The Climate Left is a useful farce

No, they're not "serious". But what else could they be doing?

In a recent op-ed, Ezra Klein reviews Andreas Malm’s new book, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”, which urges people to commit eco-terrorism to halt climate change. Klein seems generally approving of the sentiment, but gently reminds would-be pipeline saboteurs that this is actually quite a bad idea:

As to whether blowing up pipelines would work here, and now, Malm is less convincing. The likeliest outcome is that a few dozen climate activists would be jailed for years (as some already have been) and a wave of laws criminalizing even peaceful protest would sweep the nation. He has no answers for those who fear the probable political consequences: an immediate backlash that sweeps enemies of climate action into power, eliminating even the fragile hopes for policy progress.

But this is more of a pro-forma statement than anything else, because everyone knows that the Climate Left is not going to go around blowing up a bunch of oil infrastructure. Malm’s own attack on the modern capitalist system consisted of letting the air out of a few SUVs’ tires, putting his eco-rebellion somewhere between “junior high prank” and “nothing whatsoever”.

Malm’s book, like much of the rhetoric coming from the Climate Left, is simply an increasingly histrionic way of shouting This Is Serious and We Mean Business. Ezra Klein takes it as such, and says that yes, this is very serious, and yes, we should mean business. Which is true.

But the Climate Left does not actually mean business. The way you know this is that absolutely none of the people calling for radical civil disobedience and pipeline destruction etc. are calling for it to be done in China.

China already emits more than America and Europe combined (and no, it isn’t because we outsourced our emissions to China). Furthermore, their emissions are still increasing rapidly, thanks to the huge fleet of coal plants they’re building, even as those of America and Europe trend downward. And they have a tendency to sink any international climate deal that would require them to compromise their economic growth even a little bit.

Yet as soon as you mention this to anyone on the Climate Left, and they instantly shift from talking about the imminent destruction of the planet to talking about moral issues, like per capita emissions or historical emissions — things which the climate definitely does not care about even a tiny, tiny bit. Everything, everything must be sacrificed to save our planet, unless those sacrifices have to be made by someone in the People’s Republic.

The reason for this rhetorical farce is obvious. The Climate Left confines its activism to gentle, tolerant, liberal regimes like Sweden, the UK, and the U.S., because these regimes will not throw them into a dank and hellish prison. The purpose of this activism is not to hurl their bodies into the gears of the system that is destroying the world; the purpose is to gain attention and/or intellectual acclaim, and to throw a fun block party. Doing that activism in China, where the regime brooks no rebellions of any sort, would be equally ineffectual but far less fun. On the few occasions when the Climate Left has been willing to mildly hector China from a safe distance, the results demonstrated just how little anyone in that crucial country is listening; when Greta Thunberg called on China to reduce its emissions, state media simply dogpiled her on social media and called her fat.

In a recent post, Matt Yglesias listed some other clear indications that the Climate Left is a blatant farce:

  1. They vigorously attack any legislation that actually take meaningful steps against climate change, like the infrastructure bill now moving through Congress.

  2. They attack technologies like nuclear power that assist significantly in the fight against climate change, and technologies like carbon capture that might assist in the future.

  3. They expend much of their activist energy on non-climate-related issues like Palestine and defunding the police.

Yglesias is absolutely correct that these are not the actions of a movement that is actually serious about making headway against climate change. His assessment of the Climate Left as “a simulacrum of a vast and highly energized social movement” is exactly correct.

But who cares?

And yet, I find myself asking: So what? Yes, the Climate Left is a farce, but it strikes me as a useful one.

What actually has a chance of stopping climate change? Two things: 1) Technological progress, and 2) Elite-driven policy. Activism, even silly activism, has the potential to push both of these things forward, by its influence on the attitudes and worldview of elites.

The most important single factor in the fight against climate change is technology. Without cheap solar, wind, batteries, and other storage, fighting climate means submitting to degrowth — something China, the U.S., and most of the world will simply never do. But now that these technologies are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels, the situation is entirely changed — now, fighting climate change is becoming economically easy, or even advantageous. This is our only hope for actually influencing China to do something about the climate.

And this did not happen on its own; technological progress does not simply fall from the sky. It required researchers to dedicate their lives and careers to inventing better energy technologies, instead of working on better semiconductor design or protein folding or whatever. It required government bureaucrats and legislators to fund energy research instead of starving it of money. It required entrepreneurs like Elon Musk to invest their lives and their fortunes in battery companies that pushed down the cost of batteries through mass production and scale effects, rather than starting companies that made death drones or ad tech. It required managers at large companies to risk investing their companies’ capital budgets in green energy tech. And so on, and so forth.

And what convinced these people to invest their lives and their careers and their fortunes and their reputations in efforts to fight climate change through green energy? Much of it was elite intellectual activism — climate scientists writing increasingly panicked op-eds about where things were headed, policy wonks drawing up detailed plans for decarbonization, and so on. Those activists were hugely important, and they were not part of the Climate Left.

But also, simple awareness surely had something to do with it. The fact that climate change was in the news, day after day, and that normal people — or at least, normal Democratic voters — started to talk about it as an important issue surely had an influence on the life choices of the scientists and bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. Older generations of environmental activist groups, such as Greenpeace, probably had something to do with that.

And technology is not enough to stop climate change; if you look at the projections, you see that we also need policy to keep kicking us to go faster. That policy is going to have to be elite-driven — i.e., legislators spending down their political capital to do stuff that isn’t high on their voters’ list of priorities. As Yglesias notes in his post, though popular awareness of climate change has improved, the kind of urgency that elites (correctly) feel isn’t yet shared by the public:

  • pre-election Gallup poll found that 55% of the public called climate either very important or extremely important. That put it behind healthcare, terrorism, gun policy, education, the economy, immigration, abortion, inequality, the budget deficit, taxes, race relations, and foreign affairs.

  • pre-election Pew poll found that voters ranked climate 11th out of 12 issues. Particularly striking is that in the Pew poll, Biden voters ranked climate behind healthcare as an issue.

In other words, sustaining awareness in the minds of political, technological, and business elites is crucial for the fight to save our world from climate change. This is Robinson Meyer’s theory of the “Green Vortex” — a broad sense of urgency among elites that creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop of good technology and good policy.

Can the Climate Left sustain that elite sense of urgency? I think maybe it can. The general public might not care about protests by Sunrise or Extinction Rebellion, and the properly dismiss Malm’s limp threats of pipeline destruction. But for liberal elites in politics, business, and academia, those activists are their children, their friends, or their lovers. Liberals move in liberal circles, and leftists move in liberal circles too. Even if the Climate Left is a farce, liberals don’t necessarily realize it’s a farce.

An activist movement that maintains awareness in the minds of liberal elites might therefore be very important, even if it isn’t a true mass movement.

And when you think about it, there’s really not much else for young people who care about climate to do. There’s not going to be a true mass mobilization on the issue til it’s too late. Eco-terrorism is dumb. China isn’t listening. So why not throw a block party and hope to get Western libs’ attention? What’s the alternative — just nodding along sagely whenever Congress passes anything useful?

This is not to say that the Climate Left’s fundamental unseriousness is totally OK. Closing nuclear power plants is making it significantly harder for states like California to decarbonize. The Climate Left’s demonization of nuclear probably sways liberal elites on this issue, and while it’s probably not going to move the needle substantially on global warming), it is bad nonetheless.

But when we assess the impact of the Climate Left, we should see it as a small part of a bigger ecosystem (pun intended). The heavy lifting against climate catastrophe is getting done by elites, and that’s not going to change soon. But elites might benefit from having some goofy people around to nag them to keep their eyes on the prize.