Climate change and capitalism: a movement of movements?

“And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop [using fossil fuels] while sustaining our civilisation and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilisation, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and co-operation, the satisfaction of profit.”

– Michael Beard, central protagonist in Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel, Solar

“The idea that capitalism and only capitalism can save the world from a crisis created by capitalism is no longer an abstract theory; it’s a hypothesis that has been tested and retested in the real world. We are now able to set theory aside and take a hard look at the results: at the celebrities and media conglomerates that were supposed to model chic green lifestyles who have long since moved on to the next fad; at the green products that were shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were supposed to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed miserably to lower emissions; at the natural gas sector that was supposed to be our bridge to renewables but ended up devouring much of their market instead. And most of all, at the parade of billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided that, on second thought, the old one was just too profitable to surrender.”

– Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (2014)


In March, Alan Rusbridger (who, at the time, was still editor of The Guardian) wrote that “the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming… The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics.”

Reading those words was something of a light bulb moment for me. For a long time the environment has been a topic I’ve cared about, but I always felt put off by how inaccessible many of the arguments swirling around it were to me as a simple-minded arts graduate. Suddenly I realised that maybe people like me who know nothing about science but a little bit about history and politics do have something useful to contribute to the debate after all.

So I started paying more attention to climate change stories and pondering the scale of the political and economic challenge my generation faces to keep the planet inhabitable. It’s a pretty disheartening landscape to survey. The politics of climate change is a mess. Greenpeace-activists-disp-001 There’s a quote from the late American statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan in last month’s Prospect: “the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels… I would think this is a subject that the administration ought to get involved with.” He wrote that in a letter to Nixon aide John Ehrlichman (later a key protagonist in the Watergate debacle) in 1969.

Almost five decades on, progress has been painfully slow for those who agree with Moynihan’s statement. The latest in a long line of disappointments was President Obama’s decision to approve Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic (although Shell has subsequently abandoned the endeavour anyway). If that’s how the most liberal President in decades acts when he’s past the midway point in his final term in office and seems to have stopped caring about anything other than securing his legacy, what hope do we have when Donald Trump becomes his successor?

Here in the UK, the narrative follows a similar pattern: expectations are raised only to be let down. In 2010, optimistic observers could have been fooled into thinking we were on the brink of a new era in UK climate change politics. David Cameron famously promised that the coalition would be “the greenest government ever”. There was talk of a “Green New Deal”. Caroline Lucas became the first ever Green Party MP to enter Parliament. And Ed Miliband may have picked up the moniker “Red Ed” early on because of his reliance on trade union votes to win the Labour leadership, but he could just as easily have become “Green Ed”: by far the crowning achievement of his political career prior to becoming Labour leader had come at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009, where he more or less single-handedly rescued the negotiations from complete failure. DAVID-CAMERON-TEST-DRIVES-010 Five years on, we can see that 2010 was a false dawn. Cameron’s green credentials fell by the wayside in the face of the Treasury-led austerity drive. In November 2013, the PM allegedly ordered aides to “get rid of all the green crap” that was contributing to high energy prices. And in September 2014, the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee published a scorecard rating the coalition’s progress across ten policy areas – from air pollution to flooding and coastal protection. The Committee used a traffic light system to indicate progress made on each issue. The result: seven ambers, three reds, no greens.

Meanwhile, both Osborne and Cameron have been strong advocates for “fracking”, despite sustained opposition from environmental groups. The Environment Agency has been amongst the worst-affected by spending cuts, leading many to warn that Britain’s flood defences are being left in a perilous state of decay. And for two years, from 2012 to 2014, UK environmental policy was overseen by a self-confessed climate change sceptic – Owen Paterson. But then, according to a 2014 Populus poll of MPs, Paterson’s views are in line with those of many of his colleagues at Westminster – 49% of all MPs (and a staggering 70% of Conservatives) were found to be unconvinced by the scientific case for man-made climate change.

Those numbers point to one of the key political questions the environmental movement faces today: is climate action a left-right issue and should it be? In her latest book, This Changes Everything, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein answers yes and yes. Surveying the state of US climate change politics, she writes that the days of bipartisanship are over. As recently as 2008, “Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich did a TV spot with Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, in which they pledged to join forces and fight climate change together.” But today, “more than 75 percent of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe humans are changing the climate… [whereas] in some regions, only about 20 percent of self-identified Republicans accept the science.”

Klein concludes that environmentalism and progressive politics go together and urges her readers to embrace this fact. Her hope is that by drawing attention to the intellectual ties that connect the anger of local communities protesting against new drilling projects and the disenchantment with contemporary capitalism that fuelled the global Occupy movement, she will re-energise both radical left-wing politics and the environmental movement. In doing so, she’s seeking to pitch a bigger tent than the environmental movement – for so long written off as an eccentric fringe of sandal-wearing, kale-eating hippies – has heretofore managed. At one point, she refers to the many threads she is trying to pull together into a coherent whole as “a movement of many movements”.

This phrase reminded me of another, rather different book that also urges us to build a movement of movements: The Breakthrough Challenge by sustainability guru John Elkington and former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz. The book is essentially a manifesto for The B Team – a group of prominent business and political leaders seeking to transform capitalism to make it part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The book even has a foreword by Richard Branson (coincidentally, Klein devotes a whole chapter to shredding his credibility as a serious climate activist).

The movement of movements envisaged by Elkington and Zeitz is rather different to Klein’s. The former is staffed by accountants and people with MBAs; the latter by indigenous peoples and angry villagers willing to form a human blockade (hence Klein’s term for them, “Blockadia”) in front of the trucks carrying the energy companies’ drilling and mining equipment. Elkington and Zeitz recognise the value of the “bottom-up” pressure for change created by movements like Occupy, but ultimately theirs is a world in which change (or “breakthrough” as they would put it) is driven from the top. They devote their energies first and foremost to converting those who are either already in positions of power in the business and political worlds, or those on their way to such posts. Klein sees these people as a hopeless cause – simply part of the capitalist machine, the great enemy.

Klein’s book is well worth a read. Its reportage is wide-ranging, detailed and engaging. Its emotional intensity far surpasses anything else I’ve ever read about climate change. But I fundamentally disagree with the book’s conclusions about the way forward. Her critique of the failed attempts to reform capitalism to deal with the reality of global warming is savage and compelling (I quoted one particularly powerful passage at the beginning of this article). But what she fails to acknowledge is that the approach of pure opposition and protest is just as tried and tested – and just as resounding a failure. The idea that Klein’s beloved “Blockadia” can evolve from a sort of glorified NIMBYism into a cohesive global social movement that overthrows capitalism, within the timeframe the scientists have set out for us to act to avert catastrophe, is pure fantasy.

And yet, I’m quietly optimistic that a movement of movements is coalescing. It’s not ideologically pure and many of its members may not recognise one another as allies, but that’s OK. Critical mass is more important than unity of motive. Mark_Carney_BoE_800 Personally, I’m encouraged, not affronted, when the Governor of the Bank of England starts raising the alarm about “stranded assets” – fossil fuels that simply won’t be able to be burned and therefore have no real economic value. I’m encouraged, not affronted, when I read a comment piece by a member of America’s right-wing Tea Party in support of solar energy. Hell, I’d even welcome the Shell executives, who seem belatedly to have woken up to the fact that Arctic drilling simply doesn’t make any business sense, to my movement of movements.

Being inclusive doesn’t mean being naïve. The recent VW emissions scandal demonstrates that there’s always a place for sceptics who refuse to take powerful companies and governments at their word – because unless somebody somewhere holds them accountable for their untruths, they will lie through their teeth. So we need regulators, NGOs and protestors more than ever.

But we also need serious leadership from within the capitalist elite, to harness what Ian McEwan’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard calls ‘the ordinary compulsions of self-interest… the pleasures of ingenuity and co-operation, the satisfaction of profit.’ Klein is right that there are “no messiahs” when it comes to defeating climate change (and she’s probably right too that Branson is more egomaniac than committed eco-warrior). But that doesn’t mean we should give up on business altogether. It just means we need to focus on the kind of broad-based leadership demonstrated by outfits like the We Mean Business coalition, which is working with hundreds of influential companies and investors to promote climate action.

And, of course, we need political leadership too. The 196 country delegates meeting in Paris at the beginning of December for the UN climate change conference can’t solve the problem, just like that, with some magic new agreement. But they can help create a conducive environment for action by setting bold targets and building a policy framework that properly addresses issues like carbon pricing.

One metaphor that crops up rather a lot in Elkington and Zeitz’s book is the idea that we are approaching a “tipping point”. I believe they’re right. But in order to amass the sheer weight of numbers needed to tip the balance, we have to be a broad church. The movement of movements needs to embrace left and right, young and old, innovators and sceptics, legislators and businessmen, pragmatists and visionaries, reformers and revolutionaries.

When I met John Elkington a few weeks ago, he commented that the field of sustainability has become “too siloed.” To misappropriate a phrase from Ronald Reagan: it’s time to tear down those silo walls. reagan-ftr

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One Response to Climate change and capitalism: a movement of movements?

  1. Pingback: My year in books – part I – non-fiction | Musings of a young Londoner

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