If we don't understand a problem, it's unlikely we'll be able to fix it. So let's begin by asking, with regard to the climate crisis, what is the problem we need to fix?
Often in public policy, the problem we need to fix isn't immediately obvious. Sometimes we see symptoms without seeing the underlying problem. Other times we see part of the problem but not the whole.
On the surface, climate change appears to be an environmental problem, or perhaps a technological one. But deeper down, it's a result of two economic and political failures.
The first of these is a market failure. Humans are dumping ever-rising quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because there are no limits or prices for doing so. There are, however, huge costs ? costs that are shifted to future generations. When people don't pay the full cost of what they're doing, but instead transfer costs to others, economists call this a 'market failure.' Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, has said that climate change is "the biggest market failure the world has ever seen."
The second cause of global warming is misplaced government priorities. Because polluting corporations are powerful and future generations don't vote, our government not only allows carbon emissions to grow, but subsidizes them in numerous ways. Thus, despite all we know today about climate change, about two-thirds of federal energy subsidies currently go to fossil fuels. (This doesn't include the billions we spend to defend overseas oil supplies.)
It's important to recognize that these twin failures permeate our entire economy. They're not problems of the electricity sector, the automobile sector or the building sector; they're problems of all sectors and must be treated at that level. They distort the behavior of all individuals and businesses. No matter how 'responsible' any of us may be, our separate actions can't overcome what these twin failures make most of us do most of the time.
What's required are fixes for both system failures. We need to limit and pay for atmospheric pollution, and we need to shift government's attention from dirty fuels to clean alternatives. If we don't do both of those things, we won't stop climate change.
What makes good climate policy?
Policies are attempts by government to solve problems. They can be evaluated on three grounds:
1) How effectively do they solve the problem?
2) Whose interests do they serve?
3) What principles do they advance?
Some policies are little more than hot air. They're efforts by politicians to look good without offending their backers.
Many tackle only part of a problem. They may achieve small gains, but they don't address the core problem, which continues to get worse.
Other policies are giveaways to private interests. Typically, they're cloaked in public interest language, but their effect is to enrich a few corporations. Lobbyists work hard to get policies like these.
A few policies genuinely solve big problems, serve the interests of ordinary people, and advance important principles such as fairness. These are the policies citizens should actively support. Social Security, for example, solves the problem of old age poverty in a way that's fair to all. That same standard should apply to climate policy.
Fairness is one of the most important principles a climate solution should embody. But what exactly is it?
There are many dimensions to fairness. For example, there's interspecies fairness: are we humans being fair to other species?
There's international fairness: are we in America, who have emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country, being fair to the rest of the world?
There's inter-generational fairness: are those living today being fair to their children and grandchildren?
And there's intra-generational fairness: if a policy enriches a small minority, while placing burdens on everyone else, is such a policy fair to our fellow citizens?
The key test for interspecies, international and intergenerational fairness is: will this policy reduce U.S. emissions fast enough to prevent planetary catastrophe? If not, we have to try harder.
The key test for intra-generational fairness is: does this policy equitably share the burdens and gains of curbing climate change?
During World War II, the draft applied equally to all males, and rationing meant the same shares for everyone. Fairness wasn't an afterthought; it was built into our policies from the outset.
In the same way, America's climate solution needs to be both effective and fair. In my next blogs I'll show how it can be.