December 3, 2009

Cutting Through the Climate Fog

Chris Hayes makes the case for focusing the climate change debate on -- wait for it -- climate change:
But overall, the public opinion data on climate point to a deeper problem with the way the capping of carbon has been sold, both by Democratic lawmakers and progressive activists--that is, as a bill that seems to have nothing to do with catastrophic climate change. "Make no mistake: this is a jobs bill," President Obama said about the House-passed version of cap and trade (the name of which--American Clean Energy and Security Act--manages to avoid mentioning climate).


This is all true, of course, so far as it goes: cap and trade will create strong incentives for innovation in an economy that badly needs them and will begin re-engineering the fossil fuel economy in a way that will surely create net job benefits. Over time, if we stick to it, it will also delink our foreign and military policies from the pursuit of oil. But those aren't the main reasons to pass the bill. Stopping the planet from melting is.
Fundamentally, keeping climate change from getting out of control is a moral imperative, not only for our sake, but for the sake of our descendants and those who live in poorer and more vulnerable parts of the world. But making moral appeals for public policy, especially where the benefits are diffuse and the costs are often direct, isn't done much by our elites anymore, even those on the left. Tony Judt's recent lecture on social democracy touches on this:
For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.
I'd also add that emphasizing the moral dimensions of climate change could help focus public opinion on the matter. It's well known, for example, that while Americans are generally supportive of doing something about climate change, their views are heavily influenced by all manner of factors, including partisanship, the economy, and even the weather. And it's not just America, either: this graph (via Kate MacKenzie) shows that people in England have a muddled view of the problem too:From a policymaker's perspective, both the things that people think the government is not doing enough of and the things they're doing too much of are necessary -- as is carbon trading, which barely registers with most people. But of course most people aren't thinking of these things as parts of an overall policy, and we shouldn't expect them to. We can, however, make the case that we have a responsibility to do something about climate change; and that, while some shared sacrifice may be involved (though not as much as the doomsayer right believes), it would be wrong for us to shirk this responsibility. That, I think, most people can understand intuitively.

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