Energy & Environment

Against Climate Panic, for Climate Hope

Students at a climate-change protest in Los Angeles, Calif., March 15, 2019. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
We must craft a conservative, ecomodernist vision of environmental action.

Yesterday I read one of the sadder articles I’ve read in a long time. It’s in BuzzFeed, and it’s the personal story of a young woman who became a “birth striker.” That’s a person who chooses not to have children — as an act of personal autonomy, yes, but also as a statement of despair at the state and fate of the world.

It’s difficult to overstate the bleakness of her vision. When friends tell her that her children could be agents of change, she responds:

I want to agree with them, but I can’t. Because we are in a crisis, an emergency. And my kid won’t solve it, and your kid won’t solve it. If they are empaths they will feel just as trapped as I do, just as complicit in something they cannot solve — and they will pollute and harm and gobble up the world because that is what it means to live in the 21st century.

When she had an unintended pregnancy, she tried to get an abortion but couldn’t afford the procedure. When she told her environmentalist friends that she was pregnant, “they froze. Did I know that abortion was an option? they asked. As if I did not. One friend sat silently for a long time after I told him, and then sniffed. ‘That baby will use up a lot of resources,’ he said, then got up slowly and biked away.”

She gave her child up for adoption. She loves her daughter, and she’s “glad she exists,” but she also says that “her existence — white, middle class, pampered — will make it harder, in some slippery, maddening math that is not her fault, for others to do the same.”

The author’s words echo the despair of another writer, who wrote these words last year in the pages of the New York Times:

I cried two times when my daughter was born. First for joy, when after 27 hours of labor the little feral being we’d made came yowling into the world, and the second for sorrow, holding the earth’s newest human and looking out the window with her at the rows of cars in the hospital parking lot, the strip mall across the street, the box stores and drive-throughs and drainage ditches and asphalt and waste fields that had once been oak groves. A world of extinction and catastrophe, a world in which harmony with nature had long been foreclosed. My partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet, and I could see no way to shield her from the future.

There is now such a thing as “climate-change anxiety,” and as the Washington Post reported last month, it’s filtering into pop culture. A key subplot in one episode of the HBO series Big Little Lies featured a child suffering an actual panic attack during a classroom climate-change discussion. In another HBO show, Euphoria, a character justifies her drug use by claiming that “the world’s coming to an end, and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”

I’m reminded of the nuclear fears that haunted my generation. I grew up during intense Cold War tensions. As a young nerd, I even tried to calculate whether our house was in the blast radius if the Soviets targeted the Bluegrass Army Depot, a nearby storage facility for chemical weapons. I remember watching The Day After when I was 14 years old, and the next morning it was all anyone talked about in my Kentucky public school.

I’m not going to say that nuclear fears dominated our minds, but they certainly dominated some minds, and the anxiety could be very real.

But I think there’s a key difference between climate-change anxiety and nuclear anxiety: There is far more cause for hope for the future now than there was then. In fact, if you rewind to 1983, we were facing a recent world experience that clearly taught us that catastrophic great-power conflict wasn’t just possible but was the recent norm in human affairs. Two opposing powers faced each other, bristling with weapons, and history taught us that this was a recipe for total war. We did not have concrete reason to hope for the peace that did, in fact, come.

But what is recent history teaching us about the human condition on this planet? It gives us both cause for concern and reason for hope. One does not have to buy the doomsday scenarios — including the predictions that we have a decade (or less) to save the planet — to be concerned about humanity’s impact on the climate and the climate’s impact on humans. I am concerned, and I do believe we should take reasonable measures to mitigate that impact.

But we should not give into dystopian thinking. The same human ingenuity and industry that has extended life expectancies, slashed extreme poverty by 74 percent in 25 years, and also reduced carbon emissions in numerous advanced economies can advance the twin, interconnected goals of human flourishing and planetary flourishing.

In fact, as Tyler Cowen argued at Bloomberg in March, the reality of human ingenuity argues for having more children, not fewer. He asks, “Is the remedy for climate change, to the extent we find one, more likely to come from North America or New Zealand?” As he notes, “the wealthier and more populous America is a more likely source of technological innovation, even though it is also a more significant source of greenhouse gases.”

Earlier this week, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, my friend Ted Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, highlighted U.S. investments in two technologies, shale gas and nuclear power, that have generated immense benefits:

Washington may have wasted billions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s on synthetic fuels, but during the same period, it spent a fraction of that on shale gas, which has brought such extraordinary economic benefits to the U.S. economy that it alone has probably made up for the cost of all other federal energy investments since the end of World War II. . . . U.S. investments in nuclear energy have proved similarly efficient. Over the last half-century, nuclear plants have avoided somewhere between 15 and 20 gigatons of carbon emissions, at a cost of less than $5 per ton.

Nordhaus is a coauthor the “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” an environmentalist document that utterly contradicts the modern conservative caricature of environmentalism and rebuts the bleak vision of “birth strikers” and other dystopian doomsayers. It’s not a new document — it was written in 2015 — but it’s one that too few conservatives (not too mention too few Christians) have read.

It leaves ample room for political disagreement about costs, approach, and policy, but it holds that human well-being can be increasingly decoupled from the destruction of nature. It begins, “To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

Amen to that.

When I read the despair evident on the virtual pages of BuzzFeed and the New York Times — and portrayed on HBO — it grieves me not because there isn’t cause for concern but because there is no need for panic. It transmits the mistaken view that care for the environment means that we must minimize the inherent worth of humanity or hold back development from those countless millions of souls who seek the same bounty and opportunity that’s now baked into the our world’s advanced economies.

In his Foreign Policy essay, Nordhaus seeks to shift the “climate debate from one in which one party posits an existential threat demanding solutions that serve its own interests and the other denies that the problem even exists for similar reasons.” His alternative is what he calls a “quiet climate policy.” This he defines as “the art of the possible, focused on reducing the costs of action, disentangling climate policy from the ideological disputes and electoral calculations, . . . and lowering the political threshold for meaningful action.”

Amen to that as well. Quiet climate policy depends on understanding not only that a challenge exists but also that panic is counterproductive and polarization should be shunned. It also depends on a few fundamental assertions — we are not doomed, human beings should flourish, and our God-given ingenuity and creativity can craft the instruments of our own environmental rescue.

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