It’s Not About the Climate

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part One

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Social justice was once synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — electric lighting so poor children could read at night, refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. But today's leading left-wing leaders, such as 350.org's Naomi Klein (above right), advocate a return to energy penury and harmonizing human civilization to Nature.

April 29, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

Of course, all of this new development puts big pressures on the environment. While the transition from wood to coal is overwhelmingly positive for forests, coal-burning is now a major contributor to global warming. The challenge for the twenty-first century is thus to triple global energy demand, so that the world's poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero.

For the last 20 years, most everyone who cared about global warming hoped for a binding international treaty abroad, and some combination of carbon pricing, pollution regulations, and renewable energy mandates at home. That approach is now in ruins. In 2010, UN negotiations failed to create a successor to the failed Kyoto treaty. A few months later cap and trade died in the Senate. And two weeks ago, the slow motion collapse of the European Emissions Trading Scheme reached its nadir, with carbon prices, already at historic lows, collapsing after EU leaders refused to tighten the cap on emissions. 

What rushed into the vacuum was "climate justice," a movement headed by left-leaning groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. These groups invoke the vulnerability of the poor to climate change, but elide the reality that more energy makes them more resilient. "Huge swaths of the world have been developing over the last three decades at an unprecedented pace and scale," writes political scientist Christopher Foreman in "On Justice Movements," a new article for Breakthrough Journal. "Contemporary demands for climate justice have been, at best, indifferent to these rather remarkable developments and, at worst, openly hostile."

For the climate justice movement, global warming is not to be dealt with by switching to cleaner forms of energy, but rather by returning to a pastoral, renewable-powered, and low-energy society. "Real climate solutions," writes Klein, "are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture, or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users…" 

Climate change can only be solved by "fixing everything," says McKibben, from how we eat, travel, produce, reproduce, consume, and live. “It’s not an engineering problem," McKibben argued recently in Rolling Stone. "It's a greed problem." Fixing it will require a "new civilizational paradigm," says Klein, "grounded not in dominance over nature, but in respect for natural cycles of renewal." 

Climate skeptics are right, Klein cheerily concludes: the Left is using climate change to advance policies they have long wanted. "In short," says Klein, "climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative."

As such, global warming is our most wicked problem. The end of our world is heralded by ideologues with specific solutions already in mind: de-growth, rural living, low-energy consumption, and renewable energies that will supposedly harmonize us with Nature. The response from the Right was all-too predictable. If climate change "supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand," as conservatives decided long ago, then climate change is either not happening or is not much to worry about.

Wicked problems can only be solved if the ideological discourses that give rise to them are disrupted, and that's what political scientist Foreman does brilliantly in "On Justice Movements." If climate justice activists truly cared about poverty and climate change, Foreman notes, they would advocate things like better cook stoves and helping poor nations accelerate the transition from dirtier to cleaner fuels. Instead they make demands that range from the preposterous (eg, de-growth) to the picayune (eg, organic farming).

Once upon a time, social justice was synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — electric lighting so poor children could read at night, refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. Malthus was rightly denounced by generations of socialists as a cruel aristocrat who cloaked his elitism in pseudo-science, and claimed that Nature couldn't possibly feed any more hungry months. 

Now, at the very moment modern energy arrives for global poor — something a prior generation of socialists would have celebrated and, indeed, demanded — today's leading left-wing leaders advocate a return to energy penury. The loudest advocates of cheap energy for the poor are on the libertarian Right, while The Nation dresses up neo-Malthusianism as revolutionary socialism.

Left-wing politics was once about destabilizing power relations between the West and the Rest. Now, under the sign of climate justice, it's about sustaining them.


THE GREAT PROGRESSIVE REVERSAL
 

Part 1: It's Not About the Climate

Part 2: How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor


Part 3: End of the World – or Decline of the West?

Christopher Foreman, "On Justice Movements," Breakthrough Journal, Winter 2013


Photo Credit: TckTckTck / Truthout.org


Comments

  • Thank you, this exactly expresses why I’ve become so estranged from liberal-left politics over the years. Progressives should be pro-energy, pro-development, not utopian.

    “Now, at the very moment modern energy arrives for global poor — something a prior generation of socialists would have celebrated and, indeed, demanded — today’s leading left-wing leaders advocate a return to energy penury.”

    Bravo

    By Susan Friedman on 2013 04 29

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  • Great piece. I remember reading that Klein piece when it came out and thought she and Heartland global warming deniers were a match made in heaven. The left and right deserve each other.

    By Johannes Schweigart on 2013 04 29

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  • My wife had a cornea transplant last year. It changed her life. She’s about to have the other eye done. Rather than face a future of near blindness, her vision will be 20-40 in both eyes. To do this requires a world-class hospital supported by a stable electrical grid and clean water in abundance. Everyone on the planet should be able to have operations like this.

    Back in the 1960’s, Tim Leary said “turn on, tune in, drop out” while Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters said the opposite, take the glitter and the cities and create something better. Kesey was right. Pastoralism is just recycled dropout hippyisms. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. To do it now because of climate change is a deliberate slap in the face against billions of poor people in developing nations.

    By Bob Morris on 2013 04 29

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  • Hi,

    As you rightly point out “The challenge for the twenty-first century is thus to triple global energy demand, so that the world’s poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero.” Have you written something on this? How can it be done? How far have we been able to get with this so far? Where do you see the breakthroughs happening?

    By Brendan Barrett on 2013 04 29

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  • Social Justice is a ridiculous and unhelpful idea.  Sure, we want every human to enjoy access to “modern amenities” and a fair shot at a successful, fruitful and fulfilling life.  But, couching that aspiration in terms of Social Justice is just a way of disguising an overly confident sense of governments’ abilities to make that happen.  It’s always best to be realistic, which in this case means confining government’s role to policing a level playing field and maintain rule of law.  History shows that when those conditions are met, even approximately, people in general do better.  It also shows that advocates for Social Justice end up doing a great deal of harm, in my opinion more harm than good.

    By Michael Genest on 2013 04 30

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  • Didn’t the Khmer rouge already try to push a whole country back into a rural society living on “organic farming”?

    We all know the cost: roughly one third of the cambodian population has been murdered.

    By Ken Meyer on 2013 04 30

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  • This essay is just the worst kind of critique - an emotional argument against scientific fact. You two are brilliant political scientists but global warming isn’t a nail and that hammer is useless. The numbers are clear and the climate models are unambiguous about the disastrous effects that all this “prosperity” is having on our planet. Is there another essay here that details Breakthrough Institute’s solutions for climate change that aren’t pithy exhortations to continue the status quo?

    On a catastrophically warmed planet, no one will have access to abundant food or energy, or the rule of law, or social justice.

    By Scott Finnell on 2013 05 03

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  • Questions for Mr. Finnell:
    1.  If we somehow reduce CO2 by X% going forward, what will the temperature be in 10 years, 50 years?  Please indicate the source and quality of the science that answers that question.
    2.  Let’s say there is X amount of carbon fuel left on/in the Earth.  Consider 2 scenarios.  One, we use the fuel up as fast as an unregulated market would want, say Y years.  The other, we instead use that fuel at a much reduced rate due to a regulatory regime such as the now defunct Kyoto scheme such that it takes ZxY years to use up all the carbon fuel.  After 2 times, 10 times ZxY years, what will the temperature be under each scenario?  Again, please indicate your scientific basis for your calculations.

    By Michael Genest on 2013 05 03

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  • @Michael Genest: I don’t attempt levitation, argue evolution with evangelicals, or argue climate change with skeptics. The information you seek is freely available online, but I suspect that you know that and have evolved an airtight retort for whatever I might possibly put forward (judging by the peculiar specificity of your questions). So rather than engage in a tiresome He Said She Said debate about the veracity of a particular model or models, I must respectfully decline this dance.

    Further: it’s academic. Humankind lacks the will to make meaningful carbon reductions. We may or may not be able to geoengineer a remedy but at this point, people (both individuals* and as polities) simply refuse to sacrifice anything. It sounds like this is pretty close to what the big boys and girls came up with at the Breakthrough retreat: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/dialogue/wicked-problems/

    ...but there is something honorable in the band playing on while the deck tilts upward. And I salute the Kleins and McKibbens of the world for trying to motivate people toward hard solutions even in the face of near certain defeat. This is no time for sentimentality, and no time for criticisms of those people who are trying to do something merely because it doesn’t play to delicate sensibilities. Modern humans are catastrophic for environmental well-being, and each step that the developing world takes toward our western standard of life makes them worse for it.

    By Scott Finnell on 2013 05 03

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  • Mr. Finnel: If the information I seek is online why not link to it?  Instead, you dismiss me as a scientific troglodyte.  I do not dispute evolution nor am I an evangelical, even though I am as aware as any scientist that “evolution” is a complex theory that has yet to be fully worked out and I hold no grudge against people of faith as long as they don’t try to interfere with my freedom.

    The reason for my specificity is not to set a trap.  It is to illustrate the weakness of the current science.  I do not argue that climate scientists are totally clueless.  However, if you think their models are good enough to predict the answers to the questions I posed even in the face of the fact that they are currently scrambling to explain the 16-year pause in warming, I think perhaps you need some remedial classes.

    By Michael Genest on 2013 05 03

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  • @Genest: See my previous comment in which I state very plainly my refusal to entertain this kind of tit-for-tat argument about disputed facts or models or the interpretation thereof. I didn’t call you any names.

    If you don’t think there’s a fire to be put out by now, I certainly don’t have the time to convince you, nor care to. If your question is about how much water we need to put out the fire, then my response is, let’s not worry about how many liters we need, let’s stop the house from burning.

    By Scott Finnell on 2013 05 03

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  • Set up a straw man. Knock it down. Well done. If you think the climate movement is arguing for a return to a pastoral society, you are tilting at non-existent windmills.

    By Duncan Noble on 2013 06 13

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    • By Mathew Thomas on 2013 08 14:
      “We have the capability to produce all the energy needed not only today’s 7 billion but tomorrow’s 25 billion and well beyond.”

      I generally liked your comment until I got to this absurdity. How much is “all the energy needed’ supposed to be? Even generously assuming that it can theoretically be done somehow, what are the no doubt massive ecological and social costs it would entail to produce United Statesian levels of energy for not only 7 billion but “25 billion and well beyond”?

      By Mathew Thomas on 2013 08 14:
      “Malthusianism was a hoax, a fraud designed to keep oligarchical systems and processes in power.”

      Malthusianism, an inspiration for Darwinism, in fact was more correct than not. Seriously… what would be the point of having “oligarchical systems and processes in power” in any case if there were not limited resources? Isn’t that the whole basic motivation for such things—which also abound in most human societies? I think you and people like you should ponder this.

      I’m all for nuclear power though, for similar (but in my opinion significantly more realistic) reasons as you.

      By Janne Salminen on 2013 12 28

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      • Janne,
          Your comment is typical of a morally and intellectually failed generation.  First, your concern about a “massive ecological and social cost” to produce energy at such scale is axiomatically incorrect.  In fact, the opposite is true.  We have and will continue to have ecological and social catastrophe if we fail to deliver “United Statesian” levels of energy to everyone on the planet.  Rainforests in South America are slashed and burned because of the lack of energy and mechanized farming required to adequately sustain the population.  If we provide the energy and infrastructure to farm properly, we save the rainforest ecology.  It really is that simple.  Regarding social costs, building the necessary energy infrastructure for the planet would employ millions of people all over the world.  Exactly what we need.

        Your comment about Malthusianism is truly frightning.  Oligarchy (financial, Wall St, monarchy) is the enemy of mankind.  Sorry I didn’t make that clear.  Malthusianism is the religion of the cult of oligarchy which seems determined to keep mankind technologically backwards and fearful of real progress (such as nuclear development).  Scientific development for the progress of human development is what the oligarchy seeks to prevent - which is why they abhor peaceful nuclear development.  Why?  Because such thinking is a threat to the oligarchical rule over humanity. 
        The truth is there are no limits to growth and human development.

        Thanks,
        Mathew

        By Mathew Thomas on 2013 12 28

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  • Without educating people about their rights its impossible to get the results of social justice.

    By JamesHollic on 2014 02 17

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  • I applaud the attempt to look for over or underarching solutions, even the leaves of laurel branches.  We need to toss as many balls into the air as possible at this moment of crisis to create opportunity.  But I have to add one thing to this essay: to dismiss organic farming as picayune is a display of ignorance.  Most major ag researchers, policymakers, even many industry people, recognize that organic and sustainable farming must be a key part of the future solution to soil depletion.  Read any of the mainstream pieces on the crisis and/or future of agriculture in Science, the Royal Proceedings…, Bioscience, etc., and you will find organic/sustainable agriculture as a key component of a future food supply.

    By Randel Hanson on 2014 04 03

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  • Needs to put more efforts to make our planet better place.
    http://8tracks.com/ticenmartin

    By Nancy on 2014 04 09

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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

Click here to view their recent articles.