Essay: Climate Change is Not the Problem, it is a Symptom

A Moral and Political Crisis

This is the third year we held the Our Children, Climate, Faith (OCCF) Symposium in Vermont, where we connect the meaning of faith and social justice - especially for our children - to the impacts of climate change. 

Over a dozen faith and spiritual traditions have presented a broad spectrum of thoughts at each OCCF Symposiums. Listening and deliberating on views of the subject from vastly different traditions, it has become clear that climate change is not actually the problem, it's a symptom of a larger, deeper moral issue: the cultural disconnect that allows the separation of profit from justice.

In social terms, this is a fundamental breaking of the social contract. In economic terms it is a market failure. And in any terms, it extends far beyond the symptom of climate change.

Consider that we already understand the physical mechanism of climate change. When we dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we disrupt the Earth’s climate. But we have not stopped dumping the greenhouse gases into the air.

Why aren’t the necessary measures being taken to stop this cataclysmic pollution?

Many technologies exist to slow and eventually stop emitting greenhouse gases and keep our civilization safe. Study after study shows that implementing these technologies will maintain and improve our economy. But measures to implement them have been blocked, or greatly impeded. Therefore, continued climate destabilization is not caused by a waste problem, or a technology problem, it is caused by the continued existence of the social and market failures which allow for the crisis to grow, even after we have firm knowledge of clear and present danger to each of us, our country, and our planet.

The Failure OF Corporate Responsibility 

Here is the problem. Although the fossil fuel companies have the resources to dominate in the renewable energy economy, (and have understood the mechanisms of climate change as early as 1981), they stand to lose the value of all the oil, coal and natural gas they ‘own’ in the ground. Then their stock price plummets, their executives do not get the big bonuses, and their shareholders (a relatively few large shareholders) do not get their dividends and share price increases.

Hence they have used their money and positions of power to influence laws and regulations to warp the market forces to make it as hard as possible for anyone to allow renewable energy and other low carbon technologies access to the marketplace. By maintaining regulatory loopholes to continue emitting rampant health-destroying pollution at no cost to themselves, they have set back the solutions to climate change by over a decade. 

So, what really causes continued climate change? It is the compound failure of corporate responsibility, disconnecting cause and effect, benefits from harms, profits from costs, and ethics and justice from business. Individual responsibility has a role as well, as far as we allow the destructive, unjust actions of corporations to continue. (Within the business world are also the few individuals who have the wealth to wield power equivalent to large corporations). However, given the dominant power of corporations as compared to 99% of individuals in America today, specifically their power in government and the marketplace, the corporations must shoulder the blame, as well as the solutions. 


Coupling Profits with Costs: REAsserting Basic Ethics in Capitalism

When profits are separated from costs, natural market forces alone are not sufficiently strong to hold society together against the natural forces of injustice.

That is why we need regulations and laws in order to tip the balance toward justice. This has been proven repeatedly, with the most explicit examples being slavery and the taking of native lands. Simple market forces drove expansion of these practices. It was only through implementation of just laws that these practices were largely eliminated in the United States and elsewhere, though there are many examples globally where weak law enforcement allows both practices to continue.

In a capitalist society, the corporation (or individual) has the right to profit, but in a just society, that right does not include the right to enslave others or to burden them with the detritus of their work or investments.

This is based on the foundational principals of the social contract (with recognition of the racial and gender biases which have historically been present in that contract) and universal ethics. Thus, a well-functioning capitalist society does not allow the  decoupling of cost from profit, as this is counter to the fundamental rights of the individual, and creates an unjust, imbalanced, inequitable outcome.

Business exists for humans to organize their activities. But more fundamental than business is human existence. 

The most just human societies have recognized the credo (as stated in the Judeo-Christian tradition) ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Markets must be designed to include the laws and regulations that make it possible to live by this credo. Instead, our current economic system is designed for the opposite effect, where a few powerful corporations get to do unto others in extremely unbalanced and harmful ways, creating the massive social justice issues we are battling today.

Major corporations have done an excellent public relations job of convincing society that we have a better life due to the ability to buy more and cheaper goods, and that this is worth the price of decoupling costs. But what really happens is that all members of society pay the cost – we are simply charged separately, rather than at the time of purchase.

This problem is not only illustrated by pollution. This fundamental disconnect in our economic system has fostered a very connected web of harm throughout our society.

Poverty, Mass Incarceration, Pollution: A Web of Market-Driven harm

Consider the following:

  • Anytime an employer pays a worker a non-living wage, they get the benefit of cheap labor, but the rest of us have to pay for the food stamps, housing support, and healthcare for the employee. Meanwhile the employer increases their profit.
  • Anytime a human being is locked away and a prison company makes a profit, society pays; not just for the prison, but also for the social services for those left behind without a wage earner - a father or mother – and for the costs of reintegration (or not). When these lockups are for low risk and minor offenses, society does not get a return on its investment, but the for-profit prison does.
  • Anytime a company sites a plant or factory in an impoverished community and allows it to pollute at levels which cause health problems, corporate owners avoid costs of lowering their emissions, while local people and tax payers cover the costs of increased healthcare as well as the lower ability to work due to health issues.

When companies are allowed to throw their greenhouse gas garbage (CO2, methane, soot, and more) into the atmosphere at no cost, overfill their prison cells with low risk small offenders, or underpay their workers, they are increasing their profit while we all must pay for increases in storm cleanup, droughts, crop failures, forest fires, disease, prison cells, broken families, poverty, food stamps, housing support, and healthcare costs.

And while we all pay, income inequality grows, since a few control the rules to swing the vast majority of the profits to themselves. Thiss perpetuates the cycle whereby the few use their outsized profits to gain even more market control.

How is all this injustice, imbalance and inequality made possible? By laws. And lobbyists. 

Laws, lobbied for by fossil energy companies like ExxonMobil, AEP, and Peabody Coal; by prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group; by large minimum-wage employers like Walmart and McDonald’s.

Thanks to these mega-corporate lobbyists, those on the lower end of the social contract now suffer record levels of mass incarceration, wage inequality, unequal access to healthcare at skyrocketing costs, unequal access to education, and the other major ills of our current society. For the first time in more than 50 years, the majority of America’s public school children are living in poverty.[1]

Plenty of great corporations are working to change the status quo and operate in an ethical manner where costs are largely internalized. But a few dozen of the most powerful corporations are egregious. ExxonMobil and Walmart, for example, have shown complete intransigence in changing, while NRG Energy and IKEA are working to create new systems. While some may say the “invisible hand of the marketplace” should do this, there are so many imbedded subsidies and incentives in our current laws and regulations for these companies to act in their current manner, the invisible hand has been cut off at the shoulder. And the invisible hand has been shown to be unable to retain ethics and justice in its grasp.


Change the Culture, Change the Future

As the American middle class crumbles, other countries with different economic systems which continue to incorporate ethics, justice, and equality, are finding vastly different results. The Scandinavian countries, as an example, have few of our ills, and many of our pleasures, and certainly are generating wealth for some. In those countries health care is a right for all, and college education is free for all who qualify. Their people have not allowed the unbridled free transfer of natural and national resources to corporations.

In America, the legal problem is the separation of profit from cost, while the cultural problem is the erosion of understanding that this is wrong and unjust: it is wrong to cheat, to steal, to pollute other’s property and bodies, to steal health and life.

We have tragically developed a social acceptance of a certain kind of stealing; one that generally results in no immediate direct injuries and is committed by a person of privilege (often, but not always, wealthy and white). These crimes have the common theme that it is difficult, under our legal system, to pin down exactly who is the aggrieved party. “Who” had “what” stolen? Often referred to as “victimless” crimes, in reality they should be called “all-victim” crimes, as we all suffer.

When banks resold faulty mortgages, it was a victimless crime, but in fact we all suffered greatly from the financial crash. Similarly, when greenhouse gases are released, it is a victimless crime, but we are already all beginning to suffer. These crimes can be described as the theft of consent, theft of royalties and rents. And in some cases, direct theft of health and welfare.

This is therefore not an anti-corporate or anti-capitalism declaration, it is a call for ethics, justice, and increased equality, corporate and personal, for the sake of future generations.

It is a call to recognize that it is most grievously wrong to externalize the cost of our fossil-fuel energy system in the form of accelerating climate disruption; the greatest shared threat human civilization has ever faced.

To change the outcome and avoid widespread climate catastrophe, we need to establish a cultural respect for what we used to call a “fair deal”. 

Climate Solutions Require Justice Solutions

It might be theoretically true that we could change only the laws concerning greenhouse emissions leading to climate change. But it is not practically possible. Only by changing the foundation and goals of our laws so that they promote an economic system based on social justice, can we configure our economy and our culture to halt the increase in climate changing emissions. This requires changes in many sectors, from financial services to utilities, which are intertwined with the entire economy. 

The fossil fuels divestment movement is based on exactly the principal of taking away the social license from the most unethical and polluting companies, exposing their record profits as immoral and unjust.

We have always thought that we had an infinite amount of time to bring justice to all people. After all, Martin Luther King Jr., and others before him, said “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We thought we could afford to take the time, because we knew, eventually, we would win. But climate is a justice problem that cannot wait. It is created by people and companies who do not care about justice, who subvert justice, and who do not remotely act on moral principles. And we will fail at curbing climate change if we do not simultaneously curb injustice. 

So long as we are allowed to treat some sectors, some people, unjustly, we will not be able to create or sustain the global efforts to save the planet. Creating sufficient transformation to solve the global issue of climate change requires us to adopt economics where justice is served, uniformly and universally.

We cannot cure the symptom of climate change while people are focused on not getting killed by police, while too many young people are in jail, while people don’t make enough money, after working hard, to buy food and shelter. Society succeeds when pollution is paid for, in full, by the polluter. Society succeeds when employers pay their employees 100% of what they need to live, and even to grow. Society succeeds when the drive is to have empty prisons, not full prisons.

When all are treated justly, costs are coupled to profits, and society succeeds.


[1]   Viewed 7/3/15