IT’S THE EARTH, STUPID
While my estimable colleague, Bigly Covfefe, has been following the presidential debates for you, I would like to zero in on one particular topic, one particular issue that has come up on the stage repeatedly. It is the issue known variously as climate change, global warming, enhanced greenhouse effect, and Chinese hoax. (That last is not scientifically accepted, nor accepted by any true stable genius. Trust me on this one.)
The pattern usually goes something like this: Candidate One will call for ‘drastic’ measures to deal with global warming, measures that are much less than most scientists and climate activists are calling for, and much less drastic than are necessary. Candidate Two will then explain how it is too drastic and unrealistic, and how we can’t make major structural changes right now, and while they believe in global warming, they are in favor of using market based solutions. Candidate One will sputter out an answer, Candidate Two will repeat market based, and then the moderator will move on to economic issues or world peace, much easier, less knotty, and apparently less controversial topics.
All the Democratic candidates accept the science behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They all accept it is serious, and something needs to be done. They accept that at least some of this something will need to come from the government. They accept that they need to say something about it to keep the base happy. Some of them think we have 11 years, some think we have fewer. The candidates who claim we are doomed and dramatic action is required get dismissed as apocalyptic naysayers. The ones who say we can make changes that create new jobs and keep the economy sound are dismissed as unrealistic, calling for expensive new programs that will raise our taxes.
So what is the answer? Where are we in the real world, as opposed to the political, social, and economic stew represented by modern politics? The real answer is that we don’t exactly know. The answers are not certain by a long shot. This is a world that is unlike what we have seen in human history, and to make predictions is easy. To make accurate predictions is…tricky. Let’s just suffice it to say that things are happening faster…much faster…than science predicted. Things are scary. And watching the debates demonstrates that they are about to get scarier and scarier. Appropriate for a near Halloween blog post, of course, but not good for humanity or much of anything else.
Candidates say we cannot make major structural changes, even in the face of evidence that suggests the only solution is major structural changes. Candidates promote market solutions, even in the face of evidence that the market solutions we have been pursuing for the past 40 years have failed to slow down the march of warming. Much like the debate surrounding education, we continue to advocate doing things that have already failed on the premise that they have not been tried yet and everyone is continuing to do things the old, non-innovative way. I’ll let you in on a secret – there is nothing innovative about market-based solutions. They are the solution that is always tried, for every problem, from funding the arts and education to waging war to incarcerating convicted felons to dealing with global climate catastrophe. I have not seen a single social problem that has been adequately addressed by market solutions. The market is designed for getting large amounts of goods to consumers in exchange for large amounts of money, and in that format, they work amazingly well. Too well, we might say.
The answer to global warming does not lie in whether we are capitalist, communist, or socialist. None of these economic systems are designed for dealing with climate change, or any other environmental issue. The answer does not lie in individual choices such as how to travel or what to eat. The answer does not lie in governmental regulations telling us which light bulbs we can produce and consume. The answer lies in a coordinated collaboration between all stakeholders (which in this case includes every living thing on earth) to solve a problem that is beyond the scope of human knowledge and understanding. Scared much, yet? Good. I mean to scare you.
This leads me to the other point I wish to make. Fear. We are told we must not scare people, as it will paralyze them and they will not be able to make changes. They will shut us out and go on doing what they are doing, hoping we’ll go away. So we give niceties, like, we have 11 years to work this out. Like, we can all throw a few things in the recycling bin every now and then and we’ve done our part. Like, we can walk everywhere and stop eating meat and everything will be better. And the result of not scaring people? They ignore the warnings. Not serious enough, they say. We need to focus on the economy, getting people jobs. There’s a war on (and there always is, somewhere. If there were a brief period when there were no wars anywhere on Earth, people would look to the skies and suggest we need to do something about a war that might break out on Planet XYZ in the Andromeda galaxy, because that was of more immediate impact than the global warming that is already changing temperature and precipitation patterns on our own world).
People are ignoring us because they believe they have time. The changes that are needed are big and scary and if people think they can put them off until the day after tomorrow, they will. The idea that fear will keep people from doing anything flies in the face of all the evidence. Fear motivated us to fight World War II, and the changes made were difficult and challenging for everyone in many countries around the world. Fear motivated people to elect Ronald Reagan, and to return Dubya Bush for a second term. Fear motivated people to vote for Donald Trump. Fear motivates people to action all the time. Much of that action is negative, such as stockpiling guns to make sure you are the one person who survives ecological or social Armageddon. Fear could be used to motivate positive action, and often has been. Comforting, calming words cause people to relax and settle into their routine. Fear, the right amount of fear, the right kind of fear, can move them out of their recliners and into action mode to fix the problem. Republicans have been using fear to great effect for decades. Democrats have been avoiding it with as much due diligence. So far, the Republicans are winning this one. Global warming changes have been stalled in Congress forever.
James Carville once famously told Bill Clinton “It’s the economy, stupid.” And when it comes to politics, it nearly always is. So the politicians avoid the hard lessons of global warming and talk about economic because people don’t want to hear about global warming. That’s the same with every issue. People don’t want single payer. People don’t want Medicare for all. People don’t want gun control. (Polls often show differently, on every issue, but people do insist on voting for people who will not give them any of these things over people who at least say they will). My answer to that is: Politicians, get a spine. It may sometimes be your job to explain to your constituents why the changes are good, why they should want them. Don’t cower. You have access to information many voters don’t have, and you have educated people who will explain it to you in the three to four letter words you can understand. It’s your job to explain why a policy is important, not to table an important policy because the voters don’t know why it’s important, or think it isn’t important.
So am I saying you shouldn’t change your eating or transportation habits? Am I saying you should burn coal and use incandescent lightbulbs? Am I saying you should stop recycling? Am I saying you should vote for politicians who promise no regulations based on global warming? No, I am not. All of these are part of that collaboration. That is our individual role, our part. Regulations are the government part, to promote better behavior through an appropriate combination of command-and-control laws and incentive based regulations. Violations need to be taken seriously and penalties assessed promptly. The penalties need to be severe enough that the companies will feel the pain, and learn to restrain their worst instincts. International laws need to fill the gap of global needs.
In order to resolve this situation, we will require major structural changes, major behavioral changes, and major legislative changes. We will need to rethink our entire system and find a way to promote human health and wellbeing that does not come at the expense of everything else on earth. We need to rethink what is important. A war is important. Jobs for the poor are important. Fighting racism, sexism, and other distressing isms is important. But the importance of the environmental issue overshadows all. If we do not solve that problem, none of the others will matter for long.
Major structural changes are coming. They are our future. The only thing we have to decide right now is whether we will make those structural changes ourselves, or wait until the warming climate makes them for us. This is the last chance we have. We do not have 11 years. These changes needed to be made 50 years ago, when this problem first (not really; it was predicted in 1898) became known. We are at a major turning point, a pivotal moment in human history. We can still determine to make those changes to adapt, to slow down, to survive. Or we can wait for nature to decide our fate.
We will not resolve this by baby steps. We have been saying baby steps since the 1960s (or maybe earlier). We took a few larger steps in the early 1970s with the passage of major environmental legislation, but since then we have made many backward steps. It’s now too late for baby steps. We must take large, full-sized, mature adult steps into the future.