Cooling a fevered planet: economics, policy and vision for fighting global warming

By Gar Lipow

July 1 2008 -- Nobody, except for a small lunatic fringe, still disputes that human-caused climate chaos endangers all of us. Further, most serious scientific and technical groups that have looked at the question have concluded that we have the technological capability today to replace greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels with efficiency improvements and clean energy — usually at a maximum cost of around the current worldwide military budget, probably much less. The question therefore is: what's stopping us?

To answer that we need to look at the causes of global warming — not the physical causes, but the economic and political flaws in our system that have prevented solutions from being implemented long after the problem was known.

One driver is inequality and the maintenance of power that keeps inequality in place produces perverse incentives in resource use. An example of this is a usual economic suspect behind global warming, the lack of full social pricing. Fossil fuel use imposes all sorts of costs on others. A tax that recovered some of these costs would reduce emissions, though how much is arguable. Arthur Cecil Pigou invented the idea of this type of taxation back in 1912. Since most of the direct cost would fall on consumers, it is puzzling at first glance that big corporations and the very rich have never had any great enthusiasm for the idea. The answer lies in inequality. Lack of social pricing means we all pay some of the expenses generated by others. But due to inequality, the very rich and the big corporations are able to impose many times the costs on others that others can impose on them—an advantage they don't want to lose.

A second obstacle is deliberate obstruction by various bad guys in both business and government. These are not trivial. Ross Gelbspan has spent most of the past decade documenting the successful efforts of coal, oil and automakers to thwart regulation of greenhouse gases.

But the flaws that cause continuing resource waste extend far beyond low prices and bad guys. While a portion of the clean replacement technology would cost more than our current system (if you don't count human life), much of it is less expensive. Experts widely agree that substantial savings are available at lower costs than fossil fuels. A majority of these same experts agree that efficiency improvements using existing technology could reduce consumption by at least 40 per cent, at a cost less than the price of fossil fuels. Similarly there is widespread agreement that existing renewable sources, such as wind power and solar space and water heating, could replace 20 to 30 per cent of remaining demand at a similar savings. That means that over half of emissions could have been eliminated at a profit. A substantial minority, including Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Dr. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek of the Factor 10 Institute, believe that potential efficiency improvements are much greater than 40 per cent, substantial enough to pay the remaining cost of all other emissions reduction.

But even the lower number forces us to look beyond too-low pricing and deliberate obstruction. Why does a market-based system ignore chances to make large profits? The answer is that there are other side effects of inequality that also lead to resource waste.

One of those side-effects is the three way tug-of-war between owners, workers and managers. This type of conflict leads to missed opportunities for increased labour productivity, opportunities that don't require additional resource inputs. Thus, they represent lost resource efficiency as well.

An especially cruel example of worker/owner conflict is the case of the short-handled hoe. The book Fight in the Fields describes the struggle against what was sometimes called the Devil's Hoe: "El Cortito, ‘the short one,' was a hoe that was only 24 inches long, forcing the farmworkers who used it to bend and stoop all day long—a position that often led to lifelong, debilitating back injuries.... Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount and some farmers would go bankrupt." Yet when farmworkers won a seven-year battle to outlaw this instrument of torture: "The head of the California's largest lettuce growers and a critic of the ban...admitted that his crews had adjusted quickly to long-handled hoes, gained stamina and raised productivity by 5 per cent to 10 per cent on the very first day they eliminated short-handled hoes."

Shoshana Zuboff documented a case of conflict between workers and owners on one side versus middle managers on another in her study of the paper producer she called Tiger Creek Mill. In one of the earliest introductions of computers into business, all expense and production information was made available to line workers. They used this innovation to massively reduce expenses. Middle management then cut off access to much of this information and used the computer to perform automated supervision instead. This change slowed cost reductions tremendously. In interviews with Zuboff, some middle managers expressed probably sincere security concerns, while others explicitly said that cutting expenses was their job. Why does the company need middle management, they worried, if the workers can do our job?

Economic inequality is not the only hierarchy that increases waste. One well known method of increasing industrial efficiency is to improve industrial housekeeping. Major corporations have saved large sums of money by keeping cleaning supplies close to where accidents are likely to happen, by emptying loose gunk out of containers before cleaning and by soaking before rinsing, along with many other procedures. Those factories would have run better all these years if they had been designed by people who both understood housework and understood that housework is a skill. Male and upper class dominance of the design professions probably ensured most designers lacked housekeeping skills, but it is unlikely that this was the whole story. Surely some of the men and occasional women designers had experience taking care of themselves. My guess is that when men or women doing such design work had those skills, they still lacked respect for their value and did not apply them in their design work.

Waste also arises as a side effect of positive things that we don't want to lose. For instance, division of design labour leads to optimising system components in isolation from one another, resulting in sub-optimal systems. Many energy saving technologies end up not being deployed because they pay for themselves through capital or maintenance saving rather simply through reduced energy use and the experts don't talk to each other enough for all saving to be counted. Yet, we depend on the division of labour, even though it is an obstacle to whole systems thinking. In the 1984 cult film Buckaroo Banzai, the title character was simultaneously a neurosurgeon, a particle physicist, a race car driver, a rock star and an adventurer. We can't expect that skill range from real people. We have to find ways to compensate for the side effects of specialisation because we don't want to eliminate it.

Just as the dark side of specialisation is information scattering, the dark side of price-driven decision making is information aggregation. Advanced energy efficiency features are typically offered only in models with other advanced features the customer may not want. For example, the most efficient washing machines may only be available in models with decorator features that add hundreds to the cost. This is sometimes referred to in the energy field as "gold plating," and in general economics as "lumpiness." As with the division of labour, aggregation of information in prices is more a feature than a bug. Imagine trying to shop without some sort of price to let us compare grocery costs. Apples and oranges are often offered as an example of things we can't compare; but the fact that both have prices lets us do exactly that.

Each of us affects all of us and all of us affect each of us. The social divisions and power hierarchies that prevent us from understanding and acting on that are root causes of global warming. The battle against climate chaos is part of the battle for social justice and cannot succeed separately from that fight. The best policies to tackle climate chaos need to increase equality and strengthen social solidarity.


Physically the problem is one of infrastructure. Replace dirty fossil fuels, dirty biofuels, dirty nuclear and dirty big hydro plants with clean renewable energy infrastructure. Transform or replace energy gulping factories, buildings and transportation with thrifty energy sippers.

The global North has historically built major infrastructure through public investment via ownership, public/private partnership or subsidies. Utilities, communications and transportation all depend on public rights of way and often are constructed with public money. The same makes sense for a clean energy infrastructure. Build or subsidise renewable energy generation and storage plants. Publicly fund more walking and bike paths; fund light rail to reduce automobile dependence; fund heavy rail to reduce dependence on freight trucks. Subsidise improvements in existing buildings and factories. Public investments would fund new construction and help pay for efficiency improvements in existing infrastructure. The US$150-$240 billion this would cost annually would provide benefits to all of us: electricity, heat and improved transportation for everybody, green jobs for those trained and hired to build and modify infrastructure and—thanks to increased demand for labour—a better bargaining position for all working people. This could easily be funded from cuts in the US war budget, given that most military spending is directed at bullying rather than defence.

Large-scale public investment can help transform our infrastructure, but we need rule-based regulation too. We need to restrict emissions if we want them to drop.

For one thing, rule-based regulation is needed to measure whether a subsidy or public project meets its goal. For another, old infrastructure tends to hang around. Telex services still fill a niche market decades after fax and email have made most uses for them obsolete. Regulation as a means of reducing pollution is often slandered as "command and control." Historically in the global north, standards achieved substantial success. Sulfur rules in Europe produced better results than sulfur trading in the US. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the US nearly doubled US fleet efficiency, until crippled by the Reagan administration and unfavourable World Trade Organisation (WTO) rulings. In spite of failures and limitations, safety and health regulations in the global north have saved millions of lives.

Waterstone's, a major UK bookselling chain, is a concrete example of regulatory benefits. They had to drastically reduce cardboard use in response to new general solid waste requirements. The chain and their major distributor decided that books would be delivered in permanent reusable plastic crates, to be returned with the next shipment. Over the life of each plastic crate it replaces at least 192 cardboard boxes. Plastic crates reduce damage to books and labour associated with returns; they also take less time to pack and unpack. labour saving to both Waterstone's and their distributor paid back the costs of the new crates in a matter of weeks—providing both with a handsome profit. Yet neither considered this until regulations forced them to.

Regulations work best when we can easily measure results. For example, we can set building standards per square foot, per person, or both. We can set transportation standards per passenger-mile and per ton-mile. For appliances we can use Japan-style dynamic scoring where the best product one year becomes the minimum standard the next. Similarly, we can require that increasing per centages of electricity production are generated from renewable sources via Renewable Portfolio Standards and mandatory feed-in tariffs.

In spite of the virtues of rule-based regulation, the battle against climate chaos requires putting a price on emissions. The sheer variety of industrial equipment and processes makes it impossible to create clear measurable standards for the industrial sector, except in limited cases. The increase in prices will also reinforce the effects of public investment and regulation in all sectors, reducing the need for micro-management and enforcement. If we want to levy emissions taxes, we have to do so in a way that does not hurt poor and working people. Someone who can afford a $50,000 SUV is not going to be hurt all that much by higher gas prices. Someone driving an 11-year-old Ford Escort may have trouble affording a full tank at $5 per gallon.

Peter Barnes, former CEO of Working Assets, has proposed a solution for these problems. Take the revenue from a carbon tax (or an auctioned permit system very like a carbon tax) and rebate it back to the public on an equal per capita basis, as we rebate some revenue from the Alaska Pipeline back to Alaskan residents. This rebated carbon price would be progressive because of how emission taxes or fees relate to income. The smaller people's income the higher per centage an emission tax takes. But the higher people's income, the more dollars they pay, even as the tax represents a smaller per cent of their income. Under this system the very poor would get back more in rebates than they would pay (directly and indirectly) in emission taxes. Prosperous workers and the middle class would mostly break even, the majority receiving a refund trivially higher than their payments, a minority receiving a refund trivially lower. But the rich would pay many times more in direct and indirect emissions taxes than they get back. They would help subsidise everyone else.

Public investment

So far we've looked at three types of policies to prevent as much global warming as we can: public investment, regulation and putting a price on emissions. One of those three policies, public investment, will also help us survive and thrive in spite of the global warming already locked in.

Challenges we face include loss of some of the most densely populated coastal cities in the world, decreased agricultural production from various side effects of warming and increased risk of disease from many of those same effects. Thriving will require aid for climate refugees. It will require levees, dams and so forth to protect those areas we can. We will need improved disaster response, as well as healthcare for all and improved public health to catch and treat epidemics while they are small. We will also need to invest in conversion to low input agriculture which not only reduces emissions, but can also survive the unavoidable decreased climate stability. We will need to invest in water efficiency and probably in desalinisation as well.

Quite a number of other social justice issues contribute to human impacts on climate. For example unequal access to education, lack of affordable urban housing and racism all contribute to scattering the population to resource inefficient suburbs. Similarly, many trade agreements weaken the ability of governments to fight global warming; one WTO ruling that undermined CAFE regulations in the US in 1990s undermines Japanese auto efficiency standards today.

This does not touch on other international issues, such as the obligation of rich nations to pay the cost of poor nations choosing a clean development path, plus compensation for the damage that climate chaos has already caused and will continue to cause them. This probably could be paid for from cuts in military budgets, just as we could pay for internal public investment. Similarly, there are serious climate justice issues within the global North where the poor have borne many of the social costs of extracting and refining fossil fuels and now suffer many of the climate consequences that follow.

Obviously, an agenda for fighting global warming blends into a general social justice agenda. By the time we start supporting large public works programs, regulation to improve human wellbeing, huge cuts in military spending, massive international economic aid and begin opposing corporate globalisation it makes sense to support others who work on the same and related issues. In this context, helping to build a larger progressive movement is practical environmental politics.

Practical politics

Thanks to things like the bankruptcy bill and a labour relations process that favors owners over workers, workers are losing rights off and on the job. Unions are losing membership and power. Women still don't earn equal pay for equal work, let alone get real social support when pregnant. Women's access to abortion and contraception is also threatened. The glass ceiling isn't exactly kind to women who make it into the corridors of power. Wal-Mart is not exactly kind to the women outside those corridors. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders still face discrimination in hiring, education, home rental or purchase. They also face discrimination by the police and unequal justice in the courts. As do gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered (GLBT)—and Muslims. Muslims in the US not charged with terror-related offences still face, not just discrimination, but deportation and torture. (GLBT and Muslims are probably the only folks in the US you can get away with admitting hate for.) The disabled still face pervasive denial of their rights that most people are completely unaware of.

A climate justice coalition would have a lot to offer a general movement for freedom and equality—including a massive green jobs program and strong secondary reasons to support most types of equal rights. Climate chaos also offers a concrete example of the destructive failures and inefficiencies markets can produce. On the practical level, the environmental movement has a large existing base of volunteers and staff and a fair degree of ability to attract more.

Offering these assets to other movements will show that we seek an alliance of equals, one place among many at the table. If we pay attention to other movements and try to advance our agenda in ways that also advances theirs, we can ask the same in return. That, rather than trying to make our issue the centre of everything, will build grassroots strength.

To put it mildly, calls for this type of unity are not new. So what is different that makes success possible this time? I think you are starting to see two types of awareness seep into left and progressive political consciousness.

One, after a long period of downplaying and denigrating class, we are starting to see real awareness of class issues. Even mainstream mildly liberal politicians are starting to mention that there is such thing as a working class and most of us are members of it.

Second, there is even awareness of a middle class, a class between labour and capital, roughly identifiable by having made above the $84,000 income bracket in 2000. On a lot of issues such households have experienced life differently than the overwhelming majority. The majority of people have not had a raise since 1972 (in real hourly terms). Most of those in the upper 20 per cent income bracket have only seen their income stagnate since 2001. The tax breaks that mainly benefited the rich and cost most people money, when reduced services are counted, did modestly benefit almost all of the top 20 per cent of households. (Since Bush took office, the per cent benefiting is more like the top 1 to 5 per cent.)

Middle class is not a matter of income. That is merely a key indicator. Just as capital is defined by ownership, the middle class is defined by relationship to work. The middle class tends to work in technical, managerial, or bureaucratic jobs, to have more control over their work life than ordinary workers, to have more pleasant, less rote jobs. Being a manager or lawyer or even an artist is no constant round of joy. There is still labour involved, but a lawyer lives a very different life from a grocery clerk. Ask a lawyer who puts in 60 hours a week if she would rather put that same 60 hours in as a grocery clerk for the same money. Owners are still the dominant force in our society. But there is a real separation in interests and way of life between the middle class and the working class.

Progressive movements have largely been led by people with different experiences of the world and different short-term interests than the majority of the population. Even most unions tend to pay their presidents, business agents and other top staff many times what the workers they represent earn, giving them more in common with the corporate foes they are supposed to fight than their membership. If groups really intend to be open to working class people, they have to understand that the effort and intelligence needed to overcome the barriers placed before those from a working-class background may not be reflected in either formal education or easily documented experience. Someone from a professional family may appear more qualified, even if the working-class person is better suited to the job. Just as a woman or a disabled or GLBT person or a person of colour may have had to work twice as hard, be twice as smart to get to the same place, so may someone from the working class, compared to someone with a middle class background.

For the most part middle-class dominance of progressive movements is not deliberate. But the very unawareness of differences between the groups is similar to the way some white people "don't see colour." In organisations with paid staff or boards of directors, those boards and that staff overwhelmingly come from high-income families. In volunteer groups, the most influential volunteers, those who can donate more than ten hours a week, come from such backgrounds. This is quite natural in a way. When it comes to paid staff and board members, who will most likely have obvious qualifications? Among volunteers, who is likely to have spare time to donate?

So the problem is not how the environmental movement gains support for technical and political solutions to global warming, but how some sort of alliance or coalition or informal network between labour, feminists, GLBT, anti-racists, peace activists, the disability rights movement and environmentalists can combine with others to win a larger agenda. This problem then divides into three questions. Can we really come together? Can we move beyond upper middle-class leadership? Can we win if we do?

No single issue can motivate the kind of unity we need, but the common simultaneous emergencies may. More and more, varying groups are trying to reach out to one another. In the long run the question is not just one of building a coalition, but a movement—one with a core of shared values, programs and strategies that is more than just a laundry list of multiple single-issue viewpoints. We need to find common visions.

Building alliances

It is also argued that dominance of progressive movements by middle class leadership is part of what has stood in the way of their growth. Converting middle-class movements into working-class ones is an effective way to expand active membership and gain resources. Some examples: those of us who are part of an organisation that has paid staff, or even multiple volunteers who put in more than ten hours a week (i.e., unpaid staff), need to look at how jobs have been put together. Could the work be rethought so that the decision making and grunt work were both divided more evenly? The "balanced job complexes" referred to on the Z Communications Parecon website may be useful, where practical. Even if not, the differences often can be made less extreme via job enrichment.

People from middle-class backgrounds often bring to the table historical knowledge, research skills, ability to work the system, a feel for the mind of the opponent, along with more specific skills related to whatever particular training we have. It is critical that such organisers struggle alongside people from working-class backgrounds and avoid dominating groups.

Middle-class activists should be culturally sensitive. They need to avoid cultural self-righteousness in general and not condemn television watching, meat eating, sports, entire music genres and entire religious denominations. People who call or host meetings should not take for granted that consensus or round-robin "everybody gets a turn" is the best discussion style. A lot of working people prefer "chaired" meetings to facilitated ones because things get done more quickly and it respects their time.

In general, more loosely structured organisations tend to threaten working-class people. With such structures it is too easy for fringe types to come along, raise hell for the fun of it rather than for a concrete purpose, then leave people who live in the community to take the consequences. Those who choose civil disobedience/direct action as their preferred tactic usually come from a position of middle or upper class privilege. Poor and working people pay a high price when they engage in such tactics. While such means are sometimes—even often—necessary, they should be a last resort.

One thing that will help working- and middle-class activists work together is vision. A common dream is a great unifier. Besides, progress is easier if we have at least some idea of which direction we wish to travel. In addition, vision is important in organising. Even when people have not thought deeply about it, they understand that radical reforms go against the grain of the system. A larger vision of a different future makes it easier for new members to consider both fundamental criticism and fundamental changes. Sooner or later the question occurs to anybody working in a movement: if we could win everything, what would "everything" be?

This is especially important for environmentalism because I suspect that just about all environmental goals could be accomplished either as side effects of winning other battles, or by incorporating environmental goals into new institutions needed for solving those other social problems.

Two of many possible progressive economic visions include Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's Parecon and a revived "New Deal" — most recently envisioned in the April 7, 2008 issue of the Nation.

Parecon envisions a truly classless society where the means of production is socialised. Just as importantly, Parecon rethinks the idea that some people should monopolise decision making, or creative, pleasant and empowering work, while others are stuck with the rote and unpleasant jobs. Instead it says, since jobs consist of multiple tasks in any case, why not distribute both the empowering and the rote tasks, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones roughly equally among various jobs? This eliminates class differences between jobs. Production is managed via iterative planning, where workers and consumers propose work and consumption plans based on indicative prices. The prices are adjusted up or down in response to excess or slack demand. Plans are submitted and proposals rejected until supply and demand come into balance.

What are the environmental implications of this? Given the economic egalitarianism of the proposal, resistance to green taxes vanishes. Parecon does not produce large powerful cliques of owners who benefit from pollution without bearing its consequences. And in a society with roughly equal incomes the distinction between regressive and progressive taxation vanishes. Similarly the lack of class conflict would eliminate a major cause of efficiency opportunities falling through the cracks.

However we will still face experts failing to talk to one another and information lost in price aggregation. To some extent this can be compensated for by regulations (just as under capitalism) and by public spending (in Parecon called collective consumption). The planning system, which spans many levels of production and consumption, also provides an alternative means of overcoming these tendencies, reducing the need for interventions from outside the production system. Most of these costs, though external to individual firms are internal to the production system as whole. Once the tendency of experts to not talk to each other is known, or of information to be hidden inside prices, plans which don't contain procedures to avoid and compensate for these are likely to be rejected.

The alternative revived "New Deal" envisions restoring taxation of the rich to a reasonable level, reducing US aggression and military spending and providing large-scale public works and regulation to make the market work more effectively and serve people better—as the original New Deal did, but on a larger scale and without the concessions to racism and sexism the original New Deal made. Solutions to environmental problems fit very well into this—public investment, regulation and so on. Most supporters of a revived New Deal consider green jobs one core of their program.

While we consider these economic examples, it is important to understand that economic visions are not the only ones that could contribute to reducing environmental degradation. Many toxins disproportionately impact women compared to men. Much toxic pollution occurs in communities of colour, because they have less power to fight back. Environmental racism and environmental sexism are both cases of injustice. I doubt a society that managed to eliminate or greatly reduce racism and sexism would accept a redistribution of poisons. Industry would find they couldn't force anyone to tolerate current levels.

Lastly there are unexpected ways ending non-economic hierarchies would reduce pollution as a side effect. At the beginning of this article, I gave the example of how industry missed chances to save resources at a huge profit for years. They ignored basic housekeeping principles which work as well in industrial processes as in the home, because it did not occur to industrial designers that housework was a skill worthy of respect. I suspect there are very many other cases like this we simply don't know about.

Maybe housework is the only case where skill, knowledge and wisdom are lost by the dominant culture and maintained by oppressed cultures. But I doubt it and thus strongly suspect that victories for women, people of colour, GLBT, the disabled or any oppressed group are also victories for the environment. Any vision of a better world is also a vision of a more environmentally sustainable world, either as a side effect of improvements, or by creating institutions with more room to deal with environmental issues.

[Gar Lipow is a long-time environmental activist and sometime journalist with a strong technical background from the United States. This article first appeared at Z Magazine. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]