It’s relatively rare that North Carolina lawmakers utter illuminating statements during committee discussions, but it happened last week at the Senate confirmation hearing for Governor Cooper’s latest nominee to head the Department of Environmental Quality, Elizabeth Biser.
Paul Newton is a Republican senator from Cabarrus and Union Counties, and during an exchange with Biser he reiterated an argument that he and many others of the right have previously championed – namely that North Carolina shouldn’t act to reduce its carbon emissions until China and India take similar action. This is from NC Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg’s account:
In some parts of the world, carbon is increasing,” Sen. Newton said. “It would overwhelm whatever North Carolina does.”
“Every little bit helps,” Biser said.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our part, but from a scientific perspective … North Carolina’s contribution to improving the climate is zero,” Sen. Newton said.
“Fortunately we’re joined by a lot of other folks,” Biser replied.
Let that argument sink in for a moment and ponder its implications.
While perhaps true in some basic sense – yes, with a population that represents only a little over one one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s inhabitants, North Carolina is clearly not going to solve, or even make a big dent in, the climate emergency on its own – Newton’s take is a remarkably cynical assessment and, tragically, emblematic of a worldview embraced and applied by a large swath of the political right to a wide array of issues.
At its core, Newton’s “looking out for Number One” argument is that, when it comes to carbon emissions, North Carolina should only alter its behavior and act as a responsible global citizen if it can somehow be determined that such action will work to its own obvious and immediate advantage.
And if no such obvious and direct beneficial impact can be identified, well then, it’s apparently Newton’s recommendation that we simply crank up our air conditioners and build taller seawalls.
While perhaps superficially appealing on a visceral, macho level, the implications of such a worldview are frightening to contemplate, and sadly, increasingly on display across modern America.
This is the same basic outlook that is espoused by many who resist the directives of public health experts with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic: “I’m not going to wear a mask (or get vaccinated or alter my public interactions) unless I decide that it’s best for me.”
Never mind that when it comes to the collective good of society, such modest sacrifices have a proven and undeniably positive cumulative impact. For subscribers to this hyper-consumerist point of view, the most important issue is the individual’s perception of what’s in it for them personally.
And so it goes in any number of modern public policy debates.
It’s this attitude that fuels the ongoing mad and terrifying rush by millions of Americans to arm themselves with caches of ever-more-lethal firearms.
It’s this attitude that motivates parents to make “school choice” the top priority when it comes to their children’s public education.
It’s this attitude that drives the demand for giant suburban homes and ever-bigger vehicles and highways, and the destructive urban sprawl they help perpetuate.
And it is this attitude that’s driven the central, guiding premises of the modern American conservative movement: the notion that government and the taxes that pay for it are inherently bad and that, as the fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko put it succinctly and infamously in Oliver Stone’s Reagan-era film Wall Street, “greed is good.”
The truth, however, is that Gekkos and Newtons of the world are wrong. While there’s no doubt that the pursuit of self-interest plays an important role in driving a market economy (and even in advancing the well-being of states and nations), it must at some point give way – especially in an increasingly crowded and interconnected world.
As our species has been reminded repeatedly throughout history, the success and sustainability of human society – not to mention the natural world we inhabit – ultimately depends on individuals setting aside and controlling (at least occasionally) some of their most egocentric individual urges for the good of the whole.
This is why we have speed limits and zoning laws, health inspectors and pollution control policies, truth-in-lending rules and childcare standards.
Sure, just as no single individual can clean up a trashed city, no individual state or country can singlehandedly address the existential threat posed by the climate emergency. But that doesn’t mean that every nation with the capacity to contribute should warily stare down every other nation and withhold cooperation until the moment at which all players take precisely the same action. If that were the societal standard, no one would ever pay their taxes or obey traffic signals – much less model inspirational, community-minded acts.
And right now, when it comes to the climate emergency, our planet desperately needs all the inspirational, community-minded acts it can get.