I take as the text for today's sermon Matt Yglesias' recent piece on the impressive cluelessness of today's climate left. The basic idea is that the climate left repeatedly strikes political stances that make no sense in light of their professed goals. Here's how Yglesias frames it:
"[C]limate change is a really big problem and I’m increasingly concerned that huge swathes of the climate advocacy world are losing the plot.
There are a lot of dimensions to this, but it really comes to a head in two recent developments.
One is the decision of major climate groups to blast the bipartisan infrastructure deal that the Biden White House is hoping to get passed and greet it with protests at the White House. The other is this letter from environmental groups on U.S.-China policy, which blasts “the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations” as bad for climate, but then across several hundred words of verbiage doesn’t actually say what policy change they want before concluding grandiosely that “nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”
I could cite plenty of other specific missteps, but what these two outbursts have in common is a total failure to read the political situation.
Climate groups seem to be operating in a reality where there is massive public support for much more dramatic action on climate change and the only thing standing in their way is a need to sweep aside the power of corrupt and timid moderate Democrats."
This is, of course, ridiculous. As Yglesias notes in the piece, the reality of the climate issue is that it has buy-in among Democratic elites that far exceeds buy-in among actual voters. Thus elites are usually trying to push the issue farther than would be justified by simply responding to public opinion and pressure from below.
He cites these data but there are plenty more:
"[M]ost people just are not that jazzed up about reducing emissions. They’re supportive, but not in a “would personally accept having less money” kind of way.
A 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.
A 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 Gallup’s current polling, 3% of the public calls climate the most important problem. That’s not terrible. It’s tied with crime, poverty, healthcare, the budget deficit, and “ethics/moral/religious/family decline.”
I would add to that a very recent Future Majority/Change Research survey among swing state/district voters found that identifying a candidate as advocating building a green energy economy made those voters more likely to vote for someone else rather than that candidate. The reaction was ever more negative among independent voters in the survey. And a Green New Deal fares even worse among all voters and among independents in the survey.
I have seen data from David Shor that tell a similar story. Voters are just not that committed to big action on climate change. As an issue it is hardly a slam dunk that Democratic politicians are, for venal reasons, not taking advantage of.
As Yglesias points out:
"Rather than mass pressure dragging a reluctant and cowardly political system into climate action, an elite consensus inside the Democratic Party keeps pushing climate onto the agenda even though the mass public is not that engaged with it....Democrat elites are convinced (rightly) that the mass public is too short-sighted and too parochial about climate change, and they are trying to drive the pace of change ahead of what pure popularism would suggest. Given that dynamic, the appropriate role for climate groups would be to try to be helpful. Instead, they only fitfully support emissions-reducing policies."
That underscores how absurd it is for climate groups to denounce a bipartisan bill that includes around $265 billion in climate-related spending. That's not everything. But it's not nothing.
As Yglesias notes:
"[T]he idea that blowing up the bill from the left would induce Jon Tester to get behind a much more left-wing, much more climate-focused reconciliation bill is absurd. As is the idea that making Joe Biden unpopular so Democrats do poorly in the midterms would somehow pave the way for more aggressive rather than less aggressive climate policy. It’s pointless mass movement cosplay in lieu of real analysis."
Yglesias further observes:
"That the mass public does not adequately prioritize climate change is unfortunate.
But it’s perhaps understandable in light of the fact that environmental organizations themselves don’t consistently prioritize it. The Natural Resources Defense Council cheered April’s shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, arguing that “because of New York’s landmark 2019 climate legislation and years of clean energy planning and investments by the state, New York is better positioned today than ever to achieve its ambitious climate and clean energy goals without this risky plant.”
This is just an insane analysis. There is no universe in which we are going to have so much zero-carbon electricity that we won’t regret having lost existing sources of zero-carbon electricity. After all, to meet our climate aspirations we not only need to replace 100% of existing fossil fuel electricity, but we also need to convert the entire fleet of vehicles for transporting people and cargo to electricity. That’s a lot of electricity!
I used to think this was just a kind of historic bugaboo about nuclear energy. But there are folks who call direct air capture research a “dangerous distraction” from climate change (see Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for why that’s wrong) and many environmental groups also oppose carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) efforts.
A very funny encapsulation of where this comes from is visible around minutes 26 to 27 of this great episode of Columbia Energy Exchange where Jane Flegal is the guest. She was working at the Hewlett Foundation at the time, and she’s talking about this and that and is saying supportive things about CCS, so the host asks her about opposition to CCS from “climate justice groups” — which is to say groups that are allegedly bringing a racial justice perspective to the climate movement. She very judiciously tries to point out that these groups are not necessarily representative, that there are a bunch of other relevant stakeholders, and the real calculus is much more complicated than simply deferring to what they say."
"I am on board with the consensus that this is an issue worth taking some risks on. But it would really behoove the climate left to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening here, which is that they are one of the blessed children of the Democratic Party coalition — political capital is spent down on advancing their priorities. They ought to act like that’s true and try to be politically helpful rather than turning every act of incremental progress into a feel-bad betrayal, acting so all-powerful that they can afford to deride disfavored sources of zero-carbon energy and go out of their way to associate climate with other, even politically riskier ideas.
Get a grip."
Get a grip indeed. One interesting reaction to Yglesias' argument is to admit it's correct--this the climate left is not a serious movement in terms of actually achieving its goals--but that's OK! Noah Smith commented on his substack:
"In a recent post, Matt Yglesias listed some other clear indications that the Climate Left is a blatant farce:
* They vigorously attack any legislation that actually take meaningful steps against climate change, like the infrastructure bill now moving through Congress.
* 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.
* 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."
Then Smith argues that this head up the rear end politics is actually really useful from one important perspective:
"The general public might not care about protests by Sunrise or Extinction Rebellion, and they properly dismiss [Andreas] 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....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."
As a defense of a movement like the climate left that's making so many political mistakes, that strikes me as extraordinarily weak. The movement's cluelessness is a feature not a bug!
I don't buy it. But Smith does have his finger on something very important about the climate left which he apparently sees as beneficial--the extraordinary, overweening, almost millenarian sense of urgency. These are the end times! If we don't act now all is lost! We're on the precipice! And so on.
But is this really a feature? My view is that this catastrophist rhetoric, twinned with ineffective and counterproductive politics, undermines the climate left's claims to relevance. If the situation was really so urgent, wouldn't they be laser-focused on actually Getting Things Done? The fact that they are not speaks volumes.