Yesterday I saw the movie Lincoln , and loved it. The story is focused on a few weeks in January, 1865, when “insider politics” resulted in Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. The amendment freed America’s slaves, and was at least as polarizing as the carbon tax is today. The movie is up for various awards and has an impressive cast, with Daniel Day-Louis and Sally Field in the principle roles. Tommy Lee Jones plays the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens and even James Spader entertains as W.N. Bilbo, a just-this-side-of-believable political fixer.
There are lots of moral and historical lessons to be drawn from this movie, but one lesson is of interest to climate activists. Environmentalists are often accused of being too pure to make political deals, and insistent that everyone recognize the high value and moral imperative of their stand. While that assertion is not uniformly true, we all know well-meaning people who opposed the recent cap & trade bill because it did not go far enough. Of course, it wasn’t opposition from enviro’s that scuttled the bill, but the mixed reception didn’t help. From the perspective of 2013, having some kind of carbon legislation on the books would be much better than our present state.
One of the central ideas of the movie has to do with the question: does the end justify the means? Lincoln wanted to pass the legislation (a moral imperative if there ever was one) even to the point of overriding the advice of the Team of Rivals in his own cabinet. If the movie is to be believed, he was even putting an early end to the Civil War in jeopardy. He resorted to the kind of ‘earmarks’ policy we all pretend to abhor, handing out political appointments in return for votes. Even the righteous Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens engaged in word games on topics he had previously been adamant about, distinguishing between ‘racial equality’ and ‘equality before the law’, in order to get the bill through Congress.
For climate activists, this is food for thought. Addressing global warming is a high ethical concern for us, but so was ending slavery for Lincoln. The likelihood of carbon legislation that meets the high threshold of our hopes is small. Is it more important to be morally right, even if nothing ever passes Congress? If we compromise our principles in order to get a bill, would we be happy with ineffectual legislation? We need to think carefully about how, as Lincoln tells Stevens, we can follow our North Star but also find a way through the swamps and deserts on our path. Let’s hope that in a hundred and fifty years people regard our decisions as wise ones.