the cultural change we would need for climate justice

One way to think about climate change is that “we” (however you define that) have the wrong relationship to nature. We are exploitative and wasteful. We must change our basic orientation to save the world and ourselves: “The survival of the globe is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature.”

I have three concerns about this approach. First, I don’t believe a fundamental philosophical shift is coming. If we need it but it’s implausible, then resignation ensues. Second, this stance seems inappropriately moralistic, based on beliefs about the superiority of unadulterated creation and the fallenness of humankind that I don’t share. It is not intrinsically bad for people to change the world. The question is whether we are improving it or making it worse. Third, even if the philosophical position implied in this view is correct, a lot of people won’t share it for principled reasons of their own–thus it is politically divisive.

A different way to think about climate change is that putting carbon into the atmosphere is an externality (a way of changing the world for the worse) that is free right now. If we taxed emissions at a rate equal to the public cost, people would cut back–a lot. If the biggest economies of the world imposed a carbon tax on their own economies, they could bend the curve. The tax would cost money, but it would generate revenue that could cover a big cut in current taxes. My Tufts colleague Gilbert Metcalfe testified to the US Senate that if we taxed carbon at $20 per ton, we could cut payroll taxes by about 1.5 percent and come out even. I don’t know if a tax of that size, enacted simultaneously in the US, EU, China, and Japan, would do the trick. In a different paper, Metcalfe notes that we cannot be sure how much tax is necessary to stabilize the climate (pp. 512-13). But if we need more than $20/ton, then we can also cut payroll taxes more deeply. William Nordhaus recommends a tax equal to 1 percent of GDP.

Why don’t we do this? Because of interest group pressure by carbon producers and a global prisoner’s dilemma. If the US enacts a tax but no one else does, the results are insufficient, and that gives us a reason not to enact the tax. Industry opponents make this point explicitly.

Note that we can explain our failure to act without blaming ourselves for having the wrong fundamental orientation to nature. The overuse of carbon is a classic collective action problem of the type that inevitably arises when goods are public. Such problems can be solved by appropriate policies, such as taxing the externalities. To get decent policies requires a political struggle and the application of countervailing power against carbon producers. In turn, building an effective political movement requires confidence in rather conventional tools: elections, laws, and treaties. In the face of organized opposition, this is a hard enough task. If we believe that we first need a fundamental change in our culture and souls, I fear we will overestimate the magnitude of the task and thus decrease the odds of success.

There is, however, a more modest cultural shift that we do need: we must reinvigorate our engagement with public life. There is little question that citizens of the major democracies are dispirited about government and about the potential of their own political action. The climate change movement is wonderfully diverse and heterogeneous, but Harry Boyte argues that it still fails to offer a model of broad-based, effective, and authentic political action. Any viable model would have to appeal across a wide spectrum to be effective. We have seen such models before, and they have achieved more difficult reforms than a tax equal to one percent of GDP. But people do need confidence in their ability to change systems.

See also: Sen on Climate Change.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.