An analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act
by Peter G Brown and Geoffrey Garver
We assess the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA) approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the basis of “right relationship” as described in our book Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler 2009). In the current political climate, with Republicans and conservative Democrats still likely a major obstacle to truly effective legislation to control greenhouse gases, a bill like the ACESA may well be the strongest bill that can be adopted. But this law is acceptable only if it represents a transformational step toward an economy that lives within its ecological means. On this criterion, the bill is a modest effort at best.
The fundamental problem human society is facing is that continued dedication to ‘economic growth,’ per se, will destroy the Earth’s ability to provide a healthy home for most life forms. Quite simply, sticking with an economic model that is a major driver toward ecological catastrophe will kill us. We must think of two budgets: the ecological budget and the economic budget. The ecological budget is the one on which all life depends. The human economy exists within the ecological budget and is strictly and completely dependent on it.
The ecological budget is already in dramatic deficit: September 23 was Earth Overshoot Day in 2008. The period after September 23 represents the time the human population causes an ecological deficit, using up the Earth faster than it can regenerate. Every year, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier. This moving date tells the story of a global environment rapidly losing its ability to support life: a story of accelerating climate change; the loss of species and habitats; declining fisheries; the proliferation of ocean dead zones; diminishing freshwater resources; and more.
Here are four steps toward an approach to climate change and broader ecological issues that will allow Americans, and all people on Earth, to live fulfilling, healthy, lives that are respectful of the Earth’s capacity to support the whole array of vibrant life. The ACESA does not measure up well to any of them.
* We must acknowledge that unlimited growth on a finite planet makes no sense. We face a moral choice and challenge: bring the global economy into a right relationship with the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants. Our new ecological and climate reality demands new ways to live within the means of the Earth. Unfortunately, the ACESA reflects the widespread political unwillingness to touch the growth dilemma: it implicitly works from an agenda that ranks control of greenhouse gases second to infinite economic growth, and so adopts fairly modest goals. A truly effective climate change bill would be attuned to the limited capacity of Earth’s biosphere to provide for humans and other life and to assimilate their waste. Ultimately, this means the objective of climate change legislation or agreements, both nationally and internationally, must be tied to unbiased scientific information on the limits on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that will ensure humanity’s long-term survival. Right now, the most respectable limit is 350 ppm – a level surpassed sometime in the 1990s. It is safe to say the ACESA comes nowhere close to attaining that limit, either by 2020 or 2050.
* Acknowledge that we need new institutions. An economic renewal tailored to the 21st century would establish institutions committed to fitting the human economy to Earth’s limited life-support capacity. Money should be understood as a social license to use part of Earth’s life-support capacity. Accordingly, we need something like the central reserve banks, but which look after shares of the Earth’s ecological capacity, not just interest rates and the money supply. Part of this essential work is the continued development of honest, rigorous scientific information on the atmospheric greenhouse gas levels that cannot be surpassed, and the relationship of greenhouse gas emissions to those levels. Yet, the need for more rigorous scientific study must not delay the prompt action that is urgently needed to reverse the disastrous course we are on. The ACESA is better than nothing.
* Fairness matters. The rules for the developed countries that are responsible for the current ecological crisis must be different from those for developing ones. The new economy must recognize that “free” trade as it is currently understood helps entrench the addiction to consumption; and it is often pursued in a manner that ravages the bio-productivity of developing countries, and impoverishes their citizens. On this criterion, the question of offsets in the ACESA warrants a critical eye. Ecological restoration is a vital part of the ecological renewal we – especially rich countries – owe the planet, but the ACESA gives too much credit to the prevention of forest loss in places whose destruction contributes to lavish overconsumption in the U.S. and elsewhere. The activities that give rise to these credits should happen, but not as a way to avoid real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
* Look beyond technological fixes. Bold leadership is needed to focus on all four policy “theatres” relevant to human ecological impact: technology; population; wealth and consumption; and morals and customs. Leaders must provide the moral footing that will help people, individually and collectively through government, to choose lifestyles with radically lower impact. Furthermore, more public support is needed where private money has little incentive to go, like massive investment in creating or restoring natural systems that rebuild the bioproductivity of Earth’s ravaged ecosystems. The ACESA does have provisions that will support renewable energy and investments that will promote energy conservation – like improved standards for green building. However, the bill is built on the assumption that the U.S. must remain a consumer-oriented society with an outsized ecological footprint.
Perhaps most difficult to come to grips with, in this legislation and other efforts emerging in the current political climate, is that the United States is an overpopulated country in an overpopulated world. Each American takes far too great a share of what the Earth can withstand – roughly twice the average European and many more times the average in the developing world. We should escape from the current treadmill that considers more people necessary for more growth. The America projected by the census bureau for mid-century of around 440 million people is a global disaster.
This is a critical year for climate change legislation, both nationally and internationally. The ACESA is weak, and every effort should be made to strengthen it. It will be useful to remember, as the bill goes forward, that we are not principally “consumers”, but citizens of the Earth, and guardians of life’s prospect on a beautiful and finite planet.
Peter G Brown is a Professor at McGill University. Geoffrey Garver is an environmental consultant and lectures in law at Université de Montreal and Université Laval. They are co-authors of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (February 2009). Read more about their work at the Moral Economy Project homepage.