How Global Warming Will Force Political Realignment
One of the central arguments of Break Through -- one that has so far been ignored by True Believers at places like Grist -- is that global warming is going to create new political fault lines that don't fall along the left-right divide.
Climate change and the political response to it is already defining a new fault line in the culture. On one side of that line will be a global NIMBYism that sees the planet as too fragile to support the hopes and dreams of seven billion humans. It will seek to establish and enforce the equivalent of an international caste system in which the poor of the developing world are consigned to energy poverty in perpetuity. This politics of limits will be anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and anti-growth. It will be zero-sum, fiscally conservative, and deficit-oriented. It will combine Malthusian environmentalism with Hobbesian conservatism.
On the other side will be those who believe that there is room enough for all of us to live secure and free lives. It will be pro-growth, progressive, and internationalist. It will drive global development by creating new markets. It will see in institutions like the WTO, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund not a corporate conspiracy to keep people poor and destroy the environment, but an opportunity to drive a kind of development that is both sustainable and equitable. It will embrace technology without being technocratic. It will seek adaptation proactively, not fatalistically. It will establish social and economic security as preconditions for ecological action. It will be large and transformative, but not millenarian.
Earlier in that chapter we cite a landmark study done for the Pentagon by San Francisco-based Global Business Network (GBN) on abrupt climate change. Now, the authors of that paper are back with a smart new paper, this one co-authored with Nils Gilman of Monitor Group, GBN's parent firm. We hadn't seen it before we wrapped up our book, but Gilman, Doug Randall, and Peter Schwartz come to very similar conclusions about how the political reactions to climate change might divide the environmental community, just as immigration reform and Cape Wind divided the Sierra Club.
[C]limate change may form the basis for a new set of political coalitions and oppositions that do not fit within the [traditional left-right] political paradigm. One possibility is that political coalitions and parties may be reformed around different attitudes to social risk-sharing, with one faction opting for having the state take an activist approach to mitigating a variety of "big" security risks (military, terrorist, environmental) and another coalition forming around allowing people to fend for themselves, with a less intrusive but also less protective state. The recent debate in the Sierra Club over the organization's stance on immigration presages such a formation, as does the current debate in Europe about "repatriation" of immigrants.
The initial reaction from some people to Break Through was that we constructed a straw man, as though to say, Come on, there's hardly any environmentalists any more who are anti-growth, limits-based, NIMBY, or anti-immigrant.
These claims were often followed, without any apparent sense of irony, by the insistence that technology can't solve our problems, there are natural limits to economic growth, and there's not enough room on lifeboat Earth for everyone to live the way we live in the developed world.
Having spent the last month traveling around the country on book tour, Ted and I have been struck that the biggest objection audiences have to our book is our contention that there's room for all 7 billion of us Earthlings to live prosperous, free and fulfilled lives. We point out that this won't be the case if we continue on the current fossil fuel trajectory -- hence the need for a politics that gets us off it -- but if we move to a clean energy economy, live mostly in cities, and begin to restore the nonhuman ecosystems we depend on, there's no reason to believe the levels of prosperity we enjoy shouldn't be achieved by everyone.
Ever since Malthus in the early 19th Century (and likely well before that) people have been predicting that we're going to run out of food. Their calculations are always impeccable. The problem is that they're based on existing technologies. And technological innovation is what our species excels at.
The new political fault line we see shaping up is between a large politics (what we call "greatness") characterized by a vision for growth, development, globalization, and non-zero sum thinking (i.e., "win-win") -- and a small politics characterized by NIMBYism, anti-immigrant attitudes, the resistance to what GBN calls "social risk-sharing," and the sense that there's only so much planet Earth to go around.
Which side will prevail? GBN says it's uncertain. "While ecosystems have always been dynamic and changing (and subject to collapse), the scientific ability to track such collapses, and the media visibility of such collapses, is far greater than it has ever been. How the global public will react to such collapses is largely unknown."
GBN makes the very good point that as human systems collapse, humans "rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs) for daily survival.... Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales."
What I thought was missing from the GBN analysis was an acknowledgment of the fairly extensive research of how discourses of collapse and apocalypse feed the small, authoritarian, and NIMBY political reaction -- not the expansive, democratic, and ecological one.
Of course, ecological and subsequent systems collapse is a possibility, and one that has to be considered and carefully analyzed. But there's another question, no less important, that must be also asked: What must be done to trigger a progressive rather than reactionary reaction in the face of widening paranoia about the dark possibility of ecological collapse?