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Stephen Gottlieb: The Environmental Action Agenda

A few months ago, both Steve Leibo and I brought attention to an MIT study that suggested that a carbon tax could be a win-win-win solution. It would meet some Republican and some Democratic objectives, by allowing Congress to keep income taxes low, allow the Bush tax cuts to remain, yet fund Democratic social policies, all the while reducing our use and dependence on carbon based energy, which is destroying the environment, and is likely to leave an uninhabitable earth for our grandchildren.

I like the carbon tax. I assume many of you think it’s a good idea. But obviously it has not formed the basis of a national bargain, and it seems to me unlikely that this divided Congress is going to support it. Nor are we likely to get undivided government short of a national catastrophe. So that looks like a non-starter even though, perhaps because, it is such a good idea. Some people seem to be allergic to science, poo-pooing whatever they don’t understand, but their allergic reactions are going to sicken all of us. Somehow we have to act.

Since the politics is stuck, we have to find a way around it. The Occupy movement changed the balance in Washington, but did not have the organizational center that the tea party movement did. Liberals often avoid management, authority, and the responsibility and accountability that go with it, in favor of a more dispersed approach to problem solving. Strangely, liberals, who see the flaws in market thinking, organize their social action as if they were guided by an unstructured free market, while conservatives who espouse the free market, actually organize themselves very hierarchically. And in the political fight to change the subject and move us off center, organization and hierarchy would have helped the Occupy movement which fizzled too soon.

So Bill McKibben has another idea. He points to a strategy that does not go through government action but takes direct private action on the trouble-makers, the energy companies that are spewing carbon on our future, trapping heat in the atmosphere, warming the oceans, and making the earth less livable. His solution picks up on the kind of pressure we once put on South Africa – divestment! He wants us to divest our holdings in petro-chemical companies. What I want from big oil is to stop blocking major reforms, like a carbon tax, and to get on board dealing with the coming environmental disaster.

Perhaps you read in Sunday’s Times about the impact that a major drought had on the conflict in Syria. We’ve had very significant drought in the U.S. And we will not be in a good position to deal with it if the earth warms out of control. We’ve been experiencing very destructive storms. Even if we got our politics under control, there’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves from the damage of storms, the erosion of the coasts, the rise of sea levels and the droughts in parts of the country.

Divestment could dislodge the politics. It’s something we can all participate in. And push the institutions we’re part of to divest, to push the universities and retirement funds and foundations to divest. We can exert pressure. And it’s time we start.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.