Discourse, Reality, and Strategy in the Planetary Impasse

This is a joint post with Albert Pinto.


GRETA THUNBERG observed in Vienna,

When I first heard about the climate and ecological breakdown, I actually didn’t believe it could be happening. How could we be facing an existential crisis? If it really was a crisis this big, then we would rarely talk about anything else.

Although her question is rhetorical, it actually demands explanation. The explanation is simple. It has to do with the gap between discourse and reality. 90-year old Chomsky agrees with 16-year old Greta:

And that happens in article after article in every outlet — the Financial Times, the New York Times, all the major newspapers. So, it’s as if on the one hand, there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying look, ‘this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular coverage simply disregards it, and says, ‘well, isn’t this wonderful, we won’t have to import oil, we’ll be more powerful,’ and so on.… It’s a kind of schizophrenia, and it runs right through society.… So, there’s no time for dillydallying and beating around the bush. And pulling out of the Paris negotiations should be regarded as one of the worst crimes in history.

And then you have President Obama boasting about the fact that the fracking revolution happened under his watch. The United States reemerged mid-decade as the largest producer of crude.

The planetary impasse is a diagnosis of our present predicament. It says that there is a gap between discourse and reality which will get us. What does this mean in concrete terms? It is perhaps best illustrated with a micro-local example. Consider the question of the fate of the Greenland glacier. It was realized as soon as the greenhouse gas effect emerged as the scientific consensus in the 1980s that the resulting warming of the planet was not uniform but a function of latitude; the closer to the poles one gets, the greater the warming one should expect for any given quantum of increase in mean global surface temperatures. Temperatures have increased twice as fast in the circumpolar region compared to mid-latitudes, a phenomena known as Arctic Amplification (see next figure).

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Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon, based on GISS surface temperature analysis data including ship and buoy data from the Hadley Centre. Caption by Adam Voiland.

This meant that our glacier in Greenland was at much greater risk than your average Londoner. The gradualist frame of thinking about global warming saw the Greenland glacier melt away slowly; perhaps vanishing by 2200.

It was not until 2015 that scientists discovered an even more insidious reality. The rate of melt was accelerating as a result of micro-local processes that had hitherto gone unnoticed. Namely, pools of melt water on the surface would slice though the columns of ice like a knife through butter; in effect, eating the glacier from the inside like Swiss cheese. So the rate of melt was not proportional to local warming but in fact amplified by hitherto unsuspected phenomena. Once the Swiss cheese was discovered, it was realized that the Greenland glacier will not gradually disappear but disintegrate and plunge into the Atlantic once a tipping point is reached. And this will happen within our children’s lifetimes.

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Meltwater fills bus-sized fractures near the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, while dust and algae darken adjacent ice. Credit: Adam LeWinter/Extreme Ice Survey.

This shift in our scientific understanding from gradualism to catastrophism applies much more generally. The central premise of current frameworks of climate mitigation is gradualism. That is: This is a problem of 2100 and we can solve it over the next few decades if only we make adjustments to our energy use and so on. It sounds reasonable because we think that the problem is the rate of carbon emissions and as soon as we can taper down emissions, we reduce global warming. This is not so. The reason has to do with the logic of the greenhouse gas effect.

The planet does not care about the rate of emissions — a flow concept. What matters is the stock of carbon in the atmosphere; that’s what governs the degree of warming. As long as more is flowing from the tap (our emissions) into the tub (atmospheric stock of carbon) than is being drained by the sink (rain forests and oceans et cetera), the water level in the tub will keep rising. With the five warmest years on record happening during the past five years — and the 20 warmest occurring over the past 22 — a consistent warming trend is not only clear but a direct consequence of the rising water levels in the bathtub. It is only going to get worse and worse as the stock of CO2 rises year on year. And it is the doubling of the stock of CO2 that Charney predicted would yield 3ºC warming of global surface temperatures.

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It’s happening for a reason.

How fast we are adding to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere is well captured by an exponential curve with a growth rate of 2.2% per annum, initialized at 280 particles per million (ppm) in the year 1800. In the past 30 years, 1990-2020, we’ve added as much to this stock as we did in the two centuries before. And we are on course to add the same amount in the next 18 years. If we do that, planetary catastrophe is all but certain.

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The hockey stick of doom.

In order to grapple with the planetary impasse we must look up along the hockey stick; at the future, not at the past. Once we pay attention to the future we realize that Gradualism is a recipe for catastrophe. The economists say that we will be richer later and therefore be able to afford greater sacrifices. That we value the present more than the future so any cuts to current incomes must be traded off against gains in future security.

This is an elementary misunderstanding of the threat posed by the hockey stick: the cost of delay is in fact exponential in the length of the delay. That is a mathematical fact. Had we moved on this in a big way when it was discovered in the 1980s the costs of transition would have been orders of magnitude lower. But what is really terrifying is that if we wait another decade, the costs and risks will be an order of magnitude higher. We need to be looking forward in time and up to the survival upper bound. Once we affect that mental reorientation, even the rosiest commitments on the table emerge as recipes for planetary catastrophe.

What is clear is that this is not a domain where the logic of discount rates (inter-temporal trade-offs) applies. The analogy is mistaken. What we face is a fire that is growing exponentially fast. The only rational course of action is to put it out as quickly as possible. And this is no original observation. Greta Thunberg has been recently hammering this point home brilliantly. The adults don’t get it, she says. They are trapped looking back. She has to look forward because that is where she has to live her life.


The problem is not that the threat posed by the hockey stick isn’t recognized. The problem is that recognition of the scale of the challenge, particularly the daunting political economy facing us, leads straight to Toozian pessimism. This is the diagnosis that we are doomed; that the challenges posed by global political economy will not be solved in time. That there is no way — no way, I tell you sir — that we can get off this hockey stick. Toozian pessimism is seductive and seemingly compelling. But it too is a misdiagnosis of our current predicament.

The gap between Toozian pessimism and reality is revealed as soon as we pay attention to what we may call the Battistoni-Kahn theorem. In the 1950s as nuclear strategists were grappling with thermonuclear war, Hermann Kahn, the most morbid of RAND’s Megadeath Intellectuals, observed that it is imperative to distinguish between different states of the world after all-out thermonuclear war. Surely, we prefer a world in which we have lost 60 million instead of 120 million Americans. Similarly, Alyssa Battistoni makes the acute observation that even after the collapse of civilization is baked in, we will still face hard choices of the Kahnian type:

There is no real end, after all. The next 12 years are crucial for determining how much worse it will get, but the decisions before us will continue long afterward: decisions about whether to build walls or welcome refugees, about how to relocate homes as seas rise and how to make food as crops wither, about how to live together on a more difficult planet. We will be living with climate change forever. It is heavy as hell. But we must get used to it—and then figure out what to do next. And next. And next.

Put another way, it’s not so much that there are not good grounds for pessimism. It is that even Toozian pessimists will be eventually forced to abandon their discourse. The fate of human civilization is analogous to that of the Greenland glacier. This analogy points to the insidious nature of the gap between discourse and reality. The glacier does not care about discourse, it has no choice but to obey reality. For ultimately, it is discourse that must give way to reality. In the case of the Greenland glacier, scientists had to abandon gradualism for catastrophism. In the case of the planetary impasse, we will be eventually forced to abandon the phantasmagoria of gradualism as it becomes increasingly obvious that we are on a collision course with an immovable object.

The real import of the Battistoni-Kahn theorem is that our only choice is how high a price we will pay for delay. There is no other choice. The gap between discourse and reality will close one way or the other. All we get to choose is how badly this turns out for us.


THE CENTRAL CHALLENGE of getting off the hockey stick is not technical but political. Technical solutions abound. It is feasible, with current technology and given the requisite political will, to rapidly replace fossil fuels with renewable and nuclear energy, change land-use, and truly decarbonize the world economy in a manner that would get us off the hockey stick by 2030. The problem is the lack of political will. The United States is the largest producer of crude. Here we focus on the political economy of the United States and the political possibility frontier open to a Green Left solution at the level of national policy. We will take up the international dimensions of the challenge posed by the planetary impasse in a future dispatch.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe the politics of the United States as ‘organized combat’. This is in sharp contrast to the reigning theory of electoral politics whose central result is the Median Voter Theorem: Parties will position themselves in policy space close to the median voter so as to maximize their probability of winning elections. The result is that policies of the state will reflect the preferences of the median voter. This frame of reference is analogous to the ‘sack-of-grain’ view of the economy in which each individual player (firm, consumer, whatever) is too small to be worthy of our attention — rather, the economy obeys laws analogous to statistical mechanics whereby the movement of the mass of particles determines the trajectory of the system as a whole. We can contrast that with the ‘sack-of-potatoes’ view that emerged from the catastrophe of the global financial crisis. For it was discovered that each of the big banking firms was systemically important on their own; a fact that had been completely missed before the crisis because of the discursive rigidity of the ‘sack-of-grains’ view. When push came to shove on Lehman Weekend, the ‘sack-of-potatoes’ view was rediscovered by Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner.

The political economy implications of the ‘sack-of-potatoes’ view is well captured by Thomas Ferguson’s ‘investment theory of party competition‘. Ferguson posits that candidates for political office and political parties appeal not to voters, but to investors, who are the primary constituency. According to Ferguson, “parties are more accurately analyzed as blocs of major investors who coalesce to advance candidates representing their interests.” The policy platforms of political parties reflect the interests of their major investors, which minor investor-voters are virtually incapable of affecting; save in the negative sense of voting “no confidence.” So Hacker and Pierson’s ‘organized combat’ is a struggle between blocs of investors.

Given this jungle where the great predators roam, how can our political project be credible? Does this not lead straight back to Toozian pessimism?

No.

There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that an effective Green coalition is possible in America. Consider FDR’s New Deal coalition. For the first time in American history, the ruling political coalition included organized labor among its major investors. But many now forget that the New Deal coalition also included powerful factions of capital. Specifically, the coalition included internationally oriented businesses and banking firms for whom higher wages were an insignificant component of their costs. Indeed, this was the predominant element in the investor coalition forged by Roosevelt. These are the firms above the dotted line on the upper left in the figure below. This was the possibility frontier for FDR.

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Credit: Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule, 1995.

What is the political possibility frontier for a Green Left coalition at the present conjuncture? Who is your ally and who is sure to be your adversary? This depends on our political will. In strategy we have to pay attention to Luttwak’s logic of opposed wills. The opposed will is so opposed because of our political will.

Our principal goal is straightforward. We seek a world order that is consistent with the survival of our children. Specifically, we need the vast bulk of presently known deposits of fossil fuels to be kept in the ground and further exploration forbidden, a policy Warren has embraced. The release of carbon trapped in these deposits into the atmosphere is inconsistent with a habitable planet for our children. We believe that the right discount rate is an exponentially declining function: Both justice and risk assessment require that our generation pay the highest price and that the price go down exponentially fast into the future. We have to close the gap between discourse and reality with integrity.

The minimum goal of national policy must be to decarbonize with Bolshevik tempo—as fast as logistically possible. Other national interests must be subordinated to this overriding goal of national policy. It is a triviality: The survival of the species is a vital US interest. This has to be the organizing principle of US foreign policy and military policy, for the stock of atmospheric carbon poses an existential threat to the United States. It is also a necessary component of any solution at the level of global politics. The planetary impasse will become hegemonic in the American national security and foreign policy discourse one way or the other. The only question is: How much risk is to be incurred by waiting? For, as we ride up the hockey stick, we are playing chicken with a survival upper bound discerned with, let’s be honest, threatening uncertainty.

Our secondary goal, which constrains our political possibility frontier at home is to seek a more equitable order. Specifically, wages must go up relative to profits. What we have in mind is a new mandate for central bankers. To wit, Congress should mandate the Federal Reserve to maximize real median wage growth subject to monetary and labor market stability. Until now central banks have targeted labor market slack as understood in terms of employment and inflation. But the real price of labor (more precisely, productivity-adjusted real median wage growth) is also an excellent measure of labor market slack. We have checked that targeting productivity-adjusted real median wage growth could restore productivity growth. Likewise, deconcentration can revive US manufacturing. We are open to other proposals such as those that increase the strength of unions and the taxation of wealth. Our goal is to restore dynamism and equity. We like Warren’s econ team.

Parenthetically, a delicious irony of the planetary impasse is that instead of gradualism, conservatism in the original sense of the term—the desire to preserve what we have achieved; the desire to preserve our cherished institutions—now requires Bolshevism derived from catastrophism. Soon enough, all governments on the planet will be too busy putting out fires. This is happening whether we like it or not. It is in our demonstrable interest to go cold turkey on our carbon addiction.

Given our political goals, it is clear who is opposed to us. All the potatoes in the sack who are exposed to de-carbonization and higher wages will perceive our project with horror for our goal is to maximize their stranded assets. This includes Exxon and the other majors, the Koch network, including petrochemicals, agribusiness, defense/aerospace. This means that we must make allies of other potatoes less exposed to our will; who are less threatened by us and thus open to an alliance. The two axes of our political will are wages and carbon footprint. This constrains our possibility frontier towards an alliance with high wage, low-footprint sectors: Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Google and Goldman don’t mind going green at Bolshevik pace; and they obviously pay their “workers” enough. They would merely have to make it known that they will oppose force with counterforce; dollar for dollar to deter Texas and Wichita.

We put these guys in a room and tell them how it’s going to go down. We need to get off this hockey stick. We are going to go cold turkey on carbon. This is going to be a considerable undertaking. There will be lots of money to be made. We can work on this together. The core of our national policy is not up for negotiation. But that does not mean that we are not interested in the health of American business. Everything is going south. You can see the evidence with your own eyes. Trump has no solution and you know that. We reorient the world economy on the double and commit to arresting the hockey stick with integrity by 2030. Everybody wins.

Our strategy ought to be to cut a deal with our natural allies in the jungle. This is a credible coalition in Ferguson’s investment theory. It will take three administrations; it will be a relay race; but it can be done. We are proposing a Pareto superior political economy equilibrium—a self-reproducing situation. Put another way, this strategy is credible. We may think of this as Luttwak’s answer to Toozian pessimism.

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Our strategy must be to seek to neutralize the threat from Big Oil at the first possible opportunity. A decapitation strike—nationalization—should not be ruled out. But it should be seen as a deterrent not a plan of action. We think that the AG’s prosecuting the oil majors on the precedent of Big Tobacco should be empowered. We think legislation may be required to directly control tapering production quotas. Even if we are successful in neutralizing the political threat from the oil majors, it is not a permanent solution to the threat posed by the forces arrayed against us. We can’t neutralize all the wills opposed to us by taking the offensive. What is needed is a credible solution in the form of a self-reproducing winning coalition, a stable party system centered on our vision. We believe that our natural allies on the coasts can form the stable core of a successful GND coalition. There will be lots of green safe assets to trade; the dealers will make the market; the Fed will act as the dealer of last resort; pension funds desperate for yield will absorb all the green duration risk. They will do so in the national interest.

We understand that a deal with the devil to stay out of hell may prove hard to swallow on the New American Left. This is not a Faustian bargain. We believe that this a price that the Left must be prepared to pay because of the urgency of the planetary impasse. The gap between discourse and reality must now close for the Left too. The paradox of Luttwak’s logic of opposed wills demands an alliance with Wall Street.

Of course, it is not enough to point to a new hegemonic bloc of investors. What we need even more is a strategy of persuasion. We need to persuade all stakeholders. But this is not really that hard. After all, there will be plenty of green jobs and green profits. What we really need to do is to break through the panic bubbling underneath the discourses of denial and pessimism. We need to talk like adults about a rapidly-mounting catastrophic risk that calls on us to squarely face hard empirical reality. It is time for all of us to get our heads out of the sand and honestly face the challenge that awaits us.

Paradoxically, our revolutionary goal requires valuing and working with existing institutions, systems, and talent. We particularly mean the situated communities of know-how contained within American firms. We need to husband our resources for the greatest challenge of our lifetimes. We will need every ounce of ingenuity and innovation to get off the hockey stick. It’s going to be all hands on deck.

For a hegemonic project to be seen as credible, it is necessary that it be seen as inevitable. But the credibility of our project is based on more than its manifest inevitability. It is based on a firmly hard-nosed calculus of power—the political viability of the solution is what we have tried to guarantee.

Our goals constitute the vital interests of the United States. We have kept them modest and simple by design. The modesty of goals is necessary to forge a powerful alliance. The simplicity of goals is crucial to establish a unity of purpose. It is going to be a considerable undertaking that can only be organized around a single idea: We must get off this hockey stick.

We have a lexicographic ordering of just two goals: wholesale de-carbonization first and restoration of broad-based growth second. The first is a planetary goal with great implications for US foreign policy. The goal of restoring broad-based growth is a national goal that is subordinate to the principal goal. Why? Not just because survival takes precedence over prosperity. But also because we must close the gap between discourse and reality with integrity. In order to do that we must be prepared to pay the price in full measure. This is crucial to establish our legitimacy.

We believe that we have a duty to our children and the generations that will follow. Our duty is not to lie to them or to ourselves. We are committed to a vision of a more just, more equitable society. We believe that our commitments are widely shared in the United States, and across the world for that matter. We believe that our national policy should reflect this shared vision.

We speak from the future. This is going to happen one way or the other. The gap between discourse and reality will close. The only question is what price we will pay for waiting.

One thought on “Discourse, Reality, and Strategy in the Planetary Impasse

  1. If the choice is a coalition with Wall Street or human extinction I choose human extinction.

    This totally corrupt worthless country would demand a stay of Wall Street’s execution as the price for continuing life on the planet. I’d rather go down on the sinking ship.

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