A Response to Ezra Klein on "The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse"

Ezra Klein has a long column in the New York Times in which he quotes from an essay I wrote a couple of years ago entitled “The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse.” In that essay, I argued that the best way to understand what climate activists really think about climate change is to watch what they do, not what they say, and, judging by that, they are not nearly as apocalyptic about climate change as they say they are.

Klein’s column is, in places, a rebuttal to that view. He offers two primary arguments for why the apocalyptic rhetoric is not matched by actions that would seem to be consistent with that view of the problem.

The first is that activists and advocates wisely avoid making demands that would alienate public opinion. But while there is no doubt some truth to this, it is a pragmatism of word, not deed. Klein, to his credit, supports nuclear energy, carbon capture, cultured meats, even geoengineering research. The same cannot be said for either the institutional environmental movement or the broader activist community, for whom such things are, at best, someone else’s job and at worst, “false solutions.”

And so, the environmental community embraces the worst of both worlds. Activists consistently promote apocalyptic messaging about the problem while neither being willing to endorse radical solutions, lest they alienate the public, nor embrace the sort of pragmatic approaches that Klein supports. As Alex Trembath and I wrote a few years ago:

"Outside the environmental bubble, the logic of the millenarian mobilization makes no sense and in fact undermines the claims of looming catastrophe. For those not already convinced that industrial modernity, left to its own devices, will end badly, the test of whether environmentalists take their own catastrophist warnings seriously is whether the solutions they propose diverge in any meaningful way from the sorts of things that environmentalists (and progressives) would want whether climate change were happening or not. The everything-ism of the Green New Deal, in this way, undermines the deadline-ism of the climate emergency."

Klein’s second defense is that one can better judge the seriousness of many climate concerned folks by their private actions. He writes that “many climate activists choose an asceticism in their own lives that they wouldn’t dare ask of others, not because they believe it to be wrong, or unnecessary, but because they fear political annihilation.”

But this presumes that such asceticism is primarily political. I am reminded of an interview I did years ago with a filmmaker making a documentary about whether or not he and his wife should have a child and contribute further to climate catastrophe. I suggested to him that I thought his rationalizations were mostly post-hoc, the sort of high-minded justification that people give for decisions they would have made anyway. In the interview, he argued with me. But afterward, when he had put his camera away, he confessed that he and his wife had always known they were going to have a child.

Klein is a vegan and offers veganism as an example of the sort of asceticism he has in mind in his column. But I doubt that Klein or most vegans actually go through life dreaming of hamburgers if only climate change were not looming. Like having kids, the complex psycho-social reasons why people decide to become vegans have not much to do with these sorts of concerns.

Even so, this sort of asceticism tends to be highly selective. Research, for instance, suggests that vegans tend to have much higher than average carbon footprints overall, in significant part because they tend to be upper income and well educated and hence tend to travel and fly much more.

Throughout the piece, Klein defends a fairly catastrophic view of climate change more broadly, writing that “humanity has spent thousands of years building the social organizations and technological mastery to insulate itself from the whims of nature. We are spending down that inheritance, turning back the clock.”

This is a common view these days. The world is already on fire. Just turn on the TV (or bookmark the New York Times) if you doubt it. But if this is so, and despite the various disasters that Klein cites, there is not yet evidence in the actual record of human losses associated with climate change. Mortality and dislocation associated with climate-related disasters actually continue to decline, even as the earth has warmed. The primary drivers of the human toll of disasters are poverty and natural climate variability, not climate change.

Perhaps that will change as the earth continues to warm, but that eventuality will be determined not simply by how much the earth warms but also by ongoing human development, technology, infrastructure, and wealth. A rich world with 3C of warming may well prove more resilient to natural disasters than a poor world with 1C of warming.

In the end, though, Klein gets the most important part right, writing:

"I do not want this to be a column arguing for despair. No emotion is more useless, and it’s wrong at any rate. If we fail to keep warming below the longtime global goal of 2 degrees Celsius, well, 2 degrees remains better than 2.5. And 2.5 is far preferable to 3. And humanity would much rather have 3 than 3.5. And so on, and so forth. There is no point at which giving up makes more sense than fighting on."

This passage reminded me of a quote that I’ve seen attributed to the great social scientist, AO Hirshman, although I can’t seem to find a source for it. “If it is discouraging, it is false.” The point being that we live in neither the best of all possible worlds nor the worst. The present is a muddle. The future is a bigger muddle whose basic coordinates we cannot even predict.

The constant production of deadlines and carbon budgets, attached to ever more threatening forecasts of future catastrophe, serve little beyond discourse and polarization. Direction of travel, not destination, is what really matters. Because the destination is so far in the future, and so shot through with deep uncertainty, we cannot possibly imagine it, much less work backward from some desired state in that unimaginable future to the present. As I wrote at the end of the essay that Klein quotes from:

"[I]nsofar as climate mitigation proceeds at all, it is much more likely to proceed in a partial, capillary, oblique, and emergent fashion. Incremental steps such as improving land, energy, and resource productivity to accelerate salutary environmental trends, the continued spread of urbanization, and the demographic and forest transitions will tend to be more successful than direct efforts to restrict environmental impacts or deploy environmental technology, not because the latter are not technically possible but because the proliferation of values, identities, and ideologies that modernization brings simply can’t support the level of social solidarity or consensus that planning and coordination of infrastructure and development at national—much less global—scale requires."

Nothing that has transpired since would lead me to change that assessment.