Conservatives Against Change, Even as the Planet Burns

NYT, Paul Krugman, 15 Aug 2022: Why Republicans Turned Against the Environment

In 1990 Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1970, among other things taking action against acid rain, urban smog and ozone.

The legislation was highly successful, greatly reducing pollution at far lower cost than business interest groups had predicted. I sometimes see people trying to use acid rain as an example of environmental alarmism — hey, it was a big issue in the 1980s, but now hardly anyone talks about it. But the reason we don’t talk about it is that policy largely solved the problem.

What’s really striking from today’s perspective, however, is the fact that the 1990 legislation passed Congress with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.

(Another environmental issue, the ozone layer, was also solved, through scientific application and governmental support, so the problem went away. (Just as Y2K went away, because scientists and engineers — without interference by politics! — foresaw the problem and fixed it.) It’s not that there was never a problem, in either case, as conspiracy fantasists like to imagine.)

But these days when climate threats are much more in evidence, Republicans refuse to support any efforts to avoid them.

That was then. This is now: The Inflation Reduction Act — which, despite its name, is mainly a climate bill with a side helping of health reform — didn’t receive a single Republican vote. Now, the I.R.A. isn’t a leftist plan to insert Big Government into everyone’s lives: It doesn’t coerce Americans into going green; it relies on subsidies to promote low-emission technologies, probably creating many new jobs. So why the scorched-earth G.O.P. opposition?

The immediate answer is that the Republican Party has turned strongly anti-environmental over time. But why?

Why? Short answer: they are not interested in solving problems; they are against whatever the Democrats are for, even if it means letting the planet burn. It’s all about tribalism, us vs. them, the patriots vs the eggheads. Republicans are even *encouraging* the extended use of coal, even though other power sources are cheaper; and punishing banks seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What has happened, I’d argue, is that environmental policy has been caught up in the culture war — which is, in turn, largely driven by issues of race and ethnicity. This, I suspect, is why the partisan divide on the environment widened so much after America elected its first Black president.

No surprise there. Now, Krugman goes on, Republicans are dismissing everything they don’t like, including environmental actions, as “woke.”

Wokeness normally means talking about racial and social justice. On the right — which is increasingly defined by attempts to limit the rights of Americans who aren’t straight white Christians — it has become a term of abuse. Teaching students about the role of racism in American history is bad because it’s woke. But so, apparently, are many other things, like Cracker Barrel offering meatless sausage and being concerned about climate change.

This may not make much sense intellectually, but you can see how it works emotionally. Who tends to worry about the environment? Often, people who also worry about social justice — either that, or global elites. (Climate science is very much a global enterprise.)

Now the meaning of “woke” has been contorted out of its original intent, just as “political correctness” has been. (The latter term initially meant simply being respectful of other people’s choices, especially when they were different than your own; don’t be needlessly rude or confrontational. The problem has been that many conservatives *don’t* respect anyone different from themselves, and *want* to be rude and confrontational.)

Krugman concludes,

What this means is that those people hoping for bipartisan efforts on climate are probably deluding themselves. Environmental protection is now part of the culture war, and neither policy details nor rational argument matters.

We’re doomed.


NYT, guest essay by Ryan D. Doerfler and Samuel Moyn (who teach law at Harvard and Yale), 19 Aug 2022: The Constitution Is Broken and Should Not Be Reclaimed

This makes a point that aligns with my running theme that conservatism, which by definition resists change and venerates the past (especially Bible and Constitution), is ill-equipped to deal with a changing world, one that is filling up with billions of people that are changing the planetary environment in ways the human species may not survive.

Opening paragraphs:

When liberals lose in the Supreme Court — as they increasingly have over the past half-century — they usually say that the justices got the Constitution wrong. But struggling over the Constitution has proved a dead end. The real need is not to reclaim the Constitution, as many would have it, but instead to reclaim America from constitutionalism.

The idea of constitutionalism is that there needs to be some higher law that is more difficult to change than the rest of the legal order. Having a constitution is about setting more sacrosanct rules than the ones the legislature can pass day to day. Our Constitution’s guarantee of two senators to each state is an example. And ever since the American founders were forced to add a Bill of Rights to get their handiwork passed, national constitutions have been associated with some set of basic freedoms and values that transient majorities might otherwise trample.

But constitutions — especially the broken one we have now — inevitably orient us to the past and misdirect the present into a dispute over what people agreed on once upon a time, not on what the present and future demand for and from those who live now. This aids the right, which insists on sticking with what it claims to be the original meaning of the past.

Arming for war over the Constitution concedes in advance that the left must translate its politics into something consistent with the past. But liberals have been attempting to reclaim the Constitution for 50 years — with agonizingly little to show for it. It’s time for them to radically alter the basic rules of the game.

The writers go on to float many ideas about how to rethink a constitution better suited to today, rather than deferring to the assumptions and prejudices (and ignorance) of the past.

I modestly predict that this will never happen, in the US. That countries cannot do this, that countries and empires are, by way of human nature, beholden to the past and so-called wisdom of the ancients, is why nations and empires fall. They do not learn, even as the world changes around them. And America could be next.

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