Dogma dictates it’s okay for corporations, but not for governments to plan
Despite predictably shirking population, the pope’s heroic climate encyclical will surely ratchet up resolve for meaningful global action.
Crucially, Pope Francis calls out cap and trade, which, until recently, few dared question, it being the crux of the sacrosanct, ill-founded Kyoto Protocol approach to climate action that has failed so comprehensively.
Another world figure who rubbishes emissions trading, of course, is Dr James Hansen, pointing out that the scheme’s earlier success, in reducing acid rain, resulted from electricity generators switching to low-sulphur coal and avoiding having to engage in the scheme entirely. Even the scheme’s accidental architects thought it unsuited to that task of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
The reason that emissions trading was embraced so enthusiastically was that it perfectly fitted with the neoliberal notion that governments should be seen but not heard from, unless, of course, the wheels fell off ever-more-audacious banking bonanzas, when trillion-dollar of bailouts and stimulus packages were suddenly okay. Dr Hansen consistently argues for a carbon tax, and for nuclear power. But rather than use the tax to build new, zero-carbon infrastructures, the abhorrence he and most Americans share for big government has Hansen advocating that 100% of the revenue to be returned, penny-for-penny, to the citizens—that and the need for the tax to rise sharply, to effectively discourage fossil fuel use, without triggering people’s revolts against sky-rocketing costs of living.
The flaw in the neoliberal, leave-it-to-the-efficiencies-of-the-market approach is that for a country to become efficient, it would have to be run as a company with no reticence for decisive, top-down planning. Rather than pander endlessly to the car owners with evermore motorway, for example, governments would reallocate more and more of the roading infrastructure to busways. Rather than build a new crossing, the existing Auckland Harbour Bridge would be reconfigured. It is entirely possible that no new crossing would be required, if rather more intelligent use of fibre-optic cable was made, to move, wherever practicable, work to the people rather than people to the work—broadband has more productive work to do than simply distribute movies and suchlike.
Distribution of foodstuffs is a graphic example of failure to address the big picture. The public pays, either through rates and taxes or commodity prices, for the infrastructure that compels households to connect to the last few kilometres of the supply chain by private car—the British alone drive nine billion kilometres a year to their shops and supermarkets. This results in nearly six times more carbon dioxide emitted than were the same goods delivered by van, assuming the supermarket trip was combined with some other need—in a dedicated trip, the emissions are nearly 24 times greater. Even shopping by bus on the way home, on average, generates 75% more carbon dioxide than doing it online. Aside from the horrendous financial and environmental toll, the non-car-using public is marginalised. Private enterprise can’t quickly change the paradigm because the status quo is heavily subsidised by the car-based infrastructure that is locked in. Small wonder when most people think of climate action, their first thought is of electric cars. That is not meaningful change, given the graphite rain horrors of large-scale battery production, and the crippling cost of battery-stored energy, Tesla Powerwall not excepted. Mind, the greatest travesty of the over-hyped Tesla technology might be that it starves support for lithium-free, aluminium-ion battery development.
By brow-beating governments into a passive role while they recklessly pursue profit, regardless of the greater good of their host countries, much less the planet, neoliberalism has succeeded in tying the hands of politicians lest they initiate anything that might have ‘unintended consequences’. But, aside from unabashedly accepting bailouts, they are more than happy with big government spending on infrastructure that suits their business models, such as motorways, long after it was rational or moral to continue their construction. Somehow it is okay continue building infrastructure with known adverse consequences, but not okay to implement measures with proven potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for fear of possible unintended consequences.
Every new initiative a corporation takes carries with it the possibility of unintended consequences, but that doesn’t stop them from planning, and innovating. The phrase unintended consequences is hurled at any government initiative with the potential to endanger corporate profit-taking. And if the government initiative is in the form of a regulation, no matter how sound, the opprobrium heaped upon it is merciless. An example of an entirely rational and time-tested regulation is the requirement that coal mines have more than one point of egress. This principal was established and rigorously enforced following the Hartley Colliery disaster in 1862 that killed 204 miners. But no, mustn’t have regulations stinking up the nicely neoliberalised landscape; mining bosses are the best ones to judge whether more than one egress might be needed. Ironically, at Pike River, it was not the lack of a second egress per se that condemned 29 miners, but the lack of an adequate ventilation system that the unconstructed second egress would have facilitated.
The particular tragedy of Pike River is that the men died in mine that never made economic sense as a commercial undertaking. But given the imperative for coal mining to be rapidly scaled down worldwide, it is wholly uneconomic for a country extracting less than five million tonnes a year—Australian production is 88 times that—to separately administer a coal mining industry. The cost of the royal commission of inquiry was $10.5 million, and the roundly criticised police operation as much again, plus some, but in this economist-warped world, that all nicely counts as a gross-domestic-product good. But even when functioning short of outright catastrophe, Pope Francis, in his painstaking credo, reminds that:
A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes—by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources—in the midst of economic growth.
But while most governments will not, perhaps, come under too much additional pressure from the church, the courts have begun to unleash an unholy wrath upon them. A team of district court judges led by Hans Hofhuis has ruled that the Dutch government’s stance on anthropogenic global warming is illegal and ordered it to take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter within five years. A similar action is about to begin in Belgium, and Norwegians are likely to follow. The tort law formula invoked might have been ‘written’ with the climate-recalcitrant governments of the World, and those led by both major parties of Aotearoa in the last decade and a half in particular, in mind:
It is a fundamental and widely accepted rule of thumb that an act or omission will be unlawful if it subjects the life, well-being or property of others to a risk of damage, if the risk is considerable, if the potential damage is colossal, and if the risk can be avoided without undue detriment to the party/parties causing that risk.
To abdicate action to the market, with or without the mild irritant of emissions trading schemes, represents patently unlawful omission on the part of governments. Rather than waste taxpayer dollars, or euros, like the government the Netherlands, attempting to defend the indefensible, that of Aotearoa should build on the the heroic work of its Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, and be the first country to demonstrate a viable and vibrant, post-fossil-fuels economy.
If the pope can plan, politicians can.
Yes We Can Can
Now’s the time for all good men
To get together with one another
We got to iron out our problems
And iron out our quarrels
And try to live as brothers