Climate protesters often make extreme demands, but given their position, this may be their best option. Liam Glen writes on the pros and cons of unrealistic environmental goals.
No one can reasonably deny that fossil fuel emissions need to be drastically reduced if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But the goals of environmental activists can often seem impractical, as they raise issue with every conceivable form of energy generation and demand impossible deadlines.
Recently, when the German government announced plans to phase out coal by 2038, climate activists blocked three coal mines in the country, upset that the transition was not immediate. In turn, conservative commentators have accused environmental groups of hypocrisy for simultaneously opposing coal, nuclear, and natural gas, leaving little room for alternatives.
Their much-lauded goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy in the near future is of questionable plausibility. From a policy perspective, a measured, pragmatic approach to reducing emissions would be more realistic. From a strategic perspective, however, radical goals have their merit.
Changing the Game
Were environmental activists, suddenly finding themselves in full control of a country, to immediately shut down every coal- or gas-fired power plant and put a moratorium on fossil fuel extraction, the result would be disastrous.
But environmental activists are not in full control of any country. They are merely one of many factions with limited opportunities to influence those who are actually in charge.
Despite promises such as the Paris Accords, dangerous levels of carbon emissions continue. Politicians fret over the short-term costs of an energy transition while ignoring the much greater long-term costs of continued climate change.
Mass protests change the equation. If politicians are constantly chastised for their inaction, they will have an incentive to do something. If every coal mine or fracking operation is plagued by demonstrations, it will become difficult to see them as more expedient than cleaner alternatives.
No government will acquiesce to an immediate transition to 100 percent renewable energy, but they may be willing to meet activists at a half-way point. Thus, the more radical the protesters’ demands, the further they can push those in power. When the need to act is as urgent as it is currently, unrealistically extreme goals are the only way forward.
Keeping Track of Reality
Environmental activists have limited power, but they are also far from the fringe. Typically, the press covers them positively, politicians treat them amicably, and the general public sympathizes with their goals.
Extreme goals can be a strategic asset, but when movements go too far, the results can be dangerous.
Perhaps the best example of this is that of American conservatism. For decades, the movement has been intransigent in its opposition to any liberal policies. Republican politicians quickly realized that the more extreme stance they took, the better able they were to settle at a satisfying compromise.
Over time, however, the Republican Party became so attached to partisan loyalties and ideological fancies that it all but declared war on the very concepts of facts, logic, or objective truth. The ascendency of Donald Trump, a man who ran a presidential campaign without expressing perhaps a single coherent thought, was the natural endpoint of this.
Dangerously extreme strands of environmentalism do exist. At the moment, they are so far removed from the mainstream that the idea of them holding any real power is laughable. But that does not mean that they are benign.
Harm comes easily when people lose track of reality, and the environmental movement is not immune from this. Unjustified alarmism around genetically modified foods, for instance, was believed to have worsened famine in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s.
The idea of climate activists as luddites whose exaggerated fear of ecological collapse and skepticism of economic growth conflicts with actual human wellbeing is at this point a strawman. But as the movement simultaneously expands its reach and grows increasingly apocalyptic in its rhetoric, such fringe positions could conceivably gain traction.
Thus, while it may be advantageous to stake an extreme position from time to time, keeping track of reality should always be one’s main goal.