Column: Can ‘Progressive Populism’ Stop Climate Change?

  • In this Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, aerial photo, provided by Lou Dematteis Spectral Q, over twenty indigenous leaders from around the world along with supporters gather to create a "Solar Hummingbird" human installation, inspired by Colombian artist Jhon​ ​Cortés, at​ ​Crissy Field near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge to produce a visual message calling for climate justice and indigenous rights. San Francisco is hosting the Global Climate Action Summit from Wednesday, Sept. 12 to Friday, Sept. 14, which will focus on crafting solutions to the global climate crisis. (Lou Dematteis/Spectral Q via AP)

For the Valley News
Saturday, September 15, 2018

Those who hope the rule of law will triumph over corruption in our troubled country had to be heartened by the recent guilty pleas, criminal convictions and grants of immunity. But historians in a decade or so will probably say the Mueller investigation and others missed the biggest sin of all: our failure as a nation to confront climate change.

People paying close attention to the science of climate change began struggling with despair well before Donald Trump was elected. You could say they had a leg up on fighting dejection in ominous times. Then Trump arrived, uninformed and triumphant, and it began to look as though our federal government would ignore climate change forever.

The new level of gloom can be summed up in authoritarianism, a word that brands our increasingly despotic government at home and dictatorships in countries as different as Turkey and Nicaragua.

A few scientists I know have found authoritarianism appealing when they considered the difficult policy choices required just to slow down climate change, let alone stop it. Maybe the only way to accomplish this, some have said quietly, is top down.

But a big problem with the benevolent dictator approach to our climate crisis, of course, is the fact that our own aspiring strongman is resistant to science generally, and he claims climate change is fake news and bad for business.

Another challenge is summed up in a word often used to modify authoritarianism: populist.

Populist authoritarianism today is built on fear, hatred and division fostered from the top. It’s much easier to sow widespread fear of outsiders and people of color than of gradual degradation in the interconnected natural systems humans and other forms of life depend upon.

The lies Trump and his representatives told about the crowd size at his inauguration were attempts to convince us he speaks for the people. So too his rallies, his discredited insistence that Hillary Clinton received 3 million votes from illegal non-citizen voters, and his claim that the press is the enemy of the people.

One such “enemy” is Nathaniel Rich, who published “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” a long essay that nearly filled The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 5. It’s a grim tale, focused on the 1980s.

Rich tells of a better day, when even Republicans and oil companies acknowledged their alarm about the long-term effects of carbon emissions on climate. If you had to pick a single villain from “Losing Earth,” it might be John Sununu, chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush and the former governor of New Hampshire, a job now held by his son. While the United States was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions and our contribution to warming was growing faster than that of any other country, Sununu in the White House offered what Rich calls “inexplicably strident opposition” to the science of climate change.

In 1989, when more than 60 nations came together in the Netherlands, most of them hoping to commit to a binding agreement on freezing carbon emissions, the United States, Japan, Britain and the Soviet Union opposed and defeated the agreement.

Rich sums up the result: “More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it.”

This is very bad news, and there is no comfort in knowing it would be dismissed by our imperial president as fake.

But if a man from New Hampshire helped to set the scene for our nation’s paralysis in the face of climate change, a man from Vermont has helped to develop a grassroots vaccine.

I’m thinking, as you might have guessed, of Bill McKibben and the students at Middlebury College who organized the international environmental organization 350.org in 2007 and 2008.

One of the many things 350.org has already accomplished is to interpret clearly and simply the grim science of climate change, which has been dismissed and obfuscated by oil companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, other trade associations and most of the Republican Party.

Five points summarize the science lesson 350.org has been teaching internationally:

■ Our global climate is definitely getting warmer.

■ Humans are causing this change, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

■ There is lots of scientific evidence to support these claims.

■ The effects, already evident in many parts of the world, will be devastating.

■ There are actions we can take individually and as participants in grassroots movements to limit the devastation.

We aren’t likely to resist climate change from the top down. But 350.org has shown there are reasons for hope, not despair, when citizens pressure the governments of towns and cities to commit to renewable energy, as they have, and to divest from fossil fuel companies, as they also have.

Like working to rebuild our democracy by writing postcards to voters all over the country (see postcardstovoters.org), 350.org’s approach could be called “progressive populism.”

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.