Progressives owe a duty to their children to move the Overton window around the climate

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      (Warning: This article is longer than what normally appears on media websites.)

      There's a reason why right wingers have been so successful in advancing their political goals.

      It's because they're masters of moving the goal posts around what constitutes acceptable ideas for discussion in the media.

      This has occurred in a range of areas, including privatizing health care and other public services, tax cuts for the super wealthy, and relentless increases in fossil-fuel production in the face of a climate crisis.

      Politicians like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage make sweeping denunciations of immigrants.

      This makes people who want to limit immigration without the racist rhetoric seem reasonable by comparison.

      In Canada, the "extreme" Max Bernier, leader of the populist People's Party of Canada, makes Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer seem benign, even though his climate policies would likely horrify the Pope.

      All of this doesn't happen by accident.

      In fact, there's a term for it: the "Overton window".

      Named after Joseph P. Overton, former head of a libertarian think tank in Michigan, it refers to the space in which ideas are considered tolerable in public discourse.

      These ideas can then be reflected in policies that elected officials can endorse to remain in office.

      The Overton window refers to the acceptable bounds for public discourse, which can lead to the development of politically acceptable public policies.
      Roger Farmer

      The right has specialized in making previously unthinkable or radical ideas enter the mainstream.

      I can remember attending a news conference many years ago in which a former Fraser Institute senior economist, Walter Block, called for the privatization of the oceans. He advocated making them private property to address overfishing.

      At the time, that was unthinkable.

      But it made the privatization of other things, like a national airline or a national railway, seem fairly tame in comparison.

      Year after year, the Fraser Institute produces school rankings without accounting for socioeconomic differences among the student bodies. This advances the agenda of those who favour more privatized education, which is subsidized by taxpayers.

      The Fraser Institute also releases an economic freedom index, reflecting its free-market and capitalist ideals, and declares "tax freedom day" every year.

      In addition, it has published documents opposing gun control in Canada and supporting new pipelines, and annual reports on hospital wait times.

      Through these actions, it's moved the Overton window on what constitutes acceptable policies for politicians to debate and pursue.

      A multitude of other right-wing think tanks do the same thing, financed by foundations often created by the ultra-rich.

      This relentless drumbeat of reports is a key reason why Stephen Harper became prime minister for 10 years from 2006 to 2015.

      Canadians felt that he too extreme in the 1990s when he was a Reform Party of Canada MP. But he somehow became acceptable to many Canadians a decade later, just as Scheer is today.

      People's Party of Canada Leader Max Bernier's outlandish statements make Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer seem reasonable in comparison, even though Scheer's environmental policies will do nothing to stave off Climate Armageddon.

      Progressives need to move the window

      The left isn't nearly as organized as the right, nor does it have nearly as much money. But that doesn't mean that it can't do a better job in moving the Overton window in certain directions.

      Right now, for instance, most people think it's unthinkable—or at the very least, extremely radical—to suggest that runaway climate change could lead to the extinction of the human species in this century.

      This isn't discussed on the editorial pages of mainstream newspapers because it's outside the Overton window of acceptable public discourse.

      But the reality is that hundreds of millions if not billions could conceivably die from climate-change-related causes within the lifetimes of people born today.

      That's because feedback loops, such as the massive release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, could kick in. That could lead to runaway climate change or abrupt climate change, which would be impossible for humans to stop.

      There's a phrase that some scientists are using, Hothouse Earth, to describe what will happen if there's a cascading series of feedback loops. Once they start, some heavily populated parts of the planet could easily become uninhabitable.

      For more on that, see the video below.

      Video: Former Stockholm Resilience Centre executive director Johan Rockström introduced the "Hothouse Earth" scenario at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in 2019.

      Get ready for food shortages and smoky cities

      The climate crisis is often couched in what might happen to "future generations".

      But the reality is it's having an obvious effect now. That's demonstrated by the extent of flooding in Canada every year, the recent forest fires in Siberia, and the massive melting of ice in Greenland this summer.

      Many children and teenagers today realize that the areas where they live could be walloped by climate-caused food shortages and rising sea levels. Smoke is already filling cities and towns in areas hit by forest fires, creating new public-health concerns. These are some of the reasons why adolescents are staging periodic strikes from school around the world.

      They quite rightly see the climate crisis is an existential threat.

      Yet forces on the right have been able to convince many Canadians that pipelines carrying diluted bitumen to tidewater are somehow in the "national interest". This is the case even though they'll blow our Paris Agreement commitments to bits.

      According to a report commissioned by the City of Vancouver, carbon dioxide equivalents generated annually as a result of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will significantly exceed the amount emitted in the entire province of British Columbia each year,

      Meanwhile, an NDP government in B.C. has given a liquefied-natural-gas project near Kitimat a break from paying provincial sales taxes.

      This has occurred even though this one project in a fairly remote area of B.C. will gobble up a huge share of the provincial carbon budget by 2050, according to West Coast Environmental Law.

      The LNG Canada plant near Kitimat is slated to gobble up an increasingly large share of the provincial carbon budget.
      West Coast Environmental Law

      For progressives who look at all of this in horror, these are the consequences of the right's ability to move the Overton window.

      If there's any hope of countering this, climate-conscious British Columbians have to work harder to raise awareness of the magnitude of the threat posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions.

      Previously unthinkable ideas, like the extinction of the human species or the possibility of today's children experiencing Hothouse Earth conditions, need to be discussed more openly.

      Here's another radical idea outside the mainstream: why wait until 2040 or 2050 to go carbon neutral if that's going to increase the likelihood of feedback loops kicking in, killing many millions of people? Why not aim for 2025?

      Here's yet another radical idea that's rarely discussed—if we keep stalling on addressing the climate, we're far more likely to lose our democratic freedoms and fall under authoritarian, jackboot governments. That's because sky-high food prices will lead to riots, resulting in an inevitable clampdown.

      Radical ideas that enter the public discourse expand the boundaries of what's deemed to be acceptable public policy.

      The World Wildlife Fund is trying to save species in jeopardy, including the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla.
      World Wildlife Fund

      Many primates face extinction

      Here's one stark reality. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has estimated that many of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are already in serious jeopardy.

      "About 90 percent of primates—the group that contains monkeys, lemurs, lorids, galagos, tarsiers, and apes (as well as humans)—live in tropical forests, which are fast disappearing," the Center for Biological Diversity states on its website. "The IUCN estimates that almost 50 percent of the world's primate species are at risk of extinction."

      The CBD also maintains that human activities, including those that warm the planet, are causing mass extinctions to other species and plant life.

      "Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species' extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel," it points out.

      Something's got to give.

      While some of us might take great pleasure in being distracted by reality TV shows and the exploits of our favourite professional athletes, we have some serious business to take care of.

      If we can all take a few minutes out of our day, every day, to try to move the Overton window toward greater climate consciousness—whether that's through a tweet, a Facebook repost, or joining a collective action in our community—it could add up to something substantial over time.

      As Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg likes to say: "The bigger your platform, the greater your responsibility."