Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and best-selling author (“Irrational Exuberance”) Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Economics Nobel in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (as recounted here.) Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­― stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees; generously funded public transit; elimination of free curbside parking; provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes ― that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in eleven Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient ― belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars. [Read more…]

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Last modified: April 15, 2015

One Cheer for the Guardian’s Divestment Campaign

The worldwide fossil fuel divestment campaign got a huge boost this week when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger boldly thrust his paper into the fray. Britain’s most respected newspaper is urging readers to sign a petition by 350.org demanding that the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Charitable Trust divest from the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years.

Divestment can’t loosen the fossil fuel stranglehold without a carbon tax.

Combined, the two charities manage over $70 billion in assets. Both say they consider climate change a  serious threat. But last year the Gates Foundation invested at least $1 billion of its holdings in 35 of the top 200 carbon reserve companies, while the Wellcome Trust invested $834 million in fuel-industry mainstays Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

We’re both elated and concerned by Rusbridger’s audacious move. Elated that this distinguished and brave journalist has thrown down the gauntlet to the global fossil fuel industry. But concerned that this divestment campaign may raise false hopes.

As Matthew Yglesias articulated last year in a thoughtful piece on Slate, divestment by socially responsible investors, universities and even governments won’t starve capital flows to fossil fuel corporations anytime soon. That’s because in a global market, every share of stock we activists dutifully unload will be snatched up in milliseconds by some trader who can bank on humanity’s continued dependence on fossil fuels to continue generating profits.

South Africa’s historic divestment campaign — the one that helped topple Apartheid and enshrined divestment as a tool against oppression  — was paired with a UN-sponsored boycott of South African goods. Not just aiming at the supply of capital but destroying the demand for goods sheared the Apartheid regime’s economic lifeline to the rest of the world more than either policy could have done alone.

No, we’re not suggesting a global boycott of fossil fuels. Rather, we point to the Guardian’s campaign to reiterate that the best and maybe only broadly effective way to reduce fossil fuel demand (which is the point of a boycott) is with a carbon tax. Economists agree on that policy prescription just as strongly as climate scientists agree on the diagnosis. And national-level carbon taxes can be designed to draw our or any nation’s global trading partners into carbon taxing, which means that a move by a big economy to impose a carbon tax will trigger a wave of followers.

So by all means, divest. The cultural and perhaps political opprobrium that divestment can spark is long overdue for the fossil fuels industry. But let’s not assume that divestment alone will break the chains of fossil fuel dependence. Even with the Guardian’s welcome campaign, the world still needs a transparent price on carbon pollution to strangle demand for fossil fuels by replacing them with non-carbon alternatives.

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Last modified: March 19, 2015

British Columbia’s Carbon Tax Architects Speak

A new report from a British Columbia think tank reveals the inside story behind B.C.’s successful tax on CO2 pollution. “How to Adopt a Winning Carbon Price, Top Ten Takeaways from Interviews with the Architects of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax,” published by Clean Energy Canada, draws on extensive interviews with senior government officials, elected representatives and a broad range of experts who helped shape or respond to this groundbreaking policy.

BC C-TX RPT CVRBritish Columbia inaugurated its carbon tax on July 1, 2008 at a rate of $10 (Canadian) per metric ton (“tonne”) of carbon dioxide released from coal, oil and natural gas burned in the province. The tax incremented by $5/tonne annually, reaching its current level of $30 per tonne of CO2 in July 2012. At the current U.S.-Canadian dollar exchange rate (1.00/0.80), and converting from tonnes to short tons, the B.C. tax now equates to around $22 (U.S.) per ton of CO2.

In the tax’s initial four years (2008 to 2012), CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in British Columbia fell 5% — or 9% per capita, considering the province’s 4.5% population growth over that span. [NB: These figures are revised downward from the original version of this post; see editor’s note at end.] During the same period, emissions from the rest of Canada increased slightly. Revenue from the tax has funded more than a billion dollars worth of cuts in individual and business taxes annually, while a tax credit protects low-income households who might not benefit from the tax cuts. [Read more…]

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