Sunrise Movement organizer Varshini Prakash, quoted by Michelle Goldberg in her NY Times column, How the Green New Deal Saved a Senator’s Career, Sept 4.
Entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, quoted in Vox.com post by Zack Beauchamp, Andrew Yang said the smartest thing about Biden at the DNC, Aug. 20.
This guest post is by Daniel Ambrosio, a development finance professional working in New York.
The European Union’s massive new economic recovery plan “is notable,” says Harrisburg University engineering professor Arvind Ravikumar, “for its focus on climate action, sustainable investments, and a just transition fund.” Writing in MIT Technology Review, Ravikumar applauds the EU’s €1.8 trillion ($2.1 billion) Covid stimulus package for putting climate policy front and center. Yet he takes aim at the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism that is a key component of the plan.
Ravikumar’s article, Carbon border taxes are unjust, calls Carbon Border Adjustments “colonial” and “a form of economic imperialism” because they reinforce the West’s historic irresponsibility in generating emissions both at home and abroad. In his view, carbon border taxes also fortify Western-based corporations’ ongoing, destructive investment in extractive fossil fuel infrastructure throughout the less-developed world.
It is true that by themselves Carbon Border Adjustments do not address these issues. But does that omission disqualify them? Must correcting historic inequities be a requirement for any and every aspect of climate policy?
Carbon Border Adjustments
A Carbon Border Adjustment is a tax on imports based on the carbon emissions of their production — more precisely, based on the difference between respective carbon tax rates in the importing country and the producing country. If an importing country is taxing its own carbon emissions at, say, $100 per ton of CO2 while the producing country’s tax is just $20, the importing country may impose a Carbon Border Adjustment of $80 on each ton of CO2 ascribed to manufacture of the imported product.
In effect, Border Adjustments supplement a local tax on carbon emissions “production” with a tax on local emissions “consumption” produced abroad. A properly designed (and WTO-compliant) border adjustment thus holds local and foreign producers to a common standard. As both Ravikumar and the EU note, this is necessary to prevent “leakage” of industrial emissions production to untaxed jurisdictions.
Leakage risks are not hypothetical. As Ravikumar notes, “globalization helped the developed world shift manufacturing and outsource its associated pollution burdens to China and other developing countries.” Systematic exemption from Western regulatory regimes for pollution, health and safety and social safety nets powerfully abetted concentration of carbon pollution in the developing world, with myriad local air and water pollution impacts. Yet Ravikumar’s article makes no mention of the possibility that developing countries might foster their own energy transition with carbon taxes, at which point EU border adjustments on imports from these countries would be moot.
A carbon tax on a marginal ton of CO2-equivalent emissions reflects historic untaxed emissions. In other words, because emissions have only just begun to be taxed, returning atmospheric concentrations to pre-industrial levels (or at least capping their rise, as is the EU’s aim, i.e., net carbon-neutral by 2050) requires a tax which internalizes not the damage of a ton of CO2 in isolation, but the damage of that additional ton in the specific context of atmospheric concentrations as they are and the distance needed to travel to meet targets.
Criticism of this approach is correct in that it is blind to 1) who caused the damage to this point, 2) how well situated an individual, firm or nation is to cope with the cost internalization, and 3) the degree of agency these individuals, firms and nations have over their emissions levels. However, the incidence of this taxation — who ultimately bears its burdens — is only one facet of how the costs are ultimately borne.
Disentangling Price Signals and Climate Justice
Many carbon tax proposals and implementations are committed to revenue neutrality. The intent is to price emissions and thus create an economy-wide impetus for behavioral and structural changes while holding average cost of living in place. And while revenue-neutrality does not directly address the international legacy emissions problem, it at least does not exacerbate it.
Global inequity can be addressed through use of carbon border revenues or separate climate reparations such as wealth transfers, technology transfers, concessional financing, and reduced trade barriers. Ravikumar notes, “The Green Climate Fund — established as part of the Paris [climate agreement] — is a good start, but it is not sufficient, nor has it been fully endowed.”
Revenues from carbon border adjustments could fill the funding gap. The broader point is that imposing carbon border adjustments does not preclude addressing international climate justice. Putting a price on carbon that limits regulatory arbitrage and thus discourages emissions leakage is the single most equitable way to distribute the price signals that drive low-carbon investment and behavior. It is also almost certainly a sine qua non to overcome trade-union and other worker-based opposition to carbon taxing in the U.S. and other industrial nations.
Ravikumar’s article advances its own intriguing proposals for climate equity:
Reforms to WTO rules should allow developing countries to grow a domestic green manufacturing sector without triggering a WTO dispute. Developed countries and global financial institutions should extend access to low-interest financing, as well as to technology transfer and bilateral trade and exchange programs that help build capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing economies.
None of these is incompatible with a carbon taxing and border adjustment scheme. Nevertheless, given how repeatedly the article decries “colonialism,” it is worth nothing that each of Ravikumar’s proposals reflects a top-down approach likely to advantage firms with political clout, at least compared to the impartial approach of broad carbon pricing.
The article does bring to the surface a number of important considerations as the EU develops its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism through consultations. However, its animus toward Border Adjustments appears misplaced.
As in 2016, Democrats appear poised to capture the White House and perhaps the Senate while retaining the House. Let’s explore what a Democratic presidency and Congress might mean for climate policy and carbon taxing.
Caveats first. We offered a similarly rosy prediction in 2016, a month before Election Day. In a post on Oct. 9, The Political Meltdown That Could Save the Climate, we said that the “Access Hollywood” tapes were leading “shell-shocked Republicans to abandon the Trump ship.” Little did we know that the Trump campaign was already detonating a wave of counterattacks that would culminate in FBI director James Comey’s catastrophic Oct. 28 letter to Congress dredging up Hillary Clinton’s emails. Nor did we imagine that most swing-state voters who disliked both candidates would pivot sharply from Clinton, or that her seemingly impregnable lead was partly an artifact of pollsters’ under-representation of Trump’s top demographic, non-college white voters.
Even more wild cards abound this time: possible election intimidation and interference, Covid-related voting reluctance, and of course Trump’s proven willingness to say and do almost anything to hold onto power. Plus, the election is still 16 weeks away — “an eternity in politics.” Nevertheless, Biden’s position today looks stronger than Clinton’s four years ago.
With Democrats rallying solidly around Biden, the trifecta of Covid, economic privation, and revulsion at white supremacy may be too much for the incumbent to overcome. At this writing (July 14), FivethirtyEight.com has Biden leading by at least 7 points in the three states that tipped the 2016 election to Trump. As for the Senate races, though polling is thinner, Democrats are being given the edge in a majority of the eleven most competitive races; they need only take five to gain the majority (four if Biden wins).
So let’s make the optimistic assumption that the party of climate denial, tax inequality and All Lives Matter is trounced this November. What’s in store for climate and carbon pricing?
Tackling Inequality and Climate Change
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt last week singled out the Democrats’ agenda’s “two defining features”:
The first is reducing inequality — through higher taxes on the rich, greater scrutiny of big companies, new efforts to reduce racial injustice and more investments and programs for the middle class and poor, including health care, education and paid leave. The second is acting on climate change. (From It’s 2022. What Does Life Look Like?, July 10; emphases added)
Those two elements overlap with the three building blocks we articulated for climate progress in our Dec. 2019 post, A New Synthesis: Carbon Taxing, Wealth Taxing & A Green New Deal.
Leonhardt contends that while “[Joe] Biden may not seem like a history-altering figure, certainly like less of one than Barack Obama did. . . he could wind up presiding over a larger scale of political change than Mr. Obama did, for reasons largely independent of the two men themselves.” One reason is that unlike the start of Obama’s presidency, which coincided with the onrush of the 2008 financial meltdown, “today, by contrast, progressives have spent years working through the details of plans on climate change, high-end tax increases, antitrust policy and more.”
“There is a whole vision that I think is ready,” says economist Heather Boushey, who runs the progressive-leaning Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and whom Leonhardt quotes. “And there is a lot more runway,” she told him, contrasting the ten or so months Biden’s team will have had to lay out their plans with the mere two months available to Obama.
The other factor militating for potentially sweeping legislative change under Biden, in Leonhardt’s view, is the vast scope of disruption in the past two decades. This period includes “the biggest two economic crises since the Great Depression, the worst pandemic in more than a century and the election of two presidents unlike any before them — and diametrically unlike each other.” He could also have mentioned the breadth and militancy of the resurgent U.S. left, which has served notice that it has no intention of letting up or bargaining down during a Biden presidency — a perspective that suffuses another, more visionary essay that the Times published alongside Leonhardt’s, The Left Is Remaking Politics, by Ohio State University law professor Amna A. Akbar.
Standards-Investment-Justice: an emerging Democratic Party alignment on climate
In late May, Vox climate writer David Roberts published At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left, a monster (6,000-word) post drawing on his decade covering U.S. energy and climate policy and politics.
Roberts posits, and offers as his post’s subhead, that “the factions of the Democratic coalition have come into alignment on climate change.” “For the first time in memory,” he writes, “there’s a broad alignment forming around a climate policy platform that is both ambitious enough to address the problem and politically potent enough to unite all the left’s various interest groups.”
Roberts quotes Maggie Thomas, former campaign aide to Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren, now with the climate mobilization group Evergreen Action: “All of those people who ran for president … had a much more expanded vision on climate by the end of their campaigns than when they started,” and then offers sections entitled Net-zero emissions by 2050 is the new baseline, Republicans aren’t going to help, and Carbon pricing has been dethroned (we’ll have more on that in a bit), before unveiling his synopsis of this emerging Democratic climate alignment:
- Standards: “[E]lectricity, cars, and buildings together … make up close to two-thirds of US emissions. The core of any aggressive 10-year mobilization on climate must be to target them, not sideways through a carbon price, but directly, through sector-specific performance standards and incentives, to drive out the carbon as quickly as possible.” Details vary among various (former) candidates’ platforms and advocacy groups’ programs, Roberts, notes, “but there is a strong common core: performance standards and incentives for the three biggest emitting sectors, aimed at making rapid, substantial progress on emissions in the next 10 years [with] the ultimate vision a carbon-free electricity sector powering an electrified, emission-free vehicle fleet and building stock.”
- Investment: The idea of “large-scale public investment,” says Roberts, “is not new, but something about the moment — the rising danger of climate change, the growing influence of Sanders-style democratic socialism, the pent-up public need after decades of austerity politics — made it resonate.” “The investment ideas cover a wide range, e.g., rural electrification, universal broadband, long-distance electricity transmission, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure [though public transit goes unmentioned here], but the focus in all of them is supporting green industries, manufacturing, and research, and, above all, creating jobs.”
- Justice — “for unions, fossil fuel workers, and front-line communities,” per Roberts’ summary. “Putting justice first,” which the emergent alignment does, “represents the most notable shift in green thinking and strategy over the past decade,” in Roberts’ estimation. And I believe he’s right. Whereas “climate justice” has been construed primarily as remediation and protection for marginalized constituencies that are predominantly Indigenous or communities of color, it is now extended and broadened to encompass workers in obsolescent fossil-fuel industries, the regions burdened by energy extraction and processing, and under-employed people.
Is “Standards-Investment-Justice” reconcilable with CTC’s “Taxing Carbon and Wealth for a Green New Deal”?
While the Standards-Investment-Justice moniker is largely Roberts’ formulation, the idea it encapsulates has been in the air for a year or more and is now trending. It’s easy to see why. Performance standards are broadly accepted in the U.S., if not by Fox News mouthpieces then by an impressively broad spectrum from environmental groups to appliance manufacturers. (The standards rubric also includes state-level clean-electricity standards that many credit with priming the wind and solar power pumps for the past one or two decades.) Investment is newly resonant for the reasons Roberts notes, with credit also due Green New Deal proponents including the Sunrise Movement for their constant invocations of FDR’s presidency (minus the racist exclusions). Justice, a bedrock human ideal, here becomes a rubric to unite two factions that are vital yet have rarely been joined politically: the environmental justice left and the more traditional labor center.
“S-I-J” strikes us, then, as empowering and vital. But what about “P” for pricing — carbon pricing? Recall that Roberts dissed it, in the Carbon pricing has been dethroned section of his post. Here’s how he put it:
Carbon pricing — long treated as the sine qua non of serious climate policy — is no longer at the center of these discussions, or even particularly privileged in them. For one thing, there’s the political economy: Raising prices is unpopular, and raising prices enough, fast enough, to hit the 2050 [net-zero emissions] target will be an almost insuperable political challenge. Cap and trade is still in the reputational toilet. Carbon taxes never saw the bipartisan support their backers always promised. The politics of carbon pricing just don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Roberts is right on several counts: Carbon pricing is no longer centered in climate policy. Raising prices is politically difficult. Cap and trade is toxic. And carbon taxing has lacked bipartisan support since the 2009 Tea Party insurrection (the occasional Republican mild pats-on-the-back for token carbon taxes don’t really count).
But his insinuation that carbon pricing in isolation can’t get us to net-zero emissions by 2050 is a straw man; no carbon pricing advocate of any stature has posed it as a stand-alone measure for a long time. More importantly, the absence of bipartisan support shouldn’t disqualify carbon taxes from consideration by a Democratic White House and Congress, should that be the outcome of the November elections. With Democratic majorities, and assuming the newly Democratic Senate abolishes the filibuster, a meaningful carbon tax, e.g., one that begins at $15 or $20 per ton of CO2 and rises annually by $15 to reach $100 per ton within seven years, ought to be able to get through Congress and reach the White House.
Biden’s $2 Trillion Climate Plan
Yesterday, the Biden campaign released its climate plan. The Biden Plan To Build A Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure And An Equitable Clean Energy Future would invest $2 trillion over the next four years to build new infrastructure, boost clean energy, and repair and remediate communities historically damaged ecologically and socially by fossil fuel extraction and burning.
The Biden plan appears to embed carbon reduction in a broader framework of economic recovery, infrastructure revival, racial equity, and jobs — apt framing in light of the Depression that has enveloped the U.S. in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s largely business-as-usual stance, as well as the awakening of many Americans to the ongoing damage from persistent structural racism.
Release of the plan followed on the heels of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force’s policy recommendations on climate change issued last week (July 9), which in turn hewed fairly closely to the June recommendations of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The select committee’s “majority” report (from the Democratic conference), Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy and Just America, “calls on Congress to build a clean energy economy that values workers, centers environmental justice, and is prepared to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.”
We’ve read the Biden Plan’s write-up of its seven key elements, shown above — U-C Santa Barbara poli sci professor and climate savant Leah Stokes has an excellent Twitter thread on it, by the way — and have seen nothing about, or even hinting at, carbon taxing or carbon pricing of any stripe. On the other hand, another part of the Biden Campaign’s climate page, Biden’s Year One Legislative Agenda on Climate Change, includes language suggesting support for pricing carbon emissions:
This enforcement mechanism [to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050] will be based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting and that our economy must achieve ambitious reductions in emissions economy-wide instead of having just a few sectors carry the burden of change. (emphasis added)
That said, sifting various iterations of the Biden campaign’s climate platform doesn’t feel particularly useful. Whatever climate legislation (and executive action) emerges from a Biden administration and Democratic Congress is likely to be determined more by the demands of the climate movement this year and next than by Biden campaign statement. The implication is that carbon tax advocates would do better educating fellow climate campaigners on the need for carbon taxing — and, of course, organizing for electoral change this summer and fall — than bemoaning the absence of carbon taxing from current climate discourse.
We give the last word to the Times’ David Leonhardt, whose July 10 column we drew on, above:
“If there is a single lesson of the current era of American politics, it’s that change can happen more quickly than we imagined.”
NY Times columnist David Leonhardt, It’s 2022. What Does Life Look Like?, July 10.
I posted this on Streetsblog yesterday. It’s somewhat NYC-centric and doesn’t mention climate change, but it’s indicative of how fast opinion and, hence, policy can change, especially now, during the pandemic. — CK.
“Live long enough,” the saying goes, “and you’ll see everything.”
So it is. On Friday, we saw perhaps the first-ever NY Times link to “Banning Cars from Manhattan,” the seminal 1962 samizdat essay that suggested another urban world was possible. We also saw a 3,000-word essay revivify the truths in the classic 1980s underground sticker, “Ban cars from the city: They pollute, they kill people, they take up space.”
All this, and more, in a piece provocatively titled, “I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing” by Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo — with a subtitle that dared to ask, “Why do American cities waste so much space on cars?”
To paraphrase jazz immortal Sun Ra, space is place for us urbanists. To me, what makes Manjoo’s essay so distinctive is its focus on the immense space cars and driving require. That, plus its conviction that New York and other cities can and must be transformed, now — during and post pandemic; plus that it appeared in the New York Times, automatically giving it currency and gravity.
Space — the word — appears 19 times in the essay. Its close cousin, land, shows up for 15. “If cars are our only option, how [after the pandemic] will we find space for all of them?,” Manjoo muses. Cities’ “worst mistake [was] giving up so much of their land to the automobile,” Manjoo declares:
Automobiles are not just dangerous and bad for the environment, they are also profoundly wasteful of the land around us: Cars take up way too much physical space to transport too few people. It’s geometry.
Cars wasting space is old hat to anyone who spends much time biking in New York City. And the hopeless geometry of cars in cities has been a thing on “Transit Twitter” for some time. But I’ll bet Manjoo’s message struck Gray Lady readers as fresh and new. Even if they’re now schooled in tailpipes and carbon and crashes, most “normies” probably haven’t thought that “as roads become freer of cars, they grow full of possibility.”
Manjoo is speaking to this car-cocooned majority, sagely anticipating their objections and trying to help them get over, with passages like this:
What’s that you say? There aren’t enough buses in your city to avoid overcrowding, and they’re too slow, anyway? Pedestrian space is already hard to find? Well, right. That’s car dependency.
Without cars, Manjoo explains, “Manhattan’s streets could give priority to more equitable and accessible ways of getting around.” Crucially, these better ways aren’t ride-hails or Teslas or self-driving cars. Indeed, one of the essay’s notable feature is its kiss-off to digerati fantasies of melding technology, automobiles and cities. (Manjoo, a former reporter, covered Silicon Valley.)
No faux disrupter, Manjoo is going sustainable and long, urging bike superhighways and bus rapid transit and congestion pricing and ample sidewalks — elements of a wholesale repurposing of the vast space taken up by moving cars, parked cars, cruising-for-parking cars, stuck-in-traffic cars, refuel stations and the like.
In Los Angeles, “land for parking exceeds the entire land area of Manhattan, enough space to house almost a million more people at Los Angeles’s prevailing density.” And just in Manhattan, “nearly 1,000 acres … is occupied by parking garages, gas stations, car washes, car dealerships and auto repair shops.” (Central Park covers 840 acres.)
“The amount of space devoted to cars in Manhattan is not just wasteful, but, in a deeper sense, unfair to the millions of New Yorkers who have no need for cars,” Manjoo writes, before teeing up this killer quote from urban planner Vishaan Chakrabarti: “It really does feel like there is a silent majority that doesn’t get any real say in how the public space is used.”
Chakrabarti, whose Practice for Architecture and Urbanism firm provided underpinning for Manjoo’s column, here joins the Regional Plan Association in demanding that politicians stop coddling the pro-car NIMBY’s who overpopulate city community planning boards and problematize virtually every measure that might take space from cars.
“Cars aren’t just greedy for physical space,” Manjoo writes, “they’re insatiable,” calling out the true meaning of induced demand: “an unwinnable cycle that ends with every inch of our cities paved over” (an outcome sadly familiar to aficionados of Streetsblog’s Parking Madness tournaments).
“Cars make every other form of transportation a little bit terrible,” Manjoo adds, perhaps understating. “The absence of cars, then, exerts its own kind of magic — take private cars away, and every other way of getting around gets much better.” That goes for walking, biking, scootering, even taxis and Ubers, Manjoo notes, but, above all, for buses, as the graphic at right showing time savings from removing Manhattan car traffic makes clear.
I posted that graphic on Twitter in response to concerns that barring most private autos from Manhattan and upgrading bus service to BRT, as Manjoo suggests, “wouldn’t serve equity.”
“On what planet,” I asked, “is cutting super-double-digit minutes off bus commutes in/around NYC not a win for equity?”
Of course, a win for equity like humane and efficient buses is a poor stand-in for an across-the-board commitment to equity, as was pointed out in response.
“A true commitment to equity changes the power structure for making decisions,” added another commenter — and I fully agree.
But I don’t think it’s helpful to fault Manjoo’s article, or their vision, for failing to confront power structures that enforce economic inequality or white supremacy. Dismantling those structures is the paramount work of our time, in my view. And I want no part of any measures that would further entrench them. Yet making New York and other cities safe, sustainable and habitable for their hundred million or more inhabitants is also vital. I’ve seen nothing suggesting that aggressively reducing car dependence along the lines urged by Manjoo will either interfere with that work or worsen conditions for communities of color and other underserved constituencies.
The 2021 races for mayor, public advocate, comptroller and city council are fast approaching, and Manjoo has sent NYC livable-streets advocates a clear signal to elevate our game. The signoff from their column gets the last word (emphases added):
Many of the most intractable challenges faced by America’s urban centers stem from the same cause — a lack of accessible physical space. We live in a time of epidemic homelessness. There’s a national housing affordability crisis caused by an extreme shortage of places to live. And now there’s a contagion that thrives on indoor overcrowding. Given these threats, how can American cities continue to justify wasting such enormous tracts of land on death machines?
New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch (@PGourevitch), on Twitter, July 2.
Scranton, Pa. resident Kaitlin Ahern, 19, quoted in June 30 NY Times story, ‘I Can’t Focus on Abortion Access if My People Are Dying’, about younger U.S. women’s lower prioritization of abortion rights vis-a-vis other justice issues.
We’re grateful to Gavin Grindon, a lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex, U.K., for his trenchant analysis last week of Big Oil’s longtime strategic sponsorships of museums and other prestigious cultural media in Britain and the United States.
In a Memorial Day New York Times op-ed, This Exhibition Was Brought to You by Guns and Big Oil, Grindon made clear that “For big oil, big pharmaceutical companies and the arms industry, sponsorship of the arts is not charity; it is a strategic expenditure.”
“To conduct their business,” he explained, “companies must build a web of influence and operation through many of the institutions that are often clustered in cities, through which they become enmeshed in our lives. London, for example, is one of the main financial centers for the oil industry. Oil companies must extract from the city a combination of services, so that elsewhere they may continue to extract, refine, transport and sell oil.”
Grindon described how this “extraction of services” works:
This is a matter not only of buying financial services from private companies, but of creating legal, political and technological leverage; facilitating clearance from regulators; gaining support from government departments or legal permission for new projects. Cultural institutions are a key part of this infrastructure into which businesses must insinuate themselves to establish an air of social legitimacy and acceptability for practices that might otherwise risk coming into question. (emphasis added)
In Britain, Grindon noted, corporate cultural insinuation typically takes the form of branded museum sponsorships which “offer businesses the attention of influential audiences, access to senior government figures at special events and the opportunity to securely intertwine themselves with ideas of national history and culture.” Whereas in the United States, cultural insinuation is more commonly conducted “through a system of boards that reward individuals who make charitable donations to the museum with the culturally influential position of trustee.”
You can’t ask for a more richly embroidered depiction of how oil and other companies “cynically use art to build webs of influence and become further enmeshed in our lives,” as the subhead of Grindon’s op-ed put it. Yet the question remains: Just how much do these webs of influence actually keep modern industrial societies locked into oil and the other fossil fuels? And the corollary: How effective, really, is deligitimizing Big Carbon — kicking fossil fuel executives off museum boards, university boards, other corporate boards, etc., “shaming” them, for short — in resetting governmental policies that enforce carbon “lock-in” against energy efficiency, renewable energy and other carbon alternatives?
Someday, social science may have the answers. For now, we’re skeptical, Grindon’s evocative essay notwithstanding.
For one thing, Big Oil is already deeply enmeshed in our lives. Every trip in a petrol-fueled car, every delivery to our doorstep from a van or truck, every airplane journey manifests and reinforces our complicity with oil. The “shame” of causing climate change isn’t limited to the fossil fuel companies, notwithstanding headline-garnering reports proclaiming that “Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global [carbon] emissions.”
Assume, moreover, that the boards of the Guggenheim, the Met, the Moma, the Whitney and the New Museum, to name five museums targeted by “protests over their links to issues like the oil and arms trade, gentrification and colonialism,” according to Grindon, were 100 percent free of fossil fuel executives. How exactly would that slow the rate of carbon emissions today, next month, a decade or now?
Yes, the legal, political and technological leverage that helps clear the paths to new oil fields and new markets, along with the regulatory clearance, governmental support and permissions, and other realms that Grindon lacked space to mention such as university R&D — would all become incrementally harder to obtain and hence more expensive to acquire. That in turn could make petroleum fuels somewhat more expensive to produce, thus hiking their prices and reducing demand. But in our estimation, these slightly higher hurdles wouldn’t materially change the infrastructural inertia and broad acquiescence that keep oil and coal and gas firmly in the saddle.
Sure, we’re all for ostracizing fossil fuel executives and others who lobby elected officials, strong-arm regulators, intimidate landowners and in some cases instigate lethal violence against protectors of nature, all to extract more petrol whose combustion products add to climate wreckage. But at what point, if ever, does this ostracism penetrate to Joe Sixpack in the showroom choosing between the F-150 that delivers 22 miles to the gallon and the F-350 that gets just 15? Or to the councilmember of a transit-rich city or suburb being pressured by NIMBY’s to reject upzoning and thus force local schoolteachers and sanitation workers to move to the auto-dependent exurban fringe? Or her counterpart in rural America or England who next week must cast the deciding vote on a wind or solar farm whose production would help phase out the gas-fired power plant three townships over?
We’ll say it again. In our view, the level of carbon emissions today and in the future is determined far more by structures of settlement, commerce and identity than by the decisions of a few hundred oil executive and business tycoons — whom we regard in any event as largely interchangeable, so long as demand renders their functions essential and profitable. And those structures, while seemingly unshakable, can be weakened and brought down with the help of carbon taxes.
Breaking Big Carbon requires huge mobilization along interconnected fronts of political action, public investment, culture change and carbon taxing. Exposing and stopping the oil industry’s cynical use of people’s longing for artistic experience is good work, and we support those doing it. But it’s not a substitute for the hard slog of politics, investment and carbon pricing. Let’s keep on with them.