Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

President Obama’s Perspective on Government, Market, and Climate

Perry Recker


July 12, 2013

By Perry Recker

On the day that President Obama delivered his speech on climate change, I happened to be walking the halls of Congress, along with several hundred volunteer members of the Citizen Climate Lobby. We were there to pitch the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. As I read the transcript of the speech later, it brought to mind several observations on the roles and relationships of government, market, and environment, particularly as they relate to the principles and guidelines of the Center for Public Justice.

First, the dominant theme of the president's speech was the ability of the US civil national community, including businesses, to exercise our ingenuity to reduce carbon pollution through innovation, new technologies, science, and R&D. In doing so, we can address the primary cause and accelerating affects of climate change. Second, in the manner of an exhortatory sermon, the president laid out a visionary challenge for us to actively embrace a vision for a new low-carbon, clean energy economy, one that will not only be good for the environment and future lives of our descendants, but also good for economic growth as a whole. Although this means setting standards for efficiency and targets for emission reductions, this is not a (stereo)typical command and control imposition of rules and regulations.

Looking at the various elements of government action involved, I believe the president’s plan falls well within the realm of legitimate government responsibilities as outlined in the CPJ Guideline for Government. From a “life is religion” perspective, I can also accept the implicit premise that economies may be shaped, guided, and inspired as much by a common collective vision as by positive government law, with the ‘free’ but responsible choices of its diverse agents regarding investment, production, job, and consumer decisions.        

But the central problem I see in this plan is that we need need a more aggressive time frame for reducing our use of fossil fuel-based energy than the plan seems to assure.  The revenue neutral carbon tax, which I wrote about previously and as advocated by the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, would address this better and in a more natural way.

In his book The Case for a Carbon Tax, Shi-Ling Hsu explains that while governments are good at “reducing bads” (e.g., by identifying and regulating pollutants for public health) they are not so good at picking winners in the marketplace and “increasing goods” (p.53-56.)  While government subsidies for a particular good or service may at first support a public good, they often lead to problems such as the excessive formation of physical capital (p.41). When R & D costs skyrocket before a particular good can be profitably brought to market, governments cannot disinvest or shift investment to other fruitful areas nearly as fast as a market can. In such cases, the market has no way to counterbalance the government’s excess.

On the other hand, markets can find some positive use or benefit from government regulation of pollutants that are created as by products of a particular productive activity. A revenue-neutral carbon tax covering the true costs of fossil fuel-based energy is not “the” solution to climate change; rather, it proposes a way to set conditions that will allow a variety of the most efficient and economically fruitful solutions to emerge from a free but balanced and fair market.          

Some of the more confessional or spiritual/directional aspects of the speech were apparent in opening and closing with the moving image of our earthly home as seen from the Apollo 8 voyages. I found it curious that the president framed an “antithesis” by cast(igat)ing his opponents as  “doomsayers” who exhibit “a fundamental lack of faith” in the ability of American business and ingenuity to grow our economy and to create new jobs that contribute to a healthy environment and future for our children.  Usually, advocates of a strong response to the threats of climate change are often deprecated as alarmists by climate change denialists and staunch defenders of the free market.

Lastly, I was not entirely comfortable with the president’s tacit assumption that economic growth and technological progress are good in and of themselves. In my mind, these are some of the false idols that we, as God’s image-bearing servants, need to repent of as we seek to serve Him alone. Although we can hope that our president has some awareness of this, he is the head of a pluralistic state, and to call for a repentant change of heart would be neither appropriate nor effective. But hopefully those of us with ears to hear can take heart and direct our feet onto paths of greater stewardship of our planet, whether we are shopping on Main Street, walking the halls of Congress, treading the factory floor, or navigating the cyber-paths of financial markets.

— Perry Recker serves as a librarian for the City Colleges of Chicago. He participated in the Civitas program in faith and public affairs of the Center for Public Justice in 2006 and 2008. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”