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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
14. Collective Action
Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.
Changing myself allows me to explore and to model what life is like without fossil fuels. It also makes me happier. However, individuals changing themselves won’t be enough. We also need collective action on a large scale if we hope to quickly reduce global carbon emissions and avoid increasingly catastrophic warming. As we change ourselves, we can simultaneously explore how best to use our growing awareness, empowerment, and connection to steer collective change.
The old approach
In 1997, the world’s developed nations, with the notable exception of the United States, agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% less than 1990 levels by 2012. The Kyoto Protocol was recognized at the time to be a modest pledge, not nearly enough to stave off dangerous warming. Even so, it was initially hailed as a great first step.1 However, the US, China, and India never signed on, and as it turned out, no one took the agreement seriously. By 2013, global emissions were 60% higher than 1990 levels.2
The Paris Agreement of 2015 was another UN meeting, another set of promises. The good news is that, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement included the US, China, and India. The bad news is that the Paris promises are non-binding, susceptible to the whims of changing political leadership. Due to a variety of factors, but especially climate deniers in the US Congress, negotiating even the non-binding deal was so delicate as to be nearly impossible. Even in the unlikely event that these non-binding promises are kept, they won’t be nearly enough to keep warming below 2°C.3
As we saw in Chapter 3, the annual global rate of CO2 emissions has been growing exponentially at a rate of 2.2% per year (which means that every 32 years emissions have doubled). Our attempts to reign in global warming have so far failed spectacularly. What’s more, if we keep trying what we’ve already tried—more empty diplomatic promises—we’ll keep failing. Perhaps we should try something new.
A better approach: Carbon fee and dividend
Global warming is a market failure. Burning fossil fuels imposes huge costs on society that aren’t included in the price of the fuels, primarily by causing global warming and respiratory illness. It’s crucial to fix this market failure because few of us will voluntarily stop burning fossil fuels in a society that still strongly rewards this behavior.
This failure is at the systems level: information is missing, in this case price information. Without this critical information, it’s impossible to engage a stabilizing negative feedback loop. Most economists therefore agree that the best way to address climate change is through a direct price on greenhouse gas emissions: a tax or fee.4 This would fix the market failure by charging emitters—including you and me—for the “privilege” of disrupting the climate.
Carbon taxes or fees set a price on emissions. The price can be per tonne of CO2 emitted, or better yet per tonne of CO2- equivalents (to include other greenhouse gases and address methane fugitive emissions). This price is assessed far upstream, at the point of first sale—the mine, well, or port. It can be gradually in- creased, giving the economy time to adopt carbon-free alternatives while eventually making fossil fuels much too expensive to merely burn.
By definition, if a government keeps all or part of the revenue, it’s a tax. But if the collected funds are given back to the people, it’s a fee. This is not merely a semantic distinction; as we’ll see, carbon taxes tend to act as an economic drag, while revenue-neutral fees tend to act as an economic boost due to increased consumer spending and job creation. And because taxes are never popular, a fee would be easier to pass into law than a tax.
A $30 per tonne CO2e fee would increase the price of gas by 34 cents per gallon,5 but the annual dividend would amount to $600 per person.6 The less you emit, the more you’d come out ahead. Suppose that after seven years the fee had increased to $150 per tonne; this adds $1.69 per gallon of gas and yields a $3,000 annual dividend (or $12,000 for a household of four7). The size of the fee can be gradually adjusted to meet an emissions goal. The dividend should be sent to citizens as actual checks, not as a tax credit or a payroll adjustment. Checks would lend immediacy to the policy, increasing public support. I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite happy paying $1.69 more per gallon of gas if the increase came with a $12,000 check each year.
This is a simple but far-reaching solution: it corrects the prices of all goods and services using fossil fuels. It would equitably address each of the seven categories of emissions discussed in Chapter 9. A carbon fee would make airplane tickets and natural gas increasingly expensive. It would make fossil-fueled electricity increasingly expensive, accelerating the transition to renewables. It would raise the price of gas and diesel, spurring fuel economy improvements, more carpooling, and more bicycling. It would make local and unprocessed foods increasingly affordable relative to their fossil-fuel-intensive alternatives; a similar systems dynamic would play out for goods and services. A carbon fee would even decrease landfill emissions by incentivizing biogas collection. Everyone would know that the price of fossil fuels would continue to increase steadily over time, so everyone, individuals, corporations, and institutions, would naturally transition equipment and investments.
An equal dividend would favor those people who use less fossil fuel. In practice, this would be progressive, since the wealthy— who tend to live in large houses and fly a lot—consume more fossil fuel than the poor; in the US, the richest 20% are responsible for 32% of emissions, whereas the poorest 20% are responsible for only 9% of emissions.8 Over one-half of people would come out ahead by receiving more from the dividend than they spend on higher fuel costs.9
Instead of a dividend, revenues could be used to reduce existing taxes. However, such proposals are more complicated. They also tend to favor the wealthy, and could place an unsustainable burden on the working class. If revenue neutrality were implemented in this regressive way, a carbon fee would become increasingly unpopular over time.
A border adjustment on goods imported from countries with- out a commensurate carbon price would protect domestic businesses and prevent jobs from going abroad. Exporters to such countries would receive a refund of the fee. The adjustment would be based on the estimated carbon embodied in the goods.10
Cap-and-trade is an alternative carbon pricing instrument in which total emissions are capped, polluters trade carbon permits (their right to emit a certain quantity of CO2), and the market sets the price. The cap is then lowered each year.
Cap-and-trade sounds like a good idea: if your goal is to con- trol emissions, why not just put a cap on them? But in practice, cap-and-trade schemes have serious problems, and the majority of economists prefer a carbon fee.11
First, cap-and-trade schemes are complicated and can be easily gamed. Emissions permits are traded on a market, but first the permits must be allocated to polluters, usually based on estimates of historical emissions. This perversely rewards the largest emitters, giving them an incentive to pollute during the period before allocation. Also, the murkiness and complexity of the estimation process could open the door to conflicts of interest, cheating, and corruption.
Second, cap-and-trade is expensive. It requires investment bankers, traders, and lawyers; they take a piece of the pie,12 passing along higher energy prices to the people.
Third, these traders will naturally speculate and exploit the market (by means both legal and, at times, illegal). This adds to volatility in the price of fossil fuels, which undermines investment in renewables and efficiency and hurts low-income households.
Fourth, the dynamic of cap-and-trade perversely disincentivizes emissions reductions. Suppose some participants make great strides, and don’t need to buy as many permits as supposed. This causes the price of permits to fall, which incentivizes others to pol- lute more. Furthermore, this inherently volatile dynamic is used by lobbyists to argue against other climate policies. The argument is that if some other policy effectively reduces emissions (e.g., by improving energy efficiency), permits will drop in value and the carbon exchange could collapse.
Some of these problems could be fixed by cap-and-auction. In cap-and-auction, carbon permits are directly auctioned to polluters. Since there’s no trading, Wall Street speculation is eliminated. And there’s no corruption-prone allocation stage. In my opinion, these are such major improvements that good-faith supporters of a cap should only ever consider cap-and-auction. But cap-and-auction doesn’t solve the volatility problems, or how voluntary reductions undermine the prices of permits, leading— perversely—to disincentives to reduce.
Cap-and-trade did work for the far easier problem of ozone- destroying chlorofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol. But it has never worked for carbon. For example, the European Union emissions trading system (EU ETS) has experienced all of the problems I listed above, and has resulted in little or no reduction in emissions.13 And international emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol allowed a nation to emit beyond its allowance if it paid some other nation for some of its excess allowance. This sort of system encourages more fossil fuels to be burned, not less.
Those in favor of cap-and-trade often argue that it’s more politically feasible than a carbon price.14 This claim is dubious—a simple, fair, and easily understood carbon fee and dividend could well garner more public support than a complex cap-and-trade scheme—but even if it were true, it’s a poor argument. A policy that doesn’t work might be “more politically feasible,” but it still doesn’t work.
That said, it’s possible to have a cap-and-trade scheme and a carbon fee, at the same time. But I suspect we’d be better off simply going with a carbon fee. Fighting the uphill battle to make cap- and-trade actually work will distract us, wasting additional time. And unlike cap-and-trade or cap-and-auction, we already have clear evidence that carbon fees work in the real world.
Carbon fees work
Lower emissionsBritish Columbia adopted an extremely modest revenue-neutral carbon fee in 2008. Revenue-neutrality was achieved by lowering taxes; BC now has the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada, as well as one of the lowest corporate tax rates in North America.15 The carbon price started at Cad$10 per tonne CO2 and increased gradually, reaching Cad$30 per tonne CO2 in 2012 and remaining there (as of 2016). Even with this modest price, the per capita consumption of fossil fuels decreased by 17.4% between 2008 and 2012, whereas it increased by 1.5% in the rest of Canada.16 In a recent model study, a $10 national carbon fee and dividend (CFAD) starting in 2016 and increasing at $10 per year caused US emissions to drop to 69% of 1990 levels by 2025, and to 50% of 1990 levels by 2035.17
Economic benefitsThe revenue-neutrality feature isn’t really optional. As policy- makers negotiate a carbon price, there will inevitably be some who’ll want to spend the revenues on this or that program. This must be avoided, no matter how tempted environmentalists might be to fund this or that program. For if we aim to hit science-based emissions targets, as we should, higher fuel costs will crush low- income households—unless they get a full dividend. Models clearly show that revenue neutrality is what creates the economic boost, by putting more money in the pockets of average people, which in turn creates jobs across multiple sectors.18 If the model has the government spending the revenue, the economic boost is lost. Real-world observations are consistent with these model results. Under its carbon fee, British Columbia’s economy grew by 1.8% from 2008 to 2013 compared with 1.3% for the rest of Canada.19 While this isn’t strong evidence of an economic boost, it is strong evidence that the fee hasn’t hurt the BC economy. Given the reality of a political system that worships growth, it’s good news that CFAD isn’t an economic drag. Otherwise it wouldn’t stand a chance.
Bipartisan supportIn a rational world, CFAD would enjoy strong bipartisan support. Many conservatives do want to take action on climate change, but they prefer free market solutions without additional taxes or government regulation. CFAD fits their worldview extremely well, and perhaps they are slowly realizing this. In 2008, for example, the BC carbon fee was championed by the province’s right-of- center party. And in the US, high-profile Republicans such as former congressman Bob Inglis, former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker, and Harvard economist Greg Mankiw20 favor a revenue-neutral carbon fee. The libertarian Niskanen Center was founded in part to dissolve what is, in the Institute’s view, a perverse conservative rejection of a revenue-neutral carbon fee.21 To libertarians, a carbon fee is vastly preferable to additional regulations. In 2016, a Florida representative, Republican Carlos Curbelo, with his Democrat counterpart Ted Deutch formed the Climate Solutions Caucus, a working group for exploring and advancing climate policies within the US House of Representatives. The caucus is bipartisan by design: every Democrat who wishes to join must come in with a Republican partner.22 If the Republican party remains powerful, this might be a way forward for a carbon fee. Hopefully, as more conservative leaders embrace CFAD, conservative voters will gradually recognize that it in fact aligns with their ideological worldview. This could change the game for Republican policymakers: denying climate reality would gradually become less rewarding. And liberals would be wise to agree to roll back some emissions regulations when negotiating CFAD, which would accomplish the goals of those regulations and then some.
Predictable and stableA carbon fee locks in a higher price of carbon tomorrow, which makes investment in carbon-free alternatives an easier choice to- day. Recognizing this, six of the largest oil and gas companies are calling for the nations of the world to adopt carbon fees.23 They realize that humanity will soon have to do something about global warming, and that of the possible options, a carbon fee provides the most predictable and stable framework. In an open letter to the United Nations dated May 29 2015, they wrote, “We need governments across the world to provide us with clear, stable, long-term, ambitious policy frameworks. This would reduce uncertainty and help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace. We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element of these frameworks.”24 Some green environmental groups see support from Big Oil as a mark against carbon fees. But this is woefully short-sighted. Humans will always need energy, just not fossil energy. If energy companies begin leaving fossil fuel and investing in the energy systems of tomorrow, that would be a wonderful thing. As economist Alan Blinder says, “I can hardly wait to witness the outpouring of ideas it would unleash.”25
No regretsIf there’s one thing that humans ought to agree on, it’s that breath- ing clean air is a good thing. Even those who don’t care about global warming would not regret a carbon fee. Globally, air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes millions of deaths and costs trillions of dollars per year.26 In the US alone, 200,000 people per year die prematurely from air pollution, mainly from road transportation and power generation.27 CFAD would gradually fix this devastating problem, with no economic down- side. Nations like India with severe air pollution could use CFAD to drive their transitions from dirty energy to renewables.
A pathway to international actionAs mentioned above, implementation of CFAD would include border adjustments on goods imported from countries without a carbon price, or with a smaller carbon price. Suppose a nation without a carbon price—call it the dirty regime—wanted to sell a widget in the US market, and that this widget had embodied emissions worth $1 at the US carbon price. To get its widget across the US border, the dirty regime would need to pay a $1 tariff. However, a US company making equivalent widgets now has an incentive to innovate and shift to renewables. The price of its widget falls, and the dirty widget loses market share. Since the US is the largest consumer market in the world, dirty regimes must also adopt carbon fees to remain competitive. Coordinated international climate action has so far been an in- tractable problem. But CFAD provides an effective market-based pathway to international cooperation.
The role of individuals
At this point, a carbon fee may be our best chance for a livable planet. To get it, we citizens need to demand it. Ultimately, it’s up to citizens to create the political space policymakers need in order to act. An amenable policymaker might move into even a small space, while a contrary policymaker will require a larger movement or even removal from office. But both the amenable and contrary policymaker require—and respond to—political space created by citizens.
So far, I’ve supported CFAD in three ways. First, I joined my local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. CCL is an international group of volunteers fighting for revenue-neutral carbon fees. In the US, our primary goal is to create space for policymakers, especially Republicans, to support carbon pricing. We lobby our state and national representatives, and publish letters and articles advocating CFAD.28 It’s empowering to be part of a local community of advocates tied into a smart international organization. It makes me feel like I’m not in this alone: I have a team. Second, I give talks in my community. There are many opportunities to speak, and I’m sure this is true in your community as well. Third, I’ve written this chapter.
These advocacy actions bring me satisfaction. It’s true that I’m only one voice, and I have little control over collective outcomes. But even while I wish I could do more, I’m doing all that I can— and contributing to something much larger than myself.
Only the first (real) step
Maybe, as you read this, the US has already enacted a national car- bon fee. (One can hope.) But a carbon fee and dividend, by itself, won’t be enough to transition to a biospheric mode of being on this Earth. A carbon fee would be the first real step we take to collectively address our predicament, but we’ll need to keep walking.
As I discussed in Chapter 5, a sustainable human civilization will require us to reorganize around an economic system that doesn’t depend on growth. We’ll also need to find a way to maintain a stable population within the Earth’s carrying capacity. One way or another, either through conscious planning or col- lapse, physics requires that our current growth-based system must change.
As individuals, perhaps the best we can do in service of this change is to begin telling the new story—the story of conscious biospherism—by living without fossil fuels and selectively opting out of the industrial consumerist system. As I’ve continued down this path, opportunities have opened to me, and I’ve increased my ability to change the system as well. There’s a deep albeit nonlinear connection between individual and collective action. And there’s no reason we can’t actively engage at both levels.
I feel optimistic that nations will begin adopting sensible carbon pricing in the near future. But what other levers are there? And what comes next? Here, I’ll brainstorm a few other ideas which in my opinion might help. Some are probably within reach. Others might be deemed politically impossible, but I mention them anyway in the spirit of planting seeds.
Use less energy
Electricity generation accounted for 37% of US energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015.29 If we’re serious about mitigating global warming, we should pursue policies that significantly reduce our electricity use while at the same time expanding our carbon-free generation capacity as rapidly as possible.
In 2013, the US generated 4,070 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity.30 Of this, 2,760 TWh were from fossil fuels, and the rest from carbon-free sources.31 Based on my own electricity usage relative to the average US person’s usage (see Chapter 9), I believe that the US could cut overall electricity consumption in half if we deployed sensible policies toward this goal.32 This should be doable: total energy use per capita in the UK is less than half that of the US.33 To be clear, I’m talking about more than increasing efficiency. I’m talking primarily about changing policies, norms, and behavior.
With halved consumption, we’d need to replace only 725 TWh per year of fossil fuels with carbon-free generation, instead of 2,760 TWh.34 In other words, we’d only need a 1/4 of the carbon-free electricity infrastructure, getting us to 100% carbon-free much more quickly.
And as we ramp up our carbon-free electrical capabilities, we can begin transitioning transportation and building heating and cooling sectors from liquid fuels and natural gas to electricity.
End fossil fuel subsidies
A fossil fuel subsidy is any government action that artificially increases the price-competitiveness of fossil fuels relative to renewables. Globally, fossil fuel subsidies amount to between $700 billion and $1 trillion.35 Half of this is given to the fossil fuel industry as “consumer” subsidies—governments buying fuels such as gasoline and offering them below the market price.
The other half is “producer” subsidies—governments essentially giving away land and water, government-sponsored research and exploration, and favorable government loans. I’ve not included the military cost of protecting fossil fuel assets. I’ve also not included real but externalized costs due to respiratory illness and global warming (estimated at $4 trillion in 2015)36 which aren’t government actions—and can be best addressed by a carbon fee.
Of course, Big Fossil fights hard for its subsidies, which in- crease profits and hold back renewables. But as taxpayers, we’re giving handouts to the wealthiest industry in the history of the world at a time when we desperately need to move in the opposite direction. This puts international agreements on climate change in a sobering context: if our governments continue unfairly boosting the fossil fuel industry, how committed to climate action can they really be?
Fight in the courts
Kids are suing the US government on the grounds that the defendants have a constitutional obligation to protect the atmosphere for future generations.37 The suit was brought in 2015, when the 21 youth plaintiffs were between the ages of 8 and 19 years old. The children are advised by lawyers from a group called Our Children’s Trust and climate scientist James Hansen, who is also a plaintiff.
A few weeks after the kids brought their suit, the fossil fuel industry joined the government in the fight against them. Trade groups representing the industry moved to intervene on the grounds that the lawsuit would “impair the interests” of corporations such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Koch Industries.38
A key part of the plaintiffs’ case is that the government knew it was harming them, and continued doing so deliberately. Indeed, the US government has known about the danger of climate change for over 60 years. For example, in 1955, the US Office of Naval Research linked burning fossil fuels to rising atmospheric CO2 levels, rising temperatures, and increasing hurricane frequency; and in 1979, a report from the National Academy of Sciences warned that a “wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.”39 Viewed in this light, it’s shocking that the government would choose to support, subsidize, and accelerate the burning of fossil fuels despite clear knowledge of the danger.
The kids’ lawsuit is far from frivolous. In 2015, a Dutch court ruled that reducing greenhouse gases was a state obligation.40 And two US judges have ruled that the plaintiffs have standing. President Obama and the fossil fuel intervenors moved to dismiss the case, but US Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ordered their motion be denied. Then, on November 10, 2016, Federal District Court Judge Ann Aiken not only affirmed the order, but completely rejected the defendants’ arguments to dismiss. The case will likely go to trial in 2017.
If the youth’s groundbreaking fight in the courts is successful, the US government will be legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, forcing Congress to search for an effective and eco- nomically palatable means of doing this. This could lead to CFAD.
If we are to have some chance of getting to a steady-state economy, we’ll need to rethink wealth and power.
For example, how much money does one human need to live well? Does any single mammal really need $100 billion? Is it OK for the wealthiest 62 people to own more than the poorest 3.6 bil- lion people?41 What would the world be like if this hoarded wealth were distributed equitably? The monopolization of resources far beyond what an individual actually needs happens nowhere else in the biosphere. It’s anti-biospheric.
Where does all that billionaire wealth come from? I hold that ultimately there are only two places it can come from: owning and extracting the Earth’s natural resources, and owning and extracting labor (in the case of billionaires, the labor of others).42 Over the last several decades, unions have been dismantled,43 and productivity gains from robots, computers, and other technologies have accrued disproportionately to the rich.44 These technological innovations tend toward extracting wealth from natural resources more efficiently while eliminating the need for human labor altogether.
It’s unconscionable to have a society with both multi- billionaires and workers so impoverished they can’t even afford basic health care. Somehow we need to find the means to redistribute this wealth, and engineer checks and balances to keep it from accumulating in the hands of a few.
Get money out of politics
Allowing unlimited wealth accrual also dangerously distorts society. As we discussed in Chapter 5, concentrated wealth influences the power structure to concentrate yet more wealth in a runaway cycle.
When I started working on this book in 2012, getting money out of politics was a fringe idea held by a handful of Occupiers. The Occupiers planted that seed; it has since grown into a main- stream discussion. Corporate control of politicians has been a huge barrier to action on global warming. We need strict new campaign finance laws: corporations must not be allowed to con- tribute to political campaigns, and neither should any sort of organization. We need a system in which politicians aren’t expected to or allowed to accept money from donors. And corporate lobbying should quite simply be illegal.45
Rethink global trade
To promote economic growth after World War II, the nations of the world, led by the US, created the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and eventually the World Trade Organization (WTO). These institutions broker international trade deals that place growth above all else; legally overturn environmental and social protections that are seen as “barriers to trade”; saddle developing countries with crippling debt; and function as wealth pumps from the poor to the rich—all under ostensibly noble goals such as improving the quality of life in developing countries.46
Donella Meadows wrote that global trade “is a system with rules designed by corporations, run by corporations, for the bene- fit of corporations. Its rules exclude almost any feedback from any other sector of society.”47 These deals help corporations advance their goal of growth at all costs, but are devastating to the global poor and to the biosphere.
While there’s a place for international trade—especially for climate-aware international trade under a carbon fee system— there’s certainly also a place for strong local economies. I’d suggest that we ought to look first to local sources for our needs. In this way, we can take care of our communities, which take care of us in turn. Trade should primarily benefit people, not corporations.
Toward a stable population
We also need policies that encourage an end to population growth. I believe that contraceptives and age-appropriate sex education should be readily accessible to every human being on the planet, male or female, no matter how poor. Globally, 40% of pregnancies are unintended; not only does this contribute to population growth, it’s a huge public health challenge.48
I also believe that all humans, including girls, should be guaranteed an education through high school, and that equal rights should be afforded across the board. Not only is this the fair thing to do, but educated and empowered women have fewer babies. Unfortunately, these policies face stiff resistance from conservatives, as well as from major world religions.49
Ultimately, we should consider the relationship between food production and population, the root cause of population growth.
For example, what if we adopted policies whereby agricultural land was gradually taken out of production and given back to the non- human (“wild”) part of our biosphere? This would reduce global food production, leading to less meat consumption and perhaps to a tiered pricing structure for food whereby the global poor paid less than the global rich.
This may sound crazy, but is it really any crazier than causing a sixth mass extinction and deeply reducing biodiversity, arguably the best measure of the biosphere’s health, for the next ten million years?
To take this last idea a step further, what if we transition to a world where half the Earth’s surface was set aside for nonhumans? Ed- ward Wilson, one of the world’s preeminent biologists and an ex- pert on the needs of the biosphere, proposes exactly this in his book Half-Earth.50 Wilson argues for reserving half the Earth in order to sustain biodiversity, which depends on the land area afforded it. (As a mathematical rule, the larger the island, the more biodiversity it can have.)51
The news these days is depressingly full of stories about critically endangered species. Often these stories center around heroic efforts by conservationists, efforts that, while laudable, are too little, too late. Extinction is accelerating exponentially, and the mindset of industrial society is blind to meaningful solutions that address the underlying problem. Instead, society gravitates toward speculative techno-fixes, like banking DNA. I worry that this is magical thinking.
As a policy goal, half-Earth seems breathtakingly audacious on a planet so teeming with humans. But just a few generations ago— not even a blink of geologic time—it would have seemed equally breathtaking to imagine that our species could so dominate this planet. This half-Earth goal transcends tribe and nation, and its implementation would require careful planning and cooperation to ensure fairness. Half-Earth would address the “jobs or nonhuman world” false dichotomy at a global scale, and as such interconnect deeply with population growth and equitable wealth distribution. But it’s not impossible, and as humans increasingly experience our dependence on the biosphere, we will come to clearly see that half- Earth isn’t just for nonhumans—it’s for us. We’re all Earthlings.
People often say that global warming requires a “World War II effort.” But we actually need more than that level of cooperation: we need global cooperation. After all, during the war, half the world was fighting the other half. Humanity needs to find a way to set aside tribalism and come together to address global warming and overpopulation.
It’s quite remarkable that the US, a country that prides itself as a shining beacon of freedom and enlightened rationality, is pulling the world down into the depths of climate disaster—while authoritarian China has seized the reigns of global leadership and is doing what it can.52 I’d love to see my beloved country step up and lead, or at least pitch in a little. But it seems as though we’re experiencing a glitch in democracy, if not something worse: as a nation, we can’t even agree on basic facts. Perhaps democracy has been sickened by Facebook and Twitter. I have a new appreciation for its fragility.
In the long term, humanity will need to transcend competitive, murderous nationalism. That’s the evolutionary challenge before us, and it will require humans to stop viewing life as a zero-sum game, to stop being so afraid. In the short term, though, the most promising path to real international cooperation might be through a system of carbon fees.
Collective change sometimes happens rapidly. While the precise connection between individual and collective change remains un- known, it’s nonetheless clear that collective change can (and does) occur unexpectedly.
To fully address our broader predicament, we need a paradigm shift—within the social system that now comprises most of humanity—from growth, consumption, and separation to sustainability, living well, and connection. Before this can happen collectively, some fraction of individuals will first need to make this shift within themselves. However, in my experience, the illusion of separation is so strong that it can only be dispelled through a practice, such as meditation, that strengthens equanimity and weakens the ego.
Meanwhile, CFAD is a useful policy stopgap because it can begin ramping down emissions even within the existing paradigm. And individuals can begin exploring life without fossil fuels even without a meditation practice. Moving away from fossil fuels will lead us to slow down and question existing systems, taking us in the direction of broader shifts.
Being a scientist-advocate
In this chapter, I’ve presented my opinions as a human, not as a scientist. Although my job is to do science, as a human I have as much right to respectfully express my opinions as anyone else. I’ve done so here in order to balance my emphasis on individual action and emissions reduction elsewhere in the book.
And perhaps scientists even have a responsibility to advocate for acceptance and action. Because scientists are in a position to know certain things first. We’re the ones face-to-face with global warming and its impacts on a daily basis: we know how serious it is. When scientific knowledge demands action, no one is in a better position to speak out than scientists.
When I feel unsure about whether or not I should speak out, I think of the billions of people with no voice on the matter. I think of those who are most vulnerable. I think of my children.
And then the decision to speak out is easy.
- Tom Mintier and Reuters. “Global warming pact approved, develop- ing nations face few restrictions.” CNN, December 11, 1997. [online]. cnn.com/EARTH/9712/11/climate.conf/index.html.
- Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. “Global Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions.” [online]. cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2013 .html.
- Joeri Rogelj et al. “Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2°C.” Nature 534 (2016). [online]. doi:10.1038/nature18307.
- See IGM Economic Expert Panel. “Carbon Tax.” IGM Chicago, De- cember 20, 2011. [online]. igmchicago.org/surveys/carbon-tax; Luca Taschini et al. “Carbon tax v cap-and-trade: Which is better?” Guard- ian, January 31, 2013. [online]. theguardian.com/environment/2013 /jan/31/carbon-tax-cap-and-trade.
- Calculated this way: $30 per tonne CO2 times 0.0088 tonnes CO2 per gallon, with an extra 28% for upstream emissions (see Chapter 9).
- Calculated this way: $30 per tonne CO2 times 20 tonnes CO2e per person in the US.
- Depending on the specifics of the policy, of course, children might not necessarily receive a full share. For example, at least one proposal calls for a half share for the first two children; in this case, a household with two adults and two children would receive $9,000 from a carbon price of $150 per tonne CO2e.
- Carbon Tax Center. “Ensuring Equity.” [online]. carbontax.org/?s =ensuring+equity.
- Carbon Tax Center. “Dividends.” [online]. carbontax.org/?s =dividends.
- A catalog with these carbon estimates would need to be assembled. In addition to making the border adjustment possible, by creating this catalog, we would learn a great deal about how carbon is em- bodied in our economy. The border adjustment would initially target carbon-intensive goods: iron, steel, cement, glass, paper, etc. It’s easy to calculate the adjustment in these cases, and together they capture the majority of embodied emissions. Estimates for goods with lower carbon intensities can be continually refined. This border adjustment would be consistent with WTO rules (i.e., “most favored nation” and “national treatment”). Also, the border adjustment money would stay separate from the fee and dividend money. The tariffs collected from imported goods would be used to pay refunds to domestic producers exporting to “dirty regimes.” In the case of the US, given the US trade deficit, this pot of money would likely grow over time; it would be up to Congress to decide how to spend the windfall. Exports of domes- tically produced fossil fuels themselves could be exempt from the border adjustment refund, putting upward pressure on the price of fossil fuels and further discouraging their use, even internationally.
- R.A.“Doeconomistsallfavouracarbontax?”Economist,September 19, 2011. [online]. economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/09 /climate-policy.
- Goldman Sachs has lobbied hard for cap-and-trade. That should tell you something: Matt Taibbi. “The Great American Bubble Machine.” Rolling Stone, April 5, 2010. [online]. rollingstone.com/politics/news /the-great-american-bubble-machine-20100405.
- Although emissions in Europe went down, the EU ETS probably wasn’t a significant cause: Olivier Gloaguen and Emilie Alberola. “Assessing the factors behind CO2 emissions changes over the phases 1 and 2 of the EU ETS: An econometric analysis.” CDC Climat Recher- che Working Paper No, 2013–15, October 2013. [online]. cdcclimat.com/IMG/pdf/13-10_cdc_climat_r_wp_13-15_assessing_the_factors_behing_co2_emissions_changes.pdf.
- E.g., Paul Krugman. “Unhelpful Hansen.” New York Times, December 7, 2009. [online]. krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/un helpful-hansen.
- P. F. “British Columbia’s carbon tax: The evidence mounts.” Economist, July 31, 2014. [online]. economist.com/blogs/americasview /2014/07/british-columbias-carbon-tax.
- Dr. Stewart Elgie and Jessica McClay. “Policy Commentary/Commentaire BC’s Carbon Tax Shift Is Working Well after Four Years (Attention Ottawa).” Canadian Public Policy 39(2) (2013). [online]. energyindependentvt.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/BC_Car bon-Tax-success-story.pdf.
- Scott Nystrom and Patrick Luckow. “The Economic, Climate, Fiscal, Power, and Demographic Impact of a National Fee-and-Dividend Carbon Tax.” Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) and Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. [online]. citizensclimatelobby.org/wp-con tent/uploads/2014/06/REMI-carbon-tax-report-62141.pdf. Note that this study was funded by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an advocacy group, but that REMI has a reputation for being unbiased.
- Ibid.; and Marc Breslow et al. “Analysis of a Carbon Fee or Tax as a Mechanism to Reduce GHG Emissions in Massachusetts.” prepared for the Massachussetts Department of Energy Resources, December, 2014. [online]. mass.gov/eea/docs/doer/fuels/mass-carbon-tax-study .pdf.
- Statistics Canada, via P. F. “British Columbia’s carbon tax.” Note that the BC carbon fee is implemented as a sales tax, and returns 100% of revenues by lowering taxes.
- GregMankiw.“HowNottoPassaCarbonTax.”Blogpost,August 3, 2015. [online]. gregmankiw.blogspot.ca/2015/08/how-not-to-pass -carbon-tax.html.
- Jerry Taylor. “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax.” Niskanen Center, March 23, 2015. [online]. niskanencenter.org/wp-content /uploads/2015/03/The-Conservative-Case-for-a-Carbon-Tax1.pdf.
- Ted Deutch and Carlos Curbelo. “Creating a bipartisan climate to discuss climate change in Congress.” The Hill, March 24, 2016. [on- line]. thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/energy-environment/274061 -creating-a-bipartisan-climate-to-discuss-climate.
- Editorial Board. “Even Big Oil Wants a Carbon Tax.” Bloomberg View, June 1, 2015. [online].bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-06-01/even -big-oil-wants-a-carbon-tax.
- Helge Lund et al. “Letter to Ms. Christiana Figueres and Mr. Laurent Fabius.” May 29, 2015. [online]. bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/press /paying-for-carbon.pdf.
- Alan S. Blinder. “The Carbon Tax Miracle Cure.” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2011. [online]. wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703893 104576108610681576914.
- Annually, 3.7 million deaths are caused by outdoor air pollution, which is mainly from burning fossil fuels: World Health Organiza- tion. “7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution.” March 25, 2014. [online]. who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014 /air-pollution/en/. Annually, indoor and outdoor pollution together cost $5 trillion, not even counting healthcare costs: John Vidal. “Air pollution costs trillions and holds back poor countries, says World Bank.” The Guardian, September 8, 2016. [online]. theguardian.com /global-development/2016/sep/08/air-pollution-costs-trillions-holds -back-poor-countries-world-bank.
- Fabio Caiazzo et al. “Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005.” Atmospheric Environment 79 (2013). [online]. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv .2013.05.081
- It only takes a few minutes to write a letter, and it’s a lot of fun if it gets published. One of my letters, which pretty well sums up my perspec- tive on climate action, can be found at: “Climate solutions: From marches to policies.” New York Times, September 22, 2014. [online]. nytimes.com/2014/09/23/opinion/climate-solutions-from-marches -to-policies.html
- US EIA. “Frequently asked questions: How much of U.S. carbon di- oxide emissions are associated with electricity generation?” [online]. eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=77&t=11
- A terawatt (TW) is one trillion watts of power; a TWh is the energy needed to provide a TW of power for an hour. 1 TWh = 1 billion kWh. The 4,070 TWh figure is from: US EIA. “Electric Power Annual 2013.” March 2015. [online]. eia.gov/electricity/annual/archive/03482013 .pdf.
- Ibid.: Nuclear: 790 TWh; hydroelectric: 270 TWh; non- hydroelectric renewables: 250 TWh. Wind produced 168 TWh, or 4.1% of the total, while solar power (thermal and photovoltaic) produced 9 TWh, or 0.2% of the total. Three-quarters of US electricity is consumed by residential and com- mercial users (with each sector using about the same amount) and 1/4 is consumed by industry (US EIA. “Annual Energy Outlook 2017.” [online]. eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/). In our household, we use less than 1/10 the electricity per person than the US average. While this argues for easy and deep reductions in the residential sector, I suspect the commercial sector could easily make similar reductions: the lights in many office buildings stay on all night, for example.
- In 2013, the US used 6,900 kg oil equivalent per person per year, whereas the UK used 3,000: World Bank. “Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita).” [online]. data.worldbank.org/indicator/ EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE.
- Calculated this way: (4,070 TWh/yr / 2) − (790 TWh/yr + 270 TWh/yr + 250 TWh/yr)
- Oil Change International. “Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Overview.” [online]. priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/.
- David Coady et al. “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” Inter- national Monetary Fund working paper #WP/15/105. [online]. imf .org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2015/wp15105.pdf.
- Our Children’s Trust. [online]. ourchildrenstrust.org/. The suit makes two claims. First, a constitutional claim that “the government’s aggregate actions, including subsidizing, permitting and facilitating the development, transportation, and combustion of fossil fuels, violates the youths’ substantive due process rights under the 5th Amendment’s protection against deprivation of life, liberty and property without due process of law.” The case isn’t challenging the government’s inaction; it challenges its direct action toward making global warming worse. Second, a public trust doctrine claim that “same actions…violate the federal government’s fiduciary obligation to preserve essential natural resources for the benefit of all present and future generations.”
- Tony Dokoupil. “Big Oil joins legal fight against little kids over cli- mate change.” MSNBC, August 14, 2015, updated November 13, 2015. [online]. msnbc.com/msnbc/big-oil-joins-legal-fight-little-kids-over -climate-change.
- Two charts were part of an exhibit the plaintiffs’ attorneys presented to the court on September 13, 2016: Our Children’s Trust. “Details of Proceedings.” [online]. ourchildrenstrust.org/federal-proceedings/.
- Sophia V. Schweitzer. “Are countries legally required to protect their citizens from climate change?” Ensia, July 15, 2015. [online]. ensia.com/features/are-countries-legally-required-to-protect-their -citizens-from-climate-change/.
- Oxfam.“62 people own the same as half the world, reveals Oxfam Davos report.” Press release, January 18, 2016. [online]. oxfam.org /en/pressroom/pressreleases/2016-01-18/62-people-own-same-half -world-reveals-oxfam-davos-report.
- A billionaire would respond that the source of his wealth was his brilliant idea. But doesn’t that idea just provide the means with which to extract (and therefore concentrate and accumulate) the distributed wealth of labor or resources? Ideas can serve to mobilize and rearrange labor and resources, but the idea by itself—without that labor and those resources—does not constitute wealth. Thomas Frank wrote: “Many of our most vaunted innovations are simply methods—electronic or otherwise—of pulling off some age-old profit-maximizing maneuver by new and unregulated means.” Thomas Frank. Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Metropolitan Books, 2016, p. 209.
- Paul Davidson. “Decline of unions has hurt all workers: Study.” USA Today, August 30, 2016. [online]. usatoday.com/story/money/2016 /08/30/decline-unions-has-hurt-all-workers-study/89557266/. Unions have done a world of good since their formation in mid-19th- century America, bringing us such wonderful things as weekends, to name but one example. Still, unions sometimes push their negoti- ations too far, perhaps doing themselves more harm than good by fueling an opposition that paints them as unreasonably greedy and corrupt.
- DavidRotman “HowTechnologyIsDestroyingJobs.”MITTechnol- ogy Review, June 12, 2013. [online]. technologyreview.com/s/515926 /how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/.
- For most of US history, lobbying was strongly censured by the courts, and has at times been illegal in some states: Alex Mayyasi. “When Lobbying Was Illegal.” Priceonomics, April 15, 2016. [online]. priceonomics.com/when-lobbying-was-illegal/.
- For an excellent discussion of the problems arising from international trade as we’ve structured it, see Annie Leonard. The Story of Stuff.
- Meadows.“Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.”
- Gilda Sedgh et al. “Intended and Unintended Pregnancies Worldwide in 2012 and Recent Trends.” Studies in Family Planning 45(3) (2014) [online]. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4465.2014.00393.x.
- There are deep connections between Christianity, Islam, and population growth. Muslims and Christians have the highest fertility rates of any religion, at 3.1 and 2.7 children per woman, respectively (com- pared to the global average of 2.5 and the replacement rate of 2.1). The world’s third-largest religion, Hinduism, has a fertility rate of 2.4: Pew Research Center. “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010—2050.” April 2, 2015. [online]. pewforum .org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.
- Wilson. Half-Earth.
- Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson. Theory of Island Biogeography. Monographs in Population Biology 1, Princeton, 1967.
- Thanks to Noam Chomsky for articulating this point: Noam Chomsky. “Noam Chomsky on Trump and the decline of the American Superpower.” YouTube, December 5, 2016. [online]. youtube.com /watch?v=Yp74MQBGMnk.