The Nihilism of Moderation

When the survival of the planet is at stake, calls for moderation and compromise aren’t a mark of adult politics — they’re a threat to civilization.

Justin Trudeau on an official visit to Mexico. Office of the President of Mexico / Flickr

According to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the coming decades human activities risk making the planet uninhabitable for hundreds of millions of people. Short of drastic collective action over the next few years, average global temperatures will rise to catastrophic levels — threatening wild swings in weather patterns, extreme heat waves, droughts, and floods, the destabilizing effects of which are probably too horrific to calculate.

Our predicament, in other words, could not be starker, the stakes any greater, or the need for political urgency more obvious. But outside a small number of progressive figures in Congress, you’d be hard pressed to find any of this reflected in the tones or the policy prescriptions of Washington’s major lawmakers or power brokers. Indeed, dire warnings of the impending climate disaster have become a recurring theme of politics over the last decade, and they’ve generally been met with sweeping rhetoric unmatched or directly contravened at the level of action from those in power.

This pattern was a hallmark of the Obama administration, which went to great lengths to show off its belief in the science of climate change only to enforce perilously conservative targets at international summits. Ahead of 2009’s Copenhagen conference, Obama’s climate enjoy Todd Stern insisted “there is no time to lose,” before pushing for metrics some African and Pacific delegations would later call “genocidal” in their implications. For his part, the former president just last week expressed pride in the Paris Accords, only to boast about bringing oil and gas production to record levels a few breaths later. In remarkably similar fashion, Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada has made the existential fight against climate change an essential part of its branding — all while aggressively pushing for the construction of new pipelines and trading in the evasive soundbite that “the environment and the economy go hand in hand.”

Under Trump, of course, calculating hypocrisy on the part of Democratic and liberal politicians has given way to something more overtly apocalyptic as the administration slashes, burns, and makes willful ignorance into official government policy. Their obvious differences aside, we should take seriously the essential nihilism of both postures, their rhetorical circumlocutions in the service of policies that will ultimately allow an existential crisis to worsen; the first on the altar of business-friendly propriety, the second on the basis of a callous right-wing death drive.

Against the backdrop of this potentially catastrophic bipartisan dynamic, a group of progressive lawmakers including the newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is thankfully pushing for something that is actually proportionate to the language of the IPCC’s report (which bluntly calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”). Whatever one makes of its finer points, the much-discussed Green New Deal — which seeks a sweeping shift towards renewable energy — at least confronts both the terrifying scale and interconnected nature of the problem.

Perhaps just as importantly, its proponents are matching these radical ends with more aggressive means. In a widely-publicized move, Ocasio-Cortez bucked both congressional convention and Beltway etiquette by joining an activist sit-in outside Nancy Pelosi’s office in support of the Green New Deal last month and has since taken aim at lawmakers who count fossil fuel companies among their donors. A town hall event this week featuring Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders loudly singled out these corporate interests and drew attention to their responsibility in deepening the crisis of climate change.

While there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic about these efforts and their prospects, there is equally good reason to suspect they’ll be met with all-too familiar tone-policing and the complacent pleas for moderation and compromise that more or less constitute the lingua franca of Washington’s self-appointed adults-in-the-room (with Ocasio-Cortez’s more confrontational style unsurprisingly drawing their condescension right out of the gate).

In plenty of debates — whether about healthcare, economic policy, or minimum wages — the Beltway’s suffocating institutional conservatism regularly puts human life at risk and celebrates glacial or nonexistent progress as the best that mature, pragmatically-minded adults can aspire to. Given the stakes of the climate change debate — whose outcome over the next few years will quite literally determine whether our future looks more like Star Trek or Mad Max — the nihilism of the cautious, piecemeal approach favored by the centrist mainstream is laid bare for all to see.

When the consequence of failure is civilizational collapse, the only pragmatic course available is a radical one. And when the planet is rapidly hurtling towards irreversible environmental disaster, moderation isn’t a prospective solution or a badge of political maturity. It’s a threat to us all.