Where Climate Change Meets the 1619 Project: Slavery Offsets!

Today’s climate strike makes apparent that the left can do more than one thing at a time, though I am sure if I look close enough I will find “environmental racism” a feature of today’s protest somewhere. In any case, I got to wondering whether and how I might connect the climatistas with the left’s race baiters, and I can’t believe it took me so long to see the obvious parallel.

The “1619 Project” of the New York Times has given new wind to the left’s long running project of heaping contempt on the American Founding because Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other architects of America preached equal rights while hanging on to their slaves. But what would happen if we apply the same moral judgment to the leading advocates of drastic action to fight climate change today?

The left thinks the hypocrisy of the slave-owning founders is clear cut, indisputable, and complete, and that the practical difficulties of emancipation count for nothing in our present estimation. The reigning moral philosophy of our time, which Immanuel Kant formulated shortly after the American Founding, holds that if something is a categorical moral wrong, it must be acted upon immediately and completely regardless of consequences. For equality-preaching, rights-declaring political leaders not to free their slaves marks them out for our censure. Even the northern states that abolished slavery during or shortly after the nation’s founding come in for our derision, as several of them, like New York, emancipated their slaves gradually rather than at a stroke.

Today Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Kerry, and film director James Cameron head the list of prominent spokespeople telling us in the moral voice of Cotton Mather that climate change is the supreme moral issue of our time because it is an existential threat to all of humanity. Fossil fuels are the evil behind this threat, and, like slavery in a regime of equality, must be eliminated if we are to live up to our principles. (The parallel can be extended: fracking is the cotton gin of evil hydrocarbon energy, which is why left wants to ban it.)

Yet as is often noted, Gore, DiCaprio, Kerry, Cameron and just about every other carbon crusader still fly in private jet airplanes, own multiple high-consumption luxury homes, and motor around in SUVs. But they mitigate this hypocrisy through buying carbon offsets—that is, paying someone else to reduce emissions by a commensurate amount such that they can claim to be carbon neutral.

The southern defenders of slavery like John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh and Alexander Stephens were ingenious men, even resorting to neo-Marxist arguments about “wage slavery” under northern capitalism, but the idea of buying “slavery offsets” never occurred to them. Southern purchases of slavery offsets could have sped up the gradual compensated emancipation that went so slowly in northern states because of fiscal constraints. It might have eased the territorial conflicts in Kansas and elsewhere, and perhaps even prevented the Civil War!

Never mind that a carbon offset market cannot be scaled up, isn’t affordable for working class consumers who depend on fossil fuels for their daily needs, and is not a serious climate mitigation policy. Carbon offsets are often compared to buying indulgences from the church for your sins in the middle ages. Slavery offsets would have had the same defect, as they would not have ended the “peculiar institution.” But at least the slaveholders, like climate crusaders today, would have felt better about themselves.

Sometimes I challenge environmentally conscious students to surrender their smart phones because of their substantial carbon footprint (the total energy intensity of our wireless systems makes smart phones comparable to refrigerators for electricity use). This shouldn’t be a major sacrifice; smart phones have barely been around for 20 years, and life went on just fine before them. Yet I get no takers for the simple reason that they are just too convenient. If socially conscious people won’t even give up their smart phones, do we really think anyone is going to give up any other fossil fuel use in a meaningful way?

Likewise we can be certain that very few of today’s indignant leftists would have emancipated their slaves in 1787 for the same reason they won’t give up their smart phones and airplane travel today. It is easy to envision one-time tobacco farmer Al Gore buying slavery offsets hand over fist if he had been a plantation owner in 1787. But it is not merely convenience that we don’t stop using fossil fuels. If we actually followed the categorical moral imperative to stop using all fossil fuels instantly as the logic of the moral climate crusaders demands, the result would be misery and mass starvation within weeks. A similar dilemma confronted the slaveowning society of 1787. Leftists who want to strut their moral superiority ought to look into the mirror instead of into the past.

But I still want their smart phones. I’ll make sure they are properly recycled.

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