November has been a good-news/bad-news month for the climate struggle.
The U.S. and China just inked an historic agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but that accord is imperiled by the American electorate.
We have just entrusted Congress to a Republican Party determined to resist aggressive action against climate change. Congressional republicans hope to sabotage President Barack Obama's environmental agenda. By cutting funding to the Environmental Protection Agency or forcing passage of the Keystone XL pipeline, the GOP can be counted on to act contrary to the implications of scientific consensus.
That consensus is grave. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we continue to burn CO2 at current rates, we will tap out the "carbon budget" in 30 years. That is, in that span we will have pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the temperature increase will surpass 2 degrees Celsius — the point beyond which scientists agree catastrophe is all but certain.
Yet our electoral system continues to grant climate-change deniers considerable power. Case in point: None other than Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who authored a 2012 book on the global warming "conspiracy," will chair the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
This state of affairs must end. Congress will be an obstacle for the climate movement until conservative voters discover that their values align with environmentalist objectives.
An impossible conversion? It shouldn't be. There is synchronicity between moral conservatism and stewardship of the planet. In the context of other political debates, conservatives embrace sacrifice for the sake of descendants; they embrace moderation of appetites and law derived from moral principle. What's more, they are wary of individualism when it becomes toxic to structures that have long held society together, such as family and religion.
Consider "Mr. Sammler's Planet," Saul Bellow's 1970 novel about an aging Holocaust survivor contemplating the downfall of western civilization. Old Mr. Sammler is an Oxford-educated Polish Jew, an intellectual of a distinctly conservative bent. Exiled in postwar Manhattan, he is appalled by the greed, criminality and sexual licentiousness of American culture. Throughout the novel, he often contemplates the urge to flee an earth fouled by liberalism run amok.
"You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination," Mr. Sammler muses. "For what it amounted to was limitless demand -- insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Nonnegotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human department. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?"
Mr. Sammler isn't worried about carbon dioxide, of course, yet his wariness of unchecked individualism appears prescient in a way the novelist could not have predicted.
In citing our insatiable desires, our "full bill of demand and complaint," Mr. Sammler fears that the American way of life is deeply destructive. He does so as a conservative, an old man out of step with the '60s, but at times he sounds like an environmentalist.
The climate movement could use conservative cranks like Mr. Sammler. Ultimately, both political parties must embrace the challenge before us. It's no easy thing for a people to change its ways for the fate of a distant century's children. Science isn't equipped to enhance our capacity to do so; neither, for the moment, is our political culture. We seem to require a new rhetoric, one characterized by moral sensibility.
Recall the religious and cultural fervor that animated the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Recall Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Baldwin, the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. These writers addressed political conflict by appealing to our moral imagination.
Of late the climate struggle has focused on staging marches and funding left-leaning candidates. Worthy efforts, but they brand the movement as a leftist endeavor, which it is. For environmentalists to convert conservative voters, they will have to transcend the usual political tribalism by speaking of fundamental values – of sacrifice, duty and honor, love of family, God and earth.
Environmental conservatism needn't be an oxymoron. In a very real sense, the human future depends upon society's willingness to chasten its material desires and live within limits. In the long term, we will require the support of liberals and conservatives in facing this tremendous human challenge.