Glasgow, Scotland has hosted hundreds of world leaders addressing climate change this month. Strikingly, after two years during which millions mastered the conduct of business through video conference, leaders demonstrated their environmental bona fides with trans-oceanic flights burning fossil fuel to meet in person. The reason, of course, was to focus the world’s attention on the issue of climate change. But something was missing: an effort to align disparate perspectives to a common goal.
The shortcomings of self-certainty
Climate activists chose disruption because politicians were only “talking,” not “acting.” Protests included hundreds of people lying on busy highways during rush hour, causing massive traffic backups. Rail workers — in a country where commuters often avoid cars — chose that time to go on strike. Workers without the option of working from home were left to commute however they could.
Teenagers who have never taken a class in physics or geology pontificated about science and the shortcomings of their elders, reminding Baby Boomers of our own self-righteous certainty in the 1960s and Bob Dylan’s admonition not to trust anyone over 30. (Of course, he may have been right.) Missing from the speeches was any concrete proposal to ameliorate the impact of a climate agenda on the poor and working poor facing the higher costs of green energy.
On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives seemed split, some having evolved from denying climate change — Donald Trump called it “an expensive hoax” — to questioning its urgency. Others noted that the climate has warmed and cooled for eons, showing little interest in exploring the impact of industrialization, or the correlation of rising carbon levels, rising sea levels and melting polar caps. Some pundits observed that Holland has thrived for centuries below sea level through a system of dikes and channeling the waters, glibly ignoring that islands like Kiribati or Guam have no place to channel the ocean. Aloha, Waikiki.
Political passion often preempts considering how positions could hurt others. Both the right and the left show little empathy at times for those adversely impacted by agendas or inaction. Too often, rage, righteousness or mockery dominate reactions. While venting might feel good in the moment, there is a better way to advance public policy.
The effectiveness of empathy
America’s greatest legislative and constitutional achievements were fueled not by self-righteous certainty, but by empathy. Abolishing slavery, ending the robber barons’ strangleholds on public goods, extending the vote to women, Social Security, civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid were all driven by a desire to make things better for others, usually those unable to make things better for themselves. Each advance has become more firmly embedded and more highly valued as history has passed. Collectively they characterize America at its best.
By contrast, constitutional or legislative efforts driven by self-certainty, self-interest, or self-righteousness — segregation, prohibition, laws forbidding divorce or gambling — failed over time. These efforts reflect a darker side of our history: rigidly righteous and morally intolerant of the pluralism, which is the foundation of our country.
Perhaps, then, we should consider climate change in a different way. Rather than parrot a condescending self-certainty, or adopt a “see no evil” intransigence, embrace both science and the empathy to mitigate the impact of transitioning energy sources on those people most significantly harmed, including those on the other side of the political divide.
The value of unity
As we consider cleaner energy, we should address the understandable concerns of workers who spent decades learning a trade that has kept us warm in the winter, cool in the summer, illuminated at night and transported year round, not to mention powering the IPhones of climate activists and conservatives alike. Rather than condescendingly telling these workers from London to Laramie, from the Outback to Siberia, that their jobs must disappear for a greater global good, we should ameliorate the harm they face. The same is true for nations, whose populations depend on an economy built in the era of fossil fuels.
And we cannot ignore two of the largest components of the problem: India and China. Greta Thunberg may not recall the lessons of Tiananmen Square, which happened long before her birth. But Hong Kong last summer was a brutal reminder that Chinese policy is not moved by student passion. It is moved by geopolitical power, and, for more than a century, that has required the United States.
This is a way for America to re-assert our global primacy, as conservatives desire. It is a way to drive real-world solutions for climate change, as liberals want, using fact-based analysis persuasive to both sides. But this requires a unity of purpose. We cannot lead until we listen, especially to each other.
This, in fact, may be the only effective way to address climate change. An evolution to a cleaner, greener world requires not only the activism of youth, but also the wisdom of age and the leadership of a Lincoln or Roosevelt to address the concerns of those adversely affected by change, so that all can see a path to a brighter future, for themselves, their children and their world.