A Meaningful Democratic Platform on Climate Change

Tikkun Magazine, Sept/Oct2006


By Benjamin Goldstein and Paul Wapner

When John Kerry was asked about environmental issues in the second presidential debate leading up to the 2004 election, he initially changed the subject. Kerry has one of the strongest environmental records in the Senate, but instead of highlighting his environmental commitment, he chose to talk about welfare reform, supporting a balanced budget, and his commitment to national security.

Why? Kerry was following the Democratic Party’s favorite strategy of appealing to the putative “center.” Today’s Democrats hesitate to talk about what they really care about because it may alienate potential swing voters who, we are told, care only about national security and the economy.

Karl Rove wasn’t far off in calling this a flip-flop strategy. On the one hand, Democrats conceal their commitment to environmental issues from centrist voters for fear of being identified with the “Left.” On the other hand, they send the message to their base that “yes, we care about environmental issues, but we cannot say so too loudly lest people think we are environmental fanatics.” This Janus-faced strategy is condescending to many voters and plays right into Rove’s flip-flopper critique. Rove understands that Americans don’t like being played for dummies. Doing so alienates the very center Democrats are trying to win.

The more serious danger, however, is that by giving up on a deep, open commitment to a “Left” issue like the environment, the Democrats are missing out on an opportunity to energize environmental progressives and create an opening for more visionary environmental leadership.

Al Gore, now the most outspoken Democrat on environmental issues, learned this the hard way. Having written one of the most insightful books on the environment before joining the Clinton White House, Gore chose to demote his environmental commitment as vice president and during the 2000 presidential election, all for fear of being called “ozone man.” As a result, he did little to advance Democratic environmental governance while in office and appeared spineless on the campaign trail.

Many politicians find their backbone when they’re out of office. This seems to be the case with Gore. His new movie and book, An Inconvenient Truth, are focusing widespread attention on climate change in a way that is striking a chord with the public. Part science, part politics, part (yes) comedy, and a good dose of morality, Gore’s message is exactly the kind of approach the Democrats need to communicate on environmental issues.

Climate Change as a Moral Issue

Climate change is the most daunting contemporary environmental challenge. The buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is trapping heat around the planet—causing ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, more intense heat waves and more powerful storms, desertification, loss of biological diversity, vector-borne disease proliferation, and a host of other nasty consequences. Global warming is already undermining the quality of life for many and, in the extreme, threatening the fundamental organic infrastructure that supports life on earth. Any Democratic environmental agenda must develop a meaningful response to climate change.

When most of us think about climate change, we focus on its dire conditions and frame our concern in terms of doom and gloom. What we forget is that responding to climate change invokes ethical choices of the highest order. It has to do with our sense of obligation to humans and other species, the kinds of people we wish to be, and a vision of the good life toward which we want society to aim. As such, it dovetails with many traditional concerns of the Democratic Party, including labor and employment, public health, real national security, economic and environmental justice, human rights, and a sane foreign policy. When situated in relationship to these other concerns, climate change is transformed into an issue that invokes opportunity rather than pessimism; hope rather than fear; moral probity instead of technocratic wizardry; and a host of proactive responses.

Scholar Leslie Thiele explains that environmentalism is fundamentally a moral movement. It involves extending moral concern across space (to fellow human beings), time (to future generations), and species (to other sentient creatures). Many people, on both the political Left and Right, resonate with this. And yet, the Democrats rarely speak in moral terms. When they do, in fact, address environmental issues, they almost always talk about the economic, technical, and ecological dimensions as if these can stand on their own.

Democrats too often turn immediately to technocratic proposals to address climate change—proposals like capping carbon emissions, trading greenhouse gas credits, and increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. These are certainly worthwhile initiatives, yet without locating them within a larger value system, they epitomize what authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus call a type of “policy literalism” that often proves unpalatable and uninspiring to the American public. They also perpetuate stereotypes of Democrats as advocates of burdensome regulations and proponents of “big government” (no matter how Orwellian these phrases have become these days). Couching climate change in the dry language of technocracy narrows the range of sensibilities that people use to relate to public issues and thus undermines the ability of Democrats to fashion a coherent climate change policy grounded fundamentally in moral vision.

Environmentalism as a Morally-based Movement

Many sectors of American society base their environmental concerns on strong moral foundations. This is true across the political spectrum. For example, in January 2006, the Evangelical movement released the Evangelical Climate Initiative—a call to action to fight global warming. Signed by over eighty-five leaders in the Evangelical movement, the Call expresses a religiously-based moral concern for the socially, economically, and geographically marginal people most vulnerable to climate change—be they in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or the Bangladeshi flood plains—as well as the rest of “God’s creatures.” Part of the Initiative says, “Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.”

One sees a related expression among deep Greens who have a mixed relationship with the Democratic Party. Social ecologists, ecofeminists, bioregionalists, environmental justice advocates, and the like constantly emphasize how environmental issues relate to broad injustices, and fight for a greener world partly because such a world would be more peaceful, less exploitative, and more humane. The Democratic Party has largely failed to speak to this small but nevertheless crucial sector of the public (remember what happened in 2000 when Nader’s Green Party took critical votes from the Democrats?). By neglecting to address the moral element of environmental issues, the Democrats shun those who might ordinarily support the party.

Not focusing on the moral dimension of environmentalism also undermines efforts to galvanize the party faithful. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, claims that the Bush administration has been systematically rolling back the most significant environmental legislation of the past 100 years. Aside from rare instances, like the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we hear only a mere whisper of opposition from the Democrats. It is as if they are rudderless when it comes to environmental issues—battling circum-scribed affronts without a coherent environmental orientation. Democrats could find such a framework by situating and formulating environmental policy within a moral discourse.

Three Elements of a Moral Environmental Discourse

A moral discourse on climate change has three elements. First, it involves caring about our fellow human beings who are less endowed and thus more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Today, Chinese farmers are losing crops to desertification, residents of small island states are being displaced by rising sea levels, and forest dwellers throughout the world are finding it harder to survive due to biological impoverishment. The poor are on the frontlines of climate change; most of us reading this article, because of our affluence, are safely in the rear.

We saw this same pattern with Hurricane Katrina. Those in the Ninth Ward, for instance, felt the impact of Katrina much more directly than those in other areas. Their homes were less structurally-sound, uninsured, and exposed to rising flood waters. Moreover, many of them lacked the means to evacuate the city and protect themselves from swift and severe displacement. A moral orientation sensitizes us to the plight of the less fortunate. This responsibility becomes even more poignant as we realize that, in driving our cars, firing up our furnaces, and lighting our homes, many of us contribute more than our fair share to greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, a moral orientation to climate change involves concern for future generations. Almost every climate model suggests that we are just beginning to gear up for substantial climate disruptions. This is a moral dilemma: future generations will suffer the most severe consequences of climate change even though they themselves did not contribute to it. Environmentalists often say, “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Caring about our children and their progeny is part of what makes us human.

Finally, a moral discourse about climate change must include our feelings toward the other-than-human world. Climate change is now the number one cause of biodiversity loss, which robs humanity of potential resources and tampers with the ecosystem that helps keep human beings alive. While this is bad enough, it also should tug at our sense of morality. Environmentalists, religious communities, and others often reference our responsibility to be stewards of the Earth. Stewardship entails the ability to make conscious choices for the good of all creatures, and the responsibility to halt the current biological holocaust. Our apathy towards stemming climate change is a moral failing of the highest order.

Such moral sensitivity resonates with many Americans and, if embraced, could form the basis for a meaningful Democratic platform on climate change, environmental protection in general, domestic social and public health issues, and a sane foreign policy.

Toward a Meaningful Climate Change Policy

Recent advances in alternative energy technologies have, for the first time in post-industrial revolution history, made a renewable energy paradigm realistic and profitable. Combining wind, photovoltaic, hydroelectric, biofuel, and other sources of renewable energy, there are ample means through which to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of our society. Moreover, investments in these industries would create an immense number of high-wage, high-skill jobs in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of renewable and efficient energy technologies (which provide more jobs per unit of power than do fossil fuels), and boost jobs in the farm sector with the production and refinement of biofuels and operation of windmills on farmlands. Investments in hybrid car technology could salvage a struggling American automobile industry that has been consistently losing market share to foreign automakers who dominate hybrid and efficient vehicle production. Such targeted government investments in the energy sector, along with a recalibration of energy subsidies and taxes, would help the Democrats rejuvenate the eroded American manufacturing and small farm sectors that once formed the American middle class and the base of the Democratic Party.

Facilitating alternatives to fossil fuel consumption would also reaffirm the Democratic Party’s commitments to public health. Oil refining and vehicle and power plant emissions are the number one cause of air pollution in the U.S.—increasing childhood asthma rates and the infamous smog alerts now commonplace in cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Additionally, unsafe coal mining operations have killed many miners in West Virginia; and the environmental toll of these strip-mining operations pollutes local drinking water and spreads films of carcinogenic dust for miles. Concern for those most vulnerable to environmental pollutants associated with fossil fuels is fundamentally a moral orientation—and a traditional Democratic Party value in need of reaffirmation.

Replacing our fossil fuel addiction with a clean energy paradigm would also have ramifications for American foreign policy. Instead of permitting international energy geopolitics to dictate where America focuses its diplomatic, military, and economic resources, our government could employ these resources in the service of poverty alleviation, humanitarian assistance, food aid, democracy, and human rights. A foreign policy based on generosity and compassion, rather than self-centered energy pursuits, would be an effective tool in the battle against extremism and hate so prevalent in the modern world.

Moreover, engaging the issue of climate change through international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol (and beyond) would recommit America to the goal of international cooperation rather than isolation and unilateralism. As with many global challenges, addressing climate change will require a type of concerted, multilateral action currently shunned by the Bush administration. By taking the lead on global warming, America could regain a position of respect and influence—which has been eroded by the current wave of militarism and economic hegemony based partly around geopolitical energy interests—in the international arena.

As Gore makes clear in his book and movie, the broad, necessary components of a post-fossil fuel economy—one that would avoid the most severe consequences of climate change and lay the foundations for a safer, more peaceful and just world—are well-known. A key obstacle to their realization is Republican control of all branches of government. Democrats often campaign on the hope that, once in office, they will then initiate their own visions of a better future. The problem is, without articulating those visions as part of a campaign strategy, they continue to find themselves shut out of office for lack of a coherent and morally arresting platform for governance. Moreover, the lack of such vision undermines the ability to fashion a long-term political agenda.

The Democratic Party is now confronted with a historic opportunity to embrace action on climate change as a core component of its party platform. The best way to do so is to develop a collective vision that resonates across diverse sectors of American society and integrates the multitude of public priorities. The Democrats will find this by cultivating a moral orientation through which to address climate change and the broader challenges facing America and the world.

Benjamin Goldstein holds a BA with honors from the University of California, Berkeley and a dual MA in International Affairs, and Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the United Nations University for Peace. Paul Wapner is Associate Professor of Global Environmental Politics in the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics and coeditor of Principled World Politics.

RELATED ARTICLE: Conservation and the Spirit

Not too long ago I was up on Capitol Hill speaking with a Senator about an upcoming wilderness bill and mentioned that people would support the legislation, in part, because of their spiritual values. He stopped abruptly, looked me in the eye and said, “We can’t talk about that. Those discussions don’t mean a thing here and don’t have the power that social or economic arguments have.” That is the unfortunate truth, but one I hope we can change together.

Together, the American people own 623 million acres of land, which is under the stewardship of the federal government. The crown jewels within the boundaries of these federal landscapes are specially designated sites called wilderness areas—wild places our nation has decided are too special to touch; places where we restrain humanity’s influence and simply leave nature alone. Freedom from roads. Freedom from human structures. Freedom from resource extraction and mechanical devices of any kind.

People often ask me why we need such places. What is the value of wilderness? Simply put, it sustains our lives and spirits, teaches us to be better human beings, and is a living conservatory of our national soul. The Bible tells of Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus withdrawing to the wilderness to face themselves and their demons—to return cleansed and ready to serve. We seldom build massive cathedrals in the town squares of twenty-first century America anymore, but we can still preserve our wilderness, which in itself is a monument to the sacredness inherent in all creation.

When we can temper our egotism, stand humbly before creation, and let nature take its own course, we are learning to live cooperatively with the planet and ultimately with each other. Wilderness teaches us this truth about ourselves—and serves to safeguard a portion of our collective soul, embodying both our history and our future.

William H. Meadows is the President of The Wilderness Society. These remarks were presented at the Spiritual Activism conference. Read the full text at: www.spiritualprogressives.com

Source Citation

Goldstein, Benjamin, and Wapner, Paul. 2006. A Meaningful Democratic Platform on Climate Change. Tikkun 21(5): 21


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