Surviving Climate Change: Where Should We Place Our Hope? Business, Government or Ourselves. (Part 1)
If not them — then who?
This is a 5-part series that will explore the timely question of where we should place our hope and trust to ensure a livable planet for future generations. See below for the link to Part 2 . For updates on the release of Parts 3, 4 and 5, you can follow Brad Zarnett on Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn or email.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the word hope as it relates to climate change. We all hope for a better future and many of us do our best to make it happen, but the truth is, we need help to get there. So I ask…where should we place our trust and hope; Business and Markets? Government and Politicians? Or Ourselves? How do we move from hope to survival?
Hope Is In Us
Hope is an innate human quality. We are driven to solve our challenges and make things better with innovative thinking, both individually and collectively. Hope motivated us to come down from the trees and find a way to survive and evolve for 4 million years. Mind you, not all of our hominid cousins made it. Will we continue to survive? Or will climate change relegate us to the annals of history, like so many of our cousins from the past. I believe there is still room for us to remain hopeful.
Green Growth Fantasy
We know that massive carbon reductions are necessary — no, urgent — and yet we seem completely incapable or unwilling to act accordingly. We exist in an individualistic culture that celebrates personal choice; the idea of inconveniencing ourselves runs contrary to our internalized belief system. Rather than take a serious look at what sacrifices each of us can make, we buy into the fantasy that we can smoothly transition to green growth or find a magical solution to remove carbon from our atmosphere. But so far it doesn’t seem to be working — yet I still cling to hope.
Can Business Deliver?
Business is single minded in its desire to maximize shareholder returns. This is nothing new but there’s more to the story than just playing hard to win. Corporations and the ultra wealthy have spent decades and billions of dollars influencing policy makers to design a system that limits environmental and social protections, lowers taxes, and allows unlimited corporate political contributions that undermine the democratic election process. Owners of corporations have been left relatively free to maximize profits and shift any harm that may result from conducting business away from shareholders and onto society.
Some might call this good business but a better description would be greedy, sociopathic or just plain old cheating. The tactics used by business and the super rich are evidence of an elite class who are using their wealth to enrich themselves by tampering with the democratic process and rigging the system for personal benefit at the expense of workers, families, the environment and society as a whole.
But the elite still want more.
In addition to the victory of lower corporate tax rates, they also lobbied hard to alter the rate and method of individual taxation — specifically the method of taxation for stock appreciation, which is the primary way that the super rich make and access their capital — not salaries. Changing the tax code in this way was a windfall for those who’ve accumulated the biggest fortunes. It’s what allowed 2229 billionaires, worth 9.1 trillion, to collectively increase their wealth last year by 2.5 billion a day, or 12%, while the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people saw their wealth decline by 11%.
Wealth Creation Isn’t The Issue
The system is failing the majority of people. So much wealth is being created but it’s mostly flowing upward to the top 0.1% while the bottom 90% are sinking down the economic ladder. The problem isn’t a lack of wealth creation — it’s that government has failed to distribute the wealth in the best interests of society and our corporate owned media has normalized this as being acceptable.
These policy changes have left government with enormous shortfalls in revenues needed to clean up the environmental and social mess that business has downloaded upon them. Environmental degradation has reached unprecedented levels and climate change presents a real existential threat to humanity. Yet, rather than ask business and the super rich who have hoarded trillions in the last few decades to help with the shortfall, government shrugs, and goes on to cut vital services to millions of people who are struggling with salaries that have been stagnant for decades and whose employment is precarious at best.
Why do so many of us still look to business to lead us to salvation? The very notion that business, with decades of targeted lobbying to create a global economic system that hoards wealth and externalizes harm, could possibly lead us to the promised green future shows just how brainwashed we’ve become.
It’s About Control
Climate change has no borders — the very nature of this challenge intrinsically means that we need a collective solution, but business and those that influence policy don’t want to admit it. They have worked too long and too hard to create a narrative that business, when left alone, without pesky regulations to protect employees and the environment, could solve all of the world’s problems. The super rich have been increasing their fortunes while their corporate owned media have been advancing a neoliberal fantasy that ensures that they maintain their royal status above governments and regulators.
A Poor Marriage
Business has never understood that corporate sustainability or CSR isn’t about finding the business case with a measurable ROI, it isn’t about initiatives like Walmart’s Food Program to help solve hunger in the richest country in the world while simultaneously fighting against unions that could help their employees maintain liveable wages, and it certainly isn’t about trading one harm for another with initiatives like Starbucks’ plastic campaign that “replaces plastic straws with plastic strawless lids — like a Sippy Cup for Adults.”
Business working within free market capitalism is simply ill-equipped to address global ecosystem destruction and in hindsight it never should have been put in that position — the incentives simply aren’t there, making the chance for success nil. You can’t quantify the financial benefit of leaving a livable planet for the next generation — because it’s not about money — it’s about long term survival and the “system” doesn’t know how to measure it.
Not As “Woke” As They Think
Some companies tried to be leaders but they always ended up tripping over their own feet. Other than some well coined phrases and vague promises, when it comes to business, meaningful change isn’t really on the agenda. CEOs might like you to think that they’re “woke” but don’t buy it; the structure of the system that has caused the harm is still firmly in place and until it is disrupted and replaced with a model that brings more accountability, sharing and well-being into the business model, the path towards a crisis will remain mostly unobstructed.
We’ve lost decades by hoping that business could lead us out of this mess but the dream is over — it’s been a massive market failure and it’s time to wake up. I was one of those who fell under the spell of the early promise of the Triple Bottom Line of People, Planet and Profits. But I now realize that we simply cannot put our collective future and very survival in the hands of business. Business will certainly be part of the solution but it cannot be the leader — the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can be honest about the dangerous direction in which we are headed and take real action to change it.
Should We Place Our Hope in Government?
I know there are many people who cringe at the idea of giving government too much control and I’m one of them, but for a moment, I’d like to explore the role that government can play. To start, let’s see if we can at least agree on the science and some of the solutions that government may provide.
The planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. The situation is very serious, if not an outright emergency. Without dramatic change in how we live our lives and conduct business, we are likely to see runaway climate change within 1–2 decades, at which point there is no turning back to a better time.
Our children will likely experience:
- Larger, more intense and more frequent forest fires and hurricanes
- Deadly heat waves that kill tens of thousands every summer
- Regular flooding of farmland and cities
- Regular weather related damage to city infrastructure
- Regular water shortages
- Invasive insect infestations in northern latitudes
- Fish gravitating towards the poles to find food and cooler water leaving hundreds of millions in coastal communities without their traditional food supply
- Massive crop failures due to heat stress, drought and flooding
- The rise of authoritarian leadership as people become scared, angry and frustrated by governments that don’t seem to pay attention to them
The Tools Already Exist
Government has the tools to quickly change the way that business is conducted. It has the capacity to soften a sudden loss of income and to offer retraining and education programs for citizens who experience job loss from policy and/or environmental changes. It can do this because unlike business it has a broader mandate of societal well being for all and not simply a mandate for financial gain.
Some of the tools government can use to drive change:
- Legislative change:
- End fossil fuel subsidies and pipelines
- Clearly communicate the new parameters (energy, resources, waste, ecosystem protection etc.) to conduct business with a clear timeline, coupled with strict fines for non compliance.
- Ban single use items manufactured with fossil fuels and/or that degrade both human and ecosystem health (e.g. plastic bags, bottles, straws, cups, plates, utensils, takeout food containers)
- Provide an 80% salary safety net for all mid and low level employees that lose their job due to these changes. The safety net would continue at 80% for 3 years and then drop in years 4 and 5 to 70% and then 60% respectively if employment is still not secured. (funding would come from the Climate Karma Tax)
- Create Green Trade deals with like minded countries
- Raise tariffs on non-essential products from countries whose climate plans lack substance
- Free corporate consultations with new economy specialists
- Reeducation programs to update skills
- Massive Climate Education Program (targeting business, schools and society in general)
- Immediately establish a Climate Karma Tax
(Unlike a Carbon Tax that can be ineffective and divisive, often granting massive exemptions to fossil fuel companies while laying the burden on ordinary citizens, the Karma Tax would place the financial burden squarely on the shoulders of those who have derived the greatest financial benefit from our existing flawed system.)
So…What’s the Holdup?
Despite the mandate and the available tools — most governments around the world are failing to rise to the climate challenge. There seem to be 4 approaches to this inaction, all based on the desire to maintain or assume power.
- Most leaders prefer to ignore it, downplay it or speak in platitudes with no meaningful plan. This approach is a proven path to power as it allows leaders to upset as few voters as possible while kicking the problem down the road for others to address.
- Some prefer the more refined strategy of offering fake leadership that looks like the government is doing something when in fact, it’s doing very little. This is the chosen tactic that my Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has perfected.
- Another popular strategy that requires little effort but has great optics is the act of signing onto the Paris Accord — this is often used as a supplement for both approach #1 and 2. It works well because it places leaders in good company with almost every other country on the planet that has failed to meet its non binding targets — immunity via collective failure. (To compare countries, visit the Carbon Initiative Tracker’s assessment website.)
- The last approach is to completely abdicate responsibility in favour of market based solutions. This strategy is supported by those who are rewarded most by the current system — corporate elites and billionaires — because it leaves wealth and power firmly entrenched and does nothing to remove the systemic flaws that delivered us a climate crisis in the first place.
Unfortunately, no matter which tactic is used it all adds up to the same outcome — a climate crisis.
If Not Us, Then Who?
The science is clear and yet our politicians consistently fail to make the necessary policy changes. Could it be that despite what politicians tell us during elections, government has become a champion for the smallest minority among us — the ultra rich?
This might seem like a grand conspiracy but just look at the policy choices made by governments and ask yourself, “Who’s the big winner?” The facts speak for themselves; according to a recent Oxfam report, in 2017, the top 1% took in 82% of all newly created wealth while 3.7 billion people saw no increase whatsoever. And if you prefer a US statistic, Forbes’ 400 richest Americans are worth $2.96 trillion — more wealth than the 204 million people who are the bottom 64% of the US population. We don’t have a wealth creation problem — we have a wealth hoarding problem.
The wealth exists — it’s just being hoarded by billionaires with the help of governments that work for the top 0.1%
The “system” is no accident — it’s been carefully crafted over decades by corporate interests to concentrate wealth, privatize profits and externalize harm and responsibility away from shareholders and onto society — all with the help of politicians who are only too happy to cooperate for a small piece of the pie and the funding to help them maintain and reach new levels of political power.
Are we really hoping that this very system which has paved the way for wide scale environmental destruction will come to the rescue? Do we really expect politicians to upset their bosses — billionaires and corporate elites — who they rely on to fund their campaigns? Can we force them to change their approach so that they begin to tackle inequality and climate change from the perspective of societal well being?
Is It Too Much To Hope For?
If politicians were to fight for the climate we would notice changes instantly. Billionaires would come out yelling and screaming about how the sky is falling and that our country will soon descend into poverty — the fear mongering is a good sign — it means we’re on the right track. Next we would see what is long overdue — an immediate increase in climate protecting regulations and a new wealth tax to help fund the transition.
There would be a new commitment to honesty and transparency about the nature and seriousness of our climate emergency. The corporate propaganda would finally stop and the truth would emerge — corporate controlled capitalism is nothing more than a wealth concentrating and climate destroying machine.
We would be forced to face a new difficult reality but at least the lies would be behind us. The new message would be that our current goals are too weak and they are more likely than not, to deliver us directly towards the crisis that we’re hoping to avoid. But we would also have a new plan and with hard work, sacrifice and unity we could find the way to a bright future — together.
Is it realistic to hope for this outcome from our flawed political system? What if neither government nor business proves itself able to deliver us to a future with a stable climate — where else should we place our energy, trust and hope?