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Something occurred to me as I was walking through the snow this morning. There’s an episode of Yes Minister (The Bed of Nails) in which the hapless minister Jim Hacker is charged with implementing an integrated national transport policy. His savvy and manipulative chief civil servant explains:

It is the ultimate vote loser… If you pull it off, no one will feel the benefits for ten years. Long before that, you and I will have moved on… In the meantime, formulating policy means making choices. Once you do that, you please the people that you favour, but infuriate everybody else. One vote gained, ten lost. If you give the job to the road services, the rail board and unions will scream. Give it to the railways, the road lobby will massacre you. Cut British Airways investment plans, they’ll hold a devastating press conference that same day.

Ultimately, the minister and his permanent secretary conspire to be freed from the job, first by proposing a service-slashing approach to transport reorganization, in which they deliberately alert the prime minister about unpopular changes it would imply for his constituency, and then using Sir Humphrey’s second strategy:

We now present our other kind of non-proposal… The high cost, high staff kind. We now propose a British National Transport Authority with a full structure, regional board, area council, local office, liaison committee, the lot. 80,000 staff, billion-a-year budget. The Treasury will have a fit! The whole thing will go back to the Department of Transport.

What occurred to me in the snow is that while Hacker and Humphrey may have been using these approaches as a dodge, one could say metaphorically that those calling for strong climate change policies have in some ways pressed the same two strategies.

First there was the dream of an economically efficient solution via a carbon tax. All the most sophisticated and credible economic analyses projected that the best way to solve climate change was to put a rising cost of carbon across the entire economy and then let individuals and firms make their own economic choices to adjust. This policy was favourably contrasted with trying to reduce fossil fuel use and the resultant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through regulation. It was also tailored to appeal to people on the political right: rather than imposing particular technological choices it relies on the free market to adapt naturally to the increasing cost of a previously-neglected factor of production, just as they do every day as commodity prices like oil and copper spot prices do.

What seems to have sunk this strategy is the willingness of those on the political right to play Russian roulette on climate change, assuming the damage we do won’t be that bad or that some future technology will solve the problem painlessly. Coupled with that is the unreasoning hostility to taxes that has been embraced by some right wing populist figures, movements, and political parties. Proposing an environmental policy that can be given the derogatory label “a tax on everything” is challenging in a climate where such figures are influential, and can make it easy for an incoming right wing government to scrap on the basis of “giving money back to [insert name of jurisdiction] families”.

The carbon tax idea was always an awkward fit for the “social greens” to use Clapp and Dauvergne’s terminology. In Paths to a Green World they differentiate between four broad streams within environmentalism: market liberals, institutionalists, bioenvironmentalists, and social greens:

If your analysis is that our system is beset by an ever-destructive capitalism which must be deconstructed, the virtues of a carbon mitigation measure designed to function through efficient capitalist markets was never likely to appeal. Perhaps it speaks to the climate justice dimension when carbon tax revenues are put to purposes that aid the disadvantaged, as with refunds to those with low emissions under a cap and dividend scheme or proposals to use carbon tax revenues to fund a basic income system.

That’s the second set of policies that occurred to me in the snow, corresponding to Humphrey’s “high cost, high staff” straw man. That’s the mainstream media criticism consensus on proposals like the Green New Deal: that they can’t see the rational connection between proposed elements like a job guarantee and climate change, and that the set of new government benefits being proposed seems unreasonably costly.

We surely can’t know what strategies will succeed on climate change. There has never been a problem sufficiently similar to serve as a credible model, so we can never say with complete confidence that one or another past movement suggests the best activist strategies in the world today. We’re going to need to keep trying multiple strategies, especially if we’re committed to democracy. Under a democratic system the populace must ultimately begrudge and tolerate any burdensome actions their society is undertaking for the sake of a stable climate. It has to be akin to the general tolerance of taxation, and be an expected and embedded norm to be part of a society progressively moving away from carbon fuels.

It’s great that social greens are so passionate and able to turn a belief that they’re fighting for justice into enthusiasm and motivation. It probably helps to have a comprehensive vision for societal reform, as opposed to the rather abstract and unemotive “what strategies for decarbonization can work, if we put it ahead of all other priorities?”.

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today we have a set of such prophecies
and for all the average person understands
they may just as well have emanated from the delphic oracle

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A memorable criticism in Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed, How they Fail alleges that organizers often miss their opportunity because the use the moment of chaos in which the common people are prepared to rebel as an opportunity for institution-building instead of revolution or immediate large-scale reform.

The point is well taken, and organization-building can indeed involve tedious bureaucracy that bores volunteers and doesn’t seem to justify the time it takes. For the climate activism movement specifically, however, we need to think more than most about the durability of the edifices we create, because this fight isn’t going to end for decades. Even if miracle after miracle takes place, we aggressively decarbonize around the globe, and we manage to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 ˚C, there will still always be the temptation to exploit valuable fossil fuel reserves that nations have so far forborne to use for the sake of the climate. Perhaps we will one day have energy technologies so superior that fossil fuels will lose their commercial value, but especially with hard-to-replace applications like air travel and spaceflight rising in popularity, it seems imprudent to assume that will happen. And so we will need to keep the fossil fuels buried not just now, but for generations to come. In all probability, we will need to do so despite steadily-worsening climatic conditions and secondary stresses associated, from famines to mass migration.

Certainly organization-building can be done wrong, and we all learn from the mistakes of past efforts. Climate activism may well be unlike some other movements, however, and face a particular need to keep functioning and influencing public policy even after the current generation of organizers are dead, to say nothing of three years down the line when everyone involved in the movement has switched their primary organizational affiliation and central area of focus.

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Sweep

2019-02-13

in Photo of the day, Toronto

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A frequent criticism of climate change policies like the Leap Manifesto and the Green New Deal which seek to accomplish a number of labour and social justice objectives alongside controlling climate change is that the policies don’t have a logical relationship with one another, framing the effort this way reduces the emphasis on climate change specifically, and taking this approach will create barriers to political success. The Economist‘s online Democracy in America column recently argued:

Such objections are thought unsportsmanlike by the proposal’s backers. The Green New Deal has people excited in ways think-tank white papers on cap-and-trade schemes never did. Boosters argue that it moves the “Overton window” of political dialogue: towards taking serious action on climate change. The little details, like how to pay for universal health care and a federal jobs guarantee can be dealt with later. Perhaps the Green New Deal will galvanise the youth vote, or help elect environmentally minded Democrats. Perhaps it is good politics to yoke environmentalism to other economic policies that could be popular.

Yet it seems rather more likely that the politics of the Green New Deal will backfire for Democrats. Republican strategists have stymied progress on climate change by caricaturing Democratic ideas as pie-in-the-sky efforts that would result in massive tax increases. Their parody now seems reality. The next Democratic nominee may well be someone who has endorsed the idea of the Green New Deal.

There is little wonder that Nancy Pelosi, who cares about climate change but also retains shrewd political instincts, has been so public in her doubting of the proposal. “The ‘green dream’ or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is but they’re for it, right?” she told Politico. The bold plan could make the party unelectable in conservative-leaning states, ensuring that Republicans retain control over one chamber of Congress or even the White House and then stymie all climate legislation—whether sensible or not—for years to come.

There’s certainly a counter-argument. People may care somewhat about climate change, but it’s never their top priority in comparison to personal welfare issues like health, education, or taxes. Also, people have many financial concerns about climate change action. Conceivably, a broad-based policy could tie climate change protection to other tasks of more immediate political interest to people, and mitigate concerns that decarbonization will be economically damaging.

There’s cause to the skeptical about that enthusiasm, however. If a package consists of a bunch of objectives with relatively appealing short-term benefits, along with decarbonization policies which are largely about enduring near-term costs to avoid long-term catastrophe, it’s quite possible that the climate parts will be dropped, diluted, or counteracted. One virtue of an approach that focuses narrowly on decarbonization and climate protection is that it could be made compatible with a range of ideologies and party platforms. That is to say, there may be a lower chance that it will just be scrapped by the next non-progressive government to be elected.

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