As human beings, we are designed to be able to process vast amounts of complex information to inform the countless decisions we make every day. Some are split-second decisions of little import – such as where to sit in as we enter a room. Others are potentially life-changing and warrant a period of reflection – such as what to do after secondary school, or who to marry. But, we tend not to sweat the small stuff. We take mental short cuts so that we don’t waste precious brain power calculating the most advantageous seat to sit in. Often, we’ll simply sit in the same seat as last time!
But, not all mental shortcuts are good for us. For example, when we are young we tend to save less than we should for retirement because it seems so far in the future. We tend to value the here and now more than the future. This is a problem for us as individuals, but potentially disastrous for society. Our grandkids, our children and our future selves will pay the price.
Climate change is another catastrophe in the making. Other than those few members of the flat-earth society, we all know that man-made global warming is well underway. The science in uncontestable. The proof is in the increased frequency of extreme weather events, the melting polar ice caps, and the slow but inexorable rise in sea levels.
Even for those of us who have faith in the science and recognize the urgent need for public policies to combat climate change, there is still a natural tendency to underestimate the scale of the problem. It is hard to conceptualize the difference in the impact of a mere 1.5 versus 2 degrees centigrade increase in temperatures, or what a ton of carbon emissions look like. Our mental shortcuts compound the problem.
Others have an intrinsic short-term interest in either denying the science or opposing the necessary policies. Big oil firms know that decarbonizing the economy will hurt their bottom line. Meanwhile, the agriculture sector – source of a third of Irish carbon emissions, and constituting the country’s best-organized lobby group – fear that further moves towards sustainable farming will make it impossible for them to make ends meet. Cue the hysterical backlash at the thought of our Taoiseach reducing the amount of red meat he consumes for health and environmental reasons!
Business as usual means the world is likely to see a rise in temperatures of 2 degrees centigrade from pre-industrial levels. In October last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out in a report the vast difference that could be made if the increase in temperatures was limited to 1.5 degrees, but it would require a massive shift in behavior. For slackers like Ireland, the bar is even higher. But, we owe it to the planet and to our own future generations to take action now and play our full part. We need to target zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and put in place a step-by-step plan to achieve it.
If we don’t take action, it is future generations that will bear the heaviest burden. But, our not-too-distant future selves will also have a cross to bear. Since Ireland has made so little progress towards reducing its carbon emissions, from next year we will be faced with annual fines of a half billion euro or more. Even if the economy keeps growing strongly, this will mean hard choices – higher taxes or lower spending.
But, the messaging around climate change action is all wrong. It’s all pain and no gain. We talk about higher carbon taxes, eating less meat, flying less or leaving the car at home. These are all sacrifices, and those of us struggling to put dinner on the table can hardly be expected to willingly shoulder a greater burden. This is why we need to concentrate on the upside as much as the downside, on the benefits the zero-carbon transition can bring as much as the sacrifices it will entail. New ‘green collar’ jobs in retrofitting every building in the country; new opportunities for rural Ireland in sustainable farming and eco-tourism; facilitating off-grid and mini-grid power generation so that small-scale producers can sell back to the grid electricity that they don’t use themselves.
In the same way as we need to be ambitious in terms of pitching the carbon tax at the level necessary to change behaviour and meet our emissions targets, we need to be more ambitious about what we do with the proceeds. Sending every household in the country a cheque in the post – the so-called ‘fee and dividend’ model – might be the most simple approach in the short-run. But, such is the scale of the challenge, we have to go even further. If we are to quadruple the carbon tax to €80 per ton by 2030 – let alone increasing it to a minimum of €300 per ton, as recommended by the ESRI – then there will be a significant pot of money, even taking into account the impact of changed behaviour. This will be enough to ensure a ‘just transition’; enough to revolutionize our tax and welfare system.
Using proceeds of the carbon tax as a down-payment for a universal basic income by 2030 could be a powerful commitment to the sort of ‘just transition’ that nearly everyone could get behind.
We need as much ambition in rethinking the social contract as in decarbonizing the economy. Reinvigorated by their mid-term election last November – with newly-elected socialist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez helping lead the charge – activists on the left of the Democratic Party in the U.S. have rallied behind the idea of a Green New Deal, with precisely these twin social and environmental objectives in mind. That enacting such sweeping legislation while a Republican occupies the White House, that achieving its ambitious targets is probably impossible, and that much of the policy detail still needs to be defined is beside the point. It is a recognition of the scale of the problem, a rallying point ahead of the 2020 elections, and a framework for a progressive legislative programme thereafter.
In short, it’s a good start.