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.



Filed under Climate Change, Democracy, Economics

5 responses to “There’s a Better Climate Strategy Than Hope

  1. I’ve read Simon Critcley’s opinion piece and downloaded Piketty’s book (over 900 pages, haven’t read it yet!) The two taken together make for a very strong argument that something indeed needs to be done, and your suggestion of a carbon tax is most welcome: it’s a simple measure, easy to apply and should have immediate results.

    Because what is missing here is not the science – to deny Climate Change is absurd – but the politics. And the politics are embroiled (as Piketty points out in his ponderous book) in growing income inequality. The ultra rich has no interest in abandoning their income from pollution-producing industries and the ultra rich control the political scene in America but elsewhere too.

    Something needs to be done to wake up the public and I believe that’s where us writers have a duty – the duty of care. Cli Fi novels have a role to play in depicting a future of global collapse – and that’s, alas, easily done by simply extending current trends in society (like Climate Change of course, but also the population explosion, industrialization and urbanization, especially in the Third World). Hopefully, the result for readers will be a wake-up call: they will see that if nothing is done to stop/reverse current social/ecoomic trends, we are headed for extinction of life on Earth – not now, but in the near future. I place the turning point when we can’t go back at some 200 years from now (that’s the premise of my Cli Fi novel “Forever Young”)

    The very slowness of this self-destruction process is what makes it go on and on without any real effort to stop it, precisely because it is sustained by the divide between the haves (with an investment in the status quo) and the have-nots…

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I wish we had 200 years. I think that overestimates it by a factor of 10, or even 20. The latest IPCC report (AR5) splits the difference at 15 years, although they’re vague on what has to happen by then. A permanently trending reduction in year-over-year carbon emissions, I think.

  2. quick note this piece was NOT an editorial in the New York Times was a personal commentary aka OPED piece, an editorial is unsigned and representes the POV of the editorial board of the PAPER….so this is NOt an editorial, alot of non newsroom people don’t understand this. now you do. smile. danny newsroom guy

  3. NOT AN EDITORIAL way, that is a personal commentary piece an OPED not an EDITORIAL

    ask me why


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