Recent articles by Colin Kinniburgh in Dissent, Jedediah Purdy in The New York Times, and Robert Reich on AlterNet have provoked me to write and challenge their position that climate change and social justice must be addressed and resolved together. I strongly dispute this, and my reasons follow.
The heated debate about the social justice component of the Green New Deal, the legislation that seeks steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, has just begun and will intensify in the coming years as liberals and the left try to reinforce their agenda for remedying inequality. This will run up against the scientific arguments and raise serious questions about how and on what basis environmental policy is developed.
This conflict closely echoes that between science and religion: whether they are compatible and reconcilable. Social justice activists are in effect defending a secular faith to serve and improve human welfare, especially for the poor. Their calls for redistribution of wealth, taxing the rich, creating jobs, ending corporate privilege, and enfranchising minority communities are doctrines that they hope will find wide appeal among liberals.
Scientists and environmental activists represent the science side of the equation, stressing the physical, ecological, and economic consequences of climate change. These are not prescriptions nor a doctrine but impartial findings based on empirical evidence that grows each day, accompanied by the hope that the public will take commensurate action based on the common threat to all of humanity and the planet.
The difference between these two approaches cannot be easily reconciled or wished away. The faith-based social justice agenda is a purely human construct, a set of subjective beliefs; its underpinnings arise from human concepts of ethics and morality. As such, these beliefs are arbitrary in that they are disputable, have alternatives, and provoke dissent.
The science doctrine, if you will, is nonarbitrary. It is based on objective observations, experiment, research, and ultimately scientific consensus.
In addition, the consequences of climate change are already confirming the research. The findings and consequences inevitably lead to equally nonarbitrary conclusions about action: Fossil fuels must be eliminated in order to preserve the climate balance of the earth, and in order to do so energy consumption must be reduced as quickly as possible. These are at present incontestable.
Social justice has not been defined, nor is it likely to result in a broad consensus on its meaning nor on how to bring it about. It will be a long, twisting, and contentious road to reach an agreement, too long, in fact, to have any substantive or positive effect in the foreseeable future. To achieve this we would have to persuade millions of people with varying political views to reach agreement on something that has not yet been defined.
Moreover, diversion of the energy policy debate to a debate on social justice, not to mention funding of climate action proposals, would mean postponing urgent action and would likely cause competition for not just ideas but for funding. The debate over the misguided defeat of the Washington State carbon tax referendum demonstrated the divide within the activist progressive community, a divide that will only widen if the social justice component of the Green New Deal continues to be promoted on an equal basis with energy policy.
In order to bring aboard millions of people in a short period of time when time is of the essence, the arguments for ending fossil fuels must be based on policies and values upon which the citizenry will readily agree. Their agreement must be sought by stressing the ecological and economic consequences of not ending fossil fuels, an argument that does not distinguish between rich and poor, believers and secularists, right wing or left wing.
To dilute this message and divert attention to something the resolution of which lies in the distant future, if ever, would doom any commensurate action.
Social policy belongs in a separate realm of civil society, involving broad dialogue and democratic decision making. If it is not kept separate we risk governance by arbitrary imposed ideology that is dependent on who is in control of the government — something that can be easily changed at election time.
Lorna Salzman is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered: Darwin, Ecology, and Social Justice.” She lives in East Quogue.