Few people today would deny the negative impacts that pollution and climate change can have on human health and well-being. The challenge lies in tackling this given that there are almost always tradeoffs that must be addressed, yet people can fail to acknowledge them when they have a singular focus on a particular outcome that favors a particular industry.
Consider this hypothetical example: Which would you prefer provide electricity to your home? A polluting coal plant or solar panels made with slave labor? The answer should obviously be to reject slave labor, but what if you had to choose? Complicating this further, how does one weigh the human suffering caused by pollution from a coal plant compared to the violation of human rights for producing solar panels?
It’s time to move beyond “save the planet no matter what the cost” to “saving the planet is about protecting the people on it in both the short and long term.” If we don’t accept this reframing, policies meant to reduce human suffering by addressing climate change can actually make that suffering worse. In the end, voters own this issue. We cannot support politicians based on slogans. We must hold them accountable for the results of their policies, taking all relevant factors into account.
Tradeoffs Are Inevitable
Nearly all consumption entails some form of tradeoff in one way or another. Even the simple act of eating almost always requires that land be cleared and turned from habitat into farm. Naturally, the more conscious we become of the potential harm from our consumption, the more we tend to prefer sustainable alternatives. Regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, electric vehicles (EVs), reusable shopping bags and more all appeal to our sensibilities of concern. But what happens when we discover that there is an unintended consequence from some of our pushes for a more sustainable life?
Take the case of EVs, which almost always require cobalt. Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that utilizes child labor. And what about solar panels, the largest provider of which is China? Most of the world’s polysilicon for solar panels comes from the Xinjiang province, where the Uyghur religious minority is used as slave labor. Then there are wind turbines that require neodymium, most of which comes from China, where their rare earth mining has created a toxic waste retention pond three times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. Even attempts to replace plastic have exposed people to more harmful chemicals, and pushes for sustainable agriculture can actually incentivize the uptake of unsustainable agriculture elsewhere.
As society has marched toward a green energy transition in recent years, we have learned that not everything is as green as it seems when the social dimension is taken into account. The appropriate response in these cases is, of course, not to halt progress, but to attack the problems of human suffering where they arise. It is possible to be pro-solar and anti-solar-produced-with-slave-labor, or pro-EV and anti-EV-made-with-child-labor. The problem, though, is policymakers rarely want to reckon with what that might look like or be forced to admit that sometimes their policies got it wrong and made problems worse.
Part of the huge demand for solar panels, even ones produced with slave labor, results from billions of dollars in subsidies paid by wealthy countries. Yet when it was discovered that many of these solar panels were made with slave labor and ought not to be imported, officials have slow-walked or skirted such restrictions since it would be harder to meet their “clean energy objectives.” Such a sentiment is incorrect: ending slave labor is a higher priority than meeting a renewable portfolio standard deadline.
Similarly, despite EVs being in the news for “blood batteries,” the push for them has not abated. Europe recently adopted zero-emission vehicle mandates and the U.S. is pursuing one of its own. The Inflation Reduction Act at least set limitations on subsidy eligibility for EVs made with child labor, but this has a blunted impact when the administration is still proposing a mandate for two- thirds of vehicle sales to be electric by 2032, increasing the overall global demand for EV battery minerals.
The problem with the current clean energy policy paradigms is that politicians have become too deeply mired in a sort of technological tribalism that seems to prevent them from acknowledging that there are times when their preferred energy and transportation sources are not appropriate to use. The Biden administration is so focused on opposing fossil fuels at every turn that it has ironically embraced a policy move with respect to offshore energy leases that the Obama administration concluded would increase global GHG emissions. Conversely, the Trump administration was so wedded to coal that it at one point considered using the power of big government to force Americans to buy coal power even when it was being retired in the wake of cheaper natural gas and renewables.
We see this all the time, where politicians have drawn lines in the sand. Oil, coal, nuclear, gas, combustion engine vehicles, and plastics on one side, and solar, wind, EVs, and plastic bans on the other. This red versus blue environmentalism misses the mark because the benefit to the public from good policies on these issues is to reduce pollution, and ultimately reduce human suffering. In the context of maximizing benefits instead of preference for industries, the appropriate policies look a lot different than what we often see touted by politicians.
Instead of subsidies and mandates for renewable energy and EVs, the more appropriate policy is to tax the pollution associated with fuel consumption and prohibit imports of products made using slave or child labor. Instead of banning plastics, the best way to reduce plastic pollution is instead to improve plastic waste management, especially overseas. Instead of opposing new mining in the U.S. and importing foreign product, the better approach is to embrace socially responsible mining, much of which would occur domestically. And instead of opposing industrial-scale farming, we should embrace our highly productive agriculture industry that is able to avoid the need to destroy animal habitats abroad for farmland.
The list could go on, and on. There are times when pipelines reduce pollution. There are times when fossil fuel exports cut emissions. And there are advantages to having the U.S., with its comparatively better labor and environmental protections, be a producer of goods rather than ceding such production to overseas producers that have no compunction about the pollution or harm they cause.
Some additional important context that can’t be ignored is that much of the raw materials and finished products we desire to address climate change come from reprehensible despotic regimes that have little to no concern for human suffering. On top of that, China, which is the world’s leading global supplier of clean energy technologies, stands out as our major geopolitical rival. We are not naïve and are not advocating for an end to trade relations that have brought forth many benefits (and sometimes create opportunities to temper our trading partners). But we also must recognize the advantage we are helping China gain in industries like solar panels, minerals refining, electrolysers, EVs, etc., and the supply chain vulnerabilities that come from relying on China for products that are essential to the functioning of a clean energy economy.
The Responsibility of Voters
When we start interrogating policy by focusing on outcomes instead of methods, we end up with different policies. It may not be as catchy for politicians to change their slogans from “keep it in the ground” to “sometimes keep it in the ground,” or “ban single-use plastic” to “ban single-use plastic except for avoiding food waste.” But politicians are responsible for representing the interests of the public and their constituents, which ostensibly means that when choosing between what is popular and what is actually good for people, politicians should be choosing the latter. The policies that come out of Congress and the administration ought to be focused on reducing harm, not simply favoring producers that are popular among their constituents.
But the idea that politicians need to be better on policy is something that begins with voters since it is ultimately they that hold politicians accountable (and frustratingly often reward bad behavior from politicians). Questions like “How are you ensuring that these policies do not worsen child labor?” or “Are we considering the full global environmental impacts of this policy?” are important and seldom asked.
Ultimately, achieving governmental policy that truly reduces human suffering requires holding politicians accountable for the outcomes of their policies, not their choices of industries to support. Rewarding politicians for touting industry progress under their watch instead of human progress only entrenches the technological tribalism seen from politicians today. In the future, we ought to see politicians focusing on the tangible environmental and human improvement under their watch, and not just a tally of how much has been spent on one industry over another.
Philip Rosetti is a Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at The R Street Institute.
Robert G. Eccles is at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.