Environment to economy: Let’s not fight

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A new report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has gotten a lot of attention in the press recently. It finds that:

[T]he choice we face is not between “business and usual” and climate action, but between alternative pathways of growth: one that exacerbates climate risk, and another that reduces it. The evidence presented in this report suggests that the low-carbon growth path can lead to as much prosperity as the high carbon one, especially when account is taken of its multiple other benefits: from greater energy security, to cleaner air and improved health.

This is good news, as it helps bolster the intellectual argument for action and quiet the arguments of the “it’s too expensive” crowd, which claims that the adjustments necessary to avert catastrophic climate change would be too painful for the economy to be feasible. As the report finds, when you add in all the secondary benefits of a less carbon-intensive global economy — lower healthcare costs as a result of cleaner air, for instance — the total cost to the economy of acting is actually quite small, or maybe even zero.

While the report is justifiably making news and being celebrated by environmental advocates for its findings, its important to note that the economic argument for action on climate change is not new. Environmental economists have understood for a long time that while there may be some short-run costs involved in adjusting our global economy to avoid climate change, these short-run costs are small in comparison to the much more severe climate-related costs down the line if we do nothing.

In other words, the choice between good economics and good environmental policy is the ultimate false dichotomy; the two are one and the same.
Nevermind the public and social costs of, say, lower Manhattan being submerged in water as a result of rising sea levels, which would undoubtedly put massive stress on city budgets, as well as the quality of life of New York residents. What about the private costs? Exactly how many iPhone 6s do we expect to sell to eachother if Planet Earth starts to resemble Planet Venus? At some point, global commerce must start to feel the weight of the perpetual droughts, floods, and food scarcity that climate change threatens to deliver in our lifetimes.

It’s encouraging that some major companies — among them GM, Nike, Unilever, PepsiCo, Staples, eBay, and a number of other industry behemoths — are starting to recognize the potential damage of global warming for their own businesses, and are increasingly making their voices heard. That’s worthy of celebration, but it will never be enough. That’s because there are some companies that stand to lose much more acutely as a result of curbing carbon emissions than the companies listed above stand to gain. Because of that fact, the amount of political and PR money a large fossil fuel producer will commit towards blocking a global solution to climate change will always trump what, for instance, Pepsi is willing to put on the table.

Climate change is too often seen as an issue of science or public policy simply in need of a clever technical solution. The debate is often framed in if only statements: If only more people would retrofit their homes. If only the car companies could develop more fuel-efficient vehicles. If only the rich countries and developing countries could negotiate an enforceable global agreement on constraining greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate change is not a technical issue; it’s a symptom of a deeply seated, wretched moral disease. This disease thrives in an ecosystem where might and wealth can easily skew public policy away from the interests of society at large, and where those who seek to rig the game in their favor are able to do so with remarkable secrecy. That’s the reason why climate change is, at its core, a moral issue. It’s not just that it’s the right thing to do. It’s also that, if we cynically put our trust in a system of decision-making whereby various parties are expected to battle it out on the basis of their own private interests alone, we are all cooked (pun very much intended).

So the technical solutions to climate change are pretty straightforward, and apparently, those solutions won’t even be that costly in the big scheme of things. The question, then, is: Will those who stand in the way of these solutions have enough moral backbone and concern for mankind not to oppose them? More importantly, will the rest of us stop resigning ourselves to the current system, whereby selfishly fighting for one’s own welfare at the peril of the rest of the human race is somehow acceptable?

As the Universal House of Justice so eloquently summed up nearly a generation ago,

Underlying all these outward afflictions is the spiritual damage reflected in the apathy that has gripped the mass of the peoples of all nations and by the extinction of hope in the hearts of deprived and anguished millions.

We simply can not afford to continue to put our faith in something so clearly at odds with our human race’s well-being. I’m not talking about the internal combustion engine. I’m talking about the throw-our-hands-up, “oh well” capitulation of the human spirit, and the blind hope that somehow, some big environmental NGO , some big sneaker manufacturer, and some big oil company will all join hands and do what’s clearly in the interests of humankind. If it hasn’t worked to this point, it’s likely that it never will. Not unless something more fundamental changes. Better that we recognize this truth before all of us find ourselves under water.

 

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