Tax Justice as Climate Justice

Originally published by Yes! magazine

You don’t have to leave America to go to the Third World.  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.

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Finally, a comprehensive study of "outsourced emissions"

It’s been a long time coming, but a team led by Glen Peters, of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, has finally published a comprehensive “consumption-side” analysis of global greenhouse-gas emission, one that takes international trade fully into account.

Estimates of “outsourced emissions” or “embodied carbon” have been knocking around for a while now, but this one is different.  This time the study – Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008 — is comprehensive, and this time the publisher is the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, and that’s going to make the results, and their implications, harder to ignore.

What consumption-side carbon accounting means is that, if a widget is manufactured in, say, China and then shipped to, say, the US – where it is “consumed” – the carbon embodied in the widget goes not on China’s books, as per the usual practice, but on America’s.  The difference makes a difference.  In fact, since 1990 – the Kyoto Protocol’s baseline year – 75% of the growth in the North’s consumption-based emissions took place in China.

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Washing machines as doorways to wisdom

The word “inequality” has, for far too long, been taken as code for “poverty.”   It’s time to take it as well as code for “wealth.”   And what is wealth?  When does a person or community qualify as part of the global economic elite?  What is a luxury, and who decides?  Lots of questions here, and they couldn’t be more topical.

Enter Hans Rosling, who has with his gapminder project emerged as one of our very best guides to the statistical complexity of this, our civilization at the edge.   You could easily, and productively, spend a day studying the ins and outs of his fabulous presentations, and learning how to do your own with gapminder desktop.   But of course you’re too busy, so why don’t you instead invest nine minutes watching this brilliant video, from a talk Hans recently gave at TED Women.

Serious.  Just do it.  Right now.

The Power of Doom

Here,  from the excellent Labor Network for Sustainability, is a rather inspired from-the-heart piece that looks straight into the abyss and finds, not despair, but rather the foundation of a true global climate-justice mobilization, one that might just be able to scale.   The pivotal paragraph of Fighting Doom: The New Politics of Climate Change says it very well indeed:

But my political alter ego is oddly less pessimistic. Rather than triggering gloom, the climate crisis has surprisingly stirred up more hope than I have felt in twenty years as a progressive activist. After decades of progressive retreat it is a strange feeling. But I am haunted by the suspicion that this coming crisis may be the first opportunity we have had in generations to radically re-shape the political landscape and build a more just and sustainable society.

Rising Food Prices, Al Jazeera, and the irrelevance of the "skeptics"

Care to watch an excellent panel discussion on rising global food prices, one that puts climate change right at the center of the story — which is of course where it belongs — but also touches on the “right to food,” the crisis of agricultural over-pumping in the developing world, the need to provide contraceptive services to poor women, the role of commodities speculation, the democracy movement in North Africa and the threat of civilizational collapse?   Click here to go to Al Jazeera to see it.

By the way, I claim, with absolutely no evidence, that the “skeptics” movement has peaked.  That they will never again receive as large a portion of undeserved attention as they got during “climate gate.”

What’s this got to do with drought and desertification?   Quite a bit, actually.

Is efficiency the problem?

A lot of us have wondered, for years, why efficiency doesn’t solve the problem.    Why, for example, Amory Lovins — though he sometimes makes so damn much much sense — is somehow, still, so wrong.    It’s something you can’t quite put your finger on.

The answer has a lot to do with “market failure,” of course, but there’s more to it as well.

Part of the problem seems to lie in an economic dynamic known as the “rebound effect.”   Which comes, basically, to the fact that when energy — or any other “good” — gets cheaper, we tend to use more of it.   As if we were implacable, insatiable, and ultimately doomed.    Which would be a pretty simple-minded view of the situation.

And, in truth, David Owen’s The Efficiency Dilemma, published in the December 20, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, seems to be just a wee bit simple minded.   Until the end, when Owen, having done the work necessary to justify a conclusion, plays out his hand in this fine passage:

“Decreasing reliance on fossil fuels is a pressing global need. The question is whether improving efficiency, rather than reducing total consumption, can possibly bring about the desired result. [U.S. Secretary of Energy] Steve Chu told me that one of the appealing features of the efficiency discussions at the Clean Energy Ministerial was that they were never contentious. ‘It was the opposite,’ he said. ‘No one was debating about who’s responsible, and there was no finger-pointing or trying to lay blame.’ This seems encouraging in one way but dismaying in another. Given the known level of global disagreement about energy and climate matters, shouldn’t there have been some angry table-banging? Advocating efficiency involves virtually no political risk — unlike measures that do call for sacrifice, such as capping emissions or putting a price on carbon or increasing energy taxes or investing heavily in utility-scale renewable-energy facilities or confronting the deeply divisive issue of global energy equity.  Improving efficiency is easy to endorse: we’ve been doing it, globally, for centuries.  It’s how we created the problems we’re now trying to solve.”

Too many people still think that “equity,” as it is called, is a luxury that we cannot afford.   They’re wrong, though I can’t prove it.   But this article is an oblique argument for the prosecution — for “confronting the deeply divisive issue of global energy equity” — that suggests that the matter could nevertheless become plain.