Shock and Thaw

In “The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse” (Issues, Summer 2019), Ted Nordhaus imagines a future where a President Jay Inslee mobilizes and nationalizes in the first genuine effort to address climate change. The parable ends with Inslee aboard Air Force One on the way to deliberate with India and China. What if this were not Inslee the climate hawk? What if it were another hawkish president, more like George W. Bush? That administration might fly to India or China, but instead of Air Force One it might fly B-1B bombers. Instead of pursuing deliberations, it might bow major greenhouse-gas-emitting countries with military force, obliging them to join global climate policy. Climate shock and awe. Another radical path climate activists have yet to pursue.

Nordhaus is doubtful today’s environmentalists have the stomach for nationalization and large-scale technological innovation. I am doubtful—and thankful—that we also don’t have the stomach for climate shock and awe. But why not?

Nordhaus offers three reasons environmentalists have not advocated nationalization. First, techno-anxiety. Second, environmentalists don’t trust government, and are more comfortable relying on arms-length regulation than active management. Third, environmentalists are hampered by democracy. Environmental goals, Nordhaus writes, “require top-down, centralized, technocratic measures that most environmentalists are unwilling to seriously embrace.” But, he adds, the environmentalists’ ideal is one of “egalitarian politics,” “will of the people,” and “bottom-up democracy.”

Climate shock and awe. Another radical path climate activists have yet to pursue.

I disagree. Democracy doesn’t obstruct climate goals. Democracy is the forum from which goals emerge in the first instance. A welfare economist might urge a two degree Centigrade goal from monetized benefits. A rights theorist might push the same to minimize suffering. As Nordhaus notes, this is all “endlessly contestable.” Neither rights-based pleas nor economic computations, as just two examples, deliver certainty. Each offers only fodder for democratic contestation. Environmentalists are right to rely on democratic practice that empowers individuals to make decisions and set collective goals. Environmentalists are right to embrace democracy even if, as Nordhaus suggests, democracy slows progress. Because without democracy, progress to what?

Without the democracy, how do we draw the line between Nordhaus’s radical techno-nationalized future—which is at least worth pondering—and the radical militaristic future of climate shock and awe? Military aggression has potential to address a lingering objection to US climate action if India, China, and others continue to increase their emissions. The two hawkish futures both call for mobilization and technological sophistication. They are both departures from mainstream proposals to tax, regulate, or subsidize. Yet I suspect Nordhaus would join me in rejecting the military alternative. But we can’t reject that future only with fundamental commitments of economics, ecology, or philosophy. Democracy is not merely an instrument to balance between competing prepolitical desires. Democracy shapes preferences and constructs civic goals. If there is not yet will for radical action, only democracy can build that will. We need to decide together that we care about our future, that violence is not a fitting tool to protect that future, that democratic politics is an opportunity not a burden.

Visiting Associate Professor of Law
University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Special Advisor for Environmental Law Programs
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Cite this Article

“Shock and Thaw.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 1 (Fall 2019).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall 2019