Your post is more a criticism of "activism culture" than of the Climate Left.

I work in pretty close proximity to normalish Climate Left people (i.e. not tankie types). Most people seem to believe the following:

1. American or Western activism is unlikely to have much impact on Chinese policy? (E.g. Xinjiang)

2. If we in the US can't reach net zero (or whatever) to mitigate climate change, how can we expect others to do so?

3. If we Westerners go "all in" on climate mitigation (there is so much more we could do) and get our house in order, we will be better off AND in a position to push on China from a position of strength.

4. Democrats in Congress *know* we should be doing more on climate within the US, but they are afraid to do so and/or uncertain on what to do.

It's completely fair to argue that Leftists are too soft on China and that they should ALSO be pushing very hard on this globally. But I don't think it's right to say that it's a farce.

On something like nuclear (I am in favor), surely you can recognize why an environmentally-minded person might seriously (and rationally) see nuclear as a separate but still important environmental risk. They might be mistaken on the level of risk, but it's not a "farce" when activists miscalculate something.

Similarly, on issues like Palestine and police funding, people get activated into an "activism culture." I would argue that they are sometimes wrong, often distracted, and frequently undermining their own case on climate - but that does not make their climate activism a farce.

I'd be interested to see more of a steel man case for what a Climate Leftist could (realistically) be doing.

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But couldn't they be helping Democrats defeat Republicans in general elections, regardless of whether those Democrats are moderates or progressives? I spend a lot of my free time doing this: mainly text messaging, which is all I can really do since I live overseas.

Yglesias is right to emphasize the importance of winning legislative majorities, not just for climate but for all of the left's policy goals. Whoever is doing something else, unless it's at least equally effective, is causing harm by ignoring an opportunity cost.

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Jul 16, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Great article. Fairly certain you’ve touched on this before, but is the “strength” of the climate left in the minds of intellectual elites purely based on the Left being overrepresented on social media? The Left, and especially the climate left, is disproportionately young, disproportionately well-educated, and disproportionately engaged in politics—all factors that would lead to strong social media presence. Since lots of intellectual elites are on social media, they get an unrealistic perspective on the strength of leftist climate activism.

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Jul 16, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Your post made me wonder, have you read KSR's The Ministry For the Future? It deals with some of the issues you raised but from the perspective of a great sci-fi writer.

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Nuclear is clearly the answer if you are serious about arresting climate change now. Renewables aren’t a serious answer yet. YIMBY.

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Overall, this article is much better that MY's whiny missive. I say that as a big MY fan. I just think his choice to spend so much time complaining about the left on issues like climate, CRT, and cancel culture, etc. are doing more harm to the causes he believes in than the people he is complaining about. He's talents are more useful elsewhere.

With that being said, I have two points of critique.

First, it's important to note, as you briefly do, that the reason the Climate Left does the things it does is because people like you and MY and outlets like the NY Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post write about the things they do. If center-left writers stopped writing about the "stupid" things the climate left do, the climate left would probably stop doing them and do something else instead because their primary goal is to raise awareness. People like Matt are, in fact, the literal cause of the problem they are complaining about. By wasting time condemning them, Matt is reducing support for climate policy among centrists. I wish you made that point directly.

Second, it's a bit disingenuous to paint Elon Musk as a martyr when his empire and personal wealth were generated through $4.9 billion in government subsidies. He's not some saint. He's just like Peter Thiel, but he chose to get rich off public funds doing something we like instead of something objectively terrible. Musk is no martyr. He's just another selfish rich dude. If the government hadn't paid him to build this, he wouldn't have. He owes us. We don't owe him.

Source: https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hy-musk-subsidies-20150531-story.html#page=1

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A couple of things:

- I feel like people are defining the climate left as The Sunrise Movement. Contra to this though, a lot of people further to the left, including myself, are in favor of nuclear and pretty much whatever it takes to get our PPM under control. I don't agree with their activism on the substance or the tactics, but I also feel a constant internal critic is pretty counterproductive. To this end, I found this Sam Sanders episode reviewing the effectiveness of Act UP to be very informative: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/16/1007361916/act-up-a-history-of-aids-hiv-activism

- As an economist, I was hoping you might turn your sights towards the effectiveness of a carbon-border adjustment tax. The Niskanen Center had a good primary a while back: https://www.niskanencenter.org/qa-on-carbon-border-adjustments/. Basically, if we do it right, America is at a strategic advantage.

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Regarding nuclear power which someone mentioned above: I'm a techno-optimist and interested in the development of safe fission reactors and nuclear fusion but it seems, from articles I read by Noah and others that it would be faster to deploy renewable energy than to deploy the next generation of nuclear reactors.

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"Furthermore, their emissions are still increasing rapidly, thanks to the huge fleet of coal plants they’re building,"

No, it's thanks to oil and gas. Coal consumption peaked in 2013. New coal plants are somewhat worrying, but so far they've been replacing older less efficient ones (more MWhs, same emissions), and have been white elephants that just reduce the utilization of others (their coal plant capacity factors are very low).

"Yet as soon as you mention this to anyone on the Climate Left, and they instantly shift from talking about the imminent destruction of the planet to talking about moral issues, like per capita emissions or historical emissions — things which the climate definitely does not care about even a tiny, tiny bit."

You're doing exactly what you criticize the "climate left" for doing, Noah. The climate doesn't care about where emissions *reductions* come from, either. So why the focus on China? Why shouldn't the US reduce emissions to zero before China reduces them one bit*? Those are moral questions. You're just taking your morals as a given and criticizing others for wanting to talk about the issue.

*for effect, I am not arguing this

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Why assume that this activism will cause liberal elites to want to push for climate policy? I have a masters degree and the absolutely farcical nature of the climate left forces me to lower my prior belief in the importance of climate policy.

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A bit too straw man-based a take to be really useful.

"But the Climate Left does not actually mean business. The way you know this is that absolutely none of the people calling for radical civil disobedience and pipeline destruction etc. are calling for it to be done in China."


A) In what sense would it be "serious" to call on a set of people (e.g.the Chinese) to do anything in a language they largely don't speak using platforms they don't read, and often are prevented from reading? Call a comms professional and ask them: I guarantee they will not describe this as a serious strategy. On the contrary, it makes sense to connect channels to targets to outcomes, and in that sense this litmus test does the opposite of what it intends.

B) But rhetorically the point that comes across is: the Climate Left are really Climate Tankies, and that is why they don't want to criticise China, we know.

This would always be an extremely bad take, but it's worse following a discussion of Malm, whose ideological roots are in anarchosyndicalism - he made his way up writing for Sweden's anarchosyndicalist paper.

He is also the author of a paper about emissions in China, and a book which apparently touches on the topic. Dealing critically with them - which I'd believe they deserve - would be useful, this isn't.

C) A model of society consisting of elites, the Climate Left and Climate sceptics seems oddly to give the Climate Left too much credit. Malm and his co-thinkers probably don't have much influence on mass opinion, directly or indirectly. The problem you seem to be pushing at is less the Climate Left than the general impotence of most of society, including both the Climate Left and ultra climate sceptics, in the face of mass institutional politics.

BTW there is a global economic history of emissions by Simon Pirani, which you should check out.

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We won't solve a thing without social change. Oh well.

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Violent revolutions don't happen when the pot is simmering, only when it's boiling. Climate change is pretty bad already but it's not obvious that these natural disasters are a result of climate change, nor is anyone in the west being especially affected by them.

Once important medicinal species start to disappear en masse, and people lose their crops, and it becomes too hot to live, etc. things will go bad fast. You might then see a lot of people becoming 'climate activists'. And the battles they will fight probably wont be bombing pipelines because it will already be too late for that kind of solution. You will start to see something scarier, like people fighting over water or liveable land.

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This article seems to be strawmanning the activist left, and also amalgamating a diverse cluster of activist groups into one group apparently holding conflicting and seemingly random beliefs at the same time. You also contradict yourself with the "what about China?" line, as you subsequently admit that protesting in China would be ineffective, as activists well know. "Why don't you go protest in China where your protest will have 0 impact and get yourself thrown in a dungeon or killed?" I think you just answered your own question. On the other hand, we all remember the greenpeace activists who chained themselves to the Russian offshore oil rigs and got arrested, so that form of activism does exist, despite its lack of impact and high risk.

In addition, you completely omit the fact that there is of course a political, societal and justice element to climate change, as well as the behaviour change element. It is to be expected that leftists and developing countries will take a "you caused this mess you pay to clean it up" approach, rather than the "how much decarb can we get per dollar spent?" approach preferred by wealthy nations and technocrats. I think this is at the heart of this disagreement, and it isn't really reconcilable, but I don't see a problem with that. Both lenses are necessary and inevitable and attempt to address different aspects of the problem of climate change.

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Who benefits from strangling America with the Climate Change non-sense? China. Can we explore that, in this age where a foreign actor can change society and get us to fight each other (China, Russia), isn't it not possible the China is pushing this crap on us? China is eating our lunch.

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If they didn't reject nuclear out of hand, I would take them far more seriously.

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