A flawed narrative has taken hold of the mainstream climate movement. Climate policies tend to get measured by the number of zeros behind them, as activists pontificate that we must tackle climate change at ‘any cost’ – providing political cover for proposals like a nearly $100 trillion Green New Deal. Just recently, climate author Dr. Katharine Wilkinson wrote on Twitter, “money is made up. The planet is real.” The implication is clear: money, and by extension the capitalist system it ‘props’ up, must be subordinate to our environmental concerns.
On the face of it, this appears a noble enough principle. After all, you can’t really put a price on clean air and water, beautiful landscapes, or one’s emotional connection to the outdoors. The logic is fatally flawed, however, for several reasons.
First, while it is technically a social construct (i.e., “made up”), money is the lubricant of a modern, technologically advanced society. In a capitalist system, price signals are crucial indications of value, resource scarcity, and economic efficiency. This has proven positive for the environment, as market actors respond to resource scarcity with either innovation or frugality. When a resource grows scarce, its value goes up, incentivizing entrepreneurs to find ways to increase its supply. This has directly benefited resource efficiency; in a market economy, the lower your material input, the higher your profit margin. As a result, rich nations have reached peak usage of 66 out of 72 raw resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In other words, economies keep growing while material inputs keep declining in absolute numbers. In contrast, in centralized economies lacking such price signals, such as the Soviet Union or Venezuela, the environmental consequences have been disastrous.
Second, money not only underpins a modern economy’s ability to rise to environmental challenges, but it also reflects genuine value to people. It’s food on their tables, roofs over their heads, and security for their families. The problem with the ‘money is made up’ approach is that Americans will never choose the abstract, long-term health of the planet over providing for their families in the short term. In February 2018, 68% of Americans said they wouldn’t spend $10 extra a month to address climate change. Pitting money against our planet is simply a nonstarter for people all over the country – and the world, for that matter – whose livelihoods would be threatened by radical climate spending. No amount of ‘education’ will change that reality. Rather than alienating the average individual with multi-trillion dollar, top-down approaches to global warming, climate activists should consider ways to make climate action economically attractive to communities across the world.
Third, the deeper implications of this ‘tackle climate change at any cost’ narrative run counter to basic human psychology. Underneath the politics and activism lies a profoundly negative worldview. Climate change is portrayed as an apocalyptic, existential crisis, with billions potentially dying within 12 years. Capitalism and greedy humans are portrayed as the ultimate antagonists in this epic sage. Yet, it’s clear that we’ve framed the climate challenge all wrong. In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker highlights psychological research showing that people are in fact more likely to accept the reality of climate change “when they are told that the problem is solvable by innovations in policy and technology than when they are given dire warnings about how awful it will be.” Instead of proposing economic and political revolution, justified by this catastrophist mindset, we should frame climate change as a significant problem, yes, but also as an opportunity. An opportunity to create new, well-paying jobs, accelerate technological innovation, and ensure clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Spending trillions of dollars to fight the apocalypse is unconvincing to people. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic prosperity are concepts that relate much more convincingly to human psychology.
Climate solutions, therefore, shouldn’t come “at any cost.” They should be attractive, realistic, and optimistic. Empowering innovation and the development of clean technologies is a solution that not only benefits the planet but is also economically viable and ultimately affordable for everyday citizens. Our goal should be to create solutions that are less expensive and more efficient than the status quo. Then and only then will the cost of climate action be worth it for the average individual. It’s simple economics.
Ultimately, the reality is that we want to tackle climate change because it greatly affects human life. More severe storms, flooding, droughts, and warmer temperatures are already affecting our food supply, health, and economies. Yet, the solution can’t be worse than the disease. Climate policy must be measured by cost-benefit analyses, not extremist predictions or utopian, anti-capitalist rhetoric.
If we pit money against the planet, the planet will lose every time.