Yesterday, I ragged on cap & trade, and how I was so tired of seeing climate change framed in economic terms, and that it needs to be framed in terms of human institutions and human welfare.
Anyway, I got a comment that I thought was particularly interesting where the author of the comment basically argued that the reason climate change has been framed in economic terms is that people understand "costs" and "taxes" and "incentives."
Because, I have to be honest, I think what most people understand is: how much is this going to currently cost me? How much more money will come out of my paycheck NOW? And for businesses I think it's: what are the short term costs and the short term paybacks?
Basically I think the way we've been arguing climate change is bass-ackwards. Because what we're arguing for is economic incentives/disincentives and then we assume that from THAT, societal change will flow.
But it don't work like that.
Take the sadly demised congestion charge for New York City. There were a lot of problems with the congestion charge, and a lot of specialized interests that caused its death. But one of the problems was simply that policy makers were putting the cart before the horse: the economics before the social change.
If you read this great article by Sarah Bunting, she mentions several societal problems with the congestion charge that weren't addressed by economic means:
1) People like cars & driving.
2) Many people may not technically need to be in their office to do their job, but their place of work might not allow them to work from home.
3) Trains into New York City are already filled to capacity
Now in my mind, the third is the most damning for policy makers. If you're going to charge a congestion tax, I think you have to build the public transit first and make sure it can handle the uptick in volume. But one and two are important to deal with as well.
Now, I don't entirely agree with Bunting's entire assessment. I think had the congestion tax gone through, you would have seen a down tick in people driving into New York City. But the salient point here, for me, is that the congestion tax DID NOT go through. And I would argue that it did not go through because policy makers were trying to deal with something from an economics point of view, and not dealing with the social ramifications.
I could name any number of examples, because environmental policy is rife with them. From carbon taxes to cap and trade to gas taxes at the pump to fees on plastic bags, policies have failed to be widely implemented. Why? Because people don't like 'em. Why don't people like 'em? Because people see it as money out of their pocket for an abstract concept: climate change.
Raise your hand if you know how 2 degrees or 4 degrees of global temperature rising will affect the weather in your hometown. Raise your hand if you have any real conception of what 2-4 degrees of global temperature rising even means.
The truth is, we don't know what a 2-4 degree temperature rise in global temperatures will do. We have some models, and good ideas, but basically, we don't entirely know what for sure will happen. So we're telling people we're going to charge them more to drive their ass to their work when they're already struggling to get by because some scientist at NASA says we need to have only 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. And we expect them to go along with this because ... why now? Because Al Gore said so?
This is NOT working. It's not. And it has not been working for seventeen freaking years now.
So let's stop putting the cart before the horse. Let's stop framing climate change in terms of economics. Let's start framing the environment in terms of improving livelihoods. Let's create a social fabric where people bike to work because it makes them happier, healthier, and also because it's the thing to do. Or where people eat local, organic food because it tastes better. Or where people bring their own bags to the grocery store because everyone looks at you squinchy eyed when you don't. Because fear of society's disapproval is probably more potent than a few cent tax anyway.
Let's stop framing climate change ... actually let's stop calling it freaking climate change. No one understands what that means anyway. How bout instead we call it increased flooding in Amsterdam and Bangladesh, and more fires in Malibu and Australia, and more drought in Sub-Saharan Africa. And then, let's figure out how we are going to address these problems in their localized contexts.
Will it work? I don't know. But what I do know is that the other way isn't working, so, frankly, what have we got to lose?
5 months ago