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Blog Action Day: Climate change, economic growth, and poverty

> “It’s a cruel thing to say…but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage.”

> — Paul J. Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the depletion of the ozone layer

Some see a silver lining in the financial crisis. An economic contraction may not save the climate, they argue, but will perhaps at least grant it a reprieve.

There are two versions of this argument. The softer version notes that reduced economic activity will mean reduced energy consumption, which necessarily entails a slowdown in carbon emissions. Although not by itself a fix, the slower pace of emissions might buy some time to implement broader strategies for fighting climate change.

The stronger version, not always stated explicitly, holds that the financial crisis represents a failure of capitalism itself. With the old economic order discredited, now is the time to rethink the growth-at-all-costs mentality that has put such strain on our natural resources and brought us to the present environmental crisis point.

The first argument is merely shortsighted. The second is more fundamentally misguided. Although we surely do need to create a sustainable economy that isn’t based on resource extraction, growth per se shouldn’t be made into the villain.

An economic slowdown almost certainly will, of course, result in a drop in emissions, or at least a reduction from what would have otherwise happened. The resulting environmental benefit is likely to marginal. An American economy that is 2% or even 10% smaller still represents an enormous amount of fossil fuel use (as well as an enormous amount of hardship).

Worse, the resulting emissions drop won’t last. Solving climate change requires a fundamental transformation of the economy, not a fiddling around at the edges. An economic slowdown pushes that transformation further into the future. Renewable energy projects go unbuilt for lack of financing. Markets for electric vehicles wither. Political will for comprehensive climate legislation dries up. International coalitions fray.

As for the argument that economic growth is responsible for the climate predicament — this is both true and somewhat irrelevant. We can’t rewind the tape; we can merely lock in the present set of choices. Nor should we want to oppose growth. The places that are presently growing most rapidly and will place the greatest new strains on the environment are also places that remain quite poor. Countries like China and India and Brazil aren’t about to forfeit their aspirations. We shouldn’t expect them to.

The notion that we need to abandon growth echoes the dangerous fallacy that conservation — a voluntary reduction in consumption — is the only true solution to climate change. Conservation is a real and important part of the puzzle, but conservation works mostly by relieving pressure on our natural systems while the necessary work of transformation takes place. We don’t need simply to do less of what we’re doing now. We need to do things differently.

Unfortunately, a financial crisis makes this project harder. It revives the stale opposition of the economy and the environment, a standoff that the environment will always lose. With effort and ingenuity, we’ll break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation. It’s a long-term project, and one best undertaken from a position of strength.

Periods of economic upheaval can open up opportunities for bold policy innovation, and it remains possible that we’re entering such a time. Perhaps we’ll see a flowering in areas like transit and urban planning that improve welfare while also reducing our impact on the climate. Perhaps the needed economic stimulus will come in the form of massive investment in green infrastructure and cleaner forms of energy. There may yet be a silver lining to the problems we face. But we’re a long way off from finding them, and the economic crisis is not, in itself, good news for the environment.

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