The WhatAreYaGonnaDo Response to Climate Change
by Neil H. Buchanan
I have been back on the road this semester, again giving talks to mostly academic audiences regarding two of my primary research interests: intergenerational justice and a critique of orthodox economics. Although the UK and EU are still in various stages of partial reopening, I have been fortunate to be welcomed back onto several campuses by colleagues during my sojourn on this side of the pond.
As always, the exchanges are stimulating and intellectually productive -- sometimes in unexpected ways. During the discussion period after one recent lecture, for example, I was surprised to find myself responding to one questioner's blunt climate denialism.
My surprise was the result of two things. First, the substance of my lecture was not focused on the question of climate change itself. To be sure, I brought up the topic and took a position on it, but I did so as a way of setting up what I thought was a more interesting question about how to compare different threats to future generations. Still, Q&A is designed to be listener-driven, and there is nothing wrong with a person picking up on a non-central point and pursuing it. Indeed, that sometimes leads to fruitful discussions and even to fresh thinking that can inspire entirely new research projects.
The second reason that I was surprised, however, was that the questioner adopted a particularly unvarnished version of the don't-worry-be-happy response to catastrophic climate change. Again, there is nothing especially unusual about people exploring -- especially in an academic setting -- off-the-wall ideas or extreme arguments. Even so, when a question ultimately relies on a set of presumptions and implicit moral choices that are well-nigh indefensible, it continues to startle.
Even outrageous claims, however, can generate insights. Here, I want to explore polite versions of what are in fact rather familiar anti-environmentalism arguments from the right. Working through what makes them so extreme is, I think, clarifying.
I should repeat that the arguments that I am going to discuss here are in some ways old hat. The Republican Party trades in this stuff all the time. Usually, however, the arguments show up in all caps on Twitter or in rants on the Senate floor (sometimes by a politician brandishing a snowball). Even so, hearing an argument of that sort offered in a soft tone of voice (in this case, through a delightful regional English accent) can make what are obviously fallacious arguments momentarily seem non-extreme and almost plausible.
To set the scene, I began my talk by pointing to the ubiquity of politicians and other public figures relying on the heartstring-tugging admonition to "think of our children and grandchildren" to justify pretty much anything. Indeed, my questioner made a good, separate point that the people who favored Brexit did so because they thought that they owed their children and grandchildren a United Kingdom that was "for the British, not subservient to unanswerable bureaucrats in Brussels." I am quite sure that is what they thought, but this merely exposes the problem with that rhetorical move. If intergenerational appeals merely mean "doing something I like because I say it's for the benefit of future people," then pretty much anything that will change the future can be justified as an intergenerational issue.
[Note: After the sentence ending with "Brussels," this column originally included a two-word sentence: "Quite so." I have deleted that comment, because I concluded that my meaning -- "Yes, even xenophobes can make arguments that sound just oh-so-gosh-darned concerned about future generations" -- was not only unclear but, much worse, that it could sound as though I agree with the anti-EU argument, which I most definitely do not. The text that is there now makes my point without snark, and I hope my meaning is now clear.]
That, however, deprives the concept of all meaning. "What we do now will affect the future" is a trivial statement, making it important to distinguish between those decisions that will affect future generations merely because they have a long tail and those about which we would think in different ways were we to think about how they will change the world that we leave to those future beings.
Climate change, of course, is perhaps the most important of the issues in that category. (I have argued that the preservation of the rule of law is plausibly more important, but we can set that aside for the moment.) Even so, one could care about the climate without caring about future generations at all. For example, people who care about the harms of pollution might focus only on those harms that will affect people living today. Heart disease, lung disease, and so on are here-and-now issues, and a person could reasonably say that she cares about pollution for what would amount to purely selfish -- or at least intra-generational -- reasons.
What might be an acceptable commerce-pollution tradeoff when viewed through that lens, however, is much less likely to be acceptable once one thinks about climate change. That does not mean, of course, that we would completely shut down all modern transportation and other pollution-causing industries and activities, but we would at least say that those intergenerational effects ought to be weighed as part of any balancing exercise. I have often used the analogy of a kitchen: If a person cares about who (other than himself) is going to be using the kitchen in the future, he is going to expend some time and resources to make it usable for the next person. If not, he will leave his mess and walk away.
Back in the lecture hall, I summarized my claim that "everyone invokes the kids and grandkids" by quoting from Stephen Colbert's monologue on a recent episode of his late-night show.
Scientists agree that all these extreme weather events are tied to global warming, which is happening whether you believe it or not. For the record, many Americans choose "not," because a new poll says 45% of Americans don't believe humans cause climate change. (Shouting) It doesn't matter what you believe, it's true. That's like not believing that humans cause pants-pooping. 'It's just part of the natural cycle of my khakis. I'm gonna leave them for my grandchildren to deal with."
Note that Colbert was using the future generations trope, but he was doing something more by indirectly mocking the people who say that climate change is not caused by humans. It is natural, you see.
The last comment during Q&A made three points, all in an oh-so-reasonable tone of voice: (1) Experts can be wrong: (2) Climate change is natural; and (3) We could be helping poor people today by polluting, so being anti-pollution is the moral equivalent of being anti-poor people.
Some skeptical readers might imagine that I am reporting these arguments in an unfair or slanted way. There is no recording of the event, after all, and perhaps this is all just a straw man. I can only say that I have no reason to put outrageous arguments into other people's mouths. There are plenty of other things to write about, and this only became a priority because I was so surprised to see Fox News talking points being offered so nakedly as if they were plausible points of view.
Put differently, I would prefer that these arguments be abandoned entirely, and they are easy to ignore when they are being repeated by conspiracy-spouting, ignorant politicians. Last week's experience, however, caused me to think about those stale talking points in new ways.
Or at least, the second and third points inspired some new thoughts. The first point, by contrast, is just as crazy and empty as it has always been. From religious fundamentalists who insist that "evolution is just a theory" to anti-vaccine nuts who say that "I'll do my own research" (two groups that appear to significantly overlap), it has long been a common theme among these people to point out that scientific knowledge has gaps, that accepted empirical findings are sometimes significantly revised because of new evidence (occasionally radically so), and so on. The inherent modesty of the scientific method is used against scientists.
During Q&A, therefore, I could only respond in the way that everyone who is not a Republican responds: lack of absolute certainty does not mean that all bets are off, and when the evidence is this overwhelming, of course any reasonable person would update his betting strategy.
The questioner's second point, however, ends up being much more interesting. Inadvertently echoing Colbert's joke that pants-pooping is merely part of "the natural cycle of my khakis," the argument is that the history of the earth has seen much larger swings in temperature than we will see in our lifetimes, and because we might not even be able to stop or slow down such awesome long-term, non-human forces, why bother trying? The asteroid is going to hit Earth. The volcano is going to consume the village. The aliens have landed. Game over, man. Game over!
What initially struck me about that fatalistic assessment was that it relied on a historical story (a somewhat Whiggish story, but never mind) that mostly involves epochs before humans existed. The Earth's temperature rose and fell, and countless living creatures died. Okay, why is that relevant? Meanwhile, even the supposedly relevant time periods within extended humanoid history are invoked basically as a way to say that we should simply not even try to help each other survive. "Global temperatures changed by x degrees ten thousand years ago, and you can't blame that on capitalism!"
Put in such stark terms, the argument thus becomes an utterly immoral assertion that, hey, people might die -- tens or hundreds or millions, or maybe even billions, of people -- but because we might not be able to stop or mitigate the effects, we should just learn to live (and die) with that unpleasant fact. Why inconvenience people who are comfortable today, merely because we might or might not be able to save the odd several million lives?
To be sure, the predictions on which this despondent mindset is based might turn out to be accurate. Even people as pessimistic as I am, however, never quite give up hope. I have never told anyone, for example, not to bother trying to save the American constitutional system. Indeed, I have said that I admire people who are unwilling to give up until the fight is finally lost.
And when it comes to climate change, there is even less of an either/or aspect to the potential harms. That is, while what seems like the inevitable Republican "wins" in the 2022 midterms will end democracy as we know it, the harms of climate change are on a continuous scale. Moreover, as far as we can tell (from science!), the costs of prevention are significantly lower than the costs of remediation -- or even of coping.
Unless, of course, the plan is neither to remediate nor to cope. It is certainly less expensive up front to do nothing at all, and if one simply plans to let as many people die as is "natural," then we have found the cheapest plan available. If human (and other) lives have zero value in the balance, then there is no benefit to weigh against the costs.
What makes this even more outrageous is that the other big issue of intergenerational justice -- democratic stability and the rule of law -- is inextricably tied up with the potential consequences of climate change. As we receive "warnings from national security officials about how a changing climate could upend societies and topple governments," we know that every flood, wildfire, hurricane, disappearing island or coastline, and every other extreme event feeds the possibility of population dislocations (leading to refugees and mass migrations, with which democracies do not deal well), not to mention harms within currently stable countries that can lead to extreme political outcomes.
Heck, if even mainstream media figures are willing to play the blame-Biden-for-global-inflation game, what would happen if a major storm killed hundreds of thousands of people along the eastern seaboard?
There is surprisingly little evidence supporting the hypothesis that stronger democratic governments are better at dealing with climate issues than are autocratic regimes, but causality certainly runs in the other direction. That is, it certainly seems likely that worsening climate crises will reduce the public's support for democratically elected regimes. If the people in Italy were once eager to support a dictator who could, at least, make the trains run on time, what would people do when a demagogue comes along and tells them that he alone can protect their country from climate disaster?
In short, the old right-wing line about climate change being merely a natural phenomenon is not only a distraction, which is how I had previously thought of it. The underlying, implicit argument is that there is nothing that we can do even to mitigate the harms caused by any phenomenon, so we can only sit helplessly by while the world burns. It is, at its core, the argument that "It's in God's hands," without the explicit religiosity. And it is, in the end, motivated by a simply shocking disregard for the value of human life.
None of this, of course, tells us how to make the tough borderline decisions about tradeoffs between climate policies and other priorities. Still, it is valuable at least briefly to gaze in wonderment at the inhumanity that we generally do not notice in the objections from the climate do-nothing caucus. Sometimes, the quieter version of the argument exposes the monstrous thinking underneath more effectively than the screaming version does.
Final Note: Above, I described a third objection to climate mitigation from the denialists as follows: "We could be helping poor people today by polluting, so being anti-pollution is the moral equivalent of being anti-poor people." I will return to that question in my column this Thursday.