Carrots and Sticks

A surprisingly large stumbling block for climate action in the world today is the balance people feel needs to exist between the public and the private.  Fear of government involvement in our daily lives, of regulation and intervention, motivates a large number of people to fear action on climate change. They perceive attempts to reduce emissions and promote green lifestyles as another avenue to limit people’s autonomy, or at least consider action on climate change as a moral mandate the government simply should not possess. This opinion needs to be addressed, and I think it is best done with a comparison with the status quo. Fear it or not (being transparent, I’m in the latter category), government’s are actually insidiously involved in much of what we do. I don’t think we so much need to fear that government’s are involved, but that their involvement points us in the wrong direction. Governments can be a powerful force in shaping our activities, but they also serve as a powerful force in shaping our futures, and we need to ensure that their influence moves us in the right direction. In the status quo, even those who prefer limited government should be appalled, as government subsidies to industry grossly distort the market. With the example of subsidies to oil companies, they also subsidize the richest industry in the history of money, essentially handing money over from the tax payer to the world’s largest businesses.

But this same situation of government subsidy can also be a powerful tool in the solution to the climate conundrum. Consider if subsidies to oil companies were removed or phased out. This has immense positives. First it sets real prices for environmentally destructive practices, and chances are, we would therefore at least try to consume them less, or use dirty energy far more efficiently. In fact, although it could be written about in length, this sort of activity could change the financial calculus of so many other companies to adopt the sort of clean-tech that right now they don’t consider as cost-effective. Very importantly, this opens up money the public desperately needs in an era of record deficits and austerity budgets, without touching the tax rates that governments are loath to change. Most importantly though this opens up opportunities to start putting money into what we want to see, not what we want to avoid.  An elegant possibility is that of a revenue neutral subsidy shift to green technologies. Imagine if the same government money that was being put into polluting our atmosphere was increasingly spent on renewable energies or low-carbon transportation infrastructure such as the commuter rail systems found throughout Europe.

Small-scale change, the grassroots organizing and community resilience needed to combat and adapt to climate change are essential, but we cannot ignore the structural change that can ensure the resilience of our larger social systems. Government oil subsidies, amounting in Canada to 1.5 billion dollars a year, need to be redistributed keeping in mind the change we wish to see, not the institutions we wish to escape. These billions could help fund a green future. One solution to combating climate change, put our money where our mouth is.

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