Bankers and celebrities are often on the forefront of climate change discussions. Does that harm, rather than help, the cause?
All signs now point to Donald Trump withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement, the closest thing the international community has to a plan for dealing with climate change.
In the lead-up to this week’s expected decision, the nationalist, Steve Bannon-led wing of the White House has tried to paint climate change – and the agreement, by extension – as a concern of elites.
Headlines on Breitbart over the weekend derided Gary Cohn (“Carbon Tax Cohn”, to some) for trying to change Trump’s mind about pulling out of the deal, complete with a globe emoji alongside the Goldman Sachs veteran’s name – a double entendre for his belief in globalization and global warming.
Billionaires such as Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio have become some of the most recognizable faces of the fight against climate change for producing high-profile documentaries on the subject and jetting around the world to spread their gospel. Elon Musk – the Tesla CEO now under fire for mistreating his workers – has been celebrated by environmentalists for building electric cars and batteries to store solar power.
Climate change is a frequent topic of conversation at 1% confabs such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, where this year’s 15 sessions on climate featured 60 CEOs. Over the past several weeks, greens such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have touted the fact that corporations including Walmart, BP and Unilever all favor sticking with Paris.
Especially given the scale of change needed, “believes in climate change” – or in remaining in the Paris agreement, for that matter – is a godawful litmus test for deciding who gets to be called a climate hero. If there is a pragmatic economic case to be made for switching over to renewables and divesting from fossil fuel assets, then elites will chase profits. They don’t need to be lauded for doing so.
Moreover, continuing to praise bankers and billionaires for symbolic statements on climate helps do Bannon and Breitbart’s work for them. In populist times, salvaging any hope for real progress on climate change “post-Paris” – domestically and internationally – will mean making the case for taking on climate change in strictly populist terms.
“If you are genuinely serious about shifting to a low-carbon society within the timeframe we have, then it is an absolute agenda for jobs,” climate scientist Kevin Anderson said earlier this year. “You are guaranteeing full employment for 30 years if we think climate change is a serious issue. If we don’t, we can carry on with structural unemployment.”
Climate policies can improve people’s lives in the here and now while preventing a truly catastrophic end to the 21st century. So don’t chide Trump and the rest of his party for denying climate change when they pull out of the Paris agreement. Chide them for denying millions of Americans the well-paying jobs and stable future they deserve.
The silver lining of the climate crisis is that it may be the United States’ greatest opportunity yet to upend its vastly unequal economy, and kick the executives who engineered both out of power. It’s one of history’s greatest “us v them” scenarios, pitting a handful of oligarchs and profit-hungry fossil fuel CEOs against the rest of humanity. Let’s not let those optics go to waste.