Scientific Environmentalists are Junior Coalition Members

David Roberts at Vox has a long article on Initiative 732 in Washington state, which I found through this article at Marginal Revolution.

The Vox article is worth reading in the entirety, but the summary version is that Washington’s Initiative 732 is a carbon tax proposal that seems very well-crafted to actually reduce carbon emissions, and to do so in a way that could be a template for other states or federal level regulations.  But the initiative is receiving no support from either environmentalist organizations in the state nor from broader “left” organizations.

This is, in my view, something of a piece with why the environmental movement (and/or the left) is not going to embrace nuclear power or geoengineering.  There is a subset of the environmental movement that I’ll call “scientific environmentalists,” which have these traits:

  1. They genuinely believe that there is currently one or more environmental crises going on that could have catastrophic consequences in the course of the next few decades.
  2. They want to take actions to prevent those catastrophic consequences at all costs.
  3. They believe that the traditional tools of western rationality can tell us how to avoid those catastrophic consequences.

Now, the thing to understand is that this is a group who look pretty good on television, but they are none the less just a part of a coalition  — both within the environmental movement and in the broader left.  And that means that they basically don’t get to put any of their ideas into practice.

The environmental movement is a coalition of the scientific environmentalists along with people who I’ll call “spiritual environmentalists,” who are broadly people who regard either industry, modernity, or western rationality as suspicious and unnatural.  Spiritual environmentalists are not on board with nuclear power or geoengineering.  They aren’t necessarily opposed to things like the carbon tax of Initiative 732, but it also doesn’t excite them.  It doesn’t play to their interests, which aren’t about technocratic solutions to mitigate climate damage, but about making a visible shift away from industry, modernity, and western rationality.

The environmental movement tends to put scientific environmentalists in a more visible position than the spiritual environmentalists.  The left is committed to telling the right that the left is smarter, better educated, and more rational than the right, and the scientific environmentalists play into that narrative.  Meanwhile, the left is still trying to distance itself from the perception that they’re hippies, and the spiritual environmentalists have a worryingly hippie-ish vibe.  But despite that visible nature, my guess is that the majority of the environmental movement is spiritual environmentalists, not scientific ones.

Even moreso than that, environmentalists per se are junior members of the left coalition.  Again, they may get a pretty large amount of visibility.  Environmentalists (especially scientific environmentalists) look pretty good on TV, compared to say labor union leaders.  Especially if you’re playing to centrists.  But they don’t have any money, they don’t control large organizations that get out voters, and they don’t hold onto people’s loyalty the way that ethnic or cultural blocs do.

The way that life works when you’re a junior coalition member is that you bring your assets to the table to support initiatives created by the senior members of the coalition, and they in turn craft their initiatives to have incidental benefits to your cause, and they also pay lip-service to your cause.  You don’t lead policy as a junior coalition member.

So the disconnect is that scientific environmentalists have a prominent public facing role in the left coalition, despite being junior members of a junior member of the left coalition.  And they get lip-service, and because of what scientific environmentalism is, that lip-service means saying things like “if we don’t act now, billions of human lives may be taken by dramatic climate change.”

But don’t take that to mean that scientific environmentalism is powerful, or able to lead policy.  If they’re to get their agenda advanced, they need to find ways to attach it to the interests of more powerful coalition members.  Or find a new coalition, but honestly I don’t see any place more hospitable to them.  Maybe if Trump breaks the Republican party completely, one of its successors will be a more natural place for scientific environmentalism, but the current Republican coalition is just obviously not going to advance their agenda.


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