Written by Manas Dutt
It is Al Gore’s almost two-decade-long, irrefutable and inconvenient truth that climate change is set to alter the planet radically if we don’t change our ways first. It is quite surprising that climate-change deniers still rally in large numbers, pinning their arguments on ‘egalitarian’, ‘centrist’ world-views which disregard the need for radical change- the only kind of change which could avert the imminent crisis.
The role of capitalism in contributing to the overall malaise is often overlooked, but can hardly be ignored. In her book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’, Naomi Klein delineates the many ways in which the overarching economic ideology of the past century contributes to climate change. The rise of capitalism was marked by an obsession with ‘economic growth’ and an unwavering faith in the powers of the free-market forces to undo any social or environmental costs (negative externalities). This, in-turn, strengthened the ‘neo-liberal’ way of thought, which has come to be the dominant ideology of present times. Neoliberalism is the paradigm which capitalism sustains, one which encourages consumerism, fetishizes the pursuit of capital, and is a force against climate-change.
Consumerism views humans primarily as consumers, on an endless cycle of consumption, with no significant after-thought spared to conservation. It is the same ideology which holds you liable to the purchase of a can of soda but is not in the least concerned by how you choose to dispose of it. When the larger problem of climate-change is viewed against the backdrop of capitalism, it becomes very clear that any and all climate-change action (especially in terms of policy change) is rendered virtually ineffective.
We need to look no further than the Paris Climate Agreement to elucidate this point. The Paris deal sets an ambitious target for keeping warming temperatures below 2°C with a goal to limit warming to 1.5°C. However, a series of scientific papers projected that we have a 5% chance of limiting warming to 2°C, and only one chance in a hundred of keeping man-made global warming to 1.5°C, the aspirational goal of the 2015 Paris United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference. Additionally, recent research shows that we may have already locked in 1.5°C of warming, even if we magically reduced our carbon footprint to zero today.
The relationship between consumerism and climate change is best seen in the conflict between policy and action. Take Canada’s push for the Keystone XL pipeline for instance. It is a pipeline which would bring 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Canada to the USA. It must be noted that Canada’s motivation in having a $15 billion NAFTA suit filed against the United States over the Keystone XL pipeline (now withdrawn after Trump granted approval to the project) runs far astray from their commitments to the Paris Agreement. Essentially, international leaders have, on the one hand, pledged to cut down annual carbon emissions, while on the other, continue to defeat their own ‘aims’.
According to Klein, this is largely due to the fact that most of the energy sector has long been privatized, everywhere around the world. This makes the energy sector virtually immune to policy changes brought about by the government.
“These fossil fuel companies have five times more carbon in their proven reserves than is compatible with a 2 degree (Celsius) temperature target. If we burn it all we get to ten degrees. We need to leave a lot of it in the ground”, notes Klein
The Way Forward
Sweden, which is at the forefront of the most rapid energy transition in the world, paves the way forward. Presently, 57 percent of Sweden’s energy needs are met by renewable sources, with a goal to meet the 100 percent renewables target by 2040. One of the ways in which Sweden has been able to do this is by reversing the privatization of their energy systems in most of their cities and towns. By choosing to deride private control of fossil fuel reserves, the people of Sweden reigned in their demand for clean energy by deterring corporations which stood in the way of the people’s 100% renewable energy goal since as far back as the 1990s.
The threats to effective climate-change action are manifold, but at the grass-roots level, it is a capitalist framework which drives them. The goal of the capitalist system is sustained production- which is exactly what runs awry with climate change action at all levels. Since the world economy is heavily dependent on the fossil fuels industry, for both, funding and the jobs it creates, the system will never be radically challenged in the near future. It is also written in fact that if we were to continue burning fossil fuels at the same rate as today, our climate change problem would never be solved. However, capitalism may also be the answer to our worries today. The pursuit of innovation and research that is boosting the renewable industry is also undoubtedly a product of capitalism. The undoing of the climate-change problem, then, must begin by re-orienting the driving force behind nations’ policy-making process from capitalist consumerism to sustainable development.