This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was first published in the Earth Island Journal, here.  See this notice on Klein’s own site. 

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise — This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

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In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.

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Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage

Ready for a stimulating new cut across some old territory?  Think about “responsibility,” and take a look at Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage, a discussion paper by Julie-Anne Richards and Keely Boom of the Climate Justice Project — “an independent not for profit, non-government organisation that uses the law to expose environmental and human rights issues relating to climate change.”

Among other things, the analysis here includes the idea of corporate — rather than national — historical responsibility.  In fact, it shows “that a small number – fewer than 100 – entities have a significant responsibility for the climate change currently being experienced.”  More generally, it’s based on the idea that private entities that have profited from, and continue to profit from, the fossil-fuel economy should be responsible for a good fraction of the “loss and damage costs” associated with carbon pollution.

This is a ground breaking idea, and it deserves a lot more attention, in this our unfortunate age of corporate personhood.  “Persons,” after all, have responsibilities as well as rights.

News Flash: Money makes you selfish!

I know it’s hard to believe, but watch Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality. It’s a brief report by the PBS Newshour’s Paul Solman, no raving leftie he, and it’s worth even waiting out the leading advert from . . . Goldman Sachs!

The research being reported here is by UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff, and it’ll seem more than a bit familiar to anyone who’s read The Spirit Level.  That said, this is a tidy, amusing, and convincing take on the corrosion that is economic stratification.

The report begins with the fact that the drivers of luxury cars are “anywhere from three or four times” more likely to cut off pedestrians that people driving less expensive cars, and goes on to observe that rich people steal more candy in fake psychological tests, and are more likely to cheat in a game of chance, lie during negotiations, endorse unethical behavior, or steal at work.

Watch this spot, if only for the story of the rigged Monopoly game.  The one in which the “person assigned the role of rich person” gets to roll an extra time. . .

“we found consistently with people who were the rich players that they actually started to become, in their behavior, as if they were like rich people in real life. They were more likely to eat from a bowl of pretzels that we positioned off to the side. They ate with their mouths full, so they were a little ruder in their behavior to the other person.”

And just the opposite too:

“If I take someone who is rich and make them feel psychologically a little less well-off, they become way more generous, way more charitable, way more likely to offer help to another person.”

Maybe that’s the bright side?

GDRs shows its head in Bloomberg piece from Bonn

A new piece by Alex Morales on bloomberg.com features the rather unambiguous title of Climate Fix That’s Fair Assigns U.S. Three Times Chinese Effort. It begins with these paras:

“A fair climate fix would assign the U.S. almost three times the effort of cutting carbon dioxide output as China, which in 2006 became the biggest emitter, research by the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests.

The U.S., the biggest historical emitter, would have responsibility for 29.1 percent of the greenhouse gas cuts needed in 2020 to keep the planet on a pathway that avoids the worst effects of global warming, according to the institute’s calculations. That compares with 10.4 percent for China, 22.9 percent for the European Union and 1.2 percent for India.

The research aims to quantify how the principle of equity can guide emissions targets being devised at United Nations climate talks among more than 190 nations that aim to write by 2015 a new treaty to take hold from 2020. Two weeks of discussions began today in Bonn, Germany. Debate about fairness has frequently stalled the discussions as nations wrangle over who bears the greatest responsibility for tackling climate change.”

The piece is worth reading, for it’s a glimpse into the next round of the climate talks, which seems like they may finally face reality. Ethical reality as well as scientific reality.

The piece extensively quotes the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Sivan Kartha, and features numbers from the Greenhouse Development Rights framework. The real news, though, is that the “fair shares” discussion is no longer confined to a few activist networks and research institutes. There are rumblings of a larger effort, perhaps even a semi-official one.

What’s not clear in this piece is that we can easily afford to save our civilization. This has always been the case, though the politics are rather challenging, and people have balked at drawing conclusions.

The difference now is that everyone can now see the elephant in the room.

Checking in with Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein, as it happens, is working on both a book and a movie on the climate crisis. Which is great, because she’s a talented spokeswoman, and a key strategist, and she’s working to put together a new framing, one that actually helps us get our arms around the crisis.

There’s a lot happening on the climate front, and most it is is integrated, one way or another, into this very nice half-hour interview with Bill Moyers.  The Moyers headline is “Capitalism and climate,” but the real thrust of Klein’s rap here is the climate crisis as an historic opportunity for progressives. The propaganda campaigns of the carbon cartel, 350’s Do the Math tour, the mainstreaming of the Carbon Tracker work, the great refocusing that has come in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s all grist here.

This interview is worth a close listen. As you do, study her framing. It’s damn good, though not perfect. Naomi, in particular, doesn’t have much to say on the international side, at least not here. Which is not at all a surprise, since the “US in the world” problem is a very, very difficult one.  The good news is that there’s really no fundamental disconnect between the domestic and the international sides of the climate justice agendas. It’s clear, at this point, that we’re all in this together. It’s just that some of us are riding first class, while others are trapped down in the holds.

And this is just as true within the US as it is globally.

“It is crucial that scientists sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on global warming.”

Amazing letter in Nature, by legendary — well, OK, famous — investor Jeremy Grantham.   You gotta read it, especially if you’re a scientist.

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages.

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America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy

America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth (Yale University Press, 2012, 272 pages)

Gus Speth has been around the block — cofounder of the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, senior environmental advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Program, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at Yale, and a whole lot more. He’s been a busy man, and more importantly, he’s an honest one. While not repudiating his past efforts, he readily admits that, at least when it comes to “the existential threat of climate change,” they‘ve come to “ashes.” These days, civil disobedience is at the top of his very crowded agenda. His footnotes hold surprises (I was particularly amused to see Peter Barnes and Tony Negri sharing a citation). He’s well worth reading.

Speth’s particular talent — evident here as in his earlier books — is that he’s a kind of encyclopedist. As Herman Daly says on the book’s blurbs page, America the Possible offers a “selective, judicious, and integrated” narrative that brings together “the best current thinking on the American political economic crisis.”

The selections are generally excellent, and are animated by their integration into Speth’s overall argument, which is that when we collect and organize our best ideas, and then fit them together in just the right way, we can construct a coherent vision of a new and far better America, one that’s ready to prosper even amidst the coming storms. Such arguments have, of course, been made before, but Speth’s version is so wide-ranging that after a while you realize that he’s trying to summarize the shared ambitions of the progressive American green movement as a whole. This is of course a Very Big Ask, but all told Speth is remarkably successful. Which is not to say that there aren’t some real holes in his argument. But even the book’s weaknesses don’t seem his alone, but rather the shared weaknesses of, well, the progressive American green movement.

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After Sandy, solidarity

Excellent point from Oxfam’s excellent Tim Gore, in a blog post called From superstorm Sandy to climate solidarity: How extreme weather can unlock climate action.  To wit, climate disruption creates opportunities for solidarity, and we had better seize them.

Here’s a bit more:

“This increased confidence in attributing climate change to specific impacts on people’s lives, and on the bottom lines of businesses and entire countries, means weather extremes like Sandy should now be treated as major opportunities to leverage political action on climate change. It’s an idea that has gained increasing attention in recent years, from Alex Evans to David Attenborough (and in Oxfam, Duncan Green’s been haranguing us about getting better at seizing “windows of opportunity” for years).

In the context in which an abrupt change of course is needed to address the climate crisis – one some have compared only to mobilisation for war – crisis moments can create unique windows of opportunity for non-linear political change. That is precisely what we need. They can catalyse clear shifts in the values and priorities of citizens, business and political leaders around the world. Climate disasters in the global North and South alike are reminders of the common threat we face, and of the need to act collectively and urgently to avert yet greater harm.”