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Changing the Social Climate

Prominent African-American environmentalist Michael Gelobter discusses how global warming affects economic justice, the future of the progressive movement and whether your child walks to school.
 
 
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The pressing need to do something about dramatic climate change has reached a critical mass across the globe and across the country. And it is an issue that has also reached into every aspect of our lives.

Global warming is not simply an environmental issue. It is an economic issue, a social justice issue, a lifestyle issue. It's about race, class and democratic participation. It's about globalization and global democracy. It's about national security and global security.

Catherine Lerza, a writer, editor and a senior philanthropic advisor at the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation interviewed Michael Gelobter, the executive director of Redefining Progress, about how we can effectively enact positive change around this growing crisis. Redefining Progress is one of the nation's leading policy institutes dedicated to developing solutions that help people, protect the environment and grow the economy.

What world do we want to live in?

Lerza: Why do you think it took so long for the U.S. public and mainstream politicians to acknowledge the reality of climate change? And moving ahead, what do you suggest as effective strategies to capture the public's imagination and mobilize them to support climate stabilization initiatives?

Gelobter: Well, to speak in broad terms, we tend to be complainers within the progressive community. We are good at saying what is wrong. But there is a positive story behind addressing the problem of global warming and moving towards climate stabilization. We really have to talk about the kind of world we will be living in when we start addressing climate change.

For example, "peak oil" was a hot topic for some time -- the idea that the worldwide rate of oil production will eventually begin a terminal decline. And that is a negative story, right? "We're going to run out of oil."

But that can be a positive story. Why can't we talk about the benefits of a world where we're not using oil? About spending less of our money on oil and more of our money on education, on our children, or on recreation? About safer vehicles and shorter commute times?

The leadership act for the movement is in projecting a positive future. It is about getting out of our silos and talking about the world we want to live in.

Lerza: So what other opportunities does this dilemma create?

Gelobter: Climate stabilization presents many positive opportunities. This is a technological opportunity to have a set of new products that are cleaner, safer and more efficient. This is a business opportunity as well, for clean technology and for the venture capital community.

The public wants to know "where is the light?" I can't stand it when people say, "Taking action on climate change is going to be extremely difficult." Wait a minute! My reply is, "There is nothing to not like about a world where we're using less fossil fuels. What is it about that world you don't like?"

Why are we spending $2 trillion on a war in Iraq when we could be having cleaner air, better education and better healthcare? Talk about the things that we want, not just those things we don't want. I think that's an act of leadership.

We have two worlds to choose from. There is the bright world, where we address these problems, where we're going to have a better economy through these new opportunities and new technologies. And that can also be a more just and secure world.

Or there is the alternative world: A 30- or 40-year-old war of terror and fear. And I don't think anybody in their right mind wants that second world, except those who benefit from it economically, from a power perspective.

The social climate

Lerza: The impacts of global warming highlight social and racial inequalities around the world. It certainly affects poor communities differently. We saw that clearly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Could you talk about these different impacts of climate change depending on geography, race and class?

Gelobter: Communities of color and low-income communities in this country clearly feel the impact of climate change and have been feeling that impact for over 20 years.

My organization, Redefining Progress, has conducted a number of studies on Latinos and climate change and African-Americans and climate change. Different communities bear quite a different vulnerability to the risks of global warming. Six years ago, we already had figured out that the greatest victims of climate change were the lower-income communities and communities of color. You can see it in the disparity in heat deaths in St. Louis. You can see there's an impact on agricultural communities and on border communities and indigenous communities, particularly in the Arctic.

We have to address issues of justice: people have a right to health and to a secure place to live. They have this right whether they're black, or white, or whatever.

Even before Katrina hit, New Orleans was an extremely clear case of what's happening all over the country. People of color and from low-income communities are spending almost twice as much of their income than white people on energy -- both for gasoline, because they have to commute farther and because they live in substandard housing, which requires less efficient and more expensive heating.

At the same time, the primary policies being considered to control greenhouse gasses were economically regressive and could put communities of color at even greater risk. Many of these policies represent what we call "paying the pusher for the cure." That is, paying off big polluters to take actions that are actually quite cheap for them. After all, why should we pay coal companies to sell less coal? We can give them subsidies to help them and their workers transition, but at the end of the day we want to break the oil addiction. And we want to do it in a way that doesn't make our most heavily impacted communities worse off.

So there was a collision course: The greatest victims of climate change were potentially the greatest victims of climate policy. But we can change this collision course into a collaboration for justice and the environment.

Justice is central at a global level as well. Western countries have appropriated the lion's share of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for their energy waste. What are newcomers to industrialization supposed to do? If we just ratchet down fossil fuels use without offering any alternatives, then the poor of the world will have a major road to development blocked and no way out. That's a recipe for even greater economic and social disaster.

Lerza: I think it's fair to say that the links between global warming and issues of justice, the economy, racial equality and most other issues have not been widely or explicitly addressed. How do you think we can break out of thinking about global warming as strictly an environmental issue?

Gelobter: Really, the question is, what kind of communities do we want to have? And a world that addresses climate change seriously is a world in which we are no longer solving our problems by pouring gasoline into our tank and driving two hours a day to work. It's one where we live in diverse communities, where our jobs are closer to our homes, where we spend time with our children on buses instead of in our cars.

In this world our cities are vital places where people want to live and where there is art in the parks and art in the streets and people get the benefits of living together and keeping their capital in their own communities.

But a fossil fuels-based economy is one that fundamentally alienates us from each other and from our own community. Our approach to energy has led us to make choices that have separated our communities out. And climate change forces us to make different choices. Are these the kinds of lives we want to lead?

Lerza: What you are describing is a profound overhaul of American economics and culture. In this sense, addressing the problem of climate change gives us an opportunity to build a lifestyle that's more in accordance with our values, right?

Gelobter: Absolutely. I think that is true for all Americans.

What is the No. 1 thing we can do for the environment? It's to allow people to live together in diverse communities because the single biggest cause of environmental degradation in many cities is literally people's desire to flee to the suburb where everybody looks like them. It's what keeps us from having jobs near mass transit hubs. And it's what keeps us from having a mass transit system that is really effective.

When was the last time you heard an environmental group talk about spending more time with your kids as a solution to climate change? All the things you do to use less fossil fuels give you more time with your kid's hand in your hand, walking down the street, doing all the things that are important to your own joy.

We must have the courage to revision the world and tell people about our vision.

From a technical perspective, one of the best things we can do for climate change is to implement energy efficiency retrofits for low-income households. That housing is of such poor quality that residents have to use a lot more energy just to heat or cool them. Let's make poor people's houses super energy efficient. It creates jobs. It makes poor people less poor because they are spending less of their income on energy.

Just solutions

Lerza: I would like you to talk about solutions to global warming, things we can do that will stabilize climate. At the same time, how can those solutions actually address the justice issues you are talking about.

Gelobter: Well, we cannot block the old route without opening a new one. That is neither fair nor just.

And you cannot have a successful climate policy that is not about justice. It doesn't exist. On a global level, the problem is that one universe of people used up all the capacity in the atmosphere to absorb fossil fuels. Now, everybody else, particularly brown people in poor countries, can't do it anymore.

For example, how can China continue to grow? When the world says, "You can no longer use coal," who is going to suffer first? A Chinese coal-burning oligarch or a peasant of the Tibetan plateau burning brown coal? They're going to be shutting down the small guys long before they're going to be shutting down the big industry groups. It's about energy systems. We have to change them across the board.

If you just ask countries like China to cap their emissions, and they attempt to do so by pressuring small farmers and nomadic people and women who are burning firewood, sooner or later they're going to anger a lot of people. Those policies are going to fail. It would be really important to get women in Africa to use natural gas fuels because so many of them die from cooking over open fires every year. There are ways we could really improve people's livelihoods and health and make some clean-energy transitions at the same time. The transition to efficient burners, for example, not only improves air quality, but also reduces greenhouse gases.

Lerza: There are several U.S. policies that are not viewed as energy policies or climate change policies yet have an enormous effect on this issue. I'm talking about access to public lands for coal, oil and natural gas development; continuing subsidy of oil drilling; and a variety of other things that really conflict with the kind of future you're talking about.

Can you talk a little bit about those? Because I think people aren't aware of the extent to which we actually subsidize the most profitable industries in the world and global warming itself.

Gelobter: Right. And there is a whole range of new subsidies emerging around the 21st century economy that is really to the detriment of justice in this country.

If we really want to fix our dependency on fossil fuels, we have to stop subsidizing that concentration of wealth among energy companies and among oil companies particularly. Instead of actually reforming their practices, they are milking the last drops out of a polluting infrastructure. And then they will be asking us to bail them out.

There is no way to solve a fossil fuels addiction by paying present polluters more money. The cap and trade policies are one example of this. You would put a cap on greenhouse gas pollution and then let polluters trade amongst themselves to try to reach an efficient level. And there is nothing wrong with that, in theory. The problem is, who owns the right to pollute?

The value of greenhouse gas permits in the U.S. alone is estimated to be between $80 billion and $300 billion. We're collecting that money from consumers and giving it to energy company stockholders. On the other hand, if you assume that the atmosphere belongs to all of us, then a greenhouse gas permit system can be designed that recycles those billions of dollars back into our communities, back into making all of us less fossil fuels dependent.

Lerza: ExxonMobil's annual profit is greater than all the American automobile manufacturers put together. The power of the oil, coal and gas industries to influence members of Congress is unprecedented and almost unassailable at this point.

We're constantly up against the money invested in keeping us fossil fuels dependent. So how can we begin to take on the economic and political issues behind global warming?

Gelobter: That's a key question. Fundamentally, we have to rewire our energy economy. We have to start paying the real price of our energy use. And the real price of our energy use for fossil fuels includes climate change. If we do anything that avoids paying the real price, we won't be solving the problem.

The only way to slow climate pollution is to make it more expensive to do it. The question is, how do you put a price on it? If you put a price on it in a way that further lines the pockets of big energy industries, you end up with a policy that is politically unsustainable. They pass that cost on to consumers, then suddenly, not only are we paying for oil, but we're paying for Exxon to address climate change. And consumers will say, "Hell no," and reject it.

We can have a pollution charge on greenhouse gas pollution, or we can auction the right to emit greenhouse gas pollution the way we auction cell phone bandwidth. Redefining Progress research has shown that net revenues, nationally, from that kind of a charge or auction system could be as high as $300 billion a year.

You need that money to help everybody transition. You can't build new mass transit systems without large capital investments. So if we pay Exxon to stop polluting, they take that money and invest it in whatever they want. If Exxon pays us because they're polluting, we take that money and we get ourselves off fossil fuels.

Lerza: So "us" in this case, means "us taxpayers"?

Gelobter: Yes. "Us" is taxpayers. "Us" is small businesses. "Us" is everyone in this system whose direct livelihood is not emitting greenhouse gases. There is a huge opportunity, and I think the opportunity far outweighs the clout they have as the most profitable companies on the planet.

The markets are critical because you need to rewire them so that money flows to the joy of breaking oil dependence. You want people to feel that they have more money for education, for recreation, for their health, because they're not using as many fossil fuels.

If you invest the dollars you get by making polluters pay in helping everybody transition to an economic system based on clean energies, then you see a net economic boost across the whole economy and a real ability to foster a just transition. And that also turns out to be the only politically sustainable way to achieve control over the climate change issue.

Rewiring our economy promotes justice because it creates investment capital for all the things that communities of color, poor communities, need to live in ways that take less of their time and life energy just to be healthy.

We can also support investment in clean technologies. Progressives and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley can form alliances that benefit both the environment and the investment community. The more successful environmentalists become in changing policy, the more profitable the clean technologies become as well.

Morals, messages and markets

Lerza: As people begin to accept that global warming is real, they want to make changes in their lives. They're buying compact fluorescents and hybrid vehicles. Then they realize that you can have all compact fluorescents in your home and take mass transit to work. But how do you make your personal actions add up to create that systemic change we need?

Gelobter: The things that are keeping us from a more efficient world are being promoted by the government. Our existing systems support our fossil fuels dependency. So individuals who want to take action have to fight the system. Wouldn't you rather have a government or a system that actually supports you in living more creatively and living more cleanly on the earth?

Individuals cannot accomplish this acting on their own, alone. We will not achieve this change without a change in policy. The forces for the status quo are too strong. Can we, as a movement, highlight the benefits of a new world, a new status quo, and help policy move in that direction?

We are in a moment of huge opportunity. The American public can easily figure out that our government policies have been in the thrall of the fossil fuels industry for the last six years.

Lerza: We're talking about finding hope for future change while being clear about what we're up against.

Gelobter: We are tied deeply to the fossil fuels industry. Look at the profitability of oil companies, at where our president and vice president come from. Or look at the war in Iraq. But with a little bit of smart communication we could easily explain how this industry is sucking the lifeblood out of our country, all with government support.

But as a movement, we need to be positive about individual actions because those are extremely important as well.

The key is to play to the positive. When California limited property tax through Proposition 13, local, state and county governments were forced to rely on sales tax. This meant that they ended up encouraging shopping malls and sprawl. We can name the dysfunctions this has engendered for real people: long commute times, bad traffic, poor air quality, a stressed educational system, and, most importantly, a loss of community.

Can policy actually make us happier? The answer is "yes." We can rewire the energy economy in ways, for example, that fund state, local, and county governments to discourage sprawl and encourage people to live in neighborhoods with their friends and with their families. We can help people see how fossil fuels use not only sends our kids to war but also keeps us farther away from them every day when we commute too far to work. And we can build policies that turn these bad stories into good ones.

Lerza: So what we're talking about is sweeping, transformational change. And we understand that it's going to have to include a broad set of issues and become a progressive movement that isn't just environmental but about what our country looks like physically, politically, economically and culturally.

So what are the components of an effective climate change movement? And what is it going to take to support these components and put them together effectively?

Gelobter: The good news here is that we aren't far from being there.

I would say the No. 1 ingredient, above all, is leadership. We really need to recognize people who can speak about the movement because we have a very good new story to tell about communities that are more cohesive, living closer to our loved ones, with more green space and more time spent with our families. It's a story about our pocketbooks not being raided as much by things like the price of gasoline, about getting out of the war that we're fighting in the Middle East over oil. These are all things the American public, I think, is eager for.

Al Gore's film raised the alarm bells. Now we need to stand and deliver a cohesive vision and then deliver results.

Lerza: You mentioned leadership: What does that mean to you? Are you talking about individuals? Are you talking about organizations? What does leadership mean in this case?

Gelobter: We need some individuals. We don't have a Jesse Jackson for the environment. And unfortunately movie stars don't cut it. We need to support individuals the public will see as moral and political leaders on an issue. Movements have to groom and stand behind those people. There's a link between being someone that people can relate to and being able to move large groups of people.

Secondly, there's organizational leadership. Tides Foundation has written about this. This is what we were starving for when George Lakoff talked about framing. We need to talk in ways that can reach more constituencies than we're reaching now. We need to speak about the opportunities for progress, growth and happiness that are waiting for us. We can't always talk about the ugliness that we're fighting.

That's organizational leadership. That's movement leadership: Being willing to set not our agendas aside but our vocabulary aside so we can find more effective ways of speaking so that everybody can relate to this issue.

I'm pretty optimistic. It's going to take coordination and leadership and sticking to messages. The necessary elements are messages, markets, movements and morals. We must have a grounding and morality that gives people a common base to work together. We have to take the markets on. They're not going to be destroyed, but they're going to be different, changed for the better. We have to have messages that resonate with where people are at today. And we have to have a movement that holds that together.

How many big, well-funded national groups can have climate change as their national issue before they form strategic alliances? We're simply not pooling our resources effectively. If we're serious about unity and outreach, we have to actually do it. It's about capturing people's imaginations, framing things the way we want them framed, linking messages to mobilization and then sticking together.

For the environmental community to broaden its appeal, we have to state how important global warming is to the rest of our lives. If we stick with floods, heat waves and disasters, we're certainly not going to attract or keep a broad set of constituencies for very long. We have to make it clear why our futures and justice are tied up with solving this problem.

Lerza: If you had to list the top things that we could do to stabilize climate change, what would those be?

Gelobter: First of all, make serious commitments to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Second, join the international discussion on energy and climate. But we won't have a credible voice in the international discussion unless we do commit to greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Lerza: What does that mean? Does that mean signing the Kyoto treaty?

Gelobter: I don't think it necessarily means that.

Lerza: Because that's been such a banner kind of thing. Is that essential, or is there another way we can do that?

Gelobter: Thirty-five percent of all global warming that has happened is due to emissions from the U.S. alone. As global consciousness of this issue rises, it would be very smart for domestic consciousness to rise as well, because there could be a lot of outrage globally when people come to understand the U.S.'s role in this issue.

The U.S. owes it to the world and to itself to leapfrog over Kyoto. Kyoto is not enough. Let's go to the next level. I think that's the only legitimate position. Kyoto is supposed to be done by 2012. It's too late, and Kyoto doesn't deal with the justice issues properly yet.

Going beyond Kyoto means, from a social justice and an economic perspective, we might need to lock up U.S. coal and even some of the oil. That means permanently tilting the playing field against fossil fuels use through economic signals, through regulatory signals, through the stopping of subsidies. We need to do this for two reasons: It's a way to build a movement, and it sends the unambiguous economic signal needed to grow alternative ways of generating energy.

These changes will have very deep ramifications for agriculture, for forest and for fishing. We will shift our relationship from one of exploitation to one of collaboration across community and nature.

Focusing on specific land use, regulatory, and economic policies around fossil fuels will build a very powerful political movement from progressive constituencies in blue states to rural constituencies in red states.

Catherine Lerza is a writer, editor and a senior philanthropic advisor at the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation .

 
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