Economic heavyweights highlight climate risks
By Jonathan Marshall, CCL Economics Policy Network
Whatever you think of billionaires, it’s almost always better to have them on your side rather than as foes. That’s why news from one of the world’s glitziest gatherings of the high and mighty, the World Economic Forum at Davos, bodes well for climate activists.
Prior to meeting this week, the WEF published its celebrated annual survey of the greatest risks facing business leaders, investors, and policymakers around the globe, based on a survey of 750 experts. For the first time, climate risks—such as extreme weather, natural disasters, and biodiversity loss—topped all others including global governance failures, cyberattacks, and asset bubbles.
Supporting that concern, a report issued by the Forum last week found that more than half the world’s gross domestic product is “moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and is therefore exposed to nature loss.” The CEO of Unilever, the giant multinational corporation, said the “very need for this report shows that we are in dire straits.”
News of the global risk survey followed closely behind a declaration by the CEO of the world’s biggest asset-management firm, BlackRock, that the climate crisis has put the world “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” The climate activist Bill McKibben hailed that announcement as “seismic” and “a watershed moment in climate history.”
Other recent news confirms that both elite and popular opinions regarding the climate crisis are undergoing seismic shifts. The iconic tech giant Microsoft, whose market cap stands at roughly a trillion dollars, said it plans to go carbon negative in all of its operations, including its supply chain, by 2030.
Awareness and impacts are growing
Meanwhile, nearly one in three Americans now say they are “alarmed” about global warming, three times as many as in 2014. The share of Americans who consider themselves “dismissive” or “doubtful,” currently 20 percent, has fallen five percentage points since 2014. Despite the partisan divide, more than half of Republican voters under the age of 40 say they are concerned.
These shifts reflect the almost daily drumbeat of bad news about deadly fires, hurricanes, floods, and droughts that have accompanied the hottest weather on land and sea ever recorded. In December, the giant credit ratings agency Moody’s issued a study declaring that “even if we were to stop emitting [greenhouse gases] altogether tomorrow,” the globe will continue to warm, oceans will continue rising, “droughts will intensify,” and “intense tropical cyclones will become more frequent” for decades to come.
A surge of political will
Instead of breeding despair, such warnings can drive a surge in political will to burst the dam in Washington that has held back concerted national climate action. That will only happen, however, if voters believe that meaningful solutions are at hand. Slogans and multi-trillion-dollar wish-lists can move the conversation forward, but those alone will not do the job.
That’s why CCL’s continuing advocacy of a rising carbon fee and dividend, as embodied in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763), is so important. As the single most far-reaching piece of climate legislation currently pending in Congress, with 76 co-sponsors, it currently stands the best chance of becoming law after a change in government in 2021. That’s particularly true since more than half of Republican voters say they would support a carbon tax.
Broad legislation like H.R. 763 is indispensable because, at the end of the day, commitments by Microsoft and pronouncements by big fund managers are neither enforceable nor applicable to the myriad other sectors of the economy responsible for emitting greenhouse gases. Only when all individuals and institutions face the same strong incentives to shift to lower-carbon ways of life will the United States really address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.
Just as important, by leveraging the global power of the U.S. economy through a border carbon adjustment, the Energy Innovation Act would drive quick action by our trading partners to enact carbon taxes of their own, putting the world community on a fast-track to a real climate solution.
Dr. Noah Kaufman, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia told a House subcommittee in December, “For any policymaker with the goals of deep decarbonization and a strong economy, putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions is a no brainer.”
Our challenging but vital job at CCL remains building the political will to enact the obvious into law before the clock runs out. To that end, the powerful statements of concern we are now hearing from so many titans of the global economy will give all CCL volunteers important new ammunition to share with the public through letters to the editor and op-eds, with civic organizations and chambers of commerce through presentations, and with legislators through our lobbying visits. Onward in 2020!
Jonathan Marshall is a CCL activist in Marin County, California, member of the Economics Policy Network Action Team, and former Economics Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.