The big problem with climate 'realism'

Political moderates are out of their gourds on climate policy

Nancy Pelosi.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Mark Wilson/Getty Images, JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Climate change has vaulted to the top of the political discourse, with the rollout of the Green New Deal policy framework and the subsequent discussion of what policies it should contain. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), for instance, recently announced he is running for president with a platform laser-focused on climate change.

All this has political moderates rolling their eyes. "The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they're for it right?" scoffed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) scolded a bunch of children who came to her office begging her to support the Green New Deal, saying "I know what I'm doing … it's not a good resolution." New York Times columnist Bret Stephens concludes that if famed lefty Pelosi doesn't support it, the GND must be basically silly: "[I]t's time to move climate policy beyond impractical radicalism and feckless virtue-signaling to something that can achieve a plausible, positive, and bipartisan result."

All this reveals the bankruptcy of so-called "realism" on climate change.

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The remarkable thing about Stephens' column is that he perceives the problem with the Democratic moderate climate stance with perfect accuracy. Unlike Stephens in his Wall Street Journal incarnation, Feinstein and Pelosi do not deny the science of climate change. But if the scientists are right, "isn't Pelosi's incrementalist approach to climate absurdly inadequate?" he writes. "Isn't it, in fact, like trying to put out a forest fire with a plant mister?"

Yep! But contrary to Stephen's conclusion that Pelosi's political reasoning must be correct, one can easily accept climate science while refusing to accept the obvious policy implications — that we need radical policy to wrench down emissions as fast as possible. It is its own version of climate denial, in a sense.

This kind of behavior is nothing new. When confronted with severe crises, people often retreat to avoidance strategies, thinking up excuses to procrastinate or deny the problem is as bad as it is. In the mid-1930s, European statesmen and citizens alike simply refused to believe that Hitler was a genocidally racist megalomaniac bent on world domination, despite the fact that he had clearly written as much in his own book. U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's infamous appeasement at Munich was an error in this vein, but only because the U.K. public desperately hoped to avoid an inescapable war (and the U.K. was not remotely prepared for one in 1938). Even Stalin refused to believe dozens of warnings from his own intelligence and the British that the Nazis were planning a surprise attack in June 1941.

Andrew Sullivan of all people understands this point, writing that on climate, "Splitting the difference right now between the GOP and the Democrats on this subject is to guarantee eco-suicide. And since it is an emergency, gradualism is not, shall we say, optimal."

Yet he makes his own mistake, writing that nuclear power can be a climate panacea. He is correct that in theory nuclear could completely de-carbonize power generation — though the cost problems are considerably worse than he allows, with a recent nuclear plant going so over budget that it bankrupted Westinghouse and had to be abandoned even with considerable subsidies.

But more importantly, nuclear does nothing for agriculture, industry, and manufacturing, which account for almost half of emissions and have no zero-carbon technological solutions ready for deployment.

And this gets to the problem with the Stephens-Pelosi-Feinstein thinking on climate. If we consider climate policy realistically, then that would clearly involve considering how big the problem is, reasoning from there how fast emissions need to come down, and then what policies could get us there. If the scientists are overstating their case, then why, and by how much? If the greens are wrong about policies, which ones are better? But Stephens does not discuss details in the slightest, only gesturing vaguely towards "large-scale investments in climate resilience, such as better coastal defenses." How about it, Bret: Would it be cheaper to decarbonize the economy, or abandon the whole of the Miami metro area to the rising seas?

But conversely, this is why the Green New Deal framework makes so much sense. It starts with the problem — greenhouse gas emissions — and sets up a goal to get them down in time, while making society more egalitarian in the process. The policy space, therefore, is ecumenical. Nothing that cuts emissions is ruled out — leaving space for a carbon tax, subsidies for zero-carbon transportation, enormous investment in zero-carbon energy (including nuclear), and moon-shot research investments to develop zero-carbon industry and agriculture that could then be adopted worldwide.

I daresay it's a fairly pragmatic approach. If you study the conclusions of climate science even cursorily, the truth is that we have procrastinated so long that we pretty much have to go full-tilt at everything with a decent chance of getting emissions down. Penny-ante political moderation can not possibly get the job done.

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