Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Climate Change and Political Will

Abe and Jeff debate the need to act and how to do it

My nephew Abraham and I recently exchanged a few e-mails about climate change. How bad is it going to be? Where will the political power and courage to do the right thing come from? The result is the post below. It's over 4,000 words, so maybe readers should consider other ways to kill time. However, Abe and I would certainly like to hear other opinions. We've all got a big stake in this stuff.

Dear Abe,

As you know well, I sometimes get frustrated when you seem to casually dismiss my feelings that unless political change happens profoundly and soon, your generation and the ones that follow will live in some sort of post-apocalyptic future that I will avoid on account of shuffling off this mortal coil before the sky falls. I'm not actually accusing you of something here. It's just when I say that absent a progressive mass movement realities like an inequitable and inadequate global economic system and catastrophic climate change will permanently and adversely alter the world you will inherit, you sometimes respond with a sort of confidence that your generation will successfully address the issues that previous generations wouldn't even tackle, let alone fix.

Now, along comes a Pew Research Center survey of "millennials," your cohort of 18 to 29 year olds, that shows you guys are the best educated Americans yet, trust people over 30, but see yourselves as more tolerant, more open to change and more likely to see government as part of the solution than the generations that came before you. There's also a lot of you, more millennials than baby boomers; combining that with what appears to be a deeply rooted optimism suggests that maybe you think realistic things about the problem-solving ability of your generation that elude me.

In this morning's Washington Post, there's a story about Maryland AG Douglas Gansler issuing an opinion about gay marriage that will certainly advance that struggle for equal rights a good bit, and, perhaps, also shows a public official going beyond the usual political limits to accomplish real change. Gansler may be a little old for a millennial, but it seems possible that he is displaying individually a sort of political optimism that is widespread in your generation. There's lots of AGs who could have done what Gansler did, but what he did first may be characteristic of what we can expect to happen more frequently as your generation moves into political leadership.

I'd sure like to think so; but finding progressive politicians who have the courage of their convictions has not been an easy task this last decade or two. If they are going to come along more frequently in the future than in the past, I will be celebrating. But we also know that charismatic leaders aren't enough to get some of the most difficult jobs done. Obama, who admittedly is more smart-guy, let's-do-what-makes-sense than he is progressive, is still a very good example of how disappointing it can be to rely on individuals to make change we can believe in.

That's why I'm always going on about building a progressive movement. The tea party phenomenon isn't progressive, of course, but it's also not really a movement. It is, I think, a genuine expression of populist anger that has been amplified by institutional forces, the Republican party, for instance, which seek to tap tea party energy to advance different agendas. Widespread anger and disillusion can create a populist upsurge, but it isn't enough for a movement because it isn't for anything; aspirations, like peace or equal rights, are fundamental for movement-building.

Of course, if I really knew how to build a progressive movement for the 21st Century, I would have shared that information widely already. But I don't, which fact may also hurt my credibility with you and your cohort. But here's the thing: the 21st Century belongs to you guys and whoever comes next, and if the world blows away in high seas and big storms, or withers in hunger and drought, there will be little point in figuring out which generations gets most of the blame. But if the future blossoms in some sort of golden age of stability, equality, stewardship and creativity, it will be because you millennials figured out how to convert your optimism into a movement with an agenda for change that will knock my socks off.

So, what are you waiting for?

Uncle Jeff

Dear Jeff,

Let's do this!

I'm having trouble deciding where to start, but I think it's first important to define the world in which my generation is growing up:

We've never fought any of the battles you describe as so disheartening above. In many ways, my generation is now engaging for the first time with politics, and generations are defined by the leaders of their early days: The 60s (it could be argued) by Kennedy, the 70s by Nixon, the 80s by Reagan, the 90s by Clinton, the 00s by Bush, the 10s by Obama. Bush was absolutely despised by so many of us - I have met only a glancing number of people my age who didn't think he was the devil or worse, and most of those folks were in College Republicans - that he has turned my generation away from Republicans. Obama, by contrast, was and is beloved, actually beloved, and so it's hard to imagine my generation taking power and not moving dramatically left of what is currently considered the center.

The young never turn out. We may make a lot of noise, but our true electoral effect always waits for us to hit 30, and we're only now starting to do that. And we've already elected a black President! Our confidence is high.

It's easy for us to wave away past defeats as irrelevant. Perhaps this is always easy, but the world pre-Internet looks so different from this one that we can't help but think that the same rules no longer apply.

Finally, you note that the world may be destroyed before we can inherit it. Well, yeah. But of course this prediction too can be ignored if one chooses - in the 1910s they thought that another war like they had just seen would either be the end of humanity or utterly impossible; in the 40s we saw even worse atrocities at mass scale, and then we capped it all off with nuclear war, so the world looked pretty bleak; for the next 50 years the world could have ended at any minute if a weather satellite was launched at the wrong time (this almost happened, more than once); in the 70s they thought there wasn't going to be enough food to feed the world. Recently it appears that we've fucked up our climate beyond repair, but we've thought the world would end so many times in our history, and always with a righteous conviction, so who's to say the scientists are right today? I believe they probably are, but I don't feel like they are...

You say we need to build a movement, and you're absolutely right. Today, it's easier than ever to mass large groups of people behind a given cause, but this has resulted in a proliferation of superficial attempts to do exactly that - witness the flash mob phenomenon (briefly died out and now resurgent, somewhat). The currency of the mass of people behind a given idea has been devalued, both by the ease of generating it (Oh look, another Facebook announcement for a rally on the quad about saving hamsters from grade-school classrooms) and by the difficulty of spending it meaningfully (many of my generation marched against invading Iraq, and look how well that worked out.)

I don't quite know where this gets us. And it's important to point out that my lived experience is wildly atypical, so any observations I make based on that experience ought to be regarded skeptically. I've been incredibly fortunate, but one of the other defining characteristics of this generation is that it's entering the workforce during the worst economy since the Great Depression, so how that will impact our future is an important and totally unanswered question.


Dear Abe,

I'm not sure what battles I described as disheartening, though I do describe the global political challenges ahead as daunting; I will get to back to those challenges below; but first I'd like to suggest that some of the historical references you make don't mean to me what they mean to you.

In many ways it is convenient to use presidents to symbolize eras, or at least to convey something fundamental about past decades. But I don't think of the '60s and '70s as the Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon decades. They didn't tower over those eras as Reagan towered over the '80s, I think. Martin Luther King, for instance, makes a far better symbol of the '60s and, used for that purpose, provokes a whole different set of ideas and images. The '60s, in fact, were contested terrain in a way that no decade since has been. That's why the '60s are also the decade of the Civil Rights movement, and the Peace movement, and the decline of McCarthyism.

It's true that author Rick Perlstein's Nixonland uses Nixon in his title to suggest that Nixon more profoundly shaped the period from virtually the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s than others did, but the title is misleading, I think. Perlstein's book is interesting and helpful, but like the period it covers, it is about much more than Nixon. The period beginning in the early '60s is much more usefully understood, I think, as the time when various popular movements--civil rights, peace, feminist, labor and others (Native American and gay pride, for instance)--dramatically advanced their causes or positioned themselves on the political map.

Nixon and Ford, though not necessarily the architects of the establishment counterattack aimed at rolling back some of those democratic gains, certainly led the charge. Ronald Reagan works as metaphor for the '80s works decently well, primarily because he turned out to be a great leader of those reactionary forces, was able to define a set of values that defined the argument against those popular movements, and helped reestablish the political and cultural hegemony of large corporations and the wealthy (which, I would argue, was a comfortable outcome so far as he was concerned, never mind his deification as a man of the people).

The '90s, essentially, were a floundering search for a new democratic direction for a country and a government suffering from a tax burden that had been significantly transferred onto the backs of working people; a country suffering also from reduced investment in public education, mass transit and other public goods; from rapidly disappearing union and manufacturing jobs; from shrinking real wages and dramatic increases in the number of households with two parents working because they had to (and the social upheaval that accompanied that change), and marginalized progressive ideals. Thinking of that decade in terms of Bush the First and Clinton only works if it is understood that their limited successes and limited efforts reasonably symbolize our collective national futility. The high tech bubble and the real estate bubble are about the only things of consequence that got built during the period, and look where those achievements got us.

This brings us to the current decade, a mixed bag if there ever was one: The virtual theft of a presidential election and the anti-democratic intervention of the Supreme Court (a series of events that we would call a coup if something like it happened in, say, a Latin American country other than Honduras), then came September 11, the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the unprecedented mobilization of worldwide opposition to war in Iraq, the deceitful campaign to go to war, anyhow, and the launching of the invasion of Iraq, the pivotal fraud in a second presidential election, the collapse of the American and global economy, and the uplifting election of Barack Obama. Certainly, a hard period to define.

But let me also quarrel with the use of history to suggest that a focus on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change is about as credible as the apocalyptic fears of earlier generations. Certainly the fears of a great war to surpass all previous wars were finally realized with World War II. That event may have come 40 or even 50 years later than predicted, but when it did arrive an estimated 50 to 70 million people died, enough in some instances to decimate countries and wipe out communities. Some countries were wiped off the map. Arguably, some communities and nations are still recovering, some might never recover.

But the fear of a war to end all wars was a political, not a scientific, projection. And though World War II was a "world" war, it was not so global as climate change will be and, indeed, already is. In other words, in 1939 a war something like the worst imaginable did in fact begin.

It may be hysteria on my part to claim that in the case of climate change the sky really is falling, but it accomplishes little to assure me that my fears put one in mind of Malthus or other doomsayers. What comes next may not be an apocalypse, but it seems likely that Bangladesh and certain island countries will disappear, and Katrina-like events with New Orleans-like consequences will become more frequent.

Only a few things will actually reassure me, and they are related: What is being done now that will actually mitigate, perhaps even roll back, the worst effects of climate change? We do know that there are people hard at work developing alternative energy sources and renewable energy technologies, but how many is that and what will it take to get more people involved (a mass movement forcing government action)? And what is being done, overall, to organize larger numbers of people to support those initiatives? I'm not actually suggesting that it's up to you to provide answers. I'm just saying those are three of the questions we both need to understand better.

You suggest that another really important question is what's going to happen to the millenials, your generation, the largest generation in American history, who will bear the brunt of the Great Recession. That's actually something I feel more sanguine about. Easy for me to talk, isn't it? I'm not starting a career here. But here's my thinking:

First, your generation (see the earlier referenced Pew survey) is the most optimistic, tolerant and flexible cohort to come along in quite a while, perhaps ever. Millenials will respond to the sustained national economic crisis with creativity and initiative. A higher percentage of new jobs will be created in small businesses and new businesses than in the past. Millenials will find a way to maintain, maybe even improve, quality of life by establishing new cultural institutions and expanding employment for cultural workers.

This, incidentally, has always been a good, if underutilized idea. Employing more people in work doing what they would prefer to do increases job satisfaction and overall health, and increases the likelihood that people will find their quality of life improved, even if their income is lower. These benefits will multiply in the neighborhoods and communities in which they live and do their work.

How widespread would these alternative employment opportunities and lifestyles need to be in order to build a stable economy that creates good jobs at a reasonable pace? I probably should make an effort to quantify my argument, but whatever the numbers say, obviously more cultural workers making decent wages won't be enough. Cities need to become better places to live in the process; there needs to be more neighborhood-based employment and more neighborhood services, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. And government will have to do a better job maintaining and expanding the infrastructure of quality schools and mass transit that people ought to be able to depend on. These, of course, are political questions, but they won't be adequately addressed without the progressive movement I keep wishing for.

Of course, if you Millennials do address some of these issues--redefine what matters most in life; spread culture and creativity, not war; strengthen neighborhoods and improve public education and mass transit; boost the green economy--you will also be improving the national response to climate change. Talk about win-win.

I ended my earlier letter to you this way:

"But if the future blossoms in some sort of golden age of stability, equality, stewardship and creativity, it will be because you millennials figured out how to convert your optimism into a movement with an agenda for change that will knock my socks off.

So, what are you waiting for?"

Maybe, I need to rephrase that to be something like this: Do you and your friends and colleagues recognize how much of what you are already doing is part of the solution we both wish to see?

There is also the Gandhi formulation of that thought: You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Personally, if it were easy to do that, I might already have done so, but I prefer to leave the hard work to you millenials.


Hi Jeff,

I've mentioned before my basic optimism surrounding climate change. I don't mean to deny in any way the magnitude of the challenges this phenomenon will pose; perhaps my overall attitude is more a function of something innate in my personality that prevents me from being pessimistic about anything, than it is a sober assessment of the road ahead.

But I do think the climate problem is basically tractable. First, because I hear in the alarmed words of our best scientists echoes of Malthus, and of every preacher or visionary of the last several thousand years. (At some point, of course, one of these predictions will be right; maybe it's this one.) Second, because the problem we face is one of political will only. We have the technology to produce potable water from seawater, to power the grid without emitting much pollution at all, to drive to work without emitting any CO2. We can cool the Earth if we need to, and hack the planet in a thousand different ways to reverse the worst effects of climate change.

The only reason we don't do these things is because the cost of doing them currently outweighs the cost of inaction. But as my generation, the most ecologically-aware in human history (not that I have any data for that whatsoever), takes over, we'll start to move in that direction. And if the seas rise, the ice caps melt and the world warms, we'll eventually reach a point at which we decide OK, yes, put reflective particles in the atmosphere, build massive solar arrays in New Mexico and charge $50 for a gallon of gasoline.

The great problem with all this is that climate change is a global issue. And while the millenial generation in America may be ready to make these sacrifices, our counterparts in India and China may not be. And if they don't change their behavior, it won't matter so much what we do. I think once the effects of climate change make themselves felt more fully, attitudes across the planet will change, but such effects imply the death of thousands, at least, and that's a high price to pay. And China and India both have been reasonably comfortable with a level of environmental devastation that we find appalling: my snot was black after one day in New Delhi. So it may take more to motivate them to act.

I have less to say concerning your interpretation of history. You seem to be right, and I think I have more productive and interesting things to say about the present and the future, so I'll be quiet there, with your blessing.

I wonder more broadly about this notion of a movement. I'm not sure that one unified progressive movement is necessary, likely or even desirable. The linkages between "civil" rights, women's rights, gay rights, the rights of the poor, the Black and the planet exist, sure, but they're increasingly tenuous. And on each issue, a different group of people agree.

Every segment of American life is becoming more fragmented and personalized, and I think the same thing will happen to our politics. Advocacy groups working on each of these issues can partner, share data and pool resources as needed, and achieve most of the benefits of one central "movement" without the slowness, inflexibility and baggage that would come from being lumped together under the same banner.

I think this means that the already-outmoded 2-party system will become even more creaky and strained in the near future, as well. And this is to me the biggest and most puzzling obstacle facing progressive change: how will our governments get better? Will we reform or abolish the Senate? Create meaningful restraints on campaign spending? Create actual accountability at every level? Allow for the existence of a more nimble, intelligent, cacophonous political class composed of multiple parties representing sane district boundaries? And etc.

Unusually for me, I'm rather pessimistic about all of the above. And I think the inability of our governance to improve during the coming tumult could become our biggest problem, holding us back in every conceivable area of human endeavor. I hope I'm wrong about this.


Dear Abraham,

I do appreciate your efforts to calm me down, even as I find myself arguing with much of what you have to say. Your list of technological developments that might end up part of a strategy to address climate change is reassuring. It’s just that it is not enough.

I think it is a reasonable observation, not myth-making, to suggest that climate change already underway will kill hundreds of thousands, not “mere” thousands. And, yes, as you say, addressing climate change is more a political question than it is a scientific challenge. That means India and China will be such important players, ultimately, that others might rationalize sitting on their hands until those two countries, who will be the largest generators of greenhouse gasses going forward, take a more important leadership role.

But this can’t be a question of simultaneity. The US is historically the largest generator of human-made greenhouse gasses, which suggests that climate change already underway is a major US responsibility. So it follows, I think, that leadership on climate change ought to begin here.

Unfortunately, as you note, the American political system seems so damaged and so dysfunctional that progress on anything remotely controversial appears almost unachievable. There is no better example, of course, than a political climate in which a bad health care bill might not even pass comes only a year after a better bill seemed a genuine possibility.

But that is not what matters most. If a compromise health care bill that leaves out a public option and leaves private insurers in substantial control is difficult to pass, how much harder would it be to change the two-party system we think is to blame for much of the dysfunction? Impossible? Maybe, but here’s the thing:

It doesn’t matter. It’s what we’ve got to work with at the moment. And it won’t do to sit back and wait for changes. Young people like you really don’t have time to wait on others to act. Like you, a number of millenials are already experienced in local, state and national campaigns. Personally, I think you guys, anticipating that the Obama administration would have an easier go at getting things done, were sitting back waiting for the fun to begin.

But the fun, in the form of progressive legislative action, hasn’t happened, at all. It’s time for the millenials to step forward and claim leadership. It may be early for such a generational claim, but personally I think it’s getting late. Absent the involvement of your generation progressive changes will come later than they should. It’s time for the movement of the millenials, time for a permanent populist campaign focused on something big: like justice and peace.

P.S. Yes, we should keep this exchange going, but how about a new focus? Say, militarism and military spending or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How about Social Security, realities and myths? Maybe something about new lifestyles for the 21st Century and more equitable distribution of wealth and resources? What do you think?

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