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The Climate Conundrum


I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new climate change book but I want to. I did read Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of it. The basic problem we face in dealing with climate change is that both Klein and Kolbert are correct. First, Kolbert’s summary of Klein:

Klein traces our inaction to a much deeper, structural problem. Our economy has been built on the promise of endless growth. But endless growth is incompatible with radically reduced emissions; it’s only at times when the global economy has gone into free fall that emissions have declined by more than marginal amounts. What’s needed, Klein argues, is “managed degrowth.” Individuals are going to have to consume less, corporate profits are going to have to be reduced (in some cases down to zero), and governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free marketeers.

The fact that major environmental groups continue to argue that systemic change isn’t needed makes them, by Klein’s account, just as dishonest as the global warming deniers they vilify. Indeed, perhaps more so, since one of the deniers’ favorite arguments is that reducing emissions by the amount environmentalists say is necessary would spell the doom of capitalism. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes.

“I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody.”

Klein goes so far as to argue that the environmental movement has itself become little more than an arm (or perhaps one should say a column) of the fossil fuel industry. Her proof here is that several major environmental groups have received sizable donations from fossil fuel companies or their affiliated foundations, and some, like the Nature Conservancy, have executives (or former executives) of utility companies on their boards. “A painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring emissions,” she writes, is that “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting those interests—they have merged with them.”

Absolutely–the system of capitalism created climate change and we cannot effectively fight climate change by tweaking around the edges. The only answer is, frankly, economic shrinkage which means the rejection of capitalism. There just isn’t any way around this.

And Kolbert:

The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”

In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

Couple of things here. First, again, both are correct. The changes we need to make to forestall climate change are huge, no question about it. But the changes we need to make to forestall climate change will be completely rejected by people. So what do you do? Nothing is the worst possible answer but by far the most likely. Second, the biggest weakness of The Shock Doctrine was her refusal to do much to think through solutions to the problems she so perceptively diagnosed. When I wrote Out of Sight, I very much kept this critique in mind and in the last chapter, I work very hard to suggest ways forward. People might think the ideas are crazy or unworkable or unrealistic, but I want to envision the society I see. It doesn’t look like Klein does too much of that here either, other than highlighting a few examples of people doing good things. In the end, if we are criticizing capitalism, we have to articulate some kind of alternative to the system we disdain. That’s especially true when we are fighting climate change, the greatest threat to human society in centuries. But, in dealing with climate change, there is no hope of adapting a consumerist lifestyle to the problem, which means people will largely reject the solutions out of hand.

Good times.

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