Friday, December 16, 2011

On the Future of Capitalism: Climate Change Cometh

We continue to explore the potential paths economic evolution might take, and what effect there might be on our conception of capitalism.

Naomi Klein provides a fascinating article in The Nation: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She spent some time "in the belly of the beast," so to speak.

"....Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change, the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet...."

She provides us with some enlightenment.

"Claiming that climate change is a plot to steal American freedom is rather tame by Heartland standards. Over the course of this two-day conference, I will learn that Obama’s campaign promise to support locally owned biofuels refineries was really about ‘green communitarianism,’’ akin to the ‘Maoist’ scheme to put ‘a pig iron furnace in everybody’s backyard’ (the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels). That climate change is ‘a stalking horse for National Socialism’ (former Republican senator and retired astronaut Harrison Schmitt). And that environmentalists are like Aztec priests, sacrificing countless people to appease the gods and change the weather (Marc Morano, editor of the denialists’ go-to website,"

"Most of all, however, I will hear versions of the opinion....that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change ‘has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution’."

It appears that those who show up for such a conference go through the motions of denying the science, but their agenda and motives are purely political: they think they are protecting "the American way of life." And they think they are winning the battle.

"The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank devoted to’"promoting free-market solutions,’ has been holding these confabs since 2008, sometimes twice a year. And the strategy appears to be working. At the end of day one, Morano—whose claim to fame is having broken the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign—leads the gathering through a series of victory laps. Cap and trade: dead! Obama at the Copenhagen summit: failure! The climate movement: suicidal! He even projects a couple of quotes from climate activists beating up on themselves (as progressives do so well) and exhorts the audience to ‘celebrate’!"

"There were no balloons or confetti descending from the rafters, but there may as well have been."

Klein tells us we should be concerned by this jubilance because their efforts have, in fact, changed the opinions of many.

"A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number of Americans who agreed was down to 44 percent—well under half the population. According to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, this is ‘among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history’."

The opinions of Democrats have held constant over time, but those who lean Republican have moved in great numbers into the denier camp, and they have acquired a passion on the subject nearly equivalent to that seen on cultural issues such as abortion.

"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. Many climate scientists report receiving death threats...."

Klein accuses progressives and other responsible players of being intimidated and vacating the field of battle.
"But the effects of the right-wing climate conspiracies reach far beyond the Republican Party. The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit."

Klein’s motivation in writing this article was not so much to vilify the climate deniers, or to laugh at their "science," as it was to castigate progressives and environmentalists for assuming political postures that are ineffective, and inappropriate.

In her opinion, when it comes to the effects of global warming on society and on the economy, the climate deniers are much more correct in their assessment than are progressives.

"But when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the [Heartland Conference] may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution."

"Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right."

"Here is where the Heartlanders have good reason to be afraid: arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades."

How one must respond to the challenge of climate change is speculative—and Klein proceeds to speculate at length. The precise details are not what concern us here. What is of interest is the recognition that any response will require planning at national and international levels, and massive intervention by governments in economies around the world. The present balance between capitalism and government would be dramatically altered—perhaps forever.

Capitalism may or may not change under the momentum of its own evolution. It may or may not change under pressure from social evolution. But if Mother Nature gives an order—it will be obeyed.


  1. I'm not an out-and-out climate denier, but I am skeptical of the zealous and draconian responses demanded of the developed world by the sanctimonious high priests of the environment. I feel that their demands will unduly hamper first world economies with ridiculous mandates, while China and India happliy pollute away. Such restrictions will also hamper advancements in environmental science, and will force more people to live in ways that are actually more harmful to the environment, as is the case in the developing world.

  2. Whether "zealous and draconian responses" will be required is arguable, but the climate is changing and response will need to occur. Responding to more extreme weather and changing rainfall patterns is not something that industry can do. The government is going to have to take a bigger role in infrastructure maintenance and modification and in long-term R&D. Whether or not that shreds our system of free-market capitalism probably depends on the scale of the required government response--something not yet known.


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