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August 09, 2014 5:53 AM Everything Changes

By D.R. Tucker

The most anticipated book of the fall is undoubtedly Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, in part because Klein apparently calls out certain environmental organizations for playing pattycake with the fossil-fuel industry instead of taking a firm, principled stand against carbon pollution.

One such organization turns out to be the Nature Conservancy, as the New York Times noted earlier this week:

“We all need to get off fossil fuels,” Ms. Klein said in an interview. “If the largest environmental organization in the world can’t figure out how to stop pumping oil and gas, how are they going to help the rest of us figure it out?”

Klein had previously suggested that certain environmental groups were compromised in the climate conflict in a controversial 2013 interview about the book with Salon, one that touched off a brief dispute with Joseph Romm of Climate Progress. In that interview, Klein also stated:

I think the scientists Kevin Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre have been the most courageous on this because they don’t just take on the green groups, they take on their fellow scientists for the way in which neoliberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment. It’s really scary reading. Because they have been saying, for at least for a decade, that getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth.

In a March 2011 interview with Democracy Now!, Klein observed:

But what I see is that the green groups, a lot of the big green groups, are also in a kind of denial, because they want to pretend that this isn’t about politics and economics, and say, “Well, you can just change your light bulb. And no, it won’t really disrupt. You can have green capitalism.” And they’re not really wrestling with the fact that this is about economic growth. This is about an economic model that needs constant and infinite growth on a finite planet. So we really are talking about some deep transformations of our economy if we’re going to deal with climate change. And we need to talk about it.

Klein’s book could compel such a conversation—a conversation that needs to happen in order for us to figure out if, and how, we can resolve the climate crisis.

The other participant in this conversation is not the climate-change denier, but the individual who argues that we don’t necessarily have to reconsider modern economic assumptions in order to combat carbon pollution. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman made this particular argument last April:

[L]et’s talk for a minute about the overall relationship between economic growth and the environment.
Other things equal, more G.D.P. tends to mean more pollution. What transformed China into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Explosive economic growth. But other things don’t have to be equal. There’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.
People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point. (I hate it when pundits try to make every issue into a case of “both sides are wrong,” but, in this case, it happens to be true.) On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth. But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.

Former Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson also believes that the climate crisis is the consequence of a flaw in the dominant economic model, as opposed to the consequence of a flawed economic model:

We need to act now, even though there is much disagreement, including from members of my own Republican Party, on how to address this issue while remaining economically competitive. They’re right to consider the economic implications. But we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing.
The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax. Few in the United States now pay to emit this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere we all share. Putting a price on emissions will create incentives to develop new, cleaner energy technologies…
I’m a businessman, not a climatologist. But I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with climate scientists and economists who have devoted their careers to this issue. There is virtually no debate among them that the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible.
Farseeing business leaders are already involved in this issue. It’s time for more to weigh in. To add reliable financial data to the science, I’ve joined with the former mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg, and the retired hedge fund manager Tom Steyer on an economic analysis of the costs of inaction across key regions and economic sectors. Our goal for the Risky Business project — starting with a new study that will be released this week — is to influence business and investor decision making worldwide.
We need to craft national policy that uses market forces to provide incentives for the technological advances required to address climate change. As I’ve said, we can do this by placing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Many respected economists, of all ideological persuasions, support this approach. We can debate the appropriate pricing and policy design and how to use the money generated. But a price on carbon would change the behavior of both individuals and businesses. At the same time, all fossil fuel — and renewable energy — subsidies should be phased out. Renewable energy can outcompete dirty fuels once pollution costs are accounted for.

I would give my last dollar to see a debate between Klein and Krugman, or Klein and Paulson, or Klein and former Rep. Bob Inglis on the issue of whether the climate crisis can only be resolved by shifting away from the dominant growth- and consumption-based economic model, or whether that model can simply be tweaked to avoid the worst consequences of carbon pollution. Klein is right that one cannot have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. However, I do worry about whether certain Americans will ever accept this logic—even if they accept the reality that we have a climate problem on our hands.

As Romm and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out last year, members of the US political right resist climate science because they can’t stomach the proposed solutions to the problem of carbon pollution. Dana Nuccitelli of The Guardian notes that it is not impossible to get conservatives and Republicans to recognize the magnitude of the climate threat—and as the tireless climate blogger Doug Craig observes, in order to create a large enough political mobilization to bring about needed change, climate hawks have to:

The coal and oil companies own the ENTIRE Republican Party and enough of the Dems to make sure Congress does nothing. Similarly Obama is powerless. Nothing can happen without Republicans and conservatives. Until Republican voters rise up, their elected representatives will continue to deny the science and slavishly serve the fossil fuel lobby. Let us not deny the facts. Please. It is up to the Republican voters. The fate of the human race rests with them.

The only problem is, even if Republican voters rise up to demand action on the climate crisis, they will likely sit right back down again if they get the message that a shift away from the dominant economic model is required in order to reduce the climate risk, in part because those voters have been told for nearly 30 years by right-wing pundits that climate hawks are “watermelons” scheming to do away with capitalism once and for all.

It may be that Klein is right on the economic science, and Krugman, Paulson and Inglis are right on the political science. Even if one can convince conservatives and Republicans that carbon pollution is a clear and present danger, how can one possibly convince conservatives and Republicans that reconsidering the dominant economic model is the most effective method of addressing this danger?

The question of whether the climate crisis can be resolved by fixing flaws in capitalism or fixing the flaw of capitalism is the most compelling political, ecological and economic question of our time. Only a debate between Klein and an advocate of the Krugman/Paulson/Inglis view can provide an answer. That debate will indeed change everything.

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