This Changes Everything (part 3)

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A key question in the political debate over energy is whether governments should have a strong energy policy at all. The conservative answer is essentially no. Government should not “pick winners and losers,” but remain neutral toward different energy sources and let the market decide. It is the “invisible hand” of the market that is most rational and fair. If fossil fuels are what sell, then we should continue extracting them.

Naomi Klein, on the other hand, sees our heavy reliance on environmentally dangerous sources of energy as a massive market failure. Fossil fuels are both more profitable for producers and cheaper for consumers than they should be, because market participants are not paying the full environmental cost. The planet, not the market, will dole out the consequences, including heavy costs for poor people who never got the benefits of high consumption. In this case, the market outcomes are neither rational nor just. Klein doesn’t say it in exactly these words, but the root of the problem is capitalism’s propensity to privatize benefits while socializing costs.

That is the basic argument for strong public policies–local, national and international–to facilitate a transition to cleaner energy as soon as possible.

Democratic resistance

Since the fossil fuel industry has accumulated enormous economic and political power, the only solution Klein sees is a massive democratic resistance movement. She sees such a movement emerging as the conflict between private interests and the public interest becomes clearer.

The fossil fuel industry is on a collision course with the climate, since it is planning to extract and burn far more carbon than scientists say the atmosphere can safely absorb. The valuation of fossil fuel companies on the stock market is based on the future profits projected on the basis of those plans, so they have strong incentive to keep going.

What really encourages resistance is that extractors are “pushing relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems), as well as the fact that many of the industrial activities in question have neither been adequately tested nor regulated, yet have already shown themselves to be extraordinarily accident-prone.”

Resistance is growing especially in the Pacific Northwest, led especially by “resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty.”  For many people, climate change is still a somewhat abstract notion, but a threat to the local water supply is not.

And what could be more democratic than a popular demand for clean water? “Having the ability to defend one’s community’s water source from danger seems to a great many people like the very essence of self-determination.”

Of course, the success of a broad environmental movement remains to be seen. Truly transformative social movements are historically rare. Klein cites the example of anti-discrimination movements that achieved only partial victories. The movement for African American rights succeeded in outlawing the most obvious forms of discrimination. But it has not achieved the “massive investment in jobs, schools, and decent homes” that would be needed to eliminate the large racial gap in wealth and income. On the other hand, the labor movement of the 1930s achieved more substantial economic gains. In that instance, the crisis of the Great Depression shifted popular opinion dramatically to the left, producing the New Deal wave of progressive legislation. The climate crisis may require a political change of that magnitude.

Global responsibility

What makes the challenge of climate change so daunting is that it requires developed countries not only to curb their own fossil fuel emissions but to help poorer countries curb theirs. Klein believes that this is a matter of both economic necessity and moral justice.

“Developed countries, which represent less than 20 percent of the world’s population, have emitted almost 70 percent of all the greenhouse gas pollution that is now destabilizing the climate.” The richer countries not only have a history of appropriating other peoples land, labor and resources (especially through slavery and colonialism), but they have also appropriated the sky, “gobbling up most of our shared atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon.”

That puts developing countries in a real bind. They are told that they must limit their fossil fuel emissions just when they are starting to industrialize. But the cheapest and easiest way for them to develop is to use the most readily available sources of energy, without bearing the costs of environmental protection or innovative technologies.

They cannot break this deadlock without help, and that help can only come from those countries and corporations that grew wealthy, in large part, as a result of those illegitimate appropriations….With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) recognized this when it asserted a principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” The nations of the world are all in this together, but the countries that have gotten the richest on fossil fuels have a special responsibility to switch to cleaner energy, as well as to help finance that transition in poorer countries.

One reason why emissions are falling in the United States (although not enough) but rising in poorer countries is that we have offshored so much manufacturing, especially to countries with weak environmental policies. The system is very profitable, but it complicates efforts to combat global warming.

In Klein’s view, the solution is not just for richer countries to contract their economies, while poorer countries expand theirs on the same old fossil-fuel model. That would just redistribute emissions, not reduce them. The challenge is for all countries, rich and poor alike, to agree to develop differently.

What kind of populism?

In a previous post, I mentioned Klein’s point about bad timing: Climate change became an issue just “at the peak of free market, end-of-history triumphalism.” She is hopeful, however, that other social problems such as growing inequality have helped discredit that ideology. If so, conservative politicians may be losing some of their cultural legitimacy, and a progressive counter-revolution may be in the making.

In this context, what should we make of Donald Trump’s “populism”, which arrived on the scene after Klein’s book was written? It is a little different than mainstream conservatism, since it encourages some government interventions in markets, especially restrictions on global free trade to protect US. manufacturing. (What exactly those restrictions would be is not clear.) When it comes to energy, it is worse than conservatism, since it is not so much energy neutral as pro-fossil fuel. Our new EPA Administrator is Scott Pruitt, who as Attorney General of Oklahoma consistently represented the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Our Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Neither Trump nor Pruitt has accepted the scientific consensus on climate change.

Trump seems obsessed with jobs in coal mining and pipeline construction. He has not shown much interest in creating new kinds of jobs or training workers to perform them.  Klein, on the other hand, points to the economic potential of clean energy. One study she summarizes is from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

[I]f $5 billion is spent on a pipeline, it produces mostly short-term construction jobs, big private sector profits, and heavy public costs for future environmental damage. But if $5 billion is spent on public transit, building retrofits, and renewable energy, economies can gain, at the very least, three times as many jobs in the short term, while simultaneously helping to reduce the chances of catastrophic warming in the long term.

Trump’s brand of populism is a reactionary one favoring traditional industries and jobs. But the very fact that many of his supporters are disillusioned with establishment conservatism may create some room for a more progressive populism favoring a more innovative and sustainable economy. Whether public opinion will shift in that direction in time is hard to say. If history is any guide, the old economy may have to show even more signs of failure before people will turn to something new.

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