Can Climate Change Unite the Left?

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People's Climate March, September 2014 in NYC. (Photo: South Bend Voice/flickr CC 2.0)

This essay first appeared at In These Times, and was adapted from This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein.

In December 2012, Brad Werner — a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression — made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. But it was Werner’s session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (Full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is earth f**ked?” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance” — movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people — along the lines of the abolition movement and the Civil Rights Movement — represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.

Naomi Klein on the Links Between Capitalism and Climate Change

This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on … how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamic.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.” Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.

Social movements, such as the fossil fuel divestment/reinvestment movement, local laws barring high-risk extraction, bold court challenges by Indigenous groups and others, are early manifestations of this resistance. They have not only located various choke points to slow the expansion plans of the fossil fuel companies, but the economic alternatives these movements are proposing and building are mapping ways of living within planetary boundaries, ones based on intricate reciprocal relationships rather than brute extraction. This is the “friction” to which Werner referred, the kind that is needed to put the brakes on the forces of destruction and destabilization.

Just as many climate change deniers I met fear, making swift progress on climate change requires breaking fossilized free market rules. That is why, if we are to collectively meet the enormous challenges of this crisis, a robust social movement will need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: longterm public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations.

There are many important debates to be had about the best way to respond to climate change — stormwalls or ecosystem restoration? Decentralized renewables, industrial scale wind power combined with natural gas, or nuclear power? Small-scale organic farms or industrial food systems? There is, however, no scenario in which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector — not if we are serious about preventing catastrophic levels of warming, and minimizing the destructive potential of the coming storms.

Public money needs to be spent on ambitious emission-reducing projects — the smart grids, the light rail, the citywide composting systems, the building retrofits, the visionary transit systems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our lives in traffic jams. The private sector is ill-suited to taking on most of these large infrastructure investments. If the services are to be accessible, which they must be in order to be effective, the profit margins that attract private players simply aren’t there.

The polluter pays

So how on earth are we going to pay for all this? In North America and Europe, the economic crisis that began in 2008 is still being used as a pretext to slash aid abroad and cut climate programs at home. All over Southern Europe, environmental policies and regulations have been clawed back, most tragically in Spain, which, facing fierce austerity pressure, drastically cut subsidies for renewables projects, sending solar projects and wind farms spiraling toward default and closure. The UK under David Cameron has also cut supports for renewable energy.

If we accept that governments are broke, and they’re not likely to introduce “quantitative easing” (aka printing money) for the climate system as they have for the banks, where is the money supposed to come from? Since we have only a few short years to dramatically lower our emissions, the only rational way forward is to fully embrace the principle already well established in Western law: the polluter pays.

Oil and gas companies remain some of the most profitable corporations in history, with the top five oil companies pulling in $900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010. These companies are rich, quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto regular people around the world. It is this situation that, most fundamentally, needs to change.

And it will not change without strong action. For well over a decade, several of the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift to renewable energy. But according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to “renewable and alternative energy ventures.” Instead, they continue to pour their profits into shareholder pockets, outrageous executive pay (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson makes more than $100,000 a day), and new technologies designed to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels. As oil industry watcher Antonia Juhasz has observed, “You wouldn’t know it from their advertising, but the world’s major oil companies have either entirely divested from alternative energy or significantly reduced their investments in favor of doubling down on ever-more risky and destructive sources of oil and natural gas.”

Given this track record, it’s safe to assume that if fossil fuel companies are going to help pay for the shift to renewable energy, and for the broader costs of a climate destabilized by their pollution, it will be because they are forced to do so by law.

It is high time for the industry to at least split the bill for the climate crisis. And there is mounting evidence that the financial world understands that this is coming. In its 2013 annual report on “Global Risks,” the World Economic Forum (host of the annual super-elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland), stated plainly, “Although the Alaskan village of Kivalina — which faces being ‘wiped out’ by the changing climate — was unsuccessful in its attempts to file a $400 million lawsuit against oil and coal companies, future plaintiffs may be more successful.”

The question is: How do we stop fossil fuel profits from continuing to hemorrhage into executive paychecks and shareholder pockets — and how do we do it soon, before the companies are significantly less profitable or out of business because we have moved to a new energy system? A steep carbon tax would be a straightforward way to get a piece of the profits, as long as it contained a generous redistributive mechanism — a tax cut or income credit — that compensated poor and middle-class consumers for increased fuel and heating prices. As Canadian economist Marc Lee points out, designed properly, “It is possible to have a progressive carbon tax system that reduces inequality as it raises the price of emitting greenhouse gases.” An even more direct route to getting a piece of those pollution profits would be for governments to negotiate much higher royalty rates on oil, gas and coal extraction, with the revenues going to “heritage trust funds” that would be dedicated to building the post–fossil fuel future, as well as to helping communities and workers adapt to these new realities.

Fossil fuel corporations can be counted on to resist any new rules that cut into their profits, so harsh penalties, including revoking corporate charters, would need to be on the table. But the extractive industries shouldn’t be the only targets of the “polluter pays” principle. The car companies have plenty to answer for, too, as do the shipping industry and the airlines.

Moreover, there is a simple, direct correlation between wealth and emissions — more money generally means more flying, driving, boating and powering of multiple homes. One case study of German consumers indicates that the travel habits of the most affluent class have an impact on climate 250 percent greater than that of their lowest-earning neighbors.

That means any attempt to tax the extraordinary concentration of wealth at the very top of the economic pyramid would — if partially channeled into climate financing — effectively make the polluters pay. Journalist and climate and energy policy expert Gar Lipow puts it this way: “We should tax the rich more because it is the fair thing to do, and because it will provide a better life for most of us, and a more prosperous economy. However, providing money to save civilization and reduce the risk of human extinction is another good reason to bill the rich for their fair share of taxes.”

There is no shortage of options for equitably coming up with the cash to prepare for the coming storms while radically lowering our emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. Consider the following:

  • A “low-rate” financial transaction tax — which would hit trades of stocks, derivatives and other financial instruments — could bring in nearly $650 billion at the global level each year, according to a 2011 resolution of the European Parliament (and it might have the added bonus of slowing down financial speculation).
  • Closing tax havens would yield another windfall. The UK-based Tax Justice Network estimates that in 2010, the private financial wealth of individuals stowed unreported in tax havens around the globe was somewhere between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. If that money were brought into the light and its earnings taxed at a 30 percent rate, it would yield at least $190 billion in income tax revenue each year.
  • A 1 percent “billionaire’s tax,” floated by the UN, could raise $46 billion annually.
  • A $50 tax per metric ton of CO2 emitted in developed countries would raise an estimated $450 billion annually, while a more modest $25 carbon tax would still yield $250 billion per year, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others.
  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies globally would conservatively save governments a total $775 billion in a single year, according to a 2012 estimate by Oil Change International and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

These various measures, taken together, would certainly raise enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great Transition (and avoid a Great Depression). Of course, for any of these tax crackdowns to work, key governments would have to coordinate their responses so that corporations had nowhere to hide — a difficult task, though far from impossible, and one frequently bandied about at G20 summits.

We should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is.

To state the obvious: it would be incredibly difficult to persuade governments in almost every country in the world to implement the kinds of redistributive climate mechanisms I have outlined. But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share.

Battle for the planet

Seen in this light, it’s hardly surprising that our leaders have so far failed to act to avert climate chaos. Indeed, even if aggressive “polluter pays” measures were introduced, it isn’t at all clear that the current political class would know what to do with the money. After all, changing the building blocks of our societies — the energy that powers our economies, how we move around, the designs of our major cities — is not about writing a few checks. It requires bold long-term planning at every level of government, and a willingness to stand up to polluters whose actions put us all in danger. And that won’t happen until the corporate liberation project that has shaped our political culture for three and a half decades is buried for good.

All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once — rules that emerged out of the same, coherent worldview. If that worldview is delegitimized, then all of the rules within it become much weaker and more vulnerable. This is another lesson from social movement history across the political spectrum: When fundamental change does come, it’s generally not in legislative dribs and drabs spread out evenly over decades. Rather it comes in spasms of rapid-fire lawmaking, with one breakthrough after another. The Right calls this “shock therapy”; the Left calls it “populism” because it requires so much popular support and mobilization to occur.

So how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology? Part of it involves choosing the right early policy battles—game-changing ones that don’t merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought. That means that a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income. That’s not only because a minimum income, as discussed, makes it possible for workers to say no to dirty energy jobs but also because the very process of arguing for a universal social safety net opens up a space for a full-throated debate about values — about what we owe to one another based on our shared humanity, and what it is that we collectively value more than economic growth and corporate profits.

Indeed, a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy — the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. This is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions, but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer afford to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.

Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Klein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, author and syndicated columnist. Her most recent book is This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, which has inspired a film. Follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein.
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