Connecting the environment to social justice

We do not want people to live in energy poverty. The solution is really easy. We need to eliminate poverty.
Elizabeth May

By delivering a Guaranteed Liveable Income, the Green Party will do most to enhance social justice now.  By focusing on the environment that sustains us, the Green Party will do most to secure social justice for the next generation.

Background — an overview of the Green Party’s position on social justice and climate change

The Green Party is built on six principles: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, non-violence, sustainability and respect for diversity.  These principles inform all our policy development, and to the Green Party it would be as outrageous to drag our feet on gay marriage as it would be to permit clearcutting.  However, we’ve come to be known as a single-issue environmental party, and there are a lot of preconceived ideas about what that means, many of them incorrect.

In a nutshell, Green Party policy centres around a tax shift that reduces taxes on things we want to encourage, like income and health, and replaces the lost revenue with taxes on things we want to discourage, like pollution and, crucially, carbon emissions.  Because the tax shift is revenue-neutral, the average Canadian will find that maintaining the same lifestyle costs no more or less, but there is a built-in incentive to reduce energy-intensive activities such as driving and flying with more energy-efficient alternatives such as biking and hiking.  Part of the revenue pays for conservation and retrofit programmes to facilitate the transition to a low-energy economy as the carbon tax rises.  Mandatory apartment retrofits would be introduced almost immediately so that renters would not be stuck with inferior energy, building and insulation choices.  Large final emitters, responsible for almost half of Canada’s emissions, would be subjected to a cap-and-trade system as well.  This would guarantee that large emitters, as a sector, cannot simply pay their way out of implementing real carbon reductions.

The Green Party does not rely solely on economic incentives.  We would prohibit many environmental toxins altogether.  Overall health care costs should decrease over time as toxic emissions are reduced, and with the investment in preventive health that the Green Party supports.  Low-income families would be protected by a Guaranteed Liveable Income and a very progressive income tax structure, as well as by targeted programmes that enable our most vulnerable citizens to reduce their energy dependence first.  In general, though, carbon use rises with income, so as long as the Guaranteed Income is generous enough to comfortably cover basic expenses including energy, those in the lowest income brackets have the most to gain.

Background — an overview of the NDP positions on social justice and climate change

The NDP is the party traditionally associated with unions and working poor.  It has a long history of fighting for social justice issues and a more recent focus on the environment.  It is the party that introduced universal health insurance in Canada.  Recent NDP missives have focused on the limitations of the Liberal and Conservative approaches to climate change, which the NDP says they will correct, and on improving the lives of Canada’s poor, in particular attacking ATM fees at banks.  The NDP climate change plan is similar to the Liberal plan in targeting large final emitters with a cap and fines above the cap.  In addition, the NDP would invest in developing automobile efficiency and subsidizing the purchase of efficient vehicles.  Auto workers have traditionally supported the NDP.  Because of their concern for the poor who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy, the NDP do not support a carbon tax, and in fact have consistently advocated for low and stable energy prices, and for limiting oil company profits.

Improved standards in vehicle efficiency, in appliance efficiency, in the building code and other areas subject to regulation are common for the Liberals, NDP and Greens.  The Greens have always advocated the elimination of perverse subsidies to the oil industry.  The NDP has recently taken up this chorus as well.

The supposed limitations of environmentally focused parties

On February 9, 2007, the Law Union of Ontario held an event entitled “Justice for a Dying Planet” where newly-elected city councillor Gord Perks spoke about the connection between social justice and the environment, which was all very appropriate, given the theme of the day.  On March 2, Gord reinforced this message at a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth” organized by Jack Layton at Riverdale Collegiate Institute.  He was part of the “expert panel on climate change” that Mr. Layton called – composed of Gord Perks and Jack Layton.  Gord’s point was that because social inequality is linked to environmental devastation, only a political party that delivers on social justice can really address the environment, and that only when Canada’s poor have a fair share of the pie can environmental wisdom prevail.  He claims the “environmentally focused parties” (I wonder who he means) can only address part of the problem.  So we had a panel of expert NDP politicians to argue that only the NDP can solve climate change.

I should just dismiss this.  But I don’t.  I take such accusations very seriously, which is why I’ve given it serious thought over the last couple of weeks.  Having seen Gord Perks make wise and knowledgeable suggestions in public fora like the City’s Roundtable on the Environment, I know he is a very credible spokesperson for environmental sanity.  I can’t take his comments lightly, even though they were outrageously partisan.  But the more I think about it, the less I agree.  And my conclusion is that the Green Party is the far better voice not only for the environment, but for social justice as well.

Let’s begin with the fact that the NDP highlights the elimination of ATM fees in their Social Justice strategy, whereas the Green Party would introduce a Guaranteed Liveable Income.  The guaranteed income idea has been floating around for decades, and was recommended in 1985 by a multilateral royal commission because it is both more equitable and more economical to deliver than the current system.  The Green Party will not nickel-and-dime our poorest citizens, it will deliver the fundamentals so that every Canadian can live in dignity.

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment

It was only after joining the Green Party and becoming familiar with its policies that I came to really appreciate all their subtleties.  Gord Perks and others dismiss us as the “environmental party”, but our health, energy, economic and transportation policies deliver long-term benefits as well.  Protecting the environment has ramifications that affect every area of life, and generally, protecting the environment produces improvements in many other areas.  Parties that try to deal with the environment in one box while dealing with transportation in another will fail to do justice to either.  So for example, the NDP wants to decrease emissions while maintaining cheap energy prices.  It cannot work.  Similarly, governments absorb the costs of toxic emissions and pay for them in health care, lost work, clean-up and remediation.  When everyone wonders why health care costs are soaring, they blame health care policy, without even considering their transportation and energy policies.

There is also a very strong reason to focus on the environment if you want to deliver social justice.  There is indeed a strong connection between social justice and the environment, but the connection is complex, and the causality flows predominantly from the environment to social justice rather than the other way around.  The Green Party addresses the true relationship much better than the NDP.

Gord notes that where there is poverty, the environment declines.  While this observation is indisputable, the causality that Gord implies is incorrect.  Noxious roof-shingle factories are located in poorer urban areas, and it’s not because the urban poor have larger roofs.  It isn’t because fishermen have hearty appetites that they need to use trawlers.  Northern Ontarians aren’t cutting down whole forests for whittling.  And the Andean village lifestyle does not require so much gold that it requires the decapitation of their mountains and poisoning of their rivers.  Rather, what we see, over and over, is a pattern of overconsumption by the world’s richest people killing the life-support systems of the world’s poorest, while those who benefit from this destruction are able to shield themselves from its worst effects.

We absolutely need to address social inequality.  We absolutely need to improve the lives of Canada’s poorest citizens.  But let’s not pretend that this in itself will improve the overall environment in Canada or anywhere in the world or that it will address global warming.  Every Canadian already emits 18 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the average person in India, who in turn emits many times that of the average person in Zimbabwe.  The challenge is to reduce Canada’s environmental impact at home and around the world, while simultaneously enhancing social equity.  An environmentally sane movement for social justice needs to enable rich and poor alike to have meaningful lives with lower demands on resources.  Integrating social justice and environmental responsibility needs to begin with a vision of a society where satisfaction is not measured by the amount of accumulated stuff.

The Green Party proposes replacing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with the Genuine Progress Indicator to measure policy success.  The GDP, used by all other parties to measure their success, increases with theft, vandalism, freak weather, disease, marital breakdown and death.  All it really measures is the money we spend.  It is an index seemingly designed to make sure that we can point to some benefits of climate change.  The Green Party believes that progress should be measured in health, safe water and air, and in the time to relax with your children.  And the Green Party has policies to deliver success on these issues, like a mandatory 4-week vacation period, investment in the prevention as well as treatment of disease, and the banning of many toxins.

While Gord focused on the connection leading from social injustice to environmental decay, I believe the reverse connection is far more compelling.  That’s why I strongly believe that investing in the environment is a necessary component in achieving social justice.

I joined the Green Party in the fall of 2005, after a lifetime of involvement with Amnesty International and other human rights groups because I recognized global warming as the biggest humanitarian crisis in my lifetime, and because at the time, only the “environmentally focused party” was addressing it at all.  I watched Jack Layton campaigning for cheaper energy prices through the 2004 and 2006 elections without one mention of this issue that he now claims to champion, when it tops the polls for issues of the day.

I take the links between global warming and social justice very seriously.  Globally, the people who will suffer most from the effects of global warming are generally those least responsible for unleashing it — the Bangladeshis and Pacific islanders, whose nations will be under water, Africans fighting over increasingly unproductive patches of parched land, and, in Canada, the Inuit whose houses are collapsing into the seas and whose livelihoods are vanishing as quickly as the ice floes.  The overall effects of climate change, however, will be horrific for the rich as well, and for the developed countries as well as for the developing world.

We must give climate change the priority it deserves — for social justice reasons.  To prevent catastrophic climatic changes with unseen levels of human misery, we must choose those methods of reducing emissions which produce results, and produce them quickly.  We cannot afford to pander to oil companies, car manufacturers, or people who want to continue driving cheaply.  Whether it is in drought-stricken Darfur, or in European heatwaves or devastating North American hurricanes, global warming is already claiming victims by the tens of thousands.  There is blood on our hands for every moment of inaction, with much more to come.

Eventually, the losses will come to Canada.  We’re already seeing economic losses due to forest destruction attributable to climate change, but these are just a whisper of what may come.  If we do not address it immediately, the human misery caused by climate change will overtake the ability of any social system to cope. When hurricane Katrina becomes the norm and climate refugees by the tens of thousands start arriving at our doorstep, our ability to deliver even such fundamentals as education and health care will be seriously compromised and ATM fees will become completely inconsequential.  So even from the perspective of social justice, it’s important to implement the most effective climate change strategy.

The Green Party climate change plan is more effective

The Green Party climate change plan is best because it actually works.  Rather than focus only on the large emitters and cushion the auto industry from substantive changes, it encourages emissions reductions by every sector and at every stage of production.  The revenue gained from a carbon tax would be entirely offset by very progressive reductions in other taxes — primarily health care and income taxes — which would improve the lives of most people, and especially the poor.

Gord Perks delivered a very moving diatribe against “environmental party” policy that allows people to pay for harmful emissions.  He argued that it was immoral to permit people to pay to pollute, and that instead we should just cap emissions through regulation, and fine the polluters if they exceed the limits.

Now, I must say, I’ll agree with Gord that the idea of allowing polluters to pay always seemed kind of rude to me.  I overcame my aversion to the idea when I realized that the principal alternative was to allow polluters to get off scott-free, which seems even more rude.  What Gord is proposing is actually a lot more generous to polluters than what the Green Party supports.

The NDP plan makes emissions below the cap essentially free, whereas the Greens would put a price tag on them.  Above the cap, the Greens would “trade” carbon whereas the NDP and Liberals would have a “fine”.  Both are economic measures.  You might have a semantic preference for the term “fine” as it implies punishment, whereas trading is what companies always do.  Unfortunately, companies don’t care whether you call it a fine or trade, they care about the effect on profits.  Which is why trade is actually better — it enforces an overall cap within which there’s some room for trading — if every user emits to the limit of his cap, nothing is left to trade and carbon can’t be “bought” for any price.  When carbon is scarce it can be much more expensive than any fine.  If you introduce a “fine” on the other hand, every large emitter can choose to pay the fine and continue emitting, or even increasing emissions.  So in effect, after arguing so eloquently about not letting polluters to get off by paying, Gord endorses a plan that would let far more polluters get off by paying a lot less than the plan he criticizes.

There are more drawbacks to the NDP proposal.  A fine encourages most users to put in just enough measures to meet the cap and no more.  A cap and trade system encourages companies to innovate efficiencies in order to sell their surplus carbon, effectively creating the means to achieve even greater reductions.  The other thing that Gord didn’t mention is that the limits he speaks of would only be for the manufacturer, not for the user.  So where the Green Party would target all emissions, the NDP would only target that small amount of emissions made by large emitters above their regulated limits.  And how would they target them?  By making them pay, just like the Green Party.  So the NDP plan ends up delivering a lot less, and less fairly.

The Green Party supports regulation on a lot of things — efficiency requirements on cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and so on, as well as large emitters, but we would also make it more costly to run even the most efficient cars — effectively providing an incentive to car-pool, to use public transit, to bike, to walk or maybe just to stay at home and weed the garden.

When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging

While Gord Perks talks about the links between poverty and environmental degradation, he completely ignores a far more compelling connection — that of environmental degradation and cheap energy.  And he ignores it because the party he promotes wants to make sure that energy remains cheap — the NDP want to make sure we continue to have plenty of shovels to keep on digging.  Cheap energy got us into the problems we are facing.  It cannot get us out.  It has driven us to energy wasteful practices in building, in city planning, in manufacture and in almost all areas of life.  As the extraction of fossil fuels becomes more difficult and fossil fuels become scarce, prices will inevitably rise.  Unfortunately, they will not rise fast enough to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

So at the very least, we need to internalize the health and environmental costs of our emissions, as well as the costs of any conservation efforts, into the price of energy.  It would be preferable if we recognized the lives of drowning Bangladeshis too.  Even though it’s rude to put a cost on their lives, like I said, it is preferable to ignoring them altogether.  Finally, we might consider the future costs to Canada of global warming — the reduction in arable land, the losses due to storms and flooding, the forestry losses, deaths, health effects, social restructuring and human misery.  If we must use energy, then let’s at least make it expensive enough that everyone pauses to think a moment about these consequences before turning on the air conditioner — an inadequate moment of scrutiny for the incalculable true costs.

The NDP argue that high energy costs will hurt Canada’s poor.  The solution is not to keep energy costs low.  The solution is to make sure the poor can pay them.  And to make sure that everyone, rich and poor alike, has the means and the incentives to find new and creative ways of constantly decreasing the greenhouse gases they emit.

There is a challenge in implementing the dramatic social changes that would be needed to effectively address global warming without hurting our most vulnerable citizens.  It is a challenge the Green Party has worked to address throughout its existence, and it’s a responsibility we would take very seriously in power.

Then again, keep in mind that anything is better than the Harper Conservatives.

One response to “Connecting the environment to social justice”

  1. Mary Ann Grainger writes:

    Adriana, I have rarely read a more convincing nor more easily understood essay on why supporting the Green Party of Canada is what Canadians truly want and need.

    Keep spreading the word. You are amazing!

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