Congratulations on being named Chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Our organization, Climate Action Rhode Island, decided to write you a letter about how you could use this new position to push for a stronger response to the climate crisis. But deciding what to write has been a challenging process of navigating a seemingly impossible set of political dynamics. Perhaps you too feel trapped by a set of political dynamics similar to those that have paralyzed us.
Everyone in our group wants to be as effective as possible in every opportunity to inch forward on climate action. We recognize that every small step forward is worth taking, and yet we also realize that none of our political leaders, from either party, have ever put forth a climate action plan that would preserve a livable future for our civilization. With each passing year, the response of our political leaders becomes increasingly inadequate in the face of a rapidly intensifying crisis.
Some in our group think that we ought to articulate our requests in the reasonable tone that advocacy groups often use to appeal to politicians. We could present ample facts about the climate crisis and common sense responses like a Green New Deal and no new fossil fuel infrastructure. But that moderate tone is dishonest to the extremely immoderate reality of the climate crisis at the dawn of 2019.
We don’t feel reasonable or moderate. We feel some combination of outraged, terrified, broken-hearted, freaked-out, shameful, and many more things that seem too extreme to fit into the common political discourse. And the profoundly unprecedented nature of the climate crisis inherently means that the impacts we are facing are outside of any frame of reference we have. Those impacts are shocking, extreme, and perhaps literally unthinkable. As journalist Stephan Faris wrote, “It’s no longer possible to delve into our relationship with the global environment without drawing conclusions that make you seem like a raving fanatic to those who have yet to delve.” This is our quandary.
Can we please ask a favor?
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We seem to be caught in a paradox in which the more honestly we state the truth, the less believable we make ourselves. In this paradox, dishonesty triumphs and we drift ever farther from the goal of a livable future. Politics as usual is not only failing to address the climate crisis; it is silencing our ability to even have an honest conversation about that crisis.
Furthermore, many of us have been doing this work for decades, and we have witnessed the absolute futility of proven facts, good ideas, and well reasoned arguments about climate change in the political discourse. We are well aware of the likelihood that you have stacks of letters from climate organizations and concerned citizens, filled with unimpeachable arguments for the necessity of transforming our economy to a carbon-free one, and yet you and most Democratic leaders continue to promote new fossil fuel infrastructure, accept donations from fossil fuel lobbyists, and prioritize short term economic growth over the survival of our civilization.
Some of our disagreement has involved how to appreciate the obvious fact that your climate politics are better than that of the president or most of the Republican Party. But it’s important to recognize the context that Republican climate politics is a gleeful assault on civilization and will certainly be remembered as one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. Theirs is a sociopathic politics. Personally, I have never been thanked for not being a murderer. That would be absurd, because that is such a basic prerequisite of being a person in the world that to express such thanks would suggest offensively subpar standards of decency. In the same vein, some of us are deeply uncomfortable with the practice of thanking Democratic politicians for not unapologetically selling the world for short term financial gain.
Every attempt to try to communicate with you on climate change seems like an impossible attempt to bridge the wide divide between the world of political feasibility and the world of physical necessity. This growing chasm seems to lead to an increasing stridency, alienation, and resentment in our political discourse. We are so far apart that even when we try to meet you where you’re at and begin a discussion on your terms, we find that we are living in such different realities that we have trouble even imagining how to connect in a language that resonates with your perspective.
Frankly we would love to know what’s going on in your head. There are some in our group who think you lack a depth of understanding of just how catastrophically serious the climate crisis is. Others think you are simply a ruthless politician, applying a Wall Street analysis of short term expediency to all your choices. Still others think that you are doing your best within a system designed to constrict moral imagination and isolate leaders like you within a closed loop of unreality. And as you certainly know, this year our organization strongly endorsed your primary opponent due to his strong climate platform and our frustration with your unwillingness to push for a bolder climate platform. But we recognize that there are systemic failures that run much deeper than individual politicians.
The obvious near term implication of this divide between political feasibility and climate necessity is that the power of the status quo is insulated from change. But this divergence builds tension in the system. Every new generation of young people faces increasingly desperate threats, which encourage increasing hostility toward an intransigent political status quo. As you continue your rise in national politics, this rising tension will eventually reach a breaking point.
We don’t know where we go from here, but we know that no politician, no matter how smart and talented, will be able to induce the physical reality of our climate to conform to the needs of political feasibility. We wish we could offer some solutions for relieving the tension of this divide, but the failure of our wide range of efforts over decades is a testament to our inability to heal this situation alone. We would be glad to sit down with you to see if we can find a way to transcend this divide.
Climate Action Rhode Island