The most common mistake in politics is to believe there is some level of suffering that will force responsible governance. There isn’t. We saw this during the coronavirus crisis, when some Republicans blanched before the lockdowns and masking, and repositioned themselves as the tough, sacrificial defenders of normalcy. “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” Asked Texas’ lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • The Editorial Board writes that by improving plans for aid to families with children, “Democrats can pass a permanent change now by doing the hard but necessary work of figuring out how to pay for it.”
  • Stephen Wertheim asks “whether the Biden administration will actually make America — No. 1 in armed force and arms dealing — less violent in the world.”
  • Alison Siegler and Kate M. Harris write that Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden’s pick for attorney general, would have the power “to prioritize federal bail reform and reduce sky-high rates of pretrial jailing.”
  • Ross Douthat, Opinion columnist, writes that after such a difficult year, Joe Biden would be doing our country “a great service” if he suggested that “the era of emergency might be over by the Fourth of July.”

Similarly, once climate change can no longer be ignored, Republicans may tighten their embrace of fossil fuels rather than admitting decades of policy error. I have covered climate policy for years, so I was appalled to hear Republicans call to burn more coal as their energy system failed. But if I were cold and scared and looking for a familiar answer from people I already trusted, I can imagine it making sense to me. Unchecked climate change promises a future of scarcity and emergency, and that can create demand for politicians and solutions who falsely promise a return to simpler, better times.

“When people are presented with a crisis like in Texas, they often grasp for stability,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, told me. “This is something the right is good at — they offer the security of tradition, of the familiar.” The irony is that on this issue, it is progressives who are the true conservatives. We are the ones who want to conserve the climate that the entirety of human civilization has known, who believe that the planetary conditions that fostered all of our institutions and social structures are worth preserving. “If you want to stand athwart the history of emissions and yell ‘stop,’” NoiseCat says, “you need to do really transformational things.”

Transformation at that scale requires cooperation — between individuals, and cities, and industries, and regions, and countries. But there is reason to believe a warming world will be a less cooperative world. Here, something former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said is instructive. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Perry, I should note, most recently served as head of the federal Department of Energy — the same agency whose name he had forgotten when he tried to mark it for elimination in a 2011 Republican presidential debate. You can’t make this stuff up.

The mind aches for the comforts of snark here, but I think Perry’s words carry deeper, broader truth. Texas kept its grid disconnected from the regional grids so it didn’t have to follow federal regulations. In a world of aggressive climate action, it’s easy to imagine more states, and countries, receding from compacts and multilateral institutions because they don’t like the new rules, or the loss of sovereignty. Indeed, America just experienced this dance as President Donald Trump withdrew us from the climate accords, before President Biden signed us back up. A global crisis that demands cooperation and even sacrifice will be fertile soil for nationalists and demagogues.

In Omar El Akkad’s novel “American War,” it’s a bill banning fossil fuels that leads to a second civil war. That may be fiction, but there’s a growing array of studies showing that hotter weather leads to more violence, both between individuals and between countries. “We estimated that 11 percent of civil conflicts in Africa since the 1980s can be attributed to warming that has occurred,” Solomon Hsiang, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who has been a leader in this work, told me. “Or, in a different study, looking at El Niño, we found that the timing of about 20-25 percent of civil conflict since 1950 can be connected to El Niños.” I sometimes wonder whether climate change will kill more people through war than weather.

This isn’t a case where the mechanism is mysterious. I am tetchier on hot days. So are most people. There’s a famous 1986 study called “Ambient Temperature and Horn Honking: A Field Study of the Heat/Aggression Relationship.” In it, Douglas Kenrick and Steven MacFarlane simply let a car idle at green lights in Phoenix during the spring and summer, and measured how long it took the driver behind to honk. The hotter the day, the faster the honks came. The most aggressive honkers were the drivers with the windows rolled down, as they were most exposed to the heat. It’s an amusing study, but subsequent research was bloodier: hotter days bring more assaults, gang violence and murders.

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