As evidence of climate change continues to accumulate, the case against taking action becomes increasingly difficult to understand. Consider the fact that when we perceive ourselves to be threatened by foreign aggression—evening cases where the threat is not immediate or existential—we don’t hesitate to react swiftly and decisively. Why does a threat of environmental disaster not produce a similar resolve?
One answer is that the debate is being manipulated by corporations with an enormous financial interest in maintaining the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. Insofar as big oil is the most profitable industry in the history of the world, that explanation certainly satisfies the test of Occam’s Razor. While it’s clearly one of the factors that applies, it’s also clear that it’s not the only one. After all, there are plenty of loud voices opposing action on global warming that have no particular relationship to the oil industry.
I’d like to suggest a complimentary explanation, one that doesn’t get much attention from “serious” pundits even as it amplifies the oil industry’s arguments and simultaneously motivates opposition to action on the climate from people with no particular affinity with big oil. And it all starts with Ronald Reagan and his first inaugural address.
As he was preparing to take the reigns of the government of the United States, Reagan made a pronouncement that was stunning in its recklessness but nevertheless went on to become a rallying cry for America’s right wing:
Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.
Reagan’s condemnation is broad and unequivocal. His formulation doesn’t condemn “intrusive” government or “overreaching” government or even just “big” government. Reagan’s speech condemned government, period. Over the years, the quote has been repeated so often that its familiarity tends to obscure how toxic and irrational the message is if we take it seriously.
Randian fantasies aside, it is only government that stands between us and chaos. It is only government that guarantees our freedoms and secures our rights. Government is the necessary predicate to civilization. And it is the essential foundation for building any sort of broadly shared prosperity.
Can government overreach? Of course. Can it become corrupt? Obviously. Can it be unresponsive or even hostile to its citizens? No question about it. But it should be obvious that the answer to these problems is not to abandon the idea of government but to improve it.
I’ll come back to these points in future posts but, for now, let’s return to Ronald Reagan. As the focal point of modern conservative ideology, Reagan’s pronouncement became gospel for a generation of right wing pundits and politicians. Railing against the boogeyman of big government is a great deal easier than undertaking the hard and endless work of fixing it.
But what happens when you’re confronted with a problem that is so big and so critical that it requires a concerted effort from a big government in order to fix it? That is the question that clearly confronts us today when it comes to the environment. If the problem really exists as it’s currently perceived by scientists then it’s a problem that demands a big government solution.
But what happens when an ideology and the demands of an emergency are at odds? Well, that’s precisely where we find ourselves today and that, unfortunately, is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post. It is the aversion to government that Ronald Reagan articulated in January of 1981 that is paralyzing us today.
Said differently, today’s conservative movement has adopted a political stance that’s reminiscent of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: “First the verdict, then the trial.” If big government is axiomatically bad then any solution that involves big government must be categorically rejected.
Of course, that stance is a tough sell when the problem that’s approaching is potentially catastrophic. In such a case, a much more promising strategy is to pretend that the problem itself simply doesn’t exist. And that is what today’s right wing has chosen to do.