COVID-19 and Global Warming: “Emergencies” That Fast Track Authoritarianism

Real people are really dying of the COVID-19 infection; let’s be clear about that immediately. But that’s immaterial to the American left. The contagion itself is politically useful and the deaths are politically useful. We know how easily fear can be used to manipulate the masses, but we fail to recognize an old ploy when it arrives as a novel virus.

Do you recall the twenty years prior to this March, in which the idea of catastrophic global warming was ratcheted up to the level of a dire “existential” emergency requiring a unified response from humanity? This occurred even while it became more and more obvious to the American public that 1) climate change is very natural, 2) it’s unclear that the planet is warming at anything more than a natural interglacial rate and 3) a warmer planet isn’t necessarily a detriment to humans or the biome anyway. And yet, the tenor of activists became ever more shrill, decrying the western way of life, it seemed, more than pointing to matters of physics or ecology. Why? Because it was politically useful—the fear, not the truth. 2019 may have been a crescendo for this widely echoed chorus; let us hope.

On the extreme ends of the climate change spectrum of concern are those who think that the abatement of warming by even a single degree is worth any price we may pay. Indeed, it often seems that the higher a price the industrialized West pays, the better. On the other end of the spectrum are a few people like me, unlikely to get upset about things we cannot control, such as the changing climate of the Earth. Loosely, these two positions adhere to the political left and political right. But note a serious distinction between the two sides represented here: The left demands compliance, now! They want all cars to be electric, they want the end of fossil fuel energy sources, and they want you to have to eat a vegetarian diet. Implicit is the idea that they actually know better than you do what’s good for you and what’s good for the environment. The left has no time for debate, no time for the deliberative processes inherent in American governance or the western tradition. Yet another deadline to save the planet looms!

On the right we see a desire to persuade. We want to make our case. We think it would be a wonderful thing if we were suddenly given an equal opportunity to do so in the television news and newspaper media. We wish to appeal to free-thinking people as equals, willing to listen to counterpoints. Much of our communication is directed toward simply countering the dire messaging of the left—a full-time job for thousands.

The notable need in climate rhetoric for conformity and compliance gives rise to the notion that this all may only be pretext for the power that authoritarians have attempted to seize all along. Authoritarians are known for not letting emergencies go to waste, whether real or imagined.

Authoritarians are recognizable on both the macro (United Nations and federal government) and micro scales. There’s nothing monstrous about these individuals—they’re all around us. These are the people who peer over hedgerows to assess the shagginess of their neighbor’s grass. These are the people who shake their heads at children who are allowed to run free too much, the people who want to form a homeowners’ association, the people who think it’s time to institute a curfew, the people who wonder how government can best curtail industry to save the planet and the people who scheme about abrogation of freedom to stop the spread of disease.

There are unguarded moments in which the mask of concern falls away and true authoritarian ambitions are revealed. Among these was the 2014 publication of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (Capitalism vs. the Climate) in which this noted paragon of socialistic virtue and atmospheric acumen attempted to demonstrate the necessity of demolishing our current capitalistic system in favor of something more regulated by experts. When faced with destructive forces this monumental, we can’t simply rely on market forces anymore; those same forces that got us into this intractable climate nightmare!

Far from the only example of socialism showing around the edges of green literature, this work makes a fine example if only because of its near-universal acclaim from the left. The Simon and Schuster paperback opens with 19 blurbs of praise from all manner of left-wing academics and literati. Allow me to share some choice excerpts as I may be the only man of libertarian persuasion with this volume right here in the living room:

From the introduction:

…I began to understand how climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well. The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. …It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.

And through conversations with others in the growing climate justice movement, I began to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalyzing force for positive change—how it could be the best argument progressives have ever had…

I’d like to go on, but you get the idea.

From the time of its pronouncement by comrade Gore, American people have, overall, distrusted the climate narrative, intuitively. This may have been the case for at least two notable reasons: 1) Al Gore pronounced it and 2) we noticed that the solutions which were somehow instantly available, sounded much like the things the left had wanted for America since time immemorial.

These solutions included, generally:

  • Massive public investment (and hence, control) in aspects of health care, education, public works projects, green technology, food production and energy
  • More direction from bureaus of experts, less from elected public officials
  • The public sector supplanting certain traditional roles of the private
  • More intrusive regulatory measures
  • Coupling climate change with social justice

Common threads entwine the Green New Deal, the New Deal, and the Great Society.

The aforementioned expansionist programs, however, represented slow-track solutions to slow-building “emergencies.” We now know what the fast track looks like. In the last month we’ve witnessed big wins for authoritarianism the world over and it’s hit home in America in particular.

We’ve established a precedent that big government is in control and can, upon questionable pretext, exert its will.

This needs to be challenged by states and by individuals. We’ve largely accepted that the government can shut down the private sector at will, which does much to establish an undue subservience of private to public, of liberty to safety. The idea that government can pick essential businesses has seen little challenge. It’s alright with all too many of us that earned wages are replaced with government checks. Private businesses are being conscripted into government service if they can provide supplies the government demands, and not the market but the government directs acquisition and dispersal. The left is moving rapidly at the current time to couple economic and medical mitigation to social justice. And not least of all, one of the most historic triumphs of unbridled capitalism, the Trump economy, has been lain low by those looters conjured from the dystopian future America of Ayn Rand.

This was the fast track for the ambitions of the left. The only question now relates to the degree of permanence. It’s certain that they’d like to hold onto as many of these gains as they can and hence it’s certain that they’d like to prolong the state of emergency as much as can be tolerated. From the outset, we saw the split emerge: The right was the party of “resume normalcy and get back to work as soon as possible” while the left spoke of at least months of compulsory austerity.

We should all at least realize, as we look around at our current dire situation, that our pain is not the result of a virus; it’s the result of unchecked government run amok in broad fields once fenced off to politicians by our Constitution. And as some of us are coming to sense, it’s just more global warming.

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Cedric Keith

Cedric C. Keith is an author and environmental policy advisor for the Heartland Institute who has spent a lifetime immersed in the workings of the eastern forests. From 2007-2011, he walked through the whole native range of the brook trout, documenting the trek in his book, The Dying Fish: A Sojourn to the Source. Cedric blogs on conservation from a libertarian perspective at thedyingfish.com.

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