The Role of Economic Policy in Climate Justice: A Conversation with Marc Lee

Pearl Leung

Pearl Leung

Digital Marketing Coordinator

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. (Formerly Climate Ventures Mornings, we gave this event a new name to welcome speakers and attendees from coast to coast!) This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

Marc Lee is not your average economist. Though classically trained, he became interested in ideas outside the mainstream, finding inspiration in institutional and ecological economics. This becomes clear in his writing, where he blends his background in economics with ideas from sociology and psychology, often arguing against the conventional wisdom.

Today, Marc is a Senior Economist with the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), where his work focuses on the role of policy in climate justice.

On a November afternoon, Marc sat down with our Director of Programs Barnabe Geis for an online conversation about his research, what he’s learned over the years, and the possibilities the future holds. We’ve highlighted a few key ideas that resonate with us in excerpts and clips below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

On This Page

Growth at All Costs

The word “economics” originates from the Greek root oikonomia, which means “management of the household for the benefit of all members.” Yet, in our capitalist economy, we’ve equated economics with growth and the maximization of short-term profits (a term Herman Daly coined as “crematistics”).

Marc called on us to interrogate which industries we’re allowing to grow, who that growth impacts, and how it impacts them:

“Ultimately this is about the growth and amount of resources that are consumed by the top tier of humanity – the top 10% to 15% – and the amount of waste and resource depletion that we collectively impose on the planet, often for frivolous things. Meanwhile, huge portions of human civilization are very poor and don’t benefit from economic growth. So coming back to the idea of what an economy is for… we need to use our collective wealth and intelligence to build an economy to ensure we meet everyone’s basic needs.

A Phantom Fear of Debt

In discussions about policies and programs that will create a more equitable future for all, we are often hindered by what Marc calls a phantom fear of debt: the idea that in the future some group of people will owe too much to another group. What matters is that we deploy resources in the here and now to stabilize incomes and employment.

Public debt is not as scary as some make it out to be. When the Government of Canada issues debt (i.e. borrows), the Bank of Canada is also buying up a lot of debt in the form of outstanding government bonds, effectively becoming the lender. And at the end of the year, the Bank of Canada’s profit reverts back back to… the Government of Canada! This is a process called quantitative easing.

Issuing government debt has a number of benefits: it creates a safe place where Canadians can invest their money, it stimulates spending and injects money back into the economy, and it helps maintain higher levels of employment.

The Price is Right

There’s this idea among economists that if we could just set a carbon tax that reflects all the costs being imposed on third parties, then the market would do its job and get us on the net zero path. But Marc called for caution here, noting that carbon pricing is just one tool in a government’s policy toolbox and that there are many other environmental externalities besides carbon emissions.

Carbon pricing is very difficult to get right because it’s so intensely political – after all, it’s essentially a tax. We’ve made headway with some modest pricing, but politicians are wary of committing to the pricing levels we need to drive the emissions reductions necessary to meet reduction targets. However, if it is done right, it can be a great source of funds for activities that can drive climate action.

Of course, when we focus too much on carbon pricing, we lose out on opportunities to enact change through other methods. Marc expressed the need for clear rules and bans on certain activities detrimental to our environment, as well as big public investments into infrastructure – like high-speed rapid transit and affordable housing – that can act as a foundation for a healthier community.

Bodies in the Street

Much of Marc’s work focuses on government policy and regulation, but he emphasized the importance of grassroots advocacy in the movement for climate justice. Differing approaches can and do work in concert to make change.

He pointed to the Unist’ot’en peoples resistance to development on their traditional lands, which peaked early this year and sparked Indigenous-led protests (and fierce debate) in solidarity all across Canada. Hundreds of Canadians joined in, shutting down ports and stopping traffic – refusing to let the issue go unaddressed.

Marc called on us to keep up the pressure: “We need bodies in the streets to keep politicians focused. If people lead, politicians will follow.”

Further Reading

Our conversation with Marc covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a few big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation on YouTube and check out these links to continue learning:

If you want to hear more bold ideas from the world’s leading climate experts, tune in for our next Climate Ventures Conversations on December 3! We’ll be sitting down for a conversation with Bruce Wilson, who sits on the Board of Directors at Iron & Earth. RSVP here!

CSI’s Climate Ventures is an incubator, coworking space, and a range of national accelerators that support entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions. Learn more at climateventures.org

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