The most common criticism against the Green New DealRep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezs proposal for infrastructure reform, aimed at combating climate change and creating jobsis that its unrealistic, or a pipe dream. These same accusations are made against carbon taxes, pushes to keep fossil fuels in the ground, carbon neutrality, and practically every other measure proposed to limit the very worst effects of climate change. People making these accusations claim that the proposed changes are too extreme, too quick, too redistributive, too unfriendly to the free market.
Claiming that any radical and necessary plans to mitigate climate change, such as the Green New Deal, is unrealistic is disingenuous. The people who make these accusations are either delusional or actively disregarding the facts.
Claims that aggressive climate change policies are unrealistic are, almost always, made by centrists and conservatives. In fact, the notorious climate change-denial think tank Heartland Institute has a task force called Climate Realists. This plainly illustrates the fact that the language of whats realistic isnt politically neutral. The language of whats realistic also doesnt literally refer to whats possible.
Rather, limiting the political possibilities to so-called "realistic" options favors whatever maintains the status quo. This rhetoric supports the interests of the powerful. Being realistic is operably synonymous with moderation, with slow change. With inaction.
In the context of climate change, the status quo, guided by the principle of business as usual, will kill people. If we dont take action to drastically reduce our emissions and continue emitting greenhouse gases at our present rate, the Earths temperature will be 4.9 degrees Celsius hotter, on average, compared to pre-industrial averages by the end of the century. This will cause flooding in some places, desertification in others. It will cause unnatural disasters like hurricanes, typhoons, wildfires, and flash floods that destroy city infrastructure, destroy peoples homes and property. Many, many people will die. The stakes for action are literally life-or-death. Theres no moderate way of framing that.
One solution to climate change that's considered "realistic" by wealthy philanthropists is geoengineeringeven though its not remotely physically realistic, and science-fiction schemas of geoengineering programs include a host of unwanted environmental side effects. Geoengineering is only "realistic" in that its compatible within the logic of global capitalism.
Geo-engineering refers to the projection of sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, combined with using carbon removal technologies designed to induce chemical reactions that absorb carbon from the air, among other still-theoretical technologies that proponents say would put humans more in control of the Earths atmosphere and climate.
The global-scale introduction of both carbon removal and aerosol projection are purely theoretical. Carbon removal has only been achieved on tiny, experimental scalesnowhere near the scale needed to actually lower net carbon emissions globally. Aerosol projection, meanwhile, presents an enormous risks to countries in the global south that are already the most vulnerable from the effects of climate change. On a large scale, aerosol projection could majorly affect rain patterns and agricultural output in regions that depend on this industry in order to survive.
It should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of geoengineering come from a class of elites who are at the least risk from upcoming decades of climate change destruction. Multi-billionaire capitalist Bill Gates has been one of the biggest supporters of geoengineering, pouring millions of dollars in funding into institutions that pledge to figure out a way to make it work. Elite scholars from institutions like MIT, Princeton, and Harvardthe beneficiaries of funding from billionaires, foundations, and their own rich alumnihave argued that the risk of geo-engineering to these regions is overblown. This assertion that has been questioned or rejected by indigenous persons who would be affected geoengineering, and even other scientists in their discipline.
Geoengineering is not a realistic strategy. It requires billions and billions of dollars in funding for the fractional chance that it may reduce warming somewhat, perhaps at the cost of setting off unknown environmental feedbacks.
Why do we accept the language of whats realistic at face value? Its ridiculous to allow people to tell us that geoengineering and capitalism-friendly, moderate strategies are more realistic than, say, the Green New Deal or sweeping forms of policy.
The language of realism is weaponized pragmatismbut it isnt actually pragmatism. Pragmatism would be acknowledging the threat for what it is, and addressing it appropriately.
Semiotician Roland Barthes once argued that myth is inherent in language, and that it helps to naturalize certain world views. In his book Mythologies, he wrote, Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.
The notion of whats realistic is a myth which neuters the fact that the present isnt a neutral state. Right now, we are emitting gases that will stay in the atmosphere, continuing to warm the earth, for decades (in the case of carbon dioxide) to centuries (in the case of methane). When the present is actively harmful, and actively compromising the future, inaction is also actively harmful.
In her work Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang challenges her readers to ...use a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the present. Her call to actionwhich was in the context of prison abolitionis also crucial in the context of all resistance targeting capitalism and forces that enforce injustice along racial lines: When we accept the rhetoric that claims to be realistic and based in the real world at face value, we maintain the status quo through a self-fulfilling prophecy. We sentence ourself to band-aids and rule out the possibility of structural change. If you limit yourself to the tools and framework of the present, youre destined to reinforce and reproduce the present.
Now, consider climate change. Almost without exception, those who are obsessed with making climate policy "realistic have the least to lose from climate change. They are the people who falsely say that warming and more carbon dioxide will be good for the US economy, and completely disregard the massive loss of live expected among economically vulnerable people, and countries in the global south.
Disingenuous rhetoric aimed at realistic climate policy shouldnt, and cannot be taken at face value, and its on us to see through this actively harmful facade.