The campaign kicked off with Naomi Klein. She asks 'What is wrong with us?'
A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke (“more signs of the Apocalypse!”). Which is another way of looking away. Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which, I was to discover while researching this book, is yet another way of looking away.Framing the issue in this way prompts the question 'Why do we look away when confronted with so many other, more devastating issues, causing harm in the here and now?' We (as human civilization, community of states, societies) have not found ways to stop war, economic crises, or inequality. Compared to these issues that cause daily human suffering, harm and death, climate change is a distant threat. Framing the issue int he way Klein does makes it rational not to put climate change on the top of the political agenda.
Klein believes that there is a solution to the problem of climate change which makes us all better off, through reclaiming democracy, blocking free trade deals, nationalising energy and water, etc. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this, and the belief that all the good things go together. Somehow in this process carbon emissions will go down, and we will live happily ever after.
While Klein's vision is to get rid of capitalism in order to solve the climate problem, Bill KcKibben thinks that technical solutions are available, and made operational by some big capitalist firms:
None of the problems the fossil fuel players keep predicting for renewables seem decisive. Yes, the sun goes down at night, but that tends to be when the wind kicks up. We’re learning to store peak power in all kinds of ways: a California auction for new power supply was won by a company that uses extra solar energy to freeze ice, which then melts during the day to supply power. The smart meters now coming on line around the world allow utilities to juggle demand, turning off your water heater when its not needed. Wise companies have either seen the future or learned their lesson: E.ON, Germany’s biggest utility, announced last year that it will now focus on wind and sun. “We are the first to resolutely draw the conclusion from the change of the energy world,” chief executive Johannes Teyssen told reporters in Dusseldorf. “We’re convinced that energy companies will have to focus on one of the two energy worlds if they want to be successful.”Again, a fair amount of wishful thinking, and a big ask of consumers to accept demand based pricing of energy based on surveillance technologies. Be that as it may, both his and Klein's visions are based on the problems of the Western rich countries, where carbon emissions will peak soon. What about the rising demand in cheap energy in the rest of the world?
Step up George Monbiot, making the slogan 'Keep it in the ground' operational. He suggests the Paris summit in December should adopt a document along these lines:
Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of these reserves is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of these reserves undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We will start negotiating a global budget for the extraction of fossil fuels from existing reserves, as well as a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. In line with the quantification of the fossil carbon that can be extracted without a high chance of exceeding 2C of global warming, we will develop a timetable for annual reductions towards that budget. We will develop mechanisms for allocating production within this budget and for enforcement and monitoring.”The consequence of such a policy would be that prices for fossil fuels rise massively. In the absence of alternative sources this would have serious impacts on economic activity and social wellbeing. Either there is some wishful thinking that somehow we will have solved the problem of renewables just in time, or a complete disregard about these issues because of the need to 'save the planet'. Again, there can be no surprise that such proposals will not find political traction.
The good thing about the Guardian is that it also has comment pages where such grand visions are brought back to reality. Today Mark Lynas has such a comment which demonstrates how such campaigns are unlikely to change much, because the issue is polarised, and the contributions published so far only help deepening the polarisation.
The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.
For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.
Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.
All of this makes climate change much harder to deal with than it would otherwise be. In insisting that tackling carbon emissions must be subordinated into a wider agenda of social revolution and the dismantling of corporate capitalism, Klein isn’t making climate mitigation easier: she is making it politically toxic. In rejecting “too easy” solutions such as nuclear power and advanced renewables technologies (the dreaded “technofix”), the left puts its cards on the table – and confirms what the right has always suspected: that climate mitigation is not a primary but at best a secondary goal.
This is also a debate conducted in a western bubble. No one in India doubts that the emergence from poverty of hundreds of millions of people in south Asia will require the production of prodigious amounts more energy – far more than could ever be compensated for by any remotely plausible “energy austerity” path taken by the west. Don’t forget: rich OECD countries have already peaked their CO2 emissions, so pretty much all the future growth will come from Asia, Africa and South America.Quite a lot to agree with, I think.