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Capitalism vs. the Climate


There is a question from a gentleman in the fourth row.

He introduces himself as Richard Rothschild. He tells the crowd that he ran for county commissioner in Maryland’s Carroll County because he had come to the conclusion that policies to combat global warming were actually “an attack on middle-class American capitalism.” His question for the panelists, gathered in a Washington, DC, Marriott Hotel in late June, is this: “To what extent is this entire movement simply a green Trojan horse, whose belly is full with red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine?”

Here at the Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change, the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, this qualifies as a rhetorical question. Like asking a meeting of German central bankers if Greeks are untrustworthy. Still, the panelists aren’t going to pass up an opportunity to tell the questioner just how right he is.

Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who specializes in harassing climate scientists with nuisance lawsuits and Freedom of Information fishing expeditions, angles the table mic over to his mouth. “You can believe this is about the climate,” he says darkly, “and many people do, but it’s not a reasonable belief.” Horner, whose prematurely silver hair makes him look like a right-wing Anderson Cooper, likes to invoke Saul Alinsky: “The issue isn’t the issue.” The issue, apparently, is that “no free society would do to itself what this agenda requires…. The first step to that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way.”

Claiming that climate change is a plot to steal American freedom is rather tame by Heartland standards. Over the course of this two-day conference, I will learn that Obama’s campaign promise to support locally owned biofuels refineries was really about “green communitarianism,” akin to the “Maoist” scheme to put “a pig iron furnace in everybody’s backyard” (the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels). That climate change is “a stalking horse for National Socialism” (former Republican senator and retired astronaut Harrison Schmitt). And that environmentalists are like Aztec priests, sacrificing countless people to appease the gods and change the weather (Marc Morano, editor of the denialists’ go-to website, ClimateDepot.com).

Most of all, however, I will hear versions of the opinion expressed by the county commissioner in the fourth row: that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.”

Yes, sure, there is a pretense that the delegates’ rejection of climate science is rooted in serious disagreement about the data. And the organizers go to some lengths to mimic credible scientific conferences, calling the gathering “Restoring the Scientific Method” and even adopting the organizational acronym ICCC, a mere one letter off from the world’s leading authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the scientific theories presented here are old and long discredited. And no attempt is made to explain why each speaker seems to contradict the next. (Is there no warming, or is there warming but it’s not a problem? And if there is no warming, then what’s all this talk about sunspots causing temperatures to rise?)

In truth, several members of the mostly elderly audience seem to doze off while the temperature graphs are projected. They come to life only when the rock stars of the movement take the stage—not the C-team scientists but the A-team ideological warriors like Morano and Horner. This is the true purpose of the gathering: providing a forum for die-hard denialists to collect the rhetorical baseball bats with which they will club environmentalists and climate scientists in the weeks and months to come. The talking points first tested here will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video that contains the phrase “climate change” or “global warming.” They will also exit the mouths of hundreds of right-wing commentators and politicians—from Republican presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann all the way down to county commissioners like Richard Rothschild. In an interview outside the sessions, Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, proudly takes credit for “thousands of articles and op-eds and speeches…that were informed by or motivated by somebody attending one of these conferences.”

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank devoted to “promoting free-market solutions,” has been holding these confabs since 2008, sometimes twice a year. And the strategy appears to be working. At the end of day one, Morano—whose claim to fame is having broken the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign—leads the gathering through a series of victory laps. Cap and trade: dead! Obama at the Copenhagen summit: failure! The climate movement: suicidal! He even projects a couple of quotes from climate activists beating up on themselves (as progressives do so well) and exhorts the audience to “celebrate!”

There were no balloons or confetti descending from the rafters, but there may as well have been.

* * *

When public opinion on the big social and political issues changes, the trends tend to be relatively gradual. Abrupt shifts, when they come, are usually precipitated by dramatic events. Which is why pollsters are so surprised by what has happened to perceptions about climate change over a span of just four years. A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number of Americans who agreed was down to 44 percent—well under half the population. According to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, this is “among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history.”

Even more striking, this shift has occurred almost entirely at one end of the political spectrum. As recently as 2008 (the year Newt Gingrich did a climate change TV spot with Nancy Pelosi) the issue still had a veneer of bipartisan support in the United States. Those days are decidedly over. Today, 70–75 percent of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe humans are changing the climate—a level that has remained stable or risen slightly over the past decade. In sharp contrast, Republicans, particularly Tea Party members, have overwhelmingly chosen to reject the scientific consensus. In some regions, only about 20 percent of self-identified Republicans accept the science.

Equally significant has been a shift in emotional intensity. Climate change used to be something most everyone said they cared about—just not all that much. When Americans were asked to rank their political concerns in order of priority, climate change would reliably come in last.

But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. Many climate scientists report receiving death threats, as do authors of articles on subjects as seemingly innocuous as energy conservation. (As one letter writer put it to Stan Cox, author of a book critical of air-conditioning, “You can pry my thermostat out of my cold dead hands.”)

This culture-war intensity is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected. (The deniers have even found a way to dismiss a new study confirming the reality of global warming that was partially funded by the Koch brothers, and led by a scientist sympathetic to the “skeptic” position.)

The effects of this emotional intensity have been on full display in the race to lead the Republican Party. Days into his presidential campaign, with his home state literally burning up with wildfires, Texas Governor Rick Perry delighted the base by declaring that climate scientists were manipulating data “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Meanwhile, the only candidate to consistently defend climate science, Jon Huntsman, was dead on arrival. And part of what has rescued Mitt Romney’s campaign has been his flight from earlier statements supporting the scientific consensus on climate change.

But the effects of the right-wing climate conspiracies reach far beyond the Republican Party. The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit. Five years ago, celebrities were showing up at the Academy Awards in hybrids, Vanity Fair launched an annual green issue and, in 2007, the three major US networks ran 147 stories on climate change. No longer. In 2010 the networks ran just thirty-two climate change stories; limos are back in style at the Academy Awards; and the “annual” Vanity Fair green issue hasn’t been seen since 2008.

This uneasy silence has persisted through the end of the hottest decade in recorded history and yet another summer of freak natural disasters and record-breaking heat worldwide. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry is rushing to make multibillion-dollar investments in new infrastructure to extract oil, natural gas and coal from some of the dirtiest and highest-risk sources on the continent (the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline being only the highest-profile example). In the Alberta tar sands, in the Beaufort Sea, in the gas fields of Pennsylvania and the coalfields of Wyoming and Montana, the industry is betting big that the climate movement is as good as dead.

If the carbon these projects are poised to suck out is released into the atmosphere, the chance of triggering catastrophic climate change will increase dramatically (mining the oil in the Alberta tar sands alone, says NASA’s James Hansen, would be “essentially game over” for the climate).

All of this means that the climate movement needs to have one hell of a comeback. For this to happen, the left is going to have to learn from the right. Denialists gained traction by making climate about economics: action will destroy capitalism, they have claimed, killing jobs and sending prices soaring. But at a time when a growing number of people agree with the protesters at Occupy Wall Street, many of whom argue that capitalism-as-usual is itself the cause of lost jobs and debt slavery, there is a unique opportunity to seize the economic terrain from the right. This would require making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power. It would also require a shift away from the notion that climate action is just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention. Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.

Building such a transformative movement may not be as hard as it first appears. Indeed, if you ask the Heartlanders, climate change makes some kind of left-wing revolution virtually inevitable, which is precisely why they are so determined to deny its reality. Perhaps we should listen to their theories more closely—they might just understand something the left still doesn’t get.

* * *

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

But when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the Marriott Hotel may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover—we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.

So in a way, Chris Horner was right when he told his fellow Heartlanders that climate change isn’t “the issue.” In fact, it isn’t an issue at all. Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.

While Heartlanders like to invoke the specter of communism to terrify Americans about climate action (Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a Heartland conference favorite, says that attempts to prevent global warming are akin to “the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire society”), the reality is that Soviet-era state socialism was a disaster for the climate. It devoured resources with as much enthusiasm as capitalism, and spewed waste just as recklessly: before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechs and Russians had even higher carbon footprints per capita than their counterparts in Britain, Canada and Australia. And while some point to the dizzying expansion of China’s renewable energy programs to argue that only centrally controlled regimes can get the green job done, China’s command-and-control economy continues to be harnessed to wage an all-out war with nature, through massively disruptive mega-dams, superhighways and extraction-based energy projects, particularly coal.

It is true that responding to the climate threat requires strong government action at all levels. But real climate solutions are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.

Here is where the Heartlanders have good reason to be afraid: arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades. What follows is a quick-and-dirty look at what a serious climate agenda would mean in the following six arenas: public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption and taxation. For hard-right ideologues like those gathered at the Heartland conference, the results are nothing short of intellectually cataclysmic.

1. Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere

After years of recycling, carbon offsetting and light bulb changing, it is obvious that individual action will never be an adequate response to the climate crisis. Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action. One of the key areas in which this collective action must take place is big-ticket investments designed to reduce our emissions on a mass scale. That means subways, streetcars and light-rail systems that are not only everywhere but affordable to everyone; energy-efficient affordable housing along those transit lines; smart electrical grids carrying renewable energy; and a massive research effort to ensure that we are using the best methods possible.

The private sector is ill suited to providing most of these services because they require large up-front investments and, if they are to be genuinely accessible to all, some very well may not be profitable. They are, however, decidedly in the public interest, which is why they should come from the public sector.

Traditionally, battles to protect the public sphere are cast as conflicts between irresponsible leftists who want to spend without limit and practical realists who understand that we are living beyond our economic means. But the gravity of the climate crisis cries out for a radically new conception of realism, as well as a very different understanding of limits. Government budget deficits are not nearly as dangerous as the deficits we have created in vital and complex natural systems. Changing our culture to respect those limits will require all of our collective muscle—to get ourselves off fossil fuels and to shore up communal infrastructure for the coming storms.

2. Remembering How to Plan

In addition to reversing the thirty-year privatization trend, a serious response to the climate threat involves recovering an art that has been relentlessly vilified during these decades of market fundamentalism: planning. Lots and

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