Skip to main content

What would an effective climate movement do? Here are a few suggestions that would have a positive impact on a climate catastrophe which currently exceeds even the worst predictions of our present models. I should add that current climate change protests have fallen on deaf ears in the U.S. we not only haven't stopped emitting more greenhouse gases, there's no comprehensive plan implemented to do otherwise.

Several things are needed from the climate-concerned:

Adopt Modern Money Theory (MMT): Not Optional 

MMT is essential if we're to stop believing the notion that we can't afford to address climate because tax revenues, markets and government are simply not up to the task ahead. Here's a brief summary of MMT:

"Tax and spend" summarizes the common notion of how national fiscal policy works, but it's obviously false. Where would people get the dollars to pay those taxes if the monopoly provider of dollars--government--didn't spend them first? The actual sequence is "spend first, then retrieve some dollars in taxes." Taxes are important because they create the demand for dollars, not because they provision federal programs. Federal spending is independent of tax revenues.

What do we call the dollars spent, but not retrieved in taxes? Answer #1: the dollar financial assets of the population (their savings). Answer #2: national 'debt.' Both answers describe exactly the same thing, just as your bank account is your asset, but the bank's liability. It's not exotic economics to describe accounts as both asset and liability. It's double-entry bookkeeping.

Yet the preponderance of climate action programs seems to ignore this fundamental truth, passively accepting the economic orthodoxy that we must accept the fact that financial limitations prevent effective action. They pointedly ignore the fact that orthodox economics is bunk, as recent events have demonstrated.

How much to fix the climate problem? One estimate I've seen is $60 trillion over the next decade. That would include revamping the grid, changing lots of habits, and making renewables and conservation more central as public policies.

The idea that $60 trillion could be extracted from taxpayers is just silly, and is an important reason why a large portion of the population either ignores or rejects climate solutions. In any case, raising taxes is unnecessary. Accepting the orthodox narrative that tax dollars provision federal programs amounts to saying climate is an unsolvable problem.

One typical objection to MMT is that such spending would "crowd out" private sector demands on our resources (or money to borrow). Yet our central bank, the Federal Reserve, publishes an estimate of how fully employed is the U.S. economy. The current figure is 78.3%. That means 21.7% is idle. Could federal spending employ that unemployed part of the economy? And is that Pope fellow still Catholic?

Perhaps there would be some "crowding out" if climate-friendly government policies demanded a change from our current climate-unfriendly form of resource allocation, but orthodox economics is bunk, so the idea that "crowding out" will produce inflation is at least open to skepticism. After all, it's the bizarre truth that current economic orthodoxy says raising interest rates will solve shortages and supply chain problems like COVID and jammed ports.

Another typical objection is that MMT policies would necessarily be inflationary. After all, according to MMT there's no limit to the amount of money, just as there's no limit to the points in the ball game, or the inches down at the Bureau of Weights and Measures, right? First: no MMT economist ever ignores resource limitations. Second: orthodox economics is bunk. Orthodox economics says raising the minimum wage would lead to growing unemployment, but empirical studies contradict that assertion. There was no inflation, despite orthodox predictions, when the Fed issued $16 - $29 trillion in credit to bail out the financial sector in 2007-8, and no taxes rose, either. Those figures come from the Fed's audit that legislation required.

Something no one said, ever: "The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but we're kind of low on cash, so we won't respond." If you think the climate situation isn't worse than Pearl Harbor, you haven't been paying attention.

I'd suggest that all the "Fiscal Responsibility™" talk from politicians is a distraction. I'd also suggest gigantic military budgets, and yes, even the war in Ukraine, are distractions from climate action.

Note: Effective climate movements would be peace movements too. Spending billions to arm Ukraine is a misallocation of resources.

More effective climate solutions:

1. Nationally, FNMA and FHLMC (Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac) set the basic underwriting standards for nearly 90% of home loans. If the U.S. stopped building sprawl and required all new development be pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) would be cut roughly in half for that new development. The U.S. does not build this way, and that is one reason the U.S. burns roughly twice the petroleum Europe and Japan per dollar of GDP. (See How Japan Built Cities Where You Could Send Your Toddler on an Errand. Or my account of how Sacramento does the opposite.)

If Fannie and Freddie stopped lending to anything new, other than pedestrian-friendly mixed-use, the U.S. would cease building sprawl in a minute. If we required new development exceed 11 dwelling units per acre (a little more than duplex, overall), planners who have studied this say viable, non-subsidized transit and pedestrian-friendly local commerce would work. If the federal government built housing (as it did before Nixon) we might have more affordable housing and fewer unhoused, and it could do so with minimal environmental impacts while demonstrating what we already know: people prefer to live in such neighborhoods. Sacramento built the area around McKinley Park this way, and, per square foot, it's the most valuable real estate in the region.

An effective climate movement might also support the Planning & Conservation League (PCL) in resisting any change to the recently adopted California standard that says minimizing VMT rather than assuring fast-flowing traffic is a requirement for any new development. Between that, and the state mandate that new development have "Complete Streets," PCL has made California a very much nicer place to live, and taken a step toward the change humans need to make in response to climate problems.

2. Restraining the banks that lend to petroleum producers may be useful, but a boycott is likely to have only a small impact. A more important, and more impactful opposition to private banks now would be starting a public bank--as many West Coast cities are doing now (but not Sacramento). A public bank could fund much-needed climate-proof infrastructure, deprive Wall Street of the profits they make from financing our current energy-intensive economy. Such a bank could empower public agencies to finance things like pedestrian-friendly mixed-use (like housing as a part of malls), or CoHousing.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

If we retrofitted our failing brick-and-mortar malls with apartments, we'd increase the supply of affordable housing, eliminate lots of shopping trips, and revive those malls now suffering because of the internet. Citrus Heights has plans to revive Sunrise Mall this way. It's a win-win since the commerce thrives and provides much-needed housing.

Roughly half the cost of big projects is the expense of the financing. How would it be to recycle that money for public benefit rather than to line the pockets of Wall St. financiers?

Yes, we currently have a California Infrastructure bank, but its underwriting standards are so strict that it couldn't lend the money for the recent Bay Bridge retrofit. Goldman Sachs, underwrote that bay bridge loan, and the loan to build the King's stadium too.

The Public Bank Solution by Ellen Brown recounts more public banking stories. Note: Banks do not lend the money on deposit. They create credit out of thin air. The Bank of England will tell you that loans create deposits. Imagine not being short of money to anticipate and mitigate climate change! What a concept!

3. To disable oil companies, an effective climate movement would lobby to eliminate tax breaks like the depletion allowance (a special tax break for oil companies, and other extractive industries), and forbid overseas profit laundering (profits are retained in Panama and Liberia rather than being taxed in the U.S.).

4. To really disable the climate saboteurs, an effective climate movement would reform the system of legal bribery that we now call "campaign finance."

5. Making retirement funds like CalPERS divest from fossil fuels is a good idea, although CalPERS regularly breaks the law. Yves Smith's blog nakedcapitalism.com has covered this issue extensively.
6. Generally speaking effective climate action would focus on systemic change rather than individual actions like boycotts. What does a systemic problem look like? If I throw nine bones out my back door, and release ten dogs to retrieve a bone, no matter how well-trained, responsible, intelligent, etc. the dogs are, one is going to come up short.

Climate is the epitome of a systemic problem. The political right has been relentless in attacking the idea that systems even exist. In such accounts, any action devolves to individual responsibility. There's even a school of thought that denies the existence of social systems. For example, Margaret Thatcher says "There's no such thing as society, only individuals and families"--a statement roughly equivalent to saying "You have no body, only cells and organs." All the big problems are systemic today, including climate, unemployment, health care, immigration, corruption, etc. Fixing the climate problem could shake loose the systemic power to address many other things.

As a background to the systemic problems enumeraged above, we need to replace the current publicly-accepted narrative that profit justifies any behavior, no matter how awful. George Monbiot's TED talk provides the specifics.

7. An effective climate action organization would campaign to oppose the current massive propaganda campaign that distracts the public from the high cost of climate damage. Unfortunately, such a campaign would expose public policy advocates to Brandolini's law ("It takes orders of magnitude more energy to debunk the bullshit than to create it in the first place.") The propaganda is ubiquitous, and extremely well funded.

To appreciate the systemic propaganda, consider the systemic problem of our criminal justice system: U.S. population increased 42% from 1981 to 2017, but funding for the police increased 187.5%, about four-and-a-half times faster than population growth. Currently the U.S. has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners. The demographically-identically-aged Canadians incarcerate at one-seventh the U.S. per-capita rate...and their crime is insignificantly different from the U.S. Putting people in cages is a very expensive, ineffective way to address crime. Yet the editorial pages continue to scold anyone who even considers "defunding" the police.

The propaganda surrounding this expensive, ineffective tactic of caging people for crimes includes every police procedural and mystery you'll see on TV. They always get their man! In real life, police solve roughly 15% of crimes, and as little as 2% of serious crime. So...will increasing the money spent on policing beyond the four-and-a-half-times faster figure really accomplish much? Or would universal health care like the Canadians have be more effective...and about half as cheap as the U.S. system?

There's also plenty of propaganda about climate, including distractions like the Ukrainian war. Rather than make peace, the U.S. has been provoking the Russians and arming the Ukraine long before Russia invaded. So no matter how horrifically wong Russia was to attack, thanks to that war there's now a lobby to decrease gas taxes, and the Biden administration has agreed to reopen leasing public land for drilling.

There's even the intellectually respectable propaganda of economists underestimating the impacts of the climate catastrophe. "Nobel" laureate William Nordhaus has been exposed by economic scientist Steve Keen as a fraud for obviously distorting the economic costs of climate.

Note: Alfred Nobel's estate does not issue a prize for economics; a Swedish bank does this. This practice makes the current fashion in economics respectable, but does nothing to make it reality-based. See my "Economics is Bunk" editorial. In fact, “The point of economics as a discipline, is to create a language and methodology for governing that hides political assumptions from the public” - Matt Stoller writes in his anti-monopoly newsletter Big.

To see what the political right has been doing to make the current system, consult the Powell Memo, for one example. When I complain about well-funded propaganda from think tanks funded by the likes of the Kochs to my conservative friends, they ask "What about George Soros?"

In the 2016 election, Kochs spent $889 million, while Soros (a capitalist's capitalist, not really a lefty) spent $27 million. Not nothing, but more than 30 times less than Kochs.

In conclusion: the tasks confronting humanity about climate problems are daunting, the opposition is ruthless in its distortions, and the smart bet is that the human race has met the enemy, and it is us.

Crossposted from It's Simpler Than It Looks.