Climate change is often chalked up to “market failure.” We’re told that, despite prevailing assumptions that prices accurately transmit “signals” about the costs of goods and services, emitters like power plants, refineries, automobiles, and households simply do not pay the full ecological costs of their emissions. Hence, the market has failed.
To fix the problem, the argument goes, we must internalize the costs of emissions into the price mechanism so that emitters pay the full costs of their actions. If we could craft a policy that accurately monetized the ecological costs of emissions — a carbon tax, or fee and dividend scheme — fossil fuels would become costlier and renewables would be more competitive and cost effective. The failure could be corrected, and the market would succeed in guiding us to a clean energy future.
Accounting for ecological costs has become the primary way of crafting environmental policy for public officials and legal experts. But the rhetoric of cost internalization is a political dead end for a left climate politics.
Focusing on getting the price right, and thereby assuming the market can be corrected, allows right-wing and fossil-fuel interests to effectively argue that any and all climate policy will be a cost to working people. Recently, the CEO of Chevron put it bluntly “I’ve never had a customer come to me and ask to pay a higher price for oil, gas, or other products.” Indeed, while many on the climate left attribute slow movement on climate to a problem of education and denial of climate science, popular opposition to climate policy is more often framed in economic terms, focusing on costs to the economy and to everyday people’s lives.
In an ideological landscape dominated by an obsession with accounting for and trimming costs, environmental policy proposals often advocate raising costs—costs that are likely to end up being passed down to working people. Opponents of climate justice easily argue that any tax or cost will end up percolating throughout the economy and hitting ordinary people: wealth doesn’t trickle down, but costs do.
A left climate politics must move beyond a language of cost-internalization, and emphasize the real material benefits for a society beyond fossil fuel: not only in terms of a cleaner environment, but also cheaper energy and green jobs. This requires a language of public goods and collective action, not a language of markets and costs. If the Left must speak of costs at all, it needs to be framed in class terms — costs that the wealthy and corporations must pay to fund a better energy economy.
Capitalism's four-century obsession with finding a more profitable route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is finally satisfied. The voyage of the Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage proclaimed the route open for routine, if still risky, commercial shipping. The ship left Vancouver on 10 August 2016, arriving in New York on 16 September. The Northwest Passage reduces the voyage by 7,000 kilometers and an average of 14 days, compared to the Panama Canal route.
I’d been hoping to pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, but red tape has been holding me up at the border so it’ll have to wait probably for another couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few top-of-the-head thoughts on Felicity Lawrence’s recent article about agricultural pesticide use in The Guardian – or, more specifically, on some of the under-the-line responses it prompted.
Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this: “The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.
These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”
David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,
“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”1
But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.
That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.
Richard Valdmanis and Grant Smith, Reuters, September 6, 2016
U.S. companies that have expressed the most fervent public support for President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda are also funding its biggest enemies - the scores of U.S. lawmakers who are climate change skeptics and oppose regulation to combat it, according to a Reuters review of public records.
Bill McKibben — author, activist, mensch, and, though he would hate me saying so, the closest thing the climate movement has to a spokesperson — has a bracing new piece in the New Republic called "A World at War." His thesis is simple: Climate change is tantamount to a global war, being waged on us by physics.
"World War III is well and truly underway," he writes. "And we are losing."