The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Progressivism, Democracy, and Climate-Change Action

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) participate in a “No Climate, No Deal” demonstration outside the White House in Washington, DC, June 28, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

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Climate and Democracy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. body, has released its most recent report on global warming. Those of you who follow the climate discourse will already know that these reports are handed down with a great deal of ceremony and that they are received as though they had originated at Delphi, Hira, or Corinth.

A familiar part of the ritual is the report’s moral amplification by the press, which is always a couple of more degrees further gone into hysteria and lamentation than the IPCC report itself is. Not that the report is all rainbows and sunshine. (Well, sunshine.) It continues the longstanding IPCC trend toward certainty: that the consequences of climate change are going to be catastrophic; that the current disturbance in the climate system is the product of human action, largely the consumption of fossil fuels; that a radical change in the whole pattern of human life is required to slow down climate change and prevent its becoming even more dire. In fact, the gradual evolution of the IPCC’s estimates of confidence (a five-point scale: very low, low, medium, high, very high) in its assumptions and in its forecasts (which are graded from exceptionally unlikely to virtually certain) is one of the most-studied aspects of the report.

As is proper, much of the report consists of technical scientific discussion that will be of very little practical use to the lay reader, even those with reasonably good general-science education. In this case, sola scriptura just won’t do. But then, this has always been more of a sola fides matter, at least for the general public.

A word that does not appear in the report is democracy. And democracy is the specter that haunts climate activism.

Climate change is not a new issue. It is an issue that seems to grow in urgency each year if we judge by taking the temperature of the political rhetoric. But it is an issue that does not seem to grow in urgency each year if we consider the actions of governments, democratic and otherwise, around the world.

The first meeting about climate change was held in 1963, and by the end of that decade much of the basic science of climate change was in place. Cesare Emiliani and Edward Norton Lorenz (father of the “butterfly effect”) argued from geological evidence that relatively small changes in the climate situation could produce very large effects, while the possibility of polar ice melts, rising sea levels, etc., were part of the scientific discussion before the moon landing. At the same time, other theories of climate change — notably that anthropogenic aerosols would lead to catastrophic global cooling — also were part of the discussion and, at times, dominated it.

But by the 1990s, the climate-change discourse had taken on, more or less, its modern form: 1992 saw the failed Rio Conference, 1997 witnessed the creation of the Kyoto Protocol and the first Prius to roll off the assembly line — the climate agenda has always been, in no small part, a shopping list — and much of the debate by that point consisted of arguments over the validity of evidence.

Some 20 years ago, the third IPCC report called it “very likely” that, barring an effective program of mitigation, we were in for the most disruptive period of climate change since the last ice age.

What you or I or anybody else believes about the cause or reality of climate change shouldn’t matter in evaluating what I am going to discuss next, but, for the record, I will note here that I have more or less conventional views about climate change — that while there is a good deal of distortion and exaggeration in the popular press, I have no reason to believe that the facts regarding the state of the climate and its likely course of evolution are appreciably different from what you will read in the IPCC reports and similar documents. I do not think that climate change is a hoax or a plot or anything like that, though it often functions as a pretext for groups with other, generally illiberal, agendas.

(I suppose that I also should note for the record that, as announced a few months ago, I will be doing a project on climate change in partnership with the Competitive Enterprise Institute over the course of the coming year.)

Climate change as a potential public-policy issue has been with us since the 1960s, while climate change understood in at least some quarters as an urgent public-policy issue has been with us since at least the 1990s. And in that time, the major governments of the world have decided to do . . . not very much. There has been a great deal of talk, agreements entered into and abandoned — and then reentered into, at least notionally, in the case of the United States and the Paris agreement.

We have seen some progress: In the United States, emissions not only of carbon dioxide but also of other greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide have declined, if the Environmental Protection Agency is to be believed. And that’s not because poor addled Hunter Biden has been huffing the nitrous oxide out of the sky, or because we have cut back on fossil fuels — in some considerable part, the improvement in the U.S. greenhouse-gas situation is the result of one fossil fuel — coal — having been partly supplanted by another fossil fuel — natural gas, which produces fewer emissions when used to produce electricity. Wind and solar have made a difference in electricity, too.

But, for the most part, the liberal democracies (to say nothing of China and the other authoritarian states) have said, “No, thanks!” to the kind of radical climate policies dreamt of by Green New Dealers, “climate justice” activists, and socialists such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D., N.Y.) who wish to use the climate issue as an excuse for imposing political regimentation on market economies.

Progressives generally argue that this is because our democracy isn’t a real democracy, that it is distorted or captured by big money from Big Oil and other self-interested business concerns. But that isn’t political analysis — it is foot-stamping, insisting that democracy is only democracy when it gives the blessed caste what it demands.

Beyond the American scene, you can take your pick of democratic models — Western Europe, Scandinavia, India, Japan — and you will see similar results. The United States is a bit of a rhetorical outlier and a bit less inclined to keep up appearances by going through the motions with international agreements that no one has much interest in or intention of enforcing. Norway is producing about as much oil today as it did a decade ago, and about as much as it did in the late 1990s, though well under its turn-of-the-century peak. The United States is producing more. As in the United States, the biggest change in countries such as France has been the displacement of coal in electricity generating by natural gas, along with wind and solar.

Because progressives are at heart utopians, they have a difficult time acknowledging tradeoffs. On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, climate change is the most important consideration in the world. On Tuesday, Thursdays, and every other Saturday, the top issue is “democracy,” vaguely and inconsistently defined. In fact, Democrats care so much about democracy that they have shut down the democratic process in the democratically elected legislature in Texas in the name of “democracy.” Instead of tradeoffs, progressives embrace a practically mystical model of the unity of all virtues. And so it is practically impossible for the Left to think intelligently about the tradeoffs involved. If you doubt that, read this transcript of Ezra Klein trying to lead a discussion on the question “What If American Democracy Fails the Climate Crisis?” You’ll notice that the headline question never really even enters the conversation.

We use the word democracy as though it signified something sacred rather than merely procedural. But it does not make democracy any less precious to forthrightly recognize that it is one value in a world of values that are sometimes complementary and sometimes rivalrous. Progressives ought to be grappling with the fact that one of the things they put forward as a nonnegotiable and absolute good — democracy — is at odds with something they insist is an existential threat to human civilization — climate change.

Rather than deal with that honestly, progressives have fallen into a number of obvious alternatives: hysterical moralizing, in which those who do not concur with their agenda must be denounced as moral monsters, because there can be no honest disagreement; aggressive indoctrination, in which affirming various aspects of the climate fides as a precondition of participating in educational or business life, including the cynical ploy of indoctrinating children as a means to getting at their parents; “lying for justice”; and, of course, using the levers of the state to subvert inconvenient democratic realities.

The most likely solution to this conundrum will be found — very likely — in the words “science says.” Progressives have long struggled with the tension between their desire, often genuine, to be democratizers and their desire to give experts (however unreliably identified) a larger role in the administration of public affairs. The democratizing aspects of progressive reform often end up being catastrophic for democracy — see the sorry state of radically democratized contemporary political parties and shed a quiet tear for the smoke-filled room of old — and government-by-expert is a hit-or-miss affair — remember that during the “global cooling” scare there were people talking about covering the polar ice caps in soot or taking other radically invasive measures to bring up the temperature of the planet. All sorts of bad science and pseudoscience — eugenics, the grain-based diet, “scientific” racism — have enjoyed expert support at various times.

The great danger on climate change is that frustrated progressives, unable to win the argument and move the democratic states with their two favorite phrases — “studies prove” and “science says” — will take it upon themselves to liberate the demos, whose members either won’t or can’t understand what “science says,” and unburden them from the responsibilities of self-government. There are times to overrule the will of the people (as I wrote, democracy is one good among many competing goods), but attempting to forcibly reorganize the material life of the entire human race without consent or buy-in is to leap headlong into certain disaster. To accomplish this would require a program of coercion unprecedented in human history. Believing that this would be done with the very best of intentions does not provide a moral get-out-of-jail-free card.

On the matter of climate, progressives insist that President Biden must achieve his climate goals even if the democratically elected representatives in Congress disagree — even though it is Congress, not the president, that has the power to make law. Biden himself has threatened to act over and above Congress, the matter being, in his words, a “moral imperative.” Progressives such as Christy Goldfuss of the Center for American Progress argue that Biden should act “without Congress,” if Congress will not comply with his demands.

Why do we elected congresses and parliaments if not to make decisions of precisely this kind? The fact that progressives have not got their way on this issue is not an indictment of democracy — it is a reflection of the fact that different people have different priorities. Maybe Americans and Europeans and Japanese should have different priorities — but they don’t. This is a matter of stated preferences (“Go green!”) being at odds with revealed preferences (for inexpensive energy and the bounty that comes with it). The democracies have had plenty of time to adopt the more radical version of the climate agenda — and they have, for the most part, said, “No.”

And so the missives keep coming, from IPCC and from other quarters. “The report leaves me with a deep sense of urgency,” Jane Lubchenco, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, tells the New York Times. That’s what it is meant to do.

More heat doesn’t mean more light.

Words About Words

“It’s in and it’s big,” reads the AP headline. The subject is . . . the infrastructure bill. Goodness, gracious.

Moving on . . .

Theranos, soon to be back in the news, is an unfortunate corporate name in that it sounds like some kind of evil cult — which, in its way, it was. Theranos is a portmanteau, a word made from smudging two other words into one, the textbook example being motor + hotel = motel. Portmanteau here is a metaphor that has taken on a separate life of its own: A portmanteau is a suitcase with two equal halves, and a metaphorical portmanteau is a word into which parts of two other words have been stuffed.

The portmanteau constituents for Theranos are “therapy” and “diagnosis.” There’s a little linguistic irony lurking in there: Diagnosis is formed from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge, and Gnosticism purported to offer a special kind of knowledge that was available only to a special kind of people. As the ancient mystic Georgius of Costanza put it, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Rampant Prescriptivism

The next time a waiter asks you, “How are we doing?” I hope you will join the cause and reply: “Are we . . . plural?” Or the more straightforward: “There is no we.” You could try the old “What do you mean we, kemosabe?” but you’ll probably get fired from your job or expelled from college.

I don’t know what foetid spawn of the pit decided that waiters should address normal, mentally functional adults having a ribeye as though they were crayon-eating preschoolers, but somebody needs to make it stop.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

Here’s a man with a face made for radio talking with Joe Scarborough about right-wing hippies.

Here is Clarence Page writing in the Chicago Tribune. It is a column that is mostly about how surprised he is to find himself agreeing with a column I wrote a while ago. Column-writing is a funny business, especially in August.

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. There is more bunkum catalogued.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Other News . . .

The shortest road to civic peace is prosperity. Make sure there is enough yogurt in the bowl.

Katy is indifferent to the camera, but Pancake seems to know she’s being photographed — which is really remarkable for a creature who does not understand how mirrors work.

But Katy is good at letting you know what she wants.


I’ve been enjoying Noah Hurowitz’s book on El Chapo, especially the background about Sinaloa. The title is: El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord.

In Other News . . .

Reading about “time crystals” makes me feel as if I should be taking an enormous bong rip, but this is a real and fascinating thing.

In Closing

I have written a great deal about trust in institutions. Trust is not just something nice to have — it is an immensely practical consideration. Trust is the lubrication that makes an open society work. As our politics descends more deeply into dishonesty, distortion, and hysteria, the decline in trust will very likely prove more catastrophic than the state of the climate or the state of our public finances.

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