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.”