Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Climate minus capitalism

Every once in a while I think there's some prospect that a reasonable degree of consensus will form on climate policy such that effective action can be taken. Such action, in my view, likely would consist of some combination of a carbon tax (accompanied by cuts in other taxes, but not necessarily revenue-neutral) and (partly as a consequence of that tax) stepped-up public and private research and development of advanced technologies that would reduce or counteract greenhouse gas emissions. Further, a combination of taxes on carbon-intensive imports, and international competition to be at the forefront of profitable new technologies, would spur international action along similar lines, in my hopeful vision.

Every once in a while I see signs that conservative and libertarian circles that have resisted such ideas are coming around to the imperative of taking action on climate change, as with the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and the Risky Business project. Resistance to climate solutions and to acknowledgement of human-caused climate change as a problem, is a prime reason why have I been a disaffected escapee from conservative and libertarian circles in recent years. Looking ahead, I have considered the possibility that climate politics will undergo a shift whereby the right is more willing to take action (and the left possibly becomes less willing to do so, though in my optimistic view I hope that reluctance can be overcome) as such action comes to include large-scale energy technologies and possibly geo-engineering.

But lest I get too optimistic, there's always some counter-evidence to suggest that human folly and ideology will persist far too long and far too strongly to enable the climate problem to be addressed with even a minimum of adequacy. Often, such counter-evidence comes from the right, but sometimes it comes from the left. Case in point is this post, "Everything Changes," by D.R. Tucker, which anticipates an upcoming book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Klein apparently argues, as her subtitle suggests, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between capitalism (or even more fundamentally, economic growth) and sound climate policy, and Tucker is excited to see her impact on the debate, with Klein set against people like Henry Paulson, Bob Inglis and Paul Krugman, who all take what we may call a "compatibilist" view. Tucker:
The question of whether the climate crisis can be resolved by fixing flaws in capitalism or fixing the flaw of capitalism is the most compelling political, ecological and economic question of our time. Only a debate between Klein and an advocate of the Krugman/Paulson/Inglis view can provide an answer. That debate will indeed change everything. 
Me: The "incompatibilist" view that to avoid climate disaster we must scrap capitalism and economic growth is not new (see for example this 2012 Grist post) but it is likely that Naomi Klein's book will give it a visibility it has not had previously. Probably this in turn will have some effect of hardening right-wing opposition to climate action on such grounds as "look, the greens have now acknowledged that their aim is to impose socialism and/or a reversion to a pre-industrial society without refrigerators."

Leaving aside its unfortunate impact on climate messaging, the deeper problem with the incompatibilist view is that it's wrong. It is wrong because it fails to see the disastrous record that non-capitalist and low-or-no-growth societies have compiled over the decades, centuries and millennia in managing their environmental impacts, from mammoth hunters in the Pleistocene to the Soviet treatment of the Aral Sea. It is wrong because it fails to take into account the human misery that would be involved in a deliberate suppression of economic growth, and how such a suppression would undercut prospects for remediation or adaptation in the face of climate change. (See Bangladesh.) It is wrong for thinking that a no-growth regime could be imposed by anything short of totalitarian methods and that it wouldn't ultimately be overthrown. (See Nicolae Ceaușescu.)

On a brighter note, the comments under Tucker's piece suggest that the putative incompatibilist Klein view and Tucker's provisional enthusiasm for it generated some healthy skepticism among readers at the liberal Washington Monthly, so maybe my optimism isn't misplaced after all.

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