August 10, 2019

Equity First

We humans have a fine nose for fairness, or lack thereof. Even before they learn about fractions in school, children can tell whether or not a pie is equitably divided. So if you're trying to propose a plan that makes things less equitable, you'd better have a convincing story.

Reagan's "A rising tide lifts all boats" was one of those stories. The 1980s rang in an era of rising inequality not seen since the Roaring Twenties.

This is true globally as well: the global version of Reagan's story was that globalisation would lift all boats, including those in developed countries. It did work out that way, but only for selected countries, like South Korea. In general, globalisation has caused the playing field for the accumulators to expand, so that now a handful of people - 26, to be precise - owns literally half the wealth in the world.

What did the rest of the world get out of it?

If your answer is, a car, central heat and cooling, and next-day delivery of your orders: I am sorry, but that says you belong to the global ten percent. The ten percent responsible for half the world's carbon emissions.

But now a large number of people are finding that sea levels are rising faster than those boats that Reagan spoke of, while an ever-shrinking number of people are accumulating fable-level wealth. The unfairness alarm bells are starting to ring too loudly to be ignored.

A recent report points out that the ten most food-insecure nations generate less than half a tonne of CO2 per person per year: that's one tenth of the global average, one fortieth of the American average. This is why nobody can fault developing nations to push for "Loss and Damage" provisions in the international climate negotiations. And because of our sense of fairness, the general perception is not that the coalition of climate-vulnerable countries are causing the deadlock in the negotiations: that responsibility lies squarely with developed nations and the fossil fuel empire that has allowed them to develop in the first place.

This dynamic is becoming clear even within developed countries as well. Think of the "yellow vest" protests in France. Too many reports have it that they are protesting the increase in the fuel tax. In fact - and the difference is crucial -they are protesting the increase in the fuel tax while the rich in the country are enjoying new tax breaks. Without those tax cut for the rich, the yellow vest protesters may still complain loudly about the higher fuel tax, but it would probably not have caused them to take to the streets.

As inequality has risen, there are increasing numbers of people whose preoccupation is the daily struggle to make ends meet. You really can't expect them to think of the plastic waste problem, the air pollution problem or climate change. If your vision of a better world does not include dignity in work, decent healthcare and affordable education for the kids, you might as well be talking to a brick wall.

Environmentalists are taken by surprise by this over and over again: in the scotching of the Oregon proposal to cap carbon emissions; in the loss of the Australian Labour party to the fossil fueled Conservatives; in the rise of the Brexit Party in the UK. Their surprise is telling: it confirms the idea that environmentalism is the purview of the relatively well off, people who have no clue what it's like to fight for a living.

This may also explain why the Carbon Fee and Dividend, a proposal backed by Citizens' Climate Lobby, has not taken off. This proposes to put a fee on fossil fuel extraction, levied at the source, and rebated equally to each taxpayer. That is better than equitable: The fossil fuel fee gets passed on to the consumer; since richer people spend more, their share of the fee for the fossil fuels that went into the goods and services they buy is higher - but the rebate is the same for everyone. This is a progressive kind of carbon tax. But it has found no resonance with the general American public.

But now it appears that poor people who feel left behind by globalisation are striking back, most notably at the voting booth. A recent study suggests that people realise that they are not isolated entities, but are affected by what goes on in the region where they live.

The poorest people within rich countries may be the key to climate action. Our sense of fairness says their demands are supremely reasonable: good affordable healthcare, a living minimum wage, good education, racial and gender equity. Taking care of these things frees up mental space for items that are now luxury issues like, say, climate change. Getting involved in political issues takes a lot of time and energy.

This is why the Green New Deal is such a Big Deal: it proposes to put people first. I've argued that if you pooh-pooh that part of the proposal, you are missing the whole point: that is the ingredient that is garnering such a wave of support that the proposal is now being copied in other countries.

Because if we're going to get through this thing that is a threat to our very species, we need to do it together.

And yes, that means rich people need to be in on it too. Yes, we will need to start doing things very, very differently. And yes, that beats living with an economy that's broken beyond recognition. Nobody wants that, least of all the rich.


You may also like:
1. Why the distribution is the important thing
2. Low-Carbon High Rise Buildings? Bring It!
3. What do YOU see in the Green New Deal?


No comments:

Post a Comment

You have an opinion: Let's hear it.
(Comments are moderated; please be patient).