This article was originally published on July 4, 2014 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Most environmentalists see themselves on the left of the political spectrum, so what's the Left to do when leaders of finance capital take leading roles in confronting climate change?
That development blossomed into public view last month with a coordinated offensive led by Hank Paulson, the Republican architect of the 2008 Wall Street bailout, and two billionaires, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was a leading opponent of Occupy Wall Street, and Bay Area liberal Democrat Tom Steyer, to try to influence the national dialogue. Paulson initiated the effort with a June 21 manifesto in the New York Times urging a tax on carbon.
At the same time, Bloomberg released an economic report declaring that zero-emission energy sources, led by solar, will make up more than half the world's power mix by 2030. Bloomberg already has given the Sierra Club $50 million for its campaign to shut down Big Coal. The independent Steyer is one of the biggest funders of environmentalist political campaigns, and may one day be a candidate himself.
California's groundbreaking climate-change policies, including its cap-and-trade program, are based on the assumption that "when faced with the certainty of reasonable policy, businesses innovate and successfully cut pollution with consumer-oriented solutions that drive their markets forward and continue economic growth." California's tailpipe emissions standards, for example, overcame Detroit's resistance and led to a doubling of automobile efficiency measures in recent decades.
As more finance capitalists go green, the trend will be problematic for those with an anticapitalist or socialist agenda. They blame capitalism for the unfettered exploitation of the Earth's resources and life-supporting ecosystem. History shows that fundamental critique to be on the mark, though it can be dogmatic in its assumptions. To demand that the environmental movement turn socialist - or anarchist - as a precondition of progress, however, is a hopeless venture. Socialists and progressives of all stripes need to recall the lessons from history where capitalists surprised their detractors by incorporating substantial reforms, partly in order to save capitalism itself. The New Deal was such a model.
We are entering another historic moment of potential market adjustment born out of necessity. Progressives can play a vital role in the unpredictable transition ahead. They can help broker a Green New Deal.
First, they can force another market adjustment, one toward environmental justice. California leaders such as state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Strategy Session radio host Antonio Gonzalez and City Project Executive Director Robert Garcia already are bending the arc of California's environmental laws to include tangible benefits for communities of color. De León, for example, is carrying legislation pushed by Environment California to ensure that "the electric car speaks Spanish," that is, there are incentives to make the vehicles affordable to all.
Second, public mandates by elected governmental bodies are essential to bending the arc of market forces as well. The "free market" after all is a creation of government policies, not a heavenly cloud designed by Wall Street gods. A progressive approach need not be the top-down "command and control" model so pilloried by conservatives, but a model of democratic government setting goals and designing incentives for private businesses to achieve them.
Third, there is a moral issue that progressives will raise: Should climate policy come down to what's most profitable to the few? Or are there other values that are paramount, including prudence, sustainability and environmental ethics? Thanks to environmentalist and certain religious groups, we already are transitioning to a new ethics beyond the sole criteria of profits.
California's programs began 40 years ago as a values transition under then-Gov. Jerry Brown and a band of "small is beautiful" counterculture intellectuals. As the movement matured, it settled on government's role in setting science-based, visionary goals and experimenting with tax breaks, rebates, lending policies, pension investments and penalties designed to implement renewable energy goals. Brown never intended to zone California for state-directed solar companies, but his policies have fostered the creation of hundreds of such entities, with California's Solar Energy Industries Association composed of entrepreneurs entirely and happily dependent on government policies.
This may be a key difference between progressives and the Green Billionaire's Club. The Republican Paulson writes that renewable energy subsidies should be phased out, along with those on fossil fuels, leaving the saving mirage of the free market to reach the future. A battle among the billionaires is building: Further to the right, the Koch brothers, who are spending millions to defend their fossil fuel profits from solar competition, differ from the Green Billionaires in their support of taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil rather than alternative fuels.
As notes the New York Times' Paul Krugman, a pragmatic market advocate, a carbon tax cannot be expected any time soon. So Krugman demands to know if Paulson favors "second best" solutions like government-mandated fuel efficiency standards, subsidies and loan guarantees, or net metering requirements in which utilities buy back electricity from homeowners and renters.
In other words, do the Green Billionaires favor a democratic hand shaping the market instead of the invisible one? With Republican dominance in a majority of states, much of Congress and the Supreme Court, these are fateful questions.
Al Gore's recent climate piece in Rolling Stone argues that decentralized solar generation and net metering are an "existential threat" in the eyes of most utility executives. Are the billionaires OK with that? Markets include dinosaurs, just like evolution itself.
These issues are pertinent to the coming 2015 Paris climate treaty negotiations, events heavily influenced by thousands of high-flying corporate advocates. In preliminary talks already begun, the role of governments and markets will be a central debate. Unless radical market reforms are proposed, how will a majority of the world's governments respond to the agenda of the very Wall Street representatives who already have crushed them under debts, austerity and privatizations?
Can reform of Wall Street and reform of energy policies go hand in hand? A global Green New Deal might be a consensus solution. But are the green billionaires down with that?