Curbing Climate Change Justly
The knee-jerk ideas won't suffice. Big problems need big solutions—powerful, big-picture solutions. Like geonomics.
September 21, 2015
Jeffery J. Smith
To solve environmental problems, solve economic problems. Eliminate poverty and insecurity and you go a long way to eliminating pollution, because people who’re not desperate make wiser choices.

Solving pollution—global warming or not—means we must come up with solutions, technical and political. Answering the call, policy wonks put forth their pet proposals—and remain true to their ideology, not true to what works. Both left and right leave the best ideas out of the discussion.

Fees Flop?

What they do push are fees and mandates.

Consider fees. If carbon products cost more (due to fees), consumers will use them less. If set high enough (if politically feasible), fees could cover all the costs from the pollution that befalls innocents downstream or downwind.

Yet in reality, fee schemes can be gimmicked: kept too low, used as a tax write-off, made complicated requiring another expensive bureaucracy, etc.

Mandate Success Now!

The leftist proposal—mandating “efficiency”—appeals to one’s fondness for bossing others and to their faith in the state as a wish-fulfiller. But bossiness is offensive and state-as-genie is usually less efficient, not to mention that a bigger state poses a threat to liberty.

A well-used counter example people cite is fuel efficiency. When the US Government insisted, car manufacturers did comply and made their product more efficient. However, they did not invent anything new, they used off-the-shelf technology—and were nudged seriously by competition from Japan. Heck, if government had not put tariffs on Japanese imports at the request of Detroit, American cars would have been efficient long before ordered to become so by legislators.

For break-thru technology, people point to the internet. Yes, the war machine did design it (by hiring draft dodging grad students in computation). But is the way things happened the only way things could have happened? Could not a large, decentralized, and peaceful network have done as well, given the same resources? Look at all the freeware that has come out since the web’s inception.

Current Counterproductive Policies

Policy Wonks would do well to follow a principle in medicine: first of all, do no harm. Presently, government does tons of harm.

  • Government limits the liability of polluters. If businesses had to pay full market value instead of the tiny filing fee for this government shelter, or if they had to buy insurance from private companies, they would reduce this expense by conducting their business in ways that don’t impose risk on nature, consumers, and workers.
  • Government subsidizes polluters. Yet if denied those public dollars, entrenched industry would find their dirty ways less profitable. They’d take seriously clean alternatives. Even so, the left wants government to subsidize non-polluters, assuming politicians and bureaucrats could infallibly select the best inventors and businesses, techniques and technologies. Yet if they need subsidies, are they truly efficient? If the old ways lost government support, could not the new ways compete even without free money?
  • Government taxes wages. Most of the clean alternatives are labor intensive (like insulating houses). Dirty old ways tend to be capital intensive (like oil rigs). Were this tax drain plugged, clean ways could more easily compete.
  • Government taxes property, and buildings leak heat. So when owners make improvements, they increase their tax burden. Why do that?

Cutting-edge Effective Policies

After quitting doing what harms, government could do what helps—defend our rights.

  • Government fails to recover socially-generated land value. So some owners speculate and withhold their land from highest and best use. However, where owners pay land dues (or land taxes), without any tax on buildings, they develop their lots, which in-fills cities. In denser cities, residents switch from driving to riding, plus they walk and cycle, which is good for their health.
  • Government fails to distribute the region’s land value to residents. It’s hardly government's fault, since very few of us realize that it’s the presence of the populace which generates land value. And we all have an equal claim to earth; so for keeping off the parts of others, residents are owed compensation.

Some places do share some land value—Aspen CO and Singapore—and Alaska shares oil value. If more of us got more of this—rent shares from land dues—the former poor could become owners (half of urban residents are tenants, not owners). Owners, when they have enough financial security to consider the long term, choose to make improvements that pay off.

While sharing the worth of Earth would go a long way toward curtailing pollution, to get the whole way there, complexity-loving wonks might warm up to four more, non-bossy policies:

  1. Auction off Emission Permits.
  2. Collect Ecology Security Deposits (similar to what new tenants in an apartment must pay).
  3. Require Restoration Insurance (similar to what drivers on public roads must pay).
  4. Fine violators an amount equal to the excess damage they cause.

Couple those four surcharges with the granddaddy charge of land dues. When extractors pay the full annual rental value of, say, coal to society, they’d be far less eager to go mining. They’d lose that free excess profit they get now. Less initial profit, more after-market charges (the four above)—those guys would quickly forget all about coal and switch to solar. And all rational investors would follow.

Ecology and Economy Linked

The key is financial security. To solve environmental problems, solve economic problems. Like ecologists often point out, everything is connected. Eliminate poverty and insecurity and you go a long way to eliminating pollution, because people who’re not desperate make wiser choices.

A market by itself won’t work; it must have justice. Markets don’t even existoutside social acceptance of property and expectations of honesty. Rather than decry or eschew markets, make them work right for people and planet. Get government to quit playing favorites and to instead defend our rights, our rights to a healthy planet and to a share of her worth.

May wonks think outside the box, or, in this case, outside the smokestack. Focus less on unwanted outputs and more on owned inputs, like coal. Make polluters pay for the costs they impose and let everyone share in the benefits our living in society generates.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at