Honor the Syrians

Look at this comic about what’s going on in Syria, and why.

How outrageously lucky are we, still with food, water, governmental and emotional security, relative to the Syrias of our present and future? We have the precious option to act with vision rather than be resigned to survival. How can we honor this gift? How can we answer the pleading call of the suffering other, who is us, tomorrow?

Preventing this humanitarian nightmare from being the only story means saving a modicum of environmental stability. Without that, people war.

It is time to untie the knot from fossil fuel profits.

But breaking free of dirty energy–in a timeframe and scale that matters–will be expensive. That truth is why a lot of people, Republicans and greens alike, deny the reality of problem in the first place. It’s called “solution aversion.” Quitting pollution will mean giving up a lot of the surplus we all enjoy from cheap, powerful energy. Conservation is the name of the game. Technology will help, but really dealing with climate is way more than solar panels or electric cars. We cannot replace US-style, four-planet consumption with ‘clean’ energy. (For one thing, most of our calories come from fossil fuel based agriculture.)

Luckily, we know that carbon pricing, which can be done well with a strong upstream cap or tax/fee, is the cheapest possible option for society. Cheap is good when weighing the path to zero pollution, because political resistance grows when people lose money, and we don’t need to make this any harder on ourselves than it already is.

How does carbon pricing work?

First, the government says ‘no more!’ to unlimited free climate pollution. This will happen when people organize to support a strong and moral democratic government, and its laws will best endure if we strive to bridge ideological divides in the lawmaking process. (Or I guess we could have a benevolent dictator, but then there’d be a coup).

Then, once the people say ‘no more!’ with a real carbon price, a new market geared for sustainability grows out of every person and company’s search to save energy as they best can–because nobody will want to pay to pollute.

Then the creative magic starts. As long as there’s a carbon price prompting us to be ingenious, everyone will find the least costly ways to conserve, which saves money for society at large. It’s impossible to know how we’ll all respond, and all the solutions that we’ll invent, which is exciting!

Most people who’ve studied the issues agree on carbon pricing. The fight over the money that changes hands is where unity breaks down. Usually the fight is along the lines of identity politics and debates about the proper size of government.

Wait, what money?

Under a carbon price, the government collects money from polluters by taxing pollution, or selling permits to pollute. Basically, a carbon pricing policy means money changes hands: the government takes “fossil fuel profits” for companies and calls it “carbon revenue.” A real carbon price will yield billions of dollars for the state and trillions for the country. Revenue has a more innocuous ring to it, but it’s the same blood money that comes from extracting hydrocarbons, erasing biodiversity, and killing people.

The whole point of a carbon pricing policy is to get rid of the carbon revenue, by making it cost-prohibitive to use fossil fuels. No fossil fuel use, no revenue. That’s the goal.

But along the way to zero revenue, as the cap lowers or the tax rises, people are going to pay more for carbon (until we reach “peak revenue,” when we begin to decouple the economy from fossil fuels, and revenue starts to decrease because we’re not using carbon anymore–again, the goal). Remember, we want dirty energy prices to rise because that’s what drives conservation and the proliferation of cheap, innovative fossil alternatives.

It is vital that we protect the carbon pricing policy as it starts to really work. But whom at the helm cares about longevity as much as they do victory–about their successors as much as themselves?

For what it’s worth, in a world that privileges power far above ideas:

People will most likely support paying more if they also benefit from the spoils. This is the obvious reason for the carbon price and dividend plan. We already know what happens when gas prices go up and people don’t share in the profits–like Tony Abbot’s carbon tax repeal election in Australia, and the Tea Party uprising in the US. The power of social security or the kicker is the same power promised by the carbon dividend; power we’d be foolish to leave on the table in a mission so serious, urgent, and difficult as climate.

This is more than a cynical calculation to leverage the electorate’s self-interest for the sake of the future, though I do think a climate campaign staked on economic altruism is naive. The carbon dividend is also fair. Pricing is regressive. Equally returning the money is progressive and provides the beginnings of a basic income. Goodness knows, we are all owed that income–for it has been robbed from us. The disasters we’re facing touch everyone. They are the socialized losses of the carbon economy in which only the concentrated few hoard the privatized profits. Polluters owe everyone a share of that money for damages.

Sharing the spoils/profits/revenue equally with everyone is also powerfully simple and transparent medicine for a country, and generation, disengaged from politics as usual. Straight talk about structural power dynamics, when combined with an inspiring vision of the future and authentic invitation to participate, sparks a virtuous cycle of civic action. Obscure policies and vague assertions to “trust the process” fall on deaf ears of new generations for whom the public trust has been so broken. Running the world on sun begins by welcoming its light into our governance processes.

We’re all part of this mess. We all participate. We all suffer. Some vastly more than others–like the devastated Syrians–but ultimately, at this rate, all equally. All is central to a real solution.