Funding solutions outside the climate box

Over the past years, some thoughtful pieces have been written on managing the climate crisis that call for thinking outside the climate box. We should leave too narrow climate-as-an-environmental-problem-thinking behind and accept that climate change is as much an environmental issue as it is, for example, a development challenge, or a problem of ecological modernization. Therefore, we shouldn’t focus too much on climate change science, and think more about the socioeconomic challenges we need to address in order to manage climate change.

One of these strands of thinking focuses – naturally, I might add – on the necessary transformation of our energy infrastructure from the outdated fossil-fuel and nuclear based system towards a shiny new, low-carbon-clean-energy-thing. This is about the reasoning guys like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute advance. As they put it recently: “Climate Science Divides Us But Energy Technology Unites Us.” Yeah. Roger Pielke Jr., himself a Breakthrough Fellow, explains in his book The Climate Fix, we have basically two options to do something about climate change: Increase energy efficiency, and come up with competitive low-carbon energy sources.

I can follow this thinking up to a point, even though there’s a plethora of details you can discuss even after you’ve narrowed the discussion down like that. But here’s what I don’t get: All the papers that come to my mind, even the ones most vividly argue for escaping the narrow climate change box, do inexplicably remain inside this very narrative when it comes down to sources for funding change. Just two examples I can grab from the shelf without walking around too much: Oliver Tickell’s “Kyoto2” from 2008, and Roger Pielke Jr.’s “The Climate Fix” from 2010. Both call for a price on carbon that’s supposed to bring in enough revenues for financing change. Now, I’m all for putting a price on carbon, since it’s one of the most sensible things you can do (and with adding that Pielke’s suggested 5$ per ton is closer to nothing than to anything). But I don’t understand why we should stop there.

After all, when has a government ever aligned its revenue sources with its spending practice? Governments don’t do that, and they don’t need to. They can build roads and get the money from, say, taxing income. They can have a military and fund it with, say, VAT. And so on and so on. Only in climate change debates, the potential source of revenues for financing a low-carbon and highly efficient energy infrastructure is magically restricted to taxing the main culprit: Carbon dioxide.

Why is that? We have numerous other sources for funding the clean and green stuff we need. Introducing a worldwide financial transaction tax, channelling only 0.01% of every transactions’ value into the hands of governments, could provide us with up to $250 billion per year. Enough to get some serious clean-the-energy-sector going, and just for fun calculate what a not-so-gigantic 0.1% would get us. Next example: The global military sector is eating up more than $1 trillion each year. You’re telling me this crazy amount of self-defending humanity from itself can’t be diverted into something that will keep us much safer than those battleships, like limiting climate change? The last example: Companies spend €30 billion on advertising in Germany alone each year – but we can’t afford to invest more than €1 billion of public funds annually into retrofitting the housing stock of the biggest European economy? That’s absurd.

Even more absurd is the unwillingness of climate change discussants to embrace funding sources outside the narrow climate box. Is it our fear of appearing political, after all? Is it cowardice towards potential partisanship that prevents us from taking a stand how clean energy should be paid for? Why do we point towards to sheer magnitude of the climate challenge, yet restrict ourselves to remain fixed within carbonated thinking when it comes down to identify adequate funding mechanisms?

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