Ecocentric

Can Climate and Energy Become the New Civil Rights Movement?

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I’m in Abu Dhabi right now, attending the World Future Energy Summit and getting a chance to check out the first finished buildings in Masdar City. I’ll have more on the summit and the city tomorrow, but I wanted to focus on something else today. I often write on this blog about rapidly the planet has developed over the past few decades, how quickly technology has changed our lives—materially, at least, for the better. I was born in 1978, and if you’d stuck me in a TARDIS and dropped me in the present day, much of the world would be barely recognizable. Laptops, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, flat-screen TVs—in a short time, technology has altered who we are, what we do and how we make money.

Yet I’m not sure that’s the biggest change that’s happened to America over the past 45 years or so. The social revolution over those years—civil rights, gender rights and gay rights—is even more momentous. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s been a little more than 40 years since he was killed in Memphis, but the social change that has come to America in the years since is astonishing—and if you doubt that, all you have to do is look at the White House. That isn’t to say that as a country we don’t have miles to go still on every one of those issues, issues that still remain contentious, but we’ve come a long way since the Mad Men-era—in only half a lifetime.

For greens the next question is obvious—if Americans could change so quickly on civil rights, can they change on climate and energy as well? That’s what Climate Progress asks in a post today:

Whereas the civil rights movement was trying to undo a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong, the challenge for climate science activists (the future generations rights movement?) is that we are trying to prevent a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong. That mission will require even more eloquence, even more commitment.

I think Climate Progress is right to argue that we may need the equivalent of a new civil rights movement built around climate and energy—at least if we’re going to make rapid reductions in our carbon emissions, which will require changes in behavior and changes in politics. (If you take a more sanguine view of climate change and believe accelerated technological change can get us there, albeit more slowly, you might just need new gadgets, not new beliefs, but it’s a gamble either way.)

We haven’t gotten there yet—in fact, in the U.S., greens generally seem to be losing support. There’s a million and one reasons for that, but it’s worth remember that civil rights or gay rights were hardly universally popular when advocates like Martin Luther King Jr. or Harvey Milk began pushing them. In some parts of the country, in some parts of the public, they’re still not very popular. But though there have been setbacks, over the past several decades the U.S. has become increasingly progressive on civil rights, gender rights, gay rights—and that’s been ratified in the courts, at the ballot and in public opinion.

But I’m skeptical we’ll get there on climate and energy, for a simple reason: freedom. Every civil rights movement—for minorities, women and gays—was about justice of course, the justice of Selma and the justice of Title IX. But at its core, for many Americans, I think the debate boiled down to individual freedom—and if there’s one thing that Americans on the right and the left can agree on, it’s that freedom is good. Not the same kind of freedoms, not on the surface. For the left it’s person freedom to act, to act as you wish and not be harassed by the government or your fellow citizens. For the right, it’s about economic freedom—the freedom to work, and the freedom to keep the labors of that work. Those two versions of freedom clash all the time, but instead of canceling each other out, we seem to end up with both. So steady deregulation and lower taxes fits next to the end of the draft and a rise in the divorce rate. Freedom’s a gas in that way—let it out, and it tends to flow everywhere it can. So with civil rights and similar movements we could satisfy justice as many Americans saw it—but we could also gratify freedom.

What does it mean for consensus on climate and energy? Look back at the Climate Progress post—the author identifies with a “future generation rights” movement. If we’re really taking climate change seriously—economy-changing seriously—then we do have to curb our behaviors, our appetites and our actions for the sake of future generations. We would need to curb our freedom, economically and behaviorally. And I’m skeptical that we would do that. (I’m even more skeptical that we would act out of international justice, given that the people of the developing world who have done the least to cause the problem will suffer the most from climate change—after all, we haven’t exactly done a bang-up job of ending global poverty.) Maybe you believe in Roger Pielke Jr’s “iron law of climate policy,” the notion that no government—and no public—will willingly accept significantly higher energy prices for the highly distributed good of the climate. But I don’t think you have to—after all, we’re not very good at planning for our own retirements, let alone the future of the human race. Some of it is selfishness. The rest is thoughtlessness.

Perhaps if we had a true sense of community—a national community, even an international one—that could change. Burt does anyone really believe that we do? The same forces that granted us freedom have eaten away at social bonds and left us atomized—in our work in this age of the contractor, and in our lives. We know that something is missing—that’s why we often react so strongly when a political leader pushes the “unity” button, as President Obama did in his speech after the Tucson killings. But that feeling vanishes like snow in spring. Freedom is too strong to resist, and keeps us fixed in the present.

Certainly, if global warming changes from tomorrow to today, that clear and present threat might prompt us to change—although by that time it might be too late, and it’s just as possible that such danger would pull us apart. Or maybe we can somehow be persuaded to sacrifice some freedom for justice and responsibility, if the right leader comes along to show us the way. There’s no better moment to hope for that than Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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