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From Environmentalism to Climate Catastrophism: A Democratic Story (Part 2)
The Return of the Apocalypse and the Rise of the Climate Change Movement
This is the second part of a three part series. The first part is here.
Despite the astounding early successes of modern environmentalism, the apocalyptic strain of the movement was simply lying dormant. Given the fundamental contradiction between man and nature, between human economic activity and ecological balance that is assumed by environmentalism and its intellectual origins, it was only a matter of time before an issue or issues arose that rekindled that strain.
The first such issue was nuclear power. From the beginning, opposition to nuclear power was closely linked to opposition to nuclear weapons. The same things that led people to demonstrate against nuclear bombs—deadly radiation and catastrophic explosions—drove people to oppose nuclear power. Surely those plants, since they relied on the same technology that produced nuclear explosions, could easily pollute the environment with radiation and potentially destroy surrounding communities.
The issue was a natural fit to the burgeoning environmentalist consciousness. The first activist group dedicated to the issue was the Citizens Energy Council, founded in 1966, which argued that nuclear power plants were intrinsically unsafe and a health hazard. As the sixties moved into the seventies and nuclear power plants were being rapidly rolled out, opposition grew and was seamlessly blended into the general environmentalist portfolio. If you considered yourself an environmentalist, you also likely opposed nuclear power.
An additional spark for the movement was provided by the early 1970’s energy crisis. This brought home to Americans the need to ramp up the domestic energy supply. This development helped popularize the thinking of environmentalists like anti-nuclear, anti-fossil fuel economist EF Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) and, particularly, Amory Lovins, whose influential Foreign Affairs article, “The Road Not Taken”, built directly on the chaos of the energy crisis to argue that America faced a choice between two paths, the “hard” path, relying on nuclear and fossil fuels (the policy at the time) and the “soft” path that would twin the “benign” energy sources of wind and solar with energy conservation and efficiency. That would both solve the energy crisis, he claimed, and lead to a much better eco-conscious society.
Lovins’ arguments had wide purchase within the environmental movement and the allied and frequently coterminous anti-nuclear power movement (environmentalist organizations like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others had already declared their opposition to nuclear power). His analysis brought together environmentalism, anti-nuclear power and reverence for wind and solar in one big package that quickly became conventional wisdom in activist circles and the wider public they were preaching to.
The apocalyptic strain already visible in the anti-nuclear power movement was turbo-charged by the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. No one died in the incident and the safety systems held, but it is fair to say the event scared the hell out of many people and, of course, the anti-nuclear power movement had a field day. The movie, The China Syndrome, had been released right before the incident and the eerie coincidence further amplified the effect of Three Mile Island on the popular imagination. Nuclear power was cast as a matter of life and death, with the Big Explosion and radiation poisoning always, and inevitably, right around the corner.
Then, of course, there was Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. From 1978 to 2012, no new nuclear power plants were authorized in the United States. The build-out of nuclear power in the country essentially stopped. The anti-nuclear power movement could not eliminate nuclear power entirely (though they’re still trying) but they did largely succeed in the goal of preventing the expansion of nuclear power (already plagued by cost overrun problems) through political obstacles and a super-stringent regulatory process.
The Rise of the Climate Change Issue
That was one apocalypse averted. But there was another one incoming: climate change. Unlike the nuclear power problem, which was dubious scientifically (it is easy to show that nuclear as a power source has an outstanding safety record over time) and owed its place in the public imagination to its association with nuclear weapons and a technology that people were terrified of, the climate change problem had a sound scientific basis. The earth really was warming and that really did have a lot to do with the activities of humankind, specifically the release of greenhouse gases (primarily CO2).
The understanding that human activity could affect the climate goes back a long way, including the potential effects of CO2. Work of Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle and Hans Suess had established by the late 1950’s that CO2 emissions could and were affecting the climate, making it warmer over time. But at the time, this was not regarded as particularly alarming. The New York Times reported on p. 112 of a Sunday edition in 1959: “The world is getting slightly warmer” but most scientists believe the “warming trend” is not “alarming or steep”.
Confusingly, however, the CO2 emissions-warming relationship was put forward in the context of research looking at other emissions (aerosols) whose atmospheric effects raised the possibility not of warming, but of sudden cooling that would overwhelm any warming trend. That was actually the original climate apocalypse—a new Ice Age, not today’s image of a burning globe. Newsweek published “A Cooling World” in 1975 and columnist George Will warned that “There will be megadeaths” due to a global drop of “two or three degrees by the end of the century”. As late as 2004, a popular movie, The Day After Tomorrow, portrayed a sudden, disastrous cooling of the earth producing a frozen globe.
But the science eventually converged on the gradual warming assessment and the central role of CO2. The real impact though didn’t come until 1988 when NASA’s James Hansen testified before the Senate on June 23rd, during a US heat wave and a worldwide pattern of extreme weather, “Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements…With 99 percent confidence we can state that the warming during this time period is a real warming trend….Carbon dioxide is changing our climate now.”
Extensive coverage of Hansen’s testimony began the process of cementing the association in the public mind between climate change and the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and, eventually, the possibility of a dystopian future. Fortuitously, the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto was held just four days after Hansen’s testimony and attracted reporters primed by Hansen’s testimony and on the hunt for newsworthy predictions. They were duly provided. The conference called for immediate action to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2005. It was averred that climate change could be nearly as serious as nuclear war.
Also in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations providing a mechanism for synthesizing the exploding scientific research on the issue and establishing it as a area of worldwide concern. In tandem with this outpouring of scientific research was the beginnings of what has become a tsunami of popular treatments of the issue. This key work here is Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature.
The core concept that was being established by these testimonies, conferences, research syntheses and books was that the “greenhouse effect” was real, was caused by emissions of human origin and was, in fact, changing the climate of the planet. Specifically, it was making the planet warmer over time. If the greenhouse effect was allowed to go unchecked, it therefore followed that the climate could get warm enough to have very serious adverse effects on human societies, from rising sea levels to extreme temperatures and weather. Thus, a real problem with a real scientific basis presented itself and called for action.
As the late 1980’s moved into the 1990’s, action on climate change did make its way onto the agenda. It is interesting to note that at the very beginning, concern about climate change was not totally Democratic-coded. George H.W. Bush made a point of calling for action on the problem in his 1988 Presidential campaign. Bush in office did, in fact, take some action including helping establish the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change. But in short order the issue became heavily partisanized as fossil fuel companies mounted PR campaigns around the issue designed to cast doubt on the reality of global warming and hence for any need cut down on fossil fuels. Republicans fell into line.
Over the course of the 1990’s, the issue increasingly became the central issue of the environmental movement and ever more strongly associated with the Democrats. Democrats sought to advance both cooperative international action and a domestic plan to move away from greenhouse gases. The idea was that America and the world could continue to grow but that, over time, it was necessary to replace fossil fuels with clean energy to keep global temperatures under control and avoid disastrous outcomes. Given political will, that could be achieved by gradual reform.
In 1993, the Clinton administration commissioned a Climate Change Action Plan, though it had little muscle behind it and was mostly a set of voluntary recommendations for businesses. In 1997, the international Kyoto Protocol, which had countries commit to set targets for emissions reduction, was promulgated. This was an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, which President George HW Bush had helped develop. However, while President Clinton signed the Protocol, it did not have enough support to be ratified by the Senate.
When Al Gore, who was a staunch environmentalist, advocate of the Kyoto Protocol and strong proponent of reducing greenhouse gases ran for President in 2000 against George W. Bush, he leaned into these issues. Environmental protection, he declared, should be “the central organizing principle of civilization”. Bush disagreed on all counts. The increased salience of the issue hurt Gore in some states linked to fossil fuels with, notably, formerly deep blue West Virginia (Clinton carried it by 15 points) flipping to the GOP (Bush carried it by 5 points).
In office, President Bush withdrew from the Protocol entirely. However, the Bush administration did set a goal of an 18 percent reduction in emissions over then next ten years. That was not particularly satisfying for the burgeoning climate movement, who spent the Bush years getting more and more frustrated about lack of action on climate and vowing that once the Democrats got back into office they would press for massive efforts to combat global warming.
The Temperature Rises within the Climate Change Movement
In the interregnum, the climate movement, reflecting that perception and their view of the scale of the problem, became increasingly apocalyptic in their pronouncements. In a sense, they were getting back to the environmental movement’s Vogtian roots. Action to stop global warming must be very large-scale and very fast; otherwise, that could be it for Planet Earth and even humanity itself. Along those lines, Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and his famous slide show, which did not hold back in its assessment of the direness of the situation and the lateness of the hour, had a huge influence on the public discussion.
In 2008, 350.org was founded by Bill McKibben and some college graduates who had been working with him. Its tone was explicitly Vogtian. The goal was address the climate “crisis” by creating an international movement that could end the use of fossil fuels and hasten the transition to renewables (essentially, wind and solar). As the group states in the history on its website:
When we started organizing in 2008, we saw climate change as the most important issue facing humanity — but climate action was mired in politics and all but stalled. We didn’t know how to fix things, but we knew that one missing ingredient was a climate movement that reflected the scale of the crisis.
Naturally, expectations were high among climate activists when the Obama administration took office in 2009. Initially, some hope was vested in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which would have set up an emissions trading system. However, while the bill passed the House it predictably died in the Senate. More promising was the very substantial amount of money devoted to clean energy in the Obama administration stimulus bill (the ARRA, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
This bill’s commitment to clean energy was a notable advance in magnitude over prior Democratic commitments. In 1999, President Clinton proposed a $6.3 billion clean energy bill that died a very quick legislative death. The stimulus bill poured $90 billion into clean energy, more than 14 times what Clinton proposed.
As summarized by one booster of the bill, the bill provided:
…unprecedented government investments in a smarter grid, cleaner coal, energy efficiency in every imaginable form, “green-collar” job training, electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them, advanced biofuels and the refineries to brew them, renewable power from the sun, the wind, and the heat below the earth, and factories to manufacture all that green stuff in the United States.
One of the chief purposes of the bill was to jolt the flagging US clean energy industry to life. The provision of loans and cash grants to renewable energy and related firms did have considerable success along these lines. One goal was to double renewable power generation within Obama’s first term, which it did achieve.
Nevertheless, climate advocates were still quite unsatisfied with what the Obama administration initially accomplished. Many felt that the administration had not spent sufficient political capital on Waxman-Markey, focusing instead on the health care issue. Given advocates’ rising millenarian commitment to rapid social transformation through a clean energy transition, the failure to give fighting climate change a higher priority was viewed as a sellout to fossil fuel interests.
Even the Obama administration’s further actions on climate change, including the 2013 Climate Action Plan and the followup Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut 32 percent of emissions from electrical power plants, and adhering to the 2015 international Paris Agreement, failed to satisfy advocates who wanted more action and faster. After all, went the thinking, the earth was burning and this was all Obama was doing?
Climate advocates had been dismayed by Obama’s embrace in March 2012, in the run-up to the 2012 election, of an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy and the clean energy transition. He said, “We need an energy strategy for the future—an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.” He boasted that his administration had “quadrupled the number of operating oilrigs to a record high” and “opened up millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration.”
They were even more dismayed by the further development of Obama’s strategy in 2014. In July of that year a 43-page White House report formally outlined “The All-Of-The-Above Energy Strategy as a Path to Sustainable Economic Growth”. The report began:
The U.S. energy sector is undergoing a profound transformation. The United States is producing more oil and natural gas, is generating more electricity from renewables such as wind and solar, and is consuming less petroleum while holding electricity consumption constant. These developments have had substantial economic and energy security benefits, and they are helping to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector and thereby tackle the challenge posed by climate change…. The All-of-the-Above energy strategy has three key elements: to support economic growth and job creation, to enhance energy security, and to deploy low-carbon energy technologies and lay the foundation for a clean energy future.
The report and the strategy it outlined recognized, implicitly or explicitly, several key realities of a clean energy transition: (1) fossil fuels would continue to play a big role in the American energy mix for a long time to come; (2) energy policy has to be considered in the context of energy security; (3) energy policy has to be about economic growth and jobs not just clean energy; and (4) wind and solar, while important, are just one part of an all-of-the-above strategy.
The climate movement was appalled. A letter was sent to Obama by 18 environmental organizations, including Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They characterized the policy as “a compromise that future generations can’t afford. It…locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future.”
Bill McKibben and 350.org duly upped the ante with a “A Call to Arms” for a massive climate march, which wound up getting 1500 organizational cosponsors. On September 21, 2014, 400,000 people marched in New York for the People’s Climate March, easily the biggest climate demonstration yet. By 2015, fossil fuel divestment had become the fastest growing divestment movement in history. The table was set for the next stage of the movement.
Next: The Triumph of Climate Catastrophism and the Challenge for Today’s Left