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The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse

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Ted Nordhaus, Issues in Science and Technology

What would it mean to get serious about climate change?

“We must stop asking what the Earth can do for us,” newly elected President Jay Inslee concluded in his inaugural address, “and start considering what we must do for the Earth.”

Inslee had launched his campaign two years earlier as a longshot, single-issue candidate. But events rapidly outpaced what had begun as a boutique candidacy intended to call attention to climate change.

In the spring of 2020, another record Mississippi River flood, a brutal tornado season, drought in the Northwest, and a series of damaging thunderstorms in the Northeast brought battleground primary states into Inslee’s camp. As Democrats gathered for their convention in Milwaukee that July, three weeks of heat that approached 40 degrees Centigrade across the corn belt wiped out half the nation’s corn crop. Then, on Labor Day weekend, a category 3 hurricane made its way up the Eastern Seaboard, maintaining hurricane strength all the way to Washington, DC. Six weeks later, a category 4 hurricane took dead aim at New York City, forcing a hasty evacuation of millions of people out of Manhattan and other boroughs.

Inslee had set out to run an optimistic campaign, arguing that a Green New Deal to take on climate change would create good jobs at home and position the United States to compete for growing clean energy markets abroad. But by the time of his election, the feel-good rhetoric was unnecessary. The nation faced a crisis and President-elect Inslee was the person to fix it.

As his first act as president, Inslee declared a national climate emergency. As his second, he announced national carbon rationing. Until further notice, consumers were limited to one tank of gas per month. Based on time of year and regional climates, natural gas and heating oil deliveries to households were cut by as much as 60%. Utilities were directed to submit plans within the month to cut total electricity generation by 40% and to optimize their existing generation mix to use as little fossil generation as possible.

The rationing was dubbed temporary by the new administration, a stopgap measure until the president and the new Democratic Congress were able to mobilize the full force of the nation’s manufacturing and industrial capacities to retrofit the economy for a low carbon future. Inslee informed congressional leaders that he would relax rationing only once Congress had enacted the measures he would shortly send to the House and Senate.

Inslee delivered to Congress a sweeping package of legislation to tackle the crisis. Senate Bill 1 nationalized the power sector, centralizing the nation’s mostly private utilities under the publicly owned Tennessee Valley Authority in the East and the Bonneville Power Authority in the West. Senate Bill 2 created the National Renewable Energy Corporation with a mandate to convert domestic manufacturing capabilities to produce wind turbines and solar panels sufficient to produce 60% of the nation’s electric power with renewable energy by 2030. Senate Bill 3 created the National Nuclear Energy Corporation, which consolidated the nuclear divisions of Westinghouse, General Electric, General Atomics, and Bechtel into a single public corporation with a mandate to operate the nation’s existing nuclear reactors and construct 200 more large light water reactors of a single design to meet the rest of the nation’s electrical needs within 10 years. Senate Bill 4 nationalized the Big Three automakers, along with Tesla. The new national automobile corporation would produce only electric and fuel cell vehicles, with a target of retooling all automobile manufacturing capacity to electric vehicles within three years.

A month after his inauguration, Inslee traveled to meet with European allies. There, he announced his plan to convert NATO to a global climate mitigation and relief force. NATO and its wealthy members would directly finance the construction of low carbon infrastructure across the globe. Like the Marshall plan that rebuilt Europe, NATO would provide long-term, low-interest loans for developing economies to purchase and deploy clean energy technology. NATO forces would also lead relief efforts to rebuild after natural disasters and resettle refugees in regions less vulnerable to climate change. “It doesn’t matter whether you are black, white, or brown, American, Indian, or Chinese,” Inslee thundered at the end of the NATO meetings. “We are all Earthlings now, with a common challenge and a common destiny.” As Inslee boarded Air Force One, en route to meet his Indian and Chinese counterparts, the battle to stop catastrophic climate change had finally been joined.

A RADICAL PROPOSAL

Many conservatives have attacked the Green New Deal as socialism—a Trojan horse that in the name of addressing a manufactured climate crisis reveals the true progressive agenda, which aims to overthrow capitalism, abrogate economic freedom, and centrally plan the US economy. And yet, as my imagined narrative of a climate change presidency illustrates, what is striking about the Green New Deal and similar proposals coming from climate hawks and left-leaning environmentalists is not their radicalism but their modesty.

At a moment when advocates make a range of demands that are simultaneously vague and controversial, from ending capitalism and economic growth to rejecting materialism and consumption to reorganizing the entire global economy around intermittent sources of renewable energy, almost no one, in either electoral politics or nongovernmental organizations, seems willing to demand that governments take direct and obvious actions to slash emissions and replace fossil energy with clean.

By that, I don’t mean simply demanding that governments regulate emissions. Advocates and even many governments have been calling for and even committing to deep emissions cuts for decades now, to little effect. Rather, I mean actually offering specific proposals to rapidly build the infrastructure of a low carbon economy or restrict carbon-intensive activities woven into the fabric of Americans’ daily lives. It is one thing to suggest to Americans that tackling climate change will involve regulating fossil fuel companies or providing tax credits to help build the clean energy industries of the future, quite another to tell them that they will need to stop flying or that starting immediately the government will need to take possession of the auto or utility industries.

As many environmentalists and even elected Democrats have come to believe that serious climate disruption is already upon us, it has become fashionable to call for a World War II-style mobilizationto fight climate change. But virtually no one will actually call for any of the sorts of activities that the United States undertook during the war mobilization—rationing food and fuels, seizing property, nationalizing factories or industries, or suspending democratic liberties.

Nationalize health insurance through Medicare for All? Sure. Nationalize the power sector or the automobile industry? Not so much as a word about it from progressives or democratic socialists advocating a Green New Deal. The environmental literature, both scholarly and advocacy, is similarly rife with calls to drastically cut air travel and meat consumption. But the mere suggestion from critics on the right that the Green New Deal would require restrictions on eating hamburgers (not without cause) and flying provoked howls from environmentalists, who insisted that such claims were just standard conservative smear tactics.

If one believed that the climate crisis was already under way and that the world had only a decade or so not only to stop the growth of emissions but to slash them deeply, an emergency mobilization to rapidly cut carbon dioxide emissions would seemingly be the only sane response. But the apocalyptic rhetoric, endless demands for binding global temperature targets, and radical-sounding condemnations of neoliberalism, consumption, and corporations only conceal how feeble the environmental climate agenda actually is. The vagueness and modesty of the Green New Deal is not proof that progressives and environmentalists are closet socialists. It is, rather, evidence that most climate advocates, though no doubt alarmed, don’t actually see climate change as the immediate and existential threat they suggest it is.

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