On Climate Hawks’ Revealed Preferences

What our actions tell us about how we think about climate change

I have long been a believer that the best way to ascertain people’s intentions is to pay attention to what they do, not what they say. This concept is known in the parlance of economists and political scientists as “revealed preference.” People’s priorities as revealed by their observed behaviors often diverge quite substantially from what they say those priorities are.

I was reminded of this truism again after reading Michelle Nijhuis’s New York Times Magazine profile of Ken Ward and the small band of eco-warriors he is working with to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. Ken and his colleagues are not engaging in symbolic protest and action. They are taking actions that risk serious jail time, turning themselves in, and making the necessity defense before juries of their peers.

As it turns out, I’ve known Ken for many years, since the mid-1980s, when he was the executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and I was running door-to-door canvasses for CALPIRG. Ken did a stint as the Deputy Director of Greenpeace USA in the ’90s and, I hope he won’t mind me saying, has been in a wilderness of sorts ever since.

Over most of those years, I hadn’t heard a lot from Ken. But the publication of “Death of Environmentalism” in 2004 inspired Ken to share his reactions with me and ultimately publish a manifesto of his own. It was a similarly damning indictment of the mainstream movement but pointed in the opposite direction. Ken argued that the problem with green groups wasn’t that they were too apocalyptic and out of touch with the sentiments and aspirations of most Americans, but rather that they weren’t radical enough.

Like us, Ken agreed that there was a fundamental disconnect between the apocalyptic rhetoric of the movement and the solutions that environmental NGOs and funders proposed: basically that to avoid the end of the world, everyone needed to install compact fluorescent lightbulbs and the like. But where we argued that environmentalists needed to ditch both the apocalypse talk and the lightbulbs and instead offer Americans a more expansive vision of a better future, Ken argued that climate activists needed to get much more radical if anyone was going to take their apocalyptic warnings seriously. People watch what environmentalists do, in other words, and see them behaving in ways that don’t appear to be commensurate with the apocalyptic threat that they claim is looming.

That basic argument has informed Ken’s activism ever since, culminating in recent years in his determination to commit serious property crimes against various sorts of fossil fuel infrastructure. And while Ken is more apocalyptic about climate change than I am, he is really no more so than most folks who in the years since his manifesto have taken to calling themselves climate hawks. And therein lies a challenge to those who would tell us that climate change represents a truly existential threat to the planet, one that trumps most, if not all, other temporal threats and problems that humanity is faced with.

That argument has been accompanied by all sorts of heated rhetoric about climate denial, capitalism, and renewable energy. And yet, more often than not, the actions and remedies that accompany the rhetoric don’t match up very well. Climate hawks look to be doing pretty much the same thing that everyone else is doing — jetting about the world opining about intergenerational equity, moral hazard, and the mendacity of the fossil fuel industry, publishing blizzards of reports and research papers about planetary boundaries and the prospects of powering the world with renewable energy, building careers in one precinct or another of the NGO sector or academia or at renewable energy companies.

There is nothing wrong about doing any of those things, per se. Indeed, my own professional life looks similar: I run a research organization, I write and speak in an effort to advance pragmatic solutions to climate change, and I convene an ideologically diverse community of thinkers and practitioners to improve environmental policy and practice. I am proud of the work I do. But it is not, I think, how I would act if I thought a climate “asteroid” were less than 50ppm away. If that’s what I thought, I would do what Ken is doing. I would feel compelled, to paraphrase Mario Savio, to throw my body upon the gears of the machine.

Similarly, it is worth asking what sorts of solutions you would advocate. Would you, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben recently did, advocate a World War II-style mobilization to ramp up subsidies for renewable energy and beat the Chinese to the clean energy markets of the future? Or put in place a high and rising price on carbon, to incentivize the private sector to solve the problem? Or convince yourself that you can keep eating beef as long as its grass-finished, because it’s supposedly carbon neutral? Ask yourself: is that how we would take on a climate asteroid, even a slow motion one?

I think not. If you believe that we are close to, or even past, a threshold beyond which the human future will be grim, then climate is not like other social issues, such as civil rights, to which it is often analogized. If it took another year or five or fifty to end slavery and then legal discrimination, the world went on. You could literally live to fight another day. It's different even than nuclear disarmament, an issue which obviously did, and does, entail a similar existential risk. So long as the missiles weren't launched, the fight tomorrow was the same fight as the fight today.

But if your sincere belief is that science and physics are telling us that existential catastrophe awaits once atmospheric concentrations of carbon surpass 350, or even 450ppm, then the fight should indeed look different when atmospheric concentrations are heading past 407 with a bullet. If we actually thought about the problem that way, we would nationalize the energy and transportation sectors and deploy low-carbon technology and infrastructure in centralized fashion, as a government-provisioned public good, like drinking water. We wouldn’t take any low-carbon technologies off the table. We’d deploy nuclear especially as fast as possible, as the French did in the ’70s and ’80s. And if you truly believed that 350ppm was the safe limit, you’d be screaming from the rafters for geoengineering and carbon removal as the world blew past 400.

My point here is not that climate hawks are hypocrites. Rather, it’s about revealed preference. What does it tell us when self-described climate hawks still fly and eat meat? When they insist that incentivizing private actors through markets and pricing, rather than an unprecedented and direct public mobilization to deploy zero-carbon technology and infrastructure, are the solution? When the existential threat that climate change represents is apparently not so existential as to prompt reconsideration of long-held ideological opposition to nuclear energy or, for that matter, even researching geoengineering? None of these positions are illegitimate. But it does suggest that most climate hawks take a more lukewarmist view in practice, even if the words say otherwise.

As importantly, what do the behaviors and solutions advocated (and not advocated) tell everyone else, the vast majority of people who acknowledge that climate change is happening and broadly support doing something about it but for whom climate action is not a particularly high priority? Ken’s activism reminds us that green actions speak louder than words. And those actions are telling everyone not to be so terribly alarmed.