interesting times

The Right’s Climate Change Shame

Trump continues to ignore climate change, even after witnessing its effects in places like Paradise, California. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A cartoon popped up in my Twitter feed last week that seemed the perfect coda for the latest, congressionally mandated report on climate change. It shows a dinosaur looking up into the heavens at night, at all the twinkling stars. His smiling face utters the words: “The dot that gets bigger and bigger each night is my favorite.”

I’m relieved, I suppose, that Trump officials didn’t actually suppress, censor, or doctor volume two of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. All they did was release it on the Friday after Thanksgiving, suggesting that somewhere deep in what passes for someone’s conscience in this putrid presidency, some residual shame might linger. One of the more innovative arguments of the report was even pitched to the bottom line: high projections expect to knock ten percent off U.S. GDP this century — more than two Great Recessions put together. And so the last teetering argument of the carbon polluters and their enablers — that preventing climate catastrophe will cost jobs and reduce growth — was proven void once again. Au contraire, it turns out. There have been more jobs in solar energy in the U.S. since 2015 than in oil or natural gas extraction. Maybe a decade ago, the expense of wind and solar was a major obstacle and expense for a non-carbon future. Not any more.

The denialists, in other words, have nothing left. The most striking thing about Bret Stephens’s inaugural column in the New York Times was not its banal defense of the principle of scientific skepticism, but its general lameness. Rereading it this week, it is striking how modest its claims were. They essentially came to this: “Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

And that’s it. But no serious scientist claims “total certainty” about the future of climate, just a range of increasingly alarming probabilities; no one is demanding “abrupt and expensive” changes in public policy, just an intensification of efforts long underway with increasingly reliable and affordable new technologies; and, yes, treating your opponents as evil morons is rarely a good political strategy and Al Gore was terribly supercilious — but, seriously, that’s the only substantive argument Stephens had or has? There’s not enough hay there for a straw ant.

The same blather can be found in this week’s column by Jonah Goldberg, lamenting Max Boot’s sudden volte-face on the issue. Jonah has a point about Boot’s somewhat too instant makeover into a resistance icon (I’ve made it myself), but on the substance of climate change, what defense of the American right does Goldberg have? Zippo. He argues that “there are a lot of different views on climate change on the right.” I find that about as convincing as the argument that there are a lot of different views on race among Harvard’s faculty. Sure, maybe, in private, a few don’t subscribe to the idea that America is as ridden with white supremacy as it was in the 1920s. But you won’t get very far in the academy if you say that in public, will you?

More to the point, the hypothesis of carbon-created climate change doesn’t just have “some legitimate science” on its side, as Goldberg puts it, but a completely overwhelming majority of the science. You should, of course, retain some skepticism always. It’s possible, for example, that natural selection may be replaced as the core scientific consensus about how life on Earth evolved. Possible. But do we have to express skepticism every time new science based on that hypothesis emerges? Please. And I honestly can’t see how the science of this can be right or left. It’s either our best working hypothesis or not. And absolutely, we can have a debate about how to best counter it: massive investment in new green technology; a carbon tax; cap and trade; private-sector innovation of the kind that has helped restrain emissions in the U.S. already. And this debate could be had on right-left lines. But we cannot even have the debate because American conservatism has ruled it out of bounds.

Inaction because of uncertainty only makes sense if the threat is distant and not too calamitous. But when there’s a chance of it being truly catastrophic, and the evidence in its favor keeps strengthening, a sane person adjusts. A conservative person — someone attuned to risk — will take out insurance, in case the worst happens. Only an ideologue or a fool does nothing at all.

The last line of Republican “argument” is the president’s. This is a man who has recently visited what remains of a small town on Florida’s panhandle coast: a landscape that bears a resemblance to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. He has also walked around the dystopian vista of unprecedented forest fires in northern California, covering the state in smoke and air pollution, getting worse as every longer and longer fire “season” succeeds another. He lived in New York City when Hurricane Sandy crippled the metropolis. We used to argue that climate change was a tough political question because its effects were so distant in the future. But that case no longer holds. We are clearly living through those effects right now. So how does the president respond?

One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty … if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it …

What’s going on here, if you can penetrate the word chowder, is not just abject willful denial of reality (that is routine for Trump). It’s also a sense that energy innovation is for suckers and pansies and pussies. (This is one of the very few areas in which I will concede such a thing as literally toxic masculinity.) But if it’s for suckers and pansies and pussies, why is a country like China doubling down on innovating this technology? Why is every other government on Earth committed to tackling this (rhetorically at least) and every other center-right party on Earth taking this very seriously? (Check out this page about environmental policy in the British Conservative party — aimed getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050 — and see if you even recognize the debate on the right in the U.S.)

Then there is the final, classic Republican nonargument: “I don’t see it.” When nothing else works, just subjectively deny all objective reality. In this area, moreover, Trump is not a digression from GOP policy. He is not an exception. As with his insane, bankrupting, debt-metastasizing fiscal policy, his climate policies are the apotheosis of Republican mindlessness since Nixon — something that almost no one with an actual mind in the conservative intelligentsia has vigorously taken on. Even a sane, independent-minded, and erudite conservative intellectual, George F. Will, has a blind spot on this.

The kicker, of course, is that the current GOP is not just skeptical of climate science and dragging its feet on doing anything about climate change. It is actively pursuing policies aimed at intensifying environmental devastation. Trump’s EPA is attempting to gut the regulation of carbon; it has tried to sabotage the only most prominent global agreement on the matter; it celebrates carbon-based energy and rhapsodizes about coal; it has slapped a 30 percent tariff on solar panels; its tax reform hurt solar and wind investment. For allegedly intelligent conservatives like Stephens and Goldberg to devote energy toward climate skepticism while turning a blind eye to vigorous Republican climate vandalism is, quite simply contemptible. I am not reading their minds here. I’m reading their columns. On this question — as on fiscal policy — they’re not skeptics or conservatives; they are dogmatists, sophists, and enablers of environmental vandalism. They reveal Republicanism’s calculated assault on the next generations — piling them with unimaginable debt and environmental chaos. This isn’t the cultural conservatism of Burke; it’s the selfish nihilism of Rand.

Let me finish with a quote. It was the first time a major global leader spoke to the U.N. on the question: “It is life itself — human life, the innumerable species of our planet — that we wantonly destroy. It is life itself that we must battle to preserve … The danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices so we may not live at the expense of future generations. That prospect is a new factor in human affairs. It is comparable in its implications to the discovery of how to split the atom, indeed its results could be even more far-reaching … We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.” That leader also made a core moral argument: “No generation has a freehold on this Earth; all we have is a life tenancy with a full repairing lease.”

Those words were Margaret Thatcher’s in 1989. She devoted her entire U.N. speech to conservation and climate change. If the subject was real enough in 1989 to make sacrifices and changes, how much more so almost 30 years later? The difference between Thatcher and today’s Republicans is quite a simple one. She believed in science (indeed was trained as a scientist). She grasped the moral dimensions of the stewardship of the Earth from one generation to another. She did not engage in the cowardice of sophists. And unlike these tools and fools on today’s American right, she was a conservative.


Is sex binary? I find the question fascinating because the science really does open up lots of questions, and the notion of a “nonbinary” sex is now ubiquitous on college campuses. The salient definition of “binary” here is the following: “involving a choice or condition of two alternatives (such as on-off or yes-no).” And so the question emerges: Are humans either male or female? Are are these really the only two options?

We have long assumed they were. But we now know, as anyone acquainted with the actual science will attest, that this is not entirely the case. There are all sorts of permutations in human sex that defy simple XX and XY duality, and reflect the varying impacts of testosterone and estrogen on sexual development. There are, critically, intersex people of varying degrees — with XX chromosomes, for example, not always resulting in female characteristics. The closer you look, the more complicated it gets. And that’s leaving aside the transgender question entirely.

The real question, it seems to me, is therefore an almost philosophical one: Do these exceptions prove or disprove a general rule? I’d argue that, by and large, they prove it. The number of people with a mismatch between chromosomes and hormones, or with ambiguous genitalia, is surpassingly small. Well under one percent is a useful estimate. Similarly with a transgender identity: It absolutely exists but is also very rare — some estimates put it at around 0.7 percent of the population. Gay men and lesbians who have unambiguous male and female sex organs and identity but an attraction to their own sex are also pretty rare (whatever we’d like to think). Maybe 2 to 5 percent, with some outliers. Does this mean that general assumptions about most people being either male or female and heterosexual and cisgendered are misplaced or even offensive? Hardly. I’m gay but usually assume that everyone I meet is straight until I know otherwise. And I don’t mind the hetero assumption applying to me either. It’s a reasonable statistical inference, not bigotry. And I can always set them, er, straight.

My preferred adjective for sex and gender is bimodal, rather than binary. What bimodal means is that there are two distinct and primary modes with some variations between them. The vast majority of humans are either male or female, with corresponding chromosomes and hormones, and heterosexual. But with nature as messy as it is, and genetic variation being the spice of evolution, there will always be exceptions on a spectrum. Think of it as two big mountains representing, in sex matters, well over 95 percent of humans, with a long, low valley between them, representing the remaining percent. Everyone is equally human. But clearly the human experience of sex is one thing for almost everyone and a different thing for a few.

Do we infer from this that we need to junk the categories of male and female altogether, as many critical gender theorists argue? That seems insane to me. These two modes actually define the entire landscape of sex (the exceptions are incomprehensible without them), and the bimodal distribution is quite obviously a function of reproductive strategy (if we were all gay, or intersex, we’d cease to exist as a species before too long). Ditto the transgender experience: Does the fact that less than one percent of humans feel psychologically at odds with their biological sex mean that biological sex really doesn’t exist and needs to be defined away entirely? Or does it underline just how deep the connection between sex and gender almost always is?

Beneath it all, insecurity runs. On the right, there’s too much insecurity that society cannot cope with these truths. I disagree. Look at the much deeper understanding of homosexuality we have achieved these past couple of decades. We are not a threat to straights; we’re a complement. Transgender people do not threaten the categories of male and female; they pay, in some ways, homage to them.

On the left, there’s too much defensiveness about being in a minority. Yes, I know: We all like to be in a majority. It makes life easier; it makes self-doubt and self-hatred rarer; it can help you avoid bouts of low self-esteem; it helps you feel you belong. But being in a minority — even a tiny one — need not be demoralizing, if we have self-confidence. I’d argue it can lead, through struggle and challenge, to a more deeply examined self — and to a resilience that can only be earned and is no one else’s to give. And the fact that this society is run overwhelmingly on heterosexual lines makes sense to me, given their overwhelming majority. As long as the government does not actively persecute or enable the persecution of a minority, who cares? An intersex person is as deeply human as anyone else. So is a gay or transgender person. It’s stupid to pretend they are entirely normal, because it gives the concept of normality too much power over us. Their abnormality is a neutral thing, like left-handedness: a fact, not a judgment. And why on earth should we feel defensive about that?

I was invited to the Heritage Foundation this week for a panel on political correctness (You can watch it here. I speak at 1:04). The invite was quite a surprise. I’ve been a nonperson in Washington conservative circles ever since I objected to the spending explosion, torture, and shambolic Iraq War in the Bush administration, around 15 years ago. Of course I wasn’t invited to criticize conservatism — just to excoriate the social-justice movement for inverting the principles of liberalism. Nonetheless, I included in my remarks an attack on the Trump movement for providing so much ammunition for the hard left with its race-baiting, and even got one dude to walk out. But what surprised me was the positive response to a single, minor point I made about intersectionality.

In some ways, I argued, the intersectional move on the hard left is a good thing — because it complicates things. It’s no longer enough just to consider race, for example, as a signifier of oppression without also considering gender or orientation or gender identity, national origin, immigrant status, etc. When society is made up entirely of various intersecting oppressions, as the social-justice left believes, it’s vital not to leave any potential grievance out.

By the same token, of course, an oppressor can also be identified in multiple, intersectional ways. I spend my days oppressing marginalized people and women, because, according to social-justice ideology, I am not just male, but also white and cisgendered. My sin — like the virtue of the oppressed — is multifaceted. So multifaceted, in fact, that being gay must surely be included. Also: HIV-positive. Come to think of it: immigrant. And an English Catholic — which makes me a victim in my childhood and adolescence. Suddenly, I’m a little more complicated, aren’t I? But wait! As a Catholic, I am also an oppressive enabler of a misogynist institution, and at the same time, as a gay Catholic, I’m a marginalized member of an oppressed “LGBTQ” community, as well as sustaining an institution that oppresses other gays.

It can get very complicated very fast. I remain confident that I remain an oppressor because my sex, gender, and race — let alone my belief in liberal constitutionalism and limited government — probably trump all my victim points. But that is a pretty arbitrary line, is it not? Think of the recent leftist discourse around white women. One minute, they are the vanguard of the fight against patriarchy; the next minute, they are quislings devoted to white supremacy and saturated with false consciousness.

And that’s why I favor more intersectionality, not less. Let’s push this to its logical conclusion. Let’s pile on identity after identity for any individual person; place her in multiple, overlapping oppression dynamics, victim and victimizer, oppressor and oppressed; map her class, race, region, religion, marital status, politics, nationality, language, disability, attractiveness, body weight, and any other form of identity you can. After a while, with any individual’s multifaceted past, present, and future, you will end up in this multicultural world with countless unique combinations of endless identities in a near-infinite loop of victim and victimizer. You will, in fact, end up with … an individual human being!

In the end, all totalizing ideologies disappear up their own assholes. With intersectionality, we have now entered the lower colon.

See you next Friday.

The Right’s Climate Change Shame