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Carbon Critical: The Four Camps of the New Climate Debate


As the 2020s begin, hardly anyone is ignoring or denying climate change anymore. We are all either Carbonists, Lukewarmists, Techno-Mitigators, or Alarmists.

Pictures © REUTERS

The global climate debate is entering a new phase. Whereas it was previously between “environmentalists” and climate deniers, with a large section of society watching on indifferently, in the new phase the issue is how to handle climate change, rather than whether it is worth discussing or doing something about. There are two main drivers of this shift.

The Death of Denial

First, climate denial is on its last legs. This might seem premature given that US President Donald Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax,” withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. The underlying trends, however, are not on the deniers’ side.

In a July 2019 global YouGov poll, just 15 percent of Americans agreed either that the climate was changing but “human activity is not responsible at all” (9 percent) or that the climate was not in fact changing (6 percent). Yet that was the highest number of all polled countries, and even Trump’s Republican party appears to be moving away from the president on this issue. In a September 2019 US Public Views on Climate and Energy poll, 52 percent of millennial Republicans agreed that the US “federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” These young conservatives might well describe the current US president as a boomer.

Indeed, in recent years the more intellectually honest climate deniers have simply run out of ammunition. Natural variability kept temperatures quite stable in the 2000s, but the last five years have been the warmest on record as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to reach new highs.

Second, the climate crisis is becoming a more salient political issue, and the public at large is becoming more passionate about it. The forests of California are aflame; Venice is underwater; the Victoria Falls have run dry. Youth activist groups such as Fridays for Future are real political forces, especially in Europe and the US. Just as importantly, typical voters truly care about their elected officials’ climate policy.

That was not the case previously. Although, compared to the US, deniers never played an especially large role in the European debate. Still, centrist leaders were able to treat climate issues as just another policy field. Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Jacques Chirac all urged the US to back the Kyoto Protocol, but when election time came, not many voters were talking about emission reduction targets, whereas the 2019 European Parliamentary elections demonstrated that climate was a key issue for all parties. In the 2020s, leaders of major political parties will no longer be able to brush the issue under the rug.

No Dodging of the Issue

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a good case study. Morrison, a Liberal who won a close election having promised to protect coal and cut taxes, is the type of man who might have denied or ignored climate change in previous times. These days, he can’t, not when there are major climate conferences the public actually cares about—Morrison claimed at the September UN climate conference in New York that Australia is “doing its bit” on climate change—and not when there are frequent major climatic events, like the bush fires that devastated the country in November 2019.

After those fires, Morrison could not dodge the issue, nor argue that heat and drought are unrelated to fire. Instead he had to resort to a tangled defense that “Australia, accountable for 1.3 percent of the world’s emissions” could not be “impacting directly on specific fire events.” Even in the statement by US Secretary Mike Pompeo on the occasion of the US leaving the Paris Agreement there is no climate denial—Pompeo proudly cites America’s emissions-reduction record, lackluster as it is.

So climate denial as we knew it is passé, and the climate crisis is becoming impossible to ignore. Where does the debate go next? Like most conceptual categories, these are somewhat fluid—the same individual may move back and forth between camps, but here are the four main groups.

The Carbonists

First, there are the “Carbonists.” Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic invented the term to describe the successors to the climate deniers—the “carbon” is akin to the “nation” in nationalism. They are small in number, though they hold significant political and economic power. Carbonists do sometimes try to argue that climate science is incorrect, but they can quite easily make their point without doing so. Meyer writes: “Carbonism is a belief that fossil fuels … have inherent virtue. That they are better, in fact, than other energy sources.”

Carbonism is behind Donald Trump’s efforts not just to slow climate action but to roll it back, e.g. to reduce cars’ fuel efficiency against the will of large automakers and US states. At its core is a desire to pull up the drawbridge and protect the property of currently powerful groups, like those who control fossil fuel production or benefit most from the absence of taxes and regulation on carbon emissions, a group that in the West comprises mainly older white men. It frequently devolves into trolling—witness Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s accusation that actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio was responsible for fires in the Amazon.

This philosophy is not specific to the Americas. When Clemens Tönnies, meat magnate and chairman of the German football team Schalke 04, said that the real problem was not how wealthy Europeans live but the “Africans … producing children when it’s dark”, he was making a Carbonist argument.

A Far-Right Phenomenon

Some far-right parties in Europe still take the traditional route and deny the science, like Spain’s Vox, the Brexit party, and the Swedish Democrats. But others raise different objections to electric cars and vegan burgers. Former AfD party leader Alexander Gauland despises everything the Green party stands for. “Green ideology,” he has said, is “taking in strangers, saving the climate, helping others,” as opposed to standing up for “the people.” (Incidentally, the AfD also denies the science.)

The list goes on. The Danish People’s Party says wind power spoils landscapes, while Greece’s Golden Dawn argues that Greeks have a right to exploit their national fossil fuel resources. The leader of the True Finns says “climate change is a reality,” but warns that wind turbines are bad for human health.

Indeed, many Carbonists are obsessed with potential negative impacts of going green. For them, the cure is worse than the disease. How many of those writing op-eds about the water consumed in avocado production or the humans rights abuses often involved in cobalt mining (for lithium batteries) ever made a fuss about the water a cow drinks or the child labor that goes into Nestle chocolate?

The Lukewarmists

Next there are what British writer Matt Ridley has dubbed the “Lukewarmists.” These people accept the overwhelming evidence that the earth is warming and human activity is the primary cause. However, as self-described Lukewarmist and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains, they “doubt … that climate change represents a crisis unique among the varied challenges we face, or that the global regulatory schemes advanced to deal with it will work as advertised.”

Lukewarmists, who include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are a diverse bunch. Some believe the effects of climate change are more manageable than the doomsayers claim, as least manageable for the well-off in wealthy nations. After the bush fires, Prime Minister Morrison underlined how his government had given more resources to the fire chiefs to put out the fires once they started.

Douthat, meanwhile, is skeptical of the Green New Deal in general but has praised the elements of it that seek to adapt the United States’ defenses. Adaptation is rightfully on the agenda nearly everywhere, be it nature-based measures like mangrove restoration or high-tech air purification towers, such as those the Indian Supreme Court recently urged the Delhi government to build to reduce smog.

Back to the Stone Age?

Climate change is a collective action problem, and Lukewarmists are quick to point that any country acting first or alone will incur major economic costs for relatively little reward if other parties don’t also act to cut emissions. Lukewarmists are also eager to minimize their own in-group’s responsibility, perhaps because their country or sector is responsible for only X percent of emissions (for instance, Germany: 2 percent; aviation: 2 percent). Or perhaps because fossil fuels are simply indispensable: Saudi Arabia has ratified the Paris Agreement but does not appear committed to meaningfully reducing emissions; BP is being sued in the UK for its “greenwashing” advertisements. Or perhaps because Greta Thunberg’s journey across the Atlantic was not technically entirely carbon free.

Other Lukewarmists complain that it would be too expensive to solve the problem. They warn that change cannot come too fast without either destroying the economy or alienating the population, pushing people to vote for Carbonists. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in November 2019 that a complete switch to solar and wind power risked “humanity once again ending up in caves.” According to Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation, 40 percent of Russians believe nothing can be done to prevent climate change. Though the cost argument tends to come from the right, some leftist parties or hybrid left-right movements make it too: the French Gilets Jaunes took to the streets in part to oppose a fuel tax increase.

The Techno-Mitigators

The next group are the “Techno-Mitigators.” They have a lot in common with Lukewarmists, particularly in their reluctance to disincentivize, restrict, or ban planet-heating activities. Yet they tend to take climate change more seriously than Lukewarmists and want to mitigate it with technology and human ingenuity.

Think of how the Republican US Senator Marco Rubio and Czech PM Andrej Babis advocate nuclear power. Or how Christian Lindner, leader of Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats, pleads for “innovative approaches” such as synthetic fuels or carbon capture and storage. Or of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates that is working with the oil giant Occidental to build a plant in Texas that will suck carbon out of the air… and use it to drill for more oil.

Also in the Techno-Mitigators camp are those in favor of geo-engineering, e.g. solar radiation management. This is the practice of injecting reflective particles, such as sulfate aerosols, into the atmosphere, in order to reflect sunlight and thus reduce the amount of heat that reaches the earth, mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions that have reduced global temperatures in the past.

China led by President Xi Jinping is something of a Techno-Mitigator by inference. It talks the talk on climate and is the largest developer of renewable energy, but it is also building enough new coal power plants to match the entire current coal capacity of the EU. This coal expansion is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. How will Beijing square the circle? The superpower that is already planning to launch the world’s largest cloud-seeding operation in order to increase rainfall in the Tibetan plateau might well continue to bet on technology in the long term.

The Alarmists

Alarmists are those who respond to reports of species going extinct and ice sheets melting by saying it is time to, well, sound the alarm. Greta Thunberg has been doing this very effectively in 2019. Alarmists are horrified by the fact that many G20 nations are on track to miss their climate targets for 2030, and that even if current climate pledges were implemented, temperatures would still rise by about 3 degrees Celsius. Alarmists believe that climate change is a unique, existential threat and governments must drive rapid transformation.

This group includes radical organizations like Extinction Rebellion and authors like Naomi Klein, who see capitalism as it exists today and climate change as part of the same crisis. In January 2019, 626 environmental groups sent a letter to US lawmakers that opposed “corporate schemes … including market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon and emissions trading and offsets.” But the Alarmist camp also includes most of the comparatively staid scientific community and many moderate Green or center-left politicians.

Sometimes people make Alarmist arguments for political advantage. The Guardian asked all major British parties the same set of questions about climate change ahead of the 2019 election. All agreed that “climate crisis” was the “biggest issue the UK faces as a nation.” Yet only the Conservatives opposed the youth climate strikes and said they would not stop the expansion of Heathrow airport.

Only those political parties that do not have a massive gap between their rhetoric and their proposals (if not results) can credibly argue the Alarmist point of view. Labour didn’t agree with the British Greens on everything in the survey, but its climate policies did get good marks on a Greenpeace test.

It will take a few years to tell how committed would-be Alarmists, including new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, are to their principles. The municipalities that recently declared climate emergency or pledged to go net-zero will have to demonstrate their seriousness in the 2020s. And many alarmist parties will face heavy friendly fire over their cooperation with other camps, on the grounds that, as Klein put it in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, “the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”

Mix and Match

Unsurprisingly, the author of a column called Carbon Critical has a lot of sympathy for mitigators. One suspects that if more people read the UN reports of impending disaster, there would be more people on the Alarmist bandwagon. Nevertheless, every group but the Carbonists has something to offer.

Techno-Mitigators have a clear-eyed view of how bleak the situation is. Flight shaming or buying secondhand clothes can make a difference at the margins. There is, however, no way to meet the Paris Agreement goals without relying heavily on technology. Must we retire the safest existing nuclear power plants for ideological reasons?

When Alarmists such as Bernie Sanders or Friends of the Earth Europe write off carbon capture as a “false solution,” they overrate the danger of moral hazard, i.e. the risk that people will stop reducing emissions because they think technology can save them. They should listen to the IPCC, which acknowledges that all pathways for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius require the use of “negative emissions technologies.” Instead of writing these off, Alarmists should encourage advocates to put their money where their mouth is: how can we possibly build the equipment and infrastructure for carbon storage without proper market incentives?

Geo-engineering is risky stuff, even as a temporary solution to buy us enough breathing space to cut emissions. For instance, while solar radiation management would slow global warming, it would do nothing to stop other climate problems like ocean acidification, and it might have dangerous side effects like changing rainfall patterns. Yet it is quite likely to occur on a meaningful scale because it costs less up front to dim the sun than to quickly reshape economies. Scientists are working intensely on such technologies, especially in the US and China. Therefore it makes sense for all countries to do research into geo-engineering and strengthen international regulatory frameworks, rather than hope the technology is never used.

Lukewarmists, meanwhile, provide a healthy skepticism and realism. We will inevitably spend large sums on adaptation that, from a global, generational perspective, would be better spent on mitigation. And some Alarmist demands are divorced from political considerations. The German branch of Fridays for Future advocates a carbon price of €180 per ton. This number is the result of a German Environmental Agency calculation of the burden today’s carbon emissions put on future generations. But it takes no account of what Germany’s competitors are doing, what German voters want, or whether low-income groups could afford the tax, as Lukewarmists eagerly point out.

Alarmists’ task is to press Lukewarmists to follow these criticisms to their logical conclusions. They should not accept the hollow claim that raising taxes on meat or gasoline is necessarily an unacceptable burden on low-income groups, as if governments do not have the power to compensate workers by reducing other taxes. They should ask Lukewarmist politicians to borrow from future generations so that we can actually afford to make synthetic fuels and low-carbon steel and cement today. And they should encourage their leaders to play hardball with laggard nations, for example by implementing a carbon border tax to level the playing field and stop Carbonists from gaining a temporary economic advantage.

A Power Struggle for the 2020s

It is a sign of progress that the debate has moved on and split into four camps. Just five years ago, the chairman of the environment committee in the US Senate threw a snowball on the senate floor in order to “disprove” global warming. Thankfully, that chapter of the climate debate is coming to a close.

The success of the Paris Agreement will depend on how political power is shared between the four new camps in the 2020s—in other words, whether Alarmists can take on the best of Lukewarmist and Techno-Mitigator thinking, convert more undecideds, and defeat the Carbonists.