Why Do Progressives Reject Policies That Would Achieve Their Aims?
How the Left's toxic mix of nature-myths and anti-capitalism only causes more suffering.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Sesame Street) has delivered yet another statement that bespeaks the progressives’ chronic myopia. This time she’s pondering the dilemma about whether or not it’s “still okay to have children,” given the apocalyptic future being created by climate change. The point has nothing to do with demography, as birth-rates in the U.S. are already starting to decline. The real point, of course, is to rouse the old progressive battle-cry of a “crisis” that “urgently” needs resolving, mainly by increasing the power and rapacity of bloated federal agencies and their growth-killing regulations.
The solution championed by the warmists comprises various schemes to drastically reduce or eliminate energy derived from carbon. But everyone admits that the reductions, even if achieved, would not be enough to stop the alleged catastrophic warming, but would certainly devastate the economy. Meanwhile, the real solutions for progressives to get what they want lies with the free market that increases global wealth.
The scandal of alarmist climate change, of course, is that the policy prescriptions are useless for slowing warming. As environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, who believes in human-induced global warming, writes,
The IPCC says carbon emissions need to peak right now and fall rapidly to avert catastrophe. Models actually reveal that to achieve the 2.7-degree goal the world must stop all fossil fuel use in less than four years. Yet the International Energy Agency estimates that in 2040 fossil fuels will still meet three-quarters of world energy needs, even if the Paris agreement is fully implemented. The U.N. body responsible for the accord estimates that if every country fulfills every pledge by 2030, CO2 emissions will be cut by 60 billion tons by 2030. That’s less than 1% of what is needed to keep temperature rises below 2.7 degrees. And achieving even that fraction would be vastly expensive—reducing world-wide growth $1 trillion to $2 trillion each year by 2030.
So even if we ignore the warmists’ rigged data, the huge gaps in empirical evidence, the fabricated computer simulations, and the simple fact that we don’t know enough about how global climate works over vast stretches of time, the progressives’ policies fail simply because they won’t achieve the reduction in temperatures they claim is urgently needed to ward off apocalypse. And those reductions will cost trillions of dollars and keep the developing world imprisoned in its poverty.
And that’s where the Green New Deal and other draconian solutions to climate change are morally repugnant. What the progressives don’t want to admit is that caring about the planet is a luxury of the rich. As Jack Hollander demonstrated in his 2003 book The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy, the best thing for the environment is political freedom, economic development, and increased affluence in the Third World, not noble-savage idealizations of less developed societies presumably more in tune with a nature that callously watches them starve, sicken, and die.
Moreover, those who don’t have enough to eat and are subject to chronic disease first care about survival and health, and their efforts to secure both, whatever the impact on the environment. Once material comfort is assured, people then have the capital, both economic and psychological, to spend on improving their environment. With increased affluence and open societies that reward intellectual innovation and political freedom, developing nations will follow the pattern of the industrialized nations and begin to find ways to sustain economic growth and living standards while minimizing the human impact on the environment. As Hollander writes, “People who have the means to support investments in a healthy environment, and the freedom to do so, can be trusted to make wise environmental choices provided they are honestly informed about the costs and benefits of available options in relation to other social choices that they constantly make.”
As usual, the people proclaiming the loudest about their love for the suffering masses propose policies that will further immiserate them. And the villains these same affluent scolds demonize––the entrepreneurs and businesses that grow the economy and increase the distribution of wealth––are the best hope that the world has to improve people’s lot, giving them the means to then minimize damage to the environment. This economic improvement has already been occurring over the last few decades as political reforms that promote global trade and economic growth have expanded worldwide. As Walter Russell Mead recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “Between 1990 and 2017, world-wide gross domestic product rose from $23.4 trillion to $80.1 trillion, the value of world trade grew even faster, more than a billion people escaped poverty, and infant-mortality rates decreased by more than 50%. The number of people with telephone service grew roughly 10-fold.”
The best thing, then, for the planet and its peoples is not the wealth-killing proposals of the progressives’ Green New Deal, but rather maintaining and expanding the policies that create global wealth. Free people from the tyranny of poverty, and then they can afford to devote funds to mitigating our impact on the environment. That’s what the U.S. did, when during a time of economic growth we passed the 1963 Clean Air Act, which reduced emissions of six major pollutants by a third in 30 years. And more recently, the U.S.––vilified both at home and abroad for opting out of the 1992 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement–– between 2005 and 2017 reduced CO2 emissions by 758 million metric tons. According to Forbes, “That is by far the largest decline of any country in the world over that time span and is nearly as large as the 770 million metric ton decline for the entire European Union.”
And what has been the main reason for that success? The development of hydraulic fracturing to retrieve once inaccessible oil and natural gas, thus allowing dirtier coal-fired plants to be replaced by cleaner-burning natural gas. Such a revolutionary transformation in energy acquisition was possible because the U.S. still has an open economy in which private entrepreneurs with new ideas can bring them to market. Of course, the progressives have continued to promote anti-carbon policies that make such innovations more difficult, as Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, thwarted by the Trump administration, sought to do. Now the Democrats’ Green Energy Plan and its proposed regulatory intrusions into the market if acted on will stifle even more completely the “animal spirits” that create wealth and improve lives.
But such myopia on the left is nothing new. Long before fracking came on the scene we had seen the left’s animus against capitalism and technology forestalling the solutions to global warming by its irrational opposition to nuclear energy. Today the Green Energy Plan also calls for shutting down all nuclear power plants, the cleanest source of energy we have. What makes this idea even more foolish is that Germany shut down its nuclear power plants and damaged its economy. Hoping to rely on “clean energy” like solar and wind, Germany found its energy costs soared, making it necessary to build more coal-fired plants and to go into business with the global villain Vladimir Putin to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bring Russian natural gas to Germany at the expense of Ukraine’s economy and security––a textbook case of leftist superstition blocking obvious solutions to problems like global warming and Putin’s geopolitical buccaneering. The result of Germany’s anti-nuclear energy policy will be more CO2 from coal, and more power, revenues, and influence for an international bad actor.
So why do leftists and progressives reject policies that would achieve their alleged aims of warding off apocalypse from global warming––one of those crises leftists never let go to waste–– and alleviating the misery of the undeveloped world? The obvious answer is power: All their solutions require the expansion of government and its regulatory regime that intrudes on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, states, and businesses alike. And it doesn’t hurt that pursuing their power is lucrative, whether through the perks and privileges of holding office or gold-plated jobs with the feds; the billions in grant money flowing to researchers; or the crony-socialist deals and government subsidies that have made the global-warming prophet Al Gore a multi-millionaire.
Deeper and more pernicious, however, are the old various romantic myths about nature and our relationship to it that lie beneath the patina of science overlaying environmental discourse. Idealizations of nature as our true home, a superior realm of peace, harmony, freedom and simplicity destroyed by civilization and technology, are as old as the Greeks and their myth of the Golden Age. Yet such myths are a luxury for those whom technology has liberated from the drudgery of wresting sustenance from an indifferent natural world, and who are freed from disease, drought, famine, predators, malnutrition, and the other natural evils afflicting those today living in the Third World.
This myth of a benign nature permeates much of the environmental writing. Worse yet, cultural Marxism has made an alliance with romantic environmentalism, producing the “watermelons”––green on the outside, red on the inside––that dominate European politics. After all, both share a hatred of industrial capitalism, environmentalists because of the impact on the environment of its dehumanizing “Satanic mills”; Neo-Marxism because its traditional ideological rival, which as Raymond Aron pointed out long ago, “has succeeded by means which were not laid down in the revolutionary code. Prosperity, power, the tendency towards uniformity of economic conditions––these results have been achieved by private initiative, by competition, rather than State intervention, in other words by capitalism.” That’s why at most protests of meetings of the International Monetary Fund, Davos, the G-20, or the World Bank, the banners of the various European communist parties can be seen waving alongside those of Greenpeace.
Finally, this unholy alliance of nature-myths and leftist anticapitalism today permeates school curricula, the media, and popular culture. It explains the current socialism fad among millennials, who have been marinated their whole lives in this toxic brew. It also explains the dirigiste and ruinous proposals of the Green New Deal, which has been endorsed by several Democrat candidates for the 2020 presidential primary.
Whatever the progressives’ motives, one thing is certain: even if they achieve the power to put their policies into law, their “urgent crises” will not be resolved. What they will achieve will be the bloating of the federal Leviathan at the expense of our freedom, and the damage to economic growth that will harm our own citizens’ well-being and keep the developing world from freeing itself from poverty––a bad deal for people and the environment.