nothing in his piece should be the least bit surprising to those who have any awareness of anthropogenic climate change or the last few generations of American climate politics: The overwhelming consensus of the relevant scientists is not reflected in media coverage of the issues and denial of the consensus by politicians is overwhelming (in fact one of our only two viable, as it were, parties seems to define itself through its denial of the consensus on these unprecedentedly urgent questions). Our emissions have already roared past the point at which catastrophic consequences follow and our course looks like it is anything but reversing itself. Those counting on resource descent, like Peak Oil, to take away our dangerous toys since we seem incapable of mustering the political will to respond to our shared problems fail to grasp that while fossil fuels are indeed finite there remain plenty for us to burn the earth to a cinder, not to mention that fact that the reality of resource descent in freshwater and topsoil raise the specter of disastrous resource wars that are more likely to destroy renewable infrastructure or displace investment in such problem-solving before it even gets destroyed. Projected climate catastrophes are likely to decimate populations in the same over-exploited nations of the world that are already bearing the brunt here and now of anthropogenic climate change (falsely figured as a problem of "the future") and heavy weather damage in urban centers of the over-exploiting nations of the world are sure to get most of the attention and support while the avoidable suffering and instability and death of planetary majorities is ignored. And so on. Klein's piece is fairly representative, really, as you can see reading Bill McKibben's piece in Rolling Stone two years' back, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

Every other year or so I teach a course for undergraduates on environmental politics, and even dedicated, well-informed students tend to leave the term saucer-eyed in fear at the scale of the ongoing and upcoming planetary crisis and the flabbergasting failure of our institutions in the face of that crisis. I assigned that McKibben piece, for example, for the second week of the course when I last taught it just this past Spring. (Here's the Syllabus for the course, if you are interested.) I agree, nevertheless, with the reaction of Michael Mann who responded to Klein's piece, declaring: "Defeatist framing is not helpful and threatens serving as self-fulfilling prophecy... The only real obstacle to averting dangerous climate change is lack of willpower and imagination. We must avoid messaging that seems to condone that, as the title of the Vox piece unfortunately does." Al Gore famously complained that too many people seem to go from denial to despair when confronted with planetary problems, it is really does seem too often that when it comes to the urgent environmental demands on our politics knowledge is disempowerment, that is to say, too often an increase of knowledge about climate catastrophe doesn't so much organize us into needed action but rationalize the inaction and acquiescence that already followed from our earlier ignorance.

Joe Romm, a long-time ClimateProgress blogger over at ThinkProgress, has replied to Ezra Klein's piece with a comparably empirical point-by-point rebuttal of his contentions, 7 Reasons America Should Succeed on Climate Change -- citing flattening cost-curves for renewable energy technologies, pointing to the huge improvements that can still be had simply through recourse to available efficiency measures, pointing to major stakeholders like the Defense Department and the insurance industry that are already and are ever-more insistent drivers of renewable infrastructure investment and halting carbon emissions, pointing to the signs of a backlash provoked by Republican insanity on these questions and so on. Romm's piece is where I found the quotation from Michael Mann which I cited a moment ago, and it provides the frame for Romm's case.

I must say that find it especially encouraging that Romm and Klein both conclude their pieces with a shared repudiation of futurological geo-engineering proposals that profitable mega-scale corporate-military engineering interventions into ecosystemic dyanamics we do not adequately understand will reverse the environmental disasters caused by profitable corporate-military engineering interventions into ecosystemic dynamics we do not adequately understand. That Romm's piece is a point-by-point rebuttal of Klein's piece except for its agreement on that concluding point makes their agreement on the folly of futurological greenwashing of "geo-engineering" con-artistry all the more stunning. But I actually consider Klein's and Romm's pieces complementary more generally, even if they seem only to agree on the last point. The facts they mobilize in making their different cases are both quite true, and while I strongly agree with Mann and Romm that Klein's defeatist framing of climate catastrophe is at best useless since political organizing remains indispensable to any human address equal to the climate catastrophe we face, I do think Klein's piece provides a clearer testament to the scale and stakes of our planetary problems.

Although neither falls for facile futurological techno-boosterism, I do know that too many pieces that seek to remind us that environmental problems really can be addressed by shared education, organization, legislation, and public investment, yield -- often despite the best intentions of their authors -- yet another kind of complacency, a no less futurologically-inflected daydream that the necessary transition to sustainable energy and transportation and agriculture, once underway, will demand few changes in the American lifestyle, that windfarms and solar rooftops will spring up among sunflowers and our wasteful, miserable, parochial consumerism and car culture and suburban sprawl and industrial agriculture will proceed unchanged. One need only recall the New Deal/WW2 epoch to grasp how sweeping and intensive political energies can be released in utterly transformational ways -- even after years and years of intractable paralysis and hopelessness: the political address of vast problems can be utterly impossible right up to the moment when it becomes entirely possible, quiescent institutions and constituencies are suddenly mobilized and problem-solving begins to change the world. Climate catastrophe is political and so will our response be when it comes -- as is our failure now to respond even remotely adequately. That we may mobilize too late to save ourselves, that even should we change in time billions will suffer and die who need not have done are truths that must invigorate our political resolve rather than rationalize complacency, acquiescence, or despair.

Many of my own arguments against geo-engineering and other futurological forms of greenwashing are archived here: Futurology Against Ecology.


jollyspaniard said...

Transitions like this always seem impossible until they become inevitable.

Dale Carrico said...

Here's hoping the inevitable part happens before the place is no longer fit to sustain mammals.

jimf said...

> Here's hoping the inevitable part happens before the place
> is no longer fit to sustain mammals.

I take comfort in the likelihood that, 250,000,000 years from
now, there will probably still be bacteria on this planet.