Inaction has consequences. And inaction in the face of humanity’s ultimate challenge – climate change – will leave us and future generations with a planet that is hotter, poorer, and more violent. Time is running out. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that we have twelve years left to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius to prevent the most catastrophic damage. Given that the global economy still derives four-fifths of its energy from fossil fuels, radical action to limit carbon emissions is imperative.
Does that radicalism, however, justify rebuilding society from scratch? Many activists, for example, believe that decarbonization demands replacing our current economic and political systems with public control of capital. Maybe they’re right. The damage already wrought by global warming is ample justification to reexamine some of the priorities that have guided economic policy in the developed world since the Industrial Revolution. Such massive coordination of economic activity without the price signals of a competitive market, however, has been attempted before. The results have consistently been suboptimal, even in countries as different from each other as Sweden and Venezuela.
Perhaps this time will be different; the sense of urgency could mobilize enough residents and industries to act quickly and effectively. In the United States, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently galvanized the Democratic Party with her push for a Green New Deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to climate change as the “existential threat of our time” on the first day of the new Congress and established the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The Democratic Party’s more centrist establishment probably wouldn’t have come out so strongly on climate policy without Representative Ocasio-Cortez and the forceful insistence of other young progressives. Still, attempting to remake society so drastically risks overshooting the target and could further divide lobbyists and policymakers on the issue.
I lean towards the camp that believes our existing liberal institutions can accommodate vigorous measures to protect the environment. That work begins with reforming our markets so both producers and consumers can internalize the costs of pollution in their transactions, either through carbon taxes or emissions trading. Such measures clearly fall within the government’s purview in a liberal, free-market democracy. Even many economically conservative policy analysts agree the public sector should either regulate or impose costs on polluters. Industry titans who recognize the promises of green technology have also pressured governments in recent years to take aggressive action and promote sustainable investment. However the Yellow Vest protests in France show that much of the public isn’t in love with carbon pricing without additional measures to soften its impact on vulnerable people. Politicians should take notice if they are serious about stopping climate change.
Each strategy I mentioned above has its share of strengths and weaknesses, and we should view them as complimentary paradigms. It was in this spirit that I asked Jan Dash, a theoretical physicist and financial analyst who manages the Climate Portal, and Vonda Brunsting, a labor activist and fellow at the Hauser Institute for Civil Society, to speak at an event I organized for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office last December. Both emphasize in their work that social justice must be part of any effective climate policy. Brunsting has written about the urgency of a “just transition”, where businesses and investors engage with activists to ensure that no communities are left financially stranded while our society makes the leap from fossil fuels to clean energy. Dash’s experience working in the financial sector has made him attuned to the risks that climate change poses to the economy, and how individual firms are responding to those threats.
Optimism is warranted despite the challenges ahead. Public support for climate action in the United States is robust - according to a 2018 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a clear majority in all but three of the nation’s 435 congressional districts supports federal policies to protect the Earth from global warming. The pressure to act is finally high enough that some Republican lawmakers are introducing or cosponsoring legislation that taxes carbon and returns the money to the people, either though infrastructure spending or a universal dividend. President Trump and his ring of fossil fuel sycophants notwithstanding, activists of all political stripes are making the fight to stop climate change a bipartisan cause in the United States once again.