Thoughts on a climate-related debate

A friend who works for Greenpeace recently sent me a link to a video in which author and environmental activist Annie Leonard explains why she and many others feel that “cap and trade” carbon markets are a bad way of reducing carbon in response to global climate change. The debate regarding carbon trading is particularly lively because economists are almost universally in favor of carbon trading as the most effective, least-cost means of reducing carbon emissions. The video is a great summary of what I take to be the key issues, and you can find the video here.

A brief critique of the video: it starts off by poisoning the well…Goldman Sachs is involved in carbon markets, so they must be evil! Then Leonard points out particular problems of existing trading schemes (permits given away, volatile trading, bogus offsets) and concludes that therefore carbon markets don’t work. My commentary: markets are working to a significant degree in California…auctioned permits, steady trading above the price floor, pretty thorough inspections to make sure offsets aren’t bogus, etc. ); it’s definitely trickier and more expensive to implement than command, especially correctly, but the savings between trading and command might make it worthwhile. It would come down to the numbers, and nobody is talking about then. But so far, California seems to be showing that it can work.

Then the video gets into the third problem, that cap and trade is a distraction, that we should go for the “big solutions.” I more or less concur that big solutions would be better…change society, get rid of carbon subsidies, decarbonize, get off of the growth merry-go-round.  etc. I’d like to see all that happen. But I don’t think it will.

So it comes down, it seems, to a choice of political strategy: the messy, ugly work of building an imperfect, quite partial, but apparently politically feasible system, or the noble work of taking a stand against the whole sordid system, without coming up with much in the way of politically feasible alternatives. (One could argue that we need to change the politically feasibility, and although there are some examples in some realms of that happening, it’s still just another kind of long-shot. It’s certainly something we weren’t willing to consider after Deepwater Horizon or the financial crisis.)

It may sound like I would come down on the side of the cap and trade, but the video really makes a very good point. I remain highly critical of people who install CFLs in their homes and feel they’ve done their part (or a college that puts in a bit of solar panels and says “we care.”) But then one is left with the conclusion that “well, cap and trade is a distracting and ineffective exercise, BUT real change is never going to happen…so we’re basically screwed.” Which is pretty much my conclusion, at the level of the big picture.

But as long as I’m ranting, let me share some additional latest thinking. This whole situation is usually framed in the context that “we” need to take  significant steps “to avert climate disaster” [often with reference at this point to children or grandchildren]. I think this framing  contains two, interrelated untruths: that there is a “we” and that there is a “then,” something in the future to be averted. Neither contention is true. Climate change is happening NOW, affecting people NOW, killing people NOW. The dying are largely invisible because they’re mostly poor people in poor countries, and it’s hard to say who exactly was killed by climate change, versus pollution or government idiocy or deprivation due to lack of political power, or what…but I think we can easily say that it is happening now, inter alia. And we can just as easily say that *some* people will NEVER be affected by climate change…they will build higher sea walls, better buildings, get better air conditioning, buy better medicine against climate change induced diseases, afford food despite diminished supplies, etc. Some people are hurting now, and some people will never be hurt by climate change. There is no “we” and there is no  “then.” Just like always, there are people dying now because they don’t have the power and resources that others have; it’s really not that different from the age-old patterns of power and resource distribution that lead some people to lead relatively short, brutish lives while others live in comfort for a relatively long time, for whatever particular circumstance. We can ask why climate change resonates more than other local or global injustices; amongst other things, it probably has something to do with the scale and boundary-less nature of the problem. But regardless, the problem is with us now, but some people are grossly affected, while others are not, and won’t be.

I believe that the “we and then” construction gives us solace in the face of our contradictory existence. The unity implied by “we” both feels good in the sense of global brother/sisterhood and hides the fact that the good people flying to a climate conference (or driving to work at their cool little college) are killing Bangladeshi farmers. And the “then” of course means we can keep doing what we’re doing, living the way we’re living, because there’s just a little bit more time before “disaster” is upon “us.” We can wait until “we” get our act together, “then” we can save the planet.

I really don’t know where this assessment of “we and then” leaves us regarding cap and trade versus big political and economic changes as means to lessen carbon emissions and climate change. Neither one acknowledges the contradictions of our existence, which consists largely of recognizing that doing “the right thing” in regard to our suffering fellow humans would require we in the North uprooting our entire individual lives and collective culture in ways that really can’t be asked of us, that would destroy us emotionally and socially, if not physically. But I think I’m a little bit more suspicious of the false nobility of the comfortably impossible cause. When I think of the falseness of  “we and then” in the context of my own life, the fact that people are dying right now suggests that every little bit counts, everything I can throw into the battle to make the world a better place right now is going to help, will save lives…even as I recognize that I can’t change the world, or myself, as much as I’d like.