UBI is the Economic Response to Climate Change | Opinion

Each day on my way to work, I walk past the Metronome's digital clock in Union Square. As of September 19, 2020, this clock has been re-programmed to show the time remaining until our planet's carbon budget has been used up due to us accelerating climate change. Roughly speaking, we have about six years left to reduce our carbon emissions enough to prevent irreversible damage to our planet—damage which could have devastating consequences regarding the very survival of our species.

I have my good days and bad days with respect to my own response to the clock. I often wonder: What will the economy look like when the effects of climate change begin to make some jobs impossible to do?

Generally speaking, I have more bad days than good. The clock does not account for many tipping-points which we are rapidly approaching. With continued increases—rather than the ideal decreases, or at least neutrality—of greenhouse emissions, we truly cannot afford to waste any more time combating climate change.

It is predicted that sufficient responses to climate change will, in the long-term, result in greater innovation, job creation and economic growth. A nuanced discussion is warranted. In the short-term, massive job losses in carbon-centric sectors will occur and it is not obvious how to accommodate those who will lose their jobs. Hence the "learn to code" internet meme, illustrating the callus notion that, after decades in a profession, workers can simply be re-trained to do a very different task.

What is the appropriate reaction to job losses that have nothing to do with the person who lost their job? What is the appropriate reaction to a deepening abyss of fewer jobs because of climate change?

An option that has been growing in popularity is known as Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is when a government regularly gives its constituents enough money to meet their basic needs, like buying food and securing shelter. The proposal here is quite straight forward: When and if climate change makes obtaining basic needs a common and salient struggle, the government ought to provide those basic needs. Early research indicated that UBI improved educational attainment, lowered the cost of health care, increased the rate of entrepreneurial success and pursual and marked of self-reported well-being progress.

How will this be paid for? The tax bracket is going to decrease as the job market thins out, but those who are still in the tax bracket are very likely to be wealthy. Corporations will continue to horde the majority of the wealth and this will only deepen as companies begin to develop complex artificial intelligence, along with other technological advances.

Their tax revenue is what will pay for this. Having a system in place where people's basic needs are met, in theory, allows for a form of capitalism where everyone doesn't start at zero. The hope under that reality would help prevent the inertia that is all but certain to manifest if we fail to implement any economic solution to the threat of climate change. And in place of this inertia is room for people to explore what actually matters to them and to be capable of making a living based on these explorations—something which is incredibly difficult to do under our current economic system.

The more time we wait, the less likely it will be that this sort of system will have these intended effects. What use is freeing a society to explore its true interests if where people live becomes uninhabitable? In light of this, UBI and its related changes ought to be implemented before we reach points of no return with respect to climate change. As we learned with COVID-19, scrambling to implement massive economic policy after attempting to resolve something after the fact is too late to actually fix anything in any real sense.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, in response to the prospect of automation radically overhauling our economy, referred to this state-of-affairs as consisting of a brand-new economic class: namely, the "useless class." It is conceptually possible that, what is now understood as "working class" or "lower-middle class" work, will become a relic of the past.

Under automation, it will be because technology has overtaken the load of such work. But under climate change, it will be because geographic places of civilization will become less and less inhabitable overtime. The International Labour Organization predicted that as soon as 2030, "2.2 per cent of total working hours worldwide will be lost because of higher temperatures, a loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs. This is equivalent to global economic losses of US$2,400 billion." One can only begin to imagine what this will look like past 2030 if nothing changes.

The loss of jobs as a result of the negative effects of climate change is not a hypothesis or dystopian philosophical thought. Right now, in places where climate change's effects have already been particularly vicious, excess job losses have been reported—though they've generally been underreported.

U.S. money is pictured. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Africa saw an acceleration in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters over the past few years, and the economic implications of this new trend have been damaging. Here in the United States, the massive wildfires on the west coast have forced thousands of people from their homes, with no shelter to return to; not to mention the massive economic cost of these wildfires, including hospital costs, the cost of lost days at work, the closure of businesses due to their being destroyed by the fires, partially-functioning businesses and even the long-term loss of work due to severe health complications.

Aside from the necessity of having conversations about climate change's short-term consequences, if humanity is to continue to survive and flourish, we must keep the long-term future in mind.

With the potential for climate change to irreversibly escalate, what economic plans have been tangibly put into place to accommodate for mass job losses, with the potential for large-scale losses of basic needs like food and shelter? What plans have been conceived of to deal with these economic issues?

President Joe Biden's climate plan is to transform the economy into a clean energy powerhouse, effectively transferring all of the U.S.' energy sources to clean sources by 2030. But by 2030 it will be too late. This isn't to say we shouldn't have such a shift in our energy sources, but what are we to do on the occasion that, when this new infrastructure is finished being built, we were too little too late?

What about the Paris agreement's economic plan? Their key economic proposals are based on the assumption of global cooperation and adaptation to the looming concern of climate change. This—in part due to an increase of nationalism across the world—is profoundly unlikely to happen.

Think about the world's response to COVID-19. While there was an impressive level of cooperation, it was nowhere near enough to mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump was not the only world leader who publicly denied the existence of climate change. The policy decisions of many who publicly acknowledge climate change indicate just as much negligence as those who publicly deny it. And there is an astonishing number of current members of Congress—those who play a massive role in determining U.S. climate policy—who deny the existence or significance of climate change.

What hope, then, is there for true cooperation globally? The Paris climate plan needs to account for the extreme unlikelihood of global cooperation. The U.N. does not have the power to force Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping to cooperate with reducing the problem of climate change, nor does any single country.

I am not convinced that enough of the human population has enough empathy or care to give up their lifestyle of excess consumption of commodities in time to mitigate the risk of climate change. It is truly a rose-colored glasses notion to expect people to give up eating meat, using their phones and continuing to purchase the latest gadget in the name of saving the planet. Most of us already know about the risks of this lifestyle with respect to climate change, so if the change was going to happen, it already would have happened. Our immersion in market culture and the mindset of viewing the world as having resources to exploit is too deep to pull out from in time.

In light of the growing existential threats of climate change and automation—not to mention cyber warfare and nuclear proliferation—we can no longer afford to treat these threats as if they're mere science fiction. These threats are actual at this point, not potential. Real solutions must be implemented.

At the moment, there has been little progress in our ability to come up with such solutions. UBI is important because it is the only thoroughly thought out plan to face these challenges. Implementing it is worth the shot—it is surely better than doing nothing.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.