Environmentalists playing Godzilla role

September 5, 2010


— The collapsing crusade for legislation to combat climate change raises a question: Has ever a political movement made so little of so many advantages? Its implosion has continued since “the Cluster of Copenhagen, when world leaders assembled for the single most unproductive and chaotic global gathering ever held.” So says Walter Russell Mead, who has an explanation: Bambi became Godzilla.

That is, a small band of skeptics became the dogmatic establishment. In his Via Meadia blog, Mead, professor of politics at Bard College and Yale, notes that “the greenest president in American history had the largest congressional majority of any president since Lyndon Johnson,” but the environmentalists’ legislation foundered because they got “on the wrong side of doubt.”

Environmentalists, Mead argues, have forgotten their origins, which were in skeptical “reaction against Big Science, Big Government and Experts.” Environmentalists once were intellectual cousins of economic libertarians who heed the arguments of Friedrich Hayek and other students of spontaneous order — in society or nature. Such libertarians caution against trying to impose big, simple plans on complex systems. They warn that governmental interventions in such systems inevitably have large unintended, because unforeseeable, consequences.

In the middle of the 20th century, Americans, impressed by the government’s mobilization of society for victory in World War II, were, Mead says, “intoxicated with social and environmental engineering of all kinds.” They had, for example, serene confidence that “urban renewal” would produce “model cities.” Back then, environmentalism was skepticism.

It was akin to the dissent of Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She argued that ambitious social engineers such as New York’s Robert Moses were, by their ten-thumbed interventions in complex organisms such as cities, disrupting social ecosystems. The apotheosis of technocratic experts such as McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara gave us “nation-building” in conjunction with a war of attrition — the crucial metric supposedly was body counts — in a Southeast Asian peasant society. Over time, Mead says, “experts lost their mystique”:

“An increasingly skeptical public started to notice that ‘experts’ weren’t angels descending immaculately from heaven bearing infallible revelations from God. They were fallible human beings with mortgages to pay and funds to raise. They disagreed with one another and they colluded with their friends and supporters like everyone else.”

And expertise was annoyingly changeable. Experts said margarine was the healthy alternative to butter — until they said its trans fats made it harmful.

Environmentalism began as Bambi doing battle with Godzillas, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then, says Mead, environmentalism became Godzilla, an advocate of “a big and simple fix for all that ails us: a global carbon cap. One big problem, one big fix.” Mead continues:

“Never mind that the leading green political strategy (to stop global warming by a treaty that gains unanimous consent among 190-plus countries and is then ratified by 67 votes in a Senate that rejected Kyoto 95-0) is and always has been so cluelessly unrealistic as to be clinically insane. The experts decree and we rubes are not to think but to honor and obey.”

The essence of progressivism, of which environmentalism has become an appendage, is the faith that all will be well once we have concentrated enough power in Washington, and have concentrated enough Washington power in the executive branch and have concentrated enough “experts” in that branch. Hence the Environmental Protection Agency proposes to do what the elected representatives of the rubes refuse to do in limiting greenhouse gases. Mead says of today’s environmental movement:

“It proposes big economic and social interventions and denies that unintended consequences and new information could vitiate the power of its recommendations. It knows what is good for us, and its knowledge is backed up by the awesome power and majesty of the peer review process. The political, cultural, business and scientific establishments stand firmly behind global warming today — just as they once stood firmly behind Robert Moses, urban renewal and big dams. They tell us it’s a sin to question the consensus, the sign of bad moral character to doubt. Bambi, look in the mirror. You will see Godzilla looking back.”

Mead, who says he is a skeptic about climate policy rather than climate science, says the environmental movement has “become the voice of the establishment, of the tenured, of the technocrats.” This is the wrong thing to be in “Recovery Summer” while the nation wonders about the whereabouts of the robust recovery the experts forecast.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com


Richard Heckler 7 years, 5 months ago

There is intelligent discussion available:

Unchecked climate change could saddle taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars in damages—from flooding and storm damage in coastal communities to health care costs and agricultural losses in our heartland. Learn about costs in your region, and the Senate bill aimed at limiting our climate impact


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

How much did the Koch brothers pay you for writing this column, George?

Ken Lassman 7 years, 5 months ago

What??? After all of these years, has George Will abandoned his denialist friends? Do I really detect an ever so slight shift away from outright denial that climate change is a scam and falsehood, ever so slightly to the LEFT, to the libertarian view that climate change may exist but don't tread on me ????

Will wonders never cease. I think even George is repositioning himself, retreating from the increasingly untenable position that climate change is a complete fabrication by conspiratorial scientists, running away from the sandy beaches with rising tides, into the rip-rap rocks of libertarianism, where he can continue to take pot shots against Big Government.


Never mind that the global agreement on Ozone depletion was led by the scientific community, led to a global agreement to abandon freon as a refrigerant, and, the ozone layer has shown a steady improvement ever since. Lets keep the peoples' attention on politicians, not scientists, because everyone hates a politician.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 5 months ago

In other news: "THE world’s leading climate change body has been accused of losing credibility after a damning report into its research practices. A high-level inquiry into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found there was “little evidence” for its claims about global warming. It also said the panel had emphasised the negative impacts of climate change and made “substantive findings” based on little proof. The review by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) was launched after the IPCC’s hugely embarrassing 2007 benchmark climate change report, which contained exaggerated and false claims that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. The panel was forced to admit its key claim in support of global warming was lifted from a 1999 magazine article. The report was based on an interview with a little-known Indian scientist who has since said his views were “speculation” and not backed by research. Independent climate scientist Peter Taylor said last night: “The IPCC’s credibility has been deeply dented and something has to be done. It can’t just be a matter of adjusting the practices. They have got to look at what are the consequences of having got it wrong in terms of what the public think is going on. Admitting that it needs to reform means something has gone wrong and they really do need to look at the science.”..." http://www.dailyexpress.co.uk/posts/view/196642

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

Well, snap, this looks like somewhat of a repeat of "Climategate."

In other words, a little bit of smoke, but no gun.

The IPCC and the UN actually requested this review and report, and the criticisms do not include any debunking of the science involved. Quite the opposite, it says the science is generally just fine. Rather, the criticism mainly says the problems of the IPCC are essentially that it's understaffed and needs a full-time director.


Ken Lassman 7 years, 5 months ago

Agreed, bozo, The whole climategate affair turned out to be a media-driven event whose critiques disappeared upon closer scrutiny, but not before accomplishing its real objective: throw doubt on the credibility of those who are pointing out the reality and severity of climate change. This FUD campaign has been very much like the mercenary scientists hired by the tobacco companies to try to dissolve the connection between tobacco smoke and lung cancer--it kept the truth from surfacing for decades.

An interesting parallel development is the release of the International Energy Agency, a consortium of mostly European countries plus the US and Australia, who completed a study whose conclusions are that it will be much cheaper to develop a low carbon economy than deal with the consequences of our carbon-intensive economy, which continues to belch carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is clearly the way to go, but the finding the political will is a bit like talking to a teenager about the wisdom of investing in insurance and a sound financial planning strategy. Will they regret not doing so? Of course, but not right now or for a several more decades.

Looks like it won't take so long for the negative effects to start showing up for climate change, tho--we're already ahead of the predicted curve, with more and more data decades ahead of our most dire projections. Will that fact help us get the political will needed to make some big changes? Time will tell....

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