What the Sunrise Movement and its boosters get wrong
The “we need to make sacrifices” gets “activists” dicks hard way more than it should.
Battery and solar panel prices are falling to the point where folks can be self sufficient in energy, including vehicle charging. A world where the average American comes home and plugs in his F150 Lightning and reads about some revolution in Saudi Arabia or Iran and thinks, “To think we used to worry about that.” Is a wonderful vision you could sell to voters.
As someone whose work is trying to implement decarbonization, one of the things we've been grappling with for the past few years is a complete refusal from the advocates to admit that decarbonization is hard, and that it's hard for legitimate reasons. As you say, the "a shadowy cabal of elites is preventing us from carbon-free utopia" view is predicated on the idea that most people actually want to decarbonize but often there is no ability to admit that decarbonization requires "sweeping climate-related change". Part of this is because we've made most of our progress in the electric sector, in a way that's basically invisible to most people (even allowing for slightly higher electric rates, many regions saw lower growth in electric rates over the same time period due to low gas prices).
But honestly a lot of it is magical thinking, just straight up denialism around the practical realities of what we need to do. I would be overjoyed if I never needed to have another conversation trying to explain why only doing a bunch of 5 kW rooftop solar systems is not going to get us to a zero carbon electric fleet, or "replace your heating system" is just not something most homeowners get excited about under any circumstances, or that drop-in electric replacements for the most popular cars in America are just not available right now, or that actually most people buy used cars! And good luck finding a used EV! I have yet to hear any of the advocates lay out a path for decarbonization that's realistic for suburban Ohio for example. It's incredibly frustrating as a practitioner -- we need to be trying to make this as easy as possible for people, but that starts with admitting that it's hard for real reasons.
This is a good piece and it reflects the kind of political analysis that Matt is especially good at. So many people seem to forget that if they embrace democracy, as they say they do, then they have to secure the consent of the governed on major policies. Gaining that consent is the equivalent of slow boring of hard boards.
Way too much of climate activist's messaging can be summed up by "make huge sacrifices today or you will have potentially bigger sacrifices in the future" which is pretty unsurprisingly not a winning political message.
That's before you get into the real weirdos that want to create zero growth societies and think it's going to be good. In a grad school environmental policy class, I was the only person who advocated that a hypothetical energy source that was literally free, limitless, and without any direct negative environmental effects would be good. The remainder of the class was too hung up on the potential rebound effect of increased consumption being worse...
Much of this piece seems to boil down to something I think is true: mistake theory is correct, but most people are conflict theorists
The way that Matt describes how the left sees this issue is also an example on how I feel the left myopically sees many to most issues. To generalize Matt's description:
A. There is a Very Important Problem that has widespread support among the most powerless as being such a problem, that also agrees on the solution in the exact way that the left sees it.
B. But there is some small but very powerful entity (multinational corporations and super rich people are often common targets as foes) that is causing needless misery to the powerless that they claim to be acting on their behalf.
C. That powerful entity is capable of corrupting politicians, regardless of what party they belong to, as well as mainstream media, and thus you can't trust anyone but themselves, the grassroots activists that call for their radical solution as the only way to solve the Very Important Problem.
They can get scrambled and enter angry denial real quickly if it turns out the Very Important Problem isn't seen as such by the powerless masses they claim to be speaking on behalf of, or when the barriers to addressing said problem aren't neatly the preferred powerful foes that would fit well as stock movie villains, or particularly when their preferred solution is simply unpopular.
I don't have much time today to list out too many examples of it, but quickly, since this is Slow Boring, certainly housing issues fit this structure--to them, it's obviously evil developers corrupting politicians that stand in the way of the only viable solution of public housing and rent control, and you're a shill if you disagree with that.
I am a mildly right-of-center politically homeless type, worried about climate change, supportive of carbon reduction strategies, and extremely frustrated by the politics of it. In that regard, I always wonder why climate activists haven't studied Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League. He persuaded hard-drinking politicians all around the country to *ban* alcohol in numbers sufficient to pass a constitutional amendment. How? Well, he used all his money and influence to support politicians who voted "dry," whether he agreed with them on any other topic, or not. He focused on his one issue. If climate activist rich people supported Republicans who vote for carbon reduction or clean energy regardless of their position on logically unrelated questions like abortion, guns, or marginal tax rates, they would have made a lot more progress now. Imagine if the climate billionaires had put their money into Republican primaries, funding the GOP clean energy people over the alternatives, instead of shaming moderate Democrats. We might be in a very different situation now.
"They got Sarah Bloom Raskin to write an op-ed suggesting that the fossil fuel industry should be cut off from the Fed’s emergency lending programs". If "they" can take away the agency of a learned and politically savvy woman such as Raskin to get her to pen such an op-ed, perhaps she is not the kind of independent-minded thinker who belongs on the Federal Reserve. I'm glad Joe Manchin saw that too.
Among the dumbest phrases ever uttered by any human being are the words "solving climate change is just a matter of political will". This is an opinion popular among climate activists, not a few climate scientists and, regrettably, most economists including Nobel Prize winners. The level of ignorance, specifically technological ignorance, is astounding.
Now I am a Materials Science engineer and it is my business to understand what things are made of and why and to what uses any given material might be used. And this is why Raskin was an idiot: a huge percentage of every barrel of oil extracted from the ground is not burned at all. About forty percent (and rising) are used to make the petrochemicals that are the foundation building blocks of nearly everything you can touch. You cannot even make an EV without oil. If, 30 years from now, the same evil oil corporations are not producing them it will be because civilization has ended.
One day in the distant future we may have energy in such surplus that it is possible to create such chemicals without using fossil oil as the base but is it not now. And it is unlikely to be any time soon.
At a point where I think Matt's animus towards Sunrise is about political temperament more than anything else. Still think the canonical piece on the climate policy space in the Democratic Party immediately pre-Sunrise is this overview from Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic from 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/there-is-no-democratic-plan-to-fight-climate-change/543981/. It's from November; Sunrise had only been founded that April and hadn't come to prominence yet.
Climate wasn't a top-tier issue, no efforts were being made to set up a climate agenda for the next Democratic administration, and there was little consensus on what the party's overall approach should be in the first place. Meanwhile, activists were focused almost exclusively on blocking oil pipelines and had abandoned engagement with actual legislation. Meyer:
"On the other hand, the Democratic Party does not have a plan to address climate change. This is true at almost every level of the policy-making process: It does not have a consensus bill on the issue waiting in the wings; it does not have a shared vision for what that bill could look like; and it does not have a guiding slogan—like “Medicare for all”—to express how it wants to stop global warming.
Many people in the party know that they want to do something about climate change, but there’s no agreement about what that something may be.
This is not for lack of trying. Democrats have struggled to formulate a post-Obama climate policy because substantive political obstacles stand in their way. They have not yet identified a mechanism that will make a dent in Earth’s costly, irreversible warming while uniting the many factions of their coalition. These problems could keep the party scrambling to face the climate crisis for years to come."
Sunrise and the Green New Deal changed the game. The Green New Deal was never going to pass, but it's inarguable that Sunrise pushed climate closer to the top of the Democratic docket and drew out more expansive committments by 1) refocusing climate activists on actual legislation, 2) creating a lodestar set of proposals the party lacked post Waxman-Markey, and 3) annoying Democratic elites. As Matt says, there's no deep enthusiasm among voters for big moves here, so what else would have caused the shift in the party's willingness to prioritize climate? Did everyone just happen to start poring over IPCC reports all at once?
Their approach has its limits, but Sunrise has clearly had a positive material impact. The other side of this argument genuinely baffles me. Are they going to move Joe Manchin further with antagonism? No: less because there's something uniquely defective about their strategy than because Manchin's already gone as far as he's willing to go. But would Manchin have insisted on a Democratic president salvaging climate spending and discarding most of the rest of his legislative agenda if Sunrise never existed and we hadn't gone through the last five years of climate discourse? Probably not!
Sunrise got started as a positive movement backing candidates who supported renewable energy and didn't take fossil fuel money. Within a couple of years they're reduced to trolling the Senate's climate MVP. It seems they didn't achieve as much progress as they hoped for and went insane.
I think this piece is a little overly optimistic about the role of Secret Congress and the climate/energy wins that have been produced recently. More specifically, the role of Lisa Murkowski is a unique Republican politician, one that has a vested interest in reaching out to Democratic voters and finding ways to maintain her brand in the state due to the perceived threat she faces from GOP primary voters. Another Republican politician in her shoes might double down even more on climate denial in an effort to maintain control over a GOP primary. Murkowski has taken a different approach. And was also in a unique situation of chairing ENR at the end of last Congress at a time in which she was term limited in leadership and wanted to create a legacy.
But before the energy bill of 2020, what were the optimistic signs that Congress could act on climate? From the failure of Waxman-Markey in 2009 until 2020, it really did look like Republican elites were going to refuse to do anything on climate. And we know that Sunrise and other decisions on climate politics dates back to 2018 or so. How fast should climate funders pivot based on the green shoots of 2020 and 2021?
Why is a different climate bad? Of course any period of change between climates would be bad - people have settled based on old weather patterns, new weather patterns may diverge - but it seems to me rather odd that we just assume that the temperature around 1800 is *the* optimal temperature. Why are the ice ages not the optimal temperature? Why was a warmer globe good then but bad now? Given that we know a higher level of carbon dioxide is better for plant growth, would it be reasonable to think we would be better off with a slightly warmer globe?
I'd commend this great Grunwald article on the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign to everyone as an example of what a successful environmental organizing campaing looks like - basically using Argle Bargle activism as a tool in the shed combined with elite money that mainly funds utility/regulatory attorneys at the state level and grasstops pressure at the federal level to make significant gains on GHG reduction in the power sector.
So I find Matt's description of the faulty assumptions of climate activists and donors to be plausible, but I have an alternate explanation (based on Canadian battles over climate policy): they see themselves as a *vanguard* rather than as representatives of a mass movement that already exists. That is, they believe that if they can raise public awareness of the terrible consequences of climate change, the public will support strong climate policy.
Joseph Heath argues that there's a basic fallacy here. Climate change is hard not because of awareness but because of incentives. It's a free-rider problem: when I drive or fly I get the benefit of burning fossil fuels, while the costs of climate disruption are spread over the entire world, they're not borne by me. So even though I know climate change has terrible consequences, I lack the incentive to stop using fossil fuels (e.g. by not flying): it's a huge cost to me while making little difference to the overall problem. http://induecourse.ca/hobbess-difficult-idea/ https://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2011/12/its-not-easy-being-green/
In short, cooperation is surprisingly difficult. Just knowing that if we all cooperate we can fix some terrible problem is not sufficient to make it happen. You need to look at individual incentives.
I'm not sure how you would convince someone with the "vanguard" perspective that this assumption (about the link between awareness and support) is wrong. Evidence that the public doesn't care that much about climate change (e.g. not being willing to spend $100/year to help fix it) can be dismissed as a sign that public awareness of how bad the problem is needs to be raised further.
(Canada's approach to tackling the incentive problem is admirably direct: apply a steadily rising carbon price on fossil fuels, so that whenever I buy and burn fossil fuels I'm paying for the additional cost of climate disruption, giving me a direct self-interested incentive to cut low-value uses of fossil fuels. The revenue from the federal carbon tax in each province where it applies is divided up equally and returned directly to households in the province; since rich households spend more on fossil fuels, being less sensitive to prices, they pay a larger share and most people come out ahead even if they can't cut back at all. So far the federal carbon tax has survived two federal elections and a legal challenge. Mark Jaccard argues in "The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success" that a more indirect approach would probably be more politically feasible.)
Great post, with which I agree with 100%, as do, it appears, all the commentors, with a narrow band of discussion/disagreement.
And that is what is so unfortunate about this debate. We're each in our corner with nary a Sunrise supporter in sight. Or even if one did join in, I suspect the quality of the back and forth -- from both sides-- would decline rapidly.