11/07/2012 02:33 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

The New Politics of Climate Change

Environmentalists face a much improved political climate following the election, although the climate of Planet Earth will continue to get worse for its human inhabitants. It is of critical importance, however, that we understand what has changed and continues to change and what has not changed about the politics in which we must engage. Failure to do so will result in wasted effort, misplaced priorities, and delays we cannot afford in dealing with the Earth's climate. The political climate, like the Earth's, may change rapidly and in unexpected ways, but below are some of the realities, as they currently appear, that we have to work with as of November 7, 2012.

In the interest of brevity, I have stated some of these in terms that fail to incorporate some of the doubts, conditions, probabilities and caveats a fuller treatment would require, but all are meant as conjectures, plausible in light of present evidence. They must be subject to constant revision as circumstances change and new evidence and perspectives arise.
  1. Hurricane Sandy marks the beginning of the end of climate change denial as a potent political force. When Sandy slammed into the New York and New Jersey coasts, reality struck a massive blow in the financial and communications center of America. We may have seen devastating heat waves in Russia and Europe, rapidly melting glaciers, half of Pakistan under water, the devastation of New Orleans, and extensive drought in the American Southwest, but none of those things are likely to have the extended political impact in the United States that Sandy will have. The skazillion reporters and media directors in New York will no longer have quite their old tolerance for the "balanced" accounts that give equal weight to competing narratives of the world's climate scientists and the deniers and delayers. Financiers and CEOs will not so easily pursue their immediate financial gains feeling smugly secure that their futures will never be threatened by the damage they do to the planet. The effects of the attitude changes may be hard to trace in detail but they will be profound.
  2. The reluctance of even many "liberal" political figures to discuss the climate will be over. Environmentalists suffered great and understandable anguish over the absence of discussion of the climate in the presidential debates and political campaigns. The reluctance of the candidates to discuss the climate may be largely summarized in one word: Ohio. Neither candidate believed he was likely to win the presidency without winning Ohio, and Ohio is coal country. The malign effects, fostered by our peculiar electoral system, of making Ohio the arbiter of our presidential choices would be hard to overstate. Those effects extend not just to the campaign, but back through the years before it. Rail as you wish, make all the heated judgments of Obama's psychology or unwillingness to stand up to fossil fuel industries you wish, but the fact remains that, in the best understanding of almost everyone, Obama almost could not have been reelected had he not won Ohio. Had he been stronger on the environment in the ways all environmentalists wished, we, and the planet, would probably have been left to the tender mercies of Mitt Romney and the Republican base behind him.
  3. President Obama will be responsive to a different mix of forces than he was during his first term. First-term presidents must worry about reelection. If they do not take the steps, fight the fights, and make the compromises necessary for reelection they are likely to see any important accomplishments of their first term dismantled and they will never get a chance to accomplish anything in a second. Second-term presidents, however, tend to focus more on the judgments of history than on the next electoral cycle. No matter what he accomplishes or fails to accomplish in the economic sphere, Obama will be judged a failure by history if he fails to address climate change. Furthermore, he knows that.
  4. Corporate power and great wealth will continue to exercise inordinate power in our political system and that power will, in the main, oppose any step that might threaten the existing constellation and current beneficiaries of concentrated wealth, privilege, and power. That includes the fossil fuel industries. As Obama himself stated in his last campaign address, "The future will never have as many lobbyists as the status quo." Public officials, including members of Congress and their staffs and staffs of regulatory agencies, will continue to be subject to cognitive capture and the lure of financial rewards available if they faithfully serve corporate interests while working in government, until they can escape to corporate positions. The malign influence of Citizens United will not go away. There is little hope of overcoming Citizens United via constitutional amendment, although there is no harm in pressing for an amendment in the hope that will put enough pressure on the political system to elicit some beneficial changes. The greatest hope for erosion in the malign influence of Citizens United comes from the possibility of turnover in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, chances are good that the only changes achievable in the Court in the next four years will be replacement of an existing progressive justice or two. The older conservative justices will try to hang on until a Republican president is in office.
  5. There is some hope for a slight erosion of the influence of corporate power and concentrated wealth on elections due to the fact that even some Republicans were disturbed at the effect unaccountable super PACs had on their reelection chances. It may be possible to at least force some transparency on political donations, thus reducing the willingness of corporations to make donations that might alienate part of their customer base. Environmentalists, like the advocates of any progressive causes, need to support any initiatives that point in this direction.
  6. One route to undermining the corporate forces aligned against effectively addressing climate change is to encourage competing corporate interests. This may be distasteful to environmental activist who have been most focused on social and economic revolution as the route to achieving a sustainable environment. For those who believe that "capitalism" itself makes a sustainable environment unattainable, this will not be an emotionally satisfying route. We cannot afford to be too picky. We are aiming for the survival of civilization here, not achieving personal emotional tranquility or perfect political and conceptual consistency. For example, delay of the XL pipeline, which should have been halted altogether, was an unsatisfying half-measure. But already it appears that development of some new fossil fuel-based energy resources (highly problematic in themselves) has begun to undermine the economic viability of the XL pipeline. Thus, the work the environmental community did to oppose the pipeline that on first impression only resulted in delay may in fact have prevented its construction altogether.
  7. No matter what we do, gas and fracking-derived fuel industries are likely to exert a great deal of influence for a long time. The economic attractiveness and ease of transition to these energy sources, especially as alternatives to dirtier coal and increasingly expensive extraction of deep-sea and remote oil, are probably just too great for environmental arguments to overcome. We may, however, be effective in forcing research and the implementation of regulations and procedures to minimize environmental damage, including the leakage of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even this will be a massive battle of uncertain outcome, critical though it is. We may be able to cut into reliance on these sources, but expending all our human resources and enthusiasm attempting to block them altogether is likely to be equivalent to butting our heads against a wall. No one can rest easy if we are impelled to this conclusion, because it is clear that well before fossil fuel industries have exhausted their existing reserves we will have sent the planet into irreversible and almost unimaginable catastrophe. We have to hope we can leverage events like Sandy well beyond what now appears possible.
  8. There can be a reasonable hope that Obama will be much less influenced by corporate financial interest than he was during his first term. President Obama has remarkably conservative economic instincts to start with, and that is unlikely to change. However, consider that: (a) when Obama's first term started the financial system was in imminent danger of collapse. Confidence in and within that system was a major factor and, wisely or unwisely, Obama chose an economic team that both had the confidence of primary actors in the system and had the interests of that system, its actors, and the bulk of existing ways of doing things at heart; (b) although weak reforms accomplished thus far are not enough to give most of us confidence in the future stability of the economic system, the financial sector is currently in pretty good shape. It certainly is in no need of rescue; (c) despite all that Obama did for the financial sector and despite the resumption of the concentration of fabulous wealth in the hands of corporate managers, that sector turned on him in the election campaign. The financial sector pretty much went all in for Mitt Romney, demonstrating either an abysmal understanding of the overall economy or a contempt for it combined with a monomaniacal focus on its own power and privilege; (d) Obama won despite almost united opposition of those most protective of great wealth and privilege. All of that should translate into a reduction of the influence of established financial interests on the Obama administration during its second term.
  9. Tim Geithner will no longer be Secretary of the Treasury. While it would be easy to find a replacement whose sympathies and cognitive orientation are similarly aligned with Wall Street, there are obvious economic and political reasons to choose someone more concerned with the welfare of Main Street and people of little means who are buffeted about by financial and corporate elites. While it may be too much to expect Obama to overcome his conservative economic instincts enough to appoint someone highly concerned about those on the bottom half of the economy - someone like, for instance, Sheila Bair - he could make a choice willing to at least allow some cracks in the barriers protecting concentrated wealth. All of the above factors give reason to hope the Obama administration will be less solicitous of the forces that ultimately work to perpetuate the dominance of fossil fuel industries and corporate influence on the political system than he was in his first term. Obviously, it behooves the environmental community to bend every effort and seek every ally to achieve that end.
  10. Tragically, geo-engineering may be unavoidable, but ill-considered application of it must be resisted. From the time coal was first employed as a fuel on a widespread basis we have been engaged in a massive, unexamined and uncontrolled geo-engineering project whose effects are likely to be catastrophic. We have recently begun to try to end the project but have as yet found no way past the psychological, institutional, and political barriers to doing so. In fear that we may never do so in time to avert worldwide catastrophe, a few people have begun to examine prospects for other geo-engineering projects that might counter the effects of overloading our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Some of the ideas are hopelessly quixotic and some may offer some promise if they can be implemented, but almost all almost surely require imposing great damage on the earth and its inhabitants. No one can be happy about this because there is little prospect we can implement any of the projects imagined thus far without dire side effects. If we must ever engage in any of these projects, it will be the moral equivalent of instituting harsh and risky chemotherapy with known and horrible side effects after we have failed to prevent the spread of cancer in a patient by other means. Nevertheless, our survival may depend upon a careful examination of the alternatives so we understand which measures might be least damaging and how to implement them in the least damaging way in the tragic event we must resort to one or more of them. In all cases though, careful planning and controlled experimentation before implementation and as an alternative to simple drift are necessary. The environmental community may well have to fight implementation of one or more crackpot ideas, but that does not mean it should oppose well-directed research into serious alternatives we can only hope we will never need to implement.