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The Ends And Means Of
Climate Change Mitigation

By Stephen Roblin

13 January, 2010

Confusion over the means and ends of radical left activism can be potentially fatal for the causes we strive to advance. And for the case of climate change mitigation, confusion can be fatal, literally speaking, for the human species. Given the potential opportunity to enact binding reductions in carbon emissions at the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Mexico next year, any confusion that plagues the Left must be lay to rest immediately in order to ensure we play our indispensable role in combating this threat. In a three-part series with Znet called “Has The Left Missed The Boat On Climate Change?,” Robin Hahnel offers some clarity on the matter by answering two critical questions pertaining to the climate change crisis: What is the immediate end we are trying to achieve? And what is the most effective means of achieving this end given practical constraints?

In the face of cataclysmic climate change, Hahnel correctly argues that the immediate end is unequivocally to reduce carbon emissions to safe levels—levels determined by the scientific community, not the economic or political. Theoretically, the available means are government regulation of carbon emissions, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade. Practically, the only viable means available is cap-and-trade, something Hahnel urges the Left to support instead of protest. However, it is being argued by some on the Left that preventing the implementation of any cap-and-trade system is an end in and of itself. According to Climate Justice Action, cap-and-trade is a system that creates a “new commodity” out of “the Earth’s ability and capacity to support a climate conducive to life and human societies” and passes it “into the same corporate hands that are destroying the climate.” For this reason, they argue cap-and-true is a “pretend” solution to the climate change crisis. As we will see, the problem with this argument is a result of failing to rank competing ends.

For those that agree with Climate Justice Action, viewing cap-and-trade as a means to an end is the wrong way to frame the issue. Instead, mitigating climate change and preventing the implementation of a cap-and-trade system are both ends that the Left should be fighting to achieve. Under ideal circumstances, Hahnel and myself would agree and argue that a carbon tax is a better solution. Unfortunately, we are not living under ideal circumstances, so we must consider the relevant facts on the ground in order to strategize effectively. According to Hahnel,

climate activists were not able to win consideration for a significant international carbon tax during the 1990s, and Annex-1 countries agreed to a cap on aggregate Annex-1 emissions for 2012 that, while insufficient, was a significant step. More importantly, at this juncture it is even more apparent that we can win much larger global reductions through caps than we can win through an international carbon tax. Recently an 80% reduction in global emissions – or more – by 2050 has come under serious consideration. Nobody knows how high a global carbon tax would have to be to achieve reductions this deep, but everybody knows that a tax of that magnitude is completely out of the question. In other words, it has turned out we could win much better deals in the form of caps than through carbon taxes [my emphasis].

In short, those that reject cap-and-trade out of hand are confronted with the following dilemma: Pursuing one end entails sacrificing another, i.e. activism aimed at preventing the implementation of cap-and-trade decreases the prospects for effectively mitigating climate change, and vice versa.

Such dilemmas require ranking competing ends and making a strategic choice to pursue the one of most critical importance. In this case, there is only one sensible choice because implementing a cap-and-trade system does not threaten mass destruction and potentially the extinction of the human and other species; cataclysmic climate change however does. Moreover, cap-and-trade offers the best chance to achieve two crucial principles featured in the Kyoto Protocol that the Left has supported: first, “binding reductions in an international treaty” under the auspices of the UN (as opposed to voluntary arrangements recently proposed by the Obama administration at Copenhagen) and, second, a treaty that advances the principle of “differentiated responsibilities and capabilities,” meaning the costs of averting climate change should be distributed differently based on the different responsibilities (cumulative emissions per capita) and different capabilities (GDP per capita). There exists no politically viable proposal for carbon tax that has any chance of being signed into a binding treaty under UN auspices, much less that follow the principle of “differentiated responsibilities and capabilities.” To quote Hahnel again, “it has turned out we could win much better deals in the form of caps than through carbon taxes.”

If this not enough to sway those who reject cap-and-trade under all circumstances, let’s consider the following the example. The Left would certainly agree that outlawing slavery in a society and creating a labor market in its place, while not an ideal reform, (1) is certainly better than the status quo. The reasoning, as we all know, goes as follows: By replacing the slave trade with a labor market, something that was essentially free, labor, must now be paid for by those previously exploiting it. And with this comes labor wages and bargaining power, which even if minimal can do much to improve the prospects for enhancing living standards and freedom of the formerly enslaved, particularly if accompanied eventually by living wage and collective bargaining laws. If the Left agrees that a labor market is an improvement over the slave trade given no better option, I don’t see any reason not to support cap-and-trade given current circumstances. In both cases, a market is used to take something exploited for virtually free and make the exploiter pay a price for future exploitation. Although far from removing altogether the element of exploitation, the improvements can be significant and should not be taken for granted, nor squandered.

Hahnel admits that cap-and-trade is a “bitter pill to swallow for all who abhor the commodification of everything, including the natural environment,” a sentiment I certainly share. Nevertheless, we should remember that cap-and-trade can come in different packages. So the best way we can reduce the bitterness is for the Left to stop rejecting cap-and-trade altogether and strategize effectively to achieve the best possible cap-and-trade package. To accomplish this strategic goal, Hahnel adds four principles, in addition to the two principles outlined above, that the Left should fight to be included in a binding treating:

(1) Set a cap on global emissions at whatever level the scientific community tells us is necessary to stabilize carbon concentrations at 350 ppm.

(2) Cap emissions in all countries but give less developed countries much higher caps and place more stringent caps on more developed countries by whatever amount is necessary to achieve the global emission cap determined in #1.

(1) Cap national net emissions rather than national emissions

(2) Give national governments the power to certify or refuse to certify emission reduction credits for sale by parties operating in their territories.

At this juncture in the climate change debate, it is crucial that the Left line up behind a set of principles. Confusion too late in the game will undoubtedly sacrifice what we strive to advance—the most effective and equitable means available to achieve reductions of carbon emissions to safe levels determined by the scientific community. The principles outlined by Hahnel theoretically can achieve this goal. To make them politically viable requires strategic action on the part of the Left.

As an example of “what not to do,” I’ll conclude with a brief critique of the rhetorical use of climate “reparations,” which more and more is being pronounced by left activist groups, as opposed to “differentiated responsibilities and capabilities.” Not only is the principle, “differentiated responsibilities and capabilities,” stated explicitly in the Kyoto Protocol and recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), it has the same meaning (I suspect) as climate “reparations”—the global North bears more responsibility for averting climate change because it has emitted far more cumulative emissions per capita and it is in a better position to bear the financial costs due to higher income and wealth GDP per capita. The difference between the phrases, “differentiated responsibilities and capabilities” and climate “reparations,” however is that the latter is politically inflammatory and, like “socialism” and “terrorism,” has no real meaning, particularly in the US. This late in the climate change debate there is no reason to go through the intellectually arduous task of recovering the meaning of “reparation,” particularly given an alternative widely accepted and present in the actual language of the treaties under review!

This said, I can think of no better way to end this article then with the following quote, “Our strategic artistry can be informed, and it had better be if we are to succeed.”


(1) If the choice were between a labor market or participatory economy, I would certainly chose the latter. But given the absence of this choice, creating a labor market is a marked improvement over slavery, an improvement the radical left undoubtedly approves of.


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