What if American Democracy Fails the Climate Crisis?

Of late, I’ve been obsessing over a single question: What if political systems, in the United States and internationally, fail to curb climate change?

It can seem an impolite question, even as it’s the path we’re on. President Biden’s climate agenda is both ambitious and, on its own, insufficient. Its political prospects are mixed at best. The international picture is little better. Only a few countries are on track to meet the goals laid out in the Paris agreement, and none of the major emitters are among them.

That is not to say there is no reason for optimism or hope. Clean-energy and battery technologies are outpacing even the brightest projections from a few years ago. Activist movements worldwide are gathering strength and flexing newly won power. A rising generation understands the urgency of the moment, even if their elders do not. The trends are, broadly, going in the right direction. But they need to move faster.

And so we convened this panel of climate experts with different backgrounds — technological, literary, political, academic — to try to reconcile the reality of our political progress with the scale of the emergency. Ezra Klein

The Participants

Saul Griffith
Chief scientist and founder of both Otherlab and Rewiring America, a nonprofit that advocates rapid electrification to meet our climate goals.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright
Climate-policy director at the Roosevelt Institute and an author of the Green New Deal.

Sheila Jasanoff
Professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Kim Stanley Robinson
Novelist and author, most recently, of “The Ministry for the Future.”

Are our political systems even capable?

Ezra Klein: The American Jobs Act, President Biden’s infrastructure bill, includes an ambitious clean-energy standard and huge investments in renewable-energy and electric-car technologies. It is effectively this administration’s big climate bill. Its passage right now certainly isn’t clear. But even if it did pass in its proposed form, how far would it get us on the climate fight?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: It would certainly be a good start, but it really leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the scale is simply too small; $900 billion on climate is not enough to catalyze the pace of decarbonization we will need in order to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030, while providing millions of good jobs. That’s more like $10 trillion over 10 years. It isn’t entirely the Biden administration’s fault. The reconciliation process in Congress, just because of the way that it is structured, really forces you to rely really heavily on existing programs. For example, the plan routes some of its investments in the built environment through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, which has a history of being exploited by developers. It also relies heavily on existing tax credits to fund the building and deployment of clean-energy infrastructure. If the programs that we had were enough to decarbonize, they would have done that already. It is certainly better than what we have now, but there’s still a lot of room to improve.

Saul Griffith: It’s not even remotely close to sufficient. But something extraordinary did happen when the Biden administration came out and said it was aiming for a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. It may not be binding, but that is enormously more ambitious than John F. Kennedy standing up and saying we’ll go to the moon by the end of the decade. We knew how to build rockets, and we knew where the moon was. We don’t know all the answers of where we’re going.

Now you see, basically daily, the news stories of automobile companies bringing forward the date of the last time they’re going to produce the internal-combustion-engine car. It’s gone from 2050 for most companies last year to 2030, and some are talking 2025. We might just be at the very beginning of the reinforcing cycle of ambition begetting more commitment, which begets more ambition. We are absolutely not even remotely on track yet. But this, I think, is what it feels like as you start to ramp up.

Gunn-Wright: I mean, there’s definitely momentum, but there’s still a lot of desire to do this work in ways that look and feel familiar and keep power relationships the same as they have been for a very long time. There is a reason that we are talking about moving climate policy through budget reconciliation — not straight-out legislation. It’s because certain people don’t want to get rid of the filibuster. With the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration was comfortable using deficit spending because it was an acute crisis. That is not the case for the infrastructure package. They don’t actually consider climate to be that type of crisis. And there is still a real desire to have this transformation happen in a way that is painless, and painless for particular people, and to have the same type of people bear the pain that often bear the pain of the system — largely Black, Latino, poor communities.

Klein: Sheila, from your perspective, as someone who thinks about how societies reason and how ideas get legitimacy, do you think we have a process for generating sustainable climate policy nationally or internationally, really at all? Are we looking at a political challenge? Or are we dealing with some deeper absence than that?

Sheila Jasanoff: That’s a huge question. When one hears what Rhiana just had to say about making do with the tools that are already around, one can’t avoid thinking about moving deck chairs on the Titanic. The challenge for politics, I think, is what we in the social sciences call reframing. That is: Are we looking at the problem in the right way at all? And if you were to begin with climate change that way, you’d have to start with the fact that the per capita contribution of greenhouse-gas emissions is not the same across the globe; it’s orders of magnitude different in some parts of the world than others. So if there are people today who contribute next to nothing, shouldn’t we aim to reproduce their lifestyles at scale? Or should we say that those are the lifestyles of the impoverished and that they have to live like people in more developed countries do, and then turn to technology to fix the consequences? There’s something a little absurd in that idea — that after some portion of us poisoned the planet through a set of consumption practices, now we must worry that another six billion people will want to make that same transition by adopting the lifestyle changes that produced the problem in the first place.

Griffith: The historical contributors to the carbon in the atmosphere — the United States and Western Europe — are not going to produce a majority of future emissions. One of the biggest determinants of our climate outcomes is how elegantly India, China and Africa do this transition. That’s four billion people. The U.S. is 300 million people. America has a big role in helping those countries leapfrog some of the mistakes we have made in developing, particularly India and Africa. China is doing a pretty good job by itself.

In the United States, everyone is optimistic because the Ford F-Series trucks, one of the most produced vehicles ever in human history — nearly 40 million of them so far — are now going electric. That’s great news for those people who wish to continue the F-150 lifestyle. But in the background, more is happening. Some 25 million of the 74 million two-wheeled scooters that sold last year were electric. That is far more relevant to Africa, to Asia, because that is the reality of the transportation systems there.

Klein: Optimists say that because of advances in technology, maybe even if the politics fails here, there’s a technological path where we avert the worst consequences of climate change just because innovation is beginning to accelerate so rapidly. Do you think there’s some possibility of that?

Griffith: I think it’s very unlikely that you get there with technology alone. Our politics co-evolved with a century of fossil fuels, and so a huge portion of our regulations still favor the incumbent, which is fossil fuels. I have a lot of optimism that by around 2024 the cost of solar, electric vehicles, batteries, wind and heat pumps convincingly give us the opportunity to save money on everything, basically everywhere. In Australia, where I’m calling in from, one kilowatt-hour of rooftop solar costs about a third of what a kilowatt-hour of grid-delivered electricity does in the U.S. We can make everyone’s energy future cheaper, but politics has to work with technology, which has to work with finance.

‘There is still a real desire to have this transformation happen in a way that is painless, and painless for particular people.’

Klein: Stan, imagining outside the current context is your specialty as a science-fiction novelist, so I’m wondering what you think the weaknesses of our current systems are.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, we are stuck in an international system of nation-states, and we don’t have time to invent and institute any kind of alternative world governance, so we have to use what we’ve got. But we also have the Paris agreement, and climate equity was written into it so that developed rich nations were tasked with paying more and doing more and helping the historically disadvantaged and even colonized nations. Executing all that is, of course, a different story.

Jasanoff: We recently had a president of the United States who simply decided overnight to bow out of the Paris agreement.

Robinson: It is a fragile system. It could become like the League of Nations. In the future, to the extent that there will be historians, they may look back and say it was a good idea that failed. People may look back to our time and say, Here was a crux, and then they blew it. This is the power of the basic science-fictional exercise of looking at our own time as if from the future, thus judging ourselves as actors in creating history. From that imaginary perspective, it can sometimes become blazingly obvious what we should do now. Parochial concerns over quarterly returns or the selfish privileges of currently existing wealthy people fade to insignificance when you take the long view and see us teetering on the edge of causing a mass-extinction event that would hammer all future living creatures.

What happens when the system is under stress?

Klein: Covid functioned, in some ways, as a test run for how our political systems would handle the disruptions of climate change. It was a crisis that experts had warned about for years and years. And we didn’t really prepare at all. And then it hit. And so you’d imagine that the last year has led to a tremendous sharpening of our catastrophic imagination, that the idea that the perils we are told will come are not abstract, that they really do come and they really transform our lives. On the other hand, you can read it the opposite way: It’s a potentially scary lesson in how much external destruction the rich countries, if they can protect themselves, will get used to. How has the pandemic changed your model of how societies will envision and then respond to true catastrophe?

Jasanoff: I have spent 16 months thinking about almost nothing other than what you’re talking about. There was an interesting moment in France when the health minister was being questioned about why the initial modeling of the spread of the disease in France failed. And she said in public testimony that one point their modelers hadn’t reckoned on was that there were direct flights from Wuhan to Paris. This was not in their model. Just pause for a second to consider that: In modeling the spread of the disease, the advisers to the health minister of France didn’t know that there were direct flights from Wuhan to Paris. So, these are moments that make one reflect on the hubris of so-called knowledge. What is it that people are seeing, and what is it that they’re not seeing when contemplating the next catastrophe? And why? Those are, I think, the questions that we should be confronting as well.

Gunn-Wright: I think it’s important to note that in the United States, that resistance to masks and social distancing was not equally racially distributed or equally distributed by class or income. And I do think it’s important when we have takeaways like that to actually note and wonder what that means and what drove that, because it wasn’t happening across the board.

Griffith: I worry that America might learn the wrong lesson from Covid. There’s a lot of optimism there now, because magically the vaccines arrived. I think that’s a fairly natural response. But a similar level of success with climate change — let’s say, staying under two degrees of warming — won’t be easy. The existing machines in the world that burn fossil fuels — the coal plants, natural-gas plants, cars, furnaces and boilers in people’s basements — if they’re allowed to live out their natural life spans, they will emit enough carbon dioxide to take us very close to two degrees. We need very close to perfect execution: When we retire anything that emits carbon dioxide, we must replace it with the thing that won’t emit carbon dioxide.

And that will only get us under two degrees if we have a World War II “arsenal of democracy”-style intervention in the economy. Back then, American manufacturing was ramped up to make the materials to win the war: bullets, tanks, airplanes, Liberty ships. The bullets to win this war are batteries, electric vehicles, offshore wind platforms, wind turbines, solar, rooftop solar and heat pumps. All those industries are about 10 times below the production rates we need to hit this target. No better time to do that than coming out of the pandemic, when unemployment is high and we need to put people back to work.

‘Living in fossil fuels was to live in a smaller world, cocooned in crap. Decarbonization can actually make us more alive.’

Jasanoff: The research team I’ve been leading has looked into this, and it turns out that military victor countries tend to use war metaphors for confronting climate change and not military nonparticipants. So the war metaphor was reportedly not used in Sweden at all. That’s quite interesting. It was occasionally used by Angela Merkel, but only to get citizens to remember what a period of shared suffering had been like. So we’ve been talking about imagination. And there’s a serious question: Who is doing this imagining of our collective future?

In the United States, for instance, we favor individual and technological solutions for social problems. In Cambridge, Mass., where I live, we have reconfigured practically every major road in town to make it very difficult for cars and very easy for bikes. But why cars and bikes if the problem is mobility for all? I’m a senior. I’m not going to go riding around Cambridge, doing my shopping at Whole Foods, then bringing it back on a bicycle. So I’m supposed to use Uber — I mean, is that the solution?

Griffith: I am all in favor of public transit, but it is not the only answer. The per-passenger-mile energy consumption of these two-wheeled scooters and mo-peds and electric bicycles, this is far lower than the per-passenger-mile energy cost of public-transit systems. We’re seeing experiments run all over the world in what new mobility options can look like.

I think the great Zoom experiment is going to be more significant than public transport. A huge number of people have realized that an enormous amount of the traveling we do is tedious, expensive and time-consuming and can be eliminated. So there’s a piece of our imagination that was released by the experience of the pandemic. Honestly, I think Stan is on the vanguard. In your novel “The Ministry for the Future,” I particularly loved how you imagined people in the future using dirigibles and slow air transport as the solution to noisy, fast jets.

Robinson: We’re already seeing companies developing airships for short hops between cities, which would greatly reduce the carbon burn for this form of travel without adding too much to the trip time. And speed itself is not of the essence when you can both work and enjoy yourself during these transits.

Because we absolutely have to decarbonize civilization as fast as we can, if that involves slowing down supply chains — meaning profits — and slowing down the economy generally, and slowing down our own personal travel around this planet, so that the planet grows bigger for those of us who do travel, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to understand that living in fossil fuels was to live in a smaller world, cocooned in crap. Decarbonization can actually make us more alive.

And what if politics does fail?

Klein: Stan, in “The Ministry for the Future,” you imagine the aftermath of a heat wave in India that leads to 20 million deaths. The country begins blasting particulates into the air for a period of time in a desperate effort to bring the temperature down. Violent movements arise that put pressure on political systems by causing property damage and assassinating people who are seen as responsible for climate change. Now, your book is a work of fiction, but of course some people believe that you need more extrapolitical action to prevent the worst from happening. The Swedish scholar Andreas Malm just published a book called “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” arguing for direct property damage as a way to impose pressure on the system and to make the costs of the status quo more visible. Stan, what do you think will happen if politics fails?

Robinson: You can never say politics has failed. It never goes away. I read Zachary Carter’s book about Keynes, “The Price of Peace.” After World War II, everyone realized that a new world had to be set up. They got Bretton Woods. And in the Depression, there was the New Deal. At the time, everybody supported the idea that the rich should pay more in taxes. In 1944, the top marginal rate — above $200,000, which is about $3 million now — was 94 percent. And this rate remained above 90 percent through Eisenhower and a Republican Congress, because after World War II people felt that excessive wealth was morally wrong. I think that should come back if we want a sustainable future.

I feel we’ve got momentum in 2021 that is simply stupendous compared with 2019. It’s like 1978 compared with 1982. It’s one of these rapid cultural transitions that happens from time to time, and I don’t see why there would be any turning back if the momentum gathers even a little bit more.

Klein: The idea about India putting sulfates in the air to cool off the planet isn’t pure science fiction. It is actually pretty frequently invoked as an example of the sort of geoengineering that we may need to do to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change. Stan, you imagine a number of these in your book, including pumping out water from beneath glaciers — can you talk more about that?

Robinson: I mean, sea-level rise is going to happen. We’ve already baked in a certain amount of sea-level rise, and it will be devastating to the coastlines. I was intrigued by this suggestion of a glaciologist — that if we just suck the water out from underneath the big glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, we might go back to an ordinary level of sea-level rise, or at least a much lesser one. And this pumping out of meltwater from underneath glaciers is a known technology that in fact uses similar methods to the oil industry, and might even be something the oil industry could be set to doing, given that it is going to be an ex-industry because of the need to keep oil in the ground.

Klein: As somebody thinks about the science-fiction scenarios for the future, do you think there’s a chance that we don’t act fast enough but do discover and implement subsequent interventions that spare us the worst of the consequences?

Robinson: Throwing dust up into the atmosphere would be, I think, an emergency gesture on a temporary basis, in effect imitating a volcanic eruption and hoping that five years of slightly lower temperatures would save us from brutal heat waves. And if one nation suffers a catastrophic heat-death event and then decides to go this route, no other nation will have any legal or moral standing to object to it. Nor is it clear that it would be bad for civilization or the biosphere. Arguments about moral hazard become irrelevant in such an emergency, and worries about secondary effects are speculative and not supported by what has actually happened after real volcanic explosions.

Klein: Rhiana, geoengineering hasn’t traditionally been part of the Green New Deal. Should it be?

Gunn-Wright: Not in my opinion. And I say this based on the opinions of frontline activists. I don’t live near places where geoengineering would happen. But people who do are very afraid of the ecological consequences. Given our general orientation toward a desire for a silver bullet that doesn’t require much change in how power is distributed, I fear that a lot of money will go there and not toward other things that we know would help but are more difficult to do. So, no, I don’t think it’s right for the Green New Deal.

Jasanoff: I wanted to raise the question of responsibility, which hasn’t come up. I think people around the world see very clearly that we are not equally responsible for emissions. The word “Anthropocene” imagines that there’s a single anthropos and that the ages of humanity are measured according to its collective actions. And I think people’s lived experience is not of a singular humanity but of one that’s very much stratified and unequal. So, will people mobilize on a sufficient scale to make the hard choices? For some people, it’s not a hard choice. They’re already living at a subsistence level. So what are you going to tell them to do?

In a way, these geoengineering ideas are the solutions of the supersaturated mind. Having conceptualized the planet as one, having conceptualized humanity as a unitary anthropos, having conceptualized climate change as a global phenomenon, now all it can think of is a global technological solution.

Klein: But for a lot of people, it is a hard choice, including people who were looking forward to choices that they may now not have. And so let me end on this question: Does the future really have to be one of less? Or can climate change be solved within a context of abundance?

Griffith: I am optimistic that materially all of our lives can improve. It doesn’t mean we have a higher volume of things in our life. We will have more things that last longer and far, far fewer disposable things. But that doesn’t mean you have an empty house and a boring life. It probably means you have beautiful objects that you have a lot better relationship with. We have concepts like the Polynesian mana, in which the value of the object comes from its age and its history, not because of its shininess and newness. I am optimistic that we can bring billions of people up the quality-of-life ladder, but we don’t get there with our existing notions of property, ownership, debt and land use.

Gunn-Wright: I have never figured out a way, particularly as a Black woman, to tell people who have been oppressed and who have seen, you know, different things held up as luxuries or standards that will come to them eventually, that that is not the version of life that they should or can seek. That they have borne all sorts of ills to not get the thing that they thought might be their reward. I think that is incredibly difficult. And I don’t know how one delivers that message or even, as a person, takes that in.

Jasanoff: And no matter what happens, there will be a class of people, all over the planet, who will have the money, the political connections, the insurance to move their houses inland or up the hill or whatever. And who knows, maybe the kind of thinking that we had in the United States back in the 1970s, about the population explosion and the need to control the global population, could make a return. You know, who cares if there is a winnowing out of global humanity if Noah’s ark can be made available for the rich?

This discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity, with material added from follow-up interviews.

Illustrations by Francesco Muzzi.

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