Capitalism vs. the Climate, God vs. Progressivism

8 Feb

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read recently,  “Capitalism vs. the Climate” not only points out some of the potential changes we’d have to make to avert and/or adapt to climate change, but also explains the reason that this “inconvenient truth” is being fought so adamantly by many conservatives, especially of late.

It boils down to this: perhaps climate change theory itself is not necessarily false, but acknowledging its existence would consequently recognize the steps we would have to take and changes we’d have to make to combat it — and most of these steps are anathema to conservatives, contradicting strongly held underlying beliefs and totally upending the status quo:

The [climate change] deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

But when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the Marriott Hotel may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

So in a way, Chris Horner was right when he told his fellow Heartlanders that climate change isn’t “the issue.” In fact, it isn’t an issue at all. Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.

Here is where the Heartlanders have good reason to be afraid: arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades … For hard-right ideologues like those gathered at the Heartland conference, the results are nothing short of intellectually cataclysmic.

Or a bit more simply (in this case in particular regarding the absence of any climate change talk in the 2012 presidential campaigns):

Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the issue for ideological reasons. “They believe that addressing climate change will require government action, or even worse, intergovernmental action.” [The World]

This fear has become seemingly extreme; many fear that making even the least offensive change in one’s lifestyle to cope with global warming — or especially being “forced” to make such a change, as in the plan to phase-out incandescent light bulbs in favor of objectively more efficient alternatives — is a drastic over-reach of government control, and that being “denied their right to put any lightbulb in any socket in America is just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Another group of activists has recently begun wailing about a 20-year old, non-binding UN resolution called Agenda 21, which promotes sustainable development, by “…[branding] government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.”

I think this parallels perfectly with many liberals’ fear of the social changes espoused by Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman. In their case, the issue is not nature’s threat to us, but God’s.  We’ve screwed up our social structure and are living in ways that “pollute” Christian values in a supposedly “Christian nation”. And instead of rising ocean levels, we may have an angry God to deal with. So they must fight against those pollutants: gays, abortion, sex, whatever. But liberals view this as an equally threatening drastic over-reach of religious intrusion… “just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Implementing all the ideals that people like Rick Santorum and the Catholic Church preach hold dear would require severe and drastic societal changes. (Well, I suppose I meant people like Santorum and institutions like the Church. Unless the Church is technically a corporation, since they’re people anyway)

I think the greatest difference between the practical implications of both sides has to do with this duality:  climate change would presumably affect us all. We wouldn’t have the option to escape its impacts, and they may well be devastating. While religious and social principles surely have a great impact on wider society, people have much greater choice about being following their own personal beliefs. You have the choice to live as piously as you may be inclined, regardless of what others do. Though it may be the most extreme example, the Amish have managed to exemplify this. You have the responsibility to be “in the world but not of the world”, for which you are accountable only to yourself and to God.

Additionally, while there are hundreds of religions espousing diverging theologies, there is far less diversity in interpreting data related to climate change; either humans have a hand in global warming or we don’t, though to what degree could be arguable. There are, of course, numerous ideas about what exactly we would have to do to deal with climate change or a sinful nation; deciding exactly what measures to take to address the issues we face is always a divisive issue.

And this is not to even mention the idea of separation of church and state. Of course, the exact meaning and implications of that idea could be argued. And conversely, there is the more abstract idea of absolute freedom in matters such as consumer choice that could be argued in the case of restrictive environmental regulations.

Urbanist I am, I of course would support the implementation the “climate agenda” that Klein spells out: Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere, Remembering How to Plan, Reining in Corporations, Relocalizing Production, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich and Filthy. As Joseph Bast said, combating climate change really is kind of the “perfect thing, the reason why we should do everything [I] wanted to do anyway”, namely revitalizing our towns, cities, and greater public realm in general, and working towards greater social equity. And I would venture to say that many of the goals of such action may well be right in line with religious ideals as well.

And even if you’re not totally convinced about anthropogenic climate change, better safe than sorry, right? Better to force yourself to adapt in advance than to have to deal with the surprise of whatever disaster might occur. I would argue that any short-term impacts to growth and the economy would, in the long-term, be worth it (and perhaps an ever-growing consumer economy, or the jeopardization of our long-term environmental health for short-term profit,  isn’t all that great anyway, topics I may cover at a later date).

Unfortunately, people fear change, and unless our pocketbooks really start getting squeezed — or, in this case, our coastal cities are sunk below rising sea waters, or we witness the Lord’s glorious return from heaven on a chariot of fire — I fear what will happen if the changes needed to combat issues perceived by either side come too late.


10 Responses to “Capitalism vs. the Climate, God vs. Progressivism”

  1. genaesantmire127 8 February 2012 at 07:02 #

    I have always found it odd that they do not market grenner living to Christian conservatives with text from the Bible itself. Rather than arguing about whether or not God is causing climate change, perhaps they should be reminded that the Bible teaches us to be good stewards of what we are given. Surely they cannot think that allowing tons of fossil fuels into our atmosphere is being a good steward of this perfect planet we have been given????

    • ctoocheck 8 February 2012 at 23:53 #

      Indeed. And I’d argue that the ideas Klein points out here would really end up promoting good ideals such as community, love, charity, etc etc.

    • ctoocheck 9 February 2012 at 01:38 #

      BTW: See theCatholic Climate Covenant for info related to climate change and the Church.

  2. Craig 8 February 2012 at 11:41 #

    Alright, let’s get this discussion going! I found the quoted material in this blog to be very biased and insulting. I guess I am what you would call a “crazy right wing, climate denier.” Personally I would rather be called a fact or truth seeker. I have been interested in nature, the environment, science, and climate science ever since I developed reasoning skills at the age of 12. Now I have a degree in biology and I am thoroughly convinced “climate change” is a farce, based on many simple facts. The most important one is that our global climates are mostly affected by solar activity. There was a warming period in the 80’s and 90’s. However, the warming periods experienced here on earth were also recorded, in the exact same proportions, on other atmospheric planets such as Venus and Jupiter. I am yet to be convinced that man is burning fosseles, let alone surviving, on these planets. Secondly, there is very strong scientific evidence that warmer temperatures on Earth result in higher CO2 levels. The whole premise of climate change is that CO2 levels cause climate change. I could only find weak evidence supporting this, therefore I reject this premise. Thirdly, sopposing the globe is warming (It has been cooling in the last decade), who is to suppose that it would be harmful or disasterous? I think it might be possible for biodiverse rainforests to expand its geographical range up mountian slopes and propotionally north and south. Also land in the tundra my become fertile and farmable becoming an added benefit to Man’s food supply. Canada can have longer growing seasons and could feed the world. Lastly, IPCC data and predictions, trialed by the test of time, have proven to be masively errored. Ice caps melting may not be disasterous after all, and polar bears can adapt and survive on land. Who knows, maybe they will experience an increased food supply with the rest of the world. Therefore, I support a warmer planet, but I don’t believe humans can effect the climate on such a scale after all. Questions? Comments? Be respectful & no insults please.

    • ctoocheck 8 February 2012 at 15:36 #

      I guess I am what you would call a “crazy right wing, climate denier.”

      Your words, not mine! :p

      I found the quoted material in this blog to be very biased and insulting.

      I wouldn’t go so far as to quite find it that; it’s obviously assuming anthropogenic climate change exists, and you clearly disagree. Of course, I suppose this is a fundamental bias towards believing climate change, but I don’t think it’s an irrational bias, assuming that others have simply interpreted in a different way the same facts you have used to disbelieve in climate change. I’m not a scientist, haven’t really looked at the data, so I can’t really comment on this fundamental disagreement, and I’d bet I wouldn’t be able to sway your opinion anyway.

      Would you say that the quoted article would make sense if climate change was indeed a fact? Or might you reckon there are indeed some that have that mindset, not recognizing climate change and steps allegedly required to adapt/avert it because of the greater implications it would have on their lives as they know it?

      …sopposing the globe is warming (It has been cooling in the last decade), who is to suppose that it would be harmful or disasterous?

      Who is to suppose it would really be beneficial? That’s the point I make about “better safe than sorry”; climate and weather are complex systems and the effects of any changes might be hard to predict. The question is, is it worth taking that gamble with the Earth?

      I would have to extrapolate your remarks to mean that the thousands of environmental scientists (and others) who believe climate change is real are either misinterpreting the data (stupid) or lying (conspiring), that indeed “climate change is a left-wing conspiracy” hidden under a “covert socialist plot” (as per the article)?

      • craig. 8 February 2012 at 16:29 #

        Thanks, Toocheck, and to be clear, I wasn’t criticizing your opinions or your writing. I only took objection to the quoted material, but it was only because I perceived it as implying that conservatives didn’t have a legitimate reasons to deny climate change, and only because climate science challenges free market ideals and demands drastic change as the only reason for being a “denier.”

        I also took issue with this quote, “Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science.”
        I always said, there are climate scientists, and then there are real scientists. All joking aside, I am sure some climate scientists are good at science, however you have to take their opinions with a grain of salt. They study climate change, and their whole lives revolves around the existence and active involvement in climate change. If the truth was that climate change did not exist, their whole career is gone, along with their life’s work and reputations. Therefore they have to take a bias for climate change. To quote Sherlock Holmes “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Sometimes you have to step back look at all the data, like other planets in the solar system or the relationship between temperatures on Earth and CO2, and not just accept CO2 is the reason for climate change.

        To answer your question, assuming climate change exists, I don’t see it unlikely that people would reject climate change science because it might have larger implications on people’s lives. It is difficult to change beliefs and traditions on such a scale as climate scientists advocate.

        Addressing the last part of your comment, I was just remarking that a warming planet may not be all that catastrophic, and was just suggesting some potential benefits of a warmer planet. Would it be safer to not take an active role in climate change, and just adapt to it as it becomes the norm? Otherwise, we would have to spend/waste huge amounts of capital and downsize our industrial economy, which might be more disastrous than the initial threat of a warming planet. It is a good question you ask, but then again, I don’t think all the relevant data is being considered by global bureaucrats, not necessarily stupid, but just ignorant of the larger picture. So I understand where conspiracies can be perceived by conservatives, because people see a leftist agenda being pushed with climate change, and it seems that the agenda, to these people, is more important than the scientific facts.

        PS [editor’s insertion]: Fossils* massively* Sorry about the misspellings, I typed this on an Android.

      • ctoocheck 8 February 2012 at 23:48 #

        Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

        Well, I suppose of course the ultimate question and fact that would need unquestionably proven is whether or not anthropogenic climate change is real. I don’t know about the practicality of proving such a thing within a complex system unquestionably.
        But I also don’t know about the idea that tons of scientists would be promulgating an enormous lie to save themselves. How many people purposely screw stuff up so they can go about fixing it? There are surely, for example, firemen who commit arson, and mechanics who exaggerate existing or even create new problems, but they must be the overwhelming exception.

        And applying this to the sort of opposing point I brought up about Progressives v. God, liberals v. Santorum, etc.: fundamentally the issue is that they (the religious right attempting to promote/implement/impose a more “Godly” society) would have to prove not just the existence of god, but of their God, and that the way they have interpreted his will is indeed accurate.

        Addressing the last part of your comment, I was just remarking that a warming planet may not be all that catastrophic, and was just suggesting some potential benefits of a warmer planet. Would it be safer to not take an active role in climate change, and just adapt to it as it becomes the norm? Otherwise, we would have to spend/waste huge amounts of capital and downsize our industrial economy, which might be more disastrous than the initial threat of a warming planet.

        Of course there is no way to know this for sure either: whether potential climate change would result in catastrophe or require simple adaptation.
        Our economy is its own giant complex system as well. Who’s to say that after implementing action to combat/adapt to climate change, the economy won’t adapt to this change just as easily as some suppose nature might adapt to pollution and such?

        I would argue within your same set of reasoning, in fact, and say that our economy and society might come out better in the end, through the ideas Klein noted (as referenced previously): Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere (building greater community, diversity, tolerance, understanding; facilitating more cost- and resource-efficient utilities and institutions; increasing local responsibility — “small government”, one might say); Reining in Corporations (providing a needed, ideally reasonable, check and balance on business); Relocalizing Production (promoting greater self-sufficiency within regions and combating negative effects of globalization); Ending the Cult of Shopping (moving away from a society of excess and vain consumption, and an economy based on us buying ever-increasing amounts of shit); and Taxing the Rich and Filthy (ideally promoting better equity in and use of our economic resources and protection of our natural resources. I reckon this would be the biggest target for conservatives as it’s the least vague of any thought of taxing is obviously staunchly opposed at all costs).

        Regarding growth (and I haven’t done enough research into this at all yet): it seems we base our modern economy on the necessity for never-ending, exponential growth, which I think could end up being unsustainable in the long run. Or: we cycle through huge booms and busts, while perhaps a more stable economy would be preferable.

        And I would argue that even if humans don’t effect a change in the climate as much as some claim (or at all), that it’s more obvious that pollution stemming from “un-environmentally-friendly” actions can well end up hurting humans and the greater ecosystem anyway (asthma, poisoned water supplies, etc), even if it’s not at quite such a grand scale as global climate change.

        It’s clear these are some really large questions with no definite answers (i.e. God, climate change, our economic system…), and thus no common consensus, which is frustrating but understandable. Perhaps the real question should be: how do we deal with the fact that there cannot be a common consensus about these issues facing the US? (and idea which I might cover in a new post at a later date…)

  3. craig. 9 February 2012 at 07:37 #

    “But I also don’t know about the idea that tons of scientists would be promulgating an enormous lie to save themselves.” Well, I guess this is the second time you mentioned this, so I’ll try my best to address it. I know there are a lot of people who still believe in climate change, but I don’t think many of them are “lying” on purposes. Don’t focus on how much support there is on one side vs. the other. Focus on the trends. 15 years ago Most people, including me, thought global warming was proven scientific theory. Most of that was based on computer simulation models that had yet to be proven wrong with modern data. I think the exact same tendency of people to resist “change” that you mentioned in your original article is at play here. Many of these people advocating global action grew up thinking global warming was a scientific fact. It has only been in the recent 10 years that much of what I believe to be the truth, has been revealed. I think I saw a recent poll that showed a majority of Americans DO NOT want our politicians to deal with climate change, whatever the reason, and more and more people are openly speaking out against it. So the question becomes why isn’t the truth on climate change only circulating in small circles, mostly conservative circles, of discussion in America? The answer lies in the American media’s relationship with American politics. Most people know that the American media is biased, whether to the right or left, and have large political influences on what is and isn’t reported. That being the case, many people in our government, right and left, stand to profit with climate change legislation (Al Gore comes to mind, and I am almost certain that he is a climate change denier himself, but he wont admit that when billions of dollars are at stake.) Politicians do lie to make money, and this is just one of those cases. This being the case, the trend is still that more and more people are becoming climate change deniers, and there is good reason to do so.

    As for the religious influence on American politics, I don’t think I am qualified to comment even though I have opinions, so I will leave that one to you.

    I think I would find myself in agreement with you with that list you presented in you comment. There are many similar agendas that conservatives can jump on board with. I just don’t think anyone should use false science, such as that found in climate change, as a justification for passing social reform legislation. I would only argue that all those issues listed above would best be solved with religious freedom. Religions have the best track record for influencing people’s character and implementing social and community change. Although religions are various in beliefs and teachings, they are still a means for intellectual discussion of societal issues. Therefore, I believe many great solutions to societal problems, such as pollution, gluttony, self responsibility (the most local level of government), ect. will derive form these various religious institutions.

    I don’t know if I would agree with you about economic growth. I believe in a factor called “human capital” and when this is most efficiently and productively utilized, there is the possibility for the endless creation of wealth. (In other words, I do not think wealth is limited and that it is possible for everybody to become wealthier and prosperous all at the same time even if growth is not equal or proportional.) Therefore, there wouldn’t be limits on the economy, and endless growth is not only possible but preferable.

    • craig. 9 February 2012 at 08:06 #

      Oh, and I meant to add that endless economic growth can be done in an ethically and environmentally safe way, especially if our society has a large religious influence and government policy reflects those values.

      • ctoocheck 9 February 2012 at 22:55 #

        Well, I guess I mean chiefly when this is growth driven my consumption of generally unnecessary crap.

        But this is going extra-tangental :p Good discussion, though. I will probably touch on related issues in other posts in the future (I hope)

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