12/12/2013 - 12:56

Money and politics are the problem

In Round One, Adnan A. Hezri proposed that nations address climate change and economic inequality primarily by establishing sustainable energy systems. That would be a step in the right direction. But given the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the global economy, renewable energy cannot reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as the threat of climate change demands—not even close. If renewable energy (with the help of efficiency measures) eliminated all the emissions produced in fossil-fuel–based electricity generation, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by only about 17 percent. Emissions associated with everything else, from air travel to plastics to deforestation to livestock, would remain unchanged—or, because of the emissions associated with the production and distribution of solar cells, wind turbines, energy-efficient appliances, and the like, they would even increase.

If nations are to achieve the emissions cuts that climate scientists recommend, consumption must decrease. It is excessive consumption that primarily explains the yawning gap between scientists' recommended emissions cuts and actual emissions cuts. To avert climate catastrophe and leave adequate resources for the poor, wealthy people in the developed and developing worlds alike must reduce their consumption.

Then again, excessive focus on consumption might assign too much blame to consumers while ignoring the larger forces that drive ever-greater consumption. Unbridled capitalism allied with unaccountable political power is the real climate culprit. The marriage of money and politics results in energy investments that benefit only a select few, pillage natural resources, and impoverish the people who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. Consumers foot the bill for these projects.

Any realistic solution to climate change must disrupt the cozy relationship that unrestrained capitalism enjoys with politics. Disrupting this relationship will not be easy—no off-the-rack method for doing so exists. But a suite of actions might do the job. Political systems should be reformed through measures that enhance democracy and increase transparency and accountability. Economies should be fundamentally reoriented toward decentralization, localization, sustainability, and equitable distribution of wealth.

New attitudes. Meanwhile, the concept of economic development needs redefinition (and perhaps a new name). Real development does not proceed from increased consumption; wealth accumulation is not even a desirable goal. Globalization, which produces unbearable inequity and inspires resource grabs that further impoverish the poor, represents a form of colonialism rather than a means of development. In any event, healthy communities that live within their means and in harmony with the environment should be admired, not regarded as needing development. If the wealthy took lessons from these "poor" communities, everyone would benefit.

A change in attitude toward environmentalism is needed as well. In Round One, Hezri described environmental consciousness in prosperous countries as something that "would have been considered [a] luxur[y]" in less prosperous times. He acknowledged that environmental activism in less prosperous countries often springs from poverty rather than affluence—but still, any notion that environmentalism might be a luxury belittles and disempowers the poor. Such an attitude toward the environment is part of what coerces poor people into accepting the negative environmental impacts that accompany "development." Clean air, clean water, and so forth are the fundamental basis of human well-being. They are not some luxury that only the rich can afford.

A true unaffordable luxury is fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Monetary Fund, global energy subsidies are equal to 8 percent of the world's government revenues (once the negative externalities of energy use are factored in), and most energy subsidies support fossil fuels. Nations would be much better off if they redirected their monetary resources toward education, public health, environmental protection, and safety-net programs.