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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Picking Winners and Losers
distributed 4/13/18 - ©2018

It is time to reject the oft-repeated claim that "government should not be picking winners and losers" with its energy policies. Indeed, we need to be very clear in spelling out the moral criteria for defining who the winners of those policies have to be, because the current approach is getting the answer totally wrong.

I've come to see this rather arcane economic question as an essential moral debate which must be addressed explicitly in the struggle for a just and sustainable future. The question came to a head for me recently as I tried to figure out a new piece of legislation in the Colorado Senate. At first, that strange little bill seemed absurd and laughable, but I now see it as an ideological assertion that cannot go unchallenged.

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Colorado Senate Bill 18-226 is only about one page long, and most of that is definitions. The first sentence pretty much says it all: "The governor shall not enter Colorado into or involve Colorado with a state-level climate collaboration." If the state is already involved in one of those collaborations, then the governor has to withdraw from such participation.

A state-level climate collaboration is defined as "an organization or alliance of states that attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or to otherwise promote the goals of the Paris Agreement ... dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance."

When I first heard about the bill, I saw it as a stupid piece of over-reach by the "climate deniers" in the Senate, and took comfort in the fact that -- if it passed the Republican-controlled Senate -- it was doomed in the Democratic controlled House, and would never be signed by the nominally Democratic governor.

But then I started to wonder, how can I make a case against this strange piece of legislation? If I went to testify at a committee hearing (as I was urged to do by some colleagues), what on earth could I say that would make sense? What really is the issue here?

So I took a look at the websites of the two Senators who are sponsors of the bill. I noted, first off, that both of them are running for election and may be eager to float a "message bill" that proves the clarity of their philosophical stances. On both of their websites, I found language that illuminates why these two would object to state governments cooperating to promote the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Senator John Cooke's short statement on "Energy and Environment" says (emphasis added):

Colorado is blessed with plentiful natural resources and beautiful landscapes. Consumers and the environment both benefit with a market approach toward energy resources free from mandates and government selected winners and losers.

Senator Kevin Lundberg's economic statements include this longer paragraph (again, with emphasis added):

Conventional energy production is a key to our nation's economic prosperity. Renewables are great when they make economic sense, but our policy needs to be 'all of the above.' With recent drilling technologies and new discoveries of oil and gas reserves we are at the beginning stages an economic recovery of historical proportions. Asserting a national resolve to empower our free market economic system to develop our energy resources is essential.

These two senators may have numerous objections to the Paris Agreement, but I started to see their proposed bill, not as a diatribe against climate responsibility, but as a stand for free-market economics against any kind of government intrusion.

I think that the senators are convinced that a state-level climate collaboration would take steps to pick winners (renewable energy) and losers (fossil fuels). Their economic philosophies find such intrusion to be abhorrent.

In contrast, my economic philosophies -- rooted in my Christian faith and eco-justice principles -- proudly announce "a preferential option for the poor." My faith calls me to reject a purely market-based approach to energy and climate policy. There are two ways in which I assert that stand.

First, I insist that we have to redefine the notion of "winners and losers" in this debate. As the phrase is generally used, it refers to industry outcomes. It deals with which particular businesses or industries might be hurt or helped. That business-focused discussion on fossil fuels vs. renewable energy industries misses the point. We must not let the conventional usage to blind us to the real moral issue.

There is a far larger category of winners and losers that is hidden in the conventional discussion. A "market approach toward energy resources" under current market systems guarantees that there will be big losers: all future generations and Earth's biosphere. If our society continues to extract and burn fossil fuels, the climate impacts will be devastating. The category of winners is small and short term. It includes those with investments in fossil fuels, of course, but we also have to admit that most of us are short-term winners from low energy prices and the comfort and convenience of our high-energy lifestyles.

There will be winners and losers, and my moral convictions cannot accept the casual dumping of all generations to come into the loser category. We must make a choice, and I pick the future and the health of God's creation.

There is a second layer of critique about the free-market system itself. A short and engaging article from the Independent Voter Network gets to the heart of it in two paragraphs. The first looks at business winners and losers; the second can be seen in the larger frame of social and climate justice.

When people say, 'the government should not pick winners and losers,' then, what they are actually saying is, 'we should allow winners and losers to be chosen by fundamentally amoral market forces that encourage acquisition, accumulation, and cutthroat competition and empower those with small advantages to press them until they become crushing economic weapons.'

Instead of just saying 'government should not pick winners and losers' as though this were possible or desirable, then, perhaps we should try to understand how winning and losing happen -- no matter who is doing the picking -- and structure a society where winners and losers are picked by rules that everybody has some say in creating. Largely, this is what it means to live under a government.

The market does have biases which shape who will win and lose, and those outcomes have clearly moral consequences. Government involvement can be necessary when the morality of the market's outcome is unacceptable to the community.

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There is a wonderful paper by Buddhist philosopher David Loy that I often turn to as a reality check -- "The Religion and the Market." He describes a "peculiarly European or Western (but now global) religion, an individualistic religion of economics and markets, which explains all of these outcomes [of economic disparity] as the inevitable results of an objective system in which . . . intervention is counterproductive." In this "religion," the workings of the market are seen natural and inevitable. Meddling in the market, essentially, is seen as violating God's will.

The two Colorado senators have declared their profound faith in the religion of the market with their short piece of legislation. Their trust in the market pushes them to keep the state of Colorado from joining with other states to protect the great losers of a climate-warped world.

As a central principle of my Christian ethics, I insist that government must pick winners and losers on this global and intergenerational scale. It is a central obligation of governments to ensure that future generations inherit a livable world.

That's what I'll tell the Senators when I testify next week.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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