High gas prices are leverage for climate transition
The Sunrise Movement is making a big mistake by calling for lower gas prices.
Gas costs $4.25 a gallon right now in rural Virginia. I absolutely cannot afford for it to stay this high; at this point I try not to watch the price counter rocketing up on the pump whenever I fill up. There’s nothing I can do about it, and it’s just going to make me anxious about my finances. That’s why a few days ago, listening to gas gurgle into my tank at a local truck stop, I distracted myself with the thought: I hope environmentalists don’t screw up this opportunity.
They’re screwing it up. Here’s The Sunrise Movement today:
This message is exactly wrong. It’s always a dangerous game to set out general rules about political strategy, but if there’s one I am confident of it’s that environmentalists should always use high gas prices to argue for a transition away from fossil fuels. Calling for lower gas prices is a call for increased consumption, of course — but it also gives away a rare point of leverage that climate activists badly need.
Environmental activism often proceeds as if popular opposition and apathy towards a green economic transition is fundamentally driven by problems of ignorance and misinformation, but this isn’t quite true. The main problem is that a transition of this magnitude does entail short-term costs, known and unknown, which means that people have a powerful motive to avoid them and stick with cheap gas. And that’s why no matter how much consciousness-raising activists do, people will always try to rationalize their way out of climate transition. Only then do problems like ignorance and misinformation play a role. To put this differently, our climate politics aren’t being driven by the sort of rational deliberation that liberal ideology relies on for progress; they’re driven by our material economy, which inclines people to thinks certain ways regardless of what reason says.
There are only a few things that could plausibly overcome this dynamic fast enough to head off the worst effects of climate change. One of them is high gas prices. High gas prices mean that the cognitive biases of risk-aversion and short-term thinking don’t have to be somehow overcome because they never even come into play. People suddenly become open to arguments for transition because they want to become open; they want to be told that there’s a viable alternative to paying $60-$100 every time their gas gauge hits empty.
That’s why it is absolutely crucial for environmental activists to take advantage of moments like the one we’re in right now to call for a transition. It presents a unique kind of opportunity for persuasion where we are actually arguing from a position of strength for a change. We don’t have to spend all kinds of time persuading people that the risks of transition won’t be so bad or that they need to bite the bullet for the sake of the long-term future of civilization; all we really have to do is draw as much attention as we can to how much fuel prices are hurting them and how viable the alternatives are.
We should also consistently frame climate transition as the only alternative to high fuel costs. To call for lower fuel costs is to argue that the fossil fuel industry can at any moment bring prices down and simply chooses not to — and when people think that, it takes away any short-term economic incentive they could possibly have to listen to arguments for climate transition. Petrolcapitalism means that climbing prices are inevitable, and we should not be doing PR work for it and convincing anyone otherwise.
Three related arguments for using high gas prices to call for climate transition: this does not incentivize fuel consumption; it takes advantage of a rare opportunity to circumvent cognitive biases against arguments; and it lets us draw attention to one of many damning features of capitalism, its rising prices.
Why call on gas companies to lower prices instead? There seem to be three arguments for this point, too — but none of them are very persuasive.
The first argues that if you call for lower gas prices, gas companies will lower them, and this will relieve unacceptable pressure on the working class. The second argues that if you do this, gas companies will lower their prices, and the working class will reward this by voting for Democrats, who are better on climate than Republicans. The third argues that if you do this, gas companies will lower their prices, and this will eventually cut into profits so much that it will destroy the fossil fuel industry — or at least make it small enough to drown in a bathtub.
There are a lot of serious problems with all of these arguments1, but I think they can all be killed with one simple point: calling for a green transition creates pressure on gas companies to lower their prices, too. This is the only way they will be able to respond if things like alternative energy and public transportation become viable competitors to their industry. Calling for a green transition doesn’t just get you the three direct advantages I listed out above — it also gets you the three hypothetical advantages of calling for lower gas prices without actually having to call for lower gas prices.
Environmentalists aren’t responsible for the current price hike on gas — but if our petrocapitalists are going to keep raising prices for the sake of profit, we can at least take advantage of the vulnerability they’ve created for themselves by calling for green energy, public transportation, and all of the other changes to our society that it needs to survive. Begging for lower prices just ensures that we keep playing their game.
Another objection worth raising here: remember two years ago when the argument was that we should vote for Democrats, not because they have acceptable positions on climate, but because they will at least be susceptible to pressure campaigns that will “push them to the left”? Now that argument has exactly reversed, and environmentalists who argue against fossil fuel dependency must be pushed to the right in order to elect Democrats. This has been one of the most predictable dynamics in our politics for decades and decades now and continues to guarantee that we will neither have a green Democratic party nor a green party to replace it.