by Joel Kotkin
NewGeography - July 23, 2017
When President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accords, embraced coal, and stacked his administration from people from fossil-fuel producing states, the environmental movement reacted with near-apocalyptic fear and fury. They would have been better off beginning to understand precisely why the country has become so indifferent to their cause, as evidenced by the victory not only of Trump but of unsympathetic Republicans at every level of government.
Yet there’s been little soul-searching among green activists and donors, or in the generally pliant media since November about how decades of exaggerated concerns—about peak oil, the “population bomb,” and even, a few decades back, global cooling—and demands for economic, social, and political sacrifices from the masses have damaged their movement.
The New Religion and the Next Autocracy
Not long ago, many greens still embraced pragmatic solutions—for example substituting abundant natural gas for coal—that have generated large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than celebrate those demonstrable successes, many environmentalists began pushing for a total ban on the development of fossil fuels, including natural gas, irrespective of the costs or the impact on ordinary people.
James Lovelock, who coined the term “Gaia,” notes that the green movement has morphed into “a religion” sometimes marginally tethered to reality. Rather than engage in vigorous debate, they insist that the “science is settled” meaning not only what the challenges are but also the only acceptable solutions to them. There’s about as much openness about goals and methods within the green lobby today as there was questioning the existence of God in Medieval Europe. With the Judeo-Christian and Asian belief systems in decline, particularly among the young, environmentalism offers “science” as the basis of a new theology.
The believers at times seem more concerned in demonstrating their faith than in passing laws, winning elections or demonstrating results. So with Republicans controlling the federal government, greens are cheering Democratic state attorney generals’ long-shot legal cases against oil companies. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has talked about dismissing the disorder of democracy as not suited to meeting the environmental challenges we face, and replacing it with rulers like the “reasonably enlightened group of people” who run the Chinese dictatorship.
After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, China was praised, bizarrely, as the great green hope. The Middle Kingdom, though, is the world’s biggest and fastest grower emitter, generating coal energy at record levels. It won’t, under Paris, need to cut its emissions till 2030. Largely ignored is the fact that America, due largely to natural gas replacing coal, has been leading the world in GHG reductions.
Among many greens, and their supports, performance seems to mean less than proper genuflecting; the Paris accords, so beloved by the green establishment, will make little impact on the actual climate, as both rational skeptics like Bjorn Lomborg and true believers like NASA’s James Hanson agree. In this context, support for Paris represents the ultimate in “virtue signaling.” Ave Maria, Gaia.
The California Model
The cutting edge for green soft authoritarianism, and likely model after the inevitable collapse of the Trump regime, lies in California. On his recent trip with China, Brown fervently kowtowed to President Xi Jinping. Brown’s environmental obsessions also seems to have let loose his own inner authoritarian, as when he recently touted “the coercive power of the state.”
Coercion has its consequences. California has imposed, largely in the name of climate change, severe land use controls that have helped make the state among the most unaffordable in the nation, driving homeownership rates to the lowest levels since the 1940s, and leaving the Golden State with the nation’s highest poverty rate.
The biggest losers from Brown’s policies have been traditional blue collar, energy-intensive industries such as home building, manufacturing, and energy. Brown’s climate policies have boosted energy prices and made gas in oil-rich California about the most expensive in the nation. That doesn’t mean much to the affluent Tesla-driving living in the state’s more temperate coast, but it’s forced many poor and middle-class people in the state’s less temperate interior into “energy poverty,” according to one recent study.
That, too, fits the climatista’s agenda, which revolves around social engineering designed to shift people from predominately suburban environments to dense, urban and transit dependent ones. The state’s crowded freeway are not be expanded due to a mandated “road diet,” while local officials repeatedly seek to reduce lanes and “calm traffic” on what are already agonizing congested streets. In this shift, market forces and consumer preferences are rarely considered, one reason these policies have stimulated much local opposition—and not only from the state’s few remaining conservatives.
California’s greens ambitions even extend to eating habits. Brown has already assaulted the beef producers for their cattle’s flatulence. Regulators in the Bay Area and local environmental activists are proposing people shift to meatless meals. Green lobbyists have already convinced some Oakland school districts to take meat off the menu. OK with me, if I get the hamburger or taco-truck franchise next to school when the kids get out.
Sadly, many of these often socially harmful policies may do very little to address the problem associated with climate change. California’s draconian policies fail to actually do anything for the actual climate, given the state’s already low carbon footprint and the impact of people and firms moving to places where generally they expand their carbon footprint. Much of this has taken on the character of a passion play that shows how California is leading us to the green millennium.
Goodbye to the Family
An even bigger ambition of the green movement—reflecting concerns from its earliest days—has been to reduce the number of children, particularly in developed countries. Grist’s Lisa Hymas has suggested that it’s better to have babies in Bangladesh than America because they don’t end up creating as many emissions as their more fortunate counterparts. Hymas’ ideal is to have people become GINKs—green inclinations, no kids.
Many green activists argue that birth rates need to be driven down so warming will not “fry” the planet. Genial Bill Nye, science guy, has raised the idea of enforced limits on producing children in high-income countries. This seems odd since the U.S. already is experiencing record-low fertility rates, a phenomenon in almost all advanced economies, with some falling to as little as half the “replacement rate” needed to maintain the current population. In these countries, aging populations and shrinking workforces may mean government defaults over the coming decades.
The demographic shift, hailed and promoted by greens, is also creating a kind of post-familial politics. Like Jerry Brown himself, many European leaders—in France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—are themselves childless. Their attitude, enshrined in a EU document as “no kids, no problem” represents a breathtaking shift in human affairs; it’s one thing to talk a good game about protecting the “next generation” in the collective abstract, another to experience being personally responsible for the future of another, initially helpless, human being.
Do As We Say, Not How We Live
The pressing need to change people’s lives seems intrinsic now to green theology. Without penance and penalties, after all, there is no redemption from original sin. In the process, it seems to matter little if we undermine the great achievements of our bourgeois economy—expanded homeownership, greater personal mobility, the ability to rise to a higher class—if it signals our commitment to achieve a more earth-friendly existence.
The left-wing theorist Jedidiah Purdy has noted that “mainstream environmentalism overemphasizes elite advocacy” at the expense of issues of economic equity, a weakness that both Trump and the GOP have exploited successfully, particularly in the Midwest, the South, and Intermountain West. Some greens object even to the idea of GDP growth at a time when most Americans are seeing their standard of living drop. No surprise then that the green agenda has yet to emerge from the basement of public priorities, which remain focused on such mundanities as better jobs, public safety, and decent housing.
To further alienate voters, many green scolds live far more lavishly than the people they are urging to cut back. Greens have won over a good portion of the corporate elite, many of whom see profit in the transformation as they reap subsidies for “green” energy, expensive and often ineffective transit and exorbitant high-density housing. Most notable are the tech oligarchs, clustered in ultra-green Seattle and the Bay Area, who depend on massive amounts of electricity to run their devices, but have reaped huge subsidies for green energy.
The tech oligarchs have little interest in family friendly suburbs, preferring the model of prolonged adolescence in largely childless places like college campuses and San Francisco. Oligarchs such as Mark Zuckerberg live in spacious and numerous houses, even while pressing policies that would push everyone without such a fortune to downsize. Richard Branson, another prominent green supporter, may not like working people’s SUVs, but he’s more than willing to sponsor climate change events on a remote Caribbean island reachable only by private plane. One does not even need to plumb the hypocrisy of Al Gore’s jet-setting luxurious lifestyle.
In the manner of Medieval indulgences these mega emissions-generators claim to pay for their carbon sins by activism, buying rain forests and other noble gestures. Hollywood, as usual, is particularly absurd, with people like Leonardo di Caprio flying in his private jet across country on a weekly basis. Living in Malibu, Avatar director James Cameron sees skeptics as “boneheads” who will have “to be answerable” for their dissidence, suggesting perhaps a shootout at high noon.
In the end, the greens and their wealthy bankrollers may find it difficult to prevail as long as their agenda makes people poorer, more subservient, and more miserable; this disconnect is, in part, why the awful Donald Trump is now in the White House. Making progress on climate change, and other environmental concerns, remains a critical priority, but it needs to explore ways humans, through ingenuity and innovation, can meet these challenges without undermining what’s left of our middle class and faded democratic virtue.
This piece originally appeared on the Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.