Just Climate Policy

Topon Mondal doesn’t drive a big car. The temperature inside his home often rises above 100 degrees, but he never runs an air conditioner. In fact, living in a hut and laboring by hand, the Bangladeshi farmer doesn’t contribute very much at all to global warming. Still, climate change has already transformed his life. He used to grow rice and vegetables, as his father did, in the village of Munshiganj, about 55 miles from the Bay of Bengal in thesouthwestern corner of the South Asian country. Then the sea levels began to rise and salt leached into the groundwater beneath Topon Mondal’s village. The rice and vegetable harvests—which had helped to feed his family, his village, and his country—began to decline. Mondal switched to shrimp farming. Virtually all the shrimp harvest, however, now goes overseas. “The shrimp are far too valuable for us to eat,” he says.

The switch from rice to shrimp by the country’s coastal farmers is not the only effect of climate change for Bangladeshis. In 2004, the country suffered devastating floods that left hundreds dead and millions homeless. It was the worst flooding in years, and climatologists predict even worse to come. Most of Bangladesh occupies plains that are just above sea level. A few inches rise in ocean waters will cause damage and death to dwarf the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Bangladesh is a poor country and does not have the means to protect itself from the rising tide. Even if it embarked on a radical plan of energy conservation, it wouldn’t matter. The average Bangladeshi emits less than 1% of the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the average American (392 pounds versus 21 tons). The fate of millions of Bangladeshis, then, lies in the hands of other people—the hands that steer SUVs, turn up air conditioners, and refuse to sign significant legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Bangladesh is not, of course, alone in feeling the heat of global warming. Island nations like the Seychelles watch as the oceans shrink their territory. The residents of low-lying coastal countries like The Netherlands peer fearfully over their dykes. The shrinking Arctic ice cap, the spread of malaria to higher altitudes, drought in the U.S. southwest: the warning signs are there for all to see.

Climate change is now finally getting some of the attention it deserves. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth won an academy award. Huge “Live Earth” concerts this summer will feature the biggest bands in the world. Wal-Mart and the Pentagon are embracing energy efficiency out of their own institutional self-interest. Even journalist Thomas Friedman, the guru of globalization, has officially gone green. And a sheaf of new international studies has overwhelmed the skeptics and confirmed our worst fears. We have a very limited amount of time to change course, the costs of avoiding change are enormous, and radical action is necessary.

But so far, the Bush administration has not shown any leadership on this critical issue. Even though the United States signed the Kyoto global warming agreement in 1997, the Bush administration has opposed the agreement and turned its back on the other 160 signatories. In March 2007, the administration submitted its “climate action report” to the United Nations, which concluded that the United States would emit almost as much carbon dioxide in the next decade as it had in the last decade. Here, alas, was a dramatic demonstration of the failure of voluntary approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.When the administration later announced a new approach at the end of May, it clung to this same voluntary approach. But if countries are not obligated to reduce emissions, history suggests that they simply won’t do so.

The U.S. Congress is just now considering climate change legislation. But the congressional opposition has yet to advance a comprehensive alternative to the Bush administration’s foot-dragging approach. Many of the so-called solutions now being put forward are piecemeal and insufficient. They will only delay the adjustments that the United States needs to make.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is a justice issue. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has called climate change “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.” The citizens of Bangladesh and Uganda—and the poorer inhabitants of New Orleans—suffer because of the wasteful energy policies of the rich. A just policy toward climate change must first acknowledge America’s disproportionate use of natural resources. To reduce the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it must be the 300 million Americans—not the 150 million Bangladeshis—who take bold steps and shoulder the greater financial burden.

Core Misconceptions

Over the past two years, rising temperatures, drought, record floods, and storms have grabbed headlines around much of the world. In early fall 2005, the mass media began writing more extensively about climate change in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, hurricanes made more devastating because of the warming of the Gulf of Mexico. In late 2006 and early 2007, three high-level reports appeared in rapid succession. The Stern Review predicted enormous economic consequences of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report confirming the scientific evidence behind climate change assessments. And in March 2007, the UN and the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society offered several dozen recommendations to follow up on the IPCC findings.

Each of these studies advanced the public’s understanding that corporate and human activity accelerates climate chaos. Responding to this heightened awareness, American political leaders have gone from a state of denial to a state of feverish activity. However, the rush to submit legislation under a Democratic-controlled Congress has promoted many wrong-headed solutions. These measures will only delay an even more painful and costly transition down the road because they are rooted in one or more misconceptions. Many still err in believing that climate change is not urgent and can be handled with minor tinkering, that technology and market mechanisms by themselves can solve the problem, that the problems lie with China and India, and that Americans can blithely maintain unsustainable, and ultimately unhealthy, lifestyles.

Until we address these core misconceptions, workable alternatives cannot replace the current failed policies.

Misconception: Climate change can be fixed with only minor tinkering.

Most scientists now concur that we will pass a climate change tipping point unless countries collectively agree to stop the growth of fossil fuel use within a decade or less. We need to stabilize our carbon dioxide emissions at atmospheric concentrations of at most 400 to 450 parts per million (ppm). Unchecked, the rate will rise to 550 ppm by mid-century, and and it will be too late to stop the more catastrophic aspects of climate change, including a possible shutdown in the ocean current that warms Europe and a loss of over 50% of Africa’s surface water. In a world of rising population—and increased economic growth—meeting such targets is impossible without a significant change in course.

The climate crisis is taking place within a broader crisis of widespread natural resource depletion. Traditional and readily accessible sources of oil are likely to peak in the next decade. At the same time, oil consumption is skyrocketing in China, India, and other rapidly growing economies. As a result, fossil fuel prices are rising and competition is growing among the biggest economies over oil supplies. On top of this, we face a dangerous depletion of the Earth’s fresh water, its forests, and its arable land. The water crisis is perhaps the most urgent. Roughly 1.2 billion people suffer from lack of access to clean drinking water. Every year, over two million people die from preventable diarrhea contracted from drinking unsafe water.

The outcome of these inter-related crises may soon be a general breakdown of the most basic economic and social structures of our society. The building blocks of modern industrial society—export-oriented manufacturing, long-distance transport systems, large-scale industrial food production, complex urban and suburban systems, the dominance of the private auto, and many commodities basic to our present lifestyle—all rely on cheap energy supplies. The era of cheap energy is coming to a close.

If countries do not adjust their economies or the mindsets of their citizenry to meet this challenge, the world may soon face economic upheavals, human and environmental tragedies, and violent struggles to control the world’s last resources. History is full of wars that have been fought over natural resources, but they will be dwarfed by the looming scramble over what is left if we don’t change course.

The scale and urgency of the climate change problem suggest that tinkering on the margins is not sufficient. The Stern Review conservatively predicts a cut of 20% in global economic activity if climate change continues unabated. Nor is this an issue that can be put off for the next generation to decide. According to James Hansen, a leading expert at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, there is at most a decade in which to launch substantial change. After that, the earth will pass the tipping point, “a point of no return, beyond which the built-in momentum and feedbacks will carry us to levels of climate change with staggering consequences for humanity and all of the residents of this planet.” More recent reports suggest that the world might not have even 10 years within which to take significant action.

The Bush administration continues to oppose anything more than a fresh coat of paint for the deck chairs on the Titanic and won’t even expend the effort to rearrange them. The existing congressional climate change proposals, such as the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act introduced by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Senate, at least set the right directions for the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. But passage of such bills is not assured, and implementation will be even less likely given both parties’ reluctance to put the necessary economic restructuring on the table.

Misconception: Technology, the market, and the experts can solve the crisis.

Politicians in the United States and most other countries often get elected with a can-do enthusiasm. They tout the technological prowess of engineers to tackle any problem thrown in their path and extol the virtues of markets to solve what technology cannot. With climate change, this enthusiasm is dangerously misplaced.

Instead of facing the urgent need to cut fossil fuel use, politicians are lining up behind technologies that look good on paper but don’t deliver the goods. Technology to make coal-burning plants cleaner, for instance, is both expensive and not as clean as advertised. New ways to capture and store carbon are also expensive, unproven, and require abundant energy to carry out. Nuclear energy is extremely expensive, creates security problems with byproducts that can be turned into nuclear weapons, and burdens future generations with costly waste disposal quandaries that threaten the health and safety of millions. The revolution in biofuels made from farm products, which is driving up corn and sugar prices and threatening habitats, ignores the enormous energy inputs required to create the much-lauded energy outputs. And science-fiction schemes to “geo-engineer” the earth, for instance by deliberately polluting the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and lower temperatures or seeding the oceans with nanoparticles of iron, offer a flawed cure that is potentially worse than the illness.

The blind faith in future and futuristic technology becomes more dangerous still when linked to the reckless embrace of the market. Indeed, markets got us into this crisis in the first place. As the Stern Review concludes, climate change is the “greatest market failure the world has seen.” The “invisible hand” of the market has turned up the global thermostat by encouraging unsustainable production and putting few limits on individual and corporate behavior. Markets by themselves will do nothing to improve the situation and will likely make matters worse. Take the case of the technology proposed to solve the world’s growing water crisis. Markets and corporations will not determine the safety of nuclear-powered desalination plants or nanotech water purification systems. “The big water companies are pushing for deregulation of water—much like the deregulation of telecommunications that happened last decade,” writes Canadian water activist Maude Barlow. “So that they can make the decisions about this technology solely on a profit-oriented basis and not be held accountable.”

The intersection of technology and the market is even more problematic in the case of schemes to counter global warming. The key global agreement governing climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, uses market mechanisms to avoid the need to cut fossil fuel use. Kyoto allows a nation like Japan to avoid cutting carbon dioxide emissions if it uses carbon trading to pay for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in other nations. Such trades allow wealthy countries to avoid tough but potentially more effective choices in how to cut overall carbon dioxide emissions.

Despite the endorsement of the World Bank, carbon trading is a deeply flawed approach. Without recognition of the broader resource crises, carbon trading can support projects in poor countries that exacerbate other crises. For example, carbon trades promoted by the World Bank include subsidies for cinder-block makers that use toxic fly ash from coal-fired power plants to make their products. Such trades actually create perverse incentives to develop industries that are potent greenhouse gas emitters.

Carbon-trading proposals merely create a new market and new opportunities for corporate profit, but don’t promote renewable energy. Such trading schemes are often little more than shell games in which countries and corporations can hide their polluting activities in new guises. Most congressional critics of the Bush administration have not thought beyond this inadequate carbon-trading approach. And the Bush administration remains cool even to carbon trading. “We don’t believe targets and timetables are important, or a global cap and trade system,” says chief U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson. “It’s important not to jeopardize economic growth.”

Climate science is often a daunting field of knowledge. Even more challenging is the set of elaborate, acronym-riddled policy prescriptions that experts put forward to solve the problem. Despite many congressional hearings on the problem, powerful interests continue to hammer out energy policy—which has a tremendous impact on climate change—in backrooms with little if any public input. To push elected officials to address climate change and embrace more sustainable energy alternatives will require an informed electorate that is not kept at arm’s length from the policy debate. The experts will not magically solve this crisis with quick fixes or free-market proposals. An engaged population must be part of the process.

Misconception: China and India are the problem, not the United States.

The United States produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country: over six billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. However, China is fast catching up and will soon surpass the United States. By 2030, China and India will lead the developing world, accounting for about 70% of the growth in energy demand and, depending on their energy choices, in future greenhouse gas emissions.

“The truth about climate change policy is that developing countries are where most of the future action has to be,” declares former World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers. But this common observation misses the point. Greenhouse gas emissions should be assessed in an historical context and in terms of per capita emissions. So, for instance, China will shortly surpass total annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Historically, however, the United States produced far more greenhouse gas emissions than either China or India. And the Chinese still produce only 3.2 tons and Indians only 1.2 tons per capita compared to 21 tons for individual Americans. Also, foreign corporations headquartered in wealthy nations own many factories producing carbon emissions in India, China, and other rapidly industrializing countries, so it is not so easy to assign responsibility for the pollution. The United States must work with other nations on climate change, but most of all it must work on itself.

China recently instituted a policy of cutting energy intensity by 20% per unit of GDP by 2010. China also plans to boost its use of renewable energy to 16% by 2020. Its automobiles are required to get 5% greater fuel economy than current U.S. automobiles and 10% greater fuel economy standards than U.S. automobiles by 2008. One in 10 Chinese households uses a solar water heater, and now the Chinese government is urging builders and new businesses to use solar water heating whenever possible.

With Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035, water tables dropping, and crop productivity falling, both China and India are beginning to recognize that unrestrained emissions are literally suicidal. What China and India want and need is investment in their infrastructure—in public transportation, power, and new building construction—that will ensure their efficient use of non-renewable fuels while phasing in clean, renewable sources of energy as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and others are encouraging China, India, and other developing countries to do just the opposite. International financial institutions are extending loans and credits for developing countries to ramp up investments in fossil fuels for domestic consumption, expand unsafe and expensive nuclear power, and invest in unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage for coal-fired power plants while encouraging the proliferation of carbon trades rife with corruption.

Misconception: U.S. citizens won’t give up unsustainable, unhealthy lifestyles in order to solve the problem of global warming.

First the good news. Going green is good for you. Powering down to ways of living that use much less energy can lead to a healthier and more deeply fulfilling way of life for Americans. More exercise, a better diet, cleaner natural surroundings, more time with the family: the quality of life for U.S. citizens would improve, not deteriorate, in a green new world. The U.S. public is already getting on board. We are buying hybrid cars and more efficient appliances. We will back a gas tax if the revenues are put toward reducing global warming. We are looking more carefully at what we eat and how it is grown.

How can we bring this leaner, greener lifestyle more fully into the American mainstream? First of all, we need to cut down on cars and hamburgers. The auto and agribusiness cultures in the United States are at the center of a lifestyle that quite literally fuels the climate crisis. The United States has 5% of the world population but emits close to 25% of manmade greenhouse gasses. The global footprint of U.S. citizens—the percentage of the earth’s biologically productive space that a country actually uses—is a whopping 9.7 hectares per person, compared to 4.7 for Europe and only 1.6 for China. Worse, this footprint grew by 21% from 1992 to 2002. Our agribusiness is fossil-fuel intensive, our homes are enormous even by European or Japanese standards, and our car use is unrivalled in the world.

A coordinated national drive toward energy efficiency and a rapid clean energy transition will require common sense. More American consumers must switch to more efficient appliances and modes of transportation. American businesses can save money by using more efficient machines and warehouses. The federal government can encourage this change with subsidies, tax incentives, and improved performance standards for industry and the home.

But efficiency alone will not reduce the U.S. global footprint and avoid the climate change tipping point. To prevent global warming and deal with growing global economic disparities, the United States must work hand in hand with the developing world to achieve an equitable compromise. For a billion people in the developing world to rise out of poverty—at a time when their countries are poised to increase radically their greenhouse gas emissions through economic growth—citizens in the United States, Europe, and Japan will have to change their lifestyles.

A Just Security Policy

Nature’s clock is ticking: we don’t have much time to act. The world as a whole must move toward smaller-scale economic systems and local, renewable energy systems. U.S. actions are central to success. A just climate policy will depend on altered government policies and an immediate move to existing sustainable technologies. It will require a shift from supporting dirty energy to subsidizing clean energy. It should involve nudging countries with carrots and sticks to exceed the Kyoto targets with a rapid phase-down in unsustainable energy consumption and a rapid phase-in of clean, renewable energy. For the Kyoto-averse United States, a top priority for the next president will be to participate in the next round of negotiating binding, international reduction targets.

Since global warming respects no national boundaries, our strategy cannot stop at the water’s edge. Since climate change is taking place in a world sharply divided between rich and poor, our strategy must also address the distribution of pollution and proportional responsibility for the mess we’ve made.

At Home

The United States can achieve rapid increases in efficiency with existing technology, given the right economic signals. If a new technology proves beneficial, then reductions can accelerate. But we cannot bank on this possibility. Setting stricter standards for pollutants is one approach that relies on existing technology. In the 1980s, countries introduced effective new standards on chlorofluorocarbon emissions that successfully headed off a crisis with the ozone layer. Performance standards tied to reducing carbon emissions from new autos, appliances, factories, and power plants can similarly play an important role in heading off this larger climate change crisis. A first step would be for every new energy consuming and carbon-emitting product to meet much stricter efficiency standards.

In addition to setting stricter performance standards, the U.S. government must wash its hands of subsidies for dirty technologies. The federal government subsidizes the nuclear power industry to the tune of several billion dollars per year. In 2005, the government provided $4.25 billion in tax subsidies for conventional fossil fuels. In the last half of the 20th century, these dirty energy sources received between $115 and $147 billion in subsidies compared to only $5 billion in subsidies for renewable energy. Moreover, the price Americans pay at the pump for oil—$320 billion in 2006—is only half the actual cost of the U.S. military protecting our access and supply lines.

Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy would reduce these costs and the conflicts associated with them while speeding the pace at which renewable energy use becomes cost-competitive. Further, we must tax this unsustainable energy use to reduce social and environmental costs beyond global warming. For instance, pollution taxes should be applied to coal: to help pay the health costs borne by miners and people downstream and downwind of mines and power plants, to create alternative employment, and to restore wildlife habitats.

This direct tax on pollutants can go into a “Climate and Energy Security Fund.” If only 15% of the revenues from a carbon tax went to income-tax reduction, energy efficiency, and investment in renewable energy sources, it could eliminate the adverse impact on energy prices. Consumers would in fact spend less on energy: 30% less on petroleum, almost 50% less on electricity, and about 25% less on natural gas. A $50 dollar per ton tax on carbon—which was then redirected into incentives for renewable energy—would achieve reductions of carbon emissions of roughly 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. By 2020, such a tax would reduce oil imports by the amount we now buy from all members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries at no net cost to the taxpayer. This tax shift could provide incentives for energy efficiency nationally. The United States could reduce its electric energy use by 20-45% using commercially available, cost-effective technologies.

Existing technology can meet our electricity needs. Consider what we can produce, like magicians, out of thin air. Wind farms in a few states could supply all of the U.S. electric energy needs while eliminating more than a third of the climate-changing and health-damaging air pollution U.S. sources emit. New York State is already exploiting its very large wind energy capacity by building new wind farms relatively close to some of the largest markets on the continent. Tax policy has played a critical role in bringing wind technology to market. A production tax credit helped promote the development of wind farms across the country and establish wind as a mainstream option for new power generation. There is also a need for greater investment in water-reservoir, hydrogen, and battery storage of energy from renewable sources such as wind, especially for use where these generation sources are not yet connected to the grid. Depending on local conditions, solar energy, geothermal, and small hydro are also attractive for both supplemental and new sources of energy.

This transformation of the U.S. economy from wasteful to sustainable presents an enormous opportunity. The new Green economy can create millions of new jobs: manufacturing energy-efficient technologies, retrofitting existing factories and buildings, and helping other countries meet the new energy efficiency standards. The Apollo Alliance dubs this new sector of the workforce “green collar jobs.”

And Abroad

Tax policy at home will have little impact if it doesn’t address the global imbalance of wealth, energy use, and resource exploitation. One way of addressing global inequities is through green fees. Countries set fees on imported goods and services to reflect the sustainability of the methods and materials that went into them. Under such an arrangement, for instance, Germany could put a surcharge on a car imported from Sweden if it was built with less sustainable materials or processes than German cars. In this way, countries and corporations would not be able to profit by selling items made cheaper by polluting technologies. The proceeds of such a green fee could be used for correcting the domestic damage and made available to developing countries to reduce pollution and increase efficiency and renewable energy production. Such green fees for aid could become part of the post-Kyoto requirements.

In addition, the United States and other countries must ensure that the World Bank and other international financial institutions eliminate loans and subsidies for non-renewable forms of energy. The same principle applies to recipient countries and companies. If their leaders do not adopt green practices despite available assistance, Congress should cut our contributions and commerce accordingly.

Some European countries are leading by example. Sweden has adopted carbon taxes in four stages. Spain, Germany, and Denmark export wind turbines and derive a higher percentage of their energy from wind with a much smaller wind resource than the United States. Some Dutch houses are steady net generators of energy. The UK is pressing for global warming to head the list of items for international cooperation. While climate change negotiators met in Nairobi, Kenya in November of 2006, the heads of state of France and Switzerland called respectively for tariffs on imports to offset lax pollution controls and new global carbon taxes to aid in the adaptation to climate change by developing countries.

It’s not only Europe. China is currently planning to build a new, completely self-sufficient city on an island off Shanghai. The city of Dongtan will house 500,000 people in a car-free environment that produces no greenhouse gasses and recycles virtually everything. The buildings will be energy self-sufficient and made from local materials. Organic farmers on the island will make the city self-sufficient in food.

Climate justice also means widening the zone of engagement beyond the wealthy. Many of the world’s poor live sustainably on the land. They demand that they be given greater control of their local natural resources—and protected from encroachments from agribusiness, mining, and forest corporations—so that they can continue to manage those resources sustainably. But many poorer parts of the world now have natural resources that are badly degraded, and hundreds of millions of people live in urban poverty without access to even the most basic energy services. As such, managed transfers of resources from rich to poor countries must be part of the solution.

Individuals, acting collectively, can be catalysts for change. Through our actions, we can change how we eat, live, travel, and invest to reflect the larger changes needed at a societal level. Equally important, we can demand that our elected officials shift policy to address the huge nature of the problem. The crisis we are facing is on a scale that rivals the threat of Nazism in World War II. Just as that crisis required a significant mobilization of national and global resources so too will any effective response to climate change.

If we act now, we can prevent the seas from wiping out Bangaldesh. We can save the polar bears from extinction in the Arctic Circle. We can stop the droughts from destroying farmland throughout the world. It doesn’t require supernatural powers or some as-yet-undiscovered magic technology. It simply requires that we change how we live and how we relate to the rest of the world.