A burning question at the heart of the climate crisis is: “Where does the responsibility lie?”
Extinction Rebellion would have everyone stop driving cars immediately, while other climate activists take aim at global decision makers. Jeff Sachs, the famous economist, has developed a sophisticated analysis which places the blame at a broken capitalist system overlaid with a corrupt political one.
In a recent speech in Bahrain, Sachs blamed the short-termism of pollutive industries, which he attributed to a fixation on profits driven by shareholder demands. CEOs’ obsession with the bottom line makes them behave in an environmentally irresponsible way, and future generations bear the consequences. Regulation by governments should address this flaw, argued Sachs, but that is unlikely to happen because of the dysfunction of political systems, as exhibited by the United States.
Opinion polls regularly indicate support among the general public for green policies: a March 2019 Gallop poll found that 80 percent of respondents thought that the US should put more emphasis on solar power; while 60 percent were in favor of dramatically decreasing the use of fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 36 percent against.
Yet, argues Sachs, government policy does not reflect these views, or the views of the public in general, because the US political system has become a plutocracy dominated by the same, nihilistic corporations that pillage our environment. According to the great economist, the plutocrats’ power is secured by politicians beholden to corporate lobbying, backed by a conspiratorial media that both keeps the masses in the dark, and destroys the career of any politician threatening to upset the gravy train.
Thus, corporate and political greed are the cause of the climate crisis, and the system is so rigged that ordinary people cannot use the ballot box to deliver the requisite green policies.
This caricature of modern politics is partially accurate, but Sachs goes too far in absolving normal people of blame for inaction over climate change. As an economist, he should be the first to draw a distinction between what people say, such as “I demand less carbon!”, and what they do, such as choosing a one-hour flight over a 10-hour train ride. The reality is that people do not care as much about the environment as Sachs wishes or claims, and that the government’s supposed dereliction of duty is partially a response to the lack of political pressure exerted by the masses.
Green parties generally score poorly in elections in western countries. While they are able to influence some policy positions of the major parties, the environment is never the primary issue.
Government action represents only one of many ways to help improve the environment. People have choices to live more sustainably, by recycling, flying less and saving energy, but the evidence shows that people only shun cars when gasoline is expensive and they prefer turning on the heating to wearing multiple sweaters.
Moreover, green charities attract only modest contributions. Only 3 per cent of charitable donations in the US went to environmental and animal organizations. Sachs might argue that the plutocrats’ hegemony is so absolute that they can convince ordinary people to refrain from supporting green charities; or maybe ordinary people simply do not care very much.
The indifference is actually unsurprising; a huge psychology and economics literature demonstrates humans’ ineffectiveness at solving collective action problems where the benefits are intangible and may only accrue to future generations, such as global warming. This is reflected in the huge public debts that many western countries have amassed, and the certain electoral failure of any politician whose main campaign message is: “Vote for me so that I can raise taxes, cut spending, and eliminate the public debt”. Responsible citizens may be infuriated that government pension plans and the planet’s environment are both insolvent, but they should not be shocked: most adults struggle to manage their weight despite tangible, immediate consequences, so managing the environment is a tough ask.
Sachs is right that the world’s leaders must ultimately bear the biggest responsibility; but when government fails, civil society can still succeed, and it is incumbent upon all humans to protect our planet through all the available channels. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped: “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.