OPINION: Taking the Fear out of Environmental Action

What does it take to confront climate change and put the economy on a more sustainable footing? Topping the list are measures like promoting renewable energy, boosting the efficiency with which we use all sources of energy, making our communities denser to allow for greater public transit, putting a price on carbon—all no-brainers.

A recent macroeconomic analysis by the Center for Climate Strategies once again re-affirmed the potential yet to be fulfilled. It found that a portfolio of two dozen energy and climate policy actions could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 27 percent below 1990 levels by 2020—even without congressional action.

And yet, it is increasingly clear that an approach that focuses principally on new technologies—coupled with a reliance on market mechanisms—is liable to fall tragically short. What the United States and all societies need is a broader strategy that incorporates the social dimensions of sustainability and makes the economy work for both the planet and people.

Last week, my colleague Gary Gardner observed that in economically gut-wrenching times politicians all too easily use fear as a powerful tool to thwart actions intended to fundamentally overhaul the way economies work. When people can barely hold on to a job, they are in no mood for open-ended experiments. When—as has happened in the United States for the past three decades—real wages stagnate even as the cost of education, health, and just about everything else keeps rising, then policies that revolve around the central idea of making energy more expensive are easily suspect. When people are in danger of losing their homes, they can be expected to resist additional uncertainty—and perhaps to fall prey to those who falsely charge that environmental action will be ruinous.

Those who argue that we can’t afford better environmental protections are often fervent disciples of the dogma of free markets. It is ironic that large parts of the U.S. environmental community have allowed themselves to be so seduced by the siren song of the market—only to find that conservative politicians are using the severe economic crisis caused by laissez-faire policies as an effective tool to oppose environmentalists’ most cherished goals.

The economic crisis has taught us that unfettered markets can undermine social and economic stability. Why would one expect radically different outcomes in the environmental field? It is time for a new brand of environmentalism—one that unreservedly embraces social goals and ideals as much as ecological ones, and that dares to question whether market forces are always the best tool to rely on. Good wages are as critical as renewable energy standards, and job creation and security need to receive as much priority as a cap on carbon does.

To some extent this requires a dose of the much-maligned “command-and-control” approach that was behind environmentalism’s early successes. But, as we have argued in previous Green Economy posts (here, here, here, and here), the naked economic fear that now drives destructive political processes and blocks progress toward sustainability can ultimately only be overcome with an injection of greater economic democracy. Only when people feel that they have a tangible degree of control over their economic lives can they be expected to back the far-reaching—and somewhat scary—changes that are needed to avoid full-blown climate change and other environmental calamities.

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