American social scientist Ronald Inglehart suggested in his seminal book The Silent Revolution (1977) that people who reach a certain level of material wealth and physical security tend to give top priority to goals such as environmental protection, freedom of speech, and gender equality. Inglehart, who coined the term postmaterialism, argued that the values of Western publics in the 1970s had been shifting from an “overwhelming emphasis on material well-being and physical security toward greater emphasis on the quality of life.” This famous theory is valid today as well.
In a world of uneven growth and growing economic inequality, these values usually conflict. In France, for instance, thousands of people have been rioting for over a month to protest a fuel tax, forcing the government to abandon plans of transitioning to a greener economy.
Human-caused climate change is real, its impact is ongoing and must be addressed immediately. But governments can’t work effectively if their climate change measures are crippling businesses and taxing everyday people. Government subsidies for green choices aren’t helping because they often end up benefitting the rich anyway. Green cars, for instance, can usually be afforded by people in the upper-middle-income bracket of the society. No wonder Tesla is making exceptional sales in Norway, one of the richest countries in the world.
When it comes to adapting to a greener economy, the U.S. is not even close to some European nations like Denmark and the Netherlands. However, the climate change deniers movement has been gathering steam in the past couple of years. Small businesses can’t afford climate change measures, government subsidies aren’t sufficient (and disastrous in the case of Solyndra), and fuel taxes in states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania are taking a toll on rural farmers who operate heavy equipment and rely on cheaper fuel and highly-taxed diesel. It finds a receptive audience when populist leaders like Donald J. Trump rails against the climate change.
Taking care of the environment shouldn’t be expensive. Instead of rewarding the rich who can afford to go green and punishing the poor who can only use fossil fuels, governments should subsidize projects that make green options available, accessible, affordable, and efficient.
When people are forced to choose between protecting the environment and paying their bills, it is almost certain what they will choose. Punishing everyday workers for not picking green will almost certainly create a backlash, as we have seen in France in recent weeks and in the U.S. in recent years, and will probably hurt efforts to address climate change in the long run.