Opinion

If capitalism is the cause of climate change, then what's the solution?

A review of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate

What are the causes of climate change? That may sound like a simple question to answer: carbon emissions, duh. But when we think of the ur-culprit of climate change, we would have to point the finger at a global economic system built on resource extraction and consumption. And if capitalism is the problem, then what's the solution?

These were the questions that ran through my mind as I read Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. The title alone would seem to suggest that we need some kind of anti-capitalist program, right? But what that might be never quite takes shape, despite Klein's otherwise admirable efforts to expose the numerous ways in which capitalist forces are poised to destroy our environmental well-being.

Klein has done vital investigations into how environmental groups have been co-opted by big money. She has exposed how sociopathic carbon-mining companies are laying waste to the biosphere and the future prospects of human society. And her extensive treatment of the hundreds of grassroots movements that have sprung up in response to particular pipelines, mines, or other projects — what she collectively calls "Blockadia" — is excellent. Better still, encouraging.

She also neatly dissects the awful, centrist instincts of mainstream Democrats, such as those who have scolded opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline for having objections to, you know, a massive amount of oil coming out of the ground. She convincingly argues that the cap-and-trade bill, which was filibustered to death in the Senate in 2010, was doomed to fail as a policy, much as a similar program has in Europe so far. In a hugely unequal, heavily financialized society, market-based climate policies are both directly painful for average people and easy for wealthy interests to cheat.

For example, it would be far easier to demonstrate that simply banning coal power would be a better way to go, since you'd leave that carbon in the ground. But this would mean property rights in carbon would have to be canceled en masse, necessitating the destruction of trillions of dollars in wealth. As Chris Hayes has argued, the only historical precedent for such wealth destruction was the abolition of slavery during the Civil War.

So what's to be done?

Klein goes back and forth on this question. At certain points she says that America will have to abandon the fundamental assumptions of capitalism, especially the idea of growth for its own sake. At others she suggests that the real problem is neoliberalism, especially its prioritization of free trade and markets over the social good. This more modest position implies that a return to the managed markets of the 1950s, with its thick-armed regulations and 90 percent top marginal tax rates, might be good enough.

These proposals will not have pretty repercussions. Deliberately stopping growth would immediately throw millions of people out of work, as the austerity programs in Europe have shown. Klein acknowledges that such a program would have to be massively offset to have a prayer at being sustainable (perhaps a universal basic income would do the trick), but does not quantify the magnitude of what's at stake.

And these quantitative issues raise some serious questions. If we aim for an aggressive decarbonization target, for example, how much extra efficiency could we potentially wring out of the U.S. economy before we need to start slowing growth? Where do emissions come from, anyway, and what would a crash decarbonization effort look like on the ground? If GDP is a poor measure of general well-being (and it definitely is), what other measures might we consider? What is Klein's definition of capitalism anyhow?

I was left grasping for theoretical toeholds to organize the evidence and arguments Klein has assembled. A book better organized around macroeconomic theory, or perhaps a companion work, would be very useful. Not a Marx-style, 1000-page doorstop (and surely orthodox Marxism isn’t the answer here), but at least some kind of rough-and-ready framework to give ordinary schlubs a way to think about the structure of climate economics. Are stiffly regulated markets enough? Or would we need an anti-climate change kind of socialism?

Still, Klein makes a convincing case that typical milquetoast Democratic policy is simply not equal to the task of climate change. Right-wingers may be in denial on the science, but they have a much better read on the politics. Climate change is not a communist plot, but it does mean far more government action than most liberals are willing to admit.

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