Why Climate Change and Social Justice Must be Addressed Separately

by Lorna Salzman

The following paragraph is from “Climate Policy After the Yellow Vests” (Dissent, spring 2019) by Colin Kinniburgh. It illustrates a serious shortcoming of leftist thought today with regard to climate change and the Green New Deal.

“Whatever becomes of the gilets jaunes, their uprising has achieved at least one crucial thing. It has jolted the idea—still stubborn among policy elites—that climate change and inequality can somehow be confronted separately. It has demanded an urgent reconciliation, that is, between two of the defining challenges of our time.”

Science and social policy MUST be addressed separately. The left has traditionally put inequality as its main concern, putting ecology and environment on the back burner. They now address climate change because they realize its implications for humans, especially the poor in countries on the front lines. Because the climate crisis can be utilized as tool to promote social justice, they now link these two things; the Green New Deal represents this linkage.

Here is why climate change and inequality must be confronted separately: because the science behind climate change is nonarbitary but the social policy responses ARE arbitrary because they originate within humans ….and vary tremendously. This variance will play out clearly as the time to develop full-fledged policies and legislation based on the Green New Deal nears. Already the centrists and the right are taking advantage of the situation and accusing the left of using climate change as a excuse to promote a social justice agenda. They are not mistaken.

Inequality, the priority issue of the left, is a result of human policies and choices. However persuasive and desirable these may be, their implementation depends on who governs or controls important institutions. The prevailing ideology today is economic: capitalism. If governance changes, ideology will too, for better or worse.

What constitutes inequality, and how one defines or measures it, is a subject of contention. It is not a scientific debate but a social and political one. Science does not and should not play a role in directing human morality or social change. It can only alert us to what the consequences of our policies might be. This is at the heart of the climate change debate.

All human-made policies are arbitrary in that they are disputable and always have alternatives. There is no objective or impartial validity to any particular ideology, whether capitalist or socialist. It prevails as long as citizens accept it. It changes if they question or resist its legitimacy. But science is not arbitrary. It is based on demonstrable empirical conditions and causes. Sometimes there are disputes among scientists about the chronology or extent of the consequences of an action. But the underlying conditions are not in dispute with regard to climate change.

Global warming and the greenhouse effect are the ultimate causes of climate change, as humans overshot natural limits through overuse of fossil fuels. The proximate causes of climate change are indeed the result of human choices: a focus on economic growth and energy consumption at the expense of the natural world. Both capitalism and socialism chose industrial economic growth and material wealth as their societal objectives. And both suffer the same consequences.

As long as these objectives prevail in human society, the planet will be in ecological overshoot mode. Whether the government is socialist or capitalist will not matter as long as the goals are the same. To be sustainable and in ecological equilibrium, the goal must be a system that conforms to Nature and its laws. The system (or ideology) that comes first must therefore be based on ecological precepts. The economic system and social objectives come afterward, to conform with it.

The left and the social justice movement today is explicitly proposing the opposite – an arbitrary solution – as witness Jedediah Purdy’s recent NY Times op-ed, Exinction Rebellion, and other proclamations that are following the announcement of the Green New Deal. Using non-arbitrary criteria for human societies is the only viable and just way of making social policy. The alternative is continual conflict between left and right. Ecological principles must be the foundation, followed by a democratically empowered economic system. They cannot be addressed jointly because human political views on social justice vary widely and no consensus is in sight within our lifetime. But there is no variance in the science behind climate change or any other environmental issue.

To obtain a legitimate consensus on abolishing “inequality” would take decades even in an open democratic society. And this would require decades of prior debate about the criteria as well as the ultimate redistribution of wealth. These are clearly impossible in any meaningful time frame, not least because the left in the U.S., has refused to engage in the electoral process, choosing insider journals or private academic discourse instead of a public presence. Its persistent indifference to nature and science, in an era where ecological problems overwhelm every corner of the planet, has left them far behind. And by smudging the science with their ideology they may well impede serious action to curb climate change, at a time when such diversion cannot be allowed.

As long as Green New Deal promoters make social justice a dominant theme, they will be preaching to the liberal and left choir, at a time when the entire citizenry needs persuasion. The only way that a movement to curb climate change will succeed is by stressing the CONSEQUENCES (physical, biological, economic) of the failure to respond commensurately. Virtue-signalling about “intersectionality” is meaningless when most of the this country is nowhere near sharing the views of the left.

There is a moral odor bordering on the religious that taints the social justice part of the Green New Deal, which preaches about our sins and failure to remedy every social injustice in the world. Commensurate action to reduce energy consumption will by itself start us on the path to social justice. But social justice as a main focus will prove to be the Achilles’ Heel, not an enticement to people who do not already share the views of the left.

The urgent ecological imperative cannot be defined or manipulated by any political ideology, whether socialist or capitalist. Unhappily, the left has now seized on social instability as a means of spreading its own political objectives It will of course be met, one on one, by those who reject anything that approaches socialism. Only the boy who spotted the emperor’s new clothes will realize that both left and right share a fondness for economic growth —with neither acknowledging that this is the problem, not the solution.

Originally published by Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, April 25, 2019.

© 2017 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.