From a lecture at the American University School of International Service, Washington, DC, April 26:  A few thoughts about the political and cultural implications of the climate change problem and what it implies for going forward.

[Excerpt from a lecture at American University School of International Service, Washington, DC, April 26, 2012, with just a bit of editing for posting.]

… Climate change is an enormously complicated problem to deal with – to get global agreements on something that is so pervasive, under the best of circumstances. But what we’ve seen during the past several years is that US action has been blocked by an intense and thus far effective pushback against a strong climate change policy.  Any attempt to deal with the issue in Congress has collapsed. President Obama, at least until he said a few sentences in an interview with Rolling Stone the other day, had hardly mentioned climate change for the last couple of years. Apparently he hasn’t figured out how to make it a vote winner for himself, although he knows better and I think he understands quite well what the climate science is saying.

As a result of there being no major action, no high-profile leadership, among the US political elite, media attention just fell off the table, and public attention goes elsewhere. Now you have a real disconnect between what the climate science is saying – with findings and assessments that appropriately instill some sense of urgency – and the lack of action in the political arena.

Let me offer a few thoughts about why the climate change problem has become so polarized and what it implies for going forward. It was becoming apparent even 20 years ago, but it has really crystallized now.  Support for and opposition to climate change mitigation policy – and now I would also add adaptive preparedness policy, since the impacts are already starting to be experienced – has become another aspect of a larger conflict over the direction of the country.  It developed along partisan lines.  It developed in terms of different philosophies and value systems.  And not only does it involve the highest level of the power elite and how they determine their interests, but it’s also, at the grassroots, part of the culture war in this country. It’s beyond anything scientists can deal with directly; it’s moved into a different kind of arena.

Consider the implications of the climate change problem, and you can see the kind of threat the problem poses, and why it becomes politically difficult.  Take the framing that’s used in a major set of reports by the National Academy of Sciences, called America’s Climate Choices, a four-volume set that came out in 2010 and 2011.  This was a wide-ranging study that covered all aspects of the problem.

If you think in terms of wanting to limit global warming to a certain amount, beyond which there’s some expectation that it would produce very harmful effects, 2 degrees Celsius global average surface temperature above the pre-industrial level has come to be widely regarded as a threshold that should not be crossed. We’re almost at 1 degree already, with another half-degree in the pipeline from past emissions because of thermal lag in how the Earth system works.  Two degrees – some would say a bit more or less than that.  This means that you have to limit atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which have the heat-trapping effect – and the corollary effects of warming the ocean, raising the sea level, acidifying the ocean, and impacting the marine ecosystem and food chain.

If you’re going to limit the atmospheric concentrations then you have to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases. You have to do it globally because the gases are long-lived and well-mixed in the atmosphere. This implies, the Academy’s America’s Climate Choices report concluded, that there is a kind of global carbon budget of how much more fossil fuel emissions we can emit from aggregate human activity in order to prevent potentially disastrous climate change impacts.

This implies, if you could get the governments of the world in a productive negotiating mode, that they would have to allocate this budget. What’s a fair way to do that? On the international front it can be interpreted as a problem of equitable sustainable development. You can’t consign the most vulnerable populations in developing countries, who are least responsible for burning coal and oil, to poverty indefinitely. Everybody has to be allowed to develop. Even if you make an expedited transition toward some sort of alternative energy system to replace coal and oil as fast as you can with highly elegant energy-efficiency and decarbonized energy sources, most of that global carbon budget would have to be allocated to developing countries.

And you need their buy-in – it’s one atmosphere, one planet. You have China, India, and Brazil– if other major developing countries don’t buy into an agreement and there isn’t one, no one country can solve the problem. And no country will escape the consequences. I think there are some rich people who think they personally can find a way to buy themselves out of it – but not on a societal-wide basis.

Even if you turned off emissions tomorrow in the developing countries, there’s enough going on in just North America, Europe, the industrialized countries, to raise the global temperature more than two degrees. And even if you turned all of that off, there’s enough going on now in the developing countries to do the same. So everybody has to be involved in the solution. But what is an equitable way to do that? Arguably, if you allocate the global carbon budget equitably, there’s not that much left for the United States; we burned ours already.

So now you really start to get beyond the realm of near-term political plausibility. Who’s going to take that up as a policy stance? And what are the implications of collective failure?  All of this implies – and this is how the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives, the Democrats and Republicans, tend to go in different directions – addressing the climate change challenge implies government activism.  It cannot be dealt with at the level of actions by individuals.  And it is unrealistic to think that it will be dealt with globally by a de-regulated market economy.

It requires international agreements among governments. It requires that the United States submit to international agreements and constrain its own behavior.  It requires some kind of proactive US government policy to regulate greenhouse gases; to do adaptive preparedness planning; to support the research and development of new energy technologies.

Government activism and regulation and international agreements – these are the kinds of things in the great divide of American politics that seem easier for the liberal/left/progressive side to deal with. It’s more congenial to their underlying philosophy. So they don’t have as much problem with the climate scientists. But the right-wing conservatives tend to be very threatened by this. They hear ‘government control of our lives; telling us what kind of car to drive; what light bulbs to use.’

So you get, on the one hand, at the level of corporate power: ‘we have trillions of dollars invested in fossil energy infrastructure; they’re not going to take that away from us. We’re going to stop the political process from acting on this.’ Among the grassroots conservatives it’s, ‘we cannot accept the implications of this.’

So you get a rejection of the science: ‘There must be something wrong with what the climate scientists are saying.’  It’s like: ‘the scientists and the environmentalists and the liberal politicians are getting together and plotting to get control of the society and start dictating to everyone else.’ It’s a threat to them.

And those two forces seem to have coalesced in the political arena.  On the one hand, the corporate interests that don’t want to be regulated, wealthy anti-regulatory ideologues, and the political elites that are aligned with them.  On the other, the grassroots conservatives who are culturally at odds with liberal values and what they see as liberal elites. It’s beyond climate science now, it’s embedded in that larger context in a way that makes effective action much more difficult.

That’s where we are right now. I find it difficult to see a near-term way forward for major progress – although when the Yale Poll and the Gallup Poll survey public opinion nationwide, it appears that most of the public acknowledges that humans are causing global warming, and that most people at least in principle would support some kind of action to deal with it. Although of course, who would have to change in what way and pay how much is a problematic issue.

But there’s a minority within the society that now, in order to defend its ‘conservative’ value system and a deregulated free market, is willing to attack climate science and even to call into question the integrity and credibility of the climate science community in order to avoid coming to grips with the implications of this problem.

If good science education were sufficient, we would be farther along by now. Science education seems to be lost on a lot of people.  If good information about all the things we could do with energy conservation and renewable energy were sufficient, we would be farther along. If good sophisticated policy analysis and policy-wonk ideas were sufficient, we would be farther along by now. The problem is embedded more deeply than that, and has to be addressed somehow in those terms in order to get past this.

It will require dealing with both the problem of corporate power and political obstacles and the problem of conflicting cultural values and how this plays into science denial.

Also see (more on these later)

Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (Wiley, 2012)

Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” (The Nation, November 28, 2011)

Earlier posts:

US Climate Policy: Lecture at George Washington University , Elliott School of International Affairs

The collision of climate science and politics, part 1 – lecture at American University, November 2011

The collision of climate science and politics, part 2 – lecture at American University, November 2011