Someone who loves nature can only be angry at this. In June of last year the President Obama called for international lending institutions to stop funding coal-fired plants overseas. The World Bank and the US Export-Import bank both agreed not to fund such plants except in the poorest of countries where there was no alternative. You just think some progress has been made and now US lawmakers propose a bill to prevent the Export-Import bank from blocking fossil-fuel investments on the grounds that it would harm US exporters.
This is all wrong.
First, a government providing export credit to domestic manufacturers runs against a belief in free and fair markets and common sense business. There is a reason why you don’t sell to risky countries – there is a high probability that the customers won’t or can’t pay. So what business has the government knowingly and willingly taking such a risk? To support domestic jobs. In this matter there is no difference between a communist government which manufactures goods oblivious to the natural, market demand of customers, and a capitalist government which provides export credit guarantees; since that provision implies that there is no natural demand for the product at a market price which fully reflects the risks of the sale. Thus the capitalist government is promoting manufacturing for its own sake, just like its communist counterpart.
Second, this move is untenable from the point of view of an ecological morality. Manufacturers of coal-plant and their political allies know the harm done by fossil fuels. People intelligent enough to run coal-plant companies are intelligent enough to listen carefully and attentively to the science. Their failure to attend to this is a mark of cowardice.
But a more important observation emerges from this situation, to do with the effectiveness of government.
Laws work because the majority of people don’t intend to break them anyway. Laws against theft or random violence, for example, broadly work because most people already culturally know that those things don’t pay. So these laws are needed in order to remind the majority and constrain only a small minority.
The trouble with laws about emissions of greenhouse gases is that they seek to constrain a majority. Everyone is looking for a way around them, since there is no deep-set cultural acceptance of them, no cultural rejection of emissions. These laws are a fragile fix and will be as long as the majority are intent on evading or avoiding them.
Rules, regulations, taxes and incentives don’t make bad people good. They help nudge our thinking in the right direction. But as long as coal-plant manufacturers (like manufacturers of hand-guns) think it is culturally ok to sell their lethal technology, they will do all they can to do so, and seek to overturn any law which stands in their way, by fair means or foul. Only when those technologies become culturally and socially unacceptable, will the laws which constrain them be robust.
This has implications for climate change policy. It is not enough to come up with clever schemes. You have to change the hearts of the people. As written many times in this blog, the best way to do that is shamelessly and intently to bring people to love nature.