The Climate Movement Must Reclaim the Concept of Freedom

We’re witnessing climatic events that will have a direct impact on the freedoms we enjoy.

XR Hold The Impossible Rebellion 2021 Climate Action
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When I wrote about a leaked draft of a United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and its endorsement of demand-side policy interventions, there was some discussion in the comments about the notion of "freedom." Essentially, the argument appears to be that policy-level efforts aimed at changing individual behaviors are inherently a loss of freedom. Similar dynamics were at play during the United Kingdom’s Citizen’s Assembly on Climate, where participants wholeheartedly embraced support for technological progress and some forms of green taxation—but were more cautious about government interventions in diet, for example, and emphasized the need to respect "freedom of choice."

It all suggests the climate movement needs to hold a robust discussion about what freedom means. For some, the pickup truck is pretty much the embodiment of freedom and self-actualization, for example. And there’s no denying that it has deep and authentic symbolic value that we’d be foolish to dismiss or overlook: 

For others, however, it represents a direct and very real impediment to their ability to live free, or even to live at all: 

Meanwhile, an entirely different idea of freedom can be witnessed on the bike-filled streets of Amsterdam: 

You get the idea.

If the climate movement is going to make progress in winning hearts, minds, elections, and policy fights, then we are going to have to be able to conceptualize, articulate, and eventually deliver a robust and ambitious vision that has human freedom and fairness at its heart. We will also, however, have to make a strong case for why certain freedoms—the freedom to pollute, destroy, or kill—are going to need to be curtailed in order for other freedoms to flourish.

That’s easier said than done in a culture that too often views the idea of freedom as a heady mix of consumer choice and consequence-free self-indulgence.

But that’s all the more reason why we have to have this discussion now.

It remains to be seen how exactly we’ll strike the balance between the freedoms people are used to, the freedoms we deserve, and the freedoms that we can’t yet even conceptualize. A good place to start, however, is driving home the fact that our most fundamental freedoms—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are now fundamentally under threat.

Whether it’s continent-spanning wildfire smoke or catastrophic floods, we’re witnessing climatic events that will have a direct and devastating impact on the freedoms we enjoy and the choices we are able to make, and the impact will not be shared equally. In fact, as witnessed in many of the recent flooding deaths in New York City, it will disproportionately be Black, brown, indigenous, and working-class citizens who suffer the worst consequences of climate change—even though they are also the people who have contributed the least to the problem. That version of the status quo doesn’t sound very "free" to me.

Banning new gas stations is not a bad first step. Likewise, banning single-use plastics would also be a sensible measure. And the list goes on and on. Sure, we’ll hear calls to stay out of the free market, and warnings about the danger of Big Government, but we need to get more comfortable with owning the idea that certain products, behaviors, and industries are just incompatible with a truly just, fair and actually free society.

Whether it’s lead paint, human slavery, or cars that don’t have seat belts, we can and have banned products and behaviors that threatened our collective well-being. We, as a society have the freedom to continue in that tradition.

It’s time we reclaimed the concept of what freedom really means.