Keep Calm, Take Action – the Moderate Approach to the Climate Crisis

Ali Atia explains why all-or-nothing strategies to deal with climate change have left us dangerously behind schedule.

Climate change is occurring. The evidence supporting this is astounding: global temperatures, sea levels, and carbon dioxide levels are rising at unprecedented levels. These numbers are not merely dry statistics: the catastrophes and natural disasters we are witnessing ever more regularly are indicative of the fact that the consequences of climate change are liable to affect each and every one of us if nothing is done. 

In acting, however, we must not be too quick to jump to extreme solutions. The climate crisis will not be solved through a complete rejection of the market principles which have done so much good for so many over the past several decades, nor will it be solved by a retreat into nationalism and the derision of global alliances and trade. 

The lack of a strong moderate and pragmatic response to climate change has led many to embrace such radical and populist solutions, embodied perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the Green New Deal. Its various proposals include a federal jobs guarantee, a housing guarantee, and a wholesale rejection of “market-based mechanisms.” These are impractical at best, to say nothing of their ability to solve climate change. Indeed, one of its primary progenitors, an aide to Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, admitted outright that the Green New Deal originated as a “how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing,” as opposed to a genuine effort to solve climate change.

An actionable and pragmatic solution is vastly superior to dishonest attempts to further an ulterior motive – and any solution must begin with the individual. Regulatory and structural solutions can only do so much if individuals fail to voluntarily take action. In developed countries, where individuals have more autonomy and therefore influence, action is more impactful. Four actions in particular have a proven impact: not driving; not having children; subsisting on a plant-based diet; and flying less. While criminalizing these four actions would be both unconscionable and deeply illiberal, voluntarily undertaking them allows individuals to have a genuine impact on mitigating climate change.

Though individuals have the power to fight the crisis, nations and governments must also do their part. Governments should stop subsidizing harmful fossil fuels and take an active role in disincentivizing carbon emissions through some form of carbon pricing. According to an International Monetary Fund report, $4.7 trillion was spent on direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies worldwide in 2015. China accounted for $1.4 trillion and the United States spent $649 billion. The report notes that global carbon emissions would have been lowered by 28 percent were it not for those subsidies. Subsidies artificially weaken competition, and in this case actively result in undesirable environmental outcomes. The first step of any climate plan would involve ending such inordinate corporate welfare.

Carbon pricing policies are another aspect of an effective climate change plan. Pricing emissions would pave the way for innovation in clean energy sources. The two primary carbon pricing techniques, cap-and-trade and carbon taxation, involve tradeoffs. In the case of cap-and-trade, increased certainty about costs and benefits in terms of emissions must be weighed up against prohibitive costs to implementation. Carbon taxation is cheaper to enforce, but it is unpopular in certain regions. These methods are not mutually exclusive, however, and they remain the most politically viable and effective means of regulation carbon emissions.

Finally, it is essential to understand that climate change is a global crisis. No one country bears full responsibility for it. No one country, therefore, can overcome it. Global cooperation is necessary if we can ever truly hope to minimize the impact of climate change. Trade is one part of this global cooperation. Global trade deals allow nations to offset the environmental costs of production by sharing them out amongst each other. Trade blocs like the Trans-Pacific Partnership can help increase environmental standards in their member states. They can also serve as mechanisms through which stubborn polluters like China can be incentivized to embrace environmental reform.

Cooperation can also take the form of international deals to specifically address the crisis, such as the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement represented tremendous progress in the way of international recognition of climate change, and taking steps to overcome it. It remains flawed, however: the actions of President Trump in recent years have shown that powerful countries are by no means tied to their promises. But its bottom-up approach provided more incentives for countries to participate, and its dynamism leaves room for reform and change.

Overcoming climate change will be one of the great challenges of my generation. Universal acknowledgement is the first stage of overcoming it, but there is no call for alarmism and defeatism. The principles of liberalism, capitalism, and incremental change which have transformed the world have taught us that true change must come from below: from the individual, and evolve into national, and then global reform. In so doing, we can overcome this challenge, the next, and the one after that.