I watched Before the Flood today, the Leonardi di Caprio film on climate change. I think it does a great job for three reasons. First, it brings the debate on climate change to the masses, which the articles that scientists write in Science or Nature won’t do, nor will the class with 25 graduate students to whom I taught climate ethics. It’s great to have in-depth and very detailed debates on either the science or the ethics of climate change, but this problem needs mass mobilisation. Second, it gives a more visual and narrative complement to an intellectual approach to climate change (have you ever tried to read the IPCC reports? You’ll understand what I mean). As Piers Sellars, an astronaut and director of the Earths Sciences Division of NASA says in the movie, he understood the problem of climate change intellectually for a long time, but only when he saw the fragility of the Earth from space, really captured the scale and significance of the problem. A film such as this one can be that non-cognitive complement for all of us. Third, Di Caprio interviews an impressive range of people from different sectors and different countries, which makes the movie interesting and rhetorically powerful.
The most powerful scene is when he interviews Sunita Narain, from the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi. When Di Caprio talks with her about what will happen if the millions of Indian poor who now use biomass energy will turn to coal, she responds that if there were an easy solution to getting renewable energy to the global poor, we would have long implemented it. And she adds: “Your [that is, the American] consumption is going to put a hole in the planet. I think this is the conversation we need to have”. She wants to focus on the issue of the excessive ecological burdens by the US lifestyles and consumption (and of course the same applies, although to a lesser extent, to other affluent countries). I was surprised when Di Caprio responded by saying, yes, we need to change our lifestyles, “and it is not going to happen.”
That came as a blow. Di Caprio seems to believe that we need to put all our cards on the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and that if that is accomplished, we can go on living as we have been doing in the last decades. Di Caprio should have acknowledged that in addition to the energy transition it would require massive changes in people’s values and habits and traditions. Carbon emissions also come from all the stuff we buy, and the meat and cheese we eat. Moreover, while many of us are already heating our houses and working on our computers with green energy, it is not at all clear to me how quickly there will be a non-fosile-fuel-based way of flying. As long as there isn’t, we should avoid flying as much as we can, and in some countries flying is much more seen as ‘middle class’ consumption than in other countries. As long as there is no climate-friendly way to fly, we should envisage flying as a luxury consumption good rather than an ordinary consumption good. Also, cows will keep producing shit and hence emit methane into the atmosphere. Hence I just think we will need to change our lifestyles even if we have clean electricity. For me, the frankness with which Sunita Narain confronted the role of consumption in the US (and by extension – Europe, Canada, Australia, etc.) was the best part of the movie.
And then there was the surprising appearance of Greg Mankiw, who argued (sensibly) that what we need primarily is a carbon tax. Di Caprio asks him: “Let me get this straight. You are a republican who wants more taxes?” – to which Mankiw responds “One of the important things to keep in mind, is that if you have a carbon tax, you can turn around and cut other taxes in response”, such as the payroll tax. “It’s a tax shift, rather than a tax increase.”
But that makes no sense to me. The aim of a payroll tax is to raise tax revenue, in order to pay for public goods and other public services. But the aim of a carbon tax should not be to raise tax revenue, but to minimise carbon (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. So if the carbon tax is pitched at the optimal level, it would be a level that minimises the emission of greenhouse gases, and the tax revenue from the carbon tax would be very limited. That’s what Mankiw should have said. There won’t be a reduction in payroll taxes, since the carbon tax should be high enough to strongly discourage emissions, and moreover the additional revenue raises will be much-needed for climate adaptation projects. Yes, we need more taxes, whether republicans like it or not.
Before the Flood has been freely available online on youtube and other places for the last week, though it may be the last day today, before it moves to the movie theatres. Either way, a very welcome movie that will hopefully contribute to the change that the planet needs.