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Dangerous rhetoric about the environment

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, arrives in

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, arrives in New York on Aug. 28 after a 15-day journey crossing the Atlantic in the Malizia II, a zero-carbon yacht. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Kena Betancur

The coming climate apocalypse has loomed increasingly large in our political discourse in the last few years. Just last week, Democratic presidential contenders participated in a town hall meeting on climate change, even as young activists gathered outside the UN for a protest featuring 16-year-old Swedish eco-crusader Greta Thunberg. Meanwhile, The New Yorker published a controversial essay by eminent novelist Jonathan Franzen arguing that climate doom is inevitable and that we might as well accept it — but embrace a plethora of progressive causes in the name of the earth, anyway.

A lot of political theater, little by way of solutions.

At the Democrats’ debate, for instance, the momentum was against nuclear energy as an alternative — despite growing evidence that it’s the cleanest and most efficient source of power and that current technology makes it safe. (Two of the three top contenders now oppose it while most others waffle.) There was also intense pressure to declare opposition to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas — something that, a mere six years ago, President Barack Obama embraced as a path to energy independence and carbon footprint reduction.

Environmental and climate policy is an area in which the partisan polarization in our politics is especially frustrating, given the high stakes. Republicans have little credibility after years of peddling junk science, opposing sensible regulation, and pointing to every snow day to disprove global warming. The new generation of Democrats is given to knee-jerk industry-bashing and does little to dispel suspicions that environmentalism is a Trojan horse for socialism.

The evidence for human-influenced climate change is overwhelming; the only people who deny it at this point have clear ideological motives, and it’s accepted by plenty of people whose political and philosophical sympathies put them on the pro-capitalism, anti-regulation side. But there is plenty of legitimate debate on how catastrophic change is likely to be and on what to do about it.

Common sense suggests that we should act to avert even a low-probability worst-case scenario. But it is also true that many on the left have an ideological and emotional investment in apocalyptic predictions. For them, climate catastrophe is a cudgel to use against capitalism, or even the wages of sin in a new-age religion that regards industrial progress and affluence as evil.

This quasi-religious variety of environmentalism is evident in a lot of youth activism, including Thunberg’s. Her big claim to fame is a call for self-denial: refusing to fly because of aviation’s severe environmental impact. The right-wing attacks on Thunberg’s looks and mental health are unseemly, but it’s hard to get around the fact that her trip to New York epitomizes both the glaring elitism of her brand of environmentalism — a cross-Atlantic voyage on a solar-powered yacht! — and its preference for the symbolic over the practical: two people will have to fly out from Europe to the United States to take the yacht back.

Thunberg’s message to humanity is, “I want you to panic.” But panic is a poor guide to action. As experts have pointed out in response to Franzen’s New Yorker piece, there is no set timetable for climate apocalypse; there are many possible scenarios, influenced by many factors not yet fully understood. (It’s still unknown, for instance, why Antarctic ice was expanding for decades but has been shrinking in the past five years.) There is also no reason to be pessimistic about the potential of science to find new solutions to both reduce emissions and mitigate climate change in other ways.

Climate change should be a high priority. But panic can dictate action that can do more harm than good.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.