Saturday, September 28, 2019

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Polarized Politics of Climate Change

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

This past week saw further polarization in the politics of climate change.  Always a contentious political topic, it became even more so after an emotional and angry speech by 16 year-old Greta Thunberg at the UN.  She shamed world leaders for selling out the future of her generation. A Trump Tweet mocking Greta after her presentation made a bad situation worse.

A week before the UN event angry school children walked out of their schools and took to the streets in a world-wide demonstration to protest global warming.  It was a familiar sight, except for the age of the protestors, Both the demonstrations and Thunberg’s speech exuded scorn and anger that was reminiscent of the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

But unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights demonstrations, Thunberg’s diatribe on climate change emphasized generational conflict with no proposals for change.  The polarized politics of climate change are orchestrated by activist adults who, unlike MLK’s civil rights proponents, use young people like Thunberg to further polarize the politics of climate change.

For some time global warming was opposed as a leftist political conspiracy, but in the last few years it has been recognized as a dangerous reality with unpredictable weather and rising ocean levels.  The question today is what to do about it. Climate change is a global problem that requires remedial action at the local and national level, where little has been done. 

Carbon emissions from privately owned vehicles (POVs) are a primary source of greenhouse gases.  Providing incentives to reduce the use of POVs and to develop alternative means of mass transit could reduce carbon emissions. That could be done with a national gas tax, but it would be a formidable challenge requiring political reconciliation, not polarization.

Some would say it will be a cold day in hell before Congress passes a dollar-per-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel to counter global warming.  But don’t underestimate American ingenuity. Less than 100 years ago air conditioning enabled a hellishly hot and economically depressed South to break out of its racist past and enter the modern economic era.

The remedies for climate change require a bipartisan commitment to proposals like a gas tax that provide for the common good.  That requires support in both Congress and in the mega-corporations of Wall Street that control money and power, and where unrestrained greed has created dangerous disparities in wealth that require regulation to preserve democracy.   

Today there is no practical and coherent global strategy to counter climate change.  Instead of seeking consensus on specific proposals to ameliorate climate change, UN activists invited Greta Thunberg to condemn world leaders for failing to prevent “the beginning of a mass extinction;” and her diatribe did not suggest any solutions for the existential climate crisis.

Angry polarizing rhetoric prevents political compromise.  That has become the norm in America’s polarized two-party duopoly where Trump has mobilized mindless  masses to support his America First nationalism that opposes global climate change strategies that don’t benefit him politically.  After all, he promotes more use of coal and other fossil fuels as energy sources. 

I’m a non-partisan old white male who advocates a politics of reconciliation and the moral stewardship of democracy with policies that promote clean energy.  While I would like to shame Trump and his supporters with an angry diatribe, I know that would only deepen our political divisions. In polarized politics, angry diatribes only make bad situations worse.   


Monica Hesse has described Greta Thunberg as weaponizing shame in an era of shamelessness.  “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished a crowd of world leaders. “How dare you!”  Hesse observes “At every turn, in every appearance, what she’s interested in is making her listeners feel shame. She doesn’t need public support for her condemnation of others. She has utter lack of regard for our feelings. She doesn’t care if they make us feel bad; her point is to make us feel bad. She doesn’t need our votes; she’s not an elected official. She doesn’t need our money since she lives at home with her parents.” Thunberg doesn’t understand the political realities of leaders who must seek compromise to make the public policies needed for the climate crisis, and that makes her unsuited to shame and condemn them.  See     
Jake Novak has opined that Greta Thunberg’s rise could backfire on environmentalists.  “Just how inspiring or even persuasive you find Greta’s speeches and overall activism likely depends on where you stand on the political spectrum. There are plenty of politicians and regular voters claiming to be inspired by her words and passion. There are also lots of observers expressing general alarm at what they see as an indoctrinated child being coerced by adults to make their political arguments with her youth as a shield from any criticism.  Her story signals a clear change in environmental movement tactics, and just how much more divisive and ineffective that change is likely to be. Greta, and the adults guiding her, are seeking to shift almost all the focus from personal responsibility to governments and big corporations to enact environmental reform. Their argument is that individual people can’t do much to save the world from climate change disaster when energy companies and governments focused mostly on economic growth don’t care enough to make the big changes.
The adult version of that argument emerged earlier this month when Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren basically mocked personal conservation efforts. Warren told a climate town hall audience and later tweeted that the fossil fuel industry wants the public to discuss issues like plastic straws, lightbulbs, and cheeseburgers so they can continue to get away with producing most of the emissions blamed for climate change.  The funny thing about all of this is the free market is already doing these things based on the same capitalist incentives Greta and so many other activists are blaming for environmental disaster. 
Based on all the politically partisan slogans and signs we saw at the climate protests over the past few days, are we sure the top motivation is the environment and not politics?  The shift from the “Think Globally, Act Locally,” environmental philosophy of the 1980s and 1990s makes that question fair game. When we move from encouraging people to change their personal practices to something like Warren’s mocking of that very idea, it guts the very soul of any movement for effective change.  Previous generations of environmental activists knew this. By focusing on what people could do in their own personal lives to cut down on pollution, they presided over an environmental movement that used to be much more bipartisan in America.
This new focus on making environmentalism an angrier protest movement threatens to make the effort to protect the planet just another wedge issue that politicians often use to motivate their base of voters. Similar wedge issues like abortion and gun control have long shifted become tribal controversies with little chance of progress and compromise. Greta Thunberg is angry. Lots of people are angry. But anger without doing something other than protesting and making speeches won’t protect the environment or do much else other than produce more anger.”  See

Nathan Schneider related Greta Thunberg’s diatribe and the trouble with changing the world to religion to the danger of idolatrous saviorism, or the elite charade of changing the world. “Saviorism should seem especially repulsive among Christians, followers of a Messiah who defied expectations that he would upend the political order in specific ways. Instead, he was killed. It took a few hundred years for people claiming his mantle to witness the fall of the Roman Empire, right when they thought they had conquered it for themselves.” Schneider considered Thunberg’s ethic as healing rather than  idolatrous saviorism. “To heal means focusing first of all on protecting what one loves, what we know to be good. If doing so requires drastic change, as Thomas Aquinas would put it, that is that.  To be a healer means your motivation begins like this: What do you love, what do you protect, what do you refuse to harm? What is worth more than the illusions we cling to? Healing begins not with disruption or innovation but with listening, with a humility that knows the body is its own best healer. Healing is enabling and rousing, not imposing.”  Unlike Schneider, I didn’t hear any appeal to healing in Thunberg’s diatribe at the UN, only the divisive condemnation and shaming of world leaders as “evil.” See      

At the same time Thurnberg was chastizing world leaders at the UN for ignoring global issues on climate change, Trump condemned globalism and touted nationalistic views of foreign affairsTrump said 'Wise leaders always put the good of their own countries first.'  Trump promoted his nationalist “America First” policy before a body built on multilateral cooperation.  “The future does not belong to globalists,” Trump said. “The future belongs to patriots.” He argued that a globalist worldview had “exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their own national interests,” and called on other nations to “embrace its national foundations.”  Trump urged other leaders to focus on national sovereignty as well and told the audience that the United States would only become involved abroad when it believes it has a direct stake in the outcome.erican people,” On immigration, Trump leveled a warning toward migrants attempting to enter the United States through the southern border, saying: “If you make it here, you will not be allowed in; you will be promptly returned home.”  For those whom Trump said advocated “open borders,” the president said: “Your policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil.” See

Trump may deny that fossil fuels contribute to global warming, but executives of oil and gas companies have acknowledged the connection.  “Industry lawyer Mark Barron offered a bold proposal: Energy companies must accept that fossil fuels are helping to drive climate change. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s real, or not real, said Barron. “That ship has sailed from a political perspective.  Any American younger than 40 has grown up learning that climate change is “an existential crisis that we need to address.’” 
“The burning of petroleum accounted for 45 percent of the United States’ energy-related carbon emissions last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, while natural-gas burning contributed 31 percent.”  Extreme climate change has reached the United States, and energy executives are well aware the U.S. public sees them as partly to blame for the planet’s warming. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 60 percent of U.S. adults said that they support raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, even if that may lead to increased electricity and transportation costs. And the survey found 65 percent of respondents said energy companies were “doing too little” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, said, “Our position is it’s a very serious issue, that we have an industrial contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and we’re part of the solution. There’s no denial.”
Mike Cantrell, who heads the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance, said that while he opposed several of the regulations adopted under President Barack Obama, Trump’s drive to expand drilling could slash the price of oil and undermine his industry’s standing with the public.  “Sometimes getting exactly what you want is the very worst thing you can get,” Cantrell said. “Regulation is not our enemy. It is the way we keep faith with the public.” See

At the UN “climate summit” this past week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that indicated massive change is already here for the world’s oceans and frozen regions.  Growing coastal flooding is inevitable, and damage to corals and other marine life has already been unleashed. But scientists say the world still has time to avert even more severe consequences.                  
“Climate change is already causing staggering impacts on the oceans and ice-filled regions that encompass 80 percent of the Earth, and future damage from rising seas and melting glaciers is now all but certain.  Extreme floods that have historically struck some coastal cities and small island nations once every 100 years will become an annual occurrence by 2050, according to the IPCC. In addition, if emissions continue to increase, global sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century — around 12 percent higher than the group estimated as recently as 2013. Melting glaciers could harm water supplies, and warming oceans could wreck marine fisheries.
The much-anticipated “climate summit” aimed at injecting new momentum into the flagging effort to persuade countries to do more to move away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner forms of energy.
“The climate emergency is a race we are losing — but it is a race we can win if we change our ways now,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told world leaders Tuesday in his latest attempt to spur action. “Even our language has to adapt: What once was called ‘climate change’ is now truly a ‘climate crisis.’  We are seeing unprecedented temperatures, unrelenting storms and undeniable science.”
Lynn Scarlett, the vice president for policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy and a top-ranking Interior Department official during the George W. Bush administration, said the grim findings in the IPCC Report should be a call to action. "We must not let these climate change impacts paralyze us,” she said in an email. “We must address root causes of climate change by slowing and eventually stopping accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions.”  See

Related commentary:
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(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
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(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
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(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
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(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
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(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos
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