Gambling on a Climate Change Solution

A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing from (and, later, speaking with) a reasonably well-known Australian economist. This economist, who happens to be a Christian, was speaking to a room full of Christian pastors/leaders about the importance of economics. This is something he tries to do on a regular basis, in the same way that he seeks to  speak to economists about the importance of the rest of life (suggesting that economics is not ‘everything’). I really appreciate this dual strategy, and that he would take the time out of his busy schedule to speak to us.

I did, however, find a number of problems with what he said and sought to challenge a few of the points he put forward. To cut a long story short, I felt that, whether he meant to or not, he seemed to only leave room for a pastoral response to the way our economic systems work, leaving not much room at all for any prophetic engagement. By that, I mean that he spent quite a bit of time outlining a ‘this is just how it is’ type scenario (at least, this is how I saw it). In discussing changes underway in the Australian economy, for example, his response in regards to the role of the Church was to get alongside those who wouldn’t necessarily do well out of these transitions. That’s fine, in one sense (and I think we definitely should be responding pastorally to these situations), but he seemed incapable of seeing the Church taking any sort of prophetic stance on speaking to the elements of our current system which lead inevitably to exploitation and the treatment of human beings as something more like automatons rather than people created in the image of the Creator. The way I see it, there is an opportunity to challenge some of these elements of our system at their source—pointing to the fact that they inevitably lead to people being used and abused—rather than just dealing with the fallout. I’m encouraged, therefore, by Pope Francis’ recent ‘apostolic exhortation’, calling unfettered capitalism a ‘new tyranny’ (see here).

What really troubled me, though, was my economist friend’s response to questions about climate change.

As he discussed the opportunities for the Australian economy in exporting natural gas for the next few decades (as part of the transition from the first stage of the mining boom), I began asking questions about environmental impact of such industry and the effect on climate change (noting both that the impact of coal seam gas extraction on our land and water supplies could be, potentially, devastating and that, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, the large majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground).

His response was really quite interesting.

In a nutshell, his response was that, in time, someone would come up with some sort of amazing new invention which would make all this worry about climate change seem quaint in years to come. He pointed to some examples from history as evidence for this assertion and, when pressed, seemed to indicate that the best way to proceed was, in fact, to do nothing, so that the sense of heightened urgency might speed up the process.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, it is, I would argue, totally reckless to go about business as usual and leave everything to chance. It’s a terribly high-risk gamble! I do understand that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’—I really do—but we already have ‘necessity’ in spades. To forget about trying to put any structure in place that helps move us towards a renewable energy future and to go all in on the off-chance that someone comes up with…who knows what(!) is not just ignorance, it’s criminal negligence. I grant that there have been times in history when there have been game-changing inventions or new ways of doing things, but that is no guarantee that it will happen the same way this time.

And this leads to the second point.

We’ve never had to deal with something as huge as this before. Quite simply, there has been no time previously in human history where the stakes have been so high. Sure, we’ve had things like ‘The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ but, with all due respect, trying to compare the two situations is, well, horse shit. What we are arguing about here is the possibility of catastrophic global climate change. I believe in human ingenuity, but I don’t believe that the free market (which, in truth, is anything but ‘free’) can be trusted to be left alone in this process while we wait patiently for a solution. Vested interests are just too powerful a force on these markets, and I fear that what we will see instead is future generations lumped with the burden of mopping up the damage left by the current generation’s greed.

And this leads into the third and final point.

All of this ignores the fact that changes in the climate affect the world’s poor in a disproportionate manner. It is the poorest, and most powerless, communities in the world who are already dealing with the impact of environmental changes, and they will continue to bear the brunt into the future. Part of the problem is that the powerful so often live their lives away from where the impact is already being felt, and thus fail to see the necessity of the situation already. Leaving action on climate change until it is acutely felt by the powerful will mean catastrophe for those voice is already being largely ignored in current negotiations. Let’s call this for what it is: a monumental moral failure.

As human beings, we have a responsibility to seek the best interests of one another; current systems prioritise self-interest over everything else. The deck is stacked against the poor, and therefore they will always lose most heavily from this sort of gamble.

As such, I respectfully suggest to my economist friend that his suggestion is hopelessly flawed. I also want to suggest that this is precisely the type of situation where the Church could—and should—have a prophetic voice. If we truly believe that God is creator, and that God’s creation is ‘good’, and if we truly believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore invested with an inherent dignity, then we simply cannot leave it all to chance.

I am not an economist, or the son of an economist—that much is clear. But I don’t think one needs to be an economist to recognise that this is not an acceptable way forward.

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Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

5 thoughts on “Gambling on a Climate Change Solution”

  1. Josh, I had the same reply from Deirdre McCloskey a couple of days ago. While it’s patently absurd to believe in the imaginary arm of the market solving the problem of climate change, rejecting a market economy (for what – no one ever says) is an equally doomed “dream.” I think the challenge is for the church (actually, no one listens to her anyway – so scrubb that) and those capable of influencing culture – musicians, artists, and maybe politicians – to redirect the values that drive the market. I guess that’s what you’re trying to do in this post. What it sounds like, though, is – economists are evil/naive/stupid, bring on the revolution. I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett for fun lately, and I think he has an insight into revolutionaries
    “But here’s some advice, boy. Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

  2. Viva La Revolución! ; )

    Seriously, though, there is really nothing in my post that suggests that all economists are evil/naive/stupid, or that I’m arguing for a revolution. That’s because, funnily enough, I don’t believe all economists are evil/naive/stupid, and I don’t think revolutions are very helpful.

    I think a) that a laissez-faire approach to economics is relatively dangerous, b) that economists should be reminded, from time-to-time, that we live in societies not economies, and c) that economists should largely stick to the descriptive task, but I nevertheless maintain that studying economics is useful and that a market economy is not intrinsically either ‘good’ or bad’.

    I am of the opinion, for example, that a good first step towards doing something about climate change is to use a market-based mechanism, which I actually consider to be an inherently rather conservative approach. I can’t understand, then, why the conservatives in Australia seem to be trying everything they can do to avoid such an approach.

    I also believe that the best sort of change happens in very small steps, rather than in big revolutionary motions. Small, incremental steps, added together, can see significant change happen over time (and those changes usually come about with less death and destruction).

    As you know, I don’t have any formal training in economics, but I do try to read a bit here and there. I have come to enjoy the writing of Australian economist John Quiggin quite a lot, and I don’t think my own position would be too far away from what he outlines. I guess what I would like to see at the very least is a sort of ‘soul’ for economic theory. For ‘Christian’ economists, I think this is pretty much essential.

    Anyway, perhaps my language is too emotive in the post, but I’m not totally convinced of that.

    I would challenge you, then, to re-read my post and see if, perhaps, you’ve read your own understanding of what I’m arguing for into the post. I know you think I’m some sort of roly-smoking, wispy moustache-wearing, drab commie clothing-dressing, anti-free market socialist, but it’s not actually the case.

    And, as you re-read the post, I might go change into my Che t-shirt ; )

  3. no doubt I’m reading assumptions into your post. I think, though, that the impression you give is that the view you critique is common to economists. I’m not sure that it is – and I’m certain that it need not be. what is really interesting is what we mean by “free market”. I don’t think any economist really means that the market is left completely to itself – or very few do. Indeed, the discipline of economics is concerned with shaping that market using whatever economic (political) levers available – balancing the vital power of “freedom” with its social limits. My point is, though, that if we want a solution to be viable in a 21st century economy, then the smart thing to do is to find ways to integrate environmental values into that market. This is what the dreaded climate tax was attempting to do– and there are any number of other mechanisms, especially if we recognise that the market itself is steered by values (by the things that we value). the market is not the boogie man we make it out to be. It is the environment of exchange that enables human society to function, and without it we might as well go back to being hunters and gatherers.

    1. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how my post could be taken to suggest that the view presented by the economist I mention is representative of *all* economists.

      That’s certainly not what I believe, so I apologise if that’s the way you heard it.

      As far as I can tell, the sort of view espoused by my economist friend sits over at the more, dare I say it, extreme edge of libertarian economic theory.

      From what I’ve seen in regards to discussions about action on climate change, market-based mechanisms (like a price on carbon, in whatever form) are touted as the most efficient and effective approaches. This would suggest to me that the majority of economists are a bit more realistic than the chap I was speaking to (and that the approach of the current Australian government is rather naive).

      The problem as I see it, though, is that there seems to be a growing push towards these hyper libertarian tendencies. Some people seem to actually take Ayn Rand seriously!

      When, therefore, we have a conservative government like the one we have, I fear that these sorts of views are more likely to be taken seriously. I think that’s a scary thing.

    2. I guess I should also add here that one of the reasons I specifically pick up on the idea of the free market being, well, not quite so ‘free’ is that it seems to be quite common for people to quote Adam Smith in terms of defending a position arguing for markets to be free from regulation, seemingly forgetting that Smith himself seemed quite concerned about markets being free from monopolies.

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