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Beyond the Paris Accord, an Environmentalism of Solidarity and Purpose

Today's green activists propose punitive policies and are often wrong. Fortunately there is a better way forward.

President Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord was no surprise, coming as it did from modern America’s leading apostle of the Philistine faith. Given the delayed and non-mandatory provisions of the agreement, it had limited practical consequences during his term of office. But now it may prompt important and renewed discussion.

Professor Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland has written several books depicting the clash between economists and environmentalists as akin to the Wars of Religion, most notably The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (2010). One can believe that global warming is scientifically real while nonetheless recognizing a moral panic when one sees one.

The apocalyptic prophecies about dwindling food and energy supplies propagated by the Club of Rome have proven unfounded due to human inventiveness and the progress of science. So has the hypothesis of the National Academy of Sciences 40 years ago that the world faced a possible problem of global cooling. That document was more strained and unconvincing than those put forward by today’s prophets of doom, but that it was taken seriously in high places should induce a certain humility. The doom-sayers regularly underrate the human capacity for invention and adaptation.

The zeal of the Paris accord advocates is in inverse proportion to its effect on them. Few members of the Sierra Club are coal miners or employees of fossil fuel plants; few of their luxurious household budgets would be significantly impacted by higher energy costs.

There is nonetheless interest at the state and local levels in devising less grandiose means of addressing the perceived threat. The national approach is exemplified by the Obama-Pelosi bill that passed the House of Representatives during Barack Obama’s first term, which would have created a “cap and trade” emissions licensing scheme, an inevitable engine of corruption. It emerged from the House of Representatives riddled with exceptions, a paradise for investment bankers and the lobbyists of K Street.

The measures that will be successful will address interests in addition to global warming. Not all coal-burning power plants will be extinguished but investigation of the cancer rates resulting from their plumes should close many of them, even though few “environmentalists” live in such places. Similarly, there may be revived interest in reforestation not merely for the Amazon basin but for the United States. It benefits air quality, as well as soil conservation and flood control, but there has been little interest in it since the time of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation, and his patron Harold Ickes.

The reclamation of barren areas devastated by strip and deep mining also has air quality benefits, in addition to providing work for displaced miners. The same is true of the creation of new national parks in Appalachia and networks of footpaths on the English model. These objectives, rather than being served by a Clinton-Gore carbon tax, another grandiose scheme, might more efficiently be realized through expanded road tolling and time-of-day pricing, which render the existing road system more efficient, thus reducing fossil fuel consumption, and which are not perceived as new exactions.

More broadly, many of these desired environmentalist measures address another, if possible more important social problem, that of finding meaningful work and social integration for the youthful unemployed. A revived Civilian Conservation Corps, which was never compulsory and which was organized (as people forget) by General George Marshall, would do much for the drug-ridden social wastelands of our inner cities and declining industrial communities and rural towns. It would provide, on a voluntary basis, much of what William James would have compelled in his essay of more than a century ago on “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906):

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

When our environmentalists propose improvements in these terms, rather than propagating abstract taxes and regulations at other people’s expense, theirs will be a movement rooted in communities and productive of solidarity, not alienation, and national purpose, not class, regional, and religious division.

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of various books on public policy and history, including Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality (Praeger, 1999), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2003).

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