Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Naomi Klein: Capitalism vs climate

with 4 comments

Naomi Klein writing in The Nation (November 28) has said out loud what many think but won’t repeat in public:

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system.

In a 10,000 word essay, she covers the last Heartlands conference, recent American polling on climate change, the rejection of climate science by the mainstream Republican Party and its supporters, the Republican presidential primaries, the lack of a solid narrative in progressive politics to articulate a vision to transform to an equitable, low carbon economy, the rush to invest in oil shale, coal seam gas and coal developments, and the recent emergence of occupy X as a broad-based source of discontent with the status quo.

The science at the Heartlands Conference, although being announced as the headline act, was really the sideshow. According to Klein, the main theme was the threat to markets, freedom and the economy that belief in climate change poses. Of the “science” itself

…the scientific theories presented here are old and long discredited. And no attempt is made to explain why each speaker seems to contradict the next.

And this is the pattern set by the denial movement everywhere it operates. These arguments are repeated  the media outlets that are denialism’s apparatus. At no point has a credible alternative theory been provided. But none is needed, because the science isn’t the point.

Often the view coming from America is that USA=World. Klein’s point that a small demographic dominated by older, white males has placed climate change front and centre of the culture wars is also relevant to Australia:

But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion.

With so much at stake, it should come as little surprise that climate deniers are, on the whole, those most invested in our highly unequal and dysfunctional economic status quo. One of the most interesting findings of the studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes.

A much-discussed paper on this topic by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap (memorably titled “Cool Dudes” (pdf link)) found that confident conservative white men, as a group, were almost six times as likely to believe climate change “will never happen” than the rest of the adults surveyed. McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: “Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

Much of the rhetoric is about freedom, democracy – which is interpreted as the right to exercise personal choice free of state control (i.e., freedom) – and the superior efficiency of free markets over governments. This ideology places the individual at the pinnacle of civilization and rejects any form of governance that mediates relationships between individuals beyond those prescribed by the free market.

There are now 7 billion people on the planet and several billion more due to be born in the next few decades. How many of those alive now,  representing themselves and their children, would see eye to eye  with the free-market fighters? Is their democracy and freedom being represented?  Given that the ideologically-driven free-marketeers are disproportionately in the English speaking west and a few European countries, the thought that this is in any way a globally representative view, beggars belief:

As for everyone else, well, they should stop looking for handouts and busy themselves getting unpoor. When I asked (Patrick) Michaels (of the Cato Institute) whether rich countries have a responsibility to help poor ones pay for costly adaptations to a warmer climate, he scoffed that there is no reason to give money to countries “because, for some reason, their political system is incapable of adapting.” The real solution, he claimed, was more free trade.

This is where the intersection between hard-right ideology and climate denial gets truly dangerous. It’s not simply that these “cool dudes” deny climate science because it threatens to upend their dominance-based worldview. It is that their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swaths of humanity in the developing world. Recognizing the threat posed by this empathy-exterminating mindset is a matter of great urgency, because climate change will test our moral character like little before.

And that too, uncovers a key point. At its core, climate change is not a scientific issue, but a moral one. It is a market failure large enough to transform Earth and define its geological future. The change may not be as large as the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary that finished off the dinosaurs, or the Permian extinctions that were even larger but business as usual is certainly on a scale of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum 56 million years ago. Humanity places itself at risk and ushers in a new geological era while it’s at it.

So, is it possible for the climate change denialists  sit comfortably in their gated communities listening to the sound of 6+ billion people adapting to more than 4°C? Or will they need the armies they are so busy creating deficits to maintain, while campaigning to cut taxes and government services to keep order?

Klein lists six reforms she thinks are needed:

  1. Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere
  2. Remembering How to Plan
  3. Reining in Corporations
  4. Relocalizing Production
  5. Ending the Cult of Shopping
  6. Taxing the Rich and Filthy

While others’ shopping lists may be somewhat different, civil society is re-examining these issues. On the one hand there is Occupy X who are slowly defining their agenda. On the other hand, first the World Bank and now the International Monetary Fund have turned away from their ruinous policies of austerity measures for debt-ridden developing countries and are looking at the sustainable investment of returns for developing natural assets. Norway’s resource rent and investment plan is seen as a model – one that Australia tried to emulate with the mining tax only to stir up a political hornets nest. The mining industry has been successful in defending the status quo by linking continued growth in resource extraction with economic growth, job and the creature comforts of modern society. As Dr Nikki Wlliams recently appointed to the National Minerals Council put it in a presentation for the NSW Coal Industry “Balancing growth with social responsibility”:

that was little better than a call for the status quo. According to the presentation, sound public policy is the victim of desperate politics. In a presentation that refers to bling but not climate, I can’t see the commitment to social responsibility, only the claim.

According to the report “Cool Dudes”, about 10% of Americans can be considered intractable climate deniers. In Australia, the number is 5.8% (Reser et al.). The remainder of those unconvinced on the science are not rusted on but have likely been persuaded by their world view and the strength of the political narrative that has been offered. And is dominant in Australia’s media at least.

This suggests that there is space for a more inclusive narrative that covers a broader political spectrum. Klein again:

The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy.

Shifting cultural values is, admittedly, a tall order. It calls for the kind of ambitious vision that movements used to fight for a century ago, before everything was broken into single “issues” to be tackled by the appropriate sector of business-minded NGOs. Climate change is, in the words of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, “the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.” By all rights, this reality should be filling progressive sails with conviction, breathing new life and urgency into longstanding fights against everything from free trade to financial speculation to industrial agriculture to third-world debt, while elegantly weaving all these struggles into a coherent narrative about how to protect life on earth.

But that isn’t happening, at least not so far. It is a painful irony that while the Heartlanders are busily calling climate change a left-wing plot, most leftists have yet to realize that climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against capitalism since William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” (and, of course, those mills were the beginning of climate change). When demonstrators are cursing out the corruption of their governments and corporate elites in Athens, Madrid, Cairo, Madison and New York, climate change is often little more than a footnote, when it should be the coup de grâce.

Half of the problem is that progressives—their hands full with soaring unemployment and multiple wars—tend to assume that the big green groups have the climate issue covered. The other half is that many of those big green groups have avoided, with phobic precision, any serious debate on the blindingly obvious roots of the climate crisis: globalization, deregulation and contemporary capitalism’s quest for perpetual growth (the same forces that are responsible for the destruction of the rest of the economy). The result is that those taking on the failures of capitalism and those fighting for climate action remain two solitudes, with the small but valiant climate justice movement—drawing the connections between racism, inequality and environmental vulnerability—stringing up a few swaying bridges between them.

The right, meanwhile, has had a free hand to exploit the global economic crisis to cast climate action as a recipe for economic Armageddon, a surefire way to spike household costs and to block new, much-needed jobs drilling for oil and laying new pipelines. With virtually no loud voices offering a competing vision of how a new economic paradigm could provide a way out of both the economic and ecological crises, this fearmongering has had a ready audience.

Far from learning from past mistakes, a powerful faction in the environmental movement is pushing to go even further down the same disastrous road, arguing that the way to win on climate is to make the cause more palatable to conservative values. This can be heard from the studiously centrist Breakthrough Institute, which is calling for the movement to embrace industrial agriculture and nuclear power instead of organic farming and decentralized renewables. It can also be heard from several of the researchers studying the rise in climate denial. Some, like Yale’s Kahan, point out that while those who poll as highly “hierarchical” and “individualist” bridle at any mention of regulation, they tend to like big, centralized technologies that confirm their belief that humans can dominate nature. So, he and others argue, environmentalists should start emphasizing responses such as nuclear power and geoengineering (deliberately intervening in the climate system to counteract global warming), as well as playing up concerns about national security.

The first problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work. For years, big green groups have framed climate action as a way to assert “energy security,” while “free-market solutions” are virtually the only ones on the table in the United States. Meanwhile, denialism has soared. The more troubling problem with this approach, however, is that rather than challenging the warped values motivating denialism, it reinforces them. Nuclear power and geoengineering are not solutions to the ecological crisis; they are a doubling down on exactly the kind of short-term hubristic thinking that got us into this mess.

I’ve reproduced large chunks of Klein’s essay, so as not to distort her message in order to make my own points. It is clearly focussed on seeing the revival coming from the green left. But when I look at who is not incorporated in the vision of the far right, in its rejection of the scientific body of knowledge, and its anti-social expression of individualism, who is left (pun intended)? Pretty much everyone who considers the science describes serious risks and sees acting on climate change as a moral issue. In Australia this includes all progressives, a significant part of the Labor Party and labour movement, the compassionate religious and traditional liberals who value knowledge.

She is spot on about the narrative of appeasement but that is more a point on discourse than substance. The political discourse of appeasement just gets attacked and wedged by the media that parrots the far right agenda. It doesn’t stand for anything in itself, as Guy Rundle recently said about the Labor Party in Australia. In trying to balance the concerns of the working class on price and jobs and the social progressives on social and environmental sustainability the core message is absent. In the US, Obama is being wedged by the same issues, a hostile house and a hostile media. In Canada, the Harper government is promoting the small government agenda, gutting Environment Canada and handing their core concerns to the provinces, whose interests are, well, provincial. The Kiwis are diluting their policies also, though they do have a trading scheme.

Stripped of its political rhetoric, many of the claims made against taking strong action on climate completely lack logic. If humanity can readily adapt to a 3°C, 4°C or more temperature increase as claimed, why then are some industries completely unable to adapt to a low carbon economy? Analysis suggests the latter agenda is cheaper and more equitable. There are a whole range of objections to the unregulated free trade agenda that come out of conventional economics.  Most forms of economic development actually require good governance. In his book The Plundered Planet, Paul Collier shows us that while in some sectors cowboys thrive (and those are by far the largest backers of the Heartland Agenda), most other sectors—those providing the bulk of goods and services—require good governance. They require a civil society with a respect for knowledge. So doers technology transfer and the utilization of international funds such as the Adaptation Fund being set up under the UN climate change convention. This directly links the needs of adaptation in the developing world with sustainable development.

Climate change and the future of global “development” is a wicked problem—the key to wicked problems is not to work on the problem but to work on the solution. Solution solving, if you will. I’m not too keen on the narrowing of the agenda that Klein produces above—by focussing on “the problem” it limits the options for management. It may be the powerful that dominate this agenda, but they are also few. I’m involved in work that critiques the legally binding pathway and target “one-shot” approach to climate policy most preferred by the green left in favour of a more flexible learning by doing approach. Markets can work when properly regulated, though how to do so is not always clear. There are good arguments for managing some externalities through markets and others through regulation involving taxes and levies. The key is not to make solutions more palatable to conservative values (and some values within the conservation movement are themselves very conservative)  but is to concentrate on the values that civil society requires in order to function and use that to inform possible solutions. Scenarios that explore those possibilities are a great way to do that.

And on civil society, Klein has the last word:

In other words, culture is rapidly shifting. And this is what truly sets the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) moment apart. The Occupiers—holding signs that said Greed Is Gross and I Care About You—decided early on not to confine their protests to narrow policy demands. Instead, they took aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis, while embodying—in highly visible ways—radically different ways to treat one another and relate to the natural world.

This deliberate attempt to shift cultural values is not a distraction from the “real” struggles. In the rocky future we have already made inevitable, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people, and a capacity for deep compassion, will be the only things standing between humanity and barbarism. Climate change, by putting us on a firm deadline, can serve as the catalyst for precisely this profound social and ecological transformation.

Culture, after all, is fluid. It can change. It happens all the time. The delegates at the Heartland conference know this, which is why they are so determined to suppress the mountain of evidence proving that their worldview is a threat to life on earth. The task for the rest of us is to believe, based on that same evidence, that a very different worldview can be our salvation.


4 Responses

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  1. What I don’t understand is why this klein person gets the attention she does.


    January 11, 2012 at 1:05 am

    • Because she is extremely smart and analytical. Read “Shock Doctrine”.

      Frances Murrell

      March 8, 2013 at 6:05 pm

  2. Dear Roger Jones
    thanks for taking this one out for a run & linking to it from prodeo; i’d probably have missed it otherwise. i pretty much agree with klein, trendy & fashionable notwithstanding & its heartening to read her take. when i first read stern’s report all those years ago, i thought, right-o, if they take this on board we’ll get the best features of socialism grafted on to the market economy that’s brought material prosperity to so many. and all in the interests of preserving & extending civilised life on earth while continuing to shop ’til we drop. who could argue, I thought then (fleetingly), the science is in & the world bank for goodness sake is behind it and has a plan.

    of course, i hadn’t factored in the denialists, but I was soon disabused of that oversight. i was persuaded, before i read klein, that what the people ultimately responsible for instigating & fomenting this denialism fear more than death itself, is socialism via the back door. even the watered down “clayton’s socialism” that would inevitably ensue from the merger of aspects of socialism & the market economy. i’m starting to form the further view that some are prepared to court diaster in order to ensure, in the post-apocalypse world their stubborn procrastination produces, that: (1) there’s no socialism, and (2) they & they alone get to determine who lives within the domes & under what conditions (wages & prices & healthcare), and who lives outside the domes in “mad max” conditions with drones cruising around to smite those outside who “plot trouble” for “the free world” inside.

    is this the path by which we finally get to some form of h.g. wells’ imagined future of a fundamentally divided humanity? not that that’s anything to aspire to, just wondering. have i seen too many movies? anyway, thanks, again, for the tip-off, the links, the intelligent summary, and the opportunity to sound off.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison


    January 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm

  3. Yup, I’d say you’ve been watching too many movies.


    January 15, 2012 at 1:39 am

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