The Dilemma of Climate Activism

The Green New Deal (GND) has opened up a civil war among climate activists. The revolutionists, taking alarmist forecasts at face value, are pressuring the incremental approach of politics. The result has been a baffling display of support and nonsupport for a landmark Progressive resolution.

The GND represents a multi-decade, mainstream movement harking back to Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in the 1970s. Far from being out of step, the GND is the political corollary of the newly released Fourth National Climate Assessment of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The GND is also consonant with the most recent analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

If the National Climate Assessment predicts “mass deaths” from business-as-usual CO2 emissions, and the IPCC concludes we have 10–14 years to rescue the climate, then a political elite (guided by an intellectual elite) must intervene holistically to reshape our priorities and lifestyles. It is, after all, a tip-to-toe problem of production and consumption, an unprecedented domestic/global market failure.

This is why a host of prominent voices—from climatologist Andrew Dessler to economist Paul Krugman to activist Al Gore; hundreds of environmental organizations; and newspapers from the Houston Chronicle to the New York Times—supported the GND right out of the gate.

And given the required radical transformation, why not throw in social justice? Didn’t the Clinton/Gore President’s Council on Sustainable Development define sustainability in terms of social justice, not only environmental and economic goals? And from the IPCC’s aforementioned Special Report (Summary for Policymakers: D6.1):

Social justice and equity are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways that aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C as they address challenges and inevitable trade-offs, widen opportunities, and ensure that options, visions, and values are deliberated, between and within countries and communities, without making the poor and disadvantaged worse off ….

Malthusianismdeep ecologysmall-is-beautifulconservationismenvironmental justice. From Al Gore’s “central organizing principle” (1992) to Naomi Klein’s “everything changes” (2014). There was a climate-driven, anti-capitalist, multi-dimensional agenda well before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, whose different elements she champions as mutually reinforcing.

Climate policy is everything policy. Consider but one tool in the climate/government box: a carbon tax. What might seem to be a simple domestic levy would require border adjustments (international tariffs) to address foreign noncompliance that would otherwise shift U.S. emissions offshore. The levy would also require equity adjustments to neuter the regressive nature of energy expenditure on lower-income individuals.

This is just the beginning. Other emission-control programs, and regulatory amendment, all politicized, at war with underlying self-interest and energy physics, make climate control a highway to serfdom.

The Long War?

The above analysis came to mind when reading a critical open letter to the Green New Dealers from Jerry Taylor, founder and head of the Niskanen Center.

Taylor accepts the case for climate-policy activism, beginning with a U.S.-side carbon tax. But his censure admits to the very high cost of a forced energy transformation. Moreover, the author seems to hedge on the dire nature of the climate problem, part of his case for a go-slow, take-what-you-can get approach (what he calls “the long war”).

Revolution Fail. While professing admiration for the GND’s means and ends, Taylor questions its strategy. “Your cause is just and, due to decades worth of political inaction,” he states, “the hour is late.” Still, the GND is dismissed as “exhortation for the impossible,” “political malpractice,” a “whiff of political madness,” and “democratic socialism in a box.”

He particularly faults the GND’s “extremely ambitious progressive initiatives that have little or nothing to do with climate change.” Two subtitles of his piece are “Wishing for Ponies” and “Climate Change is Not ‘Everything Policy’.” He wants to reign in expectations and shift Green New Dealers to a politically viable, however slow, “Plan B.”

High Cost vs. Potential Benefit. The practical problem of the Green New Deal is the size, scope, and obvious causality of its cost. Taylor explains:

The biggest difficulty associated with tackling climate change is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions imposes very real, very transparent, and very immediate costs with the prospect of benefits that will only become apparent someday down the road. Whatever we might think about the long-term benefits of climate action, in the short-term, it appears to be all cost…

Wow! Certain present pain versus the “prospect” of gain? So much for Amory Lovins’s “free lunch you are paid to eat” conservationism and Joe Romm’s “‘spectacular’ price drops for clean energy obliterates the cost argument against Green New Deal.”

Does Taylor think that alarmist science could be wrong? Note his hedging: “wide distribution of possible outcomes from climate change” … “overstatement regarding the certainty that apocalypse is now (or soon to be) upon us” … “the prospect of benefits that will only become apparent someday down the road.”


Jerry Taylor says “the hour is late.” But does he really believe the climate alarm sounded by James Hansen, Michael Mann, et al.—or the latest reports from establishment science? Or does he harbor the knowledge that CO2 has here-and-now benefits, and the middle ground of global lukewarming portends optimism about future climate?

The Green New Deal is just more “political theater,” to employ a term Cato’s director of natural resource studies used in 1998 to describe the climate crusade. In Taylor’s own words:

The national debate over what to do, if anything, about the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has become less a debate about scientific or economic issues than an exercise in political theater. The reason is that the issue of global climate change is pregnant with far-reaching implications for human society and the kind of world our children will live in decades from now.

Timeless insight indeed.

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