Demanding Climate Courage Is Good, Actually

Why Matt Yglesias is wrong to urge environmental activists to moderate.

Matt Yglesias caused a stir this week with a piece at Slow Boring calling out climate activists for supposedly harming their own cause and the possible fortunes of the entire left-of-center coalition by using overly aggressive maximalist tactics. Yglesias’ views are broadly reflected in corners of the White House and the center-left establishment, so when he launches a broadside like this it’s worth grappling with—especially when it’s as misguided as this one.

Yglesias’ thesis is that climate activists are punching above their weight, making demands on politicians that aren’t matched by their actual coalition of support. In the typical fashion of most popular Substack writers, he slams avant-garde left-wing positioning on issues like Palestinian rights or police funding as harmful to the broader cause and blames climate activists for becoming distracted with these instead of staying laser-focused on climate only. He reprimands climate groups for not taking a more quietly supportive spot in the center-left alliance that is more appreciative of what Democratic elected officials can do and are doing in the face of stark partisan realities and razor-thin majorities.

All this might seem reasonable at first, but it misconstrues both the logic of climate change urgency and the coalition-building imperatives of climate justice groups. This misunderstanding has broad implications for the entire Shor-pilled perspective on left activism in general, and on fights over particular issues like housing, where Yglesias-style YIMBY density advocates often fail to grasp that they’re being flanked by status quo interest groups not from the right but from the left.

First, let’s talk about what David Roberts has called the brutal logic of climate change. The climate crisis is a uniquely vexing problem, one where the worst aspects of human psychology and organizational path dependency converge to precipitate global catastrophe. Civilizations and societies collapse, to paraphrase Hemingway, first gradually and then suddenly. We often don’t see the gradual part with the urgency it deserves until it becomes too sudden to react. The failures begin on a linear trajectory that seem minor and solvable at first, then take on a cascading parabolic curve of disaster that spirals beyond anyone’s control to manage. That’s the situation with climate change: the days get hotter, the natural disasters become more frequent, we think we can mitigate the problem. But then the permafrost melts, releasing the methane underneath, the Gulf Stream stops, or some other unpredictable event occurs, and the cascade of collapse begins.

But we don’t see it until it’s actually happening–and other pressing day-to-day problems like kitchen-table economics or social oppression are more on the forefront of our minds. It’s human nature. We have to feed ourselves and our families, after all. But what it also means is that the intensity of the issue will never rise to the level of most other issues that affect our immediate comfort.

Yglesias points to this lack of public intensity about climate change vis-a-vis other issues to chide climate activists that they have a weak poker hand to play, and have substituted a Potemkin-style appearance of grassroots support for the real thing. But that critique is overstated. There is genuine grassroots urgency on climate change, particularly among the young, who make up the majority of coalitions like Sunrise, and who will actually have to live a lifetime defined by climate devastation. And while the issue may not have the urgent intensity of the cultural and economic matters that afflict us daily, Data for Progress and others have shown that serious climate action does have broad bipartisan support.

More to the point, we also expect policymakers working above our pay grade to be taking care of issues with medium-and-long-term implications. Of course the public wants them to make sure that their cultural and economic interests are prioritized, but that won’t save legislators from public fury over failing to address concerns with a longer time horizon. It’s one of the big reasons we hire politicians in the first place. It is reasonable even from a purely self-interested political perspective to demand that politicians do more than just act on the issues that seem to have the most salience in day-to-day polling.

Yglesias further states that Democratic politicians are putting more emphasis on climate concerns than public support would justify. In this reading, climate activists have been successful in an elite-driven persuasion campaign to get legislators to overemphasize climate issues. That allegation is dubious at best–but even if one were to grant it, the challenge is that the gestures Democrats are making on climate don’t begin to do what is necessary to tackle the problem. The paltry $265 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill for a hodgepodge of climate-related priorities is almost worse than no bill at all, because it spends far more heavily reinforcing carbon-based infrastructure while delivering an amount of money for climate infrastructure that wouldn’t suffice to meet even the full needs of a single state like California or New York.

And again–the brutal logic of climate change is that if we don’t take urgent action now we won’t be able to head off the biggest tipping points. In fact, it may already be too late to do so–though no one in climate activism likes to say that because it leads to apathy, and even a hell-world of global civilization collapse would be preferable objectively to a literal Venusian inferno. The infrastructure bill may be our last opportunity to make a big difference before the tipping points hit. It’s a literal do-or-die scenario according to the science. The question shouldn’t be why climate activists are being so rude and unreasonable, but why there hasn’t been an upswing of far more radical (and likely politically counterproductive) action given the dire urgency of the moment.

The urgency problem makes a mockery of complaints from the electoralist side of the Democratic coalition. Climate activists should absolutely not be concerned about whether their actions make it harder to win a Senate seat in Missouri or Montana. Yes, climate action becomes impossible if Republicans take control of Congress or the Presidency. Yes, Democrats are far better on the issue than Republicans who are actively hostile to both responsible governance and basic decency. But if we take almost meaningless incremental steps on climate today for fear of Republican takeover of Congress in 2024 and beyond, we have no hope of solving the problem at all in time to head off the looming disaster.

Finally, it’s important to address the complaint about climate groups’ seemingly diffuse leftist advocacy. Critics like Yglesias blame this on left-NGO flavor-of-the-month donor priorities–and there is certainly something to that critique, as anyone honest in left spaces will admit. Grant writers will position organizations in a way that is likeliest to get more grant funding, which pushes groups across the spectrum of left advocacy to align in certain hot-button ways that may not always be maximally productive.

But that’s not the most important reason why climate groups seem to prioritize non-climate causes. There are two far more compelling reasons. First, the brutal logic of climate change requires that climate activists seek coalition-building more from the left than from the right. David Shor recently suggested to me that climate activists should “try to cut a deal with Republicans where you trade very large amounts of money for clean tech R&D in exchange for tax cuts for rich people.” But even if you could get Democratic voters and politicians to swallow the latter half of that exchange–and it would be quite difficult and immoral to do so–clean tech research and development wouldn’t even begin to do what would be required to head off climate disaster. There is no possible alliance with the center-right that would effectively combat the climate crisis. So allies must be sought on the left, instead. And besides, why should it always be that left and Democratic groups must constantly be hippie-punching and Sister Souljahing their left flank while the right-wing celebrates its radicals? Why, as Jamelle Bouie correctly states today, is only one kind of rebel ever punished in America?

The second reason is something less openly discussed that Yglesias and allies’ brand of anti-“woke” politics might even serve to help with if they were to choose to focus on it. Climate activists have been slammed for years if not decades for being overprivileged, mostly white out-of-touch liberals with no genuine support for or engagement from communities of color. This accusation was not, frankly, always unfair. But it has consistently been leveled in bad faith by fossil fuel corporations and even trade union groups with influence in the Democratic coalition, who have used social-justice-washing to promote the fossil-fuel-based status quo. Climate groups have largely taken this critique to heart and responded accordingly by focusing on the structural racism inherent to climate inaction and environmental racism more broadly. But then in turn climate groups thus get it coming and going: within coalition spaces they are portrayed as privileged white elitists with no social justice consciousness, while to the Yglesias and Shors of the world they are overly woke poseurs turning off potential non-college white Senate voters in Michigan.

Ironically, Yglesias and friends should be able to recognize this pattern from YIMBY housing activism. Housing is a relevantly similar problem to climate, in that its effects are felt gradually and the problem disproportionately impacts the young. Yglesias routinely mocks Republicans on twitter for not hewing to their own ideological priors in deregulating single-family zoning to encourage density. (Of course, Republicans have no such deregulatory ideological priors: for Republicans, deregulation is only useful insofar as it promotes and perpetuates structural racism and patriarchy, and is dropped like a hot potato the moment it doesn’t.) But lack of support for housing density isn’t coming from Republicans, nor are center-right conservatives likely to form any sort of reliable support for pro-density arguments. Instead, urbanist density advocates are continually being flanked from the left by groups like AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which advocate on behalf of (mostly white) wealthy homeowners looking to protect unearned housing equity and low density at the expense of the young (mostly of color) while pretending to be concerned about the social impacts gentrification, displacement and homelessness. Big housing bills in California don’t fail for lack of support from the right, but rather lack of support from the left–largely because YIMBY advocates haven’t yet done enough to build left coalitions prioritizing social and racial justice, and expose the hypocrisies and deceptions of organizations opposing greater housing density. On that front, they are a few years behind in learning the lessons that climate groups have already successfully internalized.

Taken together, the key point is that climate groups can’t afford to take passive stances that maximize the comfort of mostly older center-right voters or the most radicalism-averse, institutionally loyal segments of the Democratic coalition. The urgency of the issue prevents it, and the pressures of internal coalition building don’t allow it. If electorally-focused realists want to deradicalize climate justice groups across issue advocacy areas, they should turn their attention on the hypocritical and deceptive left-flanking actions of groups using the language of avant-garde social justice to defend the status quo, rather than bash climate groups for making the most rational (and, frankly, moral) choices in building coalitions.

Most important, in times of crisis we have the right to demand that politicians take tough votes that expand beyond whatever pollsters tell them is most urgent. An ambitious climate agenda is not actually unpopular, and it’s not actually that risky. But even if it were, there has never been an issue facing humanity that demanded political courage more than this one. And climate activists have every tactical, strategic and moral right to shame legislators into making the right choices.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.