In what nowadays passes for a probing debate on whether to cancel student debt, with both parties in favour to avoid controversy, the New York Times “Opinion Today” introduces one important wrinkle: Spencer Bokat-Lindell, host of “the Debatable newsletter”, allows that “Speaking of finite resources: If I were Biden and had over a trillion to spend on any of my agenda items, I’d spend it on climate change.” Of course. Just as it’s the go-to phenomenon to make something bad, and fighting it is the go-to phenomenon to make something good, it’s what people automatically mention when they want to sound virtuous. And he wouldn't spend just some of it on climate. All of it, there being no tradeoffs. Of course Biden turned out to have way more than a trillion to spend, and spent it on everything. But it’s OK because it was all about climate anyway because everything is.
The ubiquity of climate as a fixation, or a conditioned reflex, reflects a stunning lack of originality on the part of our most original minds. Including in the “Our Planet, Our Future“ virtual event being staged by “The Nobel Prize” whose website says “Our future depends on our collective ability to become effective stewards of the global commons – the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils and rich diversity of life…. Speakers will explore solutions to some of humanity’s greatest challenges: climate change and biodiversity loss, increasing inequality, and technological innovation in support of societal goals. The summit will ask: what can we learn from our collective response to the global pandemic? And, how can societies distinguish facts from fiction in a new information ecosystem?”
Even if these are all good questions, one cannot help noticing that they are trite. Surely with all this brainpower, someone could think of some problem the typical college undergraduate could not or, indeed, some solution. Or at least notice that they were sounding trite, almost reflexive rather than reflective.
It resembles a nervous tic nowadays. In a “FACT SHEET“ explaining Joe Biden’s plan to Make America Highly Taxed Again, the White House burbled “Like great projects of the past, the President’s plan will unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.” We feel entitled to object that the customary definition of “fact” does not cover a document that starts with “While the American Rescue Plan is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were.” This statement is an opinion, not a fact like table salt has one sodium and one chlorine atom in it. But the main thing is that people reflexively genuflect to climate whatever the ostensible topic and however little their proposal has to do with it. (For instance “The President’s plan includes $20 billion for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice” because just solving America’s race problem wouldn’t be cool.)
As for other roads, well, “Millions of Americans feel the effects of climate change each year when their roads wash out, airport power goes down, or schools get flooded.” Of course they do, floods never having happened before. Not even in Johnstown on May 31, 1889.
Couldn’t someone, somewhere, solve one of the major problems plaguing humanity from time immemorial without also fixing the weather? Though if you put up your hand and mention the people who through a marvellously innovative and productive fossil fuel industry helped produce the greatest increase in life expectancy, reduction in extreme poverty and so on the world has ever seen in the last century, you will certainly be told to go sit with your face in the corner.