A New Challenge for Ecosocialists: The Climate Adaption Moment

For socialists familiar with Hegel’s ideas on dialectics, a “moment” is not an isolated instant in time. A moment is a transitional stage, an intellectual or historical pivot between one philosophical system and another. It’s an essential step in a developmental process that Hegelians (and many Marxists) see as generating progress over time, through contradiction.

For ecosocialists working for a Green New Deal, Hegel’s concept may be the best way to think about several new trends in U.S politics that at first glance could threaten the sustainable and socially just society we hope to establish.

Viewed as end points, these new trends seem a distraction, at best, from the organizing and coalition building that left climate activists urgently need do to make a Green New Deal a reality. But as dialectical “moments” in a political and psychological transition millions of Americans still need to undertake — from accepting the anti-scientific claim that climate change is a hoax to recognizing it as an existential challenge — these apparent diversions may offer us opportunities to make progress. Making the transition successfully, though, will be a challenge.

The new challenges ironically, arise partly from the growing successes of the climate activism movement, but also partly from the weather-related and climate-related disasters of the recent years. In reaction to growing pressure from climate activists ranging from Bill McKibben of 350.org to Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the young demonstrators with the Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement — and in response, too, to California wildfires, Midwest floods, and the battering of conservative states like Florida, Texas and South Carolina by hurricanes and rising tides — even many Republican voters are coming to see climate change as a real threat to their welfare.

At least a few conservative politicians, therefore, including some closely tied to fossil fuel companies, are responding by acknowledging that yes, climate change is real and needs addressing. But unsurprisingly, they’re not endorsing the Green New Deal or any other “socialistic” solution to the problem. They’re still insisting on conservative or at best neoliberal approaches to climate crisis, and they’re hoping to undercut support for the Green New Deal in the process. Some moderate Democrats with an apparently real concern for climate realities, moreover, are trying to accommodate them, so as to forge a bipartisan policy to make incremental changes on climate issues while there’s still time.

It’s a discouraging scenario for radicals, but it’s important to remember that at its core is a step by some conservatives away from simple climate denialism – and, arguably, a “moment” toward environmental sanity. And that should be good news for us and the world.

The classic corporate core institutions of climate denialism are gradually giving way, in this “moment” or paradigm shift, to new formations and organizations with new formulations for change. Though by no means on the left, they may offer more openings for ecosocialists to move the needle from private to public solutions and elite to non-elite concerns.

The most dramatic instance of an individual Republican doing a 180-degree reversal on climate is probably represented by Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster who in 2001 advised the George W. Bush administration to reframe “global warming” as “climate change,” in order to make it seem less frightening.

Luntz, who is renowned for reframing conservative policies in terms that resonate with a wide swath of the public, advised Republicans and fossil fuel executives to emphasize the scientific uncertainties around climate science, so as to deflect public pressure for action on greenhouse gases.

In December 2017, however, Luntz’s house in Los Angeles was threatened by the Skirball Fire, one of several destructive California blazes that year. His place escaped burning, thanks in part to the efforts of Los Angeles firefighters, but some of his neighbors were not so lucky.

On July 25 of this year, accordingly, in an appearance before a special Senate committee on climate crisis, Luntz testified: “I’m here before you to say that I was wrong in 2001 … Just stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago, because it’s not accurate today.” Climate change is real and is already generating weather-driven disasters, Luntz said, and he went on to advise to climate activists on how to reframe the problem to make it easier for the public to grasp. https://grist.org/article/the-gops-most-famous-messaging-strategist-calls-for-climate-action/

Yet another apparent convert to mainstream climate science is GOP Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, a conservative who in 2010 invoked the Book of Genesis as a reason not to be alarmed about climate trends.

Early this year, Shimkus signed a statement along with the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee saying that “prudent steps should be taken to address current and future climate risks.” As FORTUNE magazine reported back in March, Shimkus told an interviewer: “It’s just not worth the fight anymore. Let’s just see what we can do to address it and not hurt the economy.” http://fortune.com/2019/03/05/republicans-climate-change/.

Still another GOP voice now calling for a new realism on climate is Florida’s new governor Ron DeSantis, who this year succeeded former governor Rick Scott (also Republican) when Scott was elected to the U.S. Senate. Scott was notorious during his years as governor for dismantling a state climate action plan that Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, had established before him; he also virtually banned the discussion of climate change by officials in Florida’s state agencies. But DeSantis broke with Scott’s record shortly after taking office in 2019, acknowledging that sea level rise poses a serious danger to the Sunrise State.

DeSantis also ordered the creation of a new Office of Resilience to help Florida’s coastal communities prepare for the effects of rising ocean levels and hurricane storm surges, and in October 2019 his new state Resilience Officer, Julia Neshiewat, told a committee of the GOP-dominated Florida senate that her office is working on a statewide plan on how Florida can grapple with the economic and environmental impacts of climate change. That represents a huge change from the Scott years.

In September of 2019, CBS News Miami has reported, the speaker-elect of the Florida house, Republican Chris Sprowls, similarly told his colleagues: “We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.” However, Sprowls added that conservatives can recognize the problem and preserve Florida’s environment “without banning our air conditioners or closing our supermarkets or scrapping our cars.”

CBS News Miami reports that even Scott now states that “climate change is real” and that he’s bragging that during his terms in office, he worked toward “real solutions for the effects of climate change” by mandating state expenditures on projects like beach nourishment, flood mitigation measures and the protection of coral reefs. Yet so far, this doesn’t seem to mean that Scott, DeSantis or other Florida Republicans are eager to discuss limitations on fossil fuel use in order to tackle climate change at its roots.

Luntz apparently is willing to discuss carbon emission – after a fashion. Early this year, his polling firm was hired by a corporate-backed, markedly centrist organization called the Climate Leadership Council to conduct a poll among likely Republican voters to gauge their levels of concern about climate. The poll also sought to determine whether GOP voters might support a national carbon tax, with individual rebates of the money to all Americans on a per-capita basis, as a possible solution to the problem.

Reportedly, the Luntz poll found that 55 percent of younger Republicans are extremely concerned about the GOP’s backward stance on climate. Most Republicans surveyed feared their party losing its appeal to young voters as a result. And nearly two-thirds of Luntz’s respondents favored the carbon-tax-and-dividend plan that the Climate Leadership Council is promoting

Therefore in June of 2019, a month before the Senate testimony in which Luntz publicly admitted that he’d been wrong about climate, his firm circulated a memo to all Republican members of Congress summarizing his survey results and identifying climate change as both a “GOP VULNERABILITY” and a “GOP OPPORTUNITY.”

The Climate Leadership Council plan, the Luntz memo stated, would appear in “stark contrast” to the Green New Deal. https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/448162-gop-pollster-luntz-majority-of-younger-republicans-worried-by-party-stance-on-climate-change And the carbon tax and refund plan offered Republicans a chance to reclaim the climate issue.

The Climate Leadership Council that hired Luntz is a fascinating organization, and arguably a fairly frightening one. The Council was founded in 2017 by an aggressive young entrepreneur and author, Ted Halstead, whose books include The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics. Its central mission is to advocate for a refundable carbon tax, but one coupled with extensive deregulation of fossil fuel companies and other corporations, as a sweetener for corporate acceptance of the tax.

Besides Halstead, individual founding members include a galaxy of prominent members of the corporate and political establishment. The list includes (among others) former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Martin Feldstein and Larry Summers; former Federal Reserve Board chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke; Klaus Schwab, a German economist who heads the World Economic Forum; the conservative Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, economic advisor to Mitt Romney when he ran for president; Rob Walton, a former CEO of Walmart; George W. Bush’s first EPA Secretary, Christine Todd Whitman;, and the late Stephen Hawking.

The official coauthors of the organization’s multi-pronged plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are former U.S. Secretaries of State George Schultz and James Baker III, both Republicans. Corporate founding members, according to the Council’s web site, include BP, Exxon/Mobil, Shell, Total, Conoco Phillips, the big utility company Exelon, a major producer of both coal-generated electricity and nuclear power, and several other giant companies including General Motors, Ford, ATT, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and Microsoft.

The group’s package of rebatable carbon taxes and regulatory relief, known as the “Baker-Schultz Plan,” also has won the backing of such environmental NGOs as the World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy. https://clcouncil.org/press/. The council thus seems well-constituted to turn Halstead’s vision of a “radical center” defining the future of U.S. politics into reality.

      In September 2018, FORTUNE published a guest article by council members Halstead and Yellen touting the Baker-Schultz Plan as “The Most Ambitious Climate Plan in History.”  They wrote that “The plan’s broad appeal is based on a series of grand bargains, including trading a robust and rising carbon price for regulatory relief, thereby appealing to environmentalists, businesses, and conservatives at the same time.”

The plan should have broad appeal because it promises to rebate all revenues raised by the carbon tax to individuals on an equal, per-capita basis, Yellen and Halstead predicted in FORTUNE. But the core of the “grand bargain,” they stated, “is the environmental ambition of the Baker-Schultz plan, which unlocks the political viability of its other components. Its effectiveness in reducing emissions justifies the phase-out of other carbon regulations that are far more intrusive. This provides a major draw for businesses.” https://fortune.com/2018/09/10/baker-shultz-climate-plan/

If the Climate Leadership Council’s carbon reduction plan seems like a Trojan Horse to progressive environmentalists, it isn’t that popular with certain hard-core conservatives, either. This could blunt its political appeal, even when it’s being touted by Frank Luntz. Hard core Trump supporters who want to deny the existence of climate change as an issue are one source of resistance; another is exemplified by Wyoming’s conservative Senator John Barrasso, who as recently as 2014 was telling CNN that while Earth’s climate is always changing, humanity’s role in affecting it is “not known.”

In a remarkable rhetorical about-face, Barrasso on Dec. 18, 2018 authored a New York Times op ed acknowledging that “climate is changing and we collectively have a responsibility to do something about it.”

But the state of Wyoming extracts an estimated 40 percent of the coal produced in the U.S., plus sizeable fractions of the country’s production of oil, natural gas and wind-generated electricity, and Barrasso is a worthy representative of those interests. The senator, whose voting record on environmental legislation has earned him a lifetime “favorable” rating of 8 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, was one of 22 Republican politicians who wrote Trump in recent years urging U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Accordingly, in his Times piece Barrasso emphasized that whatever duty humanity has to address the climate crisis, “the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuels, including coal, to power our economy for decades to come.” It follows, Barrasso wrote, that “innovation, not new taxes or punishing global agreements, is the ultimate solution” to handling climate change. And what is also required is “investment,” with the role of the federal government being largely confined to making it easier for entrepreneurs to open new “state of the art” nuclear power plants and encouraging the further development of technologies to capture and sequester carbon dioxide once it’s generated. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/18/opinion/climate-carbon-tax-innovation.html

The current moment in U.S. climate politics, therefore, is filled with dangers as well as opportunities for the green left. Paradoxically, one possible opening for progressives at this moment is represented by a rapidly emerging trend in state and local politics that doesn’t necessarily recognize “climate change” at all. In more than 20 states across the country, state governments have recently established “resilience” and “adaptation” programs to help local communities reduce vulnerability to climate-related threats such as coastal flooding, hurricane and tropical storm damage, abnormally heavy rainfall and wildfires.

For example, more than 100 lawmakers and local governments representing flood-prone states such as Florida, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas have joined a recently formed American Flood Coalition, a group that seems primarily intent on reforming National Flood Insurance Program and prodding it to provide states with more accurate flood plain maps.

The AFC’s brochure also states that the group will “leverage best-in-class communication tools to engage citizens on sea level rise challenges and solutions,” and will “share best practices in a national forum to support local and state-level responses to flooding and sea level rise.” Green New Deal supporters with the time and knowledge to work on local and state responses to flooding might be able to participate in some of those efforts to “engage citizens” on sea level rise solutions, if we can do so skillfully.

A more ambitious effort to promote climate adaptation was launched this past September under the joint leadership of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Bill Gates, and Kristalina Georgieva, current CEO of the World Bank.

The three are co-leaders of a newly established Global Commission on Adaptation, which in September issued Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience. This report is supposed to guide a one-year campaign to inspire climate change resilience and adaptation worldwide by many different sectors of society, including “heads of state and government officials, mayors, business executives, investors, and community leaders.”

Ecosocialists are unlikely to have much clout with heads of state and business executives, but the commission’s report suggests a possible venue for our involvement with adaptation politics through interactions with community leaders.

Also, the report’s authors devote significant attention to the question of how societies can adapt to climate challenges “equitably,” in ways that will help lift the world’s poorest people out of destitution and that will involve front-line communities most at risk in planning how to address the climate challenge.

Poor nations that did the least to cause climate change are being most affected by it, the report notes, and both indigenous communities and women around the world are among those most at risk. An estimated 500 million small farmer households in less developed nations also are particularly vulnerable to climate-based disruption, as are pastoral herders in places vulnerable to increased drought.

The Adapt Now report therefore calls for special efforts to increase the income security of poor farmers and pastoralists, to “help small-scale producers manage risks from increased variability and climate shocks.” To protect affected women, who make up more than 40 percent of the global agricultural workforce, the report’s recommendations include “tenure reforms that provide equal property rights for women” as well as “targeting financing and extension services at women” in order to advance gender justice.

Existing government agricultural programs typically “underinvest in seeds, climate services, and insurance packages that are for crops predominantly tended by women,” the report states, and political leadership is essential to keep climate adaptation measures from deepening gender inequities and encouraging new types of exclusion.

Within the world’s cities, the report recommends, local governments need to invest in “nature based solutions” to ameliorate health risks from heat and polluted water, while “upgrading the living conditions of the 880 million people living in informal settlements that are highly vulnerable to climate change” – a call to meet at least some of the economic and social needs of global slum dwellers.

DSA members focused on climate impacts and other factors affecting poor and working people here in the U.S. may or may not be able to make use of the report’s rhetoric in whatever work we do against imperialism. But domestically, socialists could find opportunities in addressing what the report says about “disaster risk management.”

Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves and other weather-related disasters are the primary ways in which climate change affects many humans, the authors write, and “We need to proactively yet voluntarily move people and assets out of harm’s way through better planning and investment decisions.”

This could amount to further gentrifying New Orleans through “voluntary” displacements of poor black people, it seems – an outcome most socialists would oppose. Yet the report also recommends better warning systems to reduce people’s vulnerability to disasters, an idea we probably can support, as well as improvements in social safety nets so as to speed the process of recovery when disasters do occur.

What seems most promising about the politics of adaptation here in the U.S. is the opportunity it could provide to help culturally conservative people in endangered communities gradually accustom themselves to climate change as an issue.

Recent briefings on climate adaptation on Capitol Hill, under the auspices of the Energy and Environment Study Institute (EESI), presented evidence that in more progressive states, such as New York, many local community members have accepted the idea of climate change and are clamoring for politicians to do something about it.

In conservative coastal communities in Florida and in poorer states like Maine and Louisiana, on the other hand, people may be uncomfortably aware that they’re increasingly threatened by flooding, yet out of social and political conformity they aren’t necessarily ready to talk about the causes. Ecosocialists who are patient enough and diplomatic enough to go through the process of climate adaptation planning may be able to raise the subject, or to help community leaders who are aware of it to pass the message on to their constituents.

Another progressive political opportunity suggested by some briefings on climate adaptation is that of using adaptation planning to press for the creation of green jobs and careers to replace those in destructive industries.

For example in Louisiana, the heavy dependence of poor and minority communities on jobs in the petroleum business has traditionally meant that it’s almost impossible for local politicians to talk about the oil industry’s role in the climate crisis. But to the extent that climate adaptation planning by state government and Louisiana NGOs can create alternative careers for local people in the restoration of coastal marshes and the elevation and/or relocation of buildings in flood zones, it may be possible to lessen the oil industry’s political supremacy over time. Once residents of low-income coastal communities can acquire decent jobs in green coastal restoration efforts, they might be willing to address the question of CO2 emissions and how oil producers contribute to them.

A close reading of the global adaptation report reveals some likely pitfalls ahead. One is the report’s significant emphasis on promoting financial and corporate responses to climate issues by the private sector. Another is the possibility that the commission, like the World Bank that has helped to launch it, will systematically use rhetoric about equitable decision-making and improvements in the lives of poor people to coopt local leaders into supporting “adaptation” measures that mostly strengthen the position of elites.

Yet as more than a decade of right-wing climate denialism starts to crumble and give way to a more contradictory political landscape, the politics of adaptation could provide left activists with a moment in which we can bring the logic of the Green New Deal to new population sectors. Whether we can do so in time to avert the worsening catastrophes that climate scientists have predicted is a different question.