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Picking your environmental battles

In the comments to a Chris Bertram post on global warming, paul gibson says:

The environmental movement blew much of its political capital complaining about minor things like pesticide use, which is dwarfed in significance by the potential effects of global warming.

I don't want to minimize the importance of global warming, but I tend to have the opposite reaction -- that issues like pesticide use are better, tactically speaking, for environmentalism than global warming. The crucial point is encapsulated in Bertram's post, which deflates one of those "global warming isn't happening; the scientific consensus is based on bad science" articles. The real consequences of global warming haven't arrived yet. It's not painfully obvious that something is going on. Many other environmental issues, like acid rain or soil erosion, are pretty hard to deny. You can argue that they're the price to be paid for the wonders of lassiez-faire or whatever, but it's hard to pretend the problem isn't happening. But because the real consequences of global warming haven't hit us in a way that makes their connection to the influence of carbon emissions on the environment painfully obvious, people like the author of Bertram's article can claim that environmentalists are worried about a non-issue. This may not convince serious climatologists, but it wins where it counts -- in the court of public opinion, which is the body that shapes both individual and government practices that could alter the climate situation. Anti-environmentalists know this, and I suspect they've contributed to the tendency to narrow environmental issues down to global warming and endangered species -- those are the two issues that a conversation with an anti-environmentalist almost always turns to, and the two issues they draw on in their critiques of environmentalism. It's harder to get lay people worried about human-induced climate change because they can plausibly deny that such a thing occurs.


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