A Radical Approach to Tackling Climate Change? – Building Model Citizens

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Climate change has finally become trendy. 

A recent Yale poll indicated that 73% of Americans accept that global warming is happening, and 72% now say global warming is personally important to them—the highest values since the polls began in 2008. However, no positive result is without triviality, as a University of Chicago survey further revealed that only 53% of Americans would pay at least $1 per month to combat climate change, illustrating the significant dichotomy between rhetoric and action.

It’s easy to talk the talk, but we aren’t too great at walking the walk.

This dichotomy is what economists call the ‘pollution externality.’ The London School of Economics describes this as a problem because “polluters are not required to bear the full cost of the pollution they create in terms of the costs to wider society.” Thus, combating global warming requires society to accept the onus of its actions. Past Western approaches have failed to answer this question of responsibility convincingly. 

Eastern approaches may prove more practical.

In 2014, sixty-five years after George Orwell published 1984, the Chinese government released the white paper The Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020). This paper illustrates a detailed outline of how China, by 2020,  plans to put the onus onto society by bringing Orwell’s totalitarian ‘Big Brother’ into reality through a Social Credit System. The system utilizes innovative technology such as big data analysis and over 170+ million surveillance cameras with facial recognition technology, to monitor, regulate, reward and punish citizens, reports Wired columnist Rachel Botsman. If you’d like to see my extensive 29-page research paper on China’s Social Credit System click here

Individuals on the low-end of the spectrum may be denied from luxury hotels, refused for a mortgage or job, have their pet confiscated, and, due to the publicity of the score, socially exiled. High scorers receive discounts on public services but might also receive unexpected benefits, such as profile boosts from dating website Baihe, reports Business Insider. 

The overall concept of rating systems is familiar to the developed world in the form of financial consumer credit ratings, and in recent years, society has also seen a rise in online public rating systems on peer-to-peer platforms such as eBay, Uber, and Airbnb. Everyone has a public rating, and it’s becoming more and more popular and informing more of our decisions.

The Western world, however, is unfamiliar with the invasion of privacy rights and totalitarian oversight by China’s ambitious system. Following Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, more consumers in the West have become skeptical of data privacy and big-data collection, with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) the most stringent; China, realizing the world runs on data, instead embraces non-hostile use of data by organizations for a common good. Thus, as a 2019 European University Institute Department of Law working paper argues, Chinese models (not model) should be studied in the West in understanding the potential breadth of innovation diversity—such as technology and data applied to social credit in a non-democracy government—that has often been overlooked. 

To create a climate accountability system in the West, an ecological footprint score, an all-encompassing score of climate impact which consolidates the use of six categories of productive surface areas (cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land) shall be implemented in local governments, businesses & organizations, and individuals by utilizing innovative regulatory technology illustrated in Chinese models. Similar to food-safety ratings on restaurant front-windows in New York, or Uber driver ratings, these scores shall be made public.

Incentives will be created for a low footprint score. For example, nations will receive beneficial treatment in international affairs from international organizations, including but not limited to the World Trade Organization, The World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; local governments receive subsidies from state government; business and organizations receive subsidies, tax breaks, and increased business through better social reputation; individuals receive rebates, discount perks for public services, and better social reputation. Further experiments may involve an ecological footprint tax, with all tax revenues mandatorily reinvested into green initiatives, further subsidies, or rebates. In Beijing, a residential community is using facial recognition to allow residents to open trash bins for sorting, and residents earn redeemable points for classifying trash correctly. Not exactly the worst thing an authoritarian government can impose. 

An environmentally-based credit system would provide not only financial incentives from rebates and subsidies but also social-responsibility incentives by placing more accountability on organizations and individuals. Robert Ciardini, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, noted that individuals, when asked to watch the belongings of another party, would actively stop a thief from stealing those items 95% of the time, compared to only 20% if not asked. Despite the rudimentary aspects of this study, Ciardini asserts that the study builds a framework illustrating how individuals who are appointed more social responsibility and held accountable (asked) are exactly such individuals who act more responsibly. Furthermore, these individuals are implicated by other party members, indicating how society cares deeply about social reputation.

Businesses will be graded on their climate impact, allowing that 72 % of Americans to make more conscious ‘green’ consumer decisions in directing revenue towards socially responsible organizations. Individuals will have the opportunity to lessen the gap between rhetoric and action and prove that climate change enthusiasm is a global mission—not just a fashionable trend.

The publicity of such a system remains crucial to provide universal accountability, while laws regarding data privacy and technology abuse depend on respective countries and governments. Preventing overwhelming authoritarian influence means that it is imperative for the implementation of Chinese models in the West to be heavily regulated. Potential solutions may include third-party regulatory bodies or the creation of peer-to-peer systems to remove power from a centralized state. Further exploration is needed, but the intended goals for implementing an environmentally-based social credit system is to foster a community of accountability and responsibility for ecological footprints, create self-awareness through a standardized ecological footprint score, and incentivize socially responsible behavior by governments, businesses, and individuals. To avoid a repeat of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ on a global scale, society needs to be held responsible for its actions. 

I want to finish this post by saying that the type of country governance China operates is more often than not an exercise of absolute power that, as history and current events have shown, can be quite tyrannical. There is endless debate on whether or not it is justified how China’s government restricts the individual freedom of its people to accomplish certain goals. I have seen it first hand as I spent 2 months in Hong Kong this past summer amidst the rising political turmoil that continues today. My heart is with the Hong Kongnese people. But to completely condemn Chinese approaches to society would also be egregious, and I hope to continue discussions on problem-solving and critical thinking with a global perspective.

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