“Just plain immoral.” That’s how Secretary of State John Kerry recently described those who stand idly by while the world burns—or, worse, obstruct those trying to douse the fire. He didn’t name names, but Kerry was clearly referring to Republicans who lockstep refuse to acknowledge climate science, even as California enters the fourth year of a historic drought and the West Antarctica ice sheet has begun an “irreversible” collapse that will eventually swamp coastal regions the world over. “We literally do not have the time to waste debating whether we can say ‘climate change,’” Kerry said.
Kerry’s use of unabashedly moral language is one sign among many that 2015 is shaping up as both the best and worst of times in the race to preserve a livable planet. Jettisoning the techno-speak that pervades most discussions of the climate crisis in favor of straight talk about right and wrong can re-arrange the political furniture, for it invites regular folk into the conversation. Most politics is decided below, not above, the neck—in people’s hearts and guts more than their brains. Solid information and logical arguments have their place of course, but what moves most voters are their emotional feelings about a given issue or candidate, not an intellectual weighing of pros and cons. Tap into that and real change becomes possible.
A stunning example unfolded in China earlier this spring when a well-known television journalist narrated a searing documentary about her homeland’s horrific air and water pollution. Chai Jing had grown interested in the topic after becoming pregnant with her first child, and her plainspoken account in “Under the Dome” of the health risks facing ordinary Chinese struck an unmistakable chord. Hundreds of millions of people viewed the documentary online before the authorities removed it.
Framing the climate crisis in moral terms is potentially even more powerful in the United States, where religion has been central to the national identity and politics since the country’s founding. President Obama is increasingly making moral arguments on behalf of climate action, citing his own daughters and other youth as a major motivation for reducing carbon pollution. “Dangerous Inheritance,” a new report issued by the NGO Environment America, takes a similar tack. Pointing out that Americans born since the 1980s and 1990s are already locked in to a future where heat waves, droughts, downpours, flooding, sea level rise and other extreme events will be more frequent and severe, “Dangerous Inheritance” urges governments to lessen the impacts by accelerating clean energy deployment and securing a strong action agreement at the global climate summit in Paris in December.
Kerry and Obama’s new moral invocations clash, however, with their administration’s contradictory approach to the Paris summit. On March 31, the Obama administration announced its commitment for the summit: a 26 to 28 percent reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The commitment basically reiterated what Obama promised in the historic climate agreement he reached with Chinese president Xi Jinping last November, when China pledged to cap its emissions by 2030 and to peak coal consumption by 2020. (China appears to be fulfilling its coal pledge already, undercutting Republicans’ accusations that Obama’s agreement didn’t require China to actually do anything until 2030.)