Naomi Klein: Saving the climate requires profound social change

Right-wing climate change deniers aren’t wrong about everything. For example, when they warn that making the emissions cuts scientists say are needed will require radical and economic change …

by Naomi Klein
The Nation, November 8, 2011 

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.

As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

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 Marriott Hotel 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.

The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract.

But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover—we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity.

The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.

So in a way, Chris Horner was right when he told his fellow Heartlanders that climate change isn’t “the issue.” In fact, it isn’t an issue at all. 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.

While Heartlanders like to invoke the specter of communism to terrify Americans about climate action (Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a Heartland conference favorite, says that attempts to prevent global warming are akin to “the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire society”), the reality is that Soviet-era state socialism was a disaster for the climate. It devoured resources with as much enthusiasm as capitalism, and spewed waste just as recklessly: before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechs and Russians had even higher carbon footprints per capita than their counterparts in Britain, Canada and Australia.

And while some point to the dizzying expansion of China’s renewable energy programs to argue that only centrally controlled regimes can get the green job done, China’s command-and-control economy continues to be harnessed to wage an all-out war with nature, through massively disruptive mega-dams, superhighways and extraction-based energy projects, particularly coal.

It is true that responding to the climate threat requires strong government action at all levels. But real climate solutions are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.

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. What follows is a quick-and-dirty look at what a serious climate agenda would mean in the following six arenas: public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption and taxation. For hard-right ideologues like those gathered at the Heartland conference, the results are nothing short of intellectually cataclysmic.

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Posted in Climate Change, Deniers
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