life after warming

The Cold Logic of Climate NIMBYism

Denmark, Copenhagen: Two demonstrators hold a banner with the inscription “We Can’t Recycle Wasted Time” in front of the Danish Parliament during a climate protest.
Denmark, Copenhagen: Two demonstrators hold a banner with the inscription “We Can’t Recycle Wasted Time” in front of the Danish Parliament during a climate protest. Photo: Steffen Trumpf/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Image

Last month, the planet had its first climate-change election — and then, the following week, it had what was probably its second.

In Australia, the center-right, climate-skeptic Prime Minister Scott Morrison won a surprise reelection by making global warming (and the cost of doing anything about it) the central issue of the campaign. The result was invariably described as a shock, not because the preelection polling margin was so wide (it was only about two points) but because perceptions of climate momentum had seemed to make center-left victory look something like an inevitability, even in the aftermath of France’s gilets jaunes and the ballot-box failure of carbon pricing even in states as green as Washington in the blue-wave election of 2018. With Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes in Europe, Extinction Rebellion pressing Parliament to declare a climate emergency in the U.K. and then Theresa May committing to full decarbonization by 2050, and Sunrise pushing the Green New Deal in the U.S., that climate momentum seems to be just about everywhere but at the polls. For now, at least.

In Europe, though, the “big winners” in elections for the E.U. Parliament were the Greens, which suggests an entirely different narrative — climate action approaching the very center of the liberal political agenda, at least in many of the countries of the Continent. In Germany, the Greens captured 20 percent of the vote and, in polls taken since the election, are suddenly the country’s most popular political party. In Finland, Greens came in second, beating out both the Social Democrats and the populist Finns Party; in France, they came in third; and in Ireland, tied for second. The party picked up its first-ever E.U. seat in Portugal, where polls hadn’t even registered meaningful Green support before the election. Altogether, across the Continent, the Greens grew their representation by about 40 percent, picking up 22 seats in the process.

These are just two elections, even if one of them spanned a whole continent, and so it is probably best to be cautious in trying to generalize from them — voters in Australia are not the same as those in Austria, after all, with different perceptions of the urgency of climate action (among many, many other differences). But one plausible way of reconciling the results is that voters think differently about climate policies enacted at the national level than about gestures at the international one — more skeptical of aggressive actions by individual nations and more worried about the cost of them, supportive instead of vaguer commitments enacted in distant bureaucracies overseeing other nations of the world as well. In other words, something like climate NIMBYism.

Unfortunately, no matter how focused on climate action international organizations might be, the substantive policy choices will be national — legislation, regulation, pricing. We simply don’t have institutions strong enough to implement those changes at the international level. Recent elections make it seem harder to enact those changes at the national level, too. Even worse, while we will all be obviously better off if we all take action — the bigger and faster the better — the NIMBY logic makes sense, in a game-theoretical way, if you think about climate policies in national terms.

Australia is a climate-change anomaly: a wealthy nation that is, thanks to its geography and the fact of its relatively inhospitable landscape, suffering already from climate change in a way much more characteristic of the global South (which has already lost about 25 percent of potential GDP, one recent paper suggested, thanks to climate change over recent decades). And yet the country is only responsible for about one percent of all global carbon emissions. A dramatic, even immediate drawdown of those emissions would significantly change the shape of the Australian economy — a new energy sector, new industrial practices, new approaches to agriculture and transportation. But without other nations of the world drawing down their carbon, too, Australia’s hitting zero emissions this year would have, practically speaking, no effect at all on the climate impacts scheduled to be visited on the country in the decades ahead. This is the tragic geography of climate change — the costs and benefits are distributed widely, unevenly, and disproportionately.

And Australia is, in this way, not unusual — the collective-action problem underlies the entire project of averting catastrophic warming, since each individual nation, no matter how committed rhetorically to climate action, faces the same basic incentive structure as Australia does. Even the countries with the largest share of global emissions — China, at 28 percent, followed by the United States, at 15 percent, with India a distant third at 6 percent — each account for only a fraction of the global damage. The challenge is even more acute for most of the rest of the nations of the world; the world’s worst per-capita offenders, for instance, are Qatar, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago, none of which account for even one percent. It is just not worth it for any country to take action unilaterally, even though it would be catastrophic for all nations to wait for others to act first.

And it’s not just that fractional responsibility that argues against fast action, it’s that the relative share of climate impacts any individual country will endure bears no relationship to how much carbon they produce. China’s share of carbon emissions this century, for instance, is expected to be four times larger than its share of climate impacts — how much the country will suffer, which is, relatively speaking, not much. India is in the opposite position, likely to endure a share of climate suffering four times bigger than its share of emissions.

All of this is one big reason that the failure of the Paris climate accords is so tragic — an international agreement that draws all of the world’s nations together to act in unison is the best hope of actually solving the collective-action problem. And yet just three years after the signing of those accords, no major industrial nation is on track to meet the commitments it made in Paris; of all the world’s countries, only Morocco and Gambia are even emitting at levels “compatible” with the Paris goals.

Of course, climate NIMBYism is also an explanation for why those accords have failed to this point: The same incentives that lead countries to inaction individually also lead them to break agreements to act collectively. This is not an encouraging portent for the future, when avoiding catastrophic warming will require all the nations of the world to significantly better the commitments they are today failing to honor, beginning this fall with the U.N.’s COP climate conference in Santiago, Chile. Which all suggests one vision of a near-term future for climate politics on the world stage: commitments made by well-meaning forces of bureaucracy (diplomacy, international negotiation, and executive action) that are then demagogued and campaigned against in national elections that limit or even reverse that progress.

One can hope for new resolve at the national level — and the unprecedented protest movements, being unprecedented, do give some cause for optimism. The outlook there is unquestionably sunnier than it seemed a year or two ago, when nothing like the Green New Deal or declarations of climate emergency seemed conceivable to any but the most committed activists. And the many commitments made by local communities, cities, and states suggest that fast action is possible there, too — though it has mostly been bureaucratic action, unprompted and unratified by popular votes. Theresa May’s U.K. commitment is the same, as remarkable as it is to see the Conservative Party so committed, even amid the political pressure of Brexit. (And Boris Johnson, May’s likely successor, got there even faster than she did.)

But bleaker paths forward are possible, too. “Perhaps the widespread recognition of scarcity will be a boon to the left, underscoring the necessity of robust redistribution, vegetarianism, and social solidarity,” my colleague Eric Levitz wrote a few months ago. “But the right’s worldview is also — at least superficially —compatible with a world of unavoidable austerity.” As he put it then, “one could plausibly interpret the scientific consensus on climate as saying that non-zero-sum conditions aren’t long for this Earth” — a perspective that could bolster the far right, which sees the problem in even more nakedly nationalistic politics of xenophobic self-interest, and which is likely to want to respond to growing public understanding of the crisis not through collective action pervaded with values of social justice but something much more like … well, the term is “ecofascism.”

As Kate Aronoff writes incisively in Dissent, the European elections illustrate this nightmare, too. Aronoff quotes a spokeperson for Marine Le Pen saying, “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” and another Le Pen ally, Hervé Juvin, acknowledges that “the main threat we face now comes from the collapse of our environment,” but uses that threat to call on an ethnic alliance of Europeans (“Alliance for Life” is the name he gives it) to “unite European Nations for survival.”

That project is probably more “econativism” than true ecofascism, but the path seems relatively obvious. “As climate impacts continue to ramp up, there’s no reason to believe an international focus on it will automatically lend itself either to progressive or even small-d democratic politics,” Aronoff writes. “The climate crisis is the foundation on which the politics of the 21st century will be built,” she goes on. “The xenophobic right is beginning to catch on to what an opportunity this crisis represents for them, and the potent political capital of promising to prevent the end of the world.”

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