Can Capitalism Fix the Climate?

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On April 3, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald criticized socialists in the climate emergency movement, citing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and frequent C&C contributor Simon Butler as people who just don’t understand that “Climate is not a class issue.” This is Simon’s response …

by Simon Butler
Green Left Weekly, 11 April 2010

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It has taken capitalism about 250 years to generate enough waste and pollution to press dangerously against nature’s limits. With such a damning record, there should be no grounds to expect a different outcome in the future.

Yet the mainstream discussion about how to tackle the climate crisis still assumes that, this time around, capitalism can be made sustainable.

In an April 3 Sydney Morning Herald piece arguing for capitalists to take a leading role in resolving the climate crisis, Paddy Manning said it “was an article of faith for this column” that a free market could respond effectively to the challenge of climate change. But, struggling to come up with Australian capitalists responding positively to the challenge, he was forced to admit: “Faith is needed, because climate change is proof of colossal market failure.”

The appeal of green capitalism — what US ecologist Amory Lovins has dubbed “the profitable solution to climate change” — is obvious. It promises to save the planet, maintain economic growth and make lots of people lots of money.

It offers the hope that there is an easy way out of the crisis — that we can halt climate change without resorting to fundamental social change.

But it ignores the fact that capitalism’s need for endless growth and ever-higher consumption is the root cause and main driver of the Earth’s environmental distress.

Capitalism is an infinite project on a finite planet.

Given the dire climate threat we face, which requires immediate action to cut emissions, the illusion of green capitalism is also a dangerous diversion.

Take British economist Nicolas Stern’s 2006 review on the economics of climate change. Stern famously called climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. He said strong action to cut emissions “must be viewed as an investment, a cost incurred now and in the coming few decades to avoid the risks of very severe consequences in the future”.

It sounds great. But delve into the report a bit deeper and its conclusions are chilling.

Stern said: “Paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts are unlikely to be economically viable.”

And: “It is difficult to secure emission cuts faster than about 1% per year except in instances of recession.”

“These limits to the economically feasible speed of adjustment constrain the range of feasible [emissions] stabilisation trajectories”, he concluded.

Yet what is feasible for maintaining capitalist economic growth is unfeasible for the future of human civilisation. To have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change, far bigger cuts are needed in a much shorter timeframe than the market system can tolerate.

For example, the group of leading climate scientists who authored the 2009 report, The Copenhagen Diagnosis, said industrial nations like Australia must cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels in just ten years. That’s about four times faster than Stern allowed for.

The gap between the economics and the science cannot be bridged. Either we choose a “healthy” capitalist economy or we choose a healthy planet. We can’t have both.

At December’s Copenhagen climate conference Bolivian President Evo Morales caused a stir when he put the blame for global warming squarely on capitalism:

“We are here to save Mother Earth … The real cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we want to save the Earth then we must end that economic model.”

Too extreme? Too simplistic? For Australian author David McKnight the answer would be yes. He told the April 3 Sydney Morning Herald that “waiting until capitalism is abolished means accepting that climate change will continue to occur in the meantime”.

But opposing capitalism is hardly the same as just waiting for the revolution. We are running out of time to stop climate change — no delay in action can be accepted. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere already. To succeed, we need a broad social movement strong enough to take on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of change.

Such a movement has the potential to democratise society, overturning the dictatorship of capital.

The point is that the climate movement should not be afraid of its own conclusions. If it allows its goals to be shaped by what is feasible in a capitalist economy then it has already failed.

However, if it refuses to compromise on the measures needed to fix the climate then it will ultimately have to confront, and remake, the whole system.

McKnight is an old lefty who has become more conservative as time has passed. But the climate crisis has prompted others to shift their political views in the other direction.

One example is James Gustave Speth, a former environmental advisor to the Carter and Clinton administrations and onetime head of the United Nations Development Program. Once known as the “ultimate insider”, Speth now doubts climate change can be dealt with at all under capitalism.

It hasn’t meant he has given up. Rather, Speth has fired up.

In his 2008 book, Bridge at the Edge of the World, he said:

“In the end, we need to trigger a response that in historical terms will come to be seen as revolutionary — the Environmental Revolution of the twenty first century. Only such a response is likely to avert huge and even catastrophic environmental losses.”