It's Not About The Climate: How the Left Lost Sight of Social Justice

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

Of course, all of this new development puts big pressures on the environment. While the transition from wood to coal is overwhelmingly positive for forests, coal-burning is now a major contributor to global warming. The challenge for the 21st Century is thus to triple global energy demand, so that the world's poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero.

For the last 20 years, most everyone who cared about global warming hoped for a binding international treaty abroad, and some combination of carbon pricing, pollution regulations, and renewable energy mandates at home. That approach is now in ruins. In 2010, UN negotiations failed to create a successor to the failed Kyoto treaty. A few months later cap and trade died in the Senate. And two weeks ago, the slow motion collapse of the European Emissions Trading Scheme reached its nadir, with carbon prices, already at historic lows, collapsing after EU leaders refused to tighten the cap on emissions.

What rushed into the vacuum was "climate justice," a movement headed by more left-leaning groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. These groups invoke the vulnerability of the poor to climate change but elide the reality that more energy makes them more resilient. "Huge swaths of the world have been developing over the last three decades at an unprecedented pace and scale," writes political scientist Christopher Foreman in "On Justice Movements," a new article (below) for The Breakthrough Journal. "Contemporary demands for climate justice have been, at best, indifferent to these rather remarkable developments and, at worst, openly hostile."

For the climate justice movement, global warming is not to be dealt with by switching to cleaner forms of energy but rather by returning to a pastoral, renewable-powered, and low-energy society. "Real climate solutions," writes Klein, "are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users…"

Climate change can only be solved by "fixing everything," says McKibben, from how we eat, travel, produce, reproduce, consume, and live."It's not an engineering problem," McKibben argued recently in Rolling Stone, "it's a greed problem." Fixing it will require a "new civilizational paradigm," says Klein, "grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal."

Climate skeptics are right, Klein cheerily concludes: the Left is using climate change to advance policies they have long wanted. "In short," says Klein, "climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative."

As such, global warming is our most wicked problem. The end of our world is heralded by ideologues with specific solutions already in mind: degrowth, rural living, low-energy consumption, and renewable energies that will supposedly harmonize us with Nature. The response from the Right was all-too predictable. If climate change "supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand," conservatives long ago decided, then climate change is either not happening, or is not much to worry about.

Wicked problems can only be solved if the ideological discourses that give rise to them are disrupted, and that's what political scientist Foreman does brilliantly in "On Justice Movements." If climate justice activists truly cared about poverty and climate change, Foreman notes, they would advocate things like better cook stoves and helping poor nations accelerate the transition from dirtier to cleaner fuels. Instead they make demands that range from the preposterous (e.g., de-growth) to the picayune (e.g., organic farming).

Once upon a time, social justice was synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — with electric lighting so poor children could read at night, with refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and with washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. Malthus was rightly denounced by generations of socialists as a cruel aristocrat who cloaked his elitism in pseudo-science, in the claim that Nature couldn't possibly feed any more hungry months.

Now, at the very moment modern energy arrives for global poor — something a prior generation of socialists would have celebrated and, indeed, demanded — today's leading left-wing leaders advocate a return to energy penury. The loudest advocates of cheap energy for the poor are on the libertarian Right, while The Nation dresses up neo-Malthusianism as revolutionary socialism.

Left-wing politics was once about destabilizing power relations between the West and the Rest. Now, under the sign of climate justice, it's about sustaining them.

This piece originally appeared at The Breakthrough.

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"Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species."

That "social justice" is an outcome (debatable), belies the fact that these gains were solely the result of Capitalism and free enterprise. Social justice movements inevitably fail because they limit liberty and the human spirit.

As such, global warming is

As such, global warming is our most wicked problem. The end of our world is heralded by ideologues with specific solutions already in mind: degrowth, rural living, low-energy consumption, and renewable energies that will supposedly harmonize us with Nature. The response from the Right was all-too predictable. If climate change

Forecasting The Future

I personally like to become a Liberal every once in a while. I'll dream up grand dreams, to the end of my limits, guided by values such as Multiculturalism, Secularism, Environmentalism, Collectivism, Equality, Tolerance, Relativism, Sexual Liberty, Community, New Urbanism, Health, Animal Rights, etc, and I imagine what utopia would look like. And that becomes my measuring stick.

As long as we don't have that dreamy fantasy as our current reality,... there will always be an ongoing holy leftist crusade, to rectify justice, and bring about the messianic age. And the Left are gold-medalists at not letting a potential opportunity, to crusade on behalf of a cause, go to waste.

If 6 black kids beat assault a white kid and beat him unconscious, as in Jena6, it's society's fault, for it's unequal racist constructs. If a half mexican, half german kills a black kid named Treyvon Martin, it's society's fault, for it's unequal racial constructs.

And in both cases, there is a media blitz to frame the story before we know any of the facts, to mobilize a full inquisition on society, to get society to acknowledge it's bigoted sins, and milk the story for what its worth, before we realize it was all made up.

But by the time all the facts have come out, it's too late then. The message has already been put out there: America is a hateful unequal terrible place. And if you say it often enough, it begins to become people's reality.

Perhaps we should lie like the left. We should lie, and libel. We should lie, libel, and mock, and assess intentions. It's hard to say this with any level of personal seriousness, because we don't operate like that. But how do you fight their PR machine, effectively? You can't, unless you lie, libel, mock, and assess intentions. "We care, they don't" should be driven home in every essay we write. We should continue that intention-assessing by libeling them, based on what we assume their intentions to be. Call them racists for wanting to ruin entire neighborhoods, and drive out minorities to even more impoverished areas of a metropolitan, with their density initiatives, and gentrification.

We should mock their stupidity, and call them stupid, routinely, while ending every intellectual motion and policy prescription with the term "Smart," in an affirmative tone, to imply opposition to our ideas as being anti-smart, to end dialogue by saying that there's nothing to discuss, and to signal, as true and progressive non-ideological pragmatists, that we're only interested in what works.

And we should do all of this, with blatant lies, sprinkled liberally, throughout everything we do. Because we're not debating human beings that we should be civil to, but racist, classist monsters.

We shouldn't actually fully mimic the Left. Just parts of it. But it is very interesting, that we let them get away with all of the above.

Partly agree, partly disagree here but appreciate the sincerity

I have long appreciated the sincerity that Nordhaus and Shellenberger bring to the discussion. I think this is a very good description of me:

"....If climate change "supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand," conservatives long ago decided, then climate change is either not happening, or is not much to worry about....."

I have decided much more than that. The whole construct is shot through with errors from one end to the other. "Mitigation" policies of the kind favoured by politicians are all absolutely useless tokenism anyway even if the CAGW alarmists are correct. Christopher Monckton's recent analysis of the cost-effectiveness of carbon taxes (specifically the Australian one) is a classic case in point (just one among many). One would have thought that if the alarmist establishment was sincere, they would be saying, "Thanks Chris, we hadn't thought of doing calculations like that. Seeing we really do want to save the planet, we will insist that politicians adopt policies that actually stand a chance of being effective".

My specialty is urban economics, and urban form and transport policy. The policies that are being adopted in these areas are totally useless, a nightmare of unintended consequences, and a disastrous waste of economic resources that could be better targeted using basic benefit-cost analysis. But rational and scientific criticism of these policies, and virtually all other "CO2 mitigation" policies marked by the same flaws, are dismissed out of hand by what is no more than a reactionary and completely post-reason quasi-religious movement complete with icons and tokens.

I have long since concluded that the breaches of scientific method and objectivity committed by members of this new "establishment" ALL run in the same direction, right from tree-ring sampling in the field, to the writing of a "Summary for Policy Makers", to "carbon taxes", to "urban growth boundaries" and "commuter rail investments". En route there are countless hands raised in dissent in some small way of their own. In sum, the damage being wrought upon civilisation is major, and it is a growing awareness of this that is giving once-mild-believers of all specialties cause for adoption of skepticism.

I think Nordhaus and Shellenberger have got this bit wrong, or at least over-rated:

".....The end of our world is heralded by ideologues with specific solutions already in mind: degrowth, rural living, low-energy consumption, and renewable energies that will supposedly harmonize us with Nature....."

Yes, there are ideologues that think that way, and I rate their sincerity highly. The environmental movement was once about "back to nature", and opposed to concrete jungles. Since then, surely Nordhaus a Shellenberger are aware that this movement has largely morphed into one that essentially hates humans and wants to punish them, including imprisoning them in concrete jungles and, ironically, depriving them of contact with nature.

It is the height of absurdity to think that in an allegedly post-energy future, living in apartments and catching trains will be the "surviving" lifestyle; but this is by far the majority position among the "save the planet" ideologues today. At least the proponents of "back to nature survivalism" like that Kunstler guy are not this stupid. But 1 acre is actually sufficient for a subsistence lifestyle; so there you have a great reason to support low density suburbia if you sincerely believe in a post-energy future. (I don't, but that doesn't stop me noting the insanity of the preferred "solutions" of most of the post-energy doomsaying crowd).

Consider the following; is high density or low density urban living more compatible with these initiatives?

1) Geothermal heat pumps
2) Passive and active solar heating
3) household wind turbines
4) burning biomass for heating and cooking
5) household collection of rainwater
6) household production of food
7) fresh air ventilation and clothes drying
8) on site waste disposal, recycling, and composting.

Urban growth containment is more about depriving people of disposable income (via inflated housing costs) and space with which to breed and raise children. Actual performance on resource consumption and environmental impact would be superior with Frank Lloyd Wright “landscape urbanism” style low density solutions, especially given that dispersed employment is the norm in modern cities, and vehicles get more and more efficient. Higher urban density is everywhere associated with more severe traffic congestion and lower speeds of travel, which means that petrol consumption and emissions "gains" are negated. "Mode shift" is always far too slight to compensate.

The connection between restrictive urban and transport policy, and reduced consumption of petrol and energy, is via reduced household discretionary income due to inflated housing costs (and in some countries, higher taxes on energy as well); not due to “more efficient urban form” at all.

Urban planning and social justice

Oh, and I should have mentioned, the growth containment urban planning that the "save the planet" ideologues overwhelmingly subscribe to, is a disaster for social justice and a triumph for the rent-seekers in "big property" and "big finance".