What Is A Climate Pragmatist To Do In A World Where The Loudest Voices Urge Denial, Delay Or Inaction?

We live in a very unpragmatic world, from the perspective of climate change. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote back in the day:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

I think we can all agree that isn’t terribly pragmatic. Or at least some can (see IEA: World on Pace for 11°F Warming, “Even School Children Know This Will Have Catastrophic Implications for All of Us”).

Worse, those with the loudest voices urge denial, delay and inaction. And to define my terms, by “loudest voices” I mean those who have the biggest megaphone or who can buy one. That would be Big Media and the major politicians, on the one hand, and the fossil-fuel-funded anti-science disinformation campaign, on the other. They are either most silent or mostly hostile on the subject of climate action (see The Myth of ‘Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages’ on Climate).

Yes, there are some medium-size voices in the scientific and environmental communities who endeavor to communicate a message of urgency, but it isn’t generally mediated to the general public by those in the mediating business (see “Network News Coverage of Climate Change Collapsed in 2011“).

What is a climate pragmatist to do in such a world?


To define my terms, “the word pragmatism derives from Greek πρᾶγμα (pragma), ‘deed, act’,” and, as everyone with access to Google presumably knows, “pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory.”

Pragmatism is about action driven by theory:

Pragmatism is based on the premise that the human capability to theorize is necessary for intelligent practice. Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed practice.

If you don’t have an underlying theory for your actions, a theory-driven goal, if you will, then it is exceedingly difficult to be pragmatic.


In late 2010, Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment, wrote a very short essay, “Becoming a Climate Pragmatist.” Foley raises some interesting issues in the piece. He has a great TEDx video, “The Other Inconvenient Truth,” on how agriculture is the biggest contributor to global warming, and asking “how do we feed the world without destroying it?” a question I will take up in the coming weeks.

The term didn’t get much attention until it was co-opted in a 30-page report by folks with a big megaphone — the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) and others — people not generally associated with theory-driven action on climate (see The Road to Ruin: Extremist ‘Climate Pragmatism’ Report Pushes Right-Wing Myths and a Failed Strategy).

But, hey, “pragmatism” is a great word, so I can understand why AEI and TBI want to glom onto it for their BS myths:

  • What recent history shows us is that the only politically pragmatic climate strategy for the U.S. should be built around a big new federal spending effort of $15 billion a year or more for low-carbon technology.
  • A “no regrets” voluntary emissions reduction effort is a “new framework” for addressing climate change (rather than one that has failed to produce results for decades).
  • The science doesn’t make crystal clear that reducing emissions aggressively now is an imperative.
  • “Alone again among present low-carbon technologies, nuclear power can approach cost competiveness with fossil-based energy and it remains the low-carbon energy technology of choice in many parts of the world.”  No seriously, that is a direct quote!
  • The “distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘anthropogenic’ impacts has little meaning” (!) and the best way for the world to adapt to climate change and extreme weather is to stop talking about climate change and instead use phrases like “build greater resilience to the vagaries of nature.”

The AEI/TBI version of “climate pragmatism” is mostly inaction driven by ignoring theory. It is anti-pragmatism.

All of the writing on climate pragmatism does raise an interesting question though: Is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today and cannot possibly avoid catastrophic global warming — or is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today but could put us on a path to avoiding catastrophic global warming? I think the question answers itself.

Put another way, is increasing federal spending on clean energy R&D by $15 billion a year a more “pragmatic” goal compared to, say, trying to get a price on carbon to be part of a grand bargain on the deficit. I’m not certain that the former policy is significantly more achievable from a political perspective, but I am certain it won’t give us anywhere neare as serious a shot at 450 ppm as the latter would (see “Bipartisan Support Grows for Carbon Price as Part of Debt Deal“).

As a lifelong pragmatist — I’m an INTJ, who some view as “the supreme pragmatists” — so the fact that some people took that report seriously, especially their co-option of the word “pragmatism,” was always amazing to me.

I was criticized by the hardcore climate realists for taking the pragmatic position and embracing the Waxman-Markey climate bill. They rightly argued, as I did, the bill was flawed and inadequate. But with a target of 450 ppm driving my thinking, I wanted to enact into law a rising price for CO2 and jumpstart the transition to a clean energy economy. Also, that bill, had it become law, would have allowed the United States to push a serious international climate agreement, rather than be the bad actor that China and India can hide behind.

The pragmatists in the environmental movement used their medium-sized megaphone to push this bill. They got the American people behind it, and it passed the U.S. House, which is typically more reflective of public opinion. But it could not meet the anti-democratic extra-constitutional supermajority requirement in the Senate, so it died. Did that make this business-friendly bill based on an idea developed and previously embraced by moderate Republicans unpragmatic? Hard to say. If pragmatic means something that can get 60 votes in the U.S. Senate then  I think it’s very safe to say that there’s not very much that’s bloody pragmatic in this world anymore, in climate policy or in any kind of policy.

Of course, as a pragmatist,who believes in action driven by theory, I generally don’t see the point in pushing ideas that don’t put us on the path towards stabilizing at some non-catastrophic level — certainly well below 3C (or 5.4F). Indeed as I wrote last year:

MEMO TO PEOPLE WRITING AND REVIEWING CLIMATE REPORTS:  Let’s stipulate that if a report doesn’t spell out what your greenhouse gas concentrations target is for the planet, it is  just handwaving — and we’ve really had enough of that for two decades now.

Whatever philosophy you want to call it, I very much agree with the folks who want to get started on the path to avoiding disaster. That is the path of action without delay, deployment of as many low carbon and low-GHG technologies and strategies as we can starting now.

I’m not certain you could find a credible international organization the better epitomizes the word pragmatism than the once staid and conservative International Energy Agency. I’ll conclude with their 2011 World Energy Outlook [WEO] bombshell warning:

“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change”….

“… we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F]…. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

21 Responses to What Is A Climate Pragmatist To Do In A World Where The Loudest Voices Urge Denial, Delay Or Inaction?

  1. Nick Berini says:

    Joe – in the sentence below, did you intend for both policies to be politically impractical?

    … I could see it going both ways.

    “is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today and cannot possibly avoid catastrophic global warming — or is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today but could put us on the path to avoiding catastrophic global warming?”

  2. Joe Romm says:

    Yes [I clarify this in the text, now].

    As the IEA and Kolbert quotes establish, the set of policies we’re currently following are self-destructive

    It doesn’t make much sense for a blogger or anyone else to simply propose doing what we’re going to do anyway (i.e. the stuff that is already politically practical, which, almost by definition, is what we’re going to do).

    The issue is, what kind of movement in the political system should people who are pragmatic be trying to achieve. You could spend a lot of effort trying to get another $15 billion dollars a year for R&D, but when you were finished, you wouldn’t have avoided catastrophe.

  3. John Hartz says:

    Pray tell, what is an “INTJ”?

  4. Tony says:

    INTJ = Introversion, INtuition, Thinking, Judging — a Myers-Briggs personality type. I’m an INTJ, too!

  5. “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is a psychometric questionnaire ….. of characteristics found in nearly all personality and psychological tests.”

  6. Peter Anderson says:


    To the similar point, the gap between reality and necessity is so great, the only proposal worth considering is one that puts us on a path to overcoming the interrelated triumvirate of the Senate super majority, the politically paralyzing fear of five buck gas and the gazillions at the disposal of the fossil boys. The answer is clear: the only circumstances that secures enough forward momentum to overcome all that something that can, in people’s minds — especially the young who will live with their parent’s folly — put us on a war footing.

  7. John Hartz says:

    I presume that “INTJ” is an acronym. What words do the letters stand for?

  8. Dan Ives says:

    Joe, this is a question that I have long pondered.

    The most powerful and profitable companies in the world have a major interest in burning all of the fossil fuels, which would of course lead us to disaster. These companies have completely bought and corrupted our political system, so I am extremely skeptical that ANY policy can be implemented that will avoid disaster, because there is no way to have it both ways. They can’t follow their financial interests and also avoid catastrophic climate change. The two are virtually mutually exclusive.

    Anyone paying attention should know which way the scale is weighted. When was the last time we had a piece of major legislation that flew in the face of powerful companies? Thus, my belief that our government will not act against these corporate interests by forcing a large portion of fossil fuels to remain in the ground.

    The situation seems nearly hopeless. But I refuse to give into that. Our innocent children and grandchildren deserve better.

    Therefore, I am wondering if it is permissible to discuss action outside of the political system. I’m not talking about individual lifestyle changes here. I’m talking about meaningful action to avoid catastrophe. For example, if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved in the face of massive resistance, should we consider other, more radical means of preventing its completion. I’m talking about action beyond civil disobedience here.

    I understand that you are probably not open to this sort of discussion on your blog. It could quickly devolve into discussion of questionably legality, so I’d understand you not wanting to risk the reputation of CP.

    But if I’m correct and pursuing political action is futile, would more radical opposition non be pragmatic as well? I know I sound like a nut case here, but like I said, our children, grandchildren, and all life on earth deserve our best effort. Aren’t they worth going to jail for?

  9. Thorn says:

    It does seem a hopeless situation to me, but there is no way I’d venture into anything beyond civil disobedience. The only exception for me, is for actions like Gleick’s which expose wrongdoing. Otherwise, we should work within the system, even if we risk losing.

  10. What to do about the loud voices of denial etc.? Mockery! Ridicule! Fact based sarcasm! Nobody wants to look stupid. So, let them look as stupid as they are. If serious debate is impossible, the pragmatic step is to try jokes, so perhaps someone has at least some fun, if anything.

  11. Dan Ives says:

    I understand that I brought up a topic that makes people (including me) uneasy. But to me, the consequences of catastrophic climate change are simply too horrible to allow to happen. We simply can’t afford to risk losing and any action that reduces the chances of losing is an action worth taking. The stakes are just too high in my opinion.
    Thanks for sharing your opinion. I hope more people chime in.

  12. M Tucker says:

    Dr Foley is pragmatic with regard to enacting a law that would limit CO2 by way of a tax or cap’n trade. Generally he is not a supporter of trying to enact such a law because of the mammoth opposition and the irrational emotional outbursts that come from conservatives, deniers and wacko conspiracy theorists. Perhaps that is why Revkin likes Dr Foley so much. Since we are getting nowhere with legislating GHG perhaps he is right. The only place we are getting to, in a hurry, is catastrophic climate disruption and acidified oceans and heat; let’s not forget the heat.

    Dr Foley, in the video, says we need the “silver shotgun” approach to address increasing food production; taking the best from green revolution, GM, and organic methods to increase crop yields in the least productive regions of the world, primarily Africa. BUT green revolution means using tractors, combines, fertilizer, insecticide, weed killers and fungicides, not to forget irrigation. And we would do this in Africa with its collection of countries with corrupt governments, wars and environmental pillaging due to oil, gold, diamonds and other precious gems. It could be done with great effort but who will provide the financial support? I have seen a couple of studies that say simply increasing fertilizer use in Africa might be able to double their already puny crop yields but the money, even for that, is not readily available.

    I would love to see Dr Foley put forward a plan that would lay out exactly what would be necessary to increase those yields and what the environmental impact would be and what sort of financial investment would be necessary. What combination of green revolution, GM, and organic practices would we use and how much water and land would we save.

    Dr Foley has done quite a lot of good work. He has done quite a lot of great research but we need some kind of plan that spells out the methods to be used and what sort of technological investments need to be made and indicates how the environment will benefit.

    But we do need to take a pragmatic approach. Our current path is no approach at all. The best the experts have to say is we will limit warming to 2 degrees of average global warming. Well, no plan exists to actually accomplish that, 2 degrees will still ensure that we have even more unprecedented weather events including flooding and droughts, and many experts say that 2 degrees of average warming will reduce the wheat crop by 20%. I’m not sure if a pragmatic approach that does not have the weight of government enforcement will actually achieve the 2 degree limit but we must do more than we are doing now.

  13. Mark says:

    A hundred years ago, my grampa spent a day walking to the courthouse to pay his taxes, and then slept in the dirt between the corn rows outside of town, before walking back to his own spread the next day.

    So one thing we can all start doing is WALKING to CHURCH, and telling everyone why. Maybe even get an invitation to preach one Sunday. Organize a “prayer pool”, for other families to join your march to temple.

    Watch the movie Gandhi, then I dare you to ask “What in the world can I do?”

  14. Joe Romm says:

    We rule! Or we’d like to, at any rate!.

  15. EDpeak says:

    Regarding: ““is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today and cannot possibly avoid catastrophic global warming — or is it more pragamatic to push a series of policies that are politically impractical today but could put us on the path to avoiding catastrophic global warming?””

    May I quote:

    “The reasonable [person] adapts themselves to the world; the unreasonable [person] persists in trying to adapt the world to themselves. Therefore all progress depends on..unreasonable persons -George Bernard Shaw

    (I’m sure GBS would not mind that I made his great quote gender neutral)

  16. B Waterhouse says:

    It sounds like Foley’s plan for improving agriculture in the face of AGW may be less likely to happen than enacting legislation reducing GHGs. So I don’t see him as a pragmatist at all. We need to regulate GHGs and a second green revolution that avoids raising GHGs.

  17. Speedy says:

    “Alone again among present low-carbon technologies, nuclear power can approach cost competiveness with fossil-based energy and it remains the low-carbon energy technology of choice in many parts of the world.”

    Absolutely! Unlike wind and solar it doesn’t rely on dirty and dangerous gas for “backup”, which in the real world means gas with some wind and solar for greenwashing.

    To ditch fossil fuels completely, unreliable wind and solar must rely on an insane amount of storage, or a massive overbuild combined with not quite as insane amount of storage.

    Nuclear also has the advantage of being energy dense, which means far less land and material use than wind and solar.

    Listen to James Hansen, he knows that nuclear is not an option, but a necessity for fighting climate change.

    I should add that there are two renewable technology that are reliable and displatchable, hydro and geothermal, but those are limited by geography.

  18. NS says:

    It drives me crazy when people display their ignorance when they call a chimpanzee a monkey. Huge difference.

  19. Joe Romm says:

    It’s a reposted piece of humor.

  20. M Tucker says:

    Dr Foley does not say anything about engaging US or even UN support for his plan. His plan is not fleshed out in any itemized fashion so right now I think of it as basically hand waving. He seems to be on a speaking campaign that relies heavily on internet video to get the message out. Is that the pragmatic approach? I think it might be if he can get some NGO or Peace Corp support to deliver seeds and fertilizer, the minimum requirement to increase yields, to the poor, isolated, and economically strapped African farmers. Right now it is simply a nice idea.

  21. mulp says:

    In other words, speak for conservatives.

    Whenever possible, argue that the Kelo Supreme Court decision must be used to take property from individual landowners and give it to the oil and mining industries to pump up their profits, because $2 gasoline is too important to allow any landowner the right to their land.

    Argue that $2 gasoline is too important to place the life and health of any worker above increased corporate profits, because only extraordinary profits will drive the innovation of recruiting workers who will sacrifice their lives for the corporations delivering gasoline to us.

    Argue that clean water and air is not a Constitutional right, but that corporations have an inalienable right to pillage and plunder with Congressional authority, because corporations have need determined by the Supreme Court to be superior persons with superior rights.

    Argue that religious liberty requires that the earth serve man and must obey God and deliver everything Christians want with no limits, because God is the steward of the earth serving man the luxury anyone created in God’s image deserve.