Friday, February 07, 2014

Climate Change Demographics Should Place Income First

I usually like the Climate One series of talks at the Commonwealth Club but today's talk on "Green Latinos" fell short.  Climate change shouldn't be the concern of one ethnic group because it affects everyone.  Replace "Latinos" with any other interest group and the effects remain the same.  Honing the message matters, and some demographics may respond more enthusiastically to culturally-specific images.  The single most important demographic factor impacted by climate change is probably income level.

Take a look at the social justice messaging from groups like and the Greenlining Institute to see their strident attitudes.  Justice is a worthy goal but limiting the dialogue to race is far from Dr. Martin Luther King's message of inclusiveness.  A race-specific approach will turn off the broad middle where political coalitions win converts for action.  Contrast the radicals' approach with Fuel Freedom's common sense emphasis on the economics of free market choices that benefit everyone.

Low-income citizens live closer to pollutant sources than high-income people.  A constituency for environmental stewardship should thus exist among low-income people of all races.  That constituency should be more than just an activist base where politicians win votes.  It should be a target market for entrepreneurial solutions.  California's green transport fleet incentives are the right regulatory reform for high-traffic areas.  The unintended side effects will include pricing self-employed truckers out of port service and chassis fleet markets if they cannot afford upgrades to meet the state mandates.  This means high-polluting truckers will still find business servicing other areas, likely the same high-traffic intermodal sites near freeways and railyards where low-income people live.  This is where entrepreneurial innovation solves the rest of this problem.  Somewhere between Google X and the X-PRIZE's reward for energy and environmental innovation is a solution to pollution.

Politicians and policy analysts consider the California ARB's cap and trade revenues to be a windfall for funding all sorts of green projects.  That should raise red flags with anyone concerned about accountability.  I'd like the state to avoid the problems the US DOE experienced with its loans and grants to troubled green enterprises like Solyndra.  Cap and trade revenue can be a decent source of subsidies for low-income Californians who want upgrades to more efficient home appliances.  I'll trot out my favorite pet project for the poor once again - the public option bank - as a conduit for such subsidies.  Paying a subsidy to owner-operator truckers for engine upgrades should be contingent upon income ceilings and an account at a public bank.  Energy rebates to low-income households should run through a similar public bank channel.

Climate change is not an ethnic issue.  It's an income issue, especially for the parts of our population who can't afford to mitigate its effects.  Energy efficiency reduces utility bills and raises personal income, but the poor among us will need some help with the initial capital outlay for more efficient technologies.  The California PUC should ask me about my public option bank plan if it's serious about helping the poor escape from pollution.