There’s a Better Climate Strategy Than Hope

On this Easter, a day symbolizing hope, a commentary in the New York Times advises against it.

The author, Simon Critchley, has a problem with hope in the absence of evidence. He relates the story of the invasion of Melos, an island ally of ancient Sparta. When the Athenians told the Melians to surrender or be destroyed, they expressed hope that Sparta would rescue them. The Athenians pointed out how very unlikely that was: Athenian ships surrounded their island, and Sparta had no navy to speak of. But the Melians again said they would rely on hope, despite the absence of any evidence that such hope was realistic. The Athenians grimly carried out their threat.

When it comes to climate change, we’ve pretty much been Melians. In the face of an overwhelming reality, our response has been largely to hope that somehow we will be rescued from it, despite very strong evidence that only action can prevent its worst consequences.

In fact, we’ve relied on hope so strongly that we’re going in the wrong direction: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers, about half of cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the last 40 years, and they’ve increased in the last ten.

There’s another article in today’s NYT’s Business section about Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues that growing wealth inequality is built into today’s capitalism, and that it’s inherently destructive. He points out that equities return four to five percent on investment, but overall economic growth is only 1.5 percent. In other words, the disproportionate accumulation of wealth to capital is structural. The injustice of accumulated, inherited wealth is likely to increase social instability, to the detriment of poor and wealthy alike.

Both the French and American Revolutions were reactions to structural aristocracy, and both attempted to replace aristocratic rule with democracy. America succeeded. It seems implicit that, for democracy to continue, there must be some mechanism to de-link money from power and prevent it from accumulating in too few hands.

With Citizens United and McCutcheon, we’re obviously going in the wrong direction on that front, too. And there’s no doubt that if climate change worsens, it will exaggerate every bad social and political trend, including the pernicious effect of income inequality on democracy.

But there is something we can do to replace climate hope with climate action, and help democracy in the process. We can institute an annually escalating, revenue-neutral carbon tax assessed at the mine, well, or port of entry, and return the revenue to each American on a per-capita basis. The Alaska Permanent Fund returns oil revenue to Alaskans this way.

A carbon tax with a per-capita dividend reverses several bad trends in one fell swoop. It makes polluting expensive.  It provides corporations the  incentive to reduce carbon emissions. It rewards low-carbon consumer choices. It gathers revenue from those who are disproportionately appropriating our atmosphere for selfish purposes and gives the frugal and the energy-conscious a way to capture some income, which spreads wealth in a way that’s positive for both the economy and democracy.

If you want to do something about climate change besides hope, please write to your Congressperson about the carbon tax.

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