An Introduction to Climate Cope

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I am endlessly fascinated by how we rationalize away our impending societal disruption. I want to see if I could categorize the different ways to compartmentalize climate change effectively enough to maintain sanity. It is my belief that I can fit 99% of people into these 6 categories. Overlap is possible.

Ratings are from 0–5 stars and are not based on intellectual legitimacy or efficacy. It’s just based on how interesting or creative I think they are.

1. The Denialist (Yes it’s a word.) — ⭐_ _ _ _

Climate change don’t real.

Pretty Straightforward. Boring at this point. And they’re not reading this anyway, so I won’t put much time into it.

Denial includes the following positions:

  • Climate Change isn’t real.
  • The climate is always changing. Smirk emoji.
  • The climate is changing, but it’s not human caused.
  • The climate is changing and it’s human caused, but it’s good actually.
  • The climate is changing, it’s human caused, and it’s bad, but there’s nothing we can do because of China, the deficit, etc.
  • The climate is changing, it’s human caused, and it’s bad. There’s something we could have done, but it’s too late anyway so who cares. In 10 years all of the above will likely have shifted to this one.

My University used to host these Climate panels that exposed me to all of the above, except maybe the last one. Participants consisted of elected officials, libertarian think tankers, and the CEO of an oil company, so I’m glad we got the full spectrum of opinion.

Anyways Denialists are passé at this point. 1 Star.

2. The Economist — ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Climate Change is real, and it’s opening up lucrative trade routes and fossil fuel sources, as well as new land to put flags in.

My personal favorite. This one’s like driving your car as fast as you can into a brick wall, but it’s worth it because it’s a really nice car.

5 Stars.

3. The Ecofascist — _ _ _ _ _

Climate Change is real, so let’s build a wall to keep out the undesirables.

No meme this one sucks. Interesting idea for a modern version of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Bad as a sincere ideology.

“I think the only thing scarier than a far-right, racist movement that denies the reality of climate change is a far-right, racist movement that doesn’t deny the reality of climate change, that actually says this is happening, there are going to be many millions of people on the move, and we are going to use this abhorrent ideology that ranks the relative value of human life, that puts white Christians at the top of the hierarchy, that animalizes and otherizes everyone else, as the justification for allowing those people to die.” — Naomi Klein

0 Stars, obviously.

The Ex Machinist — ⭐⭐⭐ _ _

Climate Change is real. There’s nothing we can do about it right now, but in the future Silicon Valley will come up with something. Large scale rapid effective geoengineering will become viable, or carbon capture will sort itself out. Who knows what it is, but it’ll be there. Something something, capitalism, innovation, profit motive, uhh Elon Musk etc.

This is the most intellectually comfortable category. Cope of the highest order. Sometimes it’s even self aware. No one is calling you a climate denier. No one’s mad at you for trying to raise their taxes. I think the idea that “technology will save us” is only inherently problematic if followed by “so we don’t have to worry about it.” The second part is what identifies the ex machinist.

I get the appeal, but stated plainly the proposition is to bet the fate of the human race as well as a good chunk of Earth’s biodiversity on an industry that is mostly focused on making apps to circumvent labor laws.

3 stars.

Green Growther — ⭐⭐_ _ _

Climate Change is real, and we need to deal with it with minimal changes to political economy.

Basically the Carbon Tax /Cap & Trade people. Better 30 years late than never.

The problem is energy’s pretty important when it comes to the economy. Messing with it is bound to create winners and losers. In practice it’s a fair bet that the poor will get the short end of the stick.

The French carbon tax was austerity dressed up as environmentalism and led to the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes.

From a 2018 Thomas Piketty blogpost.

“If a carbon tax is to succeed, it is imperative that the totality of the net proceeds be allocated to the social measures associated with the ecological transition. The government has done just the opposite: only 10% of the 4 billion Euros rise in fuel duty in 2018, and the extra 4 billion expected in 2019, were earmarked for social measures, while the remainder financed, de facto, the abolition of the wealth tax (ISF) and the flat tax on income from capital.

If Macron wants to save his five-year period in power, he must immediately re-instate the wealth tax and allocate the revenue to compensate those who are the most affected by the rises in carbon tax, which must continue.

If he does not do so, that will mean that he will have opted for an outdated pro-rich ideology at the expense of the campaign against global warming.”

From a political standpoint as well as a simple economic justice standpoint, a carbon tax must not fall on the shoulders of the poor.

“Mr. Macron promoted it as a means of adapting to climate change. Outside major cities, where people rely on cars to get nearly everywhere, it supplied proof that the president was indifferent to the working class. ‘Macron is concerned with the end of the world,’ one Yellow Vest slogan put it. ‘We are concerned with the end of the month.’” — New York Times

That’s not to say carbon taxes are inherently bad, or unworkable, just that they cannot come at the expense of economic security for the masses. They should be paired with a basic income, job guarantee etc. Even John Delaney wanted to pair a carbon tax with a dividend, so this solution should by no means be considered radical. (Or adequate) A carbon tax with a progressive social welfare program is one step below the absolute bare minimum for addressing climate change.

Green New Dealer (Green Growther pt. 2) ⭐⭐⭐_ _

Climate Change is real. Yes it’s caused by humans, and it must be solved concurrently with issues of economic inequality.

The premise is basically that climate change is a threat comparable to war as far as destruction, therefore wartime mobilization of resources is justified.

Wartime mobilization could and should cause a wartime leveling of inequality.

Bring back full employment, put people to work mounting solar panels, planting trees, shoring up infrastructure etc.

This mass mobilization is a contradiction with the final section, but I’ll get to that later.

I like the framing of the green new deal for a few reasons:

Democratic leadership has failed (or refused) to build a coalition around climate. Standouts include Pelosi calling the Green New Deal “The Green Dream or whatever” and Senator Feinstein telling a group of elementary school kids that the deficit is more important than their future food, water, and oxygen supply.

The deficit is used by both Democrats and Republicans as a political cudgel, and generally shouldn’t be taken seriously. However regarding climate change it is even less credible as it is presented absent from any cost benefit analysis of the long term financial cost or international death toll of climate change. It’s impossible to determine if this habit is due to an ideological commitment to austerity, the influence of campaign donations, or the fact that the future of climate will not personally affect the individuals making these decisions.

There are positive signs of change though. In 2016 the Green New Deal was a Jill Stein policy. In 2020 it was (nominally) supported by a significant portion of the democratic presidential candidates and has over a hundred cosponsors. Sincerity varies significantly, but progress is progress.

Elizabeth Warren had one line from the 2020 primary that I still think about. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” (Crowd Cheers, Delaney does that thing with his face.) It’s not “Workers of the world unite” but it’s something.

Democrats who are currently weak on climate don’t necessarily need to be replaced. There is historical precedent from not long ago on how to change a party quickly regarding climate.

“What happened was clear. Republicans who asserted support for climate change legislation or the seriousness of the climate threat saw their money dry up or, worse, a primary challenger arise.

‘It told Republicans that we were serious,’ Mr. Phillips said, ‘that we would spend some serious money against them.’

By the time Election Day 2010 arrived, 165 congressional members and candidates had signed Americans for Prosperity’s ‘No Climate Tax’ pledge.”

Any Republican who even gave lip service to climate change had to recant, and bend the knee to fossil fuels in perpetuity. Democrats could be similarly pressured in the opposite direction. However, there is an obvious disanalogy. There is no left equivalent to the big bag of oil soaked money that was there to threaten anyone who didn’t toe the new party line for Republicans.

Ideally the Green New Deal would at minimum include some combination of:

  • Deliberately scaling up renewables
  • Building/upgrading Infrastructure to reduce emissions and/or withstand the effects of climate change.
  • Planting trees to reduce CO2.
  • Economic security measures to smooth these transitions. (Job guarantee, basic income etc.)

None of this should be seen as pie in the sky either as they exist in some form in other nations. I remember learning in elementary school that the US was the best country, so this should be easy.

China has been able to massively expand solar energy, build high speed rail, and plant trees to reduce CO2. That being said those measures aren’t enough there, and won’t be enough here.

3 Stars, not amazing, but a potential game changer.

Degrowther — ⭐⭐⭐⭐_

Climate Change is real, and it requires a significant shift in the distribution of wealth and power as well as a shift in our basic values as a society.

This is the least understood archetype as it’s well outside the realm of acceptable discourse. It’s the only archetype that challenges capitalism. The degrowth critique of the Green new Deal is not that it would slow growth, but that it wouldn’t slow growth.

Like the Green New Dealer, the Degrowther demands a phase out of fossil fuels as well as significant increases in basic economic security & infrastructural investment. However, the Degrowther is more aggressive with regard to what sectors need to be scaled down and how much.

Degrowth doesn’t mean shrinking the GDP. It means ignoring it. I usually cite a source, or link to a previous book summary, but literally just google “GDP outdated.” This idea is not controversial.

If improving social outcomes is our goal, it makes much more sense to target that directly, organizing the economy first around what we know is required for human flourishing, rather than just growing the GDP indiscriminately and hoping it will magically provide for people’s needs.

Developing countries would still need to grow of course, but developed nations need to focus on growing the parts of the economy that matter, and shrinking or eliminating the parts that don’t. Focus the economy on fulfilling needs for the sake of human and ecological well being, not creating needs for the sake of private wealth. Similarly technological innovation should be prioritized by what is needed rather than what is profitable.

Let’s have a conversation about what sectors still need to grow (like renewable energy, public services, trains, etc), what sectors are big enough already, and what sectors are too big and need to significantly degrow (i.e., fossil fuels, SUVs, advertising, planned obsolescence, McMansions, arms, industrial beef, private jets, etc).

A problem with degrowth is that it seems so politically impossible, that it’s tempting to just say it’s never going to happen. In that case the most radical climate change position just becomes a woke denialist.

To sum up:

The Denialist is in denial of climate change, or at least our ability to do anything about it.

The Economist is in denial of the value of human life (or any life) outside of an Excel spreadsheet.

The Ecofascist is in denial of the value of human life outside of a given ethnicity.

The Ex Machinist is in denial of a little bit of everything in some combination. How innovation is prioritized, the feasibility of carbon capture, climate inflection points, etc.

The Green Growther is in denial of the scale of change necessary, either due to an undying faith in market solutions, or a misunderstanding of time constraints.

The Green New Dealer is in denial of the state of renewable energy. The idea that carbon emissions can be adequately reduced by changing energy sources rather than reducing energy consumption itself.

The Degrowther is not in denial of the scope of climate change, but could be in denial about the basic distribution of power in society. Since radical redistribution of wealth is necessary to make it work, the richer you are the more offensive degrowth will be. In theory this shouldn’t matter in a democracy, but it obviously does.

If you haven’t been at least three of these I admire your ideological consistency.

Conclusion

I recently watched the I Am Greta documentary, and the thing that stuck out to me most was her initial reaction to learning about climate change.

“That was when I started getting depressed. And got anxiety. And stopped eating and stopped talking. I was sick… I started turning off lights and pulling out cords at home. My parents got very surprised and they wondered why I did like that, and I explained to save energy.”

How is this not a more common reaction? This is what it looks like when someone meaningfully confronts the problem, rather than explaining it away for their own mental comfort. The lesson here is not that we should avoid confronting the problem because it’s too upsetting. The lesson is not that being perpetually distraught is a solution to climate change, or that it’s beneficial in any way.

The lesson is that confronting the problem in reality is a necessary step to drive us to collective action.

“It took many years, but slowly I started to feel better. I felt that, why should I give up when there were so many different things you could do to make a difference?”

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