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The market won’t save us from Climate Change, but government might

The belief that our economy will magically address Climate Change has been dealt a fatal blow with the news that Australia’s new leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, killed the Carbon Tax.
The belief that our economy will magically address Climate Change has been dealt a fatal blow with the news that Australia’s new leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, killed the Carbon Tax. Photo by Frank J. Regan

If it were the case that Climate Change had a prayer of being solved by the responsibility of consumer choices, I suspect that ameliorative effect would have kicked in by now. It hasn’t. Nor is it likely given that this unfounded faith in the invisible hand of the free market has put us on an unstoppable trajectory of environmental (life support system) collapse. The great experiment in replacing our moral system with our economic system has failed. The predicted temperature increase from Climate Change for Rochester NY is between 3°C and 5°C (5.4°F and 9.0°F). (5°C above pre-industrial warming is probably game over.)

“Collapse” is not hyperbole when prioritizing this crisis. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report released last Thursday (7/17/2014) ‘State of the Climate in 2013’ states that in 2013 “Greenhouse gases continued to climb, warm temperature trends continued near the Earth’s surface, sea surface temperatures increased, sea level continued to rise, the Arctic continued to warm; sea ice extent remained low, Antarctic sea ice extent reached record high for second year in a row; and South Pole station set record high temperature…”.1 Folks, Climate Change is happening and it’s happening now and for all the sound and fury from the deniers, it’s jeopardizing our existence.

The belief that our economy will magically address Climate Change has been dealt a fatal blow with the news that Australia’s new leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, killed the Carbon Tax. The Carbon Tax is not a “useless, destructive tax”2, nor is it a penalty for polluters. It is payment for environmental goods and services rendered. Australia’s rollback of the Carbon Tax proves that the marketplace only works when it doesn’t have to include the externalities, the costs of exploiting our natural resources. If anything good can come from abolishing the Carbon Tax in Australia, it must be the lesson that when the public finally gets a Carbon Tax installed, they’ve got to make it stick—voting for science, election year after election year. The threat by those who will always take advantage of the inconvenient changes that will come from transitioning to a system where the environment doesn’t get paid for, to where it does, will always loom. Climate Change and environmental degradation are the price we have paid for an economic system that has for centuries been piling up a debt it refuses to pay.

This is why President Obama’s long and tortuous climb up to the bully pulpit to address Climate Change is so important: Without political leadership, neither the marketplace nor our government can summon the economic strategy or political will to maintain the roads and bridges, the infrastructure, that give our gas-guzzlers something to move on.

The second phase (the first was the Clean Power Plan) of Obama’s National Climate Assessment addresses the problem of infrastructure and Climate Change:

Preparing Communities for the Impacts of Climate Change | We've been talking a lot recently about the need to rebuild and strengthen our nation's infrastructure. As the President has made clear, a world-class infrastructure system is a vital part of a top-performing economy. But there's another important reason why we need to rebuild our infrastructure: climate change. Communities across America need more resilient infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of climate change -- like more extreme weather and increased flooding. That's part of the reason why the President established the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience last November. The Task Force, made up of 26 governors, mayors, and county and tribal officials from across the country, advises the President on how the federal government can best help American communities dealing with the effects of climate change. Today, the Task Force came to the White House for their fourth and final meeting, and will give the President final recommendations this fall. (July 16, 2014) White House

Granted, US politics has made us stupid and our economic system has rendered us blind to our life support system. But if we don’t get the President’s message on infrastructure and Climate Change, we’re screwed. Not only do we have an aging infrastructure for (water, wastewater, sewage, telecommunications, and transportation) that all need serious repairs, we need those infrastructures to be ready for the extremes of Climate Change—something that every climate study says must happen.

Only your government, with you behind it 100%, can deliver on the kind of very expensive, long-term commitments this will take. Remember: The marketplace does not build roads and bridges; your tax dollars do. The market system is an amoral system we’ve used to improve our existence, which it admittedly has, but at a very high cost. It needs a firm hand to guide it, and that’s why government leaders who think it is their job is to find a balance between the marketplace and environmental health are failing us too. It isn’t the job of government to suck up to industry; it’s the job of our government to tame our excesses so we don’t self-destruct. Among other things, of course.

This tendency to view our relationship with our life support system as simply the operations of the market pervades. We here in New York State, despite the pivotal role that energy plays in addressing Climate Change, still focus only on energy costs to the consumer:

Report: N.Y. ranks 38th in energy efficiency New York ranks among the most expensive states for energy bills, a new report from WalletHub shows. WalletHub—a social website launched by Evolution Finance that offers financial tools and information for consumers and small-business owners—ranked New York 38th among the 50 states and District of Columbia based on energy efficiency. The report, 2014’s Most & Least Energy-Expensive States, looked at six key metrics, including electricity cost, consumption, natural gas prices and fuel prices. New Yorkers average $365 a month in energy costs, including electricity costs of $126 and natural gas costs of $80. Drivers pay some $160 a month for gasoline, on average. (July 14, 2014) Rochester Business Journal

If it’s true that New York ranks among the most expensive states for energy bills, then it’s the wrong metric. If the only way you measure energy cost is by using energy bills, then you don’t see a lot of things. You don’t see fossil fuels warming up the planet. You don’t see that using more renewable energy (wind and solar) for more of our electricity will increasingly lower your bills and do less harm to our environment. You don’t see that there are other ways to get around Rochester besides driving gas guzzlers, like active transportation (walking and bicycling), or moving out of the suburbs and near places you need to go. You don’t see that there are many federal and state grants around to lower your energy cost and improve energy efficiency. You don’t see energy conservation as a real option in a scheme that requires endless growth. All you see from using energy bills for your energy-use metric is the need to get your energy bills down. You will never consider alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning energy sources because the moral issues will be invisible to you. You’ll see only your electric bill.

The Carbon Tax that Mr. Abbott so blithely killed in a country ravaged by wildfires and sea rise due to Climate Change might well have been the last chance his country had in taming the market system. For to be quite blunt, there’s just no reasoning with Mather Nature.