Our Ecomodernist Politics
COMMENTARY | The Ecomodernist
For all their pitched battles, climate activists and climate deniers seem to agree on a fundamental premise: the incompatibility of climate action and economic growth.
“Growth now comes with enormous levels of risk. Indeed, it risks ending the game of being human,” wrote climate advocate and 350.org founder Bill McKibben in his recent book Falter. “We are in the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” said Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to the United Nations. This is not far from the thinking Donald Trump displayed when he charged that the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change were “designed to kill the American economy.”
Other self-identified environmentalists might counter that McKibben’s and Thunberg’s sentiments here are radical and exceptional. But the environmentalist aversion to technology and growth seeps into our broader culture and politics in pernicious ways. Consider leading environmental organizations’ opposition to last year’s Clean Energy Jobs and Innovation Act, or lobbying against modern energy and agricultural technologies in emerging economies.
Fortunately, our elected representatives on both sides of the aisle do not share this rejection of economic growth. Instead, the political fight over climate change has in many ways increasingly become a contest over which major party’s agenda can best drive innovation and opportunity: the Democrats’ assertive Green New Deal, or the Republicans’ laissez-faire focus on economic liberty and dynamism. This is, essentially, an ecomodernist debate.
Ecomodernism is a school of thought formally launched in 2015 but incubated long before by techno-optimists, futurists, and environmental pragmatists. Among its central tenets is the conviction that environmental challenges can be addressed with economic growth, shared prosperity, and technologies that uplift human societies, instead of requiring loss and sacrifice.
Clean energy innovation is the classic example. If policies and investments can make low-carbon technologies like solar panels more affordable, then the sacrifices associated with abandoning fossil fuels are significantly reduced, if not fully eliminated. And while policies of sacrifice, like attaching a carbon tax to the consumption of fossil fuels, have languished in Congress and elsewhere, policies of innovation have thrived.
Perhaps that owes to voters’ persistent desires for jobs, income, and security— desires that politicians need to take seriously while environmentalist thought leaders conveniently ignore.
To be clear, a moderate tax on carbon is not a terrible idea and would not reverse economic growth, but the fact that voters continue to reject even small taxes on carbon should make environmentalist opponents of growth think twice about their own agenda.
So, too, should the policies of even left-leaning politicians. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has pitched her Green New Deal as a jobs, investment, and growth program, decisively not a framework for “degrowth” and sacrifice. President Biden has made addressing climate change and supercharging the economy co-equal goals of his administration. For whatever purchase conventional environmentalism has with American Democratic politics, a glaring divide over the role of economic growth stands out.
Even skeptics of aggressive climate action have embraced ecomodernist politics. While the Trump Administration waged open war on the Environmental Protection Agency, bipartisan coalitions in Congress increased federal funding for energy R&D by more than 20% over the last four years. In one of his last acts in the White House, President Trump signed an economic relief package that included one of the largest one-time increases in U.S. energy innovation investment of all time. Republicans have made clean energy innovation the centerpiece of their nascent climate agenda.
Importantly, ecomodernism embraces inclusivity when approaching technological investments, a contrast to conventional environmentalism’s taboos and antiquated opposition to nuclear power, genetic modification, synthetic fertilizers, carbon removal, and solar geoengineering. And, once again, the vast majority of elected officials on both sides of the aisle align with ecomodernists, supporting funding and programs for all of the above and more that address climate, environmental, and food security challenges head on.
Finally, while many environmentalists trace the problem of climate change to profligacy and greed in the rich world, most carbon emissions today (and the vast majority of future emissions) will come from low- and middle-income countries. A reduction in growth and consumption in India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria seem even less appealing a climate solution than it does in the United States. As Ken Opalo, a Kenyan political scientist at Georgetown recently put it on Twitter, “Poverty is not a viable climate strategy.”
Does all this mean that the ecological and political status quo, in the United States and around the world, is satisfactory? Not in the least. Growth in carbon emissions have slowed globally, but remain far too high to stabilize climate conditions this century. Even as low-carbon technologies like solar panels and electric vehicles gain strong footholds in energy markets, the vast majority of the sources of emissions lack scalable clean alternatives. Energy and infrastructure costs are rising in many contexts, making adaptation and equitable modernization challenging. Most people around the world live on less than $10 a day while billions lack access to abundant modern energy. My organization, the Breakthrough Institute, recently proposed billions of dollars in U.S. federal technology investments that would support emerging low-carbon food and agriculture technologies that can scale not just domestically but around the world. We can meet the twin challenges of human development and environmental stewardship if we make investments in growth and innovation. But we do have to actually make those investments.
Whither, then, traditional environmentalism? It’s hard to say. Leading environmental activists might continue to publish best-selling books and amass more followers, but after doing so for decades, fundamental pillars of their agenda remain absent from Congress, the White House, and governments all over the globe. Perhaps environmentalists will fully excise the degrowth and technophobia from their visions, as they hint at when they endorse a Green New Deal. If they do so, their environmentalism would simply inch closer to ecomodernism, the environmental politics we already have.
Alex Trembath is the Deputy Director at the Breakthrough Institute, a global research center based in Oakland, California focused on identifying and promoting technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges. He is the lead or coauthor of several Breakthrough publications, including Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud, Beyond Boom and Bust and Our High-Energy Planet. Follow Alex on Twitter @atrembath.
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