Offsetting Naiveté: Coming to Terms with Environmental Realism

In the current debate over climate policy, I am often struck by the unrealistic idealism of many in the ’green movement’. All too often, the argument is made for what should be done to solve a problem, while ignoring the bigger picture: the reality of world politics. The fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is not what should be done, but what can be done, and in the case of the mitigation of climate change, the unfortunate answer is not much. Actually I am relieved to see some sense of realism among some of the other contributors to this site, such as Josh McDonald and Jordan Wolf, who at least acknowledge that the consequences to global warming may not be so dire (Wolf) and that environmentalists must readjust their expectations and attitudes to the current political environment (McDonald).

The reality is that there will not be any meaningful domestic cap and trade system in the United States, let alone a binding international agreement, and fossil fuels will continue to be the backbone of our economy for decades to come. Fossil fuels are cheap, abundant, and economically competitive, while renewable sources of energy barely survive in the marketplace without significant government subsidies. Although some government mandates like a national RPS (renewable energy standard) championed by such contributors as Johann Scheidt, sound good in theory, in practice they just distort the market and subsidize renewable energy so it never has to become economically competitive. Another contributor, Christine Harbin, broached the idea of eliminating government subsidies (in the form of tax loopholes) for fossil energy sources to make renewables competitive. I guarantee, however, if this were to occur, oil would still be pumped, though just at a slightly reduced profit, and renewables would remain economically unviable.

Now if we as a nation, or a world community, really wanted to mitigate carbon emissions, we have the power to do so. The problem is, there will always be other priorities. In the developed world, especially in the United States, we enjoy the fruits of abundant energy. Frequently, however, out of sense of guilt or belated environmentalism, we make token efforts to ‘go green.’ We also frequently direct blame for our environmental ’guilt’ outwards, often towards developing nations, and particularly China. But why are China’s pollution levels and carbon emissions rising so rapidly? It is because we in the developed world have essentially exported our pollution and heavy carbon industries there. 

This is how we have solved our pollution problems so far: pushing our waste upon poorer nations whose populations must tolerate polluted water, smog filled air, and a degraded standard of living in order to support our levels of consumption. We then criticize these nations for taking our jobs, which, in reality, are the jobs associated with heavy polluting industries that we specifically exported there to meet our pollution and emissions standards, not just because the cost of labor is cheaper but also because the cost of destroying the environment for profit is much cheaper.      

There is no way that we can, in good conscience, ask these nations to limit their development and drive for prosperity – which is in the best interests of their peoples – as this is the strategy that the developed world has been pursuing for over a century. Indeed, the leaders of the developing nations are quite baffled when we make these climate demands while simultaneously demanding ever-cheaper goods and access to their expanding markets for our own economic wellbeing.

The hard truth is that for most of the populous of this country, and indeed a majority of humanity, caring about the long-term climate problem is a luxury that is unaffordable. We as a planet have made the choice that economic progress is of a higher premium than planetary wellbeing. It is time we embrace reality. We must acknowledge the fact that the damage to the environment is done and will most likely worsen in the coming decades despite our modest efforts, so the intelligent path forward is not to expend our limited resources on restoring the old climate but rather on adapting to the new one. 

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