Monday, January 26, 2015

Climate Change and Capitalism: Must Everything Change?

Naomi Klein has produced one of the most provocative books yet on the evolving tale of our planet’s inevitable warming: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  She provides a detailed look at the roles the various participants have played in the global warming arena as we have edged ever closer to what appears to be a point of no return.  Few are left unscathed.

We have the somewhat arbitrary goal of limiting emissions to the point that global warming will not exceed 2 degrees Celsius, but the world has no clear path to attaining that goal, and we are, in fact, on schedule to reach 4 degrees of warming by the end of this century.

“In Copenhagen, the major polluting governments—including the United States and China—signed a nonbinding agreement pledging to keep temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius above where they were before we started powering our economies with coal.  (That converts to an increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Predicting exactly what effects a given temperature rise will cause is uncertain, but it is clear that major changes in the environment are on the way.  Complex systems such as the earth’s can produce nonlinear excursions that are difficult to predict and impossible to counter.

“In a 2012 report, the World Bank laid out the gamble implied by that target.  ‘As global warming approaches and exceeds 2 degrees Celsius, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements.  Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods….’  In other words, once we allow temperatures to climb past a certain point, where the mercury stops is not in our control.”

“The World Bank also warned when it released its report that ‘we’re on track for a 4˚C warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’  And the report cautioned that ‘there is also no certainty that adaption to a 4˚C world is possible.’  Kevin Anderson….of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research….is even blunter; he says 4 degrees Celsius warming—7.2 degrees Fahrenheit—is ‘incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community’.”

Opinions vary as to how much time is left before action to curb carbon emissions will be too little and too late.  Klein selects this one:

“….so much carbon has been allowed to accumulate in the atmosphere over the past two decades that now our only hope of keeping warming below the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius is for wealthy countries to cut their emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 percent a year….this level of emission reduction has happened only in the context of economic collapse or deep depressions.”

Given a situation so dire, how can so many people reside comfortably in a state of denial over humanity’s role in climate change?  Psychologists can provide many explanations for why people are able to ignore facts that counter firmly-held beliefs.  Klein describes those whose beliefs are most threatened as those with the most to lose if global warming was accepted as truth: free-market capitalists.

“….their deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught.  With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so good after all.  And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that can be left to the magic of the market.”

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests.  A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”

Klein also directs criticism at many of the traditional environmentalists—referring to them as “warmists”—who collaborate with climate deniers by propagating the belief that incremental measures can address our difficulties.

“So here’s my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the ‘warmists’ in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies.”

In other words, if the free-market ideologues see global warming as an excuse for a social revolution, they are correct.  Klein believes that social and economic revolutions are not only necessary, but also desirable. 

Klein spends much of her book describing the ever more environmentally damaging attempts to gain access to ever more fossil fuel supplies—even as the earth bakes from past carbon emissions—as evidence that nothing of significance can be accomplished under our current oligarchic system.  The energy companies have always created “sacrifice” zones where fuels were to be extracted.  The environment could be destroyed and people harmed as long as such things took place in remote locations where the inhabitants were powerless.  But now the whole world is in danger of becoming a sacrifice zone.  Fracking takes place in our back yards.  Canada has given over enormous sections of its wilderness to destruction in order to generate more excess fossil fuels.  Companies wish to subject Arctic waters to the threat of oil spills.

Too many people now see their homes and livelihoods threatened and they have begun to fight back.  Klein covers the protests that extreme extractive practices have generated among indigenous peoples and others around the globe.  She sees within these growing protests a level of resolve that she believes could form the foundation for a social movement broad enough to enact the necessary changes.

“….only mass social movements can save us now.  Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed.  We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners.  To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.  The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer.  If that happens, well, it changes everything [emphasis mine].”

Global warming thus can be converted from a tragedy to an opportunity to remake society and correct its accumulated defects.  Klein makes valid arguments that restricting globalized trade, moving from fossil fuel power to renewable power, and relying more on local production of food would entail dramatic change.  Decentralizing economic power and distributing it to many more players could significantly alter the inequality that has characterized our current situation.  However, Klein takes this notion of an opportunity for change quite a bit too far.  She notes that major movements of the past have yet to reach their goals: decolonization, civil rights for minorities, feminism, and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples.  She suggests that the remnants of these movements might coalesce into something truly productive.

“So climate change does not need some shiny new movement that will magically succeed where others failed.  Rather, as the furthest-reaching crisis created by the extractivist worldview, and one that puts humanity on a firm and unyielding deadline, climate change can be the force—the grand push—that will bring together all of these still living movements.  A rushing river fed by countless streams, gathering collective force to finally reach the sea.”

Combining a well-constructed plea for dramatic action to battle global warming with a collection of social thrusts that appear orthogonal to the problem at hand seems like a ridiculous strategy.  Many of those who might be convinced to become an activist on the issue of climate change would likely be turned off by one or more of the items on her version of a wish list.  Most people would be uncomfortable with a movement that “changes everything.”

Most reviewers of Klein’s book justifiably give her credit for her research and the completeness of her assessment of the climate change issue.  They part company with her when she gets to the point where she describes this grand social movement that will change everything.  They have little faith that people will be willing to give up much in the way of customary creature comforts in order to save the planet and succumb to gloom and doom.

Klein is so exercised by the anticipated big-energy generated global havoc that she spends little time considering technical developments that could be critical in the global warming arena.  She addresses the one thrust easiest to shoot down: the mad scientists who want to accommodate ever increasing levels of carbon dioxide by dimming the sunlight reaching earth.  What could possibly go wrong there!

Klein also makes the mistake of equating capitalism as a system with capitalism as it currently exists—a system run by oligarchs to serve their wishes.  Within the context of regulated capitalism and planned social goals, there is much that can be done to dramatically lower usage of fossil fuels.

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler have produced a book titled Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.  They provide a tour through a number of promising technologies, some available now, some imminent, and some still far off.  They make the point that energy generation, water usage, and food production are all areas that could look dramatically different in the near future.  Whether or not these technologies will come to fruition and address climate change on a reasonable timescale is unclear, but these authors certainly believe they will.

An even more interesting approach has been documented by Amory B. Lovins in an article in Foreign Affairs: A Farewell to Fossil Fuels.  His energy plan incorporates a continuing growth in renewable energy sources, but the main focus is on using energy, whatever the source, more efficiently.  The potential energy savings are stunning.  He points out that such savings have been taking place for decades driven by the motivations of capitalism.

“Underlying this shift in supply is the inexorable shrinkage in the energy needed to create $1 of GDP. In 1976, I heretically suggested in these pages that this ‘energy intensity’ could fall by two-thirds by 2025. By 2010, it had fallen by half, driven by no central plan or visionary intent but only by the perennial quest for profit, security, and health. Still-newer methods, without further inventions, could reduce U.S. energy intensity by another two-thirds over the next four decades, with huge economic benefits. In fact, as Reinventing Fire, the new book from my organization, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), details, a U.S. economy that has grown by 158 percent by 2050 could need no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, and one-third less natural gas -- and cost $5 trillion less than business as usual, ignoring all hidden costs. Today’s fossil carbon emissions could also fall by more than four-fifths without even putting a price on them.”

“This transformation requires pursuing three agendas. First, radical automotive efficiency can make electric propulsion affordable; heavy vehicles, too, can save most of their fuel; and all vehicles can be used more productively. Second, new designs can make buildings and factories several times as efficient as they are now. Third, modernizing the electric system to make it diverse, distributed, and renewable can also make it clean, reliable, and secure.”

“This transition will require no technological miracles or social engineering -- only the systematic application of many available, straightforward techniques. It could be led by business for profit and sped up by revenue-neutral policies enacted by U.S. states or federal agencies, and it would need from Congress no new taxes, subsidies, mandates, or laws. The United States’ most effective institutions -- the private sector, civil society, and the military -- could bypass its least effective institutions. At last, Americans could make energy do their work without working their undoing.”

Lovins’s plan was described in an era of high energy prices.  Should the current low prices persist, the motivation to move in this direction might diminish without the application of some sort of carbon tax.  Such a tax, gradually increased, could also serve as the mechanism for shortening the time scale for implementing these energy efficiencies and thus addressing global warming in a more timely manner.  The tax could also be used to encourage the transition with credits and subsidize those who might be temporarily harmed by higher energy prices.

And as for the energy companies who seem determined to burn every ounce of fossil fuel they can get their hands on, welcome to “creative destruction.”  It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

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