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6/26/19

The global fight against climate change will cost trillions - not billions

While the reception to my Global Green New Deal paper with People's Policy Project was overwhelmingly positive, I noticed three trends that confirmed a longstanding suspicion:


1. There is no significant controversy over the scale of funding needed. I was admittedly a little surprised by this, because the figures are so astronomical that I was half-expecting someone to show up and say "you misread that model, it's billion not trillion." But, nope: as far as I can tell, absolutely no one in the field has taken issue with the basic premise of our proposal.

2. The public is largely unaware of the scale of funding needed. There is a sphere of people working in climate finance and development, of internationally-oriented activists and journalists, and of adjacent scientists and economists who are well aware of the climate funding problem. But outside of that field, almost no one gets how big the problem is; the standard reaction to our paper among the general public was surprise and incredulity.

How can we explain this information gap?

3. Professionals who know about the international climate finance problem often passively lowball it to the public. And this includes precisely those journalists, activists, and academics who one would expect to speak hard truths to the public about climate change. Here's an example of how this works. In an article on climate finance that covered our paper, Rachel Cohen talked to writer and activist Oscar Reyes:
Still, he said, aiming to raise $2 trillion — especially considering corruption in the international development space — is not necessarily the way to go. 
“What probably makes more sense to me at the moment is, let’s get the Green Climate Fund to $20 billion, or $30 billion, and build the organization up in a sustainable way,” he said. “If you throw out a lot of money, it’s really difficult to see how that’s done, though maybe that’s my lack of imagination.”
Reyes is right that international development is riddled with corruption and that expanding the GCF to manage a portfolio proportional to $2t in annual income would be a challenge. Does this amount to an argument for defaulting to the corruption and profiteering of green development managed by various philanthropists, businesses and NGOs in the private sector? That seems debatable, at least! And yet by the end of the day, this is the figure that another left think tank was running with:


You can see here how this happens quite innocuously, without any effort to mislead or misrepresent the actual sum needed. Reyes acknowledges our figure, suggests that "at the moment" we should "build the [GCF] up" (towards something resembling the GGND?) by giving it 1/100th of the funding, and carefully qualifies this as his opinion. The IPS promotes its writer with a tweet, but in its paraphrase the final figure ($2t) is gone, $20-30b is presented as the new goal (it's "enough to start"), and all of this is presented with certitude ("points out") instead of as a subjective judgment. Obviously a casual reader is going to look at this and think "Okay, the goal is $20-30 billion, got it."

So why is there a huge information gap between wonks and the public when it comes to international climate finance? In part, it's because people and institutions are making judgments about how we can get to several trillion in annual funding; their plans, for various reasons, begin with an initial ask for much lower levels of public investment; and then, in their outward-facing discussions about climate finance, they often present those initial asks as if they reflect the actual need.

Obviously I think this is a problem since I want the public to pressure the state into assuming full financial responsibility for defending us against climate change by rolling out a Global Green New Deal. But even if you want to pursue some kind of hybrid private / public approach to funding, it's hard to see how anyone is well served by leaving the actual funding need to wallow in obscurity.