That the world’s climate is changing is not a controversial statement. While a few on the fringes may quarrel, the overwhelming consensus – among scientists, policymakers, and the public – is that the planet is warming, that humans are accelerating this, and that something should be done about it.
Equally, that good progress has already been made should not be ignored – in the United Kingdom, greenhouse gas emissions fell by 43 per cent between 1990 and 2016, despite the economy growing by over 70 per cent. Yet many still believe this is not enough.
Last week, two representatives of America’s Democratic Party, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, threw their hats into the intellectual ring, publishing a 14-page plan for a ‘Green New Deal’ (GND).
This resolution details a series of goals its authors believe are necessary to stop and reverse current climate trends, including, among other things: complete decarbonisation of the energy system; mandating that all buildings achieve maximal energy efficiency; and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture and transport sectors, as much as is technologically feasible. The time frame it grants for these titanic objectives to be fulfilled is just ten years.
At face value, the GND appears to be a document as admirable as it is ambitious, and one which if delivered upon would point the world’s largest economy in a markedly less environmentally damaging direction. One may reasonably argue that some of the absolutist elements are unnecessary or even undesirable – complete decarbonisation, for instance – but the general idea of taking steps to achieve a cleaner future economy which contributes less towards climate change is sensible, and probably a world in which most would like to live, given the choice.
For those concerned about climate change, it makes sense to at least give the GND a fair hearing. And, to its credit, the document starts with a broadly prudent proposal of suggesting that the federal government better factors in the full environmental costs of its decision making, a suggestion that resembles the ‘natural capital’ approach advocated by a number of environmental economists. The GND’s call for public funding of research and development into clean technologies like renewable energy is more interventionist in nature – but even a free-marketeer could make a case for such subsidies if there is a market failure to be corrected.
Unfortunately, after a sensible enough start, the madness promptly commences. It really is difficult to know where to begin – the GND calls for a socialist smorgasbord of policy objectives which have little if anything to do with the environment. They include the provision of higher education for all Americans, guaranteed high-paying jobs – again for all Americans – the provision of high-quality health care for – you guessed it – all Americans. Perhaps most chilling is the promise of a “commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition”, an idea one can’t help think would be achieved by the elimination of competition, period.
And lo, one sees the true motivation behind the GND. This deal is not green but rather a shade of the deepest, darkest red. Implemented in full, it would make Clement Attlee’s 1945 administration look positively Thatcherite. It is not a plan to save the environment, but to expand the apparatus of government on a scale rarely before witnessed.
The GND has been carefully badged and marketed to attract support and deflect criticism – who could possibly be against a proposal to stop the ice caps melting? Put simply, it is a Trojan Horse.
But what’s really striking about the GND is how flimsy its foundations are. The authors waste no time at all in implicitly blaming the current economic system – read, a broadly capitalist one – for all the environmental woes facing America and indeed the world. The tactic of smuggling socialist ideals in through ostensibly environmental reforms is not confined to the USA. In Britain, a recent report from the left-wing think tank the IPPR repeatedly held “prevailing economic systems” as culpable for climate change.
The virtues of capitalism are innumerable, and they certainly include environmental prudence, as Marian Tupy has so eloquently explained. Property rights, perhaps the fundamental underpinning feature of capitalism, are a tried and tested method of encouraging the careful stewardship of natural resources. True, some steers may be needed from government – preferably in the form of a border adjusted carbon tax, gradually introduced with a parallel reduction in other taxes to avoid hurting low earners – to correct for market failures.
But capitalism’s blessings in the fight against climate change do not end there. Through the way it incentivises entrepreneurship like no other, capitalism is the only economic system capable of delivering the technologies required to arrest climate change – be they electric vehicles, cultured meat, energy from nuclear fusion, or some hitherto unknown invention which allows humanity to tread ever lighter upon the Earth. Compared to command-and-control systems, liberal economies are far better disposed to permit the organic and independent process of entrepreneurial activity which will furnish society with the technologies it needs.
And it’s capitalism’s unrivalled ability to generate abundances of wealth which grants the resources necessary to innovate in the first place. Given that the road to a less carbon intensive world will inevitably entail a process of trial and error – even today, one cannot be sure of the best method of producing clean energy – it is imperative that there is sufficient room for such errors to occur without bankrupting our societies. It’s perfectly true that much excellent research is undertaken by publicly funded scientists, but it’s worth remembering that such work is only possible thanks to taxes generated by a thriving capitalist economy.
Far from being a proposal for the planet, the GND is a strategy for socialism. Most of the policies it would warrant have nothing to do with protecting and restoring the environment. Beyond that, the strange diagnoses which left wing opinion formers and policy makers promulgate around capitalism being inherently inimical to a stable environment are grossly mistaken. Capitalism, with limited adjustments to make polluters pay (or internalising externalities, for wonks), is what will genuinely save and the planet, while increasing living standards for all.