Reclaiming the climate debate from political extremes

Published online 15 March 2015.

On Thursday of last week, Mark Lynas responded to The Guardian’s decision to publish excerpts of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” in a response-piece titled “We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes.”

Many readers of Lynas’ piece will see an immediate appeal in his argument.  Lynas starts off by defining himself as a moderate, thus his subtitle: “Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis.”  On the one extreme you have deniers such as James Inhofe, and on the other extreme you have anticapitalists such as Naomi Klein, and Lynas wishes to position himself in the middle:

Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.

One reader of this argument concludes that it rests upon a fallacy — the blogger Dave Cohen, author of “Decline of the Empire,”  argues that “Lynas starts off with a common fallacy, more formally called the argument to moderation (Latin, argumentum ad temperantiam).”  Just because one is a self-defined “moderate” does not mean that one is correct.  Moreover, if one wishes to discover the truth, one starts by examining arguments in their own substance, rather than merely characterizing them as implying some sort of appealing or repellent image.

 

From this conclusion, we would be correct to examine Lynas’ arguments to see if they hold water, rather than focusing upon his attempt to grant himself an image as a climate change moderate.  A few words on Lynas himself, however, should suffice to define whose argument this is.  Most pertinently, sometime in the late zeros Mark Lynas holed himself up in a library and read all of the pertinent research on climate change.  The book he produced, Six Degrees, not only built on his previous ethnography of climate change, High Tide, but provided us readers with the most convincing dramatizations of planet Earth as transformed by climate change yet produced.  I reviewed Six Degrees here at DailyKos.com back in 2007.

In 2011, Lynas put out a book titled “The God Species,” outlining his solution to the climate change problem (which assumes further capitalist growth and relies upon carbon capture, nuclear power, and genetic engineering).  Last year, Lynas issued “Nuclear 2.0,” a defense of nuclear power in light of climate change.

Lynas’ most recent argument will, then, be examined below the fold.

At the beginning, Lynas derides Inhofe and his fellow deniers for their ignorance of science.  This is all fine and well.  Then he turns to Naomi Klein, who he accuses of “confirmation bias”:

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position.

Klein may indeed be guilty of confirmation bias.  This doesn’t mean, however, that we are exempt from examining her arguments on their own merits, rather than merely dismissing them as a symptom of confirmation bias.  Lynas, however, doesn’t continue along those lines of reasoning, because his next argument is to suggest that Klein is “politically toxic”:

In insisting that tackling carbon emissions must be subordinated into a wider agenda of social revolution and the dismantling of corporate capitalism, Klein isn’t making climate mitigation easier: she is making it politically toxic. In rejecting “too easy” solutions such as nuclear power and advanced renewables technologies (the dreaded “technofix”), the left puts its cards on the table – and confirms what the right has always suspected: that climate mitigation is not a primary but at best a secondary goal.

Let it be known, here, that I have no objection to the idea of a “technofix” in itself.  The problem is that the “technofix” does not exist “in itself” — technofixes exist in a realm of political economy, and realms of political economy (such as capitalism) have constraints.  Lynas seems reluctant to admit those constraints, whereas Klein is less so.New technologies do indeed expand the limits of possible human behavior.  The Internet, for instance, is indeed one of those new technologies, and its influence upon social phenomena such as the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” has been invaluable.

But new technologies can also reinforce old human relationships when placed in certain contexts of political economy.  The initial effect of the technologies which made the factory possible, in the context of early capitalism, was to impoverish the working class.  The cotton gin, more specifically, facilitated an increase in the profit margins of slaveholders in the antebellum South.  More currently, genetic engineering, which Lynas lauds, may in fact do wonders for the production of food.  But its main function in the political economy of late capitalism is to increase the economic dependency of farmers upon Monsanto’s seed stock.  This is not to say that there is no potential in genetic engineering, but rather that any potential it might have is constrained by the context in which it is currently being developed.

Perhaps there is a technofix for abrupt climate change.  I think that, given the time frames involved, someone, some human nation-state or other agency, is likely to try a climate-change technofix at some point.  Myself I’m expecting the construction of a giant space block, hung up in Earth orbit, to reflect back some of the sun’s rays.  But I don’t expect some of Lynas’ technofix ideas will work because I don’t think capitalism does what Lynas wants it to do.  Capitalism, specifically, doesn’t work to benefit the consumer, as Ludwig von Mises proudly proclaimed in his 1956 volume The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality — rather, the happily-consuming public is a necessary product of the capitalist system only to the extent to which profits can be made off of sales, and no further.

Yet Lynas continues to cling to the capitalist blanket, citing its promise of prosperity for all.  In a prior review of Lynas’ book The God Species this was duly noted:

Nor is there a need for an economic revolution to achieve (Lynas’) goals. Good old-fashioned capitalism is quite sufficient. As Lynas says: “A successful environmental movement must work with people’s aspirations for prosperity and comfort, not try to suppress these impulses.” This is a fair point, though Lynas is vague, to say the least, about how unadulterated capitalism – which has so far failed utterly to halt the planet’s current desecration – can achieve this goal.

It’s important to note here that the main purpose of capitalism is not to make everyone prosperous and comfortable.  Capitalism might introduce a portion of the masses to prosperity and comfort from time to time (most specifically in the Golden Age of Capitalism, from 1948 to 1973) as a byproduct of its promotion of new technologies and commodities.  But the primary purpose of capitalism is to divide humanity into two classes, the owners and the workers, with the former class as a principal beneficiary of capital accumulation while the latter class serves as a mere vehicle of “labor productivity.”  For the most part capitalism does what it did in the US between 2009 and 2011.

Lynas also believes that all aspects of his conservationist scheme, as outlined in The God Species, can be made profitable — but in an era of indebtedness, many entities, corporate and government, will no doubt find greater profits in the exploitation of the environment.  In Lynas’ chapter on biodiversity, he mentions “payments for ecosystem services” and “biodiversity credits” (p. 49) as mechanisms to appeal to the profit motives of those who (in his scheme) should be protecting nature: “designing revenue streams that go to communities and landowners who need to be persuaded to keep wetlands and forests intact.”  But for an on-the-ground understanding of ecosystem maintenance in “wetlands and forests,” I would go to Vandermeer and Perfecto’s Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rainforest Destruction.  The solution, as I suggested in this diary, to protecting the lungs of the planet (i.e. tropical rainforests) lies in the promotion of “food sovereignty” more than monetary incentives which can be pocketed while the rules are ignored.  Once again, capitalism doesn’t do what Lynas wants it to do.

Moreover, Naomi Klein’s arguments against nuclear power are summarized here.  If Lynas wishes to address Klein’s actual objections to nuclear power, that interview would be the place to start.  Nuclear power appeals to capitalists because it creates dependencies, and thus assures them of revenue streams.  But as Klein suggests, it’s not quite necessary.

In the end, Lynas constructs a sort of “what about the children?” argument, suggesting that since the non-elite nations want economic growth, and that since (capitalist) economic growth is the only path out of poverty for the people in those nations, energy austerity is not an option:

Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

Lots of energy is fine, if it’s not produced through fossil fuels — Lynas and Klein and I might agree upon that.  But capitalism is enormously wasteful, and a system based upon a union of free producers could be constructed that would grant the human race far more than poverty while needing to consuming far less in total energy.

 

If the human race could become considerably more prosperous while at the same time using less in aggregate consumption of energy (and that term aggregate is important here — nobody should be asking sub-Saharan Africa to cut back on its energy use), then the problem of finding the “alternative energy” to substitute for “fossil-fuel energy” would be considerably simplified.  This is why a transformation away from greed, and toward global cooperation, in the manner suggested by Naomi Klein does not make the mitigation of climate change into a “secondary” goal.  To mitigate climate change, a set of tools is fine, but we also need a political economy that will serve the purposes of climate change mitigation.  It’s not “secondary” at all.

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