Liberalism, Smog, and Climate Change

"Let's go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt!"
“Let’s go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt!”

Is climate change a liberal issue? It appears not.

Dorothea Lange captured the pain of a migrant mother whose children had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds they killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.
Dorothea Lange captured the anguish of a migrant mother whose children had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds they killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.

“Let’s go to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt!” satirized this 1936 Peter Arno cartoon in the liberal New Yorker.

The Trans-Lux was a popular New York theater specializing in newsreels; FDR’s image would surely flash across the screen. As if on a Halloween prank, a gang of middle-aged socialite Romeos furtively enlist a rather plump Juliet to join them in hissing him from the audience. Masses of the American public loved FDR for standing up for the “common man,” but what we would now call the “one percent” despised him for stealing money out of their pockets.

After the Great Depression, FDR liberals promoted social welfare programs as the middle way between communism on the left and  capitalism on the right. Images like this iconic Dorothea Lange photograph (opposite) had galvanized enough of the electorate that the Roosevelt administration succeeded in instituting social welfare programs now widely endorsed  by the American people. Today, as then, who will pay for them is hotly contested.

A similar majority has elected Obama. However, in his second inauguration speech, Obama vowed to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Is climate change a liberal issue?

Fresh from researching the career of my crusading liberal journalist father Croswell Bowen (1905-1971) and seeing the intensity with which in his later years he embraced the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, I might be forgiven if I thought so. Something big had drawn my father to Donora, PA, the scene of the first temperature inversion, just as smog was enveloping East coat cities,  to write a piece he hoped would bear witness to human destruction in the same way that John Hersey’s Hiroshima had to the horrors of nuclear war. The Atlantic editor cut it mercilessly and Dad moaned that “all the young writers are so much better than me,” but it was a last gallant foray, not so bad for an aging writer only a short way away from a final heart attack.

But climate change is not a liberal issue. It is simply not possible to see any connection between environmentalism and liberalism, either in its 19th Century form as a political philosophy advocating equality before the law and individual liberties, or in its 20th century form as social liberalism, a concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the economic and social well-being of its citizens. The former focuses on the individual before the law; the latter on the state vis a vis the individual. Neither addresses the obligation of the current generation to bequeath  to future generations a livable environment.

What Obama’s embrace of climate change does demonstrate is is something bigger. It is testimony to the power of democracy to respond to issues that transcend the historical roots of either liberalism or conservatism; to be “of the moment.” My father wrote about smog; we watch ice caps melting. In the face of climate change, the distribution of wealth may not be so big an issue as whether there will be any wealth at all.

It will challenge us all.

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One thought on “Liberalism, Smog, and Climate Change”

  1. Betsy, this is pithy stuff and accurate, in my mind. Food for thought.

    Also, your blog looks great, feels like how I think of you in part of you.

    So great to see and read this. Good for you!!

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