Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Barack Obama does not think we can stop climate change

President Obama had a lot to say about climate change in his recent podcast interview with Marc Maron, but it was a digression on lessons he's learned in office that was most revealing:
Progress, in a democracy, is never instantaneous, and it's always partial, and you can't get cynical or frustrated because you didn't' get all the way there immediately.... Sometimes your job is to just make stuff work. Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the Ocean liner two degrees North or South so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were. But, at the moment people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn. We don’t need a two degree turn. You say ‘well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns. And you can’t turn 50 degrees... societies don't turn 50 degrees, democracies don't turn 50 degrees.... As long as they're turning in the right direction, then government is working the way it's supposed to. 
This incrementalist perspective is standard liberal orthodoxy in Washington, and there are plenty of situations where it's tactically sensible.

But climate change is not one of them. Climate change is a situation where the changes we have to make are not only radical but immediate. Global temperatures rise two degrees Celsius in a matter of decades, pushing civilization over a ledge where all kinds of threshold triggers fire, feedback loops launch, and chain reactions cascade into a warming process this planet hasn't seen in millions of years. You only stop this with massive overhauls of the largest sectors of our economy, including energy, agriculture, and transportation. And you only make those overhauls with political action that is deliberate, impatient, massively controversial, and socially volatile. There is no getting around any of this. Climate change is an iceberg just a thousand yards in front of the ship; if you're going to miss it, you have to turn 50 degrees.

No major politician - and as far as I know, only one aspiring politician - is actually thinking about climate change in this way. No one is prioritizing it the way it must be prioritized, no one is advocating specific proposals on the scale of what needs to be advocated, and no one is willing to do any of this despite our political system if they can't do it within our political system. Radical leftist candidate X may promise to cut emissions twice as fast as Obama and invest three times as much to the Green Climate Fund, but none of this is qualitatively different from mainstream Democratic / centrist-Republican proposals because none of this gets the job done fast enough.