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Monday, September 19, 2016

When we transform the economy to deal with climate change, what should we transform it to

by Gaius Publius

I want to put two ideas into your head and ask you to hold them there for a while. Later I'm going to write a deeper piece on this subject. But for now, just notice these two ideas and how they're linked. They form an either-or, a one-or-the-other way to respond to climate change, assuming we do.

Sometimes you can't have everything. Sometimes you have to choose. (Source; click to enlarge)

After all, perhaps we will respond effectively to climate change, and that response may be in time to lessen the disaster. It could happen that people wake up — or more likely, that some catastrophic event grips the nation hard enough — so that changing the present course becomes actually possible, even widely perceived as necessary.

Consider this: It's certainly true that most voters — not just Democrats, but even and especially Republicans — are full-time worshipers at the Church of Daddy Do Something when a real crisis hits. "Daddy" in this case is the government, and it better act ... and now ... if my house is likely to burn, my property is likely to flood, my child is likely to die of some disease or in the next attack. If that realization does hit before it's really too late — the realization that "we're in deep trouble and 'daddy' better do something" — there's great reason for optimism.

And it's not like we're not sitting on a powder keg of potential disasters. For example, imagine a Haiyan-size hurricane sweeping across Florida — no lives are lost, but all property values brought instantly to zero — followed by a summer of torrential torrential rains throughout the East, South and Midwest, causing thousands of dollars of damage and bankrupting insurance companies throughout the country. What do you think the national response would be? I think the nation, with one voice (minus most of the unaffected rich) might easily say, "OK, time to really do something. This time we mean it."

If we decide to do something, what should it be?

So the question is, what is that something? Which is where the two thoughts I mentioned above come in. Obviously we get off of carbon as fast as we can, which completely transforms the economy. But it's not obvious what we should transform the economy to. Right now the economy is built around rapid economic growth — meaning, rapid growth of profits for the very very wealthy. Do we want to simply power the current wealth-enabling economy with renewable energy sources and call it done?

Would powering the current wealth-enabling economy even be effective in mitigating climate change? (The argument below says no.)

Or do we want to transform our broader economy at the same time to something more ... sustainable? Constant growth may well be ineffective in stopping climate change, and it's frankly unsustainable on its own. The "build more stuff, then throw it away" world has its own a natural end as well; we're getting pretty close to it; and the end if that world is no prettier than the end of the climate chaos world.

Put more simply, why would be want to avoid the climate collapse, just to collapse a few years later anyway on the rock of unsustainable economic growth for the very very few?

I'm not asking you to agree with this just yet. Simply hold these thoughts in mind as alternatives, and read the following, by Elliot Sperber writing in Counterpunch. The piece is framed as a response to Bill McKibben's (appropriate) call for a WWII-style "war on climate change." The following paragraphs illustrate the kind of choices I'm trying to put before you now.

Again, the question is, if we're going to have to transform the economy, what do we transform it to? If we're going to embark on a WWII-style restructuring of the economy, including some rationing during the transition, everything new is possible, including each of the choices I'm presenting.

Benefits of a sustainability economy, even to the climate

In the section below, Sperber starts with meat production (my emphasis):
Perhaps most relevant to the issue of climate change and rationing, commodities such as nylon, oil, and meat were rationed during World War II. And since by some measures meat production is responsible for even more greenhouse gas than fossil fuels, rationing (or, better yet, banning the commercial production of meat altogether) would reduce greenhouse gases far more rapidly than McKibben’s building plan. Beyond the ethical imperative to not torture animals, curtailing meat production would not only eliminate the production of greenhouse gases; it would allow the rain forests and other ecosystems destroyed in the creation of pasture and feed for livestock to regenerate, simultaneously halting CO2 and methane proliferation and absorbing it. And it’s a hardly incidental benefit that the tons of water used to raise and process meat could be used to ameliorate climate change-exacerbated drought the world over.
That's a pretty decent list of benefits, simply on the climate front, not to mention alleviating health issues caused by mass consumption of highly processed, hormone-injected, expensive-to-produce animal protein — your next McDonald's burger, for example.

On the effectiveness of a climate solution in stopping those storms that come "one in 500 years," which have been happening with great frequency in the U.S. lately, Sperber writes:
​Furthermore, though it’s less well-known than either CO2 or the notoriously potent greenhouse gas methane, water vapor is also a tremendously important greenhouse gas, one with a powerful feedback loop that amplifies global warming. That is, as the climate heats up and ice melts, and soil dries out, and water evaporates (spreading deserts and extending droughts), more and more vapor enters the atmosphere, heating the planet further still – melting more ice, producing more vapor, ad infinitum. The one trillion tons of ice that disappeared from the Greenland ice sheet between 2011 and 2014, for example, didn’t simply vanish; they transmogrified into hundreds of trillions of gallons of liquid water and water vapor that, by further heating the planet, has added to the power – as well as to the mass – of hurricanes, typhoons, storms, floods, and other extreme weather events. And this is only accelerating. But while this vapor heats the planet and, when concentrated, creates catastrophic floods, this vapor can also be absorbed by, and stored in, marine and terrestrial plants.
If a change in meat production and consumption increases the likelihood of a real climate solution, do we need to hold onto our current McDonald's lifestyle?

Which takes us to land use and transportation:
In addition to the fact that plants convert CO2 into oxygen, because plants absorb and store water, conserving and restoring plant life is arguably just as crucial as building excessive energy capacity. And because forests and other ecosystems regenerate independently, when they’re simply left alone, this requires far less work than building all those solar panels and wind turbines (in factories that, by the way, would likely result in clearing land of a considerable deal of plant coverage). Restoring ecosystems and conserving vegetation doesn’t need to be limited to non-urban areas, though. In addition to decontaminating them (when necessary) and leaving forests alone to regenerate, plants just as easily flourish in cities. Beyond building ‘green roofs’ and street level gardens (akin to the World War II-era “victory gardens” that supplied 40% of people’s vegetables, as McKibben reminds us), much of the space devoted to cars (streets, freeways, gas stations, parking lots, etc.) could be dedicated to the growth of trees and vegetation. By absorbing both CO2 and water vapor, trees and urban gardens, not to mention spontaneously growing plants, would cool cities, improve air quality, and make cities more livable, all while mitigating global warming and providing food. Because they require space that could be used to grow plants, a serious commitment to mitigating climate change should also ration, or ban altogether, the toxic private car – at least from urban areas. If during World War II the use of public transportation increased by close to 90%, as McKibben notes, there’s no reason why this can’t be replicated today, improving the wellbeing of the climate, as well as that of human and non-human animals.
In general, this leads to the question of  "industrial mobilization" versus "demobilization" and the recovery of diminishing and collapsing ecosystems, like world fisheries:
Rather than the “industrial mobilization” McKibben advocates, then, in many respects demobilization could be at least as effective at mitigating climate change, and could be implemented far more rapidly. When methane-producing, ecosystem-killing dams are dismantled, for instance, entire ecosystems can quickly and spontaneously recover. And, as it’s part of World War II history, McKibben may appreciate the fact that, in the decades leading up to the war commercial fishing in the North Sea led to the virtual extinction of fish. But, because of a commercial fishing moratorium (imposed by the threat of German submarines, and other martial maritime dangers), by the end of the war the ecosystem had regenerated itself. Following this precedent, moratoria should be imposed immediately on the commercial fishing industries presently devastating the oceans (wiping out entire species of coral, fish, and mammals, not to mention gigatons of carbon-storing, oxygen-producing phytoplankton).

Of course, rationing and imposing moratoria on ecocidal practices such as commercial fishing, logging, and the production of toxic materials, such as plastics, would slow economic production substantially; but if our priority is effectively mitigating climate change’s harms, as opposed to making money, slowing economic production is crucial. Moreover, rather than exacerbating existing poverty, the phasing out of ecocidal industries, such as the fast food industry, could lead to the elimination of poverty; we simply need to produce necessities, such as food, housing, healthcare, and transportation, for their own sake, rather than in exchange for money. Among other benefits, this would eliminate the conflicts of interest that result in such absurdities as food producers refusing to grow, and willfully destroying, tremendous amounts of food each year in order to keep up prices, and market forces driving vulnerable populations from necessary housing in order to develop luxury housing for people who already have more than enough."
To repeat: If our first priority is effectively mitigating the harm done by climate change, instead of protecting the "right" of the wealthy to make money, slowing economic production is crucial.

Just give it some thought

I'm not asking you to make that choice yet. Just to be aware of it and give it some thought of your own. I'll have more on this in a bit.

Economic growth (a world awash in profit) versus sustainable living (a world without the super-rich, but one we can share and maintain) — if we're lucky, we may get to finally decide between them.

(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)