Raising the Moral Stakes on Climate Change

David Roberts has written one of the best and most important essays on the politics of climate change that I’ve ever seen. You should read it all over at Vox; it’s about how the divestment movement (and perhaps later this year the Holy See) may produce a breakthrough precisely because they insist on treating climate change as a moral, not a technical issue. Here’s a key passage:

The attempt to address climate change through normal politics has been going on for 30 years now. The issue was first brought to public consciousness by scientists, who assumed that the best way to address a threat like this was to bring it to the attention of legislators. (Oh, scientists.)

And for years, the issue was mostly the province of scientists, academics, think tankers, and Washington insiders, all of whom tend to be left-brained wonks, all of whom preferred to approach climate as a technical policy problem. Get the models right, determine the “social cost of carbon,” apply the appropriate carbon taxes and border adjustments, and lo, the machine would right itself.

Again and again this idealistic, apolitical wonkery has been chewed to pieces by the political process, where climate change is not viewed as a technical problem, much less a crisis, but rather as a conventional matter of incentives. Fossil fuels and their allies are loud and spend lots of money. Scientists and wonks are poor and quiet. Fossil fuels are at the heart of the US conservative tribal worldview, whereas climate is seen by most of the middle and left as an “environmental issue.” Most of the incentives point the same way.

Something, some added pressure, must be added to break the system out of its lethargy. Activists have decided that a large-scale social movement, with a clear moral call to arms at its center, is the ticket.

Dave goes on to note there may be a tipping point here, where action on climate change becomes sufficiently likely that it begins to affect the ability of fossil fuels companies to capitalize their activities (including, presumably, their agitprop and lobbying). A growing tendency for a significant share of the American population–especially the next generation–to view complicity in climate change as intolerable can bring that day much closer.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.