Democracy and the Climate Debate

Snow in August - Gamskarkogel Hütte.jpg

As we bid a fond adieu to an all-too-short-but-truly-spectacular summer in the northern hemisphere, where fresh snow is already blanketing the Rockies and the Alps (photo above), it is impossible not to notice that the ambitions of climate-change activists everywhere are being trampled mercilessly—by democracy.

In Australia, PM Malcolm Turnbull was last week deposed in the wake of his last-ditch effort to legislate a "National Energy Guarantee" in a country brimming with energy resources yet suffering from policy-driven blackouts and sky-high electricity prices. In France, Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot yesterday sacrificed himself, announcing his resignation on national radio to the surprise of French citizens up to and including his boss President Emmanuel Macron. "The planet is becoming an oven," said Hulot, "our natural resources are being exhausted, biodiversity is melting like snow in the sun and it's not always dealt with like a priority issue."

Who can doubt that Hulot speaks for frustrated climate activists everywhere—true believers forced to concede that the Burning Planet summer of 2018 not only failed to generate public alarm on a scale commensurate with the crisis but was instead marked by a "global rightward shift on climate change," as Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer put it?

The problem is not merely that we live in an era of political polarization but that in virtually all of our public conversations about energy and the environment—and this includes the Canadian carbon-tax debate—we find ourselves in the presence of two competing and ultimately irreconcilable narratives. It is like trying to listen to two pieces of music simultaneously.

On the one hand, we have the narrative of what might be called conventional interest-group politics. In virtually all of the democratic countries of the world, it remains possible, even now, to have a reasonably rational discussion of specific policy options, and in particular to gauge what can be achieved politically in any given territory at any given moment. To cite Robinson Meyer again, who recounts the Canadian carbon-tax debate at considerable length in his Atlantic piece, we read that PM Justin

Trudeau’s carbon-pricing scheme is in trouble. The government has already slashed the ambition of its initial proposal. The Conservative Party, which opposes Trudeau, has dubbed the carbon price a “tax on everything” and its leader says a future government would repeal any carbon price. The new premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, says he will fight the carbon price when it takes effect in January of next year.

It seems likely that the 2019 elections in Canada in which Trudeau faces reelection—will hinge in part on what voters think of the carbon price. While that vote is still more than a year away, Trudeau’s Liberal Party has lost its early lead in polling and is now essentially tied with the Conservative Party.

But political opposition is not the only reason Trudeau has watered down his plan. His party seems to have real concerns about the economic consequences of the policy.

In this rather conventional political analysis—and indeed in his equally meticulous treatment of other nations' current environmental and energy debates—Meyer is correct in every detail. This certainly separates him out from the Uninhabitable Earth climate-porn crowd. Yet even Meyer cannot resist falling into the trap of haranguing his readers about the urgent need to radicalize—which is the second and by now more familiar narrative animating the climate debate, and one that is fundamentally authoritarian. What Meyer really wants to see is not a series of conventional national-policy debates based on negotiation and compromise but, as he tells us himself, "an aggressive global climate policy." And what he really believes, to cite the case of Australia in the wake of PM Turnbull's ouster, is that national governments cannot be entrusted with their own (and especially the Earth's) climate future:

Extreme weather is battering Australia on all fronts: Carbon-warmed oceans are plundering its Great Barrier Reef, and a record-breaking drought is ravaging the country’s well-populated southeast. Yet even its center-right-led, middling attempt at a climate policy is withering on the vine. On Monday, in one of his first public appearances since taking office, Prime Minister Morrison declined to comment on whether climate change is intensifying the country’s drought. “I’m going to leave that debate,” he said, “for another day.”

The dilemma becomes obvious, for Meyer and for the many other climate-change activists who think as he does. As long as the world remains divided into self-governing sovereign states like Canada and Australia, "an aggressive global climate policy" isn't going to happen—no matter how urgently national governments are pressed to meet their Paris targets, or how much voters are implored to sacrifice their own well-being out of a sense of moral conviction.

Rational debate is the essence of democracy—however slow, difficult and frustrating it may be—and citizens of the Western democracies know it. That is why appeals to China's so-called climate leadership have no traction in the West, why so-called post-Keynesian (read: collectivist) policy prescriptions have no future and, above all, why the heavy-handed stifling of public debate remains not only outrageously condescending but counterproductive to the radicals' own goal of winning hearts and minds.