Monday, October 11, 2021

Climate Change: Real action requires government

Over the weekend someone pointed me at a journal article on "The Poverty of Theory: Public Problems, Instrument Choice, and the Climate Emergency". Its a US law journal article, so is a) very long; and b) half footnotes (different disciplines have different norms), but the core idea is that the focus on emissions trading as an (ideologically) perfect solution for climate change causes us to view the problem in a particular way: as one merely of prices. This narrowed view in turn prevents us from pursuing other options (because they're not as good at fixing prices, according to the strapped-chicken models NeoLiberal economists use), and prevent us from seeing the problem in other ways.

Aotearoa has a particularly virulent strain of this disease. The NeoLiberal takeover in the 80's meant that when the government started looking at what is now our biggest environmental problem (and arguably our biggest problem, period, if we can get past Covid), it fixated early on the inherent framing of prices and so on an ETS. Which it then dithered and dragged its feet on (including a sidetrek into a carbon tax) for fifteen years, before finally enacting the broken, rorted, pork-larded system we suffer under at present. Which still doesn't include our biggest polluter, agriculture. On the way, these fanatics systematically undermined and ruled out any other policies which could have addressed the problem - such as pollution limits under the RMA, or efficiency standards for vehicles, or prohibitions on particularly polluting forms of technology - because they would be less "efficient" than the ideal system which at the time existed only in their imaginations. And while the government has finally moved away from this extremism and begun adopting a balanced, European-style model where an ETS is one policy of many, those fanatics are still screaming "heresy" and "apostate!" from the sidelines.

But its the framing issue which is most interesting. Emissions trading is rooted in an ideological view that government is bad and its job is merely to create and regulate markets, which should be left to get on with whatever it is they do (creating inequality and corruption and destroying the planet, mostly). But this isn't at all how Kiwis think of our government - we think its there to solve our problems, whatever they are. Likewise, very few people outside the NeoLiberal cult think that climate change is merely a problem of prices. Instead, its a problem of too much carbon, of inappropriate technology and land use, of capitalism, an immediate and existential threat to human civilisation. And each of these framings suggests different ways of solving the problem: limit carbon; use regulation and government investment to shift to clean technology; destroy (or regulate to within an inch of its life) capitalism to remove the cancerous growth imperative; and use a war footing to do all of the above, because this isn't something we can piss about on anymore. And all of that requires government, not just a market.