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The current economic model is failing to adequately address the climate crisis. Can a radical alternative offer a better solution to a problem that requires immediate action?

Over the last 40 years, neo-liberalism has been the dominant economic system in the West. In that time, a global consensus over anthropogenic climate change has been reached, although progress has been slow in addressing it. Rising greenhouse gas emissions mean that global temperatures are expected to rise by 3°C to 6°C by the end of the century according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, far exceeding the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

While the failure to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis can be largely attributed to ineffective government policies, it is important to recognise the role of neo-liberal economics in hampering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At its core, neo-liberalism dictates that decision-making should be driven by market forces rather than state intervention; a flawed assertion when it is considered that 29 oil and gas companies account for a third of all global industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The question of how individuals can mitigate global warming becomes arguably meaningless when large corporations are polluting the planet on an unsustainably large scale.

The Role of Consumerism

The development of a culture of consumerism in the Global North (referring to developed societies in Europe and North America) and in other rapidly growing economies is problematic as people become dependent on certain products and services to sustain their way of life. An example of this can be found with ‘fast fashion’ in the clothing industry, where changing fashion patterns lead to people regularly purchasing whichever items are deemed trendy. The global liberalisation of trade has facilitated this, enabling the formation of global production networks that allow for the mass production of products with short life spans at a relatively low cost (Lewis 2017). As a result, these items remain affordable and in constant demand as people become dependent on them. 

This culminates in more greenhouse gas emissions from the carbon-intensive production and transportation of these goods and services. These items often end up buried in landfill sites when they reach the end of their product life cycles, and in the case of plastics, take hundreds of years to decompose. However, some plastics that are not disposed of properly end up in rivers and oceans, resulting in the contamination of freshwater and marine ecosystems (Dris et al. 2015).

The Role of Industry

Even if individuals collectively break free from these unsustainable levels of consumption, multinational corporations’ harmful practices will be protected by politicians wary of the jobs tied to these industries. One of President Trump’s key commitments during his 2016 US election campaign was to reignite the declining coal mining industries in ‘Rust Belt’ states. This policy appeared to be popular in these states with the majority voting for Trump. Consequently, jobs tied to fossil-fuel based industries are a source of political resistance to mitigating the climate crisis under the current economic system.

European Green New Deal

The current system’s failure to adequately address the climate crisis demonstrates the need for a radical alternative. The Green New Deal is one solution that has been proposed within the US and the UK and more recently, the EU, with the announcement of the European Green Deal. The deal outlines plans for immediate large-scale state investment in renewable energy sectors like solar and wind power, funded through borrowing and raising taxes. The private sector will be subject to more stringent regulation, reversing a trend of deregulation that has typified neo-liberalism in recent decades. This includes new laws that toughen standards for buildings to be classed as energy efficient. This is an indication that policy-makers are beginning to acknowledge that market forces cannot adequately address the problem of climate change on their own.

The European Green New Deal is ambitious but its supporters hope that the transition from jobs in fossil fuel-based industries to the renewable sector will generate wealth for the working class, helping to reduce social inequality by initiating a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ of new manufacturing jobs (Clark III and Woodrow 2015). The biggest hurdle for the deal is the resistance it faces from EU member states with economies that still rely on coal power like Poland, which is refusing to accept the deal’s main pledge of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Green New Deal is that it forces politicians and economists to re-evaluate what constitutes a healthy economy. Some advocates argue that GDP should be dropped as an economic indicator because it fails to incorporate the environment and regards it instead as an externality. Replacing GDP with an indicator that includes measurements of social and environmental wellness, as has been done in New Zealand, allows climate change mitigation strategies to be assessed more comprehensively.

The European Green New Deal challenges the hegemony of neo-liberalism and offers an immediate solution to tackling the climate crisis. It gives nations the opportunity to correct historic market failures that have seen the natural environment abused by people and businesses. It is almost certain that any action to replace the current economic system will be vehemently opposed to by those who benefit from the status quo, but with scientists warning that we have until 2030 to prevent ‘the irreversible loss of the most fragile ecosystems’, humanity has no choice but to challenge the status quo.

Humans are exacerbating the environmental crisis and upending the delicate balance of ecosystems in more than one way. A new report explores our unhealthy relationship with nature and unpacks the consequences.

Rising temperatures and global warming have been in the news for a while and are well-supported by scientific evidence. Global atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeded 400ppm, the highest in human history and for the past 5 million years. Despite plateauing in the early 21st century, methane emissions have been on the rise since 2014 at rates not observed since the 1980s. The past four years have consequently been the warmest years on record.

You might also like: Current Emissions Commitments Not Enough to Meet Paris Targets- UN

Figure 1 Annual global temperatures from 1850-2017 visualised in coloured strips (Source: Prof. Ed Hawkins, University of Reading)

What is far less known and publicised is the interaction between climate change and other man-derived environmental changes. A new, report – Facing Up to the Age of Environmental Breakdown’– by the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, is among the first meta-studies to consider the risks of interplay between multiple environmental threats in destabilising human society and socioeconomic systems.

What is the age of environmental breakdown?

The age of ‘environmental breakdown’ is characterised by the immense scale and severity of human impacts on the environment that extend beyond the dimension of climate change and exacerbate the environmental crisis.

More soil, rock and sediment each year are moved by humans than all natural processes combined. Enough concrete and plastic are produced to cover the entire Earth’s surface. Land use change and urbanisation are causing the sixth mass extinction with species extinction rates matching previous mass extinction events. Insect biodiversity and abundance are declining rapidly by 2.5% per year while vertebrate populations have declined by 60% over the past 30 years. Intensified agricultural production and deforestation have exposed 30% of the world’s arable land to significant degradation.

These environmental changes do not exist in isolation but instead interact with each other in complex, non-linear ways. Climate change serves to further destabilise the system by global changes in temperature, rainfall patterns and extreme events. Exceeding certain tipping points and biophysical thresholds would have catastrophic consequences. These interactions cascade into human society and amplify existing social and economic problems and risks global political and financial shocks.

Societal impacts range from heightened income inequality to forced migration with the rise of environmental refugees, increased conflict over scarce resources and declining human health and malnutrition.

Figure 2 Wealthier households have higher emissions compared to less wealthy households (IPPR)

In spite of the alarming statistics, the IPPR report concludes that the politicians and policies of the past decade have failed to provide adequate solutions to match the scale of the environmental destruction.  

To effectively tackle what is surely the challenge of our generation, the paper envisages a fundamental rethink of existing social, economic and justice systems. Societies should strive for a ‘sustainable and just’ future by strengthening their resilience in order to cope with the age of environmental breakdown. A ‘shift in understanding’ is required.

Policies in recent years like the Climate Change Act in the United Kingdom, restoration of natural systems and deployment of renewable technology have the potential to be transformative, but progress has been slow. Climate action has been further hampered by rising populism, vested interests coupled with rigid and inflexible mechanisms for global decision-making.

The findings of this report echo recent debates over the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch in which human activity rivals that of natural geological processes in reshaping the Earth’s landscape. Prof. Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science and researcher of the Anthropocene at University College London, suggested that ‘to usher in a new way of living, today’s core dynamic of ever-greater production and consumption of goods and resources must also be broken, coupled with a societal focus on environmental repair.’

Figure 3 No country in the world have managed to develop within environmental limits while achieving high social development (IPPR)

The recent proposal of a Green New Deal (GND) in the United States attracted significant debate. It is a prime example of transformative policies that links environmental degradation with human society and considers the impacts of human activity beyond climate change. The GND does not only aim to cut carbon emissions by increasing uptake of renewable energy. It also pledges an all-encompassing social rethink: creating green jobs, raising the minimum wage, establishing universal healthcare; all backed by strong government intervenction in the economy. Similar proposals have recently been released by the Labour Party, the official opposition in the UK Parliament, in what was termed ‘The Green Transformation’.

Profound changes are needed in order for humans to live within sustainable limits and mitigate the environmental crisis. Widespread public concern and the naissance of youth climate strikes may be the catalyst for long overdue bold and transformative policies.

 

In late 2018, American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey unveiled the Green New Deal, a proposed package of legislation that aims to address climate change and economic inequality. 

Why do we need the Green New Deal?

In an age of rising inequality and perilous climate forthcomings, advocates for vigorous Keynesian-style state interventions are garnering support in the United States. Their inspiration is, of course, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, promulgator of a Green New Deal economics, a series of public works programmes and reforms aimed at lifting Americans out of the miseries of the Great Depression.

The New Deal fundamentally changed the federal government’s relationship to US citizens, establishing itself as responsible for their welfare.

Likewise, promoters of a Green New Deal call for a state-led response to the challenges posed by climate change and see investments in renewable energy and green-tech as an effective means to lift Americans out of poverty.

Newly elected Democratic congresswoman for New York State, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez picked up the promoters’ mantel and relaunched the idea, which is still largely aspirational, in recent interviews.

The ambitious programme, which is yet to be articulated, would address both climate change and economic inequality with sweeping legislation to achieve “100% of national power generation from renewable sources” within the next 10 years.

The congresswoman is spearheading the Sunrise movement to cajole members of Congress into forming a Green New Deal Select Committee and draw up a blueprint for action.

You might also like: Climate Change Litigation: Holding States Accountable

https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1073685921156005888

What is the Green New Deal?

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times commentator coined the term in an oft-quoted 2007 column which called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and for the creation of lasting incentives for solar and wind energy.

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama appropriated the call and swept to power on the pledge to create “5 million green jobs” and incorporating in policy many aspects of the current Green New Deal reform programme. Democrats eventually passed a landmark cap-and-trade bill – the “American Clean Energy and Security Act” in 2009 – with a promise to generate US $150 billion in clean energy investments and create 1.7 million jobs.

But electoral tilts in favour of the Republican party dashed hopes for any prolongement of such policies in the World’s leading economic powerhouse (and polluter), sanctioning an abrupt pause to any talk of large-scale domestic green initiatives. Poignantly, it prompted astonishing reversals like the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Air Act.

Perhaps emboldened by the institutional backtracking on climate pledges, proponents of the Green New Deal enjoyed a resurgence in recent months. They are adamant to see their plan come to fruition. The Sunrise Movement hashed out the proposal for the creation of the Select Committee already in November 2018.

The movement calls for a fully decarbonised economy, investments of trillions of dollars, a wealth tax to cover the costs for a “just transition” to a new economic paradigm. “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilisation efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“We must again invest in the development, manufacturing, deployment, and distribution of energy but this time, green energy.”

Despite the grassroot enthusiasm, any jolt of optimism should be measured against the current backdrop of political retrenchment, a resurgence of the coal industry and a White House leadership hostile to state intervention and apathetic to environmental issues, placing a heavy ceiling to any hopes of implementing concrete proposals in the short term.

Turning high-level goals into a concrete policy platform

Cognisant of the mammoth legislative task ahead, GND advocates are trying to fill the strategy void left unaddressed by the Democratic Party, the largest political organisation in America that cares about climate change but which has yet to agree on a way to tackle it policy-wise.

“The Green New Deal is a great framing and I’m glad it’s catching on, but this whole thing needs to be at least as comprehensive as the New Deal,” said Ashik Siddique, who serves on the Democratic Socialists of America’s climate working group. “We are talking about the need to transform the physical infrastructure of every sector of the economy.”

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, an advocate with New Consensus, a groups associated with the Sunrise movement, is one of the drivers of the policy renewal. She plans to convene other experts and activists for this ambitious undertaking – namely, figuring out how to transform the world’s largest economy into a carbon-neutral power.

“This requires an incredible amount of policy knowledge, more than one group, definitely more than one person can bring to bear,” she says, “so the hope is that it can be a foundation for supporting research.”

Gunn-Wright continuously brings back the question to how ordinary citizens would be affected by the programme.

“My team thinks about the end user” she says. “How does the average person get help putting solar panels on their roof or find a suitable job under the GND?”

Other efforts to fill in the policy gap are outlined in report by Greg Carlock at Data For Progress, an upstart think tank. It details options for each of the programme’s large-scale goals, from investments in public transit to eco-building standards and sustainable agricultural practices.

“Climate change is an emergent property of a bad economic system,” Carlock says, referring to neoliberal market-based solutionism. Ultimately, the GND aims to transform what its proponents view as an outdated economic system.

The grassroots dialectic, occasionally tinged of American exceptionalism, may succeed in garnering momentum and political oompf within state and federal legislatures, but faces an uphill battle with public opinion: outside of Washington’s gleaming corridors, few people have ever heard about the Green New Deal.

A recent survey from Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found that the principles underpinning GND command a majority and bipartisan support. But their research also shows that 82% of Americans have never heard of it.

Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Linking the initiative with large scale job-creation could unlock broad electoral support. Evan Weber, co-founder of Sunrise, believes that to succeed they must: “connect [the GND] inextricably to the economic pain that so many Americans still feel, and show people that there’s a way to build a better economy and improve their lives through action on climate change.”

FDR was able to channel discontent into productive endeavours of public utility. Pundits and environmentalists everywhere are waiting to see if the experiment can be repeated. In a green coating.

Featured image courtesy of Senate Democrats/ Flickr

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