The Environment: Saving Ourselves Will Not Be Easy

By Mike Koetting                August 13, 2017

This is the second post of what I now realize is three posts on the environment. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the entire future of humanity is at least somewhat complicated. Environmental issues are one of what I believe are the three biggest issues facing society, inequality and the meaning of work being the other two.
My last post argued that even if you don’t believe the case for imminent environmental disaster is absolutely watertight, there can really be no argument that the risks are increasing at a more than linear rate and that any responses will take time to have material impact. Given the magnitude of the consequences of guessing wrong on the dangers, the only sensible course of action is to change course now instead of waiting for absolute proof of looming disaster, by which time it may well be too late.

But that post also acknowledged addressing environmental issues would create distributional problems.

In America, the obvious issue is the jobs lost by changing environmental standards. We don’t know exactly how many are at risk, but we know the number is material. In my last post, I suggested these were a necessary collateral problem. I believe that, but I also want to acknowledge that it’s pretty easy for me to say—it’s not my livelihood on the line. This is understandably one of the things the working class holds against us “elites”. We are willing to sacrifice their jobs for our idea of what’s necessary. The problem is, curtailing their jobs is necessary. This is not a drill. The threats are real.

But so are the threats of losing your job and, often following, the integrity of your community. If we are serious about actually changing the societal approach to environmental issues, we have to be equally serious about developing real, functioning antidotes to the problems caused when environmental concerns deepen economic divides. Of course the “job-killing environmental regulations” mantra of Republicans is a misrepresentation for political gain. But there are real impacts from stopping things that have been part of the culture and economy for years. These issues must be conspicuously and effectively addressed if we are to develop a national strategy for saving the environment. As long as it is “workers” versus “the elite”, it will be too hard to achieve.

And if the national distributional impacts are tough, they are nothing compared to the international distributional conundrums. All developed countries, and the United States in particular, are environmental hogs. On a per-capita basis, developed countries use much more of the earth’s resources than reside within their borders. Across the board, the more development, the greater the environmental imbalance.

Environmental Debts

Units are “global hectares”—that is the average amount one hectare can produce. Data is 2017 report based on 2013 data.

To the extent the earth’s resources are finite, this situation sooner or later causes serious trouble. The globe as a whole is already consuming more resources than the earth can replenish—i.e. spending down the reserves. This will not stop the countries that are less developed today from wanting to develop as fast as they can. And it is not clear there is a fair argument that they shouldn’t be entitled to the same level of creature comforts as the U.S. But well before the rest of the world reaches the level of U.S. resource consumption, we will all be in profound crisis.

I doubt this is a surprise to anyone, but it is something that most of us don’t like to think much about because it is so deeply messy.

So what should the U.S. government, which at some level of theory is us, do about all this? The first thing is that we need to get honest about the situation. On the one hand, this seems like “California dreaming” in the context of today’s political environment. On the other hand, the facts are overwhelming and many people understand that. We need a full-court press from those people who believe it at a level of relentless confrontation hitherto missing.

Again, this sounds unrealistic. But consider the Second World War, the last great social consensus. For as long as possible, people tried to convince themselves that Hitler was no threat. Even as England was hanging on by a thread, there was a robust debate. But eventually the country came to the realization that the fate of democracy as we knew it hung in the balance. At that point, people rallied, focused and bent the national will to the task. The entire social structure was changed as men went to war and women went to work. The population became massively involved in recycling efforts, accepted rationing, and even acquiesced to taxes. (Huge numbers of people who had never paid taxes before started paying and the highest marginal tax rate was 94%.)

Environmental threats are not as clear a villain as Hitler and there has been no environmental equivalent to Pearl Harbor—although Hurricane Sandy should have given pause. Moreover, there is no way to pretend environmental threats can be “defeated” and life can go back to “normal”. We are talking about a permanent change.

All that being said, the danger is no less real. We need to continue articulating the threat and acting like we mean it politically. This has several implications, but far and away the most profound is that we need to invest real money on the issue, which is to say raise taxes. And I’m not just talking about taxing the 1%, or even the 10%. I’m talking about increases for the entire top half of the income distribution. This is about as attractive to any politician as a bushel basket of yesterday’s dead fish. But without that, we are simply pretending to care and we will wind up in tomorrow’s bushel basket.

We need this kind of tax increase for three reasons as it relates to the environment. (There are other needs that must also be addressed, but those are not the current focus.)

First, we need to support programs that reduce environmental threats. This ranges from science and technology research to targeted market supports and direct governmental programs. We have a pretty good idea what the threats are and we actually have a lot of ideas about what would ameliorate them. But we need to bring them to scale quickly. Markets by themselves simply won’t do these because markets are not so good at addressing common goods. (Which is not to say there aren’t important roles for markets. It is more a matter of creating the context where they can work their efficiency magic for the goals society needs, not the goals of the richest few.)

Second, we need to channel resources to make people whole who are directly and adversely impacted by the actions we need to save all of us. Coal miners are a convenient example, but there are many more people in many parts of the country. And, as I suggested above, this is a global problem and national solutions by themselves won’t work. Global solutions will require at least minimal levels of global equality to achieve the necessary cooperation; they won’t be addressed by requiring some countries to stay less developed.

Third, we need to increase taxes to help reduce consumption. This is an ugly truth about environmental threats. As a society, we can not continue to consume at our current levels. If we make investments in smart research and technology, we can probably make this much less painful than it sounds when I state it as starkly as I just did. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves.

Will any of this happen? Hard to imagine today. But simply deriding Republicans for their environmental ignorance isn’t enough. If we really believe the scientists that we are facing an existential threat, this needs to be at the top of our list of priorities and not just one item on a political check list. Unless, that is, you happen to believe that when it hits the fan, your children will be protected because you recycled your newspapers.


Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “The Environment: Saving Ourselves Will Not Be Easy”

  1. Humans to not deal well with slow threats. In her book “The Sixth Extinction”, Elizabeth Kolbert noted that the current extinction is happening instantaneously in geologic time but too slow for us to notice. When sea level rise forces a mass exodus from Bangladesh, we’ll blame them and the Indians. When famine spreads in Africa, we’ll ignore it. When flooding spreads in Florida, we’ll claim we can deal with it. When flooding spreads in New Orleans, we’ll say (again 😞) they shouldn’t have built there. This isn’t something that will happen a thousand years from now: au contraire, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see this in person.

    Ignoring reality never works as a plan of action. We are going to have to make messy and disruptive changes, like raising taxes for everyone and eliminating some industries. The choice is to do that or pass away as a species… and take most other species with us as we go.


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