What if American Democracy Fails the Climate Crisis?

by Msnbctv news staff

Robinson: It is a fragile system. It could become like the League of Nations. In the future, to the extent that there will be historians, they may look back and say it was a good idea that failed. People may look back to our time and say, Here was a crux, and then they blew it. This is the power of the basic science-fictional exercise of looking at our own time as if from the future, thus judging ourselves as actors in creating history. From that imaginary perspective, it can sometimes become blazingly obvious what we should do now. Parochial concerns over quarterly returns or the selfish privileges of currently existing wealthy people fade to insignificance when you take the long view and see us teetering on the edge of causing a mass-extinction event that would hammer all future living creatures.

Klein: Covid functioned, in some ways, as a test run for how our political systems would handle the disruptions of climate change. It was a crisis that experts had warned about for years and years. And we didn’t really prepare at all. And then it hit. And so you’d imagine that the last year has led to a tremendous sharpening of our catastrophic imagination, that the idea that the perils we are told will come are not abstract, that they really do come and they really transform our lives. On the other hand, you can read it the opposite way: It’s a potentially scary lesson in how much external destruction the rich countries, if they can protect themselves, will get used to. How has the pandemic changed your model of how societies will envision and then respond to true catastrophe?

Jasanoff: I have spent 16 months thinking about almost nothing other than what you’re talking about. There was an interesting moment in France when the health minister was being questioned about why the initial modeling of the spread of the disease in France failed. And she said in public testimony that one point their modelers hadn’t reckoned on was that there were direct flights from Wuhan to Paris. This was not in their model. Just pause for a second to consider that: In modeling the spread of the disease, the advisers to the health minister of France didn’t know that there were direct flights from Wuhan to Paris. So, these are moments that make one reflect on the hubris of so-called knowledge. What is it that people are seeing, and what is it that they’re not seeing when contemplating the next catastrophe? And why? Those are, I think, the questions that we should be confronting as well.

Gunn-Wright: I think it’s important to note that in the United States, that resistance to masks and social distancing was not equally racially distributed or equally distributed by class or income. And I do think it’s important when we have takeaways like that to actually note and wonder what that means and what drove that, because it wasn’t happening across the board.

Griffith: I worry that America might learn the wrong lesson from Covid. There’s a lot of optimism there now, because magically the vaccines arrived. I think that’s a fairly natural response. But a similar level of success with climate change — let’s say, staying under two degrees of warming — won’t be easy. The existing machines in the world that burn fossil fuels — the coal plants, natural-gas plants, cars, furnaces and boilers in people’s basements — if they’re allowed to live out their natural life spans, they will emit enough carbon dioxide to take us very close to two degrees. We need very close to perfect execution: When we retire anything that emits carbon dioxide, we must replace it with the thing that won’t emit carbon dioxide.

And that will only get us under two degrees if we have a World War II “arsenal of democracy”-style intervention in the economy. Back then, American manufacturing was ramped up to make the materials to win the war: bullets, tanks, airplanes, Liberty ships. The bullets to win this war are batteries, electric vehicles, offshore wind platforms, wind turbines, solar, rooftop solar and heat pumps. All those industries are about 10 times below the production rates we need to hit this target. No better time to do that than coming out of the pandemic, when unemployment is high and we need to put people back to work.

‘Living in fossil fuels was to live in a smaller world, cocooned in crap. Decarbonization can actually make us more alive.’

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