We’re not going back to normal

There was a great article in MIT Technology Review a few days ago that everyone should read, on how social distancing will remain a big part of our lives until “until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.”

We will adapt, of course. But like everything else in this caste society of ours, this adaptation will, all else being equal, concentrate the pain on the poor and the vulnerable. Here’s how the author, one Gideon Lichfield, put it:

“As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

The Coronavirus Economic Crash

I don’t often recommend articles from Jacobin, but this is spot on as far as I can tell. 

The ending . . .

“Governments are out of monetary fire power. If they respond at all, it must be with fiscal policy. Co-ordinated stimulus programs from the world’s major economies might be enough to prevent a significant downturn — and borrowing is now cheaper than ever. Given that the virus will have a greater impact on poorer countries and more vulnerable individuals, the response must be targeted at protecting the least well-off. And given that the climate crisis represents a far greater long-term threat to humanity than coronavirus, it should also promote decarbonization.

In other words, now is the perfect time for the Green New Deal. It remains to be seen whether governments led by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel will seize the opportunity.”

Fair Shares in the Climate President Action Plan

Over 500 US groups have signed onto a comprehensive common ask: The #CLIMATEPRESIDENT Action Plan: Ten actions that the new administration (assuming of course that there is one) should take in its first ten days.

It’s a great list, and of particular interest to us because fair shares has finally made the cut. It’s last, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with being the bottom line. The short version is: “Rejoin the Paris Agreement and lead with science-based commitments that ensure that the United States, as the world’s largest cumulative historical emitter, contributes its fair share and advances climate justice.”

The text of all ten demands is worth reading in full. Here’s the text for number ten:

“Vastly increase the United States’ emissions reduction commitment (Nationally Determined Contribution) to slash U.S. greenhouse emissions below 2005 levels by at least 70% by 2030 and reduce them to near zero by 2040 — in line with what science, equity, and climate justice demand. Include deadlines to halt all oil, gas, and coal production in the U.S. commitment and ensure that future agreements set limits on fossil fuel production consistent with meeting the 1.5°C target.

The actions in this report will form the backbone of the plan to achieve this commitment. However, because these domestic reductions alone are insufficient to fulfill the U.S. fair share of global climate action, the President must leverage their full executive authority and work with Congress to appropriate funds for large-scale financial and technological support to enable poorer countries to reduce their own emissions, as well as to support crucial adaptation measures so that vulnerable communities can survive the climate disruption already underway.”

A Key British Report: “Our Responsibility”

I met Laurie Laybourn-Langton late last year, and was immediately struck by his honesty. He had just released an earlier report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, and while its conclusions were grim, he was perfectly up front about the fact that he and his co-authors had soft-pedaled them, if only just a bit.

Soft-pedaling is an understandable sin these days, and this despite the fact that the Extinction Rebellion folks have popularized signs that say “Tell the Truth.”  It’s a great slogan, one for the ages, but do note that the real prime directive, stated precisely, would be something like “tell the whole truth, and do so in a helpful manner.”  The problem is that, given the unforgiving nature of our predicament, the “whole truth” can only be helpful if it comes together with believable strategies and transition stories, and that’s quite a hurdle. We’re not there yet.

LLL’s new report, Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, moves us a bit closer, and it’s required reading if you believe, as I do, that the fair shares approach to global climate mobilization is essential to any plausible international transition story. Moreover, Our responsibility is notable for more than just the good sense it shows in leveraging the Climate Equity Reference Project approach to fair shares. Its real virtue is the clarity of its larger context. Its real topic is the real challenge — international cooperation itself, in the context on the now threatening “environmental breakdown.”

Here’s the report’s summary para:

“Environmental breakdown is accelerating and poses an unprecedented threat to international cooperation. This challenge comes at a time when the multilateral order is fracturing. A new positive-sum model of international cooperation is needed, which should seek to realise a more sustainable, just and prepared world. This necessarily requires communities and countries to better recognise their cumulative contribution to environmental breakdown, and their current capability to act. Wealthy nations and communities not only contribute most to the stock of environmental breakdown, they preside over and benefit from an economic development model founded on unsustainable environmental impacts and global power imbalance.”

Like I said, required reading.

Good Ideas Department: Let’s implement a luxury carbon tax, because not all carbon is created equally

Philippe Benoit, a research scholar at Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia, has a good idea, a luxury tax on carbon. As he explained it in an op-ed in The Hill:

You’ll get no argument from me!

For $250,000, the super-rich will soon be able to visit sub-space. Meanwhile, back on earth, American workers will drive pickup trucks to their jobs and families will keep their thermostats low to save on heating costs.

All three will generate greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists explain that the climate impact of carbon emissions is the same irrespective of why and where they are created. That, in part, is why many economists want to tax all carbon the same. 

But does it make sense from a policy perspective to ignore why and how the carbon was created? Is it sensible to treat the emissions from highly discretionary and luxurious consumption by the rich the same as those generated to meet basic needs of middle-class and poorer households? There is an argument to say no.

Maybe not all carbon is created equal. Unsurprisingly, just as there is income inequality, there is inequality in carbon emissions. In the United States, the richest 10 percent emit four times more than the bottom 50 percent; the disparity is even greater at a global level and for the top 1 percent. Billionaires and millionaires enjoy a lavish carbon-heavy lifestyle that isn’t accessible to middle-class families. Flying transatlantic first class in the front of the plane generates four times more carbon than riding in the back in tightly-packed economy.

Or consider high-end sports cars or yachts or private jets (remember the criticism leveled against Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for taking private jets while advocating for action on climate).

The luxury emissions market is big and getting bigger. Americans purchase 2 million luxury vehicles a year, while luxury yacht sales total $5.7 billion globally and is expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2025. 

Soon there will be space tourism, a novel but GHG-intensive activity restricted to the super-rich. And the potential for luxury emissions is growing as the number of millionaires worldwide increases from 42 million today to a projected 63 million in 2024. 

Yet, we all share one common carbon budget, estimated at below 1,100 GtCO2. In contrast to incomes where “more is better” and even extravagant spending by the rich can produce jobs for working-class families, carbon is a “zero-sum” game: the more the rich emit through their lavish lifestyles, the less there is for everyone else.

While wealth globally keeps increasing, the carbon budget keeps getting smaller, eaten up in part by the high-carbon extravagant activities of the rich. A luxury carbon tax could be used to charge the rich for this climate extravagance, one that wouldn’t apply to the emissions generated by working families in making ends meet.

And in deciding how much to charge, we don’t need to follow the traditional approaches of tying the tax to the “social cost of carbon” or using a uniform rate based on carbon content. Instead, we could apply a tax rate well above the carbon impact of these extravagant emissions precisely because they constitute a wasteful use of our common carbon budget. 

How much should we tax someone for spewing carbon on their $52 million visit to the International Space Station? A lot.”

Op-Ed: The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy

It’s been a while now since the Sanders’ campaign released its Green New Deal plan, which included a significant step towards fair-share internationalism, of just the kind that this site stands for.

Now, Naomi Klein (who needs no introduction) and Sivan Kartha (who co-directs the Climate Equity Reference Project) have a follow-up op-ed in the Boston Globe, with the very precise title of The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy. If you’re following the fair shares debate, you should take a look at it, for it’s admirably covers both the global and the domestic sides of the challenge in one tidy text.

On the domestic side:

“More than a decade of so-called market-based climate policies have expected workers and consumers to foot most of the bill for climate action. The result is often fierce backlash: In Chile, an increase in public transit fees sparked the recent uprising, and in France, an increase in fuel costs did the same. As in Iowa, it’s not that people are opposed to climate action. They are simply so overburdened by stagnant wages, job losses, and cutbacks to social services that they can’t accept getting stuck with the bill for the climate crisis. “

On the international:

“Accordingly, the plan puts a game-changing sum on the table: a $200 billion contribution to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which supports projects across the global South to reduce emissions and cope with climate impacts. (The Obama administration pledged a mere $3 billion, delivering only one-third before payments were scrapped by Trump.)

The Sanders campaign also recognizes that, in some cases, no amount of money can keep people on parched or flooded land. And so, on the campaign trail, the senator’s newly released immigration platform includes, among other measures, a call to accept at least 50,000 global climate refugees during his first year as president.”

Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy. 

Despair Watch: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, recently published a piece in the New Yorker that caused a bit of stir. The piece is called What If We Stopped Pretending?, and let’s just say it’s not particularly optimistic. In fact, its subtitle is “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

You should read Franzen’s piece, not just for itself but because there’s more of this kind of high-tone despair coming down the pike, lots more.  Given this, it would be good if we could all get our thoughts in order. I’ve already done so, because I’m writing a piece on the culture of climate despair. I fired off a letter to the editor, and they actually published it.

Here’s what I said:

“The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. “