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Re: “I Wish This Changed Everything,” by
Mark Jaccard draws on his detailed knowledge of climate change policies and mainstream economics to reject Naomi Klein’s argument that climate change represents a fundamental challenge to capitalism. And he makes some good points. Nonetheless, here are four reasons for thinking that Klein is essentially correct:
Capitalism’s poor track record. Capitalism hasn’t solved the climate problem. Greenhouse gas emissions from countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are higher than in 1994 when they signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Jaccard cites California as “the leading jurisdiction in … arguably the world” because of its programs for reducing emissions. Yet he fails to mention that changing patterns of trade have disguised the fact that emissions have been shifted abroad from developed economies rather than reduced, as careful accounting demonstrates. Furthermore, the policy “solutions” of emission taxes and tradeable permits that Jaccard refers to have been known for decades, but have not been comprehensively implemented. Indeed, they have been actively resisted. The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which included economic policies favoured by Jaccard, and Canada, which did ratify it, rescinded its ratification. Why is this? Klein provides an answer. Jaccard does not.
Capitalism is slow to transition to renewables. The fossil fuel industry is not leading the transition to renewables. Instead, it seeks access to more remote and environmentally damaging sources of fossil fuels and the relaxation of environmental protections. Energy prices do not adequately reflect environmental and social costs in their production and use, which favour fossil fuels, and no one can make monopoly profits by owning the sun and wind.
Capitalism encourages competition and discourages cooperation. Competition and cooperation are both important in resilient, just societies. Climate policy is a failure of cooperation. Under capitalism, the public interest is supposed to be served through the self-interested behaviour of producers and consumers. Climate change is just one among numerous examples of where this doesn’t happen and, as Klein reports, the list is growing.
Capitalism thrives on economic growth. The faster an economy grows, the faster it must reduce greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of economic output, just to stop total emissions increasing—and faster still to achieve an absolute reduction. How long could such a process continue, were it even to start? One generation? A couple? Questioning the longevity of economic growth entails questioning the structure of capitalism, which Klein understands and so should we.
Peter A. Victor
Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
I highly respect Peter Victor’s work, and recommend his latest book (Managing Without Growth) over Klein’s. But in his comment he says that I “reject Klein’s argument that climate change represents a fundamental challenge to capitalism.” Not so. Climate change is indeed a fundamental challenge to capitalism, just as it is to communism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism and fascism, or even autarkic communalism. (My best guess from the book at what Klein prefers over capitalism – she’s never explicit.) And I explain why in my review. The combustion of fossil fuels has been a fantastic boon to humanity, but an unequal one that has benefitted some more than others. Now, preventing the looming climate threat requires an unprecedented global level of trust and shared views on fairness, which would severely challenge any economic system.
It is false logic to argue that because “capitalism hasn’t solved the climate problem” it must go. (With the same logic, one can argue for capitalism’s demise because it has not yet cured cancer.) Not only do we need to know that an alternative to capitalism would do better with the climate threat (or cancer), we need to be convinced that getting that alternative in place is a less difficult path than one focused on constraining emissions in capitalist and other economic systems. The fact that the latter strategy has not yet worked does not tell us that the former is better.
At a fundamental level, Victor and I agree that human economic systems must quickly shift to non-disruptively mimicking the planet’s natural material cycles – of phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, water, sulfur, oxygen, etc. It looks, however, as though before learning this lesson, humanity is likely to cause major disruptions – perhaps catastrophic – to these cycles, and to the ecosystems and people who depend on them.
The most pressing threat today is our disruption of the carbon cycle. I agree with Klein and Victor that success will be extremely difficult under global capitalism. But they need to demonstrate that a less difficult solution is to first convince almost everyone on the planet to completely switch to a different economic system (which they would all agree on), instead of just convincing enough of the planet’s elites that it is in their and their children’s interests to at times cooperate and at times pressure each other to stop using the atmosphere as a free carbon dumping ground. To make this case, Klein ignored, distorted and cherry-picked the evidence, as I pointed out.
Mark Jaccard’s review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate reminded me of the Aesop fable where the mice hold a meeting to decide what to do about the cat that is hunting them. After much discussion, they decide to put a bell on the cat so they can hear it coming.
My daughter finds the idea of the bell so funny—or maybe it’s the mice having a meeting, I’m not really sure—that she misses the part where the wise old mouse asks how they propose to get the bell on the cat.
I have enormous respect for Jaccard’s work as a publicly engaged intellectual, but his review seems to slam Klein for ignoring the intricacies of bell design.
He says Klein extolls the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on science but ignores its work on mitigation policies, citing cap-and-trade systems in particular.
But my copy of the IPCC policies report states (in bold type) that the “short-run environmental effect [of cap-and-trade systems] has been limited as a result of loose caps or caps that have not proved to be constraining.”
This is telling. The IPCC’s role is to say to government: “If you wanted to stop climate change, you could do these things.” The problem is that they don’t do those things, which mystifies many economists.
Klein is interested in why they haven’t. Her argument is that cap-and-trade is particularly susceptible to corruption and lobbying, and thereby plays the game on the field where the oil, gas and coal interests that dominate our politics are strongest.
The solution to this isn’t smarter policy proposals; it is shifting the balance of power. So she focuses her analysis on capitalism—the details of the particularly rapacious, deregulated form of capitalism that has emerged over the last few decades—in order to determine how we can advance proposals that build the power of those seeking change.
Case in point: Jaccard says World Trade Organization interference in Ontario energy policy didn’t affect the province’s coal phase-out. But as someone who spent ten years in the trenches on the coal phase-out, I can say that we wouldn’t have won the Green Energy Act without the buy-local provision that built a strong political constituency in favour of renewables.
This is the value of Klein’s book: It asks us to assess our strategies on how they help organize the mice, rather than if they’d be okay with the cat.
Keith Stewart, PhD
I have always enjoyed Keith Stewart’s parables, but this one works better for my argument. After reading Naomi Klein’s vague prescriptions for “changing everything” about the economy, my question for her is: how will we get the bell on the cat? How will we get people everywhere on the planet to agree to shut down all large energy corporations (most of which are nationally owned), transfer their assets to local co-ops and municipalities (trusting that these will all opt for renewables even where fossil fuels are cheaper), somehow ban all long distance trade in energy—and do all of this in just a few decades? Laments about capitalism may sell books, but those of us “in the trenches,” as Stewart says, should ask how convincing everyone to change everything is somehow easier and quicker than convincing some people to change some things.
Stewart knows that I am aware of the extreme difficulty of the task ahead. He knows that, in spite of what Klein says on her website, I don’t favour market policies over regulation, having contributed in British Columbia to the design of what is effectively a ban on new coal and natural gas power plants (a far more aggressive policy than Ontario’s feed-in tariff). He also knows that I call for rising tariffs (or their equivalent) that squeeze out international trade of emissions-intensive goods—which were a component of many proposed U.S. bills, including Waxman-Markey. And he knows that I understand that civil disobedience may be required, and I am willing to step forward, in cases where our political leadership has been so co-opted by the fossil fuel industry that it aids and abets the acceleration of carbon pollution while pretending to do the opposite.
As for Stewart’s “case in point,” he appears to credit Ontario’s Green Energy Act of 2009 with the political decision to close Ontario’s coal plants. But that decision was taken six years earlier, and aggressive actions had already driven coal-fired power from its 2003 level of 25 percent to below 10 percent by 2009. Given the actual sequence of events, it seems unfair to Ontarians to suggest that without a protectionist requirement for local manufacturing of solar panels they would not have replaced coal with natural gas and renewables.
Since Stewart likes to learn from stories, he should try Life of Brian, especially the scene in which, merely to improve their conditions, the People’s Front of Judea demand that “Pontius Pilot dismantle the entire Roman empire in two days.”
I have recently retired from a long career in public health in British Columbia. I must say that as I look “upstream” for the antecedents of the current burden of chronic disease including diabetes and heart disease along with mental health problems and addictions, I have reached much the same conclusions about the pervasive adverse effects of global corporatism as Naomi Klein.
Although I am new to this discussion and don’t know Mark Jaccard, I am dismayed by his belittling review of her book.
I think her arguments are deeper and better than his.
That said, he is right that capitalism is not going to disappear overnight or on time to slow down or halt global warming. We need both approaches. Let the capitalist Greens do their best to come up with better technologies and let jurisdictions such as California (and B.C.?) come up with improved policies. At the same time, the scale and pace of environmental degradation is entirely the fault of capitalism. As individual citizens who are not part of the elite one percent, we need to shed ourselves of a religion that only improves the lives of the high priests while the rest of us increasingly lose our quality of life and our sustaining community and social networks and while we are forced to watch while all the important decisions are made in corporate boardrooms and behind closed doors.
All this good stuff about more energy efficient cars would be great if the old gas guzzlers were recycled, but they aren’t. They continue to be driven by poorer and poorer people until the worst of them end up in Mexico still polluting at the same rate. The new hybrids only add more pollution, even though it is less per car. Klein is absolutely right about the need for consumers to change their ways and about the need for things such as mass transit, bike lanes and policies that support local food production.
Goodness knows we are subjected to endless pro-corporate and pro-growth messages and rationalizations about how good it is for everyone. Too bad Mark Jaccard couldn’t keep his ego in check and simply allow her book to be as effective as possible given the urgent need to attack global overheating on every possible front.
David Bowering, MD, MHSc.
Retired Chief Medical Health Officer, Northern Health
Terrace, British Columbia
When the LRC editor asked me to review Klein’s book, my first reaction was to decline. I already devote considerable time reviewing academic articles and books. But Klein is an engaging writer who wants to improve the world, and I am a bit of fan because like me she has recognized the necessity (when governments are not acting) for responsible citizens to practice civil disobedience to block expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure (in my case, blocking coal trains to protest expansion of Vancouver’s coal port).
While her storytelling skills drew me in, I soon recognized her portrayal of the book as serious research – full of evidence, footnotes and references from natural and social sciences. But I also quickly realized that while she accepted the conclusions of climate science, she often ignored or distorted non-ideological evidence from other fields of climate-related research – including the comparative costs of energy technologies, the effectiveness of different climate policies, the costs of greenhouse gas reduction options, the human health impacts of energy alternatives, the effects of trade policies on environmental regulations, the challenges of international climate negotiations, and the profound reasons why humans are so enamored with fossil fuels.
So I pointed some of these out in my review. With space constraints, I could only provide a few cases, for which I included page references so that readers could verify my claims. It was disheartening, but I suppose understandable from a style perspective, that the editors removed all page references. In my blog (markjaccard.com), I have reinstated some of these and intend to provide more when I have time. (I need to distill 30 pages of detailed notes!)
For example, my original draft directed readers to page 59 for Klein’s claim that her worldview has not led her to distort and cherry-pick the evidence. It then provided pages 220-226 where she conflates offset programs and conventional cap-and-trade in order to suggest that problems with the former apply to the latter, and conveniently ignores evidence of the latter’s proven effectiveness with similar environmental problems.
David Bowering unfortunately feels that his arguments cannot stand on their merits, but instead need buttressing by suggesting flaws in my character. He can rest assured that I am reminded of my flaws on a daily basis by my partner, adult offspring, siblings, friends, colleagues and grad students – and they say they have much to work with!
Re: “Une nouvelle belle époque?,” by
George Fallis’s review of Thomas Piketty’s celebrated Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely laudable contribution to contemporary debates over rising inequality in western societies. What makes it especially valuable for Canadians is the attention the reviewer gives to the ways in which our experience diverges from that of Britain, France and, in particular, the United States. I also applaud his stress on the diverse opportunities available within our political system to counteract forces tending to increase inequality. Capitalism by its very nature may lead to the concentration of wealth, but in a democracy a well-informed citizenry surely has the power to insist on legislation framed with the interests of the poor, no less than the most privileged, in mind.
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