No, Climate Activists Are Not Anti-Democratic
A Response to a Bad Op-Ed
As the extent of our climate crisis becomes clearer and the voices for changes become stronger, it is inevitable that the arguments made for the status-quo are going to become craftier. In just the last twenty years, people have gone from “the climate isn’t changing” to “the climate is changing but not because of us” to “sure, we’re changing the climate but the ideas to fix it are too crazy.” Yesterday, the New York Times published a new flavor of that last argument in an op-ed by editor of the defunct conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell. His argument, essentially, is that the new wave of climate activism sweeping Europe and America, represented by Swedish high schooler Greta Thunberg, is un-democratic.
Caldwell offers a few basic justifications for this claim, all of which are either flat-out wrong or don’t support the conclusion that he thinks they do.
The first is that the use of urgent language and action over debate is dangerous to democracy. Even though he never mentions Trump or any of the other right-wing demagogues that are increasingly common across the world, there is always the implication that there’s a similarity between that 73 year old man and 16 year old Greta Thunberg.
Caldwell warns that Thunberg’s activism relies on a combination of simplification and sowing panic. And though he never explicitly says it, he seems to imply that this will force some rollback or opposition of democracy when (he inevitably believes) it can’t do what climate activists demand. To his credit, it is true that fascists and dictators can, in a very very broad sense, use urgent language and action over debate to consolidate power. But to pretend that is an inevitable, or even common, result is ahistorical.
Since I’m responding to a conservative, I’ll use the example of the American Revolution. If you look at the language in the popular pamphlets of the time, it’s hard to argue that they were not using simplification and strong language. Whether it was the Declaration of Independence stating that “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” or Thomas Paine writing about the “Monarchical tyranny in the person of the King,” there was definitely some incensed language going around. But incensed language can be appropriate when you’re talking about monarchism. I’d argue that the same is true when you’re talking about an impending climate crisis.
This type of language, far from increasing despotism, was used to fight against it. Many states wrote some of the most democratic constitutions ever seen during that conflict. And on the local level, smaller informal democratic institutions helped organize many parts of the Revolutionary War.
These democratic organizations and governments also tended to focus on action over debate. When he insists that “patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue” he is going directly against the founding fathers, who were incredibly worried about the speed with which these democratic governments might try to implement wide-reaching changes. Institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College were created explicitly to slow democracy down.
The American Revolution was one example that disproves Caldwells thesis, but many movements do the same thing. The labor movement and the civil rights movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently used bombastic language and direct action, but these were used to expand democracy, not limit it. Tactics like using strong language and advocating for quick action turn to anti-democracy only if the language and action being used is anti-democratic.
To be fair, environmental activists might be susceptible to an anti-democratic spirit if they stood alone in their beliefs. Once again, while he doesn’t come right out and say it, Caldwell seems to believe that this is the case. He mentions that Europeans and Americans hold tight to their “driving and consuming habits.” Yet this is the only justification that Caldwell offers that gives any indication that the activism of Greta Thunberg and other climate activists goes against the popular will.
In reality, it turns out a lot of people really care about climate change and want to fix it. A Gallup poll of Americans’ views on climate over the last 10–20 years has shown a massive increase peoples’ concern in climate change as an issue. While certain metrics are yet to crack the majority, the trend is absolutely clear, and it has been led largely by activism and information sharing done by environmental activists.
In Europe, the trends are the same. The vast majority of people believe that climate change will have bad effects. Caldwell even notes that in this year’s EU elections, Green parties made huge gains across the continent. In both America and Europe, people are obviously split on the solutions to this problem, but policies like the Green New Deal remain popular even after months of attacks.
Still, Caldwell believes that people will not walk the walk. He insists that “Europeans’ slowness to act on the climate” might simply mean they do not care about it the way people think. If you assume he’s talking about personal changes (the fact this op-ed exists is evidence that Europeans are acting politically), it’s a pretty weak argument. Micromanaging peoples’ lives, telling them to change lightbulbs or use less water or buy more expensive electric cars, while companies pollute more and more, tends to be a pretty unpopular stance. Just as it was more popular and effective to ban something like child labor than to expect each person to boycott companies using it, collective action on climate is inherently more popular than individual action.
There is no issue with environmental activists like Thunberg pushing through information and non-violent direct action to make the stakes known and offer their own bold solutions. Assuming that he’s not just a climate denier (perhaps a bold assumption), Caldwell even basically admits that they’re following the facts. He notes that Thunberg cares about climate data to the point where she “she cites the annual reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as if they were gospel.”
The issue with responding to this op-ed up to this point is that Caldwell basically refuses to make a clear argument. He states premises without following through on them, and we are left guessing how his individual points connect to his larger thesis. He makes broad claims without giving any sort of data or examples to back them up. And he briefly tries to dip into larger questions before immediately pulling back and moving on to something else.
That is because, at the end of the day, this op-ed is not about actually making a good-faith argument, it is about creating unwarranted suspicion of environmental movements. Individual tricks like calling the language on Greta Thunberg’s fliers “crude” or saying that “normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum” or suggesting that “her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance” might be innocuous if there weren’t so many of them. To him, it doesn’t matter that the same tactics and arguments are used by people young and old, poor and rich, uneducated and educated. The goal is to discredit without actually disproving.
Caldwell uses the same approach with the institutions that are starting to move on the issue. He accuses the British Met Office, The Guardian, the IPCC, and the Parisian government of being motivated by political goals and self-interest, but doesn’t say what those goals and interests are. He seems to cast doubt on the numbers and figures used by activists without offering any reason to actually doubt them. Perhaps you can accuse activists of making an appeal to authority, but at least they have an actual authority to appeal to. The same can not be said of Christopher Caldwell.
I do not know why this op-ed specifically got under my skin. The world is filled with anti-environmental propaganda. But as the effects of climate change become clearer, as the activism against it ramps up and becomes more forceful, and as we get closer to actually starting to implement reforms that address entrenched power, these kinds of op-eds will become more and more widespread. People with an ideological or material stake in the current system will make craftier and craftier arguments to undermine the movements that attempt to fix things. And when someone tries to appeal to something we really care about, we have to be able to see through it.