Last week, CNN announced plans to host a climate crisis town hall with the Democratic presidential candidates on September 4. MSNBC scheduled a multiday climate change forum with the presidential hopefuls later that month.
In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”
Henry Farrell is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?”
People are already paying for climate change with their lives. Rising temperatures are killing more than 150,000 people every year. This death toll is estimated to increase to 1.5 million people annually by the turn of the century. Some are confronting the likelihood of failed crops; others have been forced to flee floodplains.
Those currently paying for the effects of climate change are the most vulnerable—people in the developing world, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the very young. As the world changes, more people are going to suffer the cost of heat waves, rising water, damaged or dying ecosystems, and flooded coastal cities. This will create what political science and public policy experts describe as “existential politics,” in which different groups fight to preserve their entire way of life.
On one side of this existential fight will be those who want things to continue mostly as they are. Oil companies have trillions of dollars worth of petroleum still in the ground. An entire energy infrastructure has been built on the back of fossil fuel extraction. If fossil fuels become “stranded assets”— economic assets that suddenly lose most or all of their value—crucial sectors of today’s economy will be utterly transformed, hurting the interests of the businesses that run them. Unsurprisingly, these businesses are fighting back. So, too, are industrial workers such as coal miners whose way of life is threatened.
Meanwhile, others will suffer the effects of continued inaction. People who live on coasts will face the risks and costs of flooding, while many of those who live inland will have to deal with changing weather patterns, droughts, and unbearable heat waves.
This fight has already started to play out. Fossil fuel interests are rich, politically influential, and well organized. They are able not only to pay for lobbyists in Washington, DC, but to organize an entire political movement at the state level. The Koch-funded “grassroots” organization Americans for Prosperity pushes to protect fossil fuel interests in individual states. The group has become intimately intertwined with the Republican party.
The interests on the other side are broader, less well organized, and less influential. This is in part because everyday Americans don’t really understand that they will be on the hook for many of the costs of climate change unless there is a dramatic change in policy.
If we continue on our current trajectory, the lives of ordinary voters will be fundamentally transformed while fossil fuel companies continue to make vast profits. Any serious policy response to global warming needs to transfer some of the costs from voters to the fossil fuel interests, where they belong.
Some might disagree with this approach, advocating instead for a consensus among all parties. The problem with this rejoinder: The politics of global warming are necessarily divisive, and one side of the divide is already mobilizing to protect its own narrow interests.
To fight global warming, we need to organize a broad public counterweight against the sectoral interests that are trying to block action. Building an effective “Green New Deal” will require financial resources to unite a coalition in favor of climate action, and to split the counter-coalition. Such policy will also need to remake the international political economy to build both cross-national solidarities and domestic alliances.
Yet before all of this can be done, it is crucial to change the terms of debate and acknowledge reality. We are going to have to pay for global warming, one way or another. The key question is who will pay—and how we can distribute those costs fairly.