It’s natural to see US inaction on climate change as another symptom of our broken politics. The United Nations’ climate change panel has announced the world needs major US emissions controls on greenhouse gases to avoid global catastrophe. It didn’t happen when the Democrats controlled Congress, and it isn’t any more likely in this Congress, which is well stocked with climate-change deniers.
That isn’t the whole story, though. The whole story is worse. Doing something about it will be much harder than even “fixing Washington.” Mainstream environmental politics, which took shape around an old generation of problems and has had the radicalism bred out of it in favor of pragmatism, is not doing to be much help. Ironically, recovering a more radical strand of environmental politics may be the practical way to get a grip on the new challenges of climate change.
The latter is happening amid a perfect storm of problems that all have the same basic logic: a system that was supposed to be self-correcting turns out not to be. In economic life, market signals ignore greenhouse gases, so the carbon economy keeps accumulating wealth. The market is systematically failing in a time when there seem to be no alternatives to capitalism.
Politically, Washington’s dysfunction is echoed in Brussels, Delhi, and Beijing; there are global doubts about governance, just when it is most needed. And now we’ve learned from Thomas Piketty that capitalism may tend to produce Gilded Ages rather than middle-class societies.
Put together a world set up to enrich the carbon economy with a political system that rewards wealth, and you get, not just an oligarchy, but a carbon oligarchy. Political dysfunction and economic dysfunction reinforce each other to drive ecological dysfunction.
Our economic and political systems work on the theory that if people pursue their self-interest, the overall result will be roughly good for everyone. This has always been questionable, but now it looks plain self-undermining. We know what we need to do—a global transition away from carbon—and we know why we won’t do it: because in a system in which everyone acts selfishly, from individuals to corporations to party leaders, no one takes on the costly decisions that could make the system itself sustainable.
It isn’t surprising that traditional environmentalism has not been very effective at changing this bleak picture. It was born in the 1960s and 1970s, with tremendous but somewhat short-lived success, to address very different problems.
“Environmental politics has worked best when people find both something to fear and something to love, a possible world they want to inhabit.”
Although the Earth flag first appeared then, the problems were national, not global. When the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously in 1970, squeaking through the House 375-1, cross-border pollution was hardly in anyone’s mind.
Because greenhouse gases disperse evenly through the atmosphere and stay there for centuries, there are huge barriers to global cooperation. From the point of view of the US, with 5 percent of global population, 95 percent of the benefits of any emissions reduction go to foreigners, most of whom haven’t even been born yet.
The pollution that 1970s environmentalism targeted was also more concrete. Poison comes out of a smokestack and, downwind, birds fall from the sky. Factories pipe their waste into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River until one day it catches fire. But greenhouse gases aren’t poisons, and they aren’t unnatural. They belong in the atmosphere; it’s just that their rising levels throw off our familiar climate balance.
The harms of climate change are remote and ambiguous, so it’s easy to deny responsibility for them. We know exactly which leaking tank polluted drinking water in southern West Virginia earlier this year. It’s impossible, though, to trace a super-storm to any power plant, or any country’s emissions, or even the global emissions of any one decade. No one in particular causes any of the harms of climate change. According to our standard instincts about responsibility, either we are all innocent or we are all guilty. So far, we seem to be enjoying the presumption of innocence. We live like climate change deniers even if we say, and mean, that we believe in it.
So the environmentalism that once worked so well is stymied by climate change. Environmental politics looks set to be drowned in the general dysfunction. But the barriers to addressing climate change don’t show that it is impossible, only that the stakes are very high. If we succeed, we will become different people in the process. Environmental politics has reinvented itself before while grappling with new challenges, and it has contributed to changing people. That could happen again.
The environmentalism of the early 1970s was not just a pragmatic response to a technical problem. It wrote new laws for a new worldview. In the mid-twentieth century, with help from scientist-writers such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, Americans learned to see the natural world in a new way: deeply interconnected, intrinsically valuable, resilient but also fragile. Americans learned to look at a smokestack and see dying trees and fish downwind. They learned that a burning Cuyahoga was not just a light show—it had burned several times in the twentieth century, without inspiring calls for change—but a symptom of a poisoned ecosystem. An eye that sees ecologically takes in a different world. It was a new, ecological eye that saw new kinds of harms and legislated to cure them.
That wasn’t the first transformation in vision to shape environmental politics. For centuries, colonists and early Americans hated and feared “wilderness.” Then outdoor movements like the early Sierra Club and images like the grand landscape paintings of the Hudson River School taught them to find inspiration in wild lands. Pioneers waged wars of extermination against wolves and other predators. Now the Endangered Species Act (which passed the House 355-4 in 1973) enshrines a national commitment to biodiversity.
Part the challenge of climate change is to learn to see the connection between our everyday lives and the global atmosphere. The task is to see the harm in what now seems harmless. Not so long ago, dams and smokestacks were symbols of progress. Maybe we can learn to see our power sources, too, as choking the natural world.
We shouldn’t just feel bad about the harm we do. Environmental politics has worked best when people find both something to fear—pollution, resource exhaustion, climate catastrophe—and something to love, a possible world they want to inhabit. The Clean Water Act (1972, 247-23 in the House, overriding a Nixon veto) set out a new way of valuing waterways: not just as industrial channels, but as the bloodstreams of the natural world. Maybe somewhere in satellite images of the planet and the science of atmospheric chemistry is a new sense of beauty, a way of appreciating the planet’s systems as passionately as some of us do Yosemite or our own home landscapes.
Maybe the most important thing to remember about earlier environmentalism is not a limit but a strength. Before environmental politics became technocratic in the 1990s, it raised basic questions. Should we be aiming for something better than eternal economic growth (which is ecologically impossible anyway)? Should we instead want an economy with less resource use, less desperate competition, and more intrinsic satisfaction in both the natural world and one another—more contemplation and collaboration and play? Should we doubt whether individual self-interest serve us as well in the hyper-complex, ecologically fragile, infinitely interdependent twenty-first century as it (arguably) did in the eighteenth and nineteenth?
In short, both markets and democracy have reached a point where they are producing problems they can’t solve. We have to reinvent them in order to save them. We need a politics that crosses national borders and the borders between generations. Already young climate activists are saying about Bangladeshis and the people of the twenty-third century, “They are us.” Such solidarity turns a fragmenting problem into a potentially common thing. From patriotism to religious ties to humanitarianism, learning to see ourselves as bound by a shared condition is a key resource for cooperation.
We also need to cross the boundary between environmental and non-environmental issues. Climate change is ecological but also economic, social, and political. Twentieth-century activists invented “the environment” to save it, welding together a set of pollution and public-health problems with an older American politics about public lands and Romantic landscapes to include, more or less, the issues that motivate the modern Sierra Club. Now the world has to invent a new politics for a truly planetary problem, in equal parts about the shape of the economy and the shape of the natural world.
The most basic challenge may be to cross the boundary between self-interest and our common interest in the systems that have to work if people are to survive and even thrive. Solving collective-action problems like climate change takes pragmatic effort, but also imagination.
The United States began as a collective-action problem: After Independence, thirteen semi-autonomous states split over taxation, trade, and foreign affairs. Each one had good reason to spin off and protect its own interests, even though cooperation would be better for everyone—just like with climate change. Early Americans had to invent America to become it. Now everyone has to invent a world that is worth becoming.