A US Climate Platform: Anchoring Climate Policy in Reality (1/3)

By Michael Hoexter

Part I | Part II | Part III

Below is a provisional platform of policies, acts of Congress, Constitutional amendments or Presidential actions that would represent a serious and appropriate confrontation by US society and government with the upcoming climate catastrophe. This document is meant to start a public discussion on government actions grounded in economic, human and geophysical reality and is therefore provisional. It is divided into the following parts:

1) Rationale
2) List of the Platform Planks (Slogan Form)
3) List of Short Descriptions of the Planks/Required Government Actions
4) Question and Answer

1) Rationale

Geophysical Context

A. We, the people of the United States, and every other people, are currently in a global climate emergency. Two hundred years of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use have destabilized and warmed our atmosphere. These human-caused emissions have increasingly disrupted the biosphere of which we are a part and upon which our lives depend. Most of these emissions and warming have occurred in the last several decades with no appreciable halting of them since the beginning, starting in the late 1990’s, of efforts at climate policy. Human life and civilization are dependent on a myriad of biological systems which it is highly unlikely will be heat-resistant and climate-change-resistant enough to withstand the current and upcoming high temperatures, acidification of the oceans, and radically altered climate. Positive feedback loops, where human-caused warming now is leading non-human systems (like melting permafrost) to add to that warming, paint a dire picture for humanity without a vigorous, concerted response.

B. The climate crisis is the most severe and pressing of a series of crises of sustainability and crises of the integrity of earth systems that are now encroaching on human civilization, the consequences of what might be called a “throw-away society”, a decades-old idea taken up by Pope Francis in his recent encyclical. Other biophysical crises include

a. rapid loss of biogenetic diversity and mass extinctions,
b. nitrogen pollution,
c. phosphorus pollution,
d. ocean acidification,
e. freshwater contamination and waste,
f. chemical and particulate pollution from wastes and gaseous emissions,
g. accumulation of toxic solid wastes,
h. rapid deforestation and
i. soil degradation.

As the climate crisis is eased via decisive action, these sustainability crises must be addressed in rapid succession or we will move from one critical global emergency to another. Additionally, the means used to address the most pressing crises should ideally have some benefits in diminishing the severity of other critical resource shortages and destruction of our and co-evolved species’ habitats.

Crises of Social Institutions

C. As if these geophysical crises were not enough, we are also facing multiple social crises that might also be linked to the concept of a throwaway society.

a. Economic inequality has accelerated in the United States and many other industrialized or industrializing countries.
b. Labor force participation rates continue to decline and there is an income squeeze on working, poor and middle class people.
c. Poverty levels with attendant social, economic and health problems are at their highest levels since the early 1960’s.
d. Diminished income to those who will spend it, means weakening demand for the produce of society, especially if the crutch of booms in private credit creation is taken away.
e. The use of bank and other private credit creation as an economic “crutch” has a tendency to lead to collapse of economic systems, new forms of debt peonage, and the upward spiral of asset prices, including real estate.
f. Speculation on asset prices and their inflation has led to a shortage of affordable housing in those places where there are jobs and economic dynamism.
g. There is an ongoing threat to all types of labor, manual and intellectual, from automation, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and robots, and a border-less labor market constructed to suit employers and not employees.
h. The political process in the US is dominated by wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies with legalized corruption the norm; politicians spend more time courting the favors of large donors than in governing.
i. The US system of governance, particularly fragmented by geographical subdivisions and dependent on rich patrons, is unable to respond to overwhelmingly popular demands for reform and risks full delegitimation.
j. The increasingly desperate lot of many African Americans and their harassment and brutalization by law enforcement departments have eliminated idle speculation that the US is, after the election of its first African American President, a post-racial society.
k. There is a resurgence of a radical right that uses the racial identity of the current, rather conservative and cautious President as an excuse to engage in anti-government activity and threats. Obama is held by the radical, mostly white, right-wing, to be either a Communist or a Nazi, accusations that seem more to do with virulent racism than the President’s center-right tendencies.

The Priority of Mobilizing Against Climate Catastrophe

D. As engaging and compelling as conflicts between political and cultural groups are we cannot forget that we must unite, in some form, around the critical climate emergency in order to survive in any organized form as a civilization. Human-caused warming and acidifying emissions must cease rapidly. The effects of previously emitted warming gases in the atmosphere on global temperatures must be dampened to buy time. The already expectable effects of warming, such as droughts, more severe storms, and sea level rise must be guarded against to preserve a basis for civilization. All of this suggests that the only rational response is a massive, unprecedented emergency mobilization from the United States government and population as well as other nations and international organizations such as the United Nations. The required massive effort will apply both moral and financial means to mobilize people and resources to preserve a habitable world.

The Mobilization of Resources Hinges on Morality and Money

E. There is and will be no fixed amount of government-supplied financial resources in the effort to rescue the human species from its likely self-destruction. The US federal government can create and destroy dollars as dictated by its fiscal policy the product of a political struggle between a number of competing ethical goals, fiscal philosophies, and interest groups. The US economy is now approximately a 17 trillion dollar economy of which 3.5 trillion dollars are federal government investment in people, goods and services. To build a net-zero carbon emitting and climate resilient basis for civilization rapidly, a more-than doubling of that government investment to 8 trillion dollars per year over a period of one to two decades is warranted and necessitated by the dire geophysical situation we have created for ourselves. Thus in this 20 year emergency period, not unlike a wartime economy, government payments will make up perhaps one third to one half of economic demand. For the US federal government, effective climate action will take its place alongside the immediate survival of the US citizenry and prevention of bodily harm from physical attack as one of the top spending priorities. As in wartime, the fiscal functions of the federal government shall be fully utilized for this vital national priority. There can be no more appropriate use of money, a convention invented by people that we use to measure value, than the preservation of humanity and the ability for humanity to prosper into the future

Managing Inflationary Tendencies of a Wartime Economy

F. With the increase in the injection of funds into the economy by government, stimulating demand for real goods and services that will reduce emissions and increase climate stability, the management of the value of the currency is a concern, as has been in past wartime mobilizations. Even with the very highest ethical and economic goals and intentions as these are, too much demand, too much money plus human wishes, can increase the price of certain key goods and services, if they are in scarcer supply than demanded. The acceleration of government investment will take into account the productive capacity of the economy to produce the necessary goods and services. A variety of additional tools will be used to keep the value of the dollar stable because our lives and those of our children depend on it. These tools would include voluntary conservation efforts, targeted taxation and delayed consumption via climate bond savings programs, which would reduce effective demand for non-essential, non-critical goods and services. However, despite the attention to these safeguards, the contemporary tendency in supposedly savvy financial circles to place inflationary fears above all concerns cannot be the starting point for a program of self-rescue of the human species from its fossil fuel addiction. More likely, real, i.e. non-financial, resources, whether human or from non-human nature, may constrain our efforts to save our species, but the invented resource of money that originates as a shared, public resource will not be the critical brake on our efforts.

Measurable Geophysical Targets

G. The US national economy will be completely decarbonized (net zero carbon emissions) by 2035 with additional targets to reduce existing carbon dioxide concentrations from the atmosphere (currently 402 ppm) and oceans thereafter to target a range from 280 to 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and to target a return of the oceans to the pH levels measured in the mid-20th Century.

Outline of the Mechanisms of Climate Action

H. Effective and timely climate action, in a combination of public investment and rule-making, will involve bringing into the public sector certain key, currently fossil-fuel dependent, portions of the economy as well as producing within the public domain critical pieces of infrastructure and financial tools required to decarbonize the private economy rapidly. Both financial and moral incentives will mobilize people and material resources while rule-making and enforcement will direct building activities and constrain destructive or climate-damaging activities.

I. The use of the tools of government are not reflective of any claim about the categorical superiority or inferiority of the public versus the private sector, a long-running political debate that is at least 100 years old. Much of this debate consists of positions that mask various political and economic interests or represent commitments to simplified images of how society functions but do not shed much light on the functions of either government, private capital or markets. The tools of government will lead effective climate action because these tools are capable of different functions than those of private companies and households. One of these functions is to represent the long-term interests of the public, a forgotten function in an era of mistaken economic ideas and political cynicism. Despite the current neoliberal fashion in political discourse, the laws and institutional actions of the state are still the one of the prime repositories of the effective morality of our society as well as vital to the functioning of the economy in “normal” times. Undertaking effective climate action will require a somewhat higher standard of morality to become the norm among humanity, especially as regards instant gratification of material wishes. We will need to embed our care for ourselves and future generations, biased towards the latter, in the laws and economic policy of government.

J. Too often mainstream climate policy has been based on a fetishized market as the sole picture of an effective social and economic organization. Climate policy and therefore politics, shrouded in idealized and unrealistic ideas about both how society functions and the specific domain of climate action, has lost sight of the technological tools, the real social matrix of action, and the geophysical goals that would make climate action effective. Climate action is not a hobby-horse for a particular social science theory or love of a particular technological tool: effective emissions reductions and technological change must be brought about by the right and effectively implemented economic, political and social tools.

Anti-Capitalism: Right and Wrong

K. From outside the mainstream of climate policy discourse, there are contentions that are broadly true that capitalism and the organization of production and consumption associated with capitalism have brought us to the brink of this climatic abyss. The structuring of society and material production around the accumulation of monetary units as a form of savings or profit, i.e. capitalism, has led also to the stimulation of appetites for the consumption of more physical goods and services that have in turn involved increased and accelerating emissions and wastage of parts of the planet’s surface. Capitalist firms (as well as, often, the immediate consumers of their products) heedlessly shed or push costs onto others and the non-human environment in the absence of constant monitoring and regulation that the capitalists (and often some of their customers) then view as “costly” and inimical to their business interests. The wealthiest use the most resources per person for their own consumption yet their forms of consumption, envied by many, are mimicked to the degree that individual means will allow and individual inclination will direct. In a carbon limited and resource constrained world, the unlimited pursuit of, on the one hand, monetary units as a the central representation of overall social value and, on the other, accompanying material overconsumption/overproduction as a statement of social status must be curtailed in some effective and realistic fashion in order for the species to survive. At the same time the joy and delight in material things will continue and co-exist with new or re-discovered enjoyments of rapport with other human beings, with the co-evolved living world, and with our common fate. Human beings will still continue to focus on tangible, visible objects and personal property for realistic and emotional reasons.

Some Tools from Capitalism Will be Applied

L. Yet, on a practical level, effective climate action is inescapably about replacing the use of one set of tools with other sets of tools, with and without different social practices. The technical knowledge plus commercial ability to repeatedly produce and deploy these tools, goods and services has been over the last couple centuries largely embedded in a combination of profit seeking corporations and government science and technology agencies, with the former more focused on deployment of technologies in the economy itself, motivated in large part by financial self-interest. One set of tools and infrastructure, fossil-fuel dependent ones, must be replaced with incredible rapidity with another set of tools and infrastructure. Monetary self-interest is a powerful motivator and boom-times within capitalism have shown how quickly people and businesses can act when they see a potential profit for themselves. A focused economic “boom” in climate solutions funded and steered by government must take place.

M. Furthermore, beyond the need for rapidity, the capitalist ethic of success or failure, “deal or no deal” is also critical to the success of effective climate action: distinct “deliverables” must be created and installed either by private or public entities in a myriad of physical and social situations and to a myriad of “customers”. Distinct conditions of real world performance, instilled either by customers but most often by governments, must be attached to the completion and functioning of these products and services. They must actually cut emissions while providing services. The critics of capitalism, who have often seen this focus on the ends without regard for the means used to diminish the welfare of ordinary people and sometimes fought against it, do not have currently a replacement for this reward system for successful completion of transactions and projects. Monetary rewards can shape human behavior to serve other people via defined contractual obligations, as they also can, often simultaneously, be a system of self- and other-exploitation.

N. Holding doggedly to the truthful overarching theme of climate change as overreach led by capitalism and capitalists of various kinds, most traditional radical Left or religious (for instance Pope Francis) critics of capitalism as an entirely faulty system still do not have a plausible plan for taking practical next steps to curb emissions other than a general call that a complete, though never precisely specified, revolution in the economic system must take place. Recommendations for immediate overthrow of capitalism have the effect of rote repetition of left or religious ascetic dogma with paltry support from historical reality for their efficacy, either as a benefit to the environment or to general social welfare. In partial agreement with those Left and religious critics of capitalism, I believe a radical shift in values and priorities must take place and that a political revolution of some kind is inevitable. However such a movement must bring along with it hundreds of millions of practical people who are not only hands-on or frontline workers but entrepreneurs, managers and accountants. Moral suasion, be it for revolution or reform, or force of law alone cannot achieve the end of hundreds of millions of people working together in differentiated ‘teams’ to actually bring about the massive physical changes required. Combining moral suasion and regulation, with a system of incentives and disincentives, i.e. money, people in a variety of social and economic organizations will be able to achieve many of the tasks required for effectively reducing our emissions to zero.

The Pursuit of Self-Interest Must Serve the Long-Term Common Interest

O. More agreeable perhaps to the Left critics of capitalism, an absolute necessity in effective climate action is the subordination of the interests of large corporations and the wealthy, as well as private property holders in general, to the overarching public purpose of constructing a capacious and equitable non-carbon energy basis for human civilization going forward. Governments must free themselves of the political domination of corporations and the plutocrats that now have inordinate influence over government decision-making. Government can no longer be run primarily for the benefit of a few of the super-wealthy. Contrary, however, to standard Left and left-liberal discourse, there are necessarily legitimate and transparent channels of influence and lobbying, where corporations producing real goods and services must explain and ask for the defense of the necessary real and financial conditions they require to function and serve the public. The current inordinate influence of the moneyed classes and corporations cannot become its complete opposite: no influence or information feedback into public policy for organizations producing valuable goods, services and tools.

P. Effective climate action will involve restructuring the federal tax system to induce the private sector to cut emissions and produce goods and services of value in a net-zero carbon emissions society, while regulating the increase in demand caused by the injection of large amounts of money by government investment. Such a restructuring of the tax system should encourage housing and settlement patterns and construction that are both climate stabilizing and climate resistant. Some of the latter is dependent on changes in how states and local governments tax. A carbon tax is an essential part of this restructuring, though it is not the sole support of carbon policy, as some its advocates maintain.

A More Egalitarian Society is Required

Q. The extremes of wealth and poverty in our current society will be reduced by both increased incomes for ordinary people and by higher levels of taxation on very high incomes. A financial transactions tax and strict regulation of private finance will diminish the Ponzi financial economy from which many of the current plutocracy have gained their undue financial advantages. Disparities of wealth will continue to exist along with an expanded public sphere and, at least in dollar terms, expanded, public sector. Those who deliver real value to others and society at large and continue to do so, may gain appreciable material and monetary benefits. Still these opportunities for enrichment will be offered within a context of a dignified “floor” of income and basic social services, below which no one is allowed to sink.

R. A more community-oriented way of life is inevitable for most people in the context of effective climate action but at the same time, the enforced collectivization of basic personal property, the modus operandi of Communist dictatorships of the mid-20th Century, will be shunned as cruel, anti-democratic, and economically inefficient. However, as an example, the government to ensure that the society can function in a carbon-constrained world, for instance, must purchase land in some critical locations to build zero-carbon means of transportation. The compensation for this land and property will be adequate for repurchase of land/property in another, similar location. Private property rights will be guarded within some limits, though will not remain the secular religion that they have become in the post-Communist neoliberal era. The survival of the human community as a whole, including the survival of individual property owners, will take priority over preserving in exact detail the specific ownership rights of those property owners, as they now stand. These phrases will no doubt provoke quasi-paranoid responses in those who identify themselves too closely to wealth, the wealthy and individual pieces of property but their likely illusions, delusions or politically-motivated claims of persecution cannot interfere with the attempt to ensure all of our survival.

Climate Action is Not Solely Utilitarian or Personally Gratifying

S. The changed civilization created by this emergency response will have many positive and gratifying features, both familiar and unfamiliar. Yet its construction is not primarily for the sensuous gratification or convenience of those in the current generation, particularly for those who have inordinately contributed to climate destabilization and warming via their business or consumption activities. The instant gratification of simply tapping into the stored energy of fossil fuels will come to an end, as capacious facilities for the use of renewable and emissions-free energy are built. No guarantees can be extended that all gratifications and current pleasures can find exactly equivalent substitutes, at least for a transitional period of some duration. To commit to the self-rescue of humanity will be to commit to accepting many unknowns and tradeoffs between personal reward and sacrifice while attempting to preserve what is best about humanity, ensure human survival and preserve the basis of human civilizations.

International Agreements Cannot Forestall or Hinder Unilateral Cuts in Emissions

T. While the United States government should be among the leaders of constructing an international framework to cut carbon emissions radically, negotiating such a framework should not become the occasion for delay of unilateral actions on the part of the US or any other government in reducing their emissions beyond minimums required by international agreements. The United States should not hesitate to impose a stringent, ascending carbon tax on domestic emissions and a corresponding carbon tariff on imports, as their embedded emissions are estimated, along with the presence of any carbon taxes in their land of origin. Some allowance shall be made for the historical responsibility of the highly developed countries in supercharging the atmosphere with heating potential but carbon tariffs should also encourage less-developed countries to reduce their emissions, however small their historical responsibility for emissions. A climate framework that attempts to completely adjudicate past wrongs in the area of emissions has in the immediate past and is bound in the future to lead to corruption and failure.

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