Climate Week in New York this year, like so many other events, was radically different from previous years. Yet, the sense of urgency that permeated it was not only apt but deeply necessary; as many are aware, with regard to the environment our time is very much limited.
There is a great need to switch over from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources so the planet does not experience colossal degradation caused by rising temperatures. While the governmental response from the United States, one of the world leaders in pollution, has never quite gone far enough in terms of mitigating this crisis, the current administration’s position has been pathetic at best.
Finding and implementing solutions to this current crisis which affects every human being has never been more imperative. While the climate crisis is an ecological disaster, its causes are economic in nature. A current challenge to beating climate change is the large quantity of money tied to the fossil fuel industry. The world currently spends overwhelmingly vast sums of money on the subsidies to keep coal, gas, and oil profitable. The United States, China, and Russia are some of the biggest providers of fossil fuel subsidies, which have mostly profited the 1%.
350 Silicon Valley, a grassroots non-profit dedicated to fighting climate justice, hosted a panel entitled, “Legislative Strategies Towards a Green Economy: Local, State and Federal,” as part of the online events for NYC Climate Week. Members of the panel discussed the topic of diverting pensions away from fossil fuel investments. For those unfamiliar, a pension is similar to a 401k in the sense that they are both retirement plans created by investing a little money from each paycheck into the fund. A pension differs from a 401k because it is directly controlled by the employer, but also puts the risk in the hands of the employers. The company takes some of your pension money, invests it, then gives it back (plus the profit) upon retirement.
The majority of workers in America today do not have a pension plan, with nearly a 50% decrease of private sector pensions from the 1990s, so it is a rarity for people to have direct experience with a pension. A big exception to this are workers in the public sectors, namely teachers, police officers, and nurses, some of the biggest groups who still receive pensions in the United States with an estimated 76% of state and local government workers participating in a pension. There is a lot of money being invested in the current pension system that could be used to invest in a green future, which was one of the possible initiatives raised by the panel.
Pensions provide an effective way for working individuals to gain more economic security from renewable energy. However, as stated previously, only a small fraction of workers even have pensions. When we discuss solutions to the climate crisis, we need to ensure that they go hand in hand with issues of economic equity. After all, socio-economic disparity is a huge issue in the United States and beyond. Only 35% of Americans have more than a few hundred dollars in their savings accounts, meaning that potentially huge amounts of future profit from renewables will only go to those who already have enough spare capital to invest safely and frequently. People in developing nations are even poorer.
The conversation amongst the panelists tended to focus on profitability as the main reason for switching to renewable energy. Switching to renewable energy sources provides a financial investment as well as a moral one, which allows state departments to safely invest pensions or any other financial assets into these kinds of projects. However, solutions to the climate crisis need to ensure that the same disparities created by a tremendous unequal distribution of power are not reinforced and reaffirmed. When we talk about profitability surrounding climate change, it is often clear that it is once again a small minority of people who stand to gain.
Diverting wealth away from the 1% is an important facet of the economics of solutions to the climate crisis. One solution to this is the implementation of a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies, the idea being that if climate change is being caused by specific industries (like fossil fuels), then it is important to tax that industry heavily, so renewable options become the better investment to make. This can be effective, assuming the money is invested properly, but the political will in this category has been unenthusiastic. The carbon-tax, once seriously discussed as a practical solution, has lately fallen into disrepute. Republicans are rarely willing to endorse higher taxation, and for some democrats, the carbon tax does not go far enough.
Yet, discussions of switching to renewable energy rarely address the existing economic disparities and the destructive power that wealth can wield.
The power and ability of the 1% to affect policy decisions is enormous. This is particularly harmful when used to exacerbate the climate crisis and hurt vulnerable communities. One of the most infamous examples of this is the Koch Brothers, the fossil fuel magnates who hurt LGBTQ communities. Same-sex marriage legalization found some of its fiercest opponents in the early 2010s in the form of the Tea-Party who, along with Republicans at large, was one of the biggest anti-LGBTQ+ rights groups in the United States. Facing such multi-faceted destruction, it is important, vitally important, to look for a way to fight back. Exploring potential solutions is key to this fight. Similarly, the Kennedy family living in Massachusetts, squashed one of the biggest wind farms on the East Coast, allegedly because it affect the view from some properties that they own.
While climate change is on everyone’s minds and is on the political agenda, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, it is only the 13th most significant issue going into the election. The economy takes precedence. The very fact that voters consciously prioritize economic interest is an indication of the poverty that many live in.
Even Biden’s climate plan, which aims to transition to renewable energy by 2035, does not mention issues such as healthcare. The plan does, however, commit to putting 40 percent of the profits back into disadvantaged communities. While this is a step in the right direction, it might perhaps be more beneficial, while we’re considering a revamp, to raise the minimum wage and provide universal healthcare. Right now, America seems far from moving towards the kind of social equity that is really needed. However, at least the Biden plan provides a plan and effectively envisages what the climate-friendly economy might look like.
Climate change is a crisis that needs to be handled before we run out of time. There are many other problems that need to be addressed like racism, global poverty, sexism, the wide scale decline of social safety nets, but saving the planet is not mutually exclusive from these other social issues. An effective way to get voters to prioritize climate change is to combine it with the economy, with jobs and with greater social and economic equity for everyone and ensuring that renewable solutions and a green future do not reinforce the same economic disparities that society is suffering from today.