Will U.S. conservatives usher in the era of permanently big government?
This decade will largely determine whether humanity gets on the path to a low-carbon economy fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change. And the single biggest obstacle to action today is the same as it’s been for two decades — anti-science conservatives.
As Revkin explained in 2008 piece about a major conference of disinformers, “The one thing all the attendees seem to share is a deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” What unites these people is their desire to delay or stop action to cut GHGs, not any one particular view on the climate (see Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science).
It is nearly impossible to win an argument with anti-government conservatives and libertarians. Yes, you can try to point out all the great things the government has done (the Internet, anyone?) and try to point out that they invariably support government-led action for military security, and, of course, government subsidies and regulations to promote energy security, at least as it applies to oil industry and nuclear energy pork.
I have made a different argument in my book and on this blog “” if you hate government intrusion into people’s lives, you’d better stop catastrophic global warming, because nothing drives a country more towards activist government than scarcity and deprivation. Small, relatively unintrusive democratic government works best when there is abundance and prosperity, so people and cities and states and countries aren’t fighting over critical necessities and other matters of life and death (see “Veterans Day, 2029“).
Thus the conservatives who oppose strong GHG reductions — who say humanity’s best strategy is just to try to adapt to climate change — are best labeled “big government conservatives.” Adaptatation requires very, very big government “” incomprehensibly bigger and more expensive government than prevention does (see “Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must“).
If we allow CO2 concentrations to significantly exceed 450 ppm, as would be inevitable if we follow the do-nothing policies proposed by the anti-science crowd, then we will be moving to decades and decades of scarcity, where we have billions more people but much less potable water, food, energy, and arable land (see “Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water“). “Big” government doesn’t adequately describe that future. Only “huge” government can relocate millions of citizens, build massive levees, ration crucial resources like water and arable land, mandate harsh and rapid reductions in certain kinds of energy — all of which will be inevitable if we don’t quickly get on the sustainable path to below 450 ppm but instead stay on the long painful journey to 800 to 1000 ppm. And that huge government could last for centuries (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).
Two long-time colleagues in the climate arena, Auden Schendler and Mark Trexler make a related argument in a recent post on Grist,”The coming climate panic?” which I reprint below:
One morning in the not too distant future, you might wake up and walk to your mailbox. The newspaper is in there and it’s covered with shocking headlines: Coal Plants Shut Down! Airline Travel Down 50 Percent! New Federal Carbon Restrictions in Place! Governor Kicked Out of Office for Climate Indolence!
The only thing your bath-robed, flip-flopped, weed-eating neighbor wants to talk about over the fence isn’t the Yankees, but, of all things … climate change.Shaking your head, you think: What just happened?
With a non-binding agreement coming out of Copenhagen at the same time that atmospheric CO2 creeps above 390 parts per million, it’s possible that a new feeling might soon gain prevalence in the hearts of people who understand climate science. That feeling is panic. Specifically, climate panic.
In the same way that paleoclimate records show evidence of abrupt climate changes, we think it’s increasingly possible that policy responses to climate change will themselves be abrupt. After years of policy inaction, a public climate backlash is already smoldering. When it blows, it could force radical policy in a short timeframe. It’s the same kind of cultural tipping point, often triggered by dramatic events, that has led to revolutions or wars in the past.
The backlash is brewing in the form of increasingly strident comments from respected and influential people. Economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has called government indolence on the issue “treason.” NRDC attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has called it “a crime against nature.” Environmental journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert has described “a technologically advanced society choosing to destroy itself,” while James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist [and the head of the IPCC, respectively], have said inaction in the next several years will doom the planet.
Meanwhile, that very planet is visibly changing””epic droughts, fires and dust storms in Australia; floods in Asia, alarmingly fast melting of land ice in Greenland and Antarctica; the prospect of an ice-free summer on the Arctic Sea; raging, unprecedented fires throughout the world; and mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue spreading to regions previously untouched. Measurements show that the oceans are rising and becoming more acidic, while the Earth’s average temperature was higher in the past decade than at any time in the past century.
At some point, even climate change becomes teenager obvious: “Well, Duh, Dad! Look around you!”
When the psychology of in-your-face warming gets combined with a shocking climate event””something like Hurricane Katrina on steroids””you end up with a witches brew that can result in what political scientist Aristide Zolberg has referred to as “moments of madness”””unique historical moments when society challenges conventional wisdom and new norms are forcibly””oftentimes disruptively””created.
There are many historical precedents: the economic and political chaos in Weimar Germany that ultimately led to the rise of Hitler, the violence of the French Revolution, the sudden, peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire.
Stock market panics are another example: a rapid change in mindset that illustrates the dangerous unpredictability of human systems. On climate, such a response could mean sudden and painfully costly dislocations in the energy markets””and therefore the global economy””that wind up becoming the “worst case” scenario that few people had considered possible.
It is exactly these economic impacts that the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs fear we’ll impose on ourselves through restrictive government regulation of energy and carbon emissions. Ironically, a “no action” approach today actually makes a climate panic much more likely over time. What we’re describing would be popularly driven, not fueled by governments or policy wonks. It would be the direct result of free will, democracy, autonomy and the information superhighway. All these forces would accelerate, not mitigate, the greatest “Aha!” moment in the history of the human species. Imagine the sub-prime mortgage bubble pop multiplied a hundred fold.
Yet business and government planners continue to anticipate much less abrupt transitions to a carbon-constrained future. Even renewable energy policy and emissions reduction scenarios dismissed as crazily aggressive are based on relatively incremental change.
That’s a big problem. We believe that business leaders and politicians need to add a more radical scenario to their risk assessment: a climate panic that turns us from agents into victims, ushering in chaos. The only way to avoid this catastrophic scenario is a kind of backfire panic of our own: radical, rapid, and aggressive implementation of climate policy in the United States as a message to the world. In the end, as venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner has pointed out, “sometimes panic is an appropriate response.”
Auden Schendler is Executive Director of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. He is the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution (PublicAffairs, 2009).
Dr. Mark Trexler is Director of Climate Strategies and Markets for DNV Climate Change Advisory Services U.S., a former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and an internationally recognized expert on climate policy and market mechanisms.
Welcome to the 2010s — though I suspect the real panic and desperation won’t come until the 2020s.