Is quiet climate policy enough?

Probably not, but it’s the best we can do.

I was on a panel with this title at the Ecomodernism 2021 Conference yesterday, so I thought that as long as I needed to come up with a good answer to that question, I might as well write it up as a column and share it with Slow Boring members.

I think the obvious answer is that if you want to meet the IPCC recommendation to limit the world to two degrees centigrade of warming relative to pre-industrial levels, then the answer is “almost certainly not.” And the more ambitious 1.5-degree target shifts you into “definitely not” territory. These are goals that would require a real social and economic revolution, not just in the United States but also in other industrialized countries and China and India. There wouldn’t be anything quiet about it.

But I think this business of setting targets and reasoning backward to policies has been a profoundly unproductive enterprise.

For starters, there’s nothing magic about these numbers. The consequences of 2.1 degrees of warming are similar to (but graver than) those of 1.9 — it doesn’t suddenly flip from “everything’s fine” to “everyone is burned alive.” And by the same token, the difference between 3 degrees of warming and 3.5 is very serious. What you want to do is limit warming through the technically, economically, diplomatically, and politically feasible means.

In politics, nothing is ever enough. Even a tremendous achievement like Social Security — which, as sophisticated people know, started out as a much more modest program and only expanded over time — has not eliminated elder poverty. Social Security is fantastic. It’s wonderful. But is it enough? Not really.

So the question about quiet climate policy, whatever it is, is whether loudness realistically unlocks new technical, economic, diplomatic, and political possibilities. And I’m skeptical that it does.

Two cases where loudness works

In general, I tend to think the “loud” style of politics is overrated by most people. But I’m not a total asshole who doesn’t get that there’s a case for loud politics.

One example that comes to mind is bank regulation. In the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, bank politics got very loud. People were mad. There were high-profile speeches, tons of news stories that everyone read, bold policy demands, and even a pretty good movie. And that moved the needle. The Dodd-Frank bill was really dramatic even though it needed 60 votes (which at the time meant three Republicans) to pass. But ever since Dodd-Frank, bank regulation has been getting laxer. Some of its provisions were repealed by Congress while Obama was still in office. More were repealed on a bipartisan basis under Trump. The Supreme Court forced changes to the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Regulatory agencies, most of all the Fed, have backed away from some of the stronger initial rules.

Loud debates on financial regulation generate results because most people are pretty suspicious of banks. But quiet debates get won by bank lobbyists, because it’s a series of fairly tedious technical issues, and lobbyists are good at their jobs.

Marijuana policy has a similar dynamic for different reasons. Legalization is popular. But it’s not important to any interest groups that have clout. And the cause is considered vaguely disreputable, especially because political leaders tend to be old and staffers tend to be dorks. But when legalization is forced onto the agenda, it tends to win. Loudness helps.

Most people don’t care much about climate

But on climate, I am skeptical.

Huge sums of money have been spent in an effort to will into existence a mass social movement to tackle climate change, and it basically hasn’t worked. You can get people out to a march, but the people who come are all-purpose leftist activists, which is why you have incredible trouble imposing message discipline and preventing people from showing up with “Free Palestine” and “Defund Police” signs.

And you see it in the polling. Reuters did a survey recently that showed 69% of Americans say the United States should take “aggressive” action to combat climate change, but only 34% would be willing to pay $100 more per year in taxes to achieve that goal. A hundred bucks is not a lot of money. People spend that on Halloween decorations. A nice dinner date could cost you more than that. If you’re buying a car, the dealer tries to upsell you on fancy floor mats that cost more than $100.

Years ago, I used to be a real carbon-pricing head. It seemed (and still does) like an elegant, important solution to a major problem. Leftists would yell at me that this was too much of a neoliberal, market-oriented thing. And they’ve completely won the argument over a carbon tax — everyone agrees that imposing a really stiff carbon price is just not in the cards.

But I think they misread the implications of their victory. People who aren’t willing to pay moderately higher taxes to combat climate change aren’t clamoring for a social revolution either. They are simply change-averse, small-c conservative people who don’t want their lives disrupted.

You can see this pretty easily, too, if you just poke beneath the surface. Nice upscale liberals who care a lot about climate change get very upset if you suggest banning gas stoves. Now obviously, eliminating gas stoves is not, like, the key to tackling climate change. At the same time, this is an area where we really do have a totally workable alternative in induction stoves, and the level of inconvenience involved in making everyone switch would be fairly minimal. But people who love their gas stoves just hate the idea.

Climate’s advantage — elite buy-in

The left likes the loud narrative because the drama of mass politics overcoming the banking lobby appeals to their romantic sense of how politics ought to work.

But that romance tends to blind them to the actual advantage climate advocates have in politics, which is incredible levels of elite support. The people who serve at the top ranks of the Democratic Party, in particular, care a lot about climate change, and they consistently prioritize it even though rank-and-file Democrats say they care more about things like poverty reduction and health care. That includes moderate Democrats, by the way. There are progressive issues — D.C. statehood, unconditional cash grants to the poor, stimulative monetary policy, filibuster reform — where Joe Manchin’s answer is a simple “no.” But even though Manchin is obviously not the greatest environmental champion in the Senate, he is willing to do things on climate.

Major left-wing donors put a ton of money into climate change, but so do moderate donors like Michael Bloomberg. Corporate America’s climate schtick may be 99% greenwashing bullshit, but the fact that they do it at all is a sign of elite buy-in. Companies don’t make a big show of fighting child poverty or contributing to reducing the risk of a catastrophic asteroid impact. In elite circles, climate is the place to be.

You see that in Democrats’ big reconciliation bill, which is basically wrapping a bunch of climate initiatives in a series of more politically compelling welfare-state initiatives.

And to be clear, it’s not that acting on climate change is necessarily unpopular. Some climate initiatives poll well, others poll poorly. But it’s not a particularly high priority, not only for conservatives but also for many working-class Democrats.

Climate, climate everywhere

But of course, it’s not just the Build Back Better bill that has climate provisions. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework also has climate provisions. The bill formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act had climate provisions. The American Rescue Plan contained climate provisions.

In other words, this is the opposite of the bank regulation dynamic.

Basically, any time Democrats do anything, they work some climate provisions into the mix. You don’t have all-powerful fossil fuel lobbyists sabotaging everything behind the scenes; you have politicians who care a lot about the climate issue trying to tackle it in every way you can think of. And note that several of these bills secured bipartisan support, as did the energy bill that came together late last year which also had a lot of important climate provisions. Obviously, Republicans don’t care about climate change nearly as much as Democrats do. But quietly, GOP elites seem to be a little bit more sympathetic to climate action than their overt political messaging would suggest.

Jim Risch and Russ Fulcher have a bill to give geothermal power drillers regulatory parity with oil and gas drillers on public land. Risch and Fulcher aren’t climate hawks, they’re just two guys from Idaho who think Idaho could have a nice geothermal industry. But geothermal power is at least potentially a huge deal for climate change. We’re talking about what might turn out to be an essentially limitless source of non-intermittent zero-carbon electricity.

Green groups don’t seem excited about this law, because it involves reducing environmental barriers to permitting drilling. The fact that those barriers don’t already exist for oil and gas drilling doesn’t seem to weigh on them too much. Or, rather, their whole view is we should have higher permitting barriers for fossil fuel projects and achieve parity that way.

Own the drillers?

And I think it’s exactly that philosophical disagreement that in some ways undergirds the misperceptions around loud vs. quiet policy.

If climate change is similar to bank regulation, then fossil fuel lobbyists are in the role of bank lobbyists. And the change we need is crackdowns on fossil fuels that the lobbyists will resist and that can only be overcome through mass mobilization of the public. And I agree that, in theory, that kind of mass mobilization would be desirable. But what we’ve seen time and again is that there just really isn’t a public appetite for this.

Washington State tried the neoliberal idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax and it got crushed in a referendum. So then they tried the left idea of a carbon tax to fund progressive stuff and it also got crushed. When the price of gasoline goes up, people freak out. Fundamentally, the lobbyists are not the problem. People really like cheap energy, and the communities that have significant natural resource extraction industries really like them and want to keep them. You absolutely can chip away at this stuff at the margin, but it’s always going to be pretty marginal.

Emissions have, however, fallen considerably in the United States because of increased natural gas production (gas produces lower emissions than coal) and because renewables have gotten cheaper. That’s a successful model, and if we push on renewables and next-generation nuclear and geothermal and batteries and heat pumps and carbon capture and direct-air capture, I think you can see a clear way to a future where we have net-negative emissions. But it’s not going to come from an apocalyptic showdown between a mass public demanding an end to fossil fuels and conquering a narrow cabal of corrupt lobbyists. It’s going to come through a thousand cuts as people of goodwill invest in technology and deployment and supportive regulatory changes.

Will it be “enough”? Nothing is ever enough. But it’s still the best, most viable path forward.