Sunday, March 22, 2009

Climate activists against the free market?

The March 14 meeting of the Climate Emergency Network showed a real change in the political awareness of many climate movement activists.

A year ago, it was normal to consider various forms of economic “price signalling” measures like carbon taxes and carbon trading as legitimate and important methods of combating global warming. But at this fairly representative cross-section of movement activists, the ideas of nationalisation of industry, legislatively banning pollution, and mandated industrial changes were given a fair hearing and a positive reception.

Carbon trading has come under increased attack within the environment movement for logistical reasons as much as anything else. It’s so prone to rorts and loopholes and mismanagement. Just witness the European emissions trading schemes on sulphur dioxide (already discussed on this blog).

Carbon taxes have remained popular as a relatively less easily manipulated way of increasing the cost of greenhouse pollution. There have been many debates about the pros and cons of taxes versus emissions trading, and much of the movement's debate on the economic measures necessary has been restricted to these parameters. It has made it difficult to even envision an alternative that does not rely on market mechanisms, let alone for people to make the arguments for such radical measures.

One allegedly more equitable and effective scheme that has been promoted a lot (by some such as George Monbiot, and within Australia by Carbon Equity) is individual, tradeable carbon rationing. There are doubts about whether this really is equitable: it is based on the assumption that poor people use less energy on average, and will be able to sell their excess rations to rich people living in McMansions and driving Hummers; an assumption that can be challenged on many counts. It is also unclear as to why the rations must be tradeable; surely a period of emergency ought to entail shared sacrifice? Tony Benn, the UK left Labour politician, has fairly pointed out that the second world war rationing schemes were not tradeable; black market trading in rations was a crime.

Like all emissions trading schemes, the individual rationing version assumes that some will be less able or willing to transition to low-carbon use lifestyles, and can therefore pay for others to make the initial cuts for them. Unfortunately, we have such a limited time frame to stop global warming before it runs away under its own momentum, that the luxury of paying others to get the ball rolling first is one we can’t afford.

Another important consideration is that the chain of response between consumer behaviour at one end, and production of goods at the other is not nearly so clear and effective as the chain leading in the other direction from production, through distribution and advertising, to consumption. It is far more direct and effective to intervene into the production process than to send it algebraic market signals from people’s choices in the supermarket.

Fundamentally, putting the onus onto consumers also leaves out the non-consumer expenses in the economy: the Australian government is set to spend $35 billion on a new submarine fleet. That monumental expense is not one that consumers can choose, or not, at the supermarket checkout!

Judging by this CEN meeting on March 14, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place for many activists. Solidarity activist Chris Breen moved that the CEN produce a document to explain why not just the currently proposed emissions trading scheme (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, CPRS) is wrong, but why “price signal” measures are inadequate in any case to deal with the climate emergency; this proposal was not dissented from in the meeting (although there will no doubt be some disagreement on the document that CEN discusses).

Alternatives to market schemes were discussed. In discussion groups that we divided into to thrash out the ins and outs of the CPRS, I suggested that approaching carbon pollution like asbestos, a deadly hazard to be banned not traded in, would be a better way of looking at it. If the general population is to grasp the seriousness of the climate emergency, this kind of measure will be entirely feasible. Others preferred the comparison with child abuse (which global warming is, among other things): we don’t set a tolerable amount of child abuse, then allocate tradeable permits in it!

Another workshop raised the idea of nationalising industry as an alternative to trying to encourage it to change by market mechanisms. Equally, the folly of replacing our submarine fleet (at such cost, too) was met with as hostile a reception as at a meeting of pacifists.

The Australian grassroots climate movement has organised over 20 local protests at MPs offices this Friday, March 29 to call for the CPRS to be scrapped. Whether the battle is won on the CPRS, the groundwork is certainly being laid within the movement for the radical anti-market measures that will not only be essential for avoiding global warming, but will in and of themselves upset, if not destroy, the neo-liberal free market. This combined effect is of particular importance to the left, as much as to environmentalists.

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