Will future administrations help bring clean energy into the world as much as the current one has? Some of the cost reductions in solar and wind power have come from government-research funding, after all. If the United States stops implementing its climate policies, will the cost of solar and wind creep up again?
The problem isn’t just climate change—it’s ceaseless growth. If people ever want to live in symbiosis with the environment, they have to kick our 200-year addiction to growth and also probably capitalism. In the short term, they’ll also have to cut back steeply to keep places like Bangladesh from drowning.
Some (but not all) environmentalists are beginning to argue a line like this. It’s a line with little partisan shading, at least here in the U.S.: Neither Democrats nor Republicans support contracting the economy. It’s also a view with many advocates but without a consistent policy. You can find de-growthism in many forms: Naomi Klein advocates for a kind of global socialism, while others imply that drastic, short-term cuts are the only way will curtail carbon emissions fast enough.
In today’s populist political climate, are such cuts possible—even on the multi-decade level? Will Americans be able to live with the consequences of such cuts, much less accept or sustain them?
Even anti-growth advocates are honest about their fall-out: “Not only will our standards of living almost certainly drop, but it’s likely that the very quality of our society—equality, safety, and trust—will decline, too,” writes Daniel Immerwahr, in an article calling for the abandonment of growth. In a country with both entrenched, institutional racism and a nuclear-armed military, who will suffer most from that decline?
The market will solve this problem, just like it solved expensive air travel, pre-Internet communication, and the sleeveless blanket.
As Republicans try to criticize climate regulation while accepting climate science, they turn to some variant of this line. I think there are two knocks against it—one more facile than the other.
The first is that, you know, if private industry was going to step up and address the climate crisis, it maybe should have done it already. Greenland’s ice sheet is sliding toward the sea, and Miami Beach is a lost cause: Where is the market?
But worse, I think, is that this is more or less the tack that governments have chosen to take. Governments have incentivized some pathways to green energy more than others, but the world’s approach is to move some assets around—to send that “critical message to the global marketplace”—and then tell business to figure the rest out. Is that process working fast enough? Should the residents of small Pacific islands, vulnerable to sea-level rise, be satisfied with the progress of the markets?