Great challenges eventually bring out the best and worst in the temperamentally extreme among us. Climate change is such a challenge. The well-intended aren’t winning, and their most passionate companions — Green partisans and climate change radicals — are getting in our way.
There’s an impulse, especially among reformers and within the entertainment industry, to assert that a transformative threat must be met by a transformation within the human community. Since humanity’s excesses caused the problem, we need to be better humans to solve it.
A more concrete way of saying the same thing is to assert that the capitalists and their shallow politicians are the villains.
Supposedly, since climate change is a dramatic threat, our leaders and their wordsmiths need to be better dramatists.
Sunday’s New York Times column “Memorial Day 2050” by Thomas Friedman provides a lofty example.
He starts off with the words of Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, words that, if nothing else, confirm that high rhetoric will not be retired along with the Obama presidency.
“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it."
Friedman then asks lamely “How do we motivate people to do something about it?” He quotes extensively Dutch philosopher Thomas Wells:
“'Even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example),’ wrote Wells in Aeon Magazine. Since ‘our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election,’ we ‘should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way.’
“Wells suggests creating a public ‘trusteeship’ of nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks ‘and give them each equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 percent of the electorate,’ so they can represent issues like ‘de-carbonizing the economy’ and ‘guaranteeing pension entitlements” for the unborn generation that will be deeply impacted but has no vote."
Before you get defensive about surrendering another slice of your franchise to another blue-ribbon committee, Friedman assures us that the idea is “unrealistic.”
So, after giving up on rejigging the egalitarian rules of representative democracy, Friedman finally gets down to business.
The problem would be easier to address, he argues, if every time we heard the words “finite” or “sacrifice,” we thought of appealing words like “resilience” and “freedom.” Then it would not be impossible to sell an “urgent response” to the looming environmental catastrophe. For instance, Friedman proposes simply “replacing” income and corporate taxes with a carbon tax.
He defines the political problem as impossible — lack of popular demand of demanding actions — and then addresses his impossible problem with impossible answers.
Yet I’m still hopeful that we’ll survive this danger.
Friedman has misstated the question and arbitrarily placed extreme solutions up against an extraordinary danger. Neither democratic leaders nor autocrats must first inspire popular demand for radical change.
They needn’t wait for another gigantic, time-killing IPCC study with an executive summary as powerful as the Gettysburg Address. And they shouldn’t try to redesign the global capitalist economy or recruit the pope to inspire us to shop less in the West and want more in the East.
Saving our souls is far less urgent than shaming our leaders into doing what’s well within their means.
“Something” needn’t include the introduction of an immediate massive tax on carbon. A modest carbon tax that rises progressively, and more competition, not less, across all energy-producing and -consuming industries are doable. And, most important, they should drive the innovations that will solve the problem: our reliance on energy sources born of an earlier age of human innovation.