Thursday, April 24. 2014
This letter by Bill Dickinson from the April 28, 2014 edition of the New Yorker is worth repeating:
I've never read about the financial interests impacted by CFC replacement, but this seems intuitively right. Non-CFC refrigerants are most likely made by the same companies that made CFC, and no doubt cost more, are more profitable, and generate an extra amount of replacement business. (I can back this up personally: just last week an HVAC serviceman told me that next time I have to replace the compressor in our AC system I'll also have to replace the condenser because the refrigerants are incompatible.) So, at least among countries that are de facto controlled by special interests -- the US clearly qualifies and is certainly not exceptional in this regard -- those interests were aligned to support the change.
In regard to excess production of carbon dioxide, there can be no such alignment for reform. The interests that depend on continued burning of fossil fuels (coal and petroleum companies, of course, but also nearly all companies involved in transportation, most in electric power, and let's not forget their bankers) will at least look out for themselves -- and note that businesses almost always focus on only their most urgent, narrowly defined profit interests, with little or no concern for long-term consequences to the economy, the environment, or their future quality of life. Needless to say, those interests are huge, and will be for a long time.
Dickinson suggests that the way to counter them would be to promote competing economic interests, and indeed some of that is happening: wind and solar power lobbyists have been able to gain a few favors that only indirectly challenge the fossil fuel powers (not that the Kochs are taking this gracefully). And sometimes you see a CFC-like case of an industry seeing some profit in reform, as when the light bulb industry turned on incandescent lights in favor of fluorescents. Or when the auto industry agreed to increase fleet mileage standards: after years of dragging their feet, you can bet that their turnaround was tied to a new reckoning of their bottom line.
But if reform is only possible when it looks promising for short term profits, we're not likely to get much of it, and what we do get isn't likely to work very well. This is where I could go down a deep rathole trying to explain why, and indeed there are many reasons, and they play out many different ways. Let me just assert that if you can only solve problems by helping the private sector to make more money off them, there are some problems you'll never be able to solve -- inequality, for one, and global warming for another. So Dickinson has a point, but not an answer.
The answer is to reform a political system which has veered so far from democracy that even researchers are treating it as a form of oligarchy. To do this we need first of all to restore the concept of a public interest. This isn't an odd or abstract concept, although it has been rendered impotent by the explosive, unchecked growth of special interest money in political campaigns and special interest lobbyists in Washington. A simple example of a public interest is that everyone has a vital need to breathe air that isn't contaminated with toxins. Private interests often try to gain at the expense of the public interest, so we need to elect representatives who are aware of this and will at least make an effort to balance competing private and public interests.
We also need to re-embrace the concept of countervailing power: this was a founding percept of the New Deal and took many forms, such as encouraging and protecting trade unions to balance against excessive business management power. The key idea is to prevent any position from overwhelming a policy discussion with sheer volume. One simple way to do this would be to provide public funding for public (or in some cases other private) interest lobbying equal to that provided by special interests. (Aside from making policy debate more fair, and more rational, that might inhibit private interests from pursuing especially predatory policies, since they are certain to be publicly recognized as such.)
Counter-lobbying would certainly help restore balance to a system that is now perilously tilted in favor of special interests, but even more important is to create institutions with a mandate to sort out all contending arguments and establish viable facts and theories about matters of public import. To some extent this has been done in the past by the media, academia, and public-sponsored institutions (like the NIH), but many of these have been captured by private interests or are being starved of funding at the same time as need for their services increases. More recently this has been supplemented through the (mostly volunteer) efforts of millions across the Internet. Few things we could spend public money on would return more value, but first we have to escape the mental trap (most common on the US right) that sees everything as partisan propaganda and seeks to muzzle the other side.
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