I was startled to discover that Larry Tribe, a Harvard law professor noted for his First Amendment cases, is representing Peabody Coal in its challenge to Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. He seems to think the regulations are unconstitutional – a position that his Harvard colleagues who are more versed in environmental law disagree with.
Lawyers, of course, advocate for their clients no matter how heinous their clients are; that’s their job. But I’m not sure why Prof. Tribe is representing people whose goal is to keep pumping pollutants in our air, given the challenges we face with climate change and the fact that much cleaner electric generation is now available.
Reading about this litigation brought to mind the title of the first chapter in Naomi Klein’s book on the climate crisis, This Changes Everything: “The Right Is Right.” After discussing why the right-wing is obsessed with climate change denial, Klein says:
So here’s my inconvenient truth: I think those hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies. … [They] are completely wrong about the science. But when it comes to the political and economic consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our liberalized and profit-seeking economy, they have their eyes wide open. … [W]hen it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money.
I’m sure Larry Tribe thinks climate change is a problem. But apparently he’s thrown in with the people who don’t think we have to change the way we deal with fossil fuels.
It’s attitudes like his that make me think Klein is onto something when she says we’re going to have to make some radical changes in our economic system to deal with the climate crisis. If we need to leave coal and oil and gas in the ground to keep from making things much warmer, then we’re going to have to go head-to-head with Peabody, BP, and all the other fossil fuel companies who are convinced they have the “right” to take it, regardless of what it costs the planet.
That is, we’re going to have to tell people they can’t do things with property they own. And that’s difficult in our current economic system.
Klein is reasonably optimistic, citing effective fights waged by indigenous people in Canada, among others. It would be amusing and ironic – not to mention helpful – if treaties intended to marginalize indigenous people provided the lever to stop fossil fuel companies from trashing the planet.
She also thinks political action on other fronts, such as the current activism around #blacklivesmatter, can work in favor of environmental change as well. After all, crises such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy showed that black lives matter a lot less during natural disasters.
Klein’s book hasn’t drawn universal praise. Elizabeth Kolbert, no slouch at writing on environmental issues herself, seems to think that she’s too much of an optimist. Kolbert doesn’t think people will make the necessary sacrifices.
I don’t think those who are doing very well under the current system will sacrifice without a major fight. The oil companies aren’t going to walk away from a lot of money. But other powerful corporations are already making some shifts – insurance companies, just to name one industry.
We may just get the chance to change things. I’m not expecting utopia to magically appear, but I am hoping we’re able to do enough to have a livable planet for some millennia to come.
Klein’s work is well-worth reading, whether you’re a science fiction writer working on near-future stories or a person who wants a clear-headed analysis of the issues.