When It Comes to Climate, Why Are We Willing to Sacrifice Lives for Money?

Of course addressing the climate crisis will cost money. The important question is how we can save and improve lives by spending it.
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Climate change activists block traffic in the London's financial district during environmental protests by the Extinction Rebellion group on April 25th, 2019.

Climate change activists block traffic in the London's financial district during environmental protests by the Extinction Rebellion group on April 25th, 2019.

During the June Democratic primary debates, the candidates spent 15 of their 240 total minutes on climate change. Notable questions from the moderators included: "Does your plan save Miami?," "How do we pay for climate mitigation?," and "Can oil and gas companies be real partners in this fight?"

Oil and money. Isn't that how we got into this situation in the first place?

A few months ago, when Green New Deal think pieces were at their peak, the rallying cry on the right, and among cautious centrists, was that the single biggest problem with the plan was its price tag. Yes, we need to address climate change, these critics said, but the GND would be "ruinously" expensive. Isn't there a cheaper, market-based solution, they asked?

And the vultures circled.

These market-based attacks on climate action, ubiquitous in mainstream media, have put climate reporters on the defensive for decades. The loudest objection against green legislation used to be that climate regulation kills jobs. To fight this disinformation, climate writers must play by the rules established by naysayers, and debunk their spurious talking points about markets and jobs. "Do environmental regulations reduce employment? Not really," David Roberts wrote at Vox in 2017; "The Green New Deal Costs Less Than Doing Nothing" Dave Levitan wrote more recently in The New Republic.

"The sad fact is that the U.S. media as a whole, and television in particular, have downplayed and distorted the climate story from the beginning, with devastating consequences," Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope wrote in a special report for the Columbia Journalism Review this April. "When the media weren't ignoring the story, they were being suckered into misrepresenting it as a matter more of political opinion than of scientific fact."

We saw this exact pattern during the rollout of the GND. The right loudly proclaimed that it would too difficult and expensive to implement the plan, and large swaths of the media became complicit in that denial. As Carlos Maza shows in a video for Vox, television outlets like MSNBC and CNN spent more airtime talking about the GND as a political tool—asking questions about whether the plan would be good or bad for Democrats—than on the potentially life-saving dimensions of the proposal. This practice is called "tactical framing." It does not involve moral framing. Even CNN's written analysis, headlined, "Here's what the Green New Deal actually says," starts with this tactical framing: "'Green New Deal' fits perfectly on a bumper sticker," reads the lead.

To discuss the climate crisis as mere political gamesmanship plays into the GOP's hand by creating a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there's the Green New Deal option, a policy package that can help save our entire species. On the other hand, it's expensive, and conservatives don't like it. A real dilemma.

Unfortunately, climate writers have to spend so much time combating lies and explaining the very basics of climate policy that some of the most compelling, and arguably most important, messages around climate policy can get lost in the fray. Articles like the ones by Roberts and Levitan are crucial in the fight against misinformation, but climate communicators on the most prominent platforms (usually TV) too often fail to make the moral case for a GND. That would involve pointing out, perhaps alongside the facts and figures, that the proposed policy will save lives—and make other lives better.

Kate Aronoff at the Intercept, for one, is continually making this point. In April, with social science on her side, Aronoff concluded that the GND would make Americans happier people overall, since emitting and consuming less dirty energy, democratizing wealth, and achieving full employment will allow people to spend more time with loved ones, or to pursue pleasure. Last year, Aronoff painted a picture of what life in 2043 might look like with a fully decarbonized, equal society under the GND. But she's one of the only prominent media figures who consistently explains climate policy not just as a political bulwark but as a means of creating a better society for everyone.

Of course, not everybody has to be an Aronoff, and not every article on climate policy needs to talk about saving lives. There are a lot of different ways to motivate people around climate, and perhaps discussing the long-term economic benefits of climate action will help some Americans conceptualize how it could work. But when media figures incessantly emphasize economics and politics when reporting on plans like the GND, they miss out on opportunities to discuss the multitudinous life-changing merits of the policy.

Benefits of building a zero- or low-emission society include but are definitely not limited to: cleaner and clearer air, litter-free and thriving oceans, greater biodiversity, less-disastrous storms and wildfires, fewer hospital visits, more nutritious food, less anxiety, an actual livable planet to pass onto our children, and millions of lives saved every year from the disastrous (but forestalled!) consequences of climate change. And this list doesn't even touch on the social programs that lie at the heart of plans like the GND.

It's endlessly frustrating, then, that the dominating conversation in the mainstream media around the GND has been feasibility and finances. When we're talking about mitigating the climate crisis and saving millions of lives every year, why should centrists and right-wingers be allowed to hijack the conversation and make it exclusively about money? Why does the commentariat immediately latch onto a price tag for the GND, but treat the potential lives saved as an afterthought? And why do we make it so easy for climate reactionaries to hide behind the former?

Of course, the moral vacuum around the climate conversation isn't just the media's fault; American capitalism has trained us to think this way. The biggest objections to nearly every sweeping progressive policy today—Medicare for All, free higher education, abolishing student debt—are that, while they could significantly improve citizens' well-being, they're expensive and therefore unfeasible.

Likely as an extreme reaction to the rise of 21st-century progressivism, moral arguments often become defanged—even demonized—by conservatives and centrists in modern politics. Bret Stephens, the conservative New York Times opinion columnist, lamented last week that, "in the land of the free, people live in mortal fear of the moral faux pas." I implore Stephens and others on the right, who are so quick to come to the defense of the concentration camps at the border, to explain why being afraid of committing a "moral faux pas" is a bad thing.

It may not be fashionable in mainstream media to be morally well-aligned, but that doesn't mean our commentators don't have a duty to talk about how mitigating the climate crisis to the fullest extent possible is the morally correct thing to do. And if we insist on talking about money, we should talk about using it for good, instead of allowing corporations and the richest of the rich to hoard it. After all, what is money for if not for spending, and what's so great about being the richest country in history when we can't leverage those riches to create a better, fossil-fuel-free future?

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