Politics & Policy

What Motivates Democrats: Stopping Climate Change, or Ending Capitalism?

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Iowa Federation of Labor Convention in Altoona, Iowa, August 21, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
For many climate activists, the real enemy is modern society.

Part of what makes the climate debate so difficult to engage is the diversity of motives. Wide-ranging proposals to stop climate change usually have several motives, and not all of them are related to climate. Some proposals — such as the Green New Deal — are so sweeping and socialistic that one can reasonably wonder if climate is even the principal motive.

Take, for example, the risk of increased coastal flooding. Very few climate-policy proposals address the problem at all. In the recent CNN climate town hall, only Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, and Amy Klobuchar mentioned it, and then only in passing. In a seven-hour town hall, leading Democrats spent a grand total of about 45 seconds discussing what is perhaps the most immediate tangible danger from climate change.

Actually, it’s worse. Exactly one law has been passed that deals with coastal flooding, but it was neutered as quickly as Congress could find a group of special interests to sell out to. The Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 would have allowed FEMA to adjust flood-insurance rates based on more frequent severe flooding. Flood-insurance premiums would rise to reflect any increased risk of climate change, thereby dissuading people from living where the potential harm from climate change is greatest.

But coastal-property owners quickly made their weight felt, and Congress quickly passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2013. The new law froze flood insurance rates, keeping in place outrageous federal subsidies for coastal property development. In the Senate, only two Democrats and 20 Republicans voted against it. Senators Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren, and Booker all voted for it. So where climate change poses the most immediate threat to life and property, many Republicans and almost all Democrats voted to increase the potential losses as much as possible. (By contrast, virtually the only federal program that would help coastal communities protect against rising sea levels is a pre-disaster mitigation incentive in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which is focused on natural disasters and emergencies and hardly even mentions climate change.)

And yet these same Democrats, who can’t fix a single flood-insurance program to protect real people against climate change, routinely promise to restructure our entire economy in order to reduce the risks of climate change.

It’s little surprise, given that the movement’s highest authorities demand fealty to a sweeping reordering of human society. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to protect against climate change. For Cory Booker, “Climate is not a separate issue. It is the issue, the lens, through we must do everything that we do.”

Most of the leading Democrats at the town hall called for sweeping reductions in fossil-fuel production, in some cases to take place immediately upon their assuming office. Senator Kamala Harris promised to ban fracking and end fossil-fuel leases on public lands, presumably including offshore, “on Day One.” These measures alone could immediately cut U.S. fossil-fuel production by more than half, sending gasoline and electricity prices skyrocketing. In France, where gasoline costs about $6 per gallon, a government proposal to marginally raise the price of gasoline as a climate measure triggered months of mass protests by the “yellow vests.”

Bernie Sanders has called for investing $16 trillion in decarbonization policies and freely admits that people will have to pay significantly more in taxes to fund the program. The entire GDP of the United States, by comparison, is about $21 trillion a year.

Sanders wants the U.S. to encourage population control around the world as a way to stave off climate change, citing “the need to control population growth.” (This harks back to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which in 1968 predicated imminent global food shortages if we didn’t immediately institute global population control, including spiking the water supply in Third World countries with sterility drugs.)

Leading Democrats at the CNN town hall balked at the idea of banning cheeseburgers, even though cows account for a significant fraction of U.S. carbon emissions, but both Warren and Harris endorsed the idea of limiting our intake of beef as a climate-change measure. Warren also would limit straws.

The majority of leading Democrats in the CNN town hall endorsed the Green New Deal, including Biden, Yang, and Sanders. Most leading Democrats specifically called for banning fossil fuels, including fracking, which has led to a boom in U.S. manufacturing by lowering electricity costs and has protected U.S. families from gasoline prices as high as $4 or $5 per gallon. Andrew Yang touted the idea of banning commercial air travel.

Some Democrats appear to sense the confusion of motives. In a recent Politico article, Michael Grunwald examines the more pragmatic approach of Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin:

Slotkin doesn’t see why a plan to fix the climate needs to promise universal health care and a federal job guarantee, and she doubts a lefty wish list disguised as an emergency response will play well in her suburban Michigan swing district, which Trump won by 7 percentage points. “I’m a pragmatist, and I represent a lot of pragmatic people,” says Slotkin. “Why say we need massive social change to reduce emissions? How does that build consensus?”

One of the most telling ironies is the position of leading Democrats on nuclear power. If preventing climate change were the overriding priority, transitioning from coal and natural gas to nuclear power as base-load fuel for electric generation would be a key pillar of a rational policy proposal. Only Booker and Yang endorsed nuclear energy, while Sanders called it a “false solution” and Warren promised to replace nuclear with renewables. The other leading Democrats in the CNN town hall either didn’t mention the issue or tiptoed around it.

One question leading climate activists should be asked is this: “If the planet suddenly started cooling rapidly, would you be in favor of increasing carbon emissions to keep the planet warm?” This admittedly annoying question is meant only to highlight a simple point. Environmentalists’ concerns over global warming fit nicely with their general anti-capitalist bias. But if there were a conflict between the two priorities and they had to choose one, which would they choose?

Some environmentalists would probably increase carbon emissions, or embrace some other kind of geo-engineering, to stave off an ice age. But many — or most — would say that nature should be allowed to take its natural course, and what humans need to do is stop mucking around with it. These environmentalists would presumably be okay with global warming if the cause were natural as opposed to anthropogenic.

This points to a deeper ambivalence about the actual risks of climate change. Joe Biden was criticized for admitting that the U.S. decarbonizing alone wouldn’t make a difference. “The fact of the matter is that we make up 15 percent of the problem,” he said. The rest of the world makes up 80, 85 percent of the problem.” But even if the entire world implements the most sweeping climate proposals, it would not guarantee that climate change would be stopped. And even if such policies actually succeeded in holding temperature increases to the current target of the Paris climate agreement, there is currently no scientific method that could definitely establish climate policies as the reason that temperatures stopped rising. In other words, not only is there reasonable doubt that climate policies would work, we might never be able to know that they did work.

Meanwhile, among the greatest gains in reducing carbon emissions have come in the United States, not as a result of draconian top-down mandates, but as a result of American innovation and the constant efficiency gains the free market produces in reducing the consumption of energy per unit of GDP. Yet that wasn’t even mentioned during the CNN climate town hall.

At one point in the town hall, Bernie Sanders said, “Let me be clear: The coal miners in this country, the men and women who work on the oil rigs, they are not my enemy. My enemy is climate change.” But clearly, his enemy is not climate change. It is capitalism, and always has been. And that’s true not just of Sanders, but of all too many environmental activists today.

Mario LoyolaMr. Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the president of Loyola Strategies Research and Consulting. From 2017 to 2019, he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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