By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.
Part I | Part II
4. “We shouldn’t invest $4 to $6 Trillion per year more in federal dollars to save humanity because we already have carbon pricing instruments that are doing the job and are still under attack from opponents of climate action. We should stand by, applaud, and not “rock the boat” because serious climate policy makers are only talking about carbon pricing (cap and trade or carbon taxation) and not your full-scale mobilization proposal with its high price tag and dirigiste, mission-driven role for government.”
There are several assumptions in this objection that need to be addressed separately for a completely open and rational discussion to take place:
- Are carbon pricing instruments alone effective in reducing emissions at all?
- Are they effective ENOUGH given the ultimate purpose of stabilizing the climate?
- Is it politically wise to “shut up about” an alternative even though it doesn’t support your potential allies? Are you supporting your mutual enemies, the fossil fuel industries and climate deniers, by offering a “more radical” but potentially actually effective alternative that is critical of mainstream climate action advocates?
I will try to address each of these briefly here:
- Carbon pricing instruments have had mixed record of effectiveness with some leading to or at least associated with a plateauing of emissions, though causality is hard to prove.
- The cap and trade instrument, more popular with policymakers besotted with the idea of “markets”, which auctions off and allows trading in permits to pollute rather than sets an across-the-board price, creates a complex bureaucracy around that instrument that tends to serve the purposes of carbon traders rather than the paramount overall purpose of cutting emissions rapidly. Cap and trade has evolved into a way for large polluting entities to be both encumbered by bureaucracy yet also delay investments in cutting emissions. At best it can be viewed as a holding pattern that dangerously is mistaken as effective climate policy by creating a class of stakeholders that believe they are doing “the right thing” when they are only serving too modest goals if any effective goals at all. The adoption of cap and trade policies tends to lead to political leaders and pundits taking their eye off the ultimate goal of cutting emissions in the real physical world.
- Carbon taxes have been tried with some clearer results, including most recently in British Columbia. However the reductions from these measures have all been modest as they have also been imposed timidly, with a low carbon price. No public investment has been foreseen as a result of this carbon taxation that is “sold” to the public and powerful stakeholders as revenue neutral, i.e. a substitute for other taxes, as has happened in British Columbia. Viewed within the carbon pricing framework, the government as creator of real resources by investment is conceived as a bystander in the effort to reduce emissions and not a leader of the effort.
- At higher tax levels we would see definitely some lowered emissions but always on the assumption that an incremental path is how one would achieve the “end goal” of climate policy
- As implied above, both carbon pricing instruments unrealistically view an incremental path to an ultimate goal that is often described as 80% of current or 1990 emissions by the year 2050. This goal is unrealistic from the point of view of rapidly reducing emissions to net zero and mitigating human impacts on the climate system. We need to reach net-zero emissions (100% reduction) and much more quickly than by 2050 to have a shot at stabilizing the climate. There is no point in undertaking a climate policy that does not shoot for very rapid reductions and for a net-zero outcome. A gradualistic approach (targeting at first lower emissions) does not get us rapidly to that goal and creates stakeholders in a lower but not net-zero carbon economy and infrastructure.
- Finally there is the political question of whether, for the sake of solidarity or strategic alliance, one should hold one’s tongue and back the dominant view among those who claim they are concerned or about to act to prevent climate catastrophe.
- I think that given the above, that it would be wrong to hold my tongue if I am of the belief and can back that belief up, that what is being proposed as climate action is grossly inadequate and more of a political “holding pattern” or “fig leaf”. A decisive switch is the only way forward given the time constraints as well as the physical, social, and technological systems involved. The only argument that speaks against truth-telling and a decisive switch is based on credulous belief within a political consensus that has been built up around demonstrably false ideas about the “normal” economy as well as an economy that spurs climate action.
- While some may assume the contrary, this is not a radical pose or a holier-than-thou stance; it is simply realism in the broadest sense of the word versus hapless and now very dangerous idealism. Believe me, I would personally much prefer to “go with the political flow” but I feel compelled to speak out about what I believe to be true at some risk to me and with annoying consequences in terms of a missing public dialogue about real options.
- Furthermore, my stance and the US Climate Platform cannot be interpreted as support for the fossil fuel industries as it spells out their demise as a line of business more explicitly than advocates of carbon-pricing-only or divestment. The US Climate Platform calls for the stepwise, orderly liquidation of the fossil fuel industries, so it would be hard to consider this in any way a love-letter to them and is instead, if it is adopted, a more significant threat than carbon-pricing or divestment alone.
5. “We shouldn’t invest $4 to $6 Trillion per year more in public funds to save humanity because governments spend money inefficiently as compared to the private sector.”
One of the shibboleths of our age is that government is always and only inefficient and ineffective as compared to the private sector or “markets”. This has been a view that has been widely propagated and is held by the political “center” and moderate Left as well as, of course, the right wing. Uncritical market worship is one of the cornerstones of the erroneous and propagandistic neo-liberal governing ideology.
Instead of the categorical smear of government’s efficiency propagated by neo-liberalism, one should say instead: “it depends”. It depends on the government institutions involved, their internal accounting and oversight mechanisms, the domain in which government is spending money, and the historical demands upon society as a whole at any given period of time.
In many areas (and I will address this below as well) governments have been MUCH more efficient than the private sector in the use of funds and therefore the control of inflation of costs. In health care, every developed country spends less than the United States per capita because of either government monopoly management of health care or strict government regulation of non-profit entities that administer insurance programs. The belief that somehow private health insurers are an integral part of the US healthcare system has meant supporting a healthcare system that is bloated and inefficient. Similarly in those domains where very large and expensive infrastructure is required to deliver basic services, government entities like publicly owned electric utilities generally deliver those services more cheaply.
Markets work better in those sectors of the economy where individualized personal service and varieties of taste are driving factors in the successful delivery of goods and services. Restaurants are examples of areas where markets work very well. Markets work less well in the area of supplying food for human need and this is where we often find the almost universal practice of subsidizing farming because basic food supply is a “need” and not, as with the choice of restaurant meals, a “want”.
If the platform I am proposing were to be realized, the government would be most often operating or heavily regulating and restructuring sectors of the economy where it is MORE LIKELY that it could do so efficiently and without placing undue strain on the resources of the private sector, in particular households and businesses delivering real goods and services. Expensive infrastructure projects like train systems and electrical transmission networks are areas where the government could deliver services effectively and efficiently as compared to the private sector.
However there should be oversight and continuous monitoring of the government’s ability to serve the public and the purpose of achieving net zero carbon emissions. With the increased power of the government should come the strengthening or founding of watchdog agencies that look out for abuses and inefficiencies. Best however, would be if an ethic of service were to be reinforced and built into the culture of governing as well as in discussions of the process of governing and monitoring government more generally. Starting with the assumption of self-dealing as an expectation is the current default assumption that will only create more self-dealing and possible corruption. The point of departure should be the expectation of service to the public in combination with enlightened self-interest, enabled by adequate compensation, benefits, and appropriate government work rules. The possibility of self-dealing should be ALSO allowed for in institutional arrangements and funding, monitored, investigated, and, if need be, prosecuted.
6. “The climate mobilization entailed by this massive program of government investment will change society a great deal and my family and I are quite comfortable as we are and are wary of change. I enjoy driving my car as much as I like and taking as many trips by plane as we can afford or make sense to us. We need a large SUV to get my whole family into. We know small business people who depend on driving almost a thousand miles a week for deliveries or business meetings. Therefore we shouldn’t undertake this program even though it appears the climate is changing for the worse and we may have a role in it”
The above objection is one that few people would articulate explicitly yet it can be assumed that some act as if these are their values and beliefs. It is a composite of a number of possible personal and small business objections to the climate mobilization. Present satisfactions and sources of income loom for most people larger than large scale social and environmental challenges. Risks to those satisfactions and income are for those who focus on the everyday are to be avoided. Those satisfactions and lines of work depend now, for the most part, on copious use of fossil fuels. A commitment to these satisfactions can often coexist in the same person with an understanding that fossil fuels cause dangerous or catastrophic climate change.
The last sentence above describes very common middle-of-the-road and left-wing forms of climate denial. A mental partition is maintained between “right-thinking” understanding that we are changing the climate and continuing a lifestyle and political life as if that climate change is something that doesn’t really concern us right now and decisive action can be postponed. This partition enables these day-to-day climate deniers to enjoy both the satisfaction of being “right” about climate change in the abstract while continuing to live their lifestyle as they would without awareness of the threat of climate catastrophe looming.
The left-wing version of climate denial refocuses political awareness on either peripheral issues related to climate change or to the traditional concerns of either the Left or environmental movements, relabeling those “climate” activism. For instance, an example of the latter that is very common are various anti-fossil fuel campaigns that focus on the particular local damages associated with fossil fuel extraction, refining or transport. This activism is often now couched in terms of “climate justice”, where the notion of injustice and corporate malfeasance are direct extensions of traditional Left politics. In this framework, there is no near-universal problem of fossil fuel dependence, only the familiar victimization of outgroups or less powerful groups by powerful corporations or elites.
Closely related to left wing concerns about climate “justice”, where climate concern is subordinated to a demand for social equality in the contemporary generation, are middle-of-the-road “green” or environmentalist forms of climate denial, where the focus remains on the local damages to local and regional environments rather than the global problem of a changing climate system due to dependence on fossil fuel. That the “green” lifestyle of nature appreciation is often critically dependent upon fossil fuel use to “escape” civilization is often not publicly acknowledged by those who continue to focus only on local pollution and local, visible environmental disruptions.
Ultimately to accept that we must act as a society to change our energy system in the very near term means also accepting risks to current satisfactions and ways of life. To countenance a climate mobilization, large sectors of the population that are now in various forms of climate denial will need to realize that some things must change pretty rapidly and that they are willing to make adjustments or even spearhead change in their own areas of interest or expertise.
7. “I criticize society and government ‘from the outside’. I cannot take up an advocacy position that commits to so many defined projects and changes in direction. It will ruin my stance as an independent critic. I want to remain devoid of commitments that would endanger my reputation for independence and weigh me down.”
Again, another inferred but likely position of some, especially in the Internet age where many people, including this writer, can make their voice heard to large numbers of other people. The US Climate Platform, that is in its current stages provisional, would demand a commitment of to a complex and involving project that is an attempt at a solution to a devastating problem, not simply pointing out and lamenting that problem.
Those who are enamored of the stance of a critic will definitely shy away from pushing for positions that open themselves to criticism. Critics tend to want to “see” but not “be seen” in terms of the content of their own positive commitments.
My response to this (inferred) objection is that there is a physical world that makes one’s critical stance possible in the first place. The activities which support intellectual activity are all “prior to” or fundamental to criticism, an intellectual activity. If we are in the process of destroying the ability for us and those in the future to be critics, preserving one’s own critical stance at the expense of action, could be an expression of narcissism and ingrained habit.
8. “We shouldn’t save civilization.
- We should go back to a pre-civilized way of life.
- Or at least we should thoroughly overturn the current civilization because it is based on capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, ecocidal tendencies and the oppression of gay and transgender people.
- Or we humans are all already fundamentally asocial and civilization is a thin coating on our basically savage human nature.”
In this objection I compress the views of three distinct groups into a single objection: what they share is a sense that it is not worth it to preserve almost anything of what we currently have in this civilization. The first group are those that might be called explicitly or implicitly neoprimitivist. The second group are those that claim to be so disgusted with features of our current society that they would rather destroy it rather than rescue it, and claim to advocate or sympathize with social and cultural revolutionary ideas. The third group are a mostly reactionary group that see society as a “jungle” where they are entitled or driven to carve out what they want without regard for the state of society as a whole.
- Neoprimitivists think of themselves often as radical environmentalists who see society as so destructive of the natural world, a world to which they claim to be close, that it should be destroyed or broken up into small quasi-tribal units. Neoprimitivists tend to promote an idealized view of tribal life and of nature itself, even though, often they live lives that are distinctly modern. If they touch on the upcoming climate catastrophe they either think they have the right programmatic solution or they think that by dint of the destruction caused by climate upheavals that people will spontaneously adopt a tribal/primitivist lifestyle. Neoprimitivists claim not to “care” about civilization, so would not go to extraordinary lengths to save it.
- Social and cultural revolutionaries or those who claim sympathy with the idea of such revolutions think that the basis of our current society is fundamentally flawed, usually attributing the flaw to some combination of capitalism, the institution of government itself, racism, neo-colonialism, patriarchy or various sexual oppressions and exclusions. Therefore to attempt to salvage parts of it or rescue civilization, to these groups, is a reactionary or even deadly act; the society we live in is supposedly so toxic that the social structure in its entirety must be somehow gotten rid of first before we address climate change (or they believe somehow getting rid of the society will spontaneously address humanity’s climate impacts). People who espouse these views claim not to be against the idea of civilization but want, it appears, only an, in their view, perfected civilization to survive or emerge. They evince, it might appear to many, an extreme sensitivity to injustice and slight and a distaste for social hierarchies and compromises with social reality, a distaste which some might call naïve or otherworldly. The technical details of cutting emissions seem to be uninteresting to these people or they do not have the patience to absorb those details. In their view, the Revolution or similar cataclysmic social event will make attention to such details redundant as it will solve all social and environmental issues. This is a contemporary secular version of millenarianism, the belief that a Millenium or millennial event will invert or destroy the mundane world, ushering in a new era of justice.
- In the final group are mostly right-wing reactionaries, who are often mislabeled as “conservatives” by themselves and by their supposed liberal opponents or liberal commentators. Reactionaries in the US tend to evince a scorn for civilization or at least the work of maintaining a civilized society, seeing in the dependence on (different) others a personal weakness or danger that they seek to guard against or to symbolically destroy. Many on the American right-wing fantasize that they already live in a Hobbesian State of Nature, where aggression and subversion of social rules is the norm rather than the exception. Civilization is considered to be an “effeminate” concept within this group. However, American reactionaries think that their individual merits, drawn heavily from the stereotypical masculine, which they imagine to be not the product of culture or civilization but an individualized gift from Nature, justify a hierarchical distribution of wealth or advantages. The, to reactionaries, thin veil of civilization is something to be used and exploited but does not, in their view, merit great effort in maintaining. Therefore such an effort as proposed in the US Climate Platform would be something that many on the right-wing would instinctively fight against because the entire premise contradicts their idea that society is a veil over a state of Nature, as above.
As the reader might guess, my position is at variance with all three of these rather nihilistic tendencies. I think both that civilization is worth saving and that to either maintain or improve civilization requires work, money and demand creation by governments. It requires the building of institutions or the utilization of existing institutions for different ends. All of these groups, neoprimitivist, social/cultural revolutionary, or reactionary, believe that institutions are essentially corrupt or useful insofar as they are a source of raw material to be expropriated for their individual or small-group ends. The US Climate Platform recognizes that laws and institutions are extremely important and must be altered or thoroughly transformed to meet the enormous challenge ahead.