“We don’t have time” — against bourgeois “solutions” for climate change

Published online 11 March 2015.

We don’t have time to do anything effective about climate change.  So let’s do something ineffective and call it a day.  We can get the greenhouse gas emissions down 5% with a cap-and-trade scheme, buy an electric car and a solar panel, and “build on our successes.”

Right?  Never mind that those global carbon dioxide emissions are accelerating — we’re “making progress”! Bourgeois green rules, and besides, there is no alternative, as Saint Margaret Thatcher told us all. (end snark)

Where do we start with this argument?  We might start by asking why the politicians of today are all so enamored of cap-and-trade schemes whenever the subject of climate change comes up.  The main reason, of course, is that they promote more capitalism as a “solution” for climate change.  All the Important People like more capitalism.  Cap-and-trade schemes create a new commodity, “carbon credits,” and invest said commodity with 70 billion euros of value.  That’s 70 billion euros of commitment to the idea that carbon consumption doesn’t go away.

Or here’s a fun one.  The greenies in Australia compiled a list of scientific opinions back in 2011 or so against the cap-and-trade option.  Here’s my favorite:

6. Professor Barry Brook (Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), 2009: “1. A cap and trade mechanism is by its nature, an all consuming policy instrument that extinguishes the effectiveness of voluntary actions, harming rather than enhancing the evolution of a low carbon economy. 2. With a cap and trade approach, the target is everything as both the emissions cap and emissions floor are locked in. No one can do better than the cap, and so the cap must be a science based all consuming sustainable target pathway that won’t lock in failure. As we don’t yet have the widespread political and economic preparedness to commit to an all consuming sustainable target pathway (either nationally or internationally), the cap and trade mechanism is the wrong approach and we should instead focus on a carbon tax with complementary mechanisms that would transform the economy more effectively than the [Australian] proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).”

By the way, that last consideration of Brook’s is important: “As we don’t yet have the widespread political and economic preparedness” to make it work, it won’t work.  The same reasoning invalidates the carbon tax Brook wants.  We don’t have the “widespread political and economic preparedness” for that, either.  And, as long as capitalism is the consensus “only option,” we’ll never have that preparedness, either.Bill McKibben’s excellent piece in Rolling Stone back in 2012 expressed the dilemma of capitalist efforts to rein in climate change more baldly:

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets.

That asset-writeoff is the catch, then: real climate change mitigation obliges us to keep the grease in the ground — but under capitalism “the grease” still in the ground (specifically, fossil fuel reserves) is positioned to have a commodity value that just can’t be surrendered!  That’s $20 trillion, right there on the table.  Think they’ll walk away from it?OK, now let’s imagine that they can walk away from those all carbon credit and fossil-fuel-futures commodity values and impose a carbon tax.  And let’s hope (in this regard) for the most progressive option for that carbon tax, that promoted by James Hansen — the fee-and-dividend option, which won’t kneecap the folks just trying to get to work in their fossil-fuel-burning cars because they can’t afford anything else.  John Bellamy Foster:

Hansen’s climate-change exit strategy represents what is clearly a calculated attempt to push through the maximum plan that the regime of capital could conceivably accept, and the minimum necessary to avoid complete disaster. It represents a heroic effort to promote the formation of political-economic conditions that will prevent the world from crossing a catastrophic climate tipping point. In fashioning his exit strategy Hansen says little or nothing about the world’s other immense environmental challenges, despite the fact that he is the coauthor of major scientific publications on the crossing of multiple planetary boundaries—signaling a planetary environmental crisis that extends beyond global warming to other critical areas as well.

The James Hansen fee-and-dividend scheme is then an attempt to promote “the maximum plan that the regime of capital could conceivably attempt.”  This, as Foster points out, doesn’t do anything about the other, manifold, flaws of the capitalist system.  Foster continues:

Hansen’s climate-change exit strategy thus has definite limitations. Despite its progressive features it is mostly a top-down, elite-based strategy of implementing a carbon tax with the hope that this will spur the introduction of necessary technological changes by corporations.

Yes!  The rich will save us!  Let’s hope and pray that the capitalists will go along with this scheme, and that they will fork over the money necessary to change their favorite system to a cleaner, greener one.  Yeah right.The real problem is that the current system of political economy, capitalism, isn’t really designed for the sort of major change in its energy infrastructure (never mind its relationship with Earth’s ecosystems) which will be required if we are to (in Naomi Klein’s words) “save the climate.”  Actually, capitalism is built for eco-destruction in a wide variety of areas, from chemical pollution to plastic pollution to species extinction.  Climate change is the only one that receives any publicity — except, of course, in Florida and a number of other states, where the appropriate officials are not allowed to talk about it.  (Future generations will not recall those officials fondly.)

Capitalism is in fact inherently eco-destructive.  The capitalists regard nature as mere “natural resources” productive of “raw materials” — they are compelled by their fetish of commodity value to ignore nature as (as Jason W. Moore pointed out) “historically variant webs of life.”  Moore again:

Capital’s dynamism turns on the exhaustion of the very webs of life necessary to sustain accumulation; the history of capitalism has been one of recurrent frontier movements to overcome that exhaustion, through the appropriation of nature‟s free gifts hitherto beyond capital’s reach.

What has bailed out the capitalists so far, what has kept them from seeing the eco-destruction of their ways for centuries, now, is that the frontiers of capital accumulation have been pushed back from time to time by industrial revolutions.  But industrial revolutions no longer facilitate the “green” expansion of commodity value like they used to do.  This is why I argued that alternative energy will not save capitalism late last year.You know, a few decades down the road, people aren’t really going to care a lot about our excuses, especially after much of the Earth becomes unsuitable for agriculture.  It’s already happening in California.

Eventually the truth will break through to schoolchildren now trapped in school systems obsessed with what students think, rather than if they think at all.  This is because, true to the ways of capitalism, the school systems have become another cash cow.  When civilization loses its basis in agriculture, nobody’s going to care if today’s students pass the endless array of reading and writing and math tests to which they’re now exposed.  Nor will future generations care about the present-day commodity value of Pearson stock options.  America just has to stop hiding from the connection between capitalism and climate change, and start getting the kids involved in their own real-world futures, and that’s all there is to it.

“Power conceded nothing without a demand.  It never has, and it never will.”  – Frederick Douglass

As a superior option, I suggest we start with Naomi Klein’s most recent book as a starting point.  Klein’s suggested measure for climate change mitigation, outlined in her book This Changes Everything, is of a different stripe.  First off, Klein points to the world’s social movements as agencies for “saving the climate” — thus no supplication to capitalist power will be necessary.  Secondly, Klein suggests a strategy for bringing the world’s social movements together around climate change as a cause.  Lastly, Klein suggests a transformative future capable of “saving the climate,” unlike the present, which doesn’t seem to move sufficiently to address the problem (as I’ve shown above).

I’ve devoted space to a discussion of Klein’s book in other diaries.  (Also this recommended diary.)  Let it just be said, here, that it’s time we listened to movement-oriented solutions to climate change, because the rich and powerful are not going to “save the climate” for us.


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