Opinion: It seems odd that we would just let the world burn

I spent the weekend reading a book I wasn’t entirely comfortable being seen with in public. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is only slightly inaptly named. You won’t find, anywhere inside, instructions on sabotaging energy infrastructure. A truer title would be Why to Blow Up a Pipeline. On this, Malm’s case is straightforward: Because nothing else has worked.

Decades of climate activism have gotten millions of people into the streets but they haven’t turned the tide on emissions, or even investments. Citing a 2019 study in the journal Nature, Malm observes that, measuring by capacity, 49 per cent of the fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure now in operation was installed after 2004. Add in the expected emissions from projects in some stage of the planning process and we are most of the way toward warming the world by 2 degrees Celsius — a prospect scientists consider terrifying and most world governments have repeatedly pledged to avoid. Some hoped that the pandemic would alter the world’s course, but it hasn’t. Oil consumption is hurtling back to precrisis levels, and demand for coal, the dirtiest of the fuels, is rising.

“Here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start,” Malm writes. “Announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

The question at the heart of Malm’s book is why this isn’t happening already. “Were we governed by reason, we would be on the barricades today, dragging the drivers of Range Rovers and Nissan Patrols out of their seats, occupying and shutting down the coal-burning power stations, bursting in upon the Blairs’ retreat from reality in Barbados and demanding a reversal of economic life as dramatic as the one we bore when we went to war with Hitler,” he says.

Malm offers two answers for the resolute nonviolence of the climate movement. The first is “strategic pacificism,” the belief that nonviolent protest is more effective than violent resistance. Much of the book is occupied by Malm’s rebuttal to potted histories of past social movements, which is persuasive in parts. He’s surely right that we sanitise past uprisings, lionising the peaceful and blackening or forgetting the names of the violent. There is at least an argument that it’s the interplay of forces that transforms societies. There was no peaceful American Revolution. There were riots and rifles woven into the civil rights movement. “Does this movement possess a radical flank?” asks Malm.

As to whether blowing up pipelines would work here, and now, Malm is less convincing. The likeliest outcome is that a few dozen climate activists would be jailed for years (as some already have been) and a wave of laws criminalising even peaceful protest would sweep the nation. He has no answers for those who fear the probable political consequences: an immediate backlash that sweeps enemies of climate action into power, eliminating even the fragile hopes for policy progress.

“I do think we need to show society there’s something radical on the line, but can you imagine how thrilled Republican politicians would be if people began blowing up pipelines?” David Roberts, author of the invaluable climate newsletter Volts, told me. “They’ve been trying to make eco-terrorism a thing for years. Imagine the first time someone gets hurt.”

Elsewhere in the book, Malm is firmly opposed to tactics that could signal contempt or hostility for the working class. But the consequence of a wave of bombings to obliterate energy infrastructure would be to raise the price on energy immediately, all across the world, and the burdens would fall heaviest on the poor. Malm tries, at times, to resolve this tension, suggesting that perhaps the targets could be the yachts of the superrich, but in general he’s talking about pipelines, and pipelines carry the fuels for used Nissans and aged ferries, not just Gulfstream jets.

Higher energy prices are political poison, which is, according to leaked audio, why Exxon Mobil supports a carbon tax: The company knows that any politician who dares propose such a tax will do more to harm the climate movement than to help it (this is a lesson, thankfully, that the Biden administration has learned). It’s difficult, then, to believe that raising prices on the same fuels through a campaign of bombings would mobilize the working class on behalf of climate action.

Still, violence is often deployed, even if counterproductively, on behalf of causes far less consequential than the climate crisis. So scepticism of the practical benefits of violence does not fully explain its absence in a movement this vast and with consequences this grave. To that end, Malm quotes writer John Lanchester, who asked, in 2007, whether the absence of eco-violence was because “even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it.”

This question does not apply only to violence. It applies to quieter questions of political strategy and policy demands, and it is often asked of the climate movement. “It has become fashionable to call for a World War II-style mobilisation to fight climate change,” wrote Ted Nordhaus, founder of The Breakthrough Institute, in an essay questioning whether climate activists believed their own rhetoric. “But virtually no one will actually call for any of the sorts of activities that the United States undertook during the war mobilisation — rationing food and fuels, seizing property, nationalising factories or industries, or suspending democratic liberties.”

Nordhaus goes on: “The vagueness and modesty of the Green New Deal is not proof that progressives and environmentalists are closet socialists. It is, rather, evidence that most climate advocates, though no doubt alarmed, don’t actually see climate change as the immediate and existential threat they suggest it is.”

I don’t believe the strong form of this argument any more than I believe that people smoke in their 20s because they doubt that lung cancer is a horrible way to die. Much of the modesty Nordhaus identifies is a relative of the political realism that, in other contexts, he praises. Many climate activists choose an asceticism in their own lives that they wouldn’t dare ask of others, not because they believe it to be wrong, or unnecessary, but because they fear political annihilation. Most vegans I know avoid meat in part for climate reasons, but they know it would be disastrous to the causes they care about if President Joe Biden demanded that all Americans do the same.

It’s true that there is a discordance between the pitch of the rhetoric on climate and the normalcy of the lives many of us live. I don’t see that as a revelation of political misdirection so much as a constant failure of human nature. We are inconsistent creatures who routinely court the catastrophes we most fear. We do so because we don’t feel the pain of others as our own, because there are social constraints on our actions and imaginations, because the future is an abstraction and the pleasures of this instant are a siren. That is true with our health and our finances and our loves and so of course it is true with our world.

All of this has been on my mind for reasons that should be extraordinary, but have become, instead, grimly banal. June 2021 was the hottest June ever recorded on land. Portland, Oregon, saw temperatures of 116 degrees, a sentence that doesn’t make sense to me even as I know it to be true. In Lytton, British Columbia, temperatures reached 121 degrees, and the city simply ignited. “You can’t even comprehend it,” one resident told CBC Radio. “Our entire town is gone.”

In California, where I live, 2020 was a hellish, unprecedented year of fires, with more than 4 million acres consumed. There were days when the smoke covered the sun and every breath stung the throat. But 2021 is tracking even worse. And it’s not just California. “North America chokes in smoke, looks like an ashtray from space,” read a Weather Channel headline.

But you’d never know it watching C-SPAN. The bipartisan infrastructure bill cuts most of the climate investments from Biden’s American Jobs Plan, leaving them for a future reconciliation package that may or may not pass. There’s been much debate on the left over whether the bipartisan bill should be killed, or at least stymied until its successor is closer to passage. But the bipartisan bill includes some climate priorities — US$47.2 billion for climate resiliency projects, US$73 billion for upgrading the electricity grid — and there’s little reason to believe that destroying it will make Senator Joe Manchin likelier to support a sweeping, partisan effort.

It is better than nothing; it is not nearly enough. The same is true, to be honest, even of the broader investments Biden envisioned. That is the state of climate policy in 2021, and I am not optimistic that it will be much different in 2022, or 2025.

“Climate alarmism is useless,” tweeted Juan Moreno-Cruz, the Canada Research Chair in Energy Transitions at the University of Waterloo. “The impacts of climate change are here. Let’s talk about climate realism.” The problem, he continued, is that “talking climate solutions have left us unprepared for actual climate change. We keep running models and fighting over which ‘solution’ is the best, but we have done nothing to address the impacts of climate change. Adaptation research and implementation is severely underfunded.”

But when I spoke to Moreno-Cruz, his realism didn’t seem much more realistic, and he knew it. “We need to provide adaptation measures and investments to the majority of people on the planet,” he told me. Adaptation is a monstrous challenge, arguably harder and pricier than simply reducing emissions would be. It requires infrastructure, migration support, income and food security and much more, and the financing must flow from rich countries to poor countries. “At that point, it becomes very similar to mitigation in the sense that our incentives in the rich countries to protect the poor countries are not aligned,” Moreno-Cruz said.

We underestimate the horrors humans will adapt to. There is no expanse of suffering that guarantees a compassionate response. The wreckage of the coronavirus is a reminder that even the deaths of family members, friends and neighbours will not inevitably transform our politics. More than 600,000 American lives have been lost, and for all that, the 2020 election looked much like the 2016 election, and fights over even so modest an adaptation as masks roiled the nation. Worse, American politics moved on as soon as the epicentres of crisis shifted beyond our borders. There is nothing in the past year that should make us believe that ruinous suffering in India will focus minds in America.

I do not want this to be a column arguing for despair. No emotion is more useless, and it’s wrong at any rate. If we fail to keep warming below the longtime global goal of 2 degrees Celsius, well, 2 degrees remains better than 2.5. And 2.5 is far preferable to 3. And humanity would much rather have 3 than 3.5. And so on, and so forth. There is no point at which giving up makes more sense than fighting on.

But to the immediate question — how to force the political system to do enough, fast enough, to avert mass suffering — I don’t know the answer, or even if there is an answer. Legislative politics is unlikely to suffice under any near-term alignment of power I can foresee — though I dearly hope Congress passes, at the least, the investments and clean energy standards proposed in the American Jobs Plan. I doubt a wave of bombings would accelerate change, and even if I believed otherwise, who am I to tell others to risk those consequences? The pace of renewable technologies has been a welcome surprise, and I would have us spend endless billions on technological moonshots — including nuclear, direct air capture and even geoengineering research. There is nothing we should not prepare to try, but even if we invent the fuels of the future, we will need policymakers to deploy them over the cries of industries that want to profit from the machines and oil wells of the past.

The good news is that the worst of the climate crisis seems less and less likely. We are on track for 3 degrees of warming, measured in Celsius, not 4 or 5. But 3 degrees is still a catastrophe of truly incomprehensible proportions, visited primarily upon the world’s poor by the world’s rich. We are engineering a world that is so much worse than it need be and that will be lethal for untold millions.

“I suspect that human beings will not go extinct from climate change, but I have higher standards than that,” Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University, once told me. “I don’t want to just not go extinct. And for me, there’s almost an abdicating of responsibility by saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to do anything about climate change unless it’s going to kill every last one of us.’ Because the things that, for me, are really frightening about climate change are the consequences for human social systems.”

Humanity has spent thousands of years building the social organizations and technological mastery to insulate itself from the whims of nature. We are spending down that inheritance, turning back the clock. I don’t believe this reveals our true preference for the world our descendants will inhabit. I believe it reveals our deeply human inability to take the future as seriously as we take the present.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Ezra Klein
Photographs by: Ian C. Bates

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