Thursday, 12 July 2012

Green Tax = Greenbacks

Please don't take my recent silence on the blog front as a sign that I've run out of things to say. The truth is, between GEMA, the crazy weather, the Euro crisis and the usual rash of festivals in Berlin, I've been so overwhelmed with entry ideas that I've had trouble finding time to finish even one article before yet another worthy subject comes along to push it aside...

Even as I am writing this, the rumble of thunder reaches through my walls and redirects my thoughts once again. Today is just the latest in a non-stop string of stormy days featuring lightning, high winds and even tornadoes in northern Germany. The other day, a tourist told me that Vienna has been experiencing a heatwave with 45-degree Celsius temperatures. Freaky, eh? That's what everybody keeps talking about here in Berlin: the `freaky' weather. Except it's not all that freaky. When you consider the state of the planet`s natural environment it`s actually pretty consistent.

This is the second year in a row that Europe has experienced a rainy summer with extremes of heat and cold. But there`s light at the end of the freaky weather tunnel, because it's also the first year that scientists from two Western superpowers - the U.S. and England - have applied their ample resources to the task of deciding how many of these 'freak' weather events are actually attributable to humans and, therefore, avoidable.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United Kingdom's Met Office have taken a step towards helping us figure out who should pay for this in their joint report entitled "Climate of Change". The report, released last Tuesday, also marks the first attempt to settle the climate change 'debate' which, until now, has been polarized between those who believe that climate change is man-made affliction, and those who believe it is caused solely by natural variation. As someone who is incapable of thinking in such black or white terms, I wasn't surprised to learn that both sides seem to be right.

Researchers found definite links between man-made climate change and some of the extreme weather events that happened in 2011. "Last year's record warm November in the UK was at least 60 times more likely to happen because of [man made] climate change than owing to natural variations in the earth's weather systems. The devastating heatwave that blighted farmers in Texas in the US last year, destroying crop yields was about 20 times more likely to have happened owing to climate change than to natural variation." (Fiona Harvey, The Guardian).

Insistent supporters of the 'natural climate fluctuations' theory will also be gratified to learn that the study found unusual weather phenomena that could not be linked directly on man-made climate change: the floods in Thailand for example, and the unusually cold European winter of 2010-2011. Yet, while the Thai floods were not linked to man-made climate change, the report did link it to human activity, specifically to changes in the way that Thai waterways are managed by people.

Both finds are equally unsurprising to those of us who never believed climate change to be an 'either/or' issue. Yes, the Earth's temperatures do rise and fall over centuries and decades, but cutting down 80 percent of the world's forests, as humans have done, hasn`t helped. Deforestation has been proven to have caused an estimated 1 degree rise in global temperatures all on its own. Human industries have been poking the rabid dog of natural climate change with an oil-slicked axe, when they should be donning protective headgear and attempting to administer a syringe-full of vaccine.

The most insistent and outspoken supporters of the 'natural variations' theory have generally been people in power anyway: the oil and coal industries, and the politicians that they've bought. People who have a vested interest in distracting the public from their environmental misdemeanors by focusing the spotlight on `acts of God`. That strategy has worked for them because it conveniently soothes the inner conflict of many ordinary people, who feel complicit in their destruction of the environment, yet powerless to stop it.

If the Western public has done little to tackle climate change, it's because Western governments have spent time and money on making sure they don't. Western governments have expended more time and energy denying, avoiding and deflecting attention from climate change than they have on finding a solution to it. Like the United States and Canada, they've even stooped to pitting the economy against the environment, although the two fields are far from mutually exclusive and actually overlap in many grey areas. Yet voters' emotions remain black and white and, in a world where elections are an increasingly obsolete process (because they're all corrupt anyways; because the populace doesn't have time to analyze issues; because the mechanisms of democracy are behind the times, etc) it just doesn't pay for politicians to be logical and honest about the grey areas. Extremes of black and white - love and hate - pay off better at the polls.

It seems that it's easier for our species to accept impending calamity as long as we can believe it to be a random, unplanned and 'freak' event, than it is for us to view climate change as the logical result of a methodical strategy of exploitation by people who know exactly what they're doing and don't care. It's the difference between blaming the gun and blaming the person pulling the trigger. Whoever you blame, the destruction and death that results still needs to be redressed, and that comes at a cost.

But, there is still plenty of room for governments to address climate change within their fields of expertise: taxation and administration. In a lucid and brilliant-in-its-simplicity assessment, Myles Allen at the Guardian suggests that a pay-as-you-go liability tax could be levied on oil and coal companies, to help fund repairs for damages arising from man-made climate change. As he says in his article, "BP took a $30bn charge for Deepwater Horizon, more than the total cost of climate change damages last year, and was back in profit within months." So not only to fossil fuel producers cause the most damage but they can also afford the cost of repairing it better than any single nation can. I call that poetic justice. And now that scientists are able to track which destructive weather phenomena are man-made, there is every case for governments charging environmental management fees to the people who peddle and profit from the oil and coal products that cause them.

The biggest obstacle to such a tax would be getting a consensus by all developed nations implement it - or else it would fail. With Germany holding center stage as a potential saviour of the Euro, there is a perfect opportunity to get that consensus from Europe, at the very least. The entire Eurozone is looking to Germany for a bailout because it's a bastion of good financial planning but its no coincidence that it is also a bastion of good environmental practice. The two things are intricately connected. As well as pushing for better financial management across Europe, Germany should be pushing for better environmental management; because, without the natural resources to keep all of its countries afloat, the European single currency will eventually fail regardless how much is spent to bail it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment