Political crises: The Cold War vs. Climate Change

by Robert Nagle on 7/22/2010

in global warming

I am still recovering from the Senate’s decision to put off climate change legislation. What a missed opportunity! Here’s a  must read piece is by Dave Roberts:

Big Coal will be back begging for cap-and-trade. No, really. Right now there are EPA rules in the pipeline that are going to shut down a third or more of the existing coal fleet. No new coal plants are going to get built — they’re not cost-competitive with natural gas or wind, and every one runs into a buzzsaw of grassroots opposition. In other words, carbon caps or no carbon caps, Big Coal is in trouble. Sooner or later, the industry will realize that the funding it can get from cap-and-trade, to support carbon capture and sequestration, is its only path to survival. Robert Byrd tried to tell the industry the truth before he died. Byron Dorgan tried to tell it the truth just the other day. By 2012, certainly by 2015 when many of the rules kick in, the industry will be forced to acknowledge this basic truth. And they’ll come begging Congress for cap-and-trade.

(For more hand-writing, see Climate Progress and Tom Dickinson at Rolling Stone).

I am no expert on legislative strategy, but what’s wrong with offering a climate change bill anyway for a vote  and then letting Republicans do a straight party vote against it?  The assumption here is that presidents who stink of legislative defeats are disgraced and ineffectual. Oh, really?  You need to define your opponent; frankly, having an opponent who mouths talking points and seems to advocate values that involve destroying the planet in the process don’t win elections generally. Lose the battle, win the war, that’s my strategy.

Instead, here is what is going to happen: the EPA is going to issue strict regulations (either before the elections or after, but probably after) which will control coal-based utility companies; they will hurt too.  What will be the political result? Conservatives will label the measure as the next wave of Stalinism and job-killer combined, and they would be right (from their twisted point of view). But if we had an earnest attempt to bring climate change to the Senate floor, a  prominent defeat and gloating statements by the Republican leadership, there would no longer be any ambiguity when the EPA introduced its rules. The EPA had to do this because the Republicans forced their hands. In fact, that describes what is happening now, but from the point of  view of the half-interested public, there hasn’t even been a fight; only  capitulation.

Progressives have criticized Obama for not stumping for climate change as strongly as he should have done. I understand that legislation often depends on timing,  but the BP spill threw him a golden opportunity into his lap. Why didn’t he use it? Yes, there is a danger of overplaying the opportunity,  but Obama really only made one prime time speech where he really didn’t talk about cap and trade or carbon. That’s not leadership.

Realclimate.org pointed out that:

“The rate that people are releasing carbon to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation today is equal to 5000 Gulf Oil Spills per day. Think of it — 5000 spills like in the Gulf of Mexico, all going at once, each releasing 40,000 barrels a day, every day for decades and centuries on end.”

And yet the big issue today is: will the cap on the BP oil well hold? Shouldn’t we punish BP or punish Obama for not punishing BP soon enough? (It would be laughable if it were not so futile).

Climate change is and will continue to be the most pressing political issue of our time. I compare it to the panic about nuclear proliferation that lasted from the 1950s and lasted for three decades. Despite all the fatalism, humanity prevailed (and be thankful for it). Climate change is like the problem of  nuclear proliferation except:

  • Instead of worrying about sudden conflagration, we worry about a gradual and inevitable destruction.
  • With nuclear war, we never had political people go on  TV  to say that nuclear proliferation was inherently a good or neutral thing. Nowadays, though, there are denialists appearing regularly on TV and writing newspapers columns (and make no mistake: their rhetoric is a force to be reckoned with).
  • With nuclear weapons, we never had commercials on TV talking about the good feeling that comes with nuclear proliferation. Nowadays though we are presented with commercial messages every single day reminding us of the positive impact of fossil fuels.
  • With nuclear weapons, no one would ever use the economic benefits of it as a reason to support it. (That would be ridiculous). With climate change, the alleged economic benefits are cited all the time – even though of course that is utter poppycock.
  • Unlike nuclear proliferation (which helped certain defense communities but little other than that), the fossil fuel sector is depended upon by the car industry, electric utilities and airlines.  The cost of goods depends to some extent on its fuel price. The key point here is not that this dependency exists, but these sectors have not made serious efforts to explore alternatives.
  • Unlike nuclear weapons (where you depended on the State Department and defense experts to devise sound and rational strategies), the responsibility for taking effective action on climate change rests with individuals and  private companies. There’s a lot I as an individual can do to reduce my carbon footprint or persuade others to do. We are not helpless creatures (even though our elected leaders seem to be). We can vote with our pocketbooks. But are we doing this?
  • Unlike nuclear weapons (which basically required defense spending), climate change legislation does not  require public funding. Yes, we need to invest more in infrastructure and yes, it would be nice to turn the fossil fuel subsidies upside down so that they would push people towards renewables, but these are not required. Climate change doesn’t require a massive expenditure of federal funds and can even save money (one estimate showed that it will reduce the federal deficit in the long run).
  • Unlike nuclear proliferation (where the Ruskies were the undisputed bad guys), with climate change the morality of the major players is  more ambiguous. Historically the U.S. has been responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, and in fact, many fossil fuel  companies have a strong presence in the U.S.  If we criticize the fossil fuel industries, we are criticizing the very people  lauded as stars by our own society.
  • Unlike the nuclear weapon industry, the fossil fuel industries have contributed a lot to elected leaders and given lots of money to nonprofit organizations. Here in Houston, you have symphonies, charities and arts organization dependent on the generosity of oil companies.  It would be as though the main backers of the Houston Symphony were Stalin and Khrushchev.
  • Unlike the Cold War, there is a very real probability that humanity will suffer tremendously from it. Even if the A1F1 scenario doesn’t materialize, there are going to be a lot of residual harms.

With the Cold War/nuclear proliferation crisis, we could at least cling to the hope that we will be lucky and the world will  not end in mutually assured destruction (And indeed, we did get very lucky). But with the climate crisis, there is not a lot of hope to cling to. It is as though someone in a time machine came from the future to tell us that many harms are certain to occur, many harms will probably occur, and we can only try to avoid the harms that might occur.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric July 22, 2010 at 11:40 pm

* Unlike the Nuke problem, this is a problem with momentum, and we may have already gone over the cliff.

I was thinking about this the other day. The current nuke problem is the worry over rogue nukes or maybe an accidental launch. The climate analogy to that is, perhaps, giving the launch codes to 100 new people every day, and being unable to change them in the future. Hang on and hope.

Matthew Schacht July 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I’d like to point out another difference between climate change and nuclear war: while nuclear war can be started by one person pressing a button, climate change is a process of millions of people making choices, one consequence of which is radical change to the environment. This decentralization of control actually gives me hope, because it means that you and I can take action on our concerns right now in small but meaningful ways. For example, you’ve written a blog piece and contributed to a discussion of this topic; I on the other hand turned off my laptop before I left home this morning in order to save energy. Although small, these actions affect the outcome. Thus, even if our politicians are not working as we would hope, we can still act.

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