Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, American muckraker Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” a searing account of the savage working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Such a mind-boggling exposé of exploited workers laboring amid rotten, contaminated and diseased meat, he thought, would shake America to its core.
It did. Public outcry was swift, and within a year, Congress passed two landmark measures creating federal food inspection standards in slaughterhouses and what became America’s chief food regulator, the FDA, among other consumer protections. Today, this textbook example of mass mobilization in response to a public health crisis may seem out of touch, but it reminds us of a persistent government habit: Until a tangible, imminent crisis looms — like the one illustrated by Sinclair — it is a safe bet that little action will be undertaken on even the most pressing problems, climate change included.
However, this tendency is especially dangerous given the slowly-but-surely nature of climate change — and precisely why a new approach is needed. While the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement marked a watershed moment in global diplomacy, 2018 reports from the United Nations show most countries are not on track to meet their upcoming 2020 pledges. Coupled with President Donald Trump yanking the United States from the agreement — not to mention skipping climate talks at the G7 summit earlier this year — a diminished impetus from the West to meet those goals paints a gloomy outlook.
However discouraging these prospects are, a strong case can be made for a threefold approach spanning social, economic, political, academic and public-private lines. The first tenet follows an age-old aphorism: What gets measured, gets fixed. One reason economies today don’t favor many common sense climate change proposals is because current economic indices, namely GDP, are too narrow. They give little consideration to the long-term necessity and benefits of climate-conscious proposals, favoring short-term growth at the environment’s expense. Instead, we must use a more comprehensive measurement of economic health that factors in climate impact.
One possibility is the Gross Progress Index (GPI), popularized in the early 1990s with the intention of subtracting “costs” — ranging from crime to family breakdown to pollution — from “benefits,” which GDP solely measures. Non-profits have calculated GPI time-series for America and a smattering of countries including Canada, France, the UK and the Netherlands, but just four US states have passed legislation to consider GPI. The European Union’s Beyond GDP initiative has garnered attention among European think tanks but, by and large, alternative GDP indicators have not dominated the mainstream political conversation. That must change. GPI will need policy support from governments due to a default preference for GDP, but a global effort to universally adopt GPI with an established methodology can standardize its use for all.
Antagonists of GPI contend it is too vague given its social well-being origins, and higher GPI often would not indicate a true increase of a nation’s wealth. Yet these objections are short-sighted for two reasons. First, a climate change-oriented GPI would primarily be focused on environmental impacts, not ambiguous factors like happiness. Second, GPI would be used alongside GDP as an equal economic index, not as a replacement or a short-term growth metric.
Public Opinion Matters
The second set of measures is aimed at public opinion, modeled after food labeling requirements. Researchers at Tufts University found that nutritional labels reduce consumer intake of calories by 6.6%, fats by 10.3% and other unhealthy foods by 13%, while increasing consumer vegetable consumption by 13.5%. The intent behind replicating the food labeling model is if the carbon footprint of a consumer item is reported front and center to consumers like nutritional value is for food, the public is far more likely to understand the direct impact it has on the environment.
For example, many are shocked to learn that both a pound of beef and almonds each requires a whopping 2,000 gallons of water. Worse, livestock farming generates 18% of the world’s human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. The beef and poultry lobby will fight these facts being reported on their products, but perhaps such a measure will cause people to think twice before consuming environmentally unfriendly foods and shift more attention to sustainability-friendly policies at the ballot box.
Third, a renewed public-private partnership is needed. This matters, because the main obstacle to implementing new carbon capture and storage (CSS) technologies is cost. A two-pronged approach is suitable. First, governments must reduce the gap between the price of carbon (around $20 currently) and the cost of carbon capture techniques (currently around $200) by ensuring ordinary people — not just government and corporations — become a stakeholder in the decarbonization process. For example, Canada recently announced an ambitious tax on fossil fuels, where most revenue will be awarded as a tax credit to Canadians. Another option is a cap-and-trade system, like in California, where dirty utility companies buy carbon credits from cleaner ones like Tesla.
The second prong incentivizes private sector investment in CCS and other technologies through significantly increasing tax credits. According to Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, America’s 2018 modest increase in CCS tax credits makes innovation far more viable: High costs of CCS precluded companies from investing, which kept CCS technology expensive. By aggressively promoting research and development schemes, reducing the cost of CCS and distributing the tax benefits across society, government can accelerate progress toward the crossover point when the capitalistic virtuous cycle favors financially viable and sustainable business models.
Climate change is arguably the biggest crisis mankind currently faces. It requires global cooperation, innovation and diplomacy. But rather than sow blame or point fingers at carbon laggards, we must universally seek to implement the reforms put forth here through regional and federal approaches. With the right investment, there will be a point when government support is no longer needed, and the private sector can take over an industry of highly lucrative potential, harnessing the beauty of capitalism. Yet ensuring the public has a fair stake in progressive economic and political reforms is still a crucial matter — one that can turn the tide of government intransigence into a catalyzing force, and one Sinclair might approve of.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.