Alon Preiss responds to Christopher Caldwell, on the Climate Emergency: Seriously, what are you talking about?

A perplexing column appeared in the New York Times this morning. As California awaits its next wildfires, as France suffers through 109-degree heat, and on the very day that Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day, Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the conservative Weekly Standard till its demise, noted, “Climate activists have … changed their emphasis…. Better to use the specter of imminent self-extinction to rally the public behind actions like banning cars from city centers and halting new oil exploration. This new focus may have the virtue of conveying urgency. But it is going to bring the climate protesters into conflict with democracy, whether they realize it or not.”

Caldwell thus sets up a really difficult thesis to prove. If climate activists manage to “rally the public” behind their cause, this will “conflict with democracy.”

Are climate activists undemocratic?

Currently, even the American public is overwhelmingly concerned about climate change; and worldwide the concern is even greater. Till now, politicians have ignored the people and listened to oil companies instead. If politicians in fact hear the word of the people, that would seem exactly what democracy is for.

Well, says Caldwell, not exactly.

Democracy isn’t really about listening to the people and doing what they say, Caldwell explains. The more success that climate activists have in convincing the world that climate change is urgent, the more our democracy will be endangered.

The youth have their say

Problem number one: “The symbol of this transformation,” Caldwell wrote, “is the Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg, who describes herself to her 800,000-plus Twitter followers as a ‘16-year-old climate activist with Asperger.’ … She handed out fliers, informing adults, in crude language, that she was doing this because they were ruining her future.”

Of course, young people are the ones most impacted by climate change. While fogies like Caldwell (and me!) will be dead by the time the worst effects of climate change kick in, Greta Thunberg will not.

So this directly impacts her, and she has a perfect right to speak out. Which she has, quite effectively, to Caldwell’s chagrin. (He does not quote the “crude language” that so offends him, and a rather lengthy Google search found absolutely nothing objectionable that she has ever said. But I found just awful things that self-described conservatives have said about her. Take a look at this, for example.)

Are climate activists missing the big picture?

“Her politics rests on two things,” he writes. “First is simplification. ‘The climate crisis already has been solved,’ she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. ‘We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.’ Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.”

Climate change, he complains, should not “be understood as an ‘emergency.’ ”

Second, trying to get the government to act quickly to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is, Caldwell argues, “a political, not a meteorological, goal.”

But she is exactly right. Climate activists, and those of us who sympathize, see the climate crisis as something akin to a military emergency, a foreign invasion. And using politics to achieve a goal is hardly undemocratic. He may disagree with the goal, but the rest of the world does not. There is nothing undemocratic about deciding to do something with which the editors at the Weekly Standard do not agree.

Is it undemocratic for young people to speak their minds?

“Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum,” he continues. “Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a ‘child’ — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.”

By “legally responsible adult,” he may simply mean that she is under the age of 18. Or he may mean – by curiously interposing the word “responsible” in the middle of the usual term legal adult – that, like many sensible (indeed, “responsible”) people, she is on the spectrum. In any event, it is the height of democracy (it is what democracy is all about) to allow youths, as well as the disabled, to have a voice. Everyone is “qualified to debate,” whether or not they can hold office, or even vote, or agree with the editorial board at the Weekly Standard. And it is also very odd that, while robustly criticizing Ms. Thunberg, he complains that she cannot be robustly criticized.

What kind of civilization do we want?

Caldwell then wonders “what kind of civilization we want, and at what level of technological complexity. On a planet of eight billion people, it is not just destination weddings that require considerable expenditure of energy. So does food. So does clean drinking water. So does communication.”

These are good questions, but there are answers to them. The energy required for food, drinking water, communication and, yes, destination weddings can be provided by renewables.

Are young climate activists being too mean to defenseless oil and gas companies?

Next, Caldwell trots out that old conservative bugaboo, the mean lefty. (I really hate this – when we point out the extreme anti-civility of the right, they call us “snowflakes,” while, with the other side of their lying mouths, they complain that we’re not polite enough.)

But here goes: climate activists, Caldwell worries, “demoniz[e] anyone who stands in the way.”

How? Examples, please.

Well, he sobs, the climate editor of a Dutch newspaper thinks Paris should combat climate change by “a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower.”

That sounds like a policy suggestion, not demonization.

OK, we’ve heard about that terrible, unnamed climate editor of a Dutch newspaper who hurt your feelings; what other awful things have we said in this widespread demonization?

OK, here goes: “[t]he German economist Niko Paech,” Caldwell says, with great shock, “urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.”

Oh, Niko Paech! Will his despicable acts of barbarism never cease?

Niko, Niko, Niko. You are hurting Chris Caldwell’s feelings!

You know, I am so tired of always having to make excuses for Niko Paech. He’s like the Donald Trump of the world of German economists who believe in climate science.

This is literally the best Caldwell can do to support his gripe that those of us concerned about climate are not polite to those who disagree with us — exceedingly mild comments by the editor of a Dutch newspaper and a German economist. While the folks on his side are calling Greta Thunberg … well, just take a look at this.

Really, Christopher Caldwell, get a thicker skin.

Why don’t we just wait and see? Wouldn’t that be more democratic, after all?

Then, finally, his conclusion, this great intellectual of the right: “Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing. Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue. Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.”

Thus, in his view, Democracy requires three things:

  • Do not criticize those who disagree with you (or, anyway, don’t criticize conservatives who disagree with you), because this is demonization, which is undemocratic;
  • Do not express urgency, because democracy requires “waiting and seeing”;
  • Only legal adults are “qualified” to express their views.

These three points — from one of our greatest conservative thinkers, whom the New York Times editors felt deserved a place of honor on their editorial page — are all patently ridiculous.

Point 1: Christopher Caldwell, you are incorrect. Democracy is about robust debate. The climate deniers have had their say. They are wrong. And perhaps, just perhaps, we ought to demonize a political movement of phony science paid for by oil companies who value their own profits more than they value the future of the world.

Point 2: We have waited decades, and the world is on fire. What more are you waiting for? What more do you need to see?

Point 3: The youth of the world are terrified of the future that we are leaving them. They have every right to speak out.

[UPDATE, AUGUST 14, 2021: Astute readers may note that the despicable things that internet conservatives have said about Greta Thunberg, and cited in this piece, have all been taken down. But others are not difficult to find. This, for example. And in the Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan has this piece about the right-wing global campaign against her.] 


Alon Preiss is the author of A Flash of Blue Sky (2015) and In Love With Alice (2017), which are both available from Chickadee Prince Books.

Art design by Steven S. Drachman. Photos from Mrs.Brown/Skeeze/Pixabay.