Only the government can build our way out of climate change

Recently we have been warned that the global emissions of greenhouse gases, continued unabated, will result in more extreme climate events, until finally global warming will run out of control with gruesome consequences. We can’t afford to wait. Michael Mann urges scientists to speak out. Most environmental organizations call for some kind of carbon taxes, or cap-and-trade schemes. Some even advocate the construction of nuclear power plants. We are called on to have the kind of urgency we had when we won World War II, or at least, to have the fierce urgency of now.

And yet the one thing no one seems to be calling for is the one set of policies that could actually solve the problem — a nationally, government-planned reconstruction of the energy, transportation, urban and agricultural infrastructure that would result in zero emissions. This should be the progressive version of “Just do it” — build an Interstate Wind System, an Interstate High-speed rail system, create walkable neighborhoods by building large apartment and commercial buildings, provide financing to blanket the country with solar panels — these and many other directly government financed and designed programs would result in a country that doesn’t create greenhouse gases. If all of this equipment is bought from American factories, it would also lead to a new manufacturing boom, full employment, and the rebuilding of the middle class.

The market cannot solve this problem. The market cannot design large systems, like a wind or high-speed rail system, because the financing needs and the size of the system are too large, and too long-term. The market will pour as much money as possible into projects that yield the most money in the shortest time possible. When you are trying to avoid a problem that has been building up for decades by rebuilding an infrastructure that took decades to build, the market is exactly the wrong medium through which to accomplish your task. According to recent research, we have perhaps about 15 years to cut most greenhouse gases.

The market is useful when society doesn’t know what the solution is. When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we knew what the solution was, and we didn’t mess around with the market. When we know what the solution is, as we do now, the market dawdles, but the government acts.

For instance, while the price of solar energy is coming down quickly, the financing for solar energy is crude, and the geniuses in the Too Big to Fail banks don’t seem to understand how to make a profit from the guaranteed payback of solar energy and other methods to make buildings very energy efficient. The government had to invent the housing mortgage industry, and it will have to invent the financing system to make buildings energy self-reliant.

The same problem applies to the task of adding more housing to walkable neighborhoods. Residents of New York City create about one-third the emissions of their suburban colleagues, yet it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone outside of the global millionaire’s club to live there. The same applies to walkable areas all over the country, for instance, San Francisco. You would think this opportunity would show off the market at its best, but the market has failed miserably. Only the government can provide the financing and planning necessary to create the density and diversity needed for electric transit and efficient apartment living to expand as much as current demand would warrant.

Carbon taxes can lead to none of the necessary measures I have outlined above. At best, they will lead to the closing of most coal plants. It would be easier to simply announce that after a certain year, all coal plants must be shut down, and electricity must be provided by government-financed and planned wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Carbon taxes, and all cap-and-trade schemes, are a market-based measure, so their effects will be minor.

Nuclear power is perhaps the one “solution” that could be worse than the problem it is trying to solve. Global warming will last for “only” a few thousand years, but nuclear meltdowns could eliminate most life for millions of years. With the possible exception of thorium reactors, resources used to construct nuclear reactors would be better spent elsewhere.

Any international treaties which involve agreements to cut greenhouse gases by a particular percent are useless unless they include concrete plans to build the infrastructure needed to achieve the goal of zero emissions. When people argue for a percentage cut in greenhouse gases without explaining exactly how those cuts will be achieved, they are avoiding the problem. The percentages needed to be cut are easy to formulate; talking about how to get there involves real changes in wealth and power, the stuff of politics. Big changes in politics are hard, but we can’t afford to ignore the challenges that lie ahead. It is easier to change political reality than physical reality.

According to my research (, a program of infrastructure reconstruction would cost on the order of the budget of the Defense Department, or ideally, about twice as much, over 1.5 trillion dollars per year, for 20 years. The Defense Department is government planning in action, so transferring their resources to a national rebuilding plan would make the United States no more “socialist” than we are now. The concocted threats that are used to justify military budgets are the military equivalent of fantasy football, an assortment of unlikely occurrences married to vague appeals to our brains’ need for absolute security. But our real existential threat is not military anymore, it is ecological.

Not only could global warming lead to the collapse of global civilization, many other trends could lead to a Desert Planet, including the out-and-out desertification of rangelands, as explained by Lester Brown, or the clear-cutting of vital forests, or the wholesale scraping of life from the world’s oceans, or the depletion of fresh water used for agriculture. Military threats from other governments are at an all-time low. Ecological threats from our economic system are at an all-time high. The Pentagon should be home to a new Department of the Infrastructure, with a commensurate budget.

We have the technology and resources to plan and finance the reconstruction of the country’s, and the world’s, infrastructure to avoid ecological collapse. Half-measures might sound politically expedient, but in the long-term they are political suicide. If a tax could solve the climate problem, then, the climate must not be much of problem, right? If we need to spend more than we spend on the military, on the other hand, then it really must be a big problem. It’s basic marketing — you have a problem, what I am trying to sell you will solve the problem and make you happy. Carbon taxes don’t solve the problem, government building does, and since it would provide millions of jobs, rebuilding the infrastructure would make millions of people happy too.

The consensus among progressives seems to be that we can’t propose much in the current political climate. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We have nothing to lose but our greenhouse gases.