I Wish This Changed Everything

Is a radical economic overhaul our best hope to save the climate?

In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein says that humanity faces an unavoidable choice to “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” Her argument goes like this.

Many people, especially the elites in industrialized countries, ignore the severe environmental disruptions of our extraction-based economy. And the rampant economic growth under global capitalism accelerates and intensifies these disruptions. Now, science is warning us that climate change is the mother of all disruptions. But preventing it seems impossible because capitalism concentrates economic and political power in the hands of those who benefit most from this supercharged system. The only way to counter this power is to combine mass social activism, which blocks all fossil fuel projects, with the rapid development of small-scale renewable energy by cooperatives, indigenous peoples, local governments and individuals. In short, our only hope against the climate threat is for “deep changes … to the underlying logic of our liberalized and profit-seeking economy.”

Given this necessity, strategies that do not change our capitalist economic system are wrong-headed. Environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, are wrong to collaborate with the fossil fuel industry and other corporations in lobbying for pro-market climate policies (carbon taxes, cap-and-trade). People are fools to believe that Richard Branson, Bill Gates and other billionaires can solve the problem by funding technical innovations (biofuel for jets, “safe” nuclear power) or by voluntarily “greening” their corporations. And we should not expect salvation from geo-engineering technologies, such as shooting sulphur into the atmosphere to block sunlight, as these Dr. Strangelove gambits fail to account for nature’s delicate complexity.

Is Klein correct? “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war”? And is “climate change a battle between capitalism and the planet”? Must we “change everything” about our economic system?

Because she is known as a harsh critic of modern capitalism, Klein acknowledges that some readers might suspect her of bias in selecting evidence to support her argument: “I am well aware that this raises the question of whether I am doing the same thing as the [climate science] deniers—rejecting possible solutions because they threaten my worldview … But there are a few important differences to note.”

Let’s pause here. Klein understands that many people know we must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades. Like me, these people might also be deeply disturbed by environmental harms and social inequalities in our modern capitalist economies. But, like me, they may want sound evidence for how we can quickly succeed with those emissions—as we have with acid rain, ozone-depleting substances and other environmental threats. Unless it is truly essential, they do not want to encumber an already difficult task with an even more challenging agenda—such as “changing everything” about capitalism in three decades.

Unfortunately, Klein never elaborates on the “few important differences to note.” Instead, she offers only one reason to trust her objectivity. “First, I am not asking anyone to take my word on the science; I think that all of us should take the word of 97 percent of climate scientists and their countless peer-reviewed articles.”

Good. But the question she posed was not whether we should trust her on climate science. It was whether we should trust that her worldview has not biased her reading of evidence on the necessity of dramatically changing the world capitalist economy to prevent climate change. So I was expecting her to say, “Second, just as I rely on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for climate science (Volume I of its report), I rely on its research on greenhouse gas reduction (Volume III) for demonstrating my capitalism-climate argument. Unlike those self-deluding climate science deniers, I do not ignore leading researchers and successful jurisdictions if their evidence runs counter to my thesis.”

Instead, however, all Klein offers is “the science forces us to choose how we want to respond.” And for her that choice is that we radically change capitalism. But we knew that before opening the book.

Once the book is open, it quickly becomes apparent that Klein is not really interested in fairly presenting and weighing the evidence. She wants to change capitalism, so, like a lawyer preparing a brief, she only looks at the evidence that supports her agenda, and distorts or ignores any technology, policy or jurisdiction that contradicts her argument. Within the space constraints of this review, I can only provide a few examples of her technique.1 But one is sufficient. It is called California (pronounced with an Austrian accent).

In 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring California to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further substantial decreases by 2030. Although the state’s population and economy are growing, the rise in greenhouse gas emissions has been arrested and they are now declining. The state has thus far applied regulations to fuels, electricity generation, vehicles, buildings and equipment, but recently it added a cap-and-trade system—setting a cap on emissions and allocating tradeable permits that add up to the cap. The cap is mandated to decline over time to achieve the target. Renewable electricity (solar, wind) and the number of low emission vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric) are rapidly growing. Independent experts agree that the state is on course to achieve its ambitious 2020 and 2030 targets, even while its capitalist economy grows. Klein never mentions California’s climate effort, yet it is the leading jurisdiction in North America, and arguably the world.

Regarding cap-and-trade, when applied to climate, this policy is sometimes referred to as carbon trading. Unfortunately, that is also a term for carbon offsetting. Many experts have found that carbon offsets sometimes fail to deliver the promised reductions. Klein has heard this, but uses examples from offsets without telling the reader that these are a big deal for voluntary carbon trading, yet negligible in legitimate cap-and-trade systems. In fact, cap-and-trade has been effective for decades in addressing environmental challenges such as acid rain, smog and water pollution. But its effectiveness would be compromised if policy makers included a big offset loophole. Fortunately, this has not happened with the European Union and California cap-and-trade policies (offsets are negligible). Nor did it happen with the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the U.S. Congress in 2010 but failed in the Senate—an event Klein mistakenly describes as “a narrowly dodged bullet.” This is not an honest depiction, and leads to the assumption that market-based mechanisms cannot work.

Klein is also frequently confused about technologies, yet each error conveniently works in her favour. For example, if humanity gets serious about greenhouse gas reduction, some fossil-fuel–rich regions, such as Alberta, are likely to pursue carbon capture and storage, initially at coal- and gas-fired electricity plants. IPCC reports show great potential to permanently store captured carbon dioxide in deep salty aquifers, as is already happening in Norway. For decades, though, carbon dioxide has also been pumped into aging oil reservoirs to increase oil extraction rates (in Texas, for example). This is not an emissions reduction strategy because the extracted oil gets burned and releases carbon dioxide. Yet Klein mistakenly assumes that this is what people mean by carbon storage, and so she summarily rejects a critical technology that would mesh the interests of the fossil fuel industry with the climate objective.

Klein likes renewables that fit her small-is-beautiful ideal. So she gets excited about the rapid advance of renewables in Germany and links this advance to that country’s coincident increase in local participation in electricity planning and ownership. She conveniently overlooks the fact that expanding renewables in jurisdictions such as Germany is possible because of centrally controlled, integrated grids and recent investments in large, base-load plants. In that system, large capitalist corporations work in harmony, not competition, with multiple small suppliers. This kind of relationship has existed in different capitalist economies throughout the history of the electricity industry. Klein presents it as a radical economic change. It is not.

At one point, Klein argues that a transition to renewables will take a long time, requiring “building vast new electricity grids and transportation systems, often from the ground up.” (Not true. The beauty of renewable electricity and low emission vehicles is their ability to develop with existing electricity and transport infrastructure.) Instead, she says we must “quickly” reduce energy use via “policies and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone, … public transit, … energy-efficient housing, … cities planned for high density living, … land management that discourages sprawl, … urban design that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes.” This is simply a description of modern, capitalist Scandinavia. But all experts know that this urban transformation took many decades, much longer than it will take to expand renewable electricity and low emission vehicles.

With Ontario as her prime example, Klein claims that free trade rules block “green energy” policies. But while trade rules prevent Ontario from requiring manufacturers of solar panels to locate their plants in the province for the right to sell equipment there, they have not prevented it from reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, closing all its coal plants (which it did) and replacing these entirely with renewable energy (which it did not). While Ontario has instead built some natural gas plants in conjunction with renewables, it could have followed the British Columbia model. Since 2007, that province has had a renewables-only policy that forced the cancellation of coal and gas projects and caused a flourishing of renewables—with no challenge from trade rules. Klein says she lives in B.C.; yet she never mentions this world-leading climate policy that inconveniently contradicts her thesis that trade rules block renewables.

It must be nice to view our energy options so simply: for Klein, renewables are good, fossil fuels bad. Thus, she repeatedly slams fossil fuels for harming people and nature, citing the BP oil spill, the smog in Chinese cities and unhealthy conditions for indigenous people near Nigerian oil wells and Albertan oil sands. Had she read with an open mind the IPCC reports, and other collections of leading research such as the Global Energy Assessment, she would have acknowledged that one of the greatest benefits to human health has been the “energy transition” from domestic burning of wood, brush and crop residues to kerosene, butane and propane. Today, domestic air pollution still kills more than two million people a year, mostly the world’s poorest women and children in Asia and Africa who do not yet have access to these cleaner burning forms of fossil fuels. Klein never mentions huge benefits such as these that help explain the allure of fossil fuels.

Indeed, wearing her “blame capitalism” blinders, Klein misses many compelling reasons why humanity is having so much trouble with climate change. Here are four. First, fossil fuels present a difficult Faustian dilemma for humanity. They have brought huge benefits for more than 200 years, and still offer much to the poorest on the planet. Yet we now know that with these benefits comes a future day of reckoning. This dilemma is not the fault of capitalism.

Second, as a global-scale threat, climate change is a challenge for which humanity is ill equipped. Think of another major global challenge: Nazi Germany. Many people in the 1930s, such as Winston Churchill, argued that united international action was needed immediately to stop Hitler before he launched a devastating world war. But the Soviet Union and western countries could not collaborate. And Franklin Roosevelt could not get enough Americans to support pre-emptive action. With hindsight, we think of the Allies who defeated Germany as an example of a coordinated global effort. Actually, it was Hitler who “created” it, by first attacking the Soviet Union and then, after Pearl Harbor, declaring war on the United States. Divergent interests initially prevented countries from acting together, even in the face of such a clear and immediate danger.

Uniting against the climate threat is even more difficult, given the diversity of national interests. Developing countries want wealthy countries to bear significant costs to help them reject the Faustian pact with fossil fuels. Developed countries agree that they need to help significantly. But each side has a dramatically different view of what “significant help” means, which is natural when you think about it. Klein claims that the stalemate can be solved by assigning responsibility based on a combination of ability to pay and historical emissions. But for over two decades, all countries have accepted these two criteria as key to the negotiations. It is their divergent interests that keeps them from reaching an agreement on the amount of support, not capitalism.

Third, unlike environmental threats such as smog, greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, and their effect is generally distant in time and space. They cause slight increases in temperatures, sea levels and the probability of extreme weather. But these are variable on a daily or seasonal basis, so the change is difficult to detect personally. And psychologists note that our ability to recognize threats is closely related to personal physical experiences. This is a key reason why terrorist attacks and pandemics are threats humans can quickly focus on, while climate change is much more difficult. This is not the fault of capitalism.

Fourth, humans are good at self-delusion when evidence is inconvenient to their lifestyle and income, or contradicts their worldview. Klein accurately observes this with right-wing climate deniers. It is almost amusing to watch her claim that they are delusional when denying the science, but not delusional when arguing that preventing climate change will be devastating to capitalism. The latter fits her anti-capitalism, anti-growth worldview; the former does not. Paul Krugman neatly summed up the counterproductive influence of these extreme right and left views by noting that “if we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.”

“Changing everything” about global capitalism in just a few decades is a tall order. Fortunately, this is unnecessary for addressing climate change, as individual jurisdictions are already showing. Additional good news, as Krugman noted in The New York Times, is that greenhouse gas reductions have proven to be not nearly as costly as science deniers on the right and anti-growth activists on the left would have us believe. But vested interests within key countries (including Canada and the United States) and radically divergent views on international fairness between countries (the U.S., China, India) make the task ahead daunting. We need to get past a tipping point for both the energy system and the international system. This is difficult. Unsubstantiated arguments such as Klein’s only make it more difficult.

  1. For more examples, see my blog markjaccard.com