Boeing 737
Photo: Norbert, Pixabay

This is why we travel

The 737 ascends over the green highlands around Addis. Intense sun and green and thousands of little bright square dots. Each is a tin roof – I have been there. Smallholders who grow coffee and beans and some have a cow. There are lakes with the typical rift valley color of muddy mineral-laden waters. Just as I get my phone ready for a pic we break the clouds and then I just get veiled glimpses from below. I am experienced, I know what the clouds are made of and what role they play for the climate. My flight will add another 3 tons of CO2 to the climate.

Globalization for better and worse

The stewardess sweetly asks if I would “care for some breakfast” and the very British phrase flings me back to my school in London. So much has been “accomplished” by development and colonialism. Each little item on the plastic platter has required some farmer down there to grow corn for the corn flakes, milk his cow, or grow his vegetables – and it need not be a he nor anyone in Ethiopia or even Africa. The tomato farmer might be in China or Holland. The croissant baker has no doubt learned his trade from the French.  The honey is lovely and its scent is reminiscent of flowers somewhere. But I know the bees are being annihilated by development in general and Neonicotinoids in particular.

Why contribute to climate change?

I hesitated to take the trip. Because of the tons of CO2. Because my passport only has three months left of its validity and Uganda requires six so they might not let me in. But then I remember the time when I talked my way into India without a visa so it will be all right. I also hesitate because there is an outbreak of Ebola. Not in Kampala – but a province 120 km away. That’s just a two – three-hour drive by truck. Now we are over arid lands, semidesert, the air is clear and the dry rocks are beautifully drawn with exquisite details. I see the dry river beds that sometimes flow – probably just for a few days or weeks after rain. Beautiful graphic images like etchings, fractal images, arteries, or veins in a leaf. No houses or roads at all. Nature can be beautiful even when there is little or no life.

All my friends at home thought I should skip the trip, look after my grandchildren and my greenhouse but all the friends who always travel said I should come. One sanguine colleague checked with the CDC and Ebola is of course deadly but actually not very contagious.

The first climate war has begun

Why travel? We are starting a network for emissions pricing in developing countries. Is that enough of a reason? Or another whimsy, liberal over-academic load of…  My Lord we just flew over Lake Turkana – it's huge, so breathtaking – but the area around is so dry.

The first climate war has started. Putin might have misjudged the battleground in Ukraine but he seems uncannily strategic about the wider picture. China is still on his side although with some hesitancy. India, Mexico many African countries applaud the snubbing of the US and the West. We are not so popular. Many fossil fuel exporters are severely autocratic. Saudi Arabia and Russia are obvious cases. If a country has enough rent from oil or gas exports then they don’t need to be responsive to the local population who become bystanders as their country can be run like a company. Oil, gas and coal – and uranium are just about all Russia has to offer and vital ingredients in Putin’s power. He hopes renewable energy will fail and is, in a way repeating what OPEC did in 1973. Reduce the flow of oil and the prices go up so you earn much more by selling less. Yes, it requires monopoly power – and no, it cannot last forever because new producers of both fossil and renewable energy will be lured into the market – but that takes years and this winter could make or break it all. And Putin is mobilizing several hundred thousand new troops.

Refuse to finance aggression

My last trip was to Berlin. A train trip that reminded me of my youth (ah the excitement of getting to Copenhagens Huvudbangaard – the gate to Europe). The train sped past the windmills that are powering it. Renewables are now so cheap that they are conquering the markets but some hurdles remain until all of Europe is renewable. Berlin is The Ground Zero of European history. The expressionist art in the museums gives you a feel of the sheer, raw violence of their history. The Jewish museum details how gradual the dehumanization was that led to Shoah (Holocaust). The fascists are gaining power in Italy, Sweden, and Hungary. Even the US. Brexit has done its damage and the only lady who symbolized decency is no more. She is interred. People say the Sweden Democrats are not as bad as the Nazis. Well, probably not, but do we want to take the risk? The Nazis didn’t start by telling us they were going to kill so many people and lay Europe in ashes either.

Europe should unite in their negotiations with Russia and refuse to pay more for his gas – refuse to finance his aggression. If we acted jointly and taxed our own domestic consumption, we could force a low unified price of gas for the whole of Europe but charge a high price to the consumers so that they insulate buildings and build renewable energy. Instead, we are divided and each country cuts its own deal and particularly the fascist regimes or the silent and prudent regimes are given little favors. The populations demand cheap fuel and even the democrats are scared. They are scared of losing elections to the fascists so they copy their policies and lower energy taxes at the very moment when they are needed.

Consumer taxes are bad for Putin

Let me explain! Energy markets can be complicated but one part is quite simple: There is an equilibrium price associated with every physical flow of say gas. If the price were lower people would demand more. If the price were higher consumers would demand less and gas would be left over (and press down the price again). The consumer price consists (for simplicity) of the price we pay to Putin plus taxes. If we have a high consumption tax then Putin is forced to accept a lower price and lower profits. That is one good reason for him to fund Le Pen, the Sweden Democrats, and the fascists in Italy. They are shameless or clueless and get votes by promising to reduce fuel taxes. If the fuel taxes in Europe are reduced – then Putin can raise his selling price.

A war for climate and democracy

It’s a two-front war. We need to develop renewables fast enough to beat the worst effects of climate change. This planet is lucky and renewables actually do work. When we “enviros” first talked about them in the 1970s it seemed like a romantic dream to get energy from the sun and wind. But time is needed. There are problems. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine we need storage and transmission so we can use hydro or batteries. This will take time and require funding and public acceptance. It will require fighting opportunists who will say “why not just start the diesel generator”.

At the same time, we have to fight for democracy in a war against both stupidity and fascism. The environmental problems are hard enough to solve for sensible politicians. With the likes of Trump, Berlusconi, or Meloni there is no chance that climate change will be solved.

We are traveling to sell knowledge of public goods, externalities, and the idea that if we voluntarily tax ourselves for using fossil fuel we will not enrich autocrats and the necessary transition to renewables will be faster. And it better be fast. We face two daunting enemies: climate change and the weaponized autocrats who want to stop renewables and sell black gold. Putin is conscious of all this and thinks strategically. He wants to stop democracy and liberalism and renewables. Then he can sell fossil fuels and uranium. Even a sensible country like Sweden stopped the fuel blending mandates to avoid the fuels getting too expensive. Less vegetable oil means more – yes you guessed it: More fossil fuel.

We also need to up our game and think strategically. We are traveling to sell the idea of emissions pricing as a path to a fossil-free society – but we must also take seriously the concerns of everyone struggling to pay their bills. The energy companies are making record profits and should be taxed. Those with moderate incomes do need to be compensated. Yes – but generally not by lowering the price of energy: use the money to send checks or lower income taxes instead.

I see the contours of Lake Victoria. I fear we will have similar debates in Colombia, Tanzania, and India. I was once a speaker at a conference in India on ecological economics and met some wonderful students writing theses on providing toilets for girls so that they can attend school. They asked me about the topic of my sustainability speech. I said gasoline taxes and they said: what’s that got to do with the subject sir?

Blog post | 5 October 2022