This week the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released another report describing how humanity faces catastrophe due to climate change. Alongside photographs of forest fires and various weather events, news media emphasized how UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the report is “a code red for humanity” and that “the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.” In contrast to most other outlets, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board criticized the media’s “fire-and-brimstone accounts” and notes that “the report doesn’t tell us much that’s new since its last report in 2013, and some of that is less dire.” Nevertheless, climate change and carbon emissions will remain major geopolitical issues, particularly as China promotes its model as the best way to reduce carbon emissions, despite the regime’s egregious human rights record. But if the IPCC report does convince more people to respond to climate change, the newly converted may still not support the same policies that environmental purists propose.
While Democrats have long accepted that climate change is a serious issue, it remains a low priority for Republicans. But polls this year indicated that when asked the vast majority of Republicans, especially the younger respondents, supported planting trees or helping businesses develop carbon capture technology to prevent climate change. Still, only 10 percent said it was a top concern, and another 32 percent said it was one of several important issues. For 58 percent it was unimportant. If environmental activists want the United States to have policies that reduce carbon emissions and can survive inevitable changes of power in the White House and Congress, they will need to convince more of these conservative and moderate voters to address the issue.
Though, if those voters prioritize environmental issues more, they will have a greater voice in what their representatives and tax dollars support. Providence contributing editor Walter Russell Mead argues that geopolitical and economic realities mean that environmental activists will lose control over climate policy as the issue becomes mainstream. In the US, even if voters agree that climate change is a serious threat, consensus on what to do next is unlikely. In addition to the greed of businesses and lobbyists that Mead notes, voters have their own interests, too. In response, activists may be tempted to coerce the likes of France’s gilets jaunes to swallow the bitter pills of smaller economies and various other inconveniences for the sake of a cooler planet. But allowing them to help develop environmental policy may allow programs that can survive when less environmentally pure parties and politicians take power. Absolutists will want more, but they likely won’t have much choice.
This shift already started in the infrastructure bill that the Senate passed on Tuesday and includes the bipartisan Carbon Capture Improvement Act. If President Joe Biden signs the bill into law, as seems likely, the government would help power plants and other facilities remove carbon from their emissions. Over 500 environmental groups signed a letter denouncing the technology as a “false solution” and saying governments should “ditch” not “fix” fossil fuels. Carbon capture advocates often face objections that the technology is unproven or difficult, such as when Senator Joe Manchin promoted it on Face the Nation earlier this month. Host John Dickerson challenged him, “If you wait for carbon sequestration, that is a long time from now, and it might not even work.” Manchin responded, “We know it does work. What we haven’t been able to do is… to do it in a more practical, profitable way to where it doesn’t break the bank.” But hardline environmentalists are losing influence on this topic, and less absolutist or purist environmental groups have become more receptive to the program. For voters used to hearing environmentalists’ pleas to invest in expensive green technologies—such as solar panels (which can use Chinese coal and possibly forced labor from Uighurs) or new massive batteries to allow wind and solar to replace more stable energy sources—investing in carbon capture, methane capture, and other programs purists dislike may not sound so outlandish.
As with many idealist hopes, too much of climate policy has ignored human nature and assumed people will tolerate lower living standards, great inconveniences, or impoverishment for a long-term, benevolent cause, if only they were convinced properly. As long as the most environmentally devout drive the conversation, they can maintain purity while trying to ignore human greed, selfishness, and depravity. But if the masses decide they must do something about climate change, they will direct policy more, to the purists’ chagrin. Besides carbon capture, the less devout may decide that they prefer other solutions, such as building better landfills or compost facilities with methane capture or incinerators that emit fewer emissions, over a struggling recycling industry that can no longer ship junk to China. They could realize that policies that make cars and buildings more energy-efficient don’t necessarily reduce carbon emissions because people spend the saved money on other products that cause pollution. Instead of stopping global warming to save agriculture as it is now, they may support planting different crops that can endure extreme weather or require less water in drought-prone areas. If push comes to shove, they might accept a program that collects money based on how much carbon a product uses and then splits all revenue equally among taxpayers (aka, a carbon tax). If all else fails and climate change becomes inevitable without massively reducing voters’ standard of living, they might prefer enduring and responding to higher global temperatures’ consequences.
Many environmental activists will say these outcomes are tragic and imperfect, but as Mead argues, they will have less influence as the issue becomes mainstream. Besides, human nature doesn’t allow for the ideal. But if the goal is the reduction of carbon emissions, perhaps these new voices have ideas that work better, at least in the real world with real humans, than what purists have proposed.