The Climate and the Deficit: Part II — The Politics of Opportunity

What does the collapse of Republican commitment to a balanced budget tell us about the politics of climate? Both climate and a balanced budget started as “shared sacrifice” narratives, present pain for future gain — climate a priority for progressives, the deficit for conservatives. From Kyoto to Copenhagen, the available technology suggested that curbing climate disruption would be very expensive. Global negotiators debated how those who had created the problem could compensate those who were going to suffer — particularly the poor. How much each country is going to pay? Progressives welcomed the moral challenge. Conservatives, fearing stronger government retreated into disingenuous climate denial, and cheerfully relied upon the frequent reluctance of democratic publics to pay old debts. Bipartisan overlap on climate evaporated in the same era as comity on the budget — between 1987 and 1997.

And climate advocacy, from Kyoto through Copenhagen, crashed and burned. It still hasn’t made up for the lost time. But we risk drawing the wrong lessons.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy for example, chastises funders who backed climate activism from 1997 through 2015, arguing “If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed. The U.S. government is further from acting to curb climate change than it was a decade ago”.

The article attributes the failure of US climate philanthropy to an over-focus on elites, a reluctance to invest in grass-roots activism, and a failure to build a robust movement — all, in my judgment, fair commentary — but ultimately not central to the problem. Like most commentary, the article assumes that somehow a top-down, sacrifice sharing climate deal could have navigated the US political system.

I would argue that the implicit counterfactual — that if only climate philanthropy had made the right investments, or if climate advocates had built the right movement, they could have persuaded the American political system to sign a treaty committing the US to pay its fair share of climate damages — was always poorly rooted.It misunderstands the powers of movements. We need one, but not to implement austerity.

Movements can inspire people to mobilize against those who oppress them. Their power is not in convert those oppressors into supporting a cause that is not in their self- interest. Business owners have never accepted workers’ right to organize. White southerners were outvoted, not persuaded by Martin Luther King.

But climate advocates are lucky. They no longer need to sell sacrifice — they can honestly offer opportunity. For while the world after 1997 failed to make the needed investments in global sacrifice, it did make down-payments in alternatives to fossil fuels — wind, solar, LED’s, electric vehicles hyper-efficient building designs — — some driven by concerns over climate, some over repulsion at ongoing pollution, some by the specter of peak oil and geopolitical transfers of wealth, some just by economics and profit.

These down-payments paid off handsomely.

When conventional electricity costs consumers $0.15, and generating it with wind and solar less than $0.05, we are no longer talking about shared sacrifice. When the lifetime costs of electric vehicles are rapidly falling below internal combustion engines, it’s no longer about who pays the bill.

Since the Paris Agreement it has become starkly evidence that climate progress is going to be a blessing — not a burden — climate apart. We can provide people energy that is cheaper, cleaner, more reliable and climate friendly, in place of expensive and dirty coal and oil. We can deliver, profitably, dramatic improvements in public health, slashing death rates from pollution. We can reduce the price of the fossil fuels we do use, and increase energy security. Those are salable propositions — even in a divided democracy.

Take a look at a few recent bits of evidence:

Two recent global studies concluded that very rapid decarbonization of the global economy would more than pay for itself with public health benefits, saving up to 150 million lives.

The International Energy Agency show that an emphasis on low-carbon energy will reduce our energy bills by 10%; more rapid deployment lowers costs and increases efficiency

UN renewable experts confirm that in most countries, renewable electricity will cost less than fossil power for virtually the entire period between now and 2050.

The World Bank has estimated that relying on efficiency and renewables could cut the cost of power sector investments needed in Latin America by 50%.

Accelerating innovation in the energy sector, and the profoundly flimsy underpinnings of fossil fuel hegemony, now offer climate advocates a movement moment — not based on sharing sacrifice, but on seizing opportunity denied and overturning privilege protected. Frederic Douglas’s axiom, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…” is now being tested — and not just in America’s biggest cities or bluest coastlines. The hidden secret of America’s climate denial is that our carbon emissions have falled faster than any other major economy in the last five years. The states that have cut their emissions most dramatically include, yes, California and Vermont, but also North Dakota and Kansas. Cheap sells. Scott Pruitt’s Oklahoma moved from a 45% reliance on coal, to its current mix — 30% wind and only 25% coal, while Pruitt was its Attorney General. (His opposition was roughly as effective as President Trump has been in keeping no-longer-competitive coal alive.) Iowa’s Mid-America Utility is moving to 100% renewables because of public health concerns. Americans are no longer willing to be held up by big carbon, at the expense of their lungs, their security, their pocket books and climate itself.

So on climate, it’s time to replace the argument about who is going to pay with a conversation about how fast can we stop the damage — and profit in doing so.

Is there a similar pathway for America’s looming fiscal mess? The popularity with which some kinds of budget balancing measures occasionally pass — those eliminating tax loopholes for the privileged, or wasteful expenditure boondoggles for insiders — suggests that, yes, genuine tax and budget reform, aimed at the average American, could generate democratic momentum — if either party would embrace it. The data shows that fiscal prudence is actually more typical of Democratic Administrations, than Republican ones, because Democrats can use both halves of the fiscal box — spending and revenue. And a nice, well designed carbon tax could be a fiscal cornerstone of making the arithmetic work.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg