2050 Post-Carbon conference, McKibben, and conservatives on climate

2019-04-03

in Economics, M.Phil thesis, Politics, Psychology, Toronto

Today I was at a conference on “Building a Post-Carbon Future” by 2050. It was certainly not bad, but I felt there was a huge disjoint between the Paris Agreement targets frequently referenced (to keep global warming to less than 1.5–2.0 ˚C above pre-industrial levels) and the scale and ambition of the policies and actions actually proposed to get us there. Say what you like about the people who argue that climate change is fundamentally a symptom of capitalism, and that we need to get rid of the latter to solve the former, but at least they have a plan.

One frequent line of discussion in my one-on-one talks with today’s attendees was about what we need to say to get the general public to act in the right way and solve the problem. I’m very skeptical about this kind of approach. In everyday life, I think presenting selective or misleading information to try to manipulate behaviour is generally a bad plan, primarily because of the overconfidence it demonstrates about what explains a person’s current behaviour and how to alter it. Think of the arrogance of deciding based on the observable behaviours a person has shown you that you understand the deep workings of their mind (workings it would probably take them a considerable effort to think through and explain) so well that you can craft a tailored intervention that will shift that whole cognitive machine onto the track you want. Also, taking this approach throws away the opportunity to use that person’s judgment and knowledge to try to solve your problem: you’re taking it all on yourself because you’re assuming you’re smarter, or you know what ought to be done, or that the other person will never act in the right way based on complete and accurate information.

Anyhow, I am skeptical about political arguments like: “You need to give people hope or they won’t act” or: “If you tell people the true seriousness of climate change they will become apathetic”. We have never solved a problem like this before, so nobody can be really confident about the long-term consequences of any approach.

This evening’s keynote address was by Bill McKibben. To me it was passionate and well spoken and also all quite familiar: summaries of where 350.org came from, their pipeline resistance campaign, and their involvement with divestment. It was certainly well-delivered and got a solid response from the sold-out audience.

After the talk I spoke with McKibben briefly. He recognized the t-shirt I wore from the summer 2011 Keystone XL arrests in Washington D.C. Prompted by my concern about risks in trying the fight against climate change so closely to a collection of other left-progressive causes, I asked him how we can enact climate change policies that can survive changes of government, and how we can get conservatives on board.

He said that in the short term he thinks we can’t get conservatives on board, and that the priority task needs to be breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry. Without that, policies like the Green New Deal can’t succeed. He told me: “This is why we need movements”. He also pointed out that there have been climate policies which have been helpful and which have survived changes of government, like the B.C. carbon tax.

I don’t know how satisfying an answer I find that. The fossil fuel industry certainly hasn’t only sought to influence or bribe the politicians of the right. I feel like the problem is more ideological — related to some of what I discussed in my paper on resource inequality and have discussed in the ‘why is this important’ sections of many justifications of my PhD work. Humanity’s new ability to dramatically affect all life on the planet is a sort of shock that all political philosophies need to incorporate. Those like liberalism and socialism which from the beginning have incorporated some conception of interdependence among people who aren’t kin are perhaps more straightforwardly equipped to start incorporating a species-level or an Earth-level ethic. By contrast, individualistic conservatism founded in a (false) notion that people can somehow go it on their own is profoundly undermined by a problem where the unintended consequences of one person’s actions anywhere in the world are felt by everyone else for centuries. Resolving that contradiction in a genuine way seems to require jettisoning a lot of the emphasis on personal autonomy which is dear to conservatives, which perhaps helps explain why so many have been willing to just deny that the problem exists.

I would love to see a longer account from McKibben about how reducing the power of the fossil fuel industry solves the problem of each new government facing the temptation to scrap unpopular taxes and restrictions meant to protect the climate, or to tap any fossil fuel reserves which we have left unused for the greater good. Likewise, it would be good to see a theory for winning conservative support for climate stabilization policies, over any kind of plausible timescale. There are too many people who hold such views and support such parties for us to reject the need to appeal to them, even if activists are more comfortable dealing with people who they broadly agree with on other issues, and even if they have crafted their movement to be progressive and diverse in the ways they value.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 3, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Also regarding today’s conference, it was a reminder that while environmentalists and those interested in environmental policy aren’t climate deniers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are generally scientifically well-informed or that they have necessary and relevant expertise on policy and energy options. There are certainly lots of environmentalists who believe quite spectacularly unscientific things (for instance, about diet or medicine). Also, I would say there is a tendency for environmentalists to reason on an aesthetic or a psychological basis: feeling that minimalism and not asking too much are the right mindset, for instance, and then thinking that policies based on that approach will succeed. As David MacKay and others argue convincingly, solving the grand problem of making human technological civilization compatible with the limits of what the Earth can endure will require huge industrial capacities of one sort or the other, whether they are hundreds of new nuclear power stations or continent-sized wind and solar facilities linked with huge new electricity transport corridors. Just saying no to everything big and industrial simply isn’t viable.

I brought up the disjuncture between targets and policies at today’s conference with some very senior people present and we talked about whether those present if presented with a set of policies compatible with a 1.5 ˚C trajectory (like a $200/tonne carbon tax, ban on new fossil fuel projects, and rationing of transportation) would actually vote for such a plan. One person who I asked said they hoped so, and everyone else said they thought not. If that’s the read on the audience of a climate policy option, one can be forgiven for wondering if climate change is a problem democracies can solve.

. April 10, 2019 at 2:28 pm

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