We Need Something Different to Face Pending Environmental Crisis

By Mike Koetting October 17, 2021

Upcoming news will no doubt be full of the imminent big deal Glasgow Climate Summit. But that’s just the political deal. The real deal was the UN report on climate change that was issued in August. It wouldn’t be totally surprising if you don’t remember it since it seems there is a new UN report on climate every couple of weeks that are all variations of the same theme. But suppose you really took note back then. What do you hope for?

Most fundamentally, we should all hope that the 234 scientists who participated in this report got it substantially wrong. They would all admit there are certain margins for error and they would be relieved to be found out wrong.

But maybe you’ve got kids and grandkids and you are worried the reports’ authors might be substantially right about the speed of the trajectory. What then do you hope for?

Well…you could hope that there is a grand awakening and the world comes together and uses its problem solving capabilities to mitigate the threat. But how that is going to happen?

Let’s focus specifically on the U.S. Saving the environment is absolutely a global issue—the U.S. cannot do it by itself. On the other hand, we do still cast an outsized shadow and we don’t have time for a Laurel and Hardy routine of “After you…” (Unless, of course, you’ve decided to put all your eggs in the “scientists are wrong” basket, in which case the rest of this blog might as well be written in Sanskrit.)

The single most important thing for America to do is to realize this issue cannot be addressed by business as usual. We need to drastically redefine how we live our lives and we have about 20 years to do it.

Not that I know exactly what will be needed. At this point, this is only roughly understood. But it seems highly likely it will need to be dramatic. We have wasted too much time pretending that small, even medium, changes were going to avert a crisis. That is why the first step is discarding our immediate instinct that various options are “too extreme.” Of course there will be proposals that should be rejected for a variety of reasons; because something is bold doesn’t make it a good idea. But, by the same token, I can’t imagine any small action that is going to stop the temperature clock. If we allow knee-jerk reaction to dismiss all bold moves as “too extreme”, it is going to be very hard to avoid the rolling catastrophes that threaten us. My read of August’s UN report is that the situation we are facing is extreme.

If you have ever thought about environmental issues even semi-seriously, it has almost certainly crossed your mind that solving these problems is going to require disruption in our lives. Moreover, I’ll also bet that, if you’re honest with yourself, you know you have avoided thinking too much about those implications. A prick, perhaps, at the back of your mind as you have realized this or that behavior is really environmentally problematic—but dismissed with a hazy notion that someone will figure out something. Or perhaps, well, my individual action wouldn’t make any difference.

Of course, the latter is almost certainly true. We can’t save the environment by individual actions. We need mass movement. Ultimately, in a world this complicated, that means government actions to create and monitor the “rules of the road”. They lubricate the way to collective action. The conversion to unleaded gas saved lives and measurably improved quality of life. But there is no chance this conversion could have happened if it were not mandatory.

The immediate difficulty is getting from here to there, putting in place policies commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

As near as we can tell from public opinion surveying, a healthy majority (greater than 60%) of the population thinks government isn’t doing enough to protect the environment. Of course, that doesn’t easily translate into legislative action. For openers, there’s the structural problems that plague our national government. While the percentage of people wanting more governmental action on climate has been increasing in both parties, the partisan difference is stark. Consequently, Republican legislators are slow to put votes on environmental issues. This partisan difference has effectively blocked most action for the last 25 years–25 years, I might add, when we knew this was on the way.

There is also a second, and not unrelated problem. I don’t think our society has truly decided we need dramatic action. My guess is that even among the 60% who think government should be doing more, many have not thought through what that means and don’t have the sense of urgency necessary to upset the status quo. The general lack of political leadership on this issue makes it a lot easier to avoid hard questions.

So we are faced with a “chicken and egg” issue. Cautious political leadership facilitates measured public opinion which encourages cautious leadership and so forth. Except the clock is running. This is probably not an issue where patience will be rewarded. Each year we dawdle, the greater effort will be required in ensuing years.

At this point I start thinking radical thoughts.

I’m taken back to the 1850’s. The issue of slavery had been contentious since even before we had a constitution. For years a large part of the population objected and attacked the institution, but one compromise after another kept slavery in place. What finally broke the deadlock was the emergence of a new party, the Republicans, for whom abolition was their raison d’etre. Their ascension to power was enough that the South pre-emptively started the Civil War—which led to end of slavery. (At least that version.)

I don’t think a civil war over environmental issues is a good way forward, but perhaps a new political party explicitly focused on protecting the environment might be a good idea.

Before indulging in all the very real reasons this is an impractically naive idea, what’s the alternative? Perhaps it’s a limit of my imagination, but I can’t imagine Republicans and Democrats coming together on this issue. That leaves the only other alternative as the Democrats really getting this religion and then carrying out a dramatic agenda. But are we willing to bet the future of the planet on the existing Democratic party? As I write this, a group of moderate Democrats are as much in the way of some major infrastructure investments necessary to start making substantial progress as are Republicans.

I think there is another, more subtle, problem: the Democrats’ options for creating a national unity party are starkly limited. The last 50 years have hardened the divide between Republicans and Democrats so that even when they agree they hate each other. To reiterate the point I keep making: what we are going to have to do will require big changes. I think this will require something closer to a national will, perhaps like the population had during World War II. I don’t think we can get there with political arm-wrestling around paper-thin majorities and I don’t think there is much chance of mass defections from Republicans to Democrats. It would be like asking Red Sox fans to become Yankee fans. They may both love baseball, but the banner under which they love is hugely important.

Could a new big tent work? There is no shortage of reasons why the idea is preposterous. I’ll leave spelling those out to others, who will no doubt think of plenty of reasons even beyond the multitude that occur to me. But how else can we imagine enough agreement on a national program that limits corporations, curtails freedoms, and asks for individual sacrifices?

Key to accomplishing those is political leadership. Under the current regime, the population is largely hardwired to re-interpret anything a politician says as somehow in their narrow self-interest. Maybe there is enough sense left in the country that if a new wave of leaders emerged with less of the taint of the existing parties, people could hear a message that articulated a pressing common need in a way that a broader section of people could rally around it.

This is anything but a sure thing. But at this point the most sure thing is that we are facing the potential for a major disaster and that neither the current political structure nor the general population are prepared for the kind of action that is necessary. Maybe the first of our dramatic imperatives is to face the situation by creating a political infrastructure that can lead in a time of peril, which of necessity includes the need for people being willing to follow.

If not this, what then?

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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