That Al Gore’s definitive statement on the crisis of the climate change movement appeared in the back pages of Rolling Stone magazine rather than in a more prominent and prestigious location is one sign of the decline in his reputation. At the peak of the climate movement, such an essay might have appeared in Foreign Affairs or any of the world’s leading newspapers. If he had chosen Rolling Stone to reach a hipper crowd, the article would likely have run as the cover story and ignited a global debate.
As it was, the reaction to the most definitive statement yet on the biggest crisis in the history of the climate movement by its most prominent public spokesman (now that his Nobel yoke mate Rajendra Pachauri has been hooted off the world stage as a hot tempered poseur) was, from the former vice president’s viewpoint, deeply disappointing. The piece’s arguments, its logic, its impassioned cri de coeur sank like so many stones, like so many trees falling in a forest when no one was there to hear.
It is a measure of how far Gore has fallen that almost all the scanty attention the piece received focused on Gore’s criticism of what he sees as President Obama’s failure to lead on climate change. Gore, like the global green movement he champions, has fallen by the wayside. Despite terrible weather, despite tornadoes, droughts, food crises and high oil prices, the world conversation has moved on. The question is why.
In my last post, I wrote about Gore’s failure to grasp the nature of the leadership that would be demanded from a person and a movement calling for fundamental and radical change in the ways the world lives. The point was not to criticize the former vice president for living well; I have no moral objection to rich people spending their money. Indeed, as Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees tells us, if the dour moralists had their way and the rich stopped spending lavishly, the resulting economic contraction would ruin the poor. But Mr. Gore failed to grasp that the movement he hoped to lead demands a different and deeper approach.
Gore’s failures are not just about leadership. The strategic vision he crafted for the global green movement has comprehensively failed. That is no accident; the entire green policy vision was so poorly conceived, so carelessly constructed, so unbalanced and so rife with contradictions that it could only thrive among activists and enthusiasts. Once the political power of the climate movement, aided by an indulgent and largely unquestioning press, had pushed the climate agenda into the realm of serious politics, failure was inevitable. The only question was whether the comprehensive green meltdown would occur before or after the movement achieved its core political goal of a comprehensive and binding global agreement on greenhouse gasses.
That question has now been answered; the movement failed before it got its treaty, and while the media and the establishment have still generally failed to analyze these developments and draw the consequences, the global climate movement has become the kind of embarrassment intellectuals like to ignore. Like the Club of Rome, Y2K, the Iraq Study Group and President Obama’s management of the Middle East peace process it is something polite people try not to think about. This is why Al Gore is less visible than he used to be, and his views are less eagerly sought: the polite world and its ready handmaid the press know Gore has failed but does not want to think or write about why.
The global green strategy was a comprehensive, unified and coordinated one. Green activists around the world, in some countries empowered because proportional representation gives fringe groups disproportionate political influence, would unite around the push for a single global solution to climate change. The global solution involved a treaty to be negotiated under UN auspices that would be “legally binding” and subject the emission of greenhouse gasses to strict global controls. Developing countries would receive massive transfers of official aid ($100 billion or more a year) to compensate them for the costs they would incur in meeting carbon targets; developed countries like the United States would face stricter targets still. The target for the treaty was to cap global emissions at levels believed to keep the global temperature rise this century to two degrees centigrade.
To reach this Valhalla, a political strategy was put in place; it is the strategy that the former vice president is still gamely trying to push in his Rolling Stone article. It has failed.
The idea was to develop and present a scientific case that global warming was happening, that it was caused by human activity, and that its consequences in the near future were so devastating that a binding and effective GGCT (Global Green Carbon Treaty) was the only way out.
Politically, the framers of this approach could count on the support of green movements worldwide, on diplomats and UN officials constantly looking for new missions and new budgets, on anti-capitalist or anti-growth forces who want to slow down or reverse the process of capitalist economic development reshaping the world, on Europeans and others concerned about the rapid rise of Asia and the shift of political power from west to east, and on a group of economic interests and financial market wizards who stood to make hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars from the massive reorientation of the world economy the green program would require.
To make the case for a proposition like this, one needs to make the following argument: that the cost of inaction is unacceptably high, that the proposed measures are both feasible and effective, and that there are no easier or cheaper methods of accomplishing the goal. This is no special set of high hurdles invented for the purpose of frustrating the greens; it is the basic test that any proposal in any arena must pass.
In the global warming debate, this involves arguing first that the evidence for rapid and destructive climate change is rock solid, second that the global green agenda can be put into place and will work if it is, and third that there are no less costly, less intrusive or more workable alternative policies to the green agenda as it is now understood.
From the beginning, the movement was dogged by what proved to be a fatal flaw. That problem was and is the sheer expense, complexity and unwieldiness of the GGCT. The political goal of the global green movement is so enormously complicated, so economically expensive, so administratively difficult, so dependent on the coordination and cooperation of so many different powerful political interests with radically different agendas that its adoption was extremely unlikely.
Any serious discussion of the merits of the GGCT would be fatal because the more the world reflects on the topic the more the world’s diplomats, policy makers and opinion leaders realize just how utopian and unworkable this “strategy” really is.
The global green treaty movement to outlaw climate change is the most egregious folly to seize the world’s imagination since the Kellog-Briand Pact outlawed war in the late 1920s. The idea that the nations of the earth could agree on an enforceable treaty mandating deep cuts in their output of all greenhouse gasses is absurd. A global treaty to meet Mr. Gore’s policy goals isn’t a treaty: the changes such a treaty requires are so broad and so sweeping that a GGCT is less a treaty than a constitution for global government. Worse, it is a constitution for a global welfare state with trillions of dollars ultimately sent by the taxpayers of rich countries to governments (however feckless, inept, corrupt or tyrannical) in poor ones.
For this treaty to work, China, India, Nigeria and Brazil and scores of other developing countries must in effect accept limits on their economic growth. The United States must commit through treaty to policies that cannot get simple majorities in Congress — like sending billions of dollars in climate aid to countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan, even as we adopt intrusive and expensive energy controls here at home.
The green plan is a plan for a global constitution because the treaty will regulate economic production in every country on earth. This is a deeply intrusive concept; China, Nigeria, Myanmar, Iran and Vietnam will have to monitor and report on every factory, every farm, every truck and car, every generator and power plant in their territory. Many states do not now have and possibly never will have the ability to do this in a transparent and effective way. Many others will cheat, either for economic advantage or for reasons of national security. Many states do not want their own citizens to have this knowledge, much less the officials of hostile foreign powers.
Moreover, there will have to be sanctions. After all, what happens if a country violates its treaty commitments? If nothing happens, the entire treaty system collapses of its own weight. But to work, enforcement will have to mean penalties greater than the advantages from cheating. Who will monitor output around the world, assess performance against commitments, levy penalties and fines — and then enforce those decisions when they are made?
There are no real answers to these questions and can be none. No institutions exist with the power and resources to play these roles; the world’s jealous nation states will not consent to create them.
The dream that the menace of global warming will cause humanity to overcome its ancient divisions and unite in a grand global coalition is sophomoric. Rising CO2 levels will not cause the world’s governments to accept and enforce international policing of the most intimate details of their economic lives. If the menace of nuclear war can’t create world government, the menace of global warming won’t do it either.
The case for the Kellog-Briand Treaty is actually much stronger than the case for the Global Green Climate Treaty. The scientific evidence that war is dangerous and becoming more murderous, more risky and less acceptable every day needs no complex calculations and no computer models to convince a skeptical public. There can be few people on earth who do not understand and fear the horrors of modern war; nothing could be more evident and obvious than the danger that future wars pose to the human race.
Compared to the GGCT, the Kellog-Briand treaty against war was a piece of cake. A Kellog-Briand Deux would be easier to write, easier to negotiate, easier to ratify and easier to monitor than the green treaty of Al Gore’s dreams. A treaty banning war involves monitoring a few easily measurable and generally visible activities. The line between what is permitted and what is prohibited is much easier to draw in the Kellog-Briand case than in the GGCT, and many fewer activities would have to be covered — meaning the negotiation process would be less cumbersome and contentious. Violations are easier to check as well. It is much easier to see that a state is mobilizing an army than it is to monitor the millions and billions of economic activities to be regulated by global warming treaty.
The global greens don’t want to talk about any of this. They don’t want anybody to reflect on the obvious truth that a GGCT will be either ludicrously weak, unratifiable in the US Senate or unenforceable. (Like the Kyoto Protocol it could well be all three.) They are building a bridge to nowhere, and attacking anybody who disagrees as a flat earther.
They want to talk about science, not history, policy and the realities of international life. The science, they say, is “settled.” (Never mind that far better researched subjects, like human nutrition, are far from settled and that we are still watching governments build and deconstruct food pyramids as the “settled” scientific consensus continues to change.) Don’t tell me my solution is stupid, say the greens — the problem is real!
Mssrs. Kellog and Briand could have said the same thing: how can you be against our treaty campaign? Don’t you understand that War Is Bad? Are you some kind of war-denialist?
Mr. Gore’s work up to and including his latest Rolling Stone essay has taken a demagogic rather than intellectual approach. His method of arguing is to trumpet the science of climate change and to make ad hominem arguments against its opponents. The science is clear, it is settled, and the opposition against it is funded by people with an economic stake in denial. I am right about the science and my opponents are a bunch of evil opportunists in it only for the money.
That is Mr. Gore’s position, and it is his entire position. He says nothing about the feasibility of the proposed GGCT or its cost effectiveness. That, presumably, we must take on faith. There is nothing to discuss about policy. It is essentially the cry of Chicken Little: “The sky is falling and we must run and tell the king.”
Thus speaketh Al Gore: the world is burning down and so you must immediately follow my plan for fixing what’s wrong. He does not discuss whether his plan is feasible; to anyone who objects to the ponderous, unwieldy Rube Goldberg style green treaty agenda, Gore simply bellows: “What’s the matter you soul-dead, hired flack of the evil oil companies, don’t you believe in Science?”
A Rube Goldberg inspired cartoon illustrating how to complete a task by the most complicated and intricate way (Flickr | Stephen VanDyke)
Al Gore’s logic is exactly like the genealogy of the man who boasted that his line of descent went all the way back to Julius Caesar — with only two gaps. Gore’s ironclad argument has only two gaps: he presents no evidence that the GGCT is either feasible (that it would be efficacious if put into practice and that it can in fact be put into practice in a reasonable time frame) or economical (that it is the cheapest and most effective means of reaching the goal, and that the cost of the fix is less than the cost of the problem).
This is the method of the global green movement as shaped by Al Gore: an ever-crescendoing invocation of blizzards, droughts, locusts and floods aims to stampede the populace into embracing one of the most dubious and unworkable policy prescriptions ever presented to the public eye.
As a strategy it was as as stupid as the treaty itself. Many countries are not influenced much by public opinion; China’s approach to the issue has consistently focused on China’s national interest rather than on any utopian dreams of green global governance. Key actors in Copenhagen and elsewhere have looked to cash in on what they see as a neurotic western overreaction; the number and power of such actors ensures that no global treaty will ever reflect the concerns and priorities of green activists but will be warped and distorted to serve the special interests of powerful countries.
Meanwhile, excitable climate activists inevitably stretched the available scientific evidence to build public support in the west. Like Dean Acheson at the dawn of the Cold War, they were “clearer than truth” in the interests of persuading the public to back what they considered to be an ambitious but vital agenda. As evidence of the exaggerations and inaccuracies trickled into view, public confidence in the scientific case for global warming fell and the greens are still scrambling to recapture the intellectual authority they lost in 2009-2010.
The real issue here is not climate science. It is true that, as many critics attest, Gore fundamentally misstates the nature of the scientific discussion of climate change and, especially, the extremely complex questions associated with interventions in it. He overstates what is known, disregards the inherent uncertainties involved in the study of a complex system like the climate, understates the significance of the remaining gray areas, and demagogues the science to get more out of it than his case really merits. The contrast between the intellectually unscrupulous propaganda he makes (the green-friendly UK has ruled that Gore’s Oscar winning film can only be shown in schools if teachers alert students to its errors of scientific fact) and Gore’s self-presentation as a condescending, de haut en bas Great Explainer patiently enlightening the rubes so infuriates many of his opponents that they cannot help themselves. They start arguing with him about hockey sticks and CO2.
This is exactly what Mr. Gore wants; it moves the argument onto his strongest terrain. Whatever one thinks of the scientific evidence for climate change, Gore is on much stronger ground when he argues that the earth is warming than when he argues that a great green global treaty on the lines he proposes can ever be either adopted or enforced. There are a great many scientists and scientific journals who agree with Mr. Gore about climate change. Perhaps they are all frauds and mountebanks — but that is a tough case to make in the court of public opinion. Once the argument moves to science it goes into complex and tricky terrain from which the broad lay public will draw only uncertain conclusions. Gore does not win the scientific argument as decisively as he would like — but his opponents cannot deliver a political death blow there, either. The lay public perceives angry experts and dueling theories with a large but not totally convincing preponderance of evidence on Gore’s side.
There is, however, no serious evidence in either history or political studies to suggest that his approach to the problem can ever be adopted or will ever work. Like war, global warming may well be real — but that doesn’t mean a treaty can help.
The green movement’s core tactic is not to “hide the decline” or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.
To argue with these people about science is to miss the core point. Even if the science is exactly as Mr. Gore claims, his policies are still useless. His advocacy is still a distraction. The movement he heads is still a ship of fools.
It is a waste of time to talk science with Al Gore. It is a waste of time to listen to him at all. That, apparently, is what the world at long last is beginning to understand. The policy makers and the heads of state who only two years ago were ready to follow Gore up the mountain have softly and quietly tuned him out.
These days, he can’t even get his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Next: what Al Gore doesn’t understand about the development of American democracy.