Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Over the last 15 years, envi­ron­men­tal foun­da­tions and orga­ni­za­tions have invest­ed hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars into com­bat­ing glob­al warming.

They have strik­ing­ly lit­tle to show for it. 

From bat­tles over high­er fuel effi­cien­cy for cars and trucks to attempts to reduce car­bon emis­sions through inter­na­tion­al treaties, envi­ron­men­tal groups repeat­ed­ly have tried and failed to win nation­al leg­is­la­tion to reduce the threat of glob­al warm­ing. Every envi­ron­men­tal leader we inter­viewed rec­og­nizes that cli­mate change demands that we remake the glob­al econ­o­my in ways that will trans­form the lives of six bil­lion peo­ple. All rec­og­nize that it’s an under­tak­ing of mon­u­men­tal size and complexity

And yet not one of North America’s envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers is pub­licly artic­u­lat­ing a vision of the future com­men­su­rate with the mag­ni­tude of the cri­sis. Instead they are pro­mot­ing tech­ni­cal pol­i­cy fix­es like pol­lu­tion con­trols and high­er vehi­cle mileage stan­dards – pro­pos­als that pro­vide nei­ther the pop­u­lar inspi­ra­tion nor the polit­i­cal pow­er need­ed to deal with the prob­lem. Green groups are defin­ing the prob­lem so nar­row­ly – so une­co­log­i­cal­ly – that they have alien­at­ed poten­tial allies and become just anoth­er spe­cial interest.

Envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers are today like gen­er­als fight­ing the last war – in par­tic­u­lar the war they fought and won for basic envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions more than 30 years ago. It was then that the community’s polit­i­cal strat­e­gy became defined around using sci­ence to define var­i­ous prob­lems as envi­ron­men­tal” and var­i­ous solu­tions as technical. 

The prob­lem with envi­ron­men­tal­ism goes deep­er than bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lan­guage or fram­ing. The prob­lem goes to the way envi­ron­men­tal­ists con­cep­tu­al­ize the prob­lem. Envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers have per­suad­ed them­selves that it’s their job to wor­ry about envi­ron­men­tal” prob­lems and that it’s the labor movement’s job to wor­ry about labor” problems.

The prob­lem isn’t just that envi­ron­men­tal­ism has become a spe­cial inter­est. The prob­lem is that all lib­er­al pol­i­tics have become spe­cial interests. 

Now is the moment – 35 years after the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal move­ment was born – for the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty to take a step back, rethink its fun­da­men­tal assump­tions, get clear about its vision for Amer­i­ca and the world and invent a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy for achiev­ing it.

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