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OPINION: Let’s make a deal: win-win climate change policy

The truth is that there are very real gains to share. Big investments now will create jobs and new technology.
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University / director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

There are 18 million Canadians over 40 and 18 million under 40. They live in different worlds. Whether they know it or not, they are slipping into an economic war.

If you are over 40, you are safe – global warming is not likely to hurt you too much. Your camp may burn up, your basement may flood, and the heat waves will be brutal. But 30 years from now – in 2049 – you will be dead or in an old age home. 

You will miss the worst effects of the climate catastrophe. You have no stake in the second half of the 21st century. And you dominate Canada’s government.

If you are under 40, you are going to spend your life with a growing sense of doom. You will be trying to make a living in the second half of the 21st century. Your next 15 years will see a swelling catalogue of floods, fires and deaths. 

You may suffer from ecological grief or pre-traumatic stress syndrome. You may decide that you can’t bring children into this world. The generation before you will have taken that joy and tribulation away.

Yes, these are stereotypes. There are lots of 70-year-olds who have been working to open people’s eyes. There are boomer vegans and first adopters for electric cars. And there are some very conservative young people committed to their pickup trucks, beef barbecues and flying to Mexico at Christmas. Even so, polls show the generations are, at least on average, quite different.

The over-40s have more Conservative voters, fewer climate change believers, and can’t stand the thought of paying more for gasoline, even if it doesn’t really cost them a cent. 

Under-40s are more likely to be in a panic, more likely to vote Green or Liberal, and more willing to spend to spend government money to fight global warming.

Basically, the older generation doesn’t get a lot of benefit from fighting global warming. 

The young do. If the two generations can’t take dramatic action soon, they will do future generations irreparable harm. 

Young people who suspect the older generation is screwing them will jam new programs and new taxes down the throats of the older generation. We will have an intergenerational economic civil war.

So let’s make a deal. 

The over-40s should sell the right to make any decisions about the rest of this century to the under-40s. 

Or, to put it a less contentious way, the young should bribe the old to act now. The young should share the benefits of fighting climate change with the old.

This isn’t my idea. Economists Kotlikoff, Kubler, Polbin, Sachs, and Scheidegger (among others) made the proposal in a paper called “Making Carbon Taxation a Generational Win-Win.” They used lots of math and computers to find out how climate action can make both old and young better off. They discovered that countries like Canada should go into debt to fight global warming. We can leave future generations to pay off most of the debt, because they get most of the benefit.

This idea will be hard for many conservatives. Conservatives in all parties tend to think debt is a sin. They all promise to cut the government deficits. 

But it is OK to borrow if you are investing in the future. It is not a sin to invest in education for the next generation. 

It is a sin not to invest in productive infrastructure, repairing roads and research. And it is a sin not to invest in keeping the globe a bit cooler. 

And it is not a sin for the over-40s to want to get some benefit from the investment. 

The way to transfer some of the benefit from future generations is to leave them a debt. And it is fair because they still come out ahead.

The truth is that there are very real gains to share. Big investments now will create jobs and new technology. That will make the country richer. 

The sooner we start the more there is to go around. So if you are old or just a climate conservative, you are better off switching sides today. 

Do it now.