Eco-pragmatists need stiffer spines

Forty years ago Denis Hayes was US national coordinator for the first Earth Day.  This year he is international chair for the 22 April event. He has a notable record as an environmental activist and early proponent of solar power. But he’s chafing under the blandness that he detects threatening environmental movements in the US. In an articlerecently published in Yale Environment 360 he both supports Earth Day and warns of its limitations. In particular he’s concerned that American environmentalist groups are being inveigled into political compromises on climate change which impair any prospect of adequate legislation in the US.

He recalls the origins of Earth Day:

“Earth Day 1970, for which I served as national coordinator, was huge. Twenty million Americans took part. Millions of Americans who didn’t know what “the environment” was in 1969 discovered in 1970 that they were environmentalists.

“Moreover, Earth Day was bipartisan.”

 

For a time results followed:

“Over the next three years, Congress passed the most far-reaching cluster of legislation since the New Deal — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and myriad other laws that have fundamentally changed the nation. Trillions of dollars have been spent differently than they would have but for this new regulatory framework.”

Understandably, he says, the environmental movement drew the lesson that it should try to grow as large as possible and be bipartisan.  But times have changed. Reagan assembled the most anti-environment cabinet in history. Bipartisanship isn’t working in today’s scene.

“…the Republican leadership is now so robustly anti-environmental that the League of Conservation Voters uses affirmative action in evaluating its scorecards. A Democrat with a 60 percent voting record is seen as awful, while a Republican with 60 percent is seen as exceptional.”

Striving for bipartisan support in such a context produces legislation that is at best inadequate and at worst designed to fail. Earth Day itself, which is a mainstream phenomenon,  must continue to be as embracing as possible, with a broad common denominator. But the environmental movement mustn’t rely on this approach to effectively address climate change.

“… to succeed against the wealthy, powerful forces arrayed against it on issues like climate disruption, ocean acidification, and a global epidemic of extinction, the environmental movement also needs a large block of people who will fight for a sustainable future valiantly and without compromise.”

It’s no good relying on Congress to do the right thing.

“Although Congress has some brilliant, courageous individual members, as an institution it is dumb and cowardly. The only way that Congress will act intelligently and boldly on this issue is if we give it no choice.”

The current Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill now making the rounds in the Senate gets weaker at every draft.

“Every draft does a poorer job of putting a reasonable price on carbon. Every draft is larded with more taxpayers dollars for socialized, centralized nuclear power and for ‘clean coal.’ Every draft carries more sweeteners for the utility industry, the automobile industry, the coal and oil industries, and the industrial farmers and foresters”

The eco-pragmatist view is that this is the price that must be paid to get any climate bill at all. Hayes laments that this pragmatic view has been broadly, if reluctantly, embraced by most of the large, mainstream national environmental groups working on climate as well as by the Obama Administration.

It’s time for sterner stuff. Instead of weakening the bill, we need to change the politics.

“Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption — and that’s a whole lot of them — need to start losing their jobs next November.”

There was a sharp edge to the first Earth Day in the US. Hayes notes that the organizers jumped into the subsequent Congressional elections, seeking to defeat a “Dirty Dozen” of incumbent Congressmen. The targets were selected because they had abysmal environmental records, but also because they were in tight races and were from districts with a major environmental issue that voters cared about. Seven Congressmen were taken out that election.  Hayes considers that was a useful shock for legislators and helped the 1970 Clean Air Act pass the Senate unanimously.

He wants to see environmental groups put aside support for further compromise and concentrate instead on creating an intense environmental voting bloc that will subordinate all other issues to climate. That block needs to construct a successful campaign to return some Congressional villains to private life—perhaps even a couple of dozen.

“We must make it crystal clear to politicians everywhere that we are serious. This issue to too vital and too urgent to do any less.”

Hayes claims, incidentally, that the Cantwell-Collins bill in the senate is acknowledged by most experts as the best climate legislation that has yet been proposed. It’s the only option under consideration that would make a significant dent in emissions in the near term. It has a cap but no trade. Carbon permits are auctioned and the proceeds returned to the public on a pro rata basis. It sounds like what James Hansen is so strongly advocating.

I admit to having difficulty following the labyrinthine processes of American politics, but Hayes seems to be grappling with an underlying issue which is not confined to the US. Is something better than nothing in legislation to tackle climate change?  Do we settle for less and hope it might grow into more with time?  Or do we say we haven’t got that time, that nothing less than adequate, and soon, will do?

19 thoughts on “Eco-pragmatists need stiffer spines”

  1. This is a great point, you can see the same issue in Australia as the Rudd government not only failed to pass the ETS (emission trading scheme) last year, but watered it down so much to pander to energy interests that it was declared by many to be totally inadequate. Again, where to from here in the political arena?

    I fear that it will take an real climate disaster to wake people up in the US: something along the lines of 9/11 or Pearl Harbour. I'd stress I don't want that to happen, and that everything should be done to avoid such an event… however history has shown again and again that warnings are frequently ignored until it is too late.

    The science of climate change is valuable intelligence being ignored by our political elites and decision makers. They are paralysed along partisan lines.

    1. I keep hearing people saying that carbon taxes or ETSs will destroy the economy – but I don't see any proof. Where are the facts and figures? They said the same about the Clean Air Acts. The economy survived.
      We cope today with all kinds of taxes we didn't envision 40 years ago. What we are talking about is the kind of future we want for our grandchildren … are we willing to make sacrifices for them? I am.

      1. It seems to me that when people claim that the decarbonising of the economy means its collapse they are either defending vested interests or displaying a remarkable lack of belief in human resilience and enterprise. There's no reason why a green economy shouldn't be a thriving economy, and hopefully a fairer one. Even if there were no threat to our future from burning fossil fuels we would run out of them anyway in the not too distant future and have to make the transition then that we must make now. So far as sacrifices are concerned I think most people would be willing to make them for their grandchildren once they understood what sort of threat we are putting their lives under. The changes will no doubt be unsettling to sectors of the present economy, but whether they will prove to be so profound as to deserve the name of sacrifices is moot.

  2. Around 100 years ago it is said that the "Times" once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, "What’s wrong with the world today?" and Chesterton responded simply,

    "Dear Sir,

    I am.

    Yours, G.K. Chesterton."

    That response is as much true today, for each and everyone of us in the Western World, as it was 100 years ago. We have developed a lifestyle that is simply unsustainable, and it is harming not only the Earth, but every living thing upon it. Unless we as a civilization have a complete conversion of our way of living the consequences must in the end, be catastrophic.

    The politicians amongst us can take their cues from the people, but mostly they are responding to the wishes of those with vested interests. However, those who stand to gain from the continuance of things as they are, will stand to loose if the majority of us change our ways and choose a path that is more tender to the Earth, because we – the majority – support the interests of the super-wealthy few, as the worker bees support the queen in the hive.

  3. Interesting that we have people like Bryan and Carol who seem to think that any action on Climate change won't necessarily mean much of a disruption to global economics. the we have the alternative viewpoint as expressed by people like Macro2 and Alex Brown who are suggesting that action to combat climate change will be a huge upheaval.

    I'm not sure how the debate is able to progress forward with such a diverse range of opinion on the impact of tackling climate change. Perhaps we need to clarify that before we start blindly mouthing the mantra of 'Reduce CO2 now' and 'Won't someone do something for the Grandkids?'.

  4. So Gosman, what would judge would be the long term negative impact of killing all subsidies on fossil fuel -based energy production? (eg subsidies on coal, coal transport, thermal generation building, diesel/petrol retail etc). Working for global agreement on this seems like very good start to me.

    1. Actually removing subsidies from the fosil fuel sectors of the economy would be a good thing and, I would suspect, have the least negative impact in the medium to long term on the economy.

      I'm still wondering how, if the solutions to the challenges of AGW are so straightforward why there is a huge diversity of opinion over them. Hence all this talk about Environmental activists having stiffer spines is meaningless unless they start articulating better.

      The negative view is either the mitigating policies will harm economic activity by far too much as well as massively increasing the size of the government, or the only viable solution necessitates the radical reshaping of our consumption based society.

      The positive view is that economic development will actually benefit from retooling it towards a low or zero carbon basis. On top of that there is all this airy fairy stuff about how it will be a much fairer society as well.

      In short the argumnet over possible solutions is far too confused for any meaningful policy making push at this point in time.

      1. "In short the argumnet over possible solutions is far too confused for any meaningful policy making push at this point in time. "

        Well I disagree. You can move on a lot of effective fronts at once and I am persuaded that there is no one magic bullet, even for one country, let alone the world. We both agree that that you subsidy removal would be a good idea? Does anyone except subsidy receivers disagree? So it is effective policy to move on that. In a similar vein, you can move on black carbon – cheap and effective.

        Much stronger measures are obviously needed but I cant see any reason not to move on the easy ones immediately. Efficiency standards on housing and vehicles would also seem like low-hanging fruit, and ones that foster technology solutions.

        I certainly dont like debate on whether we need to act on climate change slipping into a right versus left political fight. We need both right and left to be acknowledging the need for action, though it is inevitable that different solutions will be promoted. I dont care so long as they are actually effective.

  5. Gosman, "blindly mouthing" is not how I see myself. I consider my eyes wide open to the dangers ahead. Nor do I see a contradiction between Macro2 and myself. "A path more tender to the earth", as he describes it, seems fine to me. If that's an upheaval then count me in – but I don't see why it need be portrayed as some kind of death knell for an economy.

    1. i'm sorry Bryan but if you and Macro2 are in agreement on what is required you are not very good at making that clear. Also what Macro2, (and presumably you as well), mean by "…a complete conversion of our way of living…" is not entirely helpful for furthering discussion. All I have got out of you in the past was some vague notion of quality over quantity lifestyle.

      1. I can't speak for Macro2, but it seems to me there are several things need doing. First and foremost from the climate change perspective is the switch to renewable energy, which is what most opposition seems to be aimed at (not surprisingly in view of its origins in the fossil fuel industry). That's certainly a large transformation but it's one that we would have to undertake in the not too distant future anyway, and I can't see that fossil fuels becoming expensive to the point where renewables are competitive need be seen as anything more than a major economic adjustment. Another urgent need is obviously water management, but I don't hear any voices denying that on the grounds that it upsets existing economic arrangements. The recycling and avoidance of waste I would have thought is likely to gain increasing traction economically, just because it's obvious that we're not drawing on an unending supply of resources. It is likely to cause howls of protest from sectors of the economy, but the sheer fact of the matter will surely prevail there. I won't go on. Whether you call these and other measures a complete conversion of our way of living doesn't really matter. They are changes. Like Phil I see no reason for not starting to move on some of them immediately. And lest you think I’m harbouring some leftist plot to bring down capitalism I also agree with Phil that there’s no need for left versus right argument about the need for action. I’ll happily welcome action from any political quarter.

        1. All very well and good those options there Bryan. There is nothing you will have me jumping up and down against. However all of those proposed options are a far cry from Macro2's calling for our "…civilization have a complete conversion of our way of living".

          Each of the proposed solutions is just a slight change or modification to what we currently do in the West. The only one that might conceivably qualify as 'radical' is the use of the, (open to interpretation), term "avoidance of waste "

          1. Gosman, maybe we're down to semantics here. I must let Macro2 speak for himself, but I don't mind if you see them as slight changes or modifications rather than conversions of our way of living. They add up to 'a path more tender to the earth', which was particularly the phrase in Macro2's comment which appealed to me.

            1. Bryan, I've just finishing reading "A Question of Balance" – Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies by William Nordhaus Prof. of Economics at Yale. To quote from the Introduction he says:

              "The issues involved in understanding global warming and taking actions to slow its harmful impacts are the major environmental challenge of the modern age. Global warming poses a unique mix of problems that arise from the fact that global warming is a public good, is likely to be costly to slow or prevent(!!!), has daunting scientific and economic uncertainties, and will cast a shadow over the globe for decades, perhaps even centuries to come."

              It examines the various alternative policies of the IPCC and analyses the various policy proposals using the DICE-2007 model Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy. The website is: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~nordhaus/homepage/DICE2
              A suggestion if your looking for something to read and review. 🙂

              I would recommend it Gosman – if you haven't already read it. I do not entirely agree myself with all the conclusions – mainly because I don't think that we need to continue to think as we have in the past and to make assumptions based on past behaviours, simply because that is the way we have always acted. Neither do I agree that an arbirtary discounting of 4% is the correct discounting rate. Other factors and costs will play a much more significant role in the future if we delay our shift towards more a more sustainable economy too long.

              But the message is clear – the longer it takes humanity to move from our present Business as Usual economy to one that is less centered on growth and more focused on sustainability, quality rather than quantity, and preservation of the Earth and its Resources and Environment, the better in terms of cost and disruption.

            2. Bryan, I've just finishing reading "A Question of Balance" – Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies by William Nordhaus Prof. of Economics at Yale. To quote from the Introduction he says:

              "The issues involved in understanding global warming and taking actions to slow its harmful impacts are the major environmental challenge of the modern age. Global warming poses a unique mix of problems that arise from the fact that global warming is a public good, is likely to be costly to slow or prevent(!!!), has daunting scientific and economic uncertainties, and will cast a shadow over the globe for decades, perhaps even centuries to come."

              It examines the various alternative policies of the IPCC and analyses the various policy proposals using the DICE-2007 model Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy. The website is: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~nordhaus/homepage/DICE2
              A suggestion if your looking for something to read and review. 🙂

              I would recommend it Gosman – if you haven't already read it. I do not entirely agree myself with all the conclusions – mainly because I don't think that we need to continue to think as we have in the past and to make assumptions based on past behaviours, simply because that is the way we have always acted. Neither do I agree that an arbirtary discounting of 4% is the correct discounting rate. Other factors and costs will play a much more significant role in the future if we delay our shift towards more a more sustainable economy too long.

              But the message is clear – the longer it takes humanity to move from our present Business as Usual economy to one that is less centered on growth and more focused on sustainability, quality rather than quantity, and preservation of the Earth and its Resources and Environment, the better in terms of cost and disruption.

            3. Thanks for the Nordhaus recommendation, but I think I'll probably excuse myself that one. His approach was discussed at some length by Krugman in the New York Times article on which I wrote a recent post. Krugman contrasted his "slow ramp" approach with the "big bang" preference of Nicholas Stern. He acknowledged the merits of both, but himself inclines to Stern. Stern also discusses Nordhaus in his book The Global Deal and considers the danger posed by higher concentrations of GHGs is higher than Nordhaus recognises. What I like about Stern is that he is fully cognisant of the science, and attentive even to Hansen's concern that we have already overshot the mark for a safe level of atmospheric CO2.

            4. Yes I tend to agree, as I indicated in my, comment above – the main factor between the two seems to be the discount rate, and that, in almost all of these discussions, is an assumed value and a matter of opinion.

  6. Gosman, I see that I have confused you with my statement re "conversion". I am using the word in a wider sense perhaps – but it seems to me that "conversion" implies a new way of thinking, and a new way of looking at the world. Much of Western thought is couched in concepts that have been useful in the recent past and were new concepts associated with the industrial revolution. However, I consider that those concepts of unlimited growth, unlimited resources, uncosted public goods (air, water, environment etc) are now well past their use by date, and we need to develop new ways of thinking and relating to the world around us. Conversion is not always a "Saul on the road to Damascus" experience. Most times its a gradual awakening to a new reality, a new truth. The problem with the assumptions of the old Industrial thinking based on perpetual growth is that it takes no account of the stewardship of the Earth – it was simply a resource to be used as and how we wished. That was the import in 1970 of the first Earth Day. That way of thinking had to change! Today we are waking up to the realisation that the air around us, and Carbon emissions, are a Public Good (in the economic sense of the word). There is a cost, and good stewardship, as it has always been, is also good management.

    I see no contradiction between my statements above and those of Bryan or Carol's.

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