First the bad news: To address anthropogenic climate change, capitalism will have to be replaced as the dominant world economic system. How do we know this? Well, we know that eliminating ongoing exposure to a poison is a prerequisite for curing an illness due to poisoning. We know that any hope of modifying a dog’s aggressive behavior requires, at a minimum, that you stop rewarding the animal when it bites someone. In short, we know that to solve a problem you must eliminate the causes before you can hope to effectively treat the symptoms.
But is capitalism itself part of the problem? Are private ownership and management of the world’s resources, energy supplies, industry and infrastructure compatible with the current needs of society, the environment and our planet? Is the current system sustainable when it rewards industrial titans for maximizing returns at all cost, while existentially punishing any who might forgo profits for the public good? These are crucial questions.
It’s true that within capitalism there is room for reform short of dismantling the entire economic framework. Every wage increase, union victory, advance in civil rights or civil liberties falls under this category. But climate change is different. Addressing climate change is not a matter of dealing with one power plant or one factory or even a single industry; it’s a globalized, systemic problem. With enough pressure, you can get the powers that be to clean up a particular river, ban a particular toxic chemical or right a particular injustice, but there’s no way to end systemic pollution, poisoning of the environment or generalized injustice without ending the incentives that encourage those behaviors. Under capitalism, those behaviors are profitable, and profit is deemed to be the highest measure of success. Like hammering a circle into a square, any change which would alter the essence of a thing—which would turn the original into its opposite—cannot sensibly be classified as “reform”.
But wait. Hasn’t Germany, that paragon of capitalist production, voluntarily gone green? Not quite. It’s true that in the wake of Fukushima, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power, a technology that has never been profitable without large government subsidies. They have increased investment in renewable energy, but Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Whether these trends will continue remains to be seen.
So just what steps are needed in order to avoid the worst effects of runaway climate change? The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concludes that unless the majority of known oil, coal and gas reserves remain in the ground, there is little hope of capping global warming at 2°C.
Meanwhile, energy company profits are soaring, with Gazprom, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and BP reporting over $169 billion in combined profits for 2011, up an average of 35% from the previous year. These six were among the eight most profitable companies world-wide in 2011. To carry out the IPCC recommendations, these companies would have to halt their profitable business-as-usual practices overnight. Never in the history of human civilization has a reform of that scope occurred without a revolutionary restructuring of the underlying economic system. The last monumental restructuring of the US economy was the conversion to military production during World War II. But in that case the corporations involved were the beneficiaries, not the ones to pay the price. The profits of the affected corporations were protected and in fact increased throughout the war.
And there’s more. The energy companies are not the only ones that need to be massively restructured. According to the IPCC, industrial agriculture is responsible for 10-12% of greenhouse gas emissions. Then there are power plants (33%), transportation (28%), commercial and residential buildings (11%). Clearly, to rationalize our economy in such a way as to provide for people’s needs without cooking the planet requires more than a simple tweak or amendment; it can only be done if quarterly statements and profit margins are abandoned in favor of rational planning for the needs of humans and the environment. Whatever you want to call the system that would result from such a transformation, it’s not capitalism.
Representatives of the business elite understand this, as Naomi Klein so helpfully brought to light in reporting on a 2011 conference of climate change skeptics. Expecting to mitigate climate change without threatening the super profits of the energy industry has about as much chance of success as curing an alcoholic without altering what he imbibes. But if profits of the energy conglomerates can be sacrificed for the greater good, where does it stop? Once you accept that the interests of humanity and corporations do not always coincide and you address climate change by prioritizing human needs over profits, suddenly the “free enterprise” spell is broken. What’s to stop reasonable people from applying the same standard to other corporations in other sectors?
As Noam Chomsky has emphasized, US foreign policy for centuries has been based on the principle that there is nothing so threatening as the power of a good example. Thus, the US and its allies have sought to crush every liberation movement that arose—from Indonesia, to Vietnam, to the Congo, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere—lest a positive alternative to the US corporate system be allowed to thrive, providing an example and inspiration for those seeking to challenge the status quo. For the same reason, no serious environmental plan that puts human needs before profits can be allowed to develop which might point to a generalizable, rational way of managing our collective wealth and resources.
This explains why COP19, the 19th “Conference of Parties” of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, was such an utter failure, as were its predecessors. It’s a case of the fox guarding the hen house. No one should reasonably expect diplomatic spokespeople for governments beholden to big capital to blithely bargain away the power and privileges of those they represent. If there were a way to effectively address climate change without threating corporate profits or the capitalist mode of production, it would have been big news at COP 1. The lack of progress should rightly be interpreted as a rejection by the powerful of the one approach that might actually work—taking a hard look at the assumptions underlying our political and economic systems.
So, if you suspected that tackling climate change would be a daunting task, the problem may be even bigger than you thought. The 250 year old economic system that has dominated the world since before the industrial revolution must be jettisoned. But daunting as this may seem, understanding what we’re up against makes the task easier. There’s nothing more futile or demoralizing than fighting a battle for which you don’t understand the goal, are not clear about who’s on your side, or mistake whom and what it is that you’re fighting against.
Now for the good news: The economic obstacles to seriously addressing climate change are some of the same impediments which stand in the way of resolving other seemingly intractable problems; problems like poverty, injustice, militarism, endless war, persistent racism, economic exploitation, inequality, pollution, waste, and more. It turns out there are massive profits to be made from each of these scourges. Laying the foundation for solving any one of these opens the door to addressing them all. So, as big a challenge as addressing climate change may turn out to be, winning that battle would make it possible to improve the world in countless other ways. It’s the ultimate “win one, get one free” proposition.
But what if we’re wrong? What if the pro-business skeptics like the Wall St Journal are right and the climate doesn’t need fixing, or if it does, that it can be counted on to fix itself? Then if we persist, as this poignant cartoon illustrates, we’ll end up creating a cleaner, healthier, sustainable, more just world for nothing!