The next great moral imperative is the fight to preserve a livable climate for our children and future generations. For progressives to win this fight — and the fate of literally billions of people hangs in the balance — we will have to match the state-level success the LGBT community and its allies recently showed in changing a discriminatory Indiana law.
Conservative political leaders and their polluting funders have declared their intention to do everything possible to seize control of state governments in 2016 and block climate action. The Koch brothers have pledged to raise an unprecedented $889 million just for this election cycle.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not merely urged states to ignore the law’s requirement for them to put forward a state implementation plan to meet the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan standards. In one of the most shocking statements ever issued by any U.S. political leader, McConnell actually admitted publicly that his goal is to stop a global deal to avert catastrophic climate change.
McConnell announced to the world last week that “our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal” in large part because “13 states have already pledged to fight” the EPA’s standards. How shocking a statement is this?
The Paris climate talks this December are the world’s best chance to get as far as possible from the unimaginably catastrophic 6°C (11°F) path we’re currently on. They are the first — and maybe the last — chance to give the next generation a plausible shot at staying well below the 4°C (7°F) path that would render large parts of the Earth unsuitable for farming and virtually uninhabitable, probably for centuries.
Imagine if there were a devastating global avian flu pandemic, and McConnell was urging the world governments not to come together to fight it aggressively because some U.S. states — egged on by McConnell himself — opposed the plan. That is how shocking McConnell’s effort to stop global climate action is.
McConnell, the Kochs, and their pro-pollution allies, have taken the climate fight to the states. So the climate community will have to step up its game the way the LGBT community has.
A decade ago, many progressive politicians ran away from LGBT rights, and some even credit John Kerry’s loss to the issue (although there is lots of blame to go around for that).
A decade later, the politics on the issue have turned 180° as is clear from the national pushback against Indiana’s effort to legalize anti-gay discrimination (in the name of religious liberty). The LGBT community and its many allies in the sports, entertainment, and business community made clear that Indiana’s law would lead them to boycott or pull business from the state.
I am NOT saying that the climate action movement is broadly analogous to the marriage equality movement. The harm that climate inaction will bring to billions in the future is just too different from the extensive past and present discrimination and harm gays suffer. But one key similarity is the moral nature of the cause.
“Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities,” as Salon explained in a 2013 piece on the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Indeed Salon explained in a late 2011 article that what “moved gay marriage into the mainstream in 2011” was “morality.”
The LGBT community did not win by asking by asking for “tolerance.” They weren’t trying to get folks to “accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses.” No: “the lesson that the gay revolution holds for any progressive movement” is that “they set out to change change people’s minds about what is moral.”
The fact that we are on track to harm billions of people who contributed little or nothing to their harsh fate makes climate inaction a grave “wrong,” as I wrote in November. But what makes our current inaction uniquely immoral in the history of homo sapiens is that the large-scale harm is irreparable on any timescale that matters — many hundreds of years — and, of course, that we could avoid the worst of the irreparable harms at an astonishingly low net cost.
That was the singular message of the most recent assessment of climate science by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its 2014 “Synthesis” report. That report may have been the first time the world’s leading scientists and governments spelled out in detail why the irreversibility of impacts makes inaction so immoral. Here is the key finding (emphasis in original):
Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).
That is a tremendously important argument. The climate panel acknowledges in the very next sentence that mitigation efforts involve “some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side-effects.” But the risks involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions are both quantitatively and qualitatively different than the risks stemming from inaction because they aren’t likely to be anywhere near as “severe, widespread, and irreversible,” as the IPCC explains.
We don’t have to wonder what Jefferson and other founding fathers would think about the immorality of McConnell’s and the Kochs’ efforts to irreversibly destroy a livable climate and healthy soil for future generations. As The Constitutional Law Foundation has explained, “The most succinct, systematic treatment of intergenerational principles left to us by the founders is that which was provided by Thomas Jefferson in his famous September 6, 1789 letter to James Madison.”
I summarized Jefferson’s position here. The key question for Jefferson was very simple: Must later generations “consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life?” Soil was an obvious focal point for examining the issue of intergenerational equity for a Virginia planter like Jefferson.
The answer to Jefferson was another self-evident truth: “Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation.”
It is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil — or its livable climate. Hence it is unimaginably immoral to Dustbowlify their soil and ruin their livable climate irreversibly for many centuries if not millennia. But that will be the outcome if McConnell and the Kochs succeed in blocking or seriously delaying action at the state (and international) level.
For the record, the EPA is legally obligated to issue rules regulating CO2 from existing power plants, since the Roberts Supreme Court 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act that Congress passed years ago. And just last year, the Roberts Court affirmed 7 to 2 the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources, such as power plants.
So McConnell is not accurate when he asserts that “two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on” EPA action. He is more accurate when he says many “states have already pledged to fight it.” Sadly he himself has been pushing them hard to do just that. Nonetheless, states that join the effort to block serious climate action are making the choice for themselves, and that is a choice anyone who understands climate science should oppose.
I asked Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and one of the leaders of the climate movement, what he thought of Indiana, and its lesson for climate change. He told me, “this is what it looks like when the national mood has changed. Our job is to shift the zeitgeist, and if we do then the politics will follow.”
Those who seek to block action to preserve a livable climate have chosen the battlefield. And that means it is fast approaching the time when all those who say they care about the climate, their children’s health and well-being, and future generations will have to stand up for their values state by state.