“Before the Flood” is a well-done documentary on the facts and dangers of climate change, and Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job galavanting all over the world to show its effects and talk to effective speakers. I particularly liked the way he opened and closed by talking about Heironymous Bosch’s triptyque, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.
However, I knew that it would raise my blood pressure when he started going into the solutions for climate change, because I know the conventional solutions are completely inadequate, and that my preferred solution, a Green New Deal centered on massive direct government infrastructure spending, will not even be mentioned — mainly because hardly anybody is mentioning it (except for theClimate Mobilization.org and its supporters, Goddess bless them).
He went beyond my pessimistic fantasies by interviewing none other than Gregory Mankiw, the head of George W’s Council of Economic Advisors, who talked about the glory of carbon taxes and the economic logic therein. I suppose he was trying to show that even Republicans could endorse carbon taxes — which makes sense, because it is basically a Republican solution, since it relies on the market to solve a problem that the market cannot fix (at least he did not go into a policy proposal that was literally invented by a Republican think tank, cap-and-trade).
The market cannot fix the climate crisis because the climate crisis demands systemic solutions, which the only governments (the state) can provide. Our society is composed of a web of systems, and the way these systems are put together leads either to a society (civilization) that will destroy itself environmentally, or these systems can be put together in such a way that humans can live peaceably with the planet and create a comfortable standard of living for all. We are currently living in the first kind of civilization, and in order to solve the climate crisis we must move to the second kind.
Let me try to make this more concrete. Currently our living areas are spread out in a pattern often called sprawl, which necessitates the use of oil-using automobiles and trucks as our transportation choices This sprawl structure is the consequence of the single family home, which not only requires an enormous amount of energy to keep it heated and cooled, but also takes up so much space that an enormous network of transportation, water, electricity and gas infrastructure is required to hook everything together.
Meanwhile our electricity is provided by centralized electricity-generating plants that require a fuel, either a carbon-emitting coal, oil, or natural gas fuel, or a potentially death-emitting nuclear fuel. In addition, as pointed out in “Before the Flood”, about one-third of our land is devoted to growing the feed for cattle, which then contribute to climate change by emitting plenty of gas, and also by the generally environmentally destructive fertilizer and pesticide based industrial farming. In many other countries, this is compounded by burning forests which contain enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. These systems have been put together by the market but usually with critical assistance from governments, over the course of decades. Yet somehow the market is supposed to quickly reverse all of these systems by putting a tax on all of these activities.
The most efficient way to provide renewable electricity would probably be to create what I will call an Interstate Wind System, modeled after the Interstate Highway System, that would created hundreds of wind farms, mostly in the middle of the country where it is windiest, so that enough wind would be blowing somewhere in the system that most of the country’s electricity needs would be provided by wind (Gar Lipow goes into great detail in his book ‘Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change’). Only the government can design, plan, and finance a huge system like this that would be dependent on simultaneously placing wind farms in relation to each other. For example, maybe we would set up a wind farm subsystem in a part of Iowa that we know would probably have wind if the wind in Wyoming was still. A market cannot make these kinds of systemic decisions. A market can only make a set of decisions which are efficient and profitable in each of one particular isolated situation, and since these situations are not linked, there is no way for an efficient and sustainable systemic outcome to occur, except by chance. And we can’t leave a solution to climate change to chance.
Let us look at another possible system in a sustainable civilization, call it an Interstate High-speed rail system. Like the Interstate Highway System, it would make no sense to leave the design of this system to the market. In fact, the original rail systems of the 19th century were left to the market, with an enormous amount of overlap and regular national economic depressions to show for it. The Interstate Highway System has been very successful (albeit for the goal of creating sprawl), and an Interstate High-speed rail system would also require Federal design and planning. Again, a carbon tax cannot lead to the creation of such a system.
One might object that the imposition of a carbon tax would lead to such economic pain that the public would cry out for a solution such as high-speed rail, but obviously the solution the public would cry out for would be to repeal the carbon tax. In “Before the Flood”, Mankiw argues that because the government listened to the movement for gay marriage, the government would listen to a movement for a carbon tax. Dear Professor Mankiw, love is a passion of the highest order; taxes are something most people try desperately to avoid.
And the unpopularity of taxes, which makes the whole idea seem like a political death wish, is not what I consider the worst part of the proposal. The worst part, it seems to me, is that by telling the public that the solution to the collapse of civilization is something as small as a tax, the public is coming to the conclusion that the climate crisis really isn’t so serious. When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in 1941, the response was not to impose a tax and let the market handle it. The response was to have the government centrally plan up to one-third of the economy in a full-out effort to defeat the Axis.
I understand the dilemma that climate change activists face. Al Gore laid it out in a speech at NYU several years ago, when he pointed out that the minimum program needed to reverse climate change goes way beyond the maximum that the political system can realistically accommodate. But I think we need to be unrealistic, because it is easier to change political reality, no matter how bleak, than it is to change physical reality.
Maybe it seems like the political reality is so constrained because we aren’t considering climate change as part of a larger political and economic problem. The major charge leveled against dealing with climate change is that it is too costly, that it will cost jobs. Even the economist Nicolas Stern, in the best known study of the situation, still calculated climate change policy as a cost. But what if solving the climate crisis actually helped to solve our wider economic crisis as well? And what if by doing so, it led to a more progressive politics?
If I am right, and climate change requires a massive government green infrastructure building program, then such a program would generate millions of good jobs, and in fact, could be used as a way to revive the manufacturing sector as well. All of those wind turbines and high-speed locomotives, if built in the US, would require millions of manufacturing jobs that have led to despair in the Rust Belt and indeed throughout the country (I go into more detail about these plans and the employment consequences at GreenNewDealPlan.com). New factory jobs would lead to an electorate that would not vote for right-wing nationalists like Donald Trump, and a new and high-tech manufacturing would be a self-reinforcing engine of economic growth for decades to come. All from solving the climate crisis. If solving the climate crisis was tied to a general program of reviving the American economy, it would gain majority support.
A Green New Deal would not only involve millions of new jobs to build Interstate Wind and Rail systems, it could also be used to change the web of systems that we discussed earlier, centered on the idea of reversing sprawl. The project of building hundreds of walkable neighborhoods in dozens of cities and towns would generate tens of millions more jobs in construction, and building the transit systems that the new residential and commercial buildings would make possible would lead to millions of more jobs. In addition, millions more could be employed constructing and operating urban garden networks and localized agriculture. But all of this needs to be simultaneously planned by the government; all of these pieces of the puzzle fit together, but they don’t work if they are not all planned well. For instance, a transit system without the density provided by a construction program would be very inefficient (I go into more detail about a the systems required to prevent climate change in my book “Manufacturing Green Prosperity”, parts of which are available at ManufacturingGreenProsperity.com).
“Before the Flood” inadvertently makes the case for government intervention, even in the case of solar and battery manufacture. DiCaprio interviews Elon Musk, billionaire creator of Tesla, among other enterprises. Musk shows DiCaprio what will be the largest built space in the world, a ‘gigafactory’ for manufacturing low-cost, large capacity batteries that could be used worldwide, to collect renewable electricity and use it wherever electricity is used now.
Musk argues that 100 such factories would take care of the energy needs of the whole world (I don’t know about electric cars, but that’s another story). But, he says, nobody has the kind of money you need to construct 100 gigafactories. Except, he does not point out, governments do have that kind of money. Here is an example of the reason that documentaries about climate change raise my blood pressure: the obvious idea of using the government to solve the various pieces of the puzzle are not even entertained.
This also extends to solar power, when DiCaprio interviews an Indian researcher who laments that there isn’t enough time to allow for the market to build out solar power, even with the continued lowering of costs of solar power. Again, the obvious solution is to use the governments’ great buying power to force the issue and simply buy billions of solar cells and distribute them around the world. Along with continental wind grids that could be constructed all over the world, government supported solar power could easily replace all of the coal, oil, and nuclear power plants that are now leading to such environmental and climate devastation.
My argument to climate activists is this: consider massive government expenditures to create an emissions-free infrastructure and society as a reasonable alternative to a carbon tax, and consider embedding this Green New Deal into a wider program of economic and political renewal so that there is public support for what really is our most pressing, existential problem. And then we can see “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as a prescient warning that we heeded.