Alex Steffen: The Carbon Lobby’s Quiet Strategy

February 17, 2019

Alex Steffen on Twitter:

Hey, it’s worth unpacking this latest column from @BretStephensNYT, because it’s saying outright what has been a quiet strategy of the Carbon Lobby for decades.

And that strategy is one that every person who wants to act of climate needs to understand.

What it says is this: Climate change is either a civilization-threatening crisis, or it’s not.

If it is, we need massive action, “and we don’t have a moment to lose in substantially decarbonizing the global economy, no matter what the financial cost or political pain.”

If it not that kind of a crisis, though, we should (he says)

“think of climate change roughly the same way we think about global poverty—a serious problem we can work patiently to solve without resort to extreme measures…”

“If the former, then another windmill subsidy or carbon-trading scheme won’t do. We need to take extreme measures: to declare a national emergency, strictly ration every citizen’s carbon footprint, raise taxes on the rich+ middle class alike to fund trillions in green [projects]”
(Note here that he is setting up the straw man that the only way to cut emissions would be to take the most unpalatable steps of raising middle class taxes and rationing people’s use of carbon… This is purposeful.)
“If the latter, however, then can we at least end the apocalyptic talk, especially since we aren’t prepared to take more than piecemeal steps?”

Here we come to the purpose of this piece.
For decades, a core part of the Carbon Lobby strategy has been what I think of as “scare and despair.”

The first part of that is to raise the threat of dire hardships if we act on climate: Rationing! Socialist gulags! Lawn taxes!

The second part of this strategy, though, is induced despair.

As a corrupt politician was quoted by the great journalist Lincoln Steffens

“We know that creating public despair is possible and that it is good politics.”
A primary mechanism of the creation of public climate despair is keeping folks focused on the gap between the scale of of policies we need—state carbon taxes; Federal action like the GND; stronger global treaties that embrace 1.5º as our goal—and what can be won politically.

But in this effort, both the definition of winning and the nature of the fight must be what the Carbon Lobby wants them to be, and climate advocates have to agree to both.
Winning must always mean massive action at the highest levels of power, delivered thru mass-mobilizing campaigns

“Whatever else might be said of it, the Green New Deal [is] a remarkably honest attempt to offer a massive answer to what its authors see as an epochal problem”

And the nature of the fight must always be presented as the reluctance of the population to do anything real about the climate catastrophe.

In this stance, climate inaction is the fault of all of us, of human failings. We’re just not up for tackling a challenge this big…

As in: “Most people don’t even want to spend pennies, at least if it’s their own money. In November, voters in Washington rejected a carbon fee by a margin of 12 percentage points. That’s a blue state.”

This definition of the fight is critical, as we can easily see if we completed Stephens’ statement here to include the whole truth, which is that voters rejected the initiative *after oil companies spent a record $32 million dollars to defeat the campaign”

Because the climate fight is not a fight against citizen apathy, it’s a fight against the Carbon Lobby’s organized predatory delay.

Predatory delay strategies are not just a *part* of climate politics these days—they’re the fundamental conflict of climate politics.

And the fundamental victory here is not cutting emissions, it’s defeating the Carbon Lobby.

In America, comprehensive climate policy will come as a follow-on effect of winning that political fight, not as the means to winning it. This is especially true at the Federal level

But the American people can’t win a battle they don’t know they’re fighting against an enemy they don’t understand exists.

That’s why these two strategic messages—victory is winning huge comprehensive policy gains & the fight is against human nature—are repeated so often.

Because if folks saw what the real fight to save civilization from a planetary emergency—and how within our grasp the breakthrough victory is—they might get ideas.

They might act.

And the whole point of predatory delay is avoiding that, as long as possible.

Interested in understand how that fight can be won and what the fruits of that victory would look like (and how they would then enable the kinds of comprehensive, top-down actions we certainly will need to get to zero emissions in the time remaining to us)?

Stay tuned!

4 Responses to “Alex Steffen: The Carbon Lobby’s Quiet Strategy”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It isn’t just the “Carbon Lobby”, not by a long shot. One of the toughest things to overcome is social inertia, especially when it is reinforced by material and environmental inertia. Too many people have hassle-filled lives for them to make the mental and emotional changes to incorporate carbon-awareness. Used combustion vehicles, for example, are a damn sight cheaper than EVs to get to your suburban workplace. Cheap commercial flights to visit family save a lot of time over road trips (or waiting for rail to be built). Changing from oil heat to something renewable is an expensive home project.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Exactly why we need the power of democratic government, to help convince and/or compel people to do what needs to be done and to make it possible for them to do it.

      So we need to intensify the revolution to take power and compel the government to coordinate the mobilization, the Green New Deal. We need to charge the people responsible for the ongoing catastrophe to pay for the incentives, pay for efficiency, education about wiser lives, clean safe renewable energy and other needed programs and technologies.

  2. Donald Osborn Says:

    The message needs to be that of course its real, its man-made, but that it will cost a lot less to fix than not to and we have about a decade to really implement solutions (not 10 years before the “world ends” but 10 years to get real solutions in place. It is looking more and more like we can do what needs to be done at a reasonable and doable cost and that it is far less costly to make the changes than suffer to consequences. We need to describe it something like the “carbon wedges”. Many effective and doable solutions each taking care of a part of the problem that summed up gets done what needs to be done AND that the sooner we get serious, the less costly effective solutions will be. Finally that real and cost-effective solutions are available, can be implemented surprisingly fast and that, unlike fossil fuels, keep getting cheaper as we do more of them (like solar and wind have and like batteries and EVs are doing). It is not panic and despair , but realistic optimism that we can and will do this as long as the nay-Sayers get out of the way. We need to firmly get out that it is the fossil fuel lobby’s delaying tactics that are increasing costs of effective action and increasing the need for more drastic and costly actions as their delays continue on.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      That’s exactly right, except despite my propensity for long answers, in my experience if you go on one word longer than about 5 words, you’ve lost about 90% of the people in the US. I just don’t care about that and would rather talk to the 5% of people willing to learn something more complicated. We need both, but to change most people’s minds we need bumper stickers.

      Note that one symptom of exposure to the substances released by burning fossil fuels is attention deficits.

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