After capitalism? A quick note from a climate hawk

Kudos to George Monbiot, who just wrote one of his good columns.  Really good, though I think the title may be wrong.  It’s called After Capitalism, and it makes the main point clearly and with animated brio.  To wit,

To answer the question of what the world will look like after capitalism, we first have to decide what we mean by capitalism. If it means a system that arises from lending money at interest, then there will be no “after capitalism”. . .  If on the other hand capitalism means something like the current dispensation, which allows a few people to seize much of the wealth generated by everyone, which blocks social mobility, which re-engineers the political system to serve the economic elite, then, yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

For the past 200 years, men and women have fought stoicly for political democracy. Now we should fight for economic democracy. The natural wealth of the world, its land, its soils, its crops, minerals, water, forests, fish, is limited. The wealth arising from its use and multiplied through all the complex layers of the modern economy, is also limited, bounded ultimately, as the subprime mortgage crisis showed us, by the real value of assets in the physical world. Just as it was wrong for monarchs and aristocrats to concentrate so much political power in their hands, so it is wrong that billionaires and corporations should be permitted to seize so much of the common treasury of humankind: the wealth arising from the use of a finite planet.

We deserve a political and economic system that redistributes both wealth and the decisions about how it is used. Not communism, but an advanced form of social democracy. . .

This last point is critical, because “social democracy” is a variant of capitalism (which is the issue with the title).  “Economic democracy” is a more open-ended notion, and could go either way.  In any case, and at the risk of appearing ridiculous, let me say that there has to be a way forward that does not demand the entire overthrow of the capitalist system as a precondition of social-ecological renewal.  There simply has to be, because given the short time we now have to embrace transformational change – a time too short to evolve and deploy a whole new political economy – the alternative is that we would be doomed.

But we are not doomed.  We’re in danger, sure, but we’re still alive, and can still make our own histories, and it follows that we are not doomed.  Thus it cannot be that “capitalism,” per se, is the problem.  It must be this particular capitalism that’s at issue, and in particular its drive to concentrate both power and wealth within a self-serving and increasingly incompetent elite caste.  All of which, it seems, we are condemned to debate within the cramped and distorting confines of a strange and overarching metaphor, the one in which the problem is something called “growth.”

Which brings us to the “green growth” debate, though it will have to wait.

Todd Stern: Half Right, All Wrong

There was a bit a firestorm in the climate world a few weeks back.  It started after Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change made a speech that included the following comment:

“For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action.  This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved.  This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper.  The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.”

The firestorm?  Basically, Stern was attacked for turning his back on the 2C target.  See for example, Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones here, and Foreign Policy here, and all sorts of other public and list-bound communications, many of them from the South.  Even the EU was upset.

Stern then issued a clarification, which did in fact clarify.  The emphasis here is mine:

Continue reading “Todd Stern: Half Right, All Wrong”

Hansen's smoking gun

Remember when climate change was something our grandchildren were going to have to deal with?

That was then.  Today, we’re in a different world.  It’s impossible to say exactly when we made the transition, though the usual sense is that it occurred sometime between, say, 2010 – a catastrophic  year in which, for example, Pakistan (as in “nuclear-armed Pakistan”) suffered floods so epic and destructive that they actually pushed the population down the ladder of development — and, say, 2012, the year in which the dust-bowlification of the American heartland became a fact on the ground.

James Hansen uses a more scientific dating system.  In his new paper, Public Perception of Climate Change, written with Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on August 6th, he proceeds by setting a formal baseline, which he does in terms of the three decades from 1951 to 1980.  These were the last of the old epoch.  Since then, we’ve no longer been in the Holocene, but rather have been busily drilling ourselves further and further into the Anthropocene.

Or, to use Hansen’s favorite metaphor, we’ve been busily loading the “climate dice.”  Back in the Holocene, two faces of the dice were (red) “hot,” two were (white) “average,” and two were (blue) “cold.”  Today,

“we find that actual summer-mean temperature anomalies over global land during the past decade averaged about 75% in the “hot category”, thus midway between four and five sides of the die were red.”

Continue reading “Hansen's smoking gun”