Friday, January 30, 2015


Paris and Beyond: from Personal Morality to a Global Carbon Price

Do all aspects of your life bear the same witness?

A few Sundays ago, Celo Friends Meeting was presented with this query. We were deeply challenged by the question, and some rich confessional ministry followed. After struggling for most of the hour, I got up and confessed that my wife and I had quite recently bought into a Vacation Club, and were now regretting it. I spoke far too long, and in too much detail, including a bit of rationalizing that some of its use would be “good for the family.” After all, we would save on our biennial family winter vacations with extended family to warmer climes like Central America.

The club is expensive, though part of what caught us was the saving if we bought it right then. And they would also forego the annual dues, something that had always – mercifully – brought us up short with fully transferable timeshares. The irony is that we had gone to Charleston courtesy of just such a timeshare sales pitch, and had appropriately steeled ourselves for it. This one was unexpected, a street pitch that caught us off guard. Why not, we said, especially when they were giving us $100 for dinner on the town. We now had a lifetime wholesale travel discount, trips and condos, and agents to ease our way.

Afterwards, Geeta asked if anyone had eldered me for going into too much detail. After all, a public confession in Meeting is not the same as talking to a shrouded priest, where confession needs to be as exhaustive as possible. I said no, but thanked her for doing so as gently and indirectly as she had.

But the main thing I felt as I sat down is that I was relieved of my burden. In the midst of speaking, I realized that I was still free – free to question any proposal for travel, for whatever purpose. Free, as I have always been, to give up air travel (though that would mean not seeing my son and his wife and baby in the Sierras nearly as much), free to lose as much of the money we had put down as I was willing. In other words, moral choice remained, which is the most important attribute of freedom I can think of right now. And in affirming that, I could turn away from past ecological sin, and from this particularly egregious financial error. That it was also an ecological mistake was not yet an actuality.

With a Paris Accord in the works for this December, these complex individual choices may soon have a measurable context, framed by an international agreement that will surely involve expanding a carbon market that is already set to grow to 25% of the world in the next two years. Carbon will be priced, taxed, and our individual choices, either for comfort, pleasure, or necessity, will be weighed, not in terms of ecological morality, but by market forces. One may rail against the capitalist impulse, as Naomi Klein does so eloquently in her recent book, but this looks like the way it's going to be. I have long observed that, if individuals (like myself) who have strong moral compasses and are educated in climate science continue to make choices which produce excessive carbon, then we need laws to frame those choices for all of us, bending them in the direction of biospheric survival, not relying on the existential choice to “live our values.”

Klein's This Changes Everything treats climate change as the perfect storm, with only a complete rebuilding of the global political order – from the bottom up – capable of addressing the scale of the problem. Her analysis is exhaustive, about as well done as a non-ecologist could manage. And it may be that her prescription for a solution is correct. However, flawed as it may be, the international process under UN auspices, with everyone, including the smaller nations as well as big business at the table, finally has momentum, and will very likely yield some kind of agreement in Paris this winter. Even in the laggard US, with its politics heavily influenced by a denialism that has ambushed and bamboozled the Christian Right, there is a groundswell of Republicans beginning to favor pricing carbon, from GW Bush's Treasury Chief Henry Paulson to SC representative Bob Inglis. In a recent statement, even the American Petroleum Institute faces up to the reality that this is on the horizon.

Human beings are flawed, however principled a minority may be. This is why prudence requires laws and security forces, rather than relying on charitable tendencies predominating in our human relations and consumer choices. This is why pricing carbon at this point in history is so crucial. Rather than attempting a global socialist revolution, as Klein and Chris Hedges have been promoting, it may be more straightforward, and a more efficient use of structures either already in place or rapidly becoming so, to shift from a world where money is the bottom line to one where carbon expenditures are. This is already the case in the biophyscial world. Wouldn't it be wild, if, after pricing all the “externalities,” we ended up using that catalogue of essentially priceless “ecosystem services” to shift to a currency that is based on the carbon cycle, rather than the exchange of extractable resources and human services? Herman Daly, can you help me with this?

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I shall pray for you, Robert, that you may be kept faithful. Sometimes faithfulness requires greater strength than our own personalities’. I remain your friend unconditionally.
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