We're Addicted to Economic Growth and It Will Be the Death of Us
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On November 14, 2012, just days after his re-election and two weeks after Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City, President Obama was asked by the New York Times about climate policy, specifically the possibility of a carbon tax:
I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody is going to go for that. I won't go for that.
This short statement reveals the raw political calculus that prevents the Obama Administration--and really, most every national and international political body--from meaningfully addressing the climate crisis. Obama's comments reflect the underlying assumptions of politicians on both sides of the aisle (at least those who recognize that there is a climate problem) and conventional thinking across virtually all sectors of society.
The benefits of--and need for--economic growth are so widely assumed that they are hardly ever debated. And yet, maintaining perpetual growth on a finite planet is impossible--logically, physically, and yes, economically. Nevertheless, our Western way of life seems to depend on a shared belief in economic growth. And so most politicians, economists, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens continue to prop up this irrational view.
In our view, President Obama's widely shared judgment that addressing the climate crisis is secondary to getting "back to normal" is wrongheaded--not only because it implicitly underestimates the severity of the climate crisis, but also because it presupposes that the old economic "normal" can be revived. In fact, the "normal" of robust economic growth is gone and won't return, at least in the long term (as we'll show in this paper). But without recognition of that fact, and without a viable alternative to the growth paradigm, significant progress in climate policy is highly unlikely. And without climate policy, we are headed toward global catastrophe.
The environmental community recognizes that truly meaningful national and international climate policy solutions are currently politically infeasible. But the source of the intransigence is often attributed to political partisanship and the corruptive influence of moneyed interests--most notably the fossil fuel industry, which has used lobbying, campaign contributions, massive advertising, and similar tactics to shift public perceptions and exert political influence.
Therefore, the strategies employed by many in the organized climate movement (particularly after painful failures in 2009 and 2010, at COP15 in Copenhagen and the US Senate) have centered on pursuing state and regional policies, and on growing a citizen movement to stand in vocal, active opposition to the fossil fuel industry. On both these fronts the environmental community has accomplished a lot.
But the growth imperative is the underlying cause of the climate crisis. As long as the climate movement leaves it unchallenged, meaningful climate policy won't come until it's too late, if at all. If we (politicians, businesspeople, environmentalists, and ordinary citizens alike) continue to prioritize growth above all else, we will refuse to do what is required to address the climate crisis--which is to cut fossil fuel use dramatically. To put it plainly, we're hooked on economic growth and economic growth is hooked on cheap fossil fuels.
Cheap fossil fuels--particularly oil--grease the wheels of our globalized, consumerism-based economy. Of course, we must correctly price fossil fuels (internalizing their environmental costs instead of externalizing to other sectors of the economy and future generations), and we must concurrently commit to a massive build-out of renewable energy production and embrace energy efficiency. But it is difficult to imagine accomplishing this without a reduction in that pillar of conventional economic thinking--Gross Domestic Product (GDP)--in at least the OECD nations.