Tom Friedman had a rather silly column in the Times today; silly because it relies on one of my least favourite rhetorical devices. That being the “Out of the mouth of babes…” argument.
Responding to an Obama speech this past Thursday, in which the President told of his daughter Malia interrupting him during his morning shave to ask, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” Obama was telling a story about his family to make normalise his reaction to the crisis, but Friedman decides it’s an opportune time to argue:
Obama has to think like a kid. Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren’t we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so? And, Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words “carbon tax,” when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the gulf?
What kids rarely get, however, is how nervous grown ups get when they think their job might disappear. Or how more expensive petrol and electricity prices will make it harder to provide those kids with the clothing and education they need to make it to the future when they’ll have to be worrying about rising sea-levels. Particularly when those grown-ups live in cities planned by the government for decades to take advantage of cheap and plentiful resources, cities that don’t have public transport to switch to when driving gets expensive.
Kids also don’t think about how to set a carbon limit low enough to make a cap and trade scheme work, or whether it’s worth pursuing a carbon tax when doing so might find you voted out of office because grown ups get scared by the “tax” word, especially when a carbon tax might be too easily escapable to properly enforce.
This doesn’t mean it’s not important to take action on climate change, and at a much faster pace than Congress and the Obama Administration are doing right now. It also doesn’t mean that voters are wrong to be concerned about a cap and trade scheme killing jobs (it will create them, though not always for all the people who lost them), costing money (it will raise money and have little effect on economic growth), and properly crafted rebates can reduce the impact on low-income earners.
But when taking action on climate change, both to achieve effective results and make that action politically viable, the worst thing in the world would be to simplify the issue the way Friedman does here. Voters have concerns about the way they might be affected by new plans to combat global warming, and instead of pretending the issue is straightforward, environmentalists need to assuage those fears. Sure, Friedman doesn’t literally believe the President’s daughter should take over her father’s position, but the argument he is making is no better. It trivialises an issue that deserves serious thought, not vague prescriptions.