The underappreciated power of framing climate change as a moral crisis

David Roberts writes: The Pope plans on delivering an encyclical on climate change this summer and it has American conservatives freaking out. The Heartland Institute, Washington’s leading anti-environmental “think tank,” has even dispatched a crack team of deniers to Rome to dissuade His Holiness.

Why the agita from the right? After all, similar statements of climate concern have been issued by virtually every major government, international development organization, and national science council in the world. It’s not like the Pope is spilling the beans on a well-kept secret.

But as Heartland clearly recognizes, the Pope’s statement carries unique significance for the simple reason that he has unquestioned moral authority for millions of people. He threatens to situate the fight against climate change as a deeply moral issue, a matter of God’s work on earth. Once it is so situated, it will slowly and inexorably drag culture and politics along in its wake.

The right, which is entirely comfortable deploying moral arguments, understands this better than the mainstream, center-left environmental establishment. Large swathes of the center-left establishment (especially among the foundations that fund things) are besotted with dreams of technocracy and bipartisan civility — so much so that in 2009 Matt Yglesias pleaded with greens to “put the plodding moralism back in.”

Especially among young greens, that technocratic attitude is on the wane, especially in the wake of the 2010 cap-and-trade defeat, a decisive failure for the top-down, technocratic approach. Nowadays, activists are trying to put the plodding moralism back in, particularly through the fossil-fuel divestment movement, which calls on institutions to cease all investments in the fossil fuel sector.

Nobody thinks the divestment movement can hurt fossil-fuel companies in any direct financial way, but that’s not what it seeks to do. Rather, it seeks to put mainstream institutions on record defining climate mitigation as a moral imperative, to create social consensus that inaction is not neutral — it is immoral. [Continue reading…]

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