We need to recognize how unhealthy our addiction to “cost-free moral preening” is. The constant need to be better than “those people”—and to be seen being better—betrays a deep spiritual anxiety that no amount of political posturing can cure.
At least since the movie Inherit the Wind butchered the history of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” many Americans—especially those on the left side of the political spectrum—have cherished a kind of myth about national debates being settled in dramatic courtroom clashes. In reality, they seldom are. However, that doesn’t stop idealistic plaintiffs from trying.
The most recent controversy dragged before a judge was whether the state of Montana could be held responsible for climate change. Earlier this month, Montana District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that the state’s failure to take climate change into account when greenlighting new oil and coal projects was unconstitutional. The plaintiffs were a group of young people called Our Children’s Trust. They sued the state over fossil fuel production, claiming that Montana violated a section of its constitution that guarantees citizens “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”
Climate activists have hailed the decision as a significant victory and model for the nation but have not been clear on what exactly has been accomplished. As The New York Times put it, unless a higher court overturns the ruling, Montana must now “consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects.” That’s all. They must “consider.”
Ed Whelan at National Review concluded that the impact of this “Children’s Crusade to defeat climate change” on actual energy production and carbon emissions “might well be zero.” Perhaps future projects will involve a symbolic gesture, akin to the so-called “land acknowledgments” commonly seen in academia and on recent episodes of Alone Australia. These rituals involve a speaker beginning by naming the Native American tribes on whose ancestral land they’re standing. Of course, such acknowledgments, as Princeton’s Robert George recently remarked, “do no one any good.” No one gets land back. No de-colonization takes place. There aren’t any reparations. It’s “just a cost-free form of moral preening.”