Tax Justice as Climate Justice

I, for example, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and here, as in all northern megacities, crushing poverty surrounds the comfortable precincts. I can’t call it “extreme” poverty, for of course it cannot compete with the despair endemic to, say, the North African drought zones. But when an organization like Remote Area Medical feels compelled to bring its traveling free clinic to The Oakland Coliseum (now, officially, the Oracle Arena), and when thousands stand for long hours to receive basic care they could not hope to afford, the problem is nonetheless clear. This last April, when the good folks at RAM pulled up stakes and left Oakland for their next stop, it was Haiti. The America they were leaving was not the “exceptional” America of the official dream.

Obviously, there’s lots to say about this. And much from which to avert our eyes. But what else is new? The apologists say that the poor will be with us always, so how is poverty in Oakland California in any way “news?” Or poverty more generally, given the now routine brutalities of the new economy? Or insecurity and suffering more generally still, given the precarious state of the whole global system? And what, finally, has any of this got to do with climate? The answer, simply put, is “everything.” Which is to say that while most economic-justice activists don’t spend much time thinking about the climate crisis, it’s become ridiculously easy to argue that the deficit / budget / tax battle that’s now raging across the wealthy lands of America and Europe is going to have outsized impacts on climate politics both domestic and international. That in fact it already has.

Consider the alacrity with which the right-wing elites moved to exploit the financial crisis, and consider especially the force of their assault. As an American climate hawk, I had to do just exactly this, for I had to watch as the corporate populism of the “Tea Party” swept away a years-in-the making push for carefully calibrated climate legislation as if it was a minor thing, an irrelevancy. Beyond that, the austerity panic party managed to abruptly reset the terms of the overall political debate. To the point, and this is the least you can say, that we’re now in a changed world, playing a changed game. With lots of lessons to be learned.

Today’s climate movement is primed to learn them. For one thing, it’s marked by a pervasive sense of justice, one far beyond the standards of environmentalism’s past. It may even be fair to say that it’s slowly awakening to an expansive, and increasingly coherent, sense of the way forward. The problem is that, despite the terrifying drumbeat that’s coming from the scientists’ quarter, the climate movement is not even close to controlling the terms of the climate debate. That’s the bad news. The good news is that those terms are being reframed before our eyes, as are the politics of health care, and military spending, and national security, and just about everything else on the public agenda. And while the right clearly won the first round with its “we’re broke” revolution, the wheel is very much still in spin. In fact, it seems increasingly like this is a vast watershed of progressive possibility.

To take stock: First the cold shower that was the Copenhagen climate summit, and then the global financial crisis, and then the austerity panic. And now, finally, a pushback, one that’s coming long way round, not from anywhere within the environmental sandbox but from the larger world, the disillusioned, post-bubble, impending-catastrophe world that Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz tagged as Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. A new beginning in which austerity is seen for what it really is, a side effect of inequality.

America is at the center of the storm. How could it not be when the richest 1 percent of its population now controls forty percent of its national wealth. But Europe is roiling and – this is key – there’s also major turbulence in China, the other superpower, where the degree of economic stratification has likewise become unbearably high. All told, there seems to be a kind of crystallization in process, one in which a global push back against millions of discrete infamies comes, at the same time, to stand against the overall logic of business-class aristocracy. This is the news, and it’s everywhere. What’s not everywhere, but should be, is a clear-headed debate about the special stake that climate activists have in the new politics of economic injustice.

Right now, the party of austerity gets a lot more press than economic-justice organizers. And this is likely to continue, at least for a while. The radical right is girding for another assault on Medicare, social-security and the whole 20th-Century social contract, and the mass media, inevitably, will by hypnotized by the spectacle. But maybe, too, the counter-movement will find real traction. If you’re a climate activist of any type – radical or mainline, localist or globe-trotter – you had best hope that it does. Because, late last year, when student protests against draconian cuts in national education spending ignited UK Uncut, an immensely appealing, direct actionist movement that demands that corporations actually pay their taxes, and when, soon thereafter, the flames jumped the Atlantic and, against the background of the Wisconsin showdown, US Uncut appeared on the scene, the calculus of economic justice – and climate justice – and climate politics – abruptly changed.

We talk a lot about green jobs, and we should. The unemployment crisis is a source of bottomless suffering around the world, and the millions upon millions of jobs that would be created by a global emergency climate mobilization are anything but incidental. But there are other conversations to be had as well, including the sharply inconvenient one that we begin when we admit that extremely rapid climate stabilization – the kind we need – is going to cost real money.

To be sure, there’s no good reason to think that rapid climate stabilization would be prohibitively expensive, even in a conventional economic sense. And it could well lead to a new and even emancipatory kind of prosperity. But it wouldn’t be free, and it’s too late to pretend otherwise. Which is to say that, if we’re going to put together a transition story that people can actually believe, we should ensure that it lingers on the great public secret – any rapid climate transition would have redistributive side-effects that are not obviously in the interests of the increasingly self-involved, even oligarchic, rich.

The climate movement isn’t merely up against the fossil cartel. The deeper truth is that the climate crisis has come at a bad time, for it find us in an absurd position, so hamstrung by inequality and its consequent pathologies that we can barely move. This is very bad, in a thousand different ways, but it also means that the climate movement doesn’t have to stand alone. Lines are being drawn, and this time plenty of people – even teachers and cops – are finding themselves on the same side as the enviros. This time, the all-purpose right-wing rejoinder to any and all claims on the public purse, from single-payer health-care to decent public education to government-financed R&D to international climate-transition assistance to well-run national parks – “We’re broke” – seems a whole hell of a lot less unassailable than it did just a few months ago.

I am, I confess, a bit optimistic. The American people, several friends have hastened to tell me, have no recent history with, and no stomach for, economic protest movements. And they (the friends) may well be right. But these things can change, and quickly. In the meanwhile, ask yourself a question. Are you now, or have you ever been, a supporter of the 350 movement? And if you are, do you know what that deceptively simple number actually implies? Are you willing to connect a couple of dots? If so, consider this graph…

Two Emergency Emission Reduction Pathways

Leaving out the details (this graph is based on the UN Environment Program’s Emissions Gap report, which is very much worth a read), know that this is an illustration of the challenging kinds of emissions pathways that the scientists say are necessary if we’re to avoid catastrophe – as opposed to the pseudo-serious kinds that are actually on the negotiating table. The bottom line is that while most of our political leaders pretend to the goal of 2°C maximum warming (the green pathway), their actual emission reduction pledges don’t come even close. Also note that the lower (teal) pathway, the one labeled “Consistent with 1.5°C,” could just as well be labeled “350 ppm.” You can tell because 350 pathways require that global emissions go negative (think large-scale biological sequestration) in about 50 years.

Now ask yourself how, even in your wildest dreams, and no matter how cheap solar electricity comes to be, you can honestly expect the social and economic transition implied by such a pathway to be anything – anything – but incredibly demanding. To the point that it would be effectively impossible without the moral equivalent of a wartime mobilization, which is to say an unprecedented degree of deeply practical, deeply committed, domestic and international cooperation. And that falling short of such cooperation, we’ll be falling far short of 350 ppm as well. We won’t even be getting to the (green) “Consistent with 2°C” pathway, which while more dangerous than 350 ppm, is also more ambitious than anything possible under the sign of today’s business-as-usual world. Which is why wise men like Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, can regretfully tell us that even 2°C is “virtually impossible” to reach, that we can “kiss” goodbye” to any such hopes.

As Birol (and Nicolas Stern) explain here, today’s emission-reduction commitments are simply too small to bring 2°C into reach. But why exactly is this so? One thing’s for sure – it’s not because of any “international impasse.” That rather comforting formulation, much bandied about after Copenhagen, implies a symmetrical North / South standoff, and at this point the arguments for such a framing are few and far between. Indeed, the numbers indicate that developing countries are doing more to curb global emissions than the wealthier ones. This is illustrated by China’s extremely ambitious New Energy investment programs, and even more tellingly by global comparisons based on post-Copenhagen emission-reduction pledges. Which add up, actually, to a pretty absurd situation. Absurd but unsurprising, for the North’s capitols are after all paralyzed by rich-first ideology.

Look again at the chart above; think about what such demanding reduction pathways would imply on the ground. Green jobs? Sure, by the millions. But also a tremendous roiling, a thorough-going restructuring in which new industries rise while others decline, and in the process generate dislocation and insecurity in tremendous waves. Yes. This restructuring is necessary, but it’s also going to be difficult. And if it happens at all, it’s going to happen against the background of an international finance- and technology-sharing regime that will at every point be relentlessly attacked by the right and its allies in the fossil cartel as – what else – a threat to the American way of life.

Why would such attacks fail? Why would dislocation and change on such a scale be accepted in, say, the heartlands of the USA? Why would solidarity instead of nationalist bile come to set the tone? Only because there was also an overarching sense of necessity and shared fate. Only because the ethos of the transition was one of justice and progress, with daily life becoming palpably fairer. Only because we were building a new, no longer winner-take-all world.

To put it schematically: “Getting to 350” – or even to 2°C – means reducing global emissions at unprecedented rates, and continuing to do so for a long time. We can afford this (we have both the money and the technology) but it wouldn’t be free and easy, and it would involve a broad turn towards economic and financial justice, internationally and within countries. If it’s not, it’s not going to happen, which is to say that it’s not going to happen under the sign of austerity and deficit panic. Which is the reason why tax justice and climate justice are close cousins, bound together by fate. To the point, frankly, that it’s hard to see how we can honestly hope to avert climate catastrophe without a major shift back to progressive taxation.

Which brings me to a conference call I recently attended, part of a “listening project” organized by Wealth for the Common Good. The call was to designed to gather input, and thus to help fine tune a quickening campaign for a radically fairer American tax system, one that would come quickly to the center of the American Awakening that, right now, we should all be betting on.

There are ideas in profusion. Some – progressive income and estate taxes come to mind – have been knocking around for years. Some – like ending overseas tax havens – have gained new salience as the Uncut movement has emerged to go after corporate deadbeats like General Electric. Others, like the so-called Robin Hood tax on international financial transfers, are firmly established planks in the platforms of both anti-poverty and climate networks. Others, like carbon taxes of various kinds, are still waiting in the wings, waiting for the seriousness of purpose that would reveal their proper role as standard elements in the financial architecture of the transition world. And, of course, there is the small matter of the American military budget, which has almost doubled since 2001 and which cries out for refocusing, for pruning on a grand scale.

Climate tax ideas, in particular, need real debate. Is a straight carbon tax a good idea? Should we instead support a Fee and Dividend approach, and if so, should all emissions fees be rebated back to the local citizens? If they were, would poor households be fully protected from the costs of the transition? (Today’s high gas costs are just the barest beginning). And, in that case, how would we finance our fair share of the international transition burden, which includes not only the costs of rapid global clean-energy reconstruction but also life-support and relocation assistance for the (largely poor) communities around the world who will first and most directly face the deserts and the storms? Why not go beyond income taxes to actual wealth taxes? Or experiment with steeply progressive consumption taxes – which may be the real mother lode of deep green tax policy?

One thing is clear – if we’re going to move beyond a purely technological conception of the climate transition, we’re going to have to have an adult conversation about how to pay for it. As noted above, it’s not going to be particularly expensive, at least not when compared to the damage costs that would be associated with yet more delay and denial. But there are going to be costs, and they are going to be significant, and they will have to be borne by those with money. This is just and proper, and it is also irreducibly necessary. If we try to avoid this necessity, we’ll just wind up blathering on about our favorite technical fixes, as if they could be rapidly scaled up and deployed by means of some friction-free process in which the overall social contract remains essentially unrevised.

So, the real problem – getting to 350? Can we still make it, or is “350” just a clever symbol?

The answer is that we can still make it. But not unless we embrace the reality, that economic and climate justice are two sides of one coin. Which, unless I miss my guess, we’re just now in the process of doing.

Tom Athanasiou is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.