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The Climate Crisis, Carbon Tax, Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income

Wednesday 18 September 2019, by mond

Fortunately it seems that Climate Change is finally becoming a political topic. Unfortunately the left does not seem to be prepared well. Carbon Tax, Green New Deal, System-Change, Universal Basic Income, ... what are the best ways to stop emissions and prevent Climate Change? It seems the Left is divided on that question.

In order to prevent the worst outcome we need drastic reductions in CO2 emissions in the next ca 10 years. From currently about 35 Giga-tons of CO2 we need to get to zero. The sooner the better.

Now there is a discussion on what is the best way and which solutions we should propose. Before we discuss the different solutions, let us first state a few things that apply to all of them:

1.) the climate crisis is a an excellent example to show that capitalism does not work and that we need to change the system if we want to save the planet. Capitalism brought us into this mess and the inherent logic of growth would make things even worse. Capitalism all by itself would drive us over the cliff.

2.) the cost of the damage of the climate crisis will exceed everything that we can do to prevent it by an far. Most likely by one or more orders of magnitude. The costs of this damage will most of all hurt the poor and needy while the rich might even profit from new "opportunities". The changes in climate will directly undermine the living conditions of those directly dependent on agriculture and increase the prices of housing and food for all of us. So the most damaging and unjust thing to do is, to do nothing at all.

3.) so even if we think that some actions are not sufficient or should be done in a different way: it is fair to state this, but in the end we must support any means that help reduce carbon (and other green house gas) emissions.

4.) for most of the measures: in order to be effective they need to be globally coordinated. Of course this does not mean that we should not start with all of this even when there is not much coordination yet.

Below we will discuss 4 means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In order from "works within the system" to "needs fundamental system change".

Carbon Tax

A Carbon Tax works within the capitalist system. What was free until now polluting our environment with CO2 emissions will now have to be payed for. Other then that the system does not need to be change. Not only that: In order to work the CO2 Tax makes use of the mechanisms of a market economy: In order to maximize profit the capitalists have to think about how to minimize CO2 emissions.

Now this is the reason why many on the left are not happy with CO2 Taxes: It does not require a fundamental system-change and it even suggests that market economy is working. Now it is important to keep the above in mind: The worst thing would be to do nothing. So a Carbon Tax is better then nothing. More then that: Even if we could turn off capitalism today and switch to an e.g. democratic economy, we would hopefully take into account the CO2 emissions of everything we do. If we had to decide to build factory A or factory B we would calculate the ecological footprint of both alternatives and select the one witch the lower CO2 emissions. In the end we would have to perform the same optimizations as the market economy does today. So the reason we should criticize the CO2 is is not that it would not work. It would work very well within its limitations. The reason is that it has severe limitations: all the optimizations would be limited to the confines of the current systems. E.g. we would still have advertising: an industry that does not create anything useful but just makes us unhappy and create additional demand for things we do not really need. And with all this comes an enormous ecological footprint. Or lets take the case of short lived products: the sooner things break the sooner the consumer has to buy a replacement. A Carbon Tax all by itself does not create an incentive to create longer lasting products. This is why we also need other means of reducing the Carbon footprint.

Also note, that a CO2 Tax might make it more interesting to e.g. repair things instead of producing a new item.

One more thing about the carbon tax: Now an interesting question would be: how to use the money that comes in via a Carbon Tax. One way would be to give the full amount back to the people, preferable in a way that give more to the lower incomes. This way the social question should be of no concern: while the tax would make our live more expensive (because capitalist would increase prices) we also would have more money to pay for the products. Regarding social justice: Since rich people usually have a much higher carbon-footprint they would also be effected more by such a tax - at least in terms of money. Of course: Since poor people are more dependent on the prices of food and other necessary goods, the rich could still handle the situation much easier. So using at least a part of the tax for social payouts is a must. This could also be as a way to pay for an Universal Basic Income (UBI, see below). Other parts of this tax could be used to finance a "Green New Deal". (GND, see below).

Green New Deal

So the idea of the Green New Deal (GND) is public investments in "green" technology and "green" jobs. The idea is based on the original "New Deal": A series of programs and reforms done by the Government of Roosevelt (FDR) in the United States around 1933 to 1936. The ideas was to get out of the Great Depression with some government sponsored programs. This is at its core: Keynesian politics, still it is compatible with the capitalist system.

The GND will help to reduce emissions in ways that the Carbon Tax can not easily do. Investment in large scale infrastructure is costly and private enterprises are usually not willing to take the risk - at least not unless extra huge profits are possible. Huge profits would make green energy more expensive - and thus we do not want that.

Center-Left Politicians like the GND because, they can promise "Green Jobs" and it does not need a fundamental changes in the system. The right mostly hates it because to them it smells like "socialism" (which to some degree it is).

In the end the left wing critique on the GND should be similar to one we have on the Carbon Tax. Of course we need a GND. We need everything that helps reduce emissions. Even in a non-capitalist society we would invest heavily in this technologies. Still the GND stays within the systems and thus still does not help to reduce the emissions that can only be reduced by changing the system.

The main issues with a campaigning for a Green New Deal is that it also suggest that we can stay within the system and even positively affirms the importance of “jobs”. While we need to explain to people that we actually need to reduce jobs:

Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been discussed for a while now - but most people have not thought of it in terms of how it helps to solve the climate crisis. So this is why I want to give this idea some more room:

Many people, even on the marxist left, think that capitalism is rather efficient. At least this what Marx describes: How the capitalist is forced to use the newest, most efficient technology in order to keep the profits higher then those of the competitors. What most people ignore is, that capitalism can only work in a situation where there is scarcity: As Marx describes in the Manifesto: the biggest crisis for capitalism is the crisis of over-production. Now in the 200 years since the Manifest, capitalism has learned to deal with that problem. At least to a certain degree. While productivity is doubling every 40 years we still work 40 hours a week. This is because capitalism needs to re-invest its profits and then needs to expand production. So while a part of this new productivity goes into actually useful products that we can need, most of it goes into creating new demands that where not there before. Advertising is an industry with no useful output: It only creates additional demand. The only product is our discontent with what we have. If we look at larger corporations we see a lot of inefficiency and bullshit jobs. We have a "financial" industry that creates new "financial products" - in most cases their only purpose is to make it harder for consumers to compare their offerings. We have gambling. A real curse is the flood of short lived crap that fills the shelfs. Why is it that you can only use a smart phone for about 2 years instead of at least 5? From a technical point of view most products could be much more durable - but the industry has no incentive to create such products. Last but not least: The most "effective" way to create new demand is by the "defense" industry: When a country is bombed into oblivion it creates new demand for more weapons and also a demand for rebuilding what has destroyed before.

Now it should be easy to see: at least half or more of our jobs are either completely useless at best or even more harmful then useful. If we take the ecological footprint of those jobs into account a lot of them are harmful. Even a simple office job does take up a lot of resources. Office space, cleaning, IT-Resources and most of all: the commute.

There is a study that about 1/4 of all jobs in the US are disciplinary jobs: People to keep the others in line.

So the next time someone says, that we need to "create jobs", call them out. We need to get rid of at least half of all jobs. With the upcoming improvements in AI, we should expect that this number increases very fast.

A UBI would help in this situation: It would drastically reduce the number of people who would still want to work on a commercial job. So there is a good chance that we could get rid of many useless jobs, just because you would not find anyone who is willing to work there. As long as the UBI is high enough that it allows people a decent life, many people will choose that. Now how would one decide which jobs are useful and which not? The UBI would ensure that all people have the money to buy what they need. They would think twice about buying something they do not need. So the remaining capitalist economy would have a motivation to provide basic useful goods.

So this could reduce a lot of CO2 emissions. If half of our jobs are useless then this could roughly halve the CO2 output. And with the upcoming proliferation of AI we need to get a UBI anyways.

Now one objection could be: When all those people have money and a lot of time, they might produce a lot of emissions in their spare time. I do not think this is accurate. If you have all the time in the world you do not need a plane for your vacation. You can travel by train, bus or even by bicycle and enjoy it. Since we live in a world where most of us only have a very short time for vacation, people are used to "make the most out of it". In a world where you have plenty of time you could drastically reduce your footprint there.

Now people in a world where they have a lot of time they will not only waste it in front of the telly, they will want to make something useful. They might choose to write a book, grow tomatoes in their garden, cook, research, write free/open source software, social interactions, crafts work, create work of arts and amusement, etc.. So what we would see there is the birth of a new economy that is not built on profit but on the joy of expression. A truly communist mode of production.

Also note: While many people think that reduction would mean a loss for them: Here we would have some reduction in goods and services but an enormous increase in the quality of life.

From the point of view of CO2 emissions: With getting rid of a lot of unnecessary jobs we can reduce the CO2 emissions in a way that a Carbon Tax or a “Green New Deal” can not. It still would not utilize all potential for reduction: E.g. while people who live on a UBI would have enough time to carefully decide what they do with that money and would be more reluctant to spend it on short-lived products, for the industry there would still be an incentive to create short lived products over long-lived ones.

System Change - The End of capitalism

Now after installing a UBI, people would rightfully ask on why a hand full of people should get rich on selling basic items while most of the cultural richness is produced for free anyways. So it would be easy to argue that the production should be owned collectively. This would also allow to decide that it makes more sense to e.g. produce durable, long-lived products, etc and fully realize the potential of reducing CO2 emissions.


I think it is important to see that all 4 measures described above would tap into different potentials for the reductions: The Carbon Tax would help in optimizations in production, the GND would bring new technologies, the UBI would get rid of useless jobs and a complete system change would tackle the remaining potentials.

This means that when I say that it is not a question of which is the best way but we need to all of them, it is not just to say that we want to have them work in parallel to be quicker. Since they solve different problems and since they tap into different potentials we need all of them because each of them is actually needed. Of course one could redefine the meaning of the above ways to include the other. (E.g. "System Change" would include GND and Carbon Tax in a way. Or a certain type of GND-plan would come with an UBI attached) But besides from redefining those words we have different potentials for the reduction of Carbon Emission:

  • Optimizations to avoid Emissions - done by Carbon Tax
  • Big scale investment in Green Tech - done by Green New Deal
  • Getting Rid of unneccessary Jobs - done by UBI
  • A sane, democratic economy that does not need profit as a motive - System Change

The 4 Means are mostly orthogonal but could support each other: The Carbon Tax could pay for UBI and GND. The UBI prepares for System Change.


Franz Schäfer (mond), September 2019

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