Can Climate Change Unite the Left?

To avoid catastrophe, we must seize corporate polluters’ wealth. And to do that, we must change everything.

Naomi Klein October 13, 2014

Demonstrators sit in the middle of Broadway during the Flood Wall Street protest on September 21, 2014. (Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

In Decem­ber 2012, Brad Wern­er — a com­plex sys­tems researcher with pink hair and a seri­ous expres­sion — made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space sci­en­tists at the fall meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union in San Fran­cis­co. But it was Werner’s ses­sion that was attract­ing much of the buzz. It was titled Is Earth F**ked?” (Full title: Is Earth F**ked? Dynam­i­cal Futil­i­ty of Glob­al Envi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment and Pos­si­bil­i­ties for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty via Direct Action Activism”).

we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is.

Stand­ing at the front of the con­fer­ence room, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego pro­fes­sor took the crowd through the advanced com­put­er mod­el he was using to answer that rather direct ques­tion. He talked about a whole bunch of oth­er stuff large­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble to those of us unini­ti­at­ed in com­plex sys­tems the­o­ry. But the bot­tom line was clear enough: Glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has made the deple­tion of resources so rapid, con­ve­nient and bar­ri­er-free that earth-human sys­tems” are becom­ing dan­ger­ous­ly unsta­ble in response. When a jour­nal­ist pressed Wern­er for a clear answer on the Is earth fucked?” ques­tion, he set the jar­gon aside and replied, More or less.”

There was one dynam­ic in the mod­el, how­ev­er, that offered some hope. Wern­er described it as resis­tance” — move­ments of peo­ple or groups of peo­ple” who adopt a cer­tain set of dynam­ics that does not fit with­in the cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture.” Accord­ing to the abstract for his pre­sen­ta­tion, this includes envi­ron­men­tal direct action, resis­tance tak­en from out­side the dom­i­nant cul­ture, as in protests, block­ades and sab­o­tage by Indige­nous peo­ples, work­ers, anar­chists and oth­er activist groups.” Such mass upris­ings of peo­ple — along the lines of the abo­li­tion move­ment and the Civ­il Rights Move­ment — rep­re­sent the like­li­est source of fric­tion” to slow down an eco­nom­ic machine that is careen­ing out of control.

This, he argued, is clear from his­to­ry, which tells us that past social move­ments have had tremen­dous influ­ence on … how the dom­i­nant cul­ture evolved.” It stands to rea­son, there­fore, that if we’re think­ing about the future of the earth, and the future of our cou­pling to the envi­ron­ment, we have to include resis­tance as part of that dynam­ic.” And that, Wern­er said, is not a mat­ter of opin­ion, but real­ly a geo­physics prob­lem.” Put anoth­er way, only mass social move­ments can save us now. Because we know where the cur­rent sys­tem, left unchecked, is head­ed. We also know, I would add, how that sys­tem will deal with the real­i­ty of ser­i­al cli­mate-relat­ed dis­as­ters: with prof­i­teer­ing, and esca­lat­ing bar­barism to seg­re­gate the losers from the win­ners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep bar­rel­ing down the road we are on. The only remain­ing vari­able is whether some coun­ter­vail­ing pow­er will emerge to block the road, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly clear some alter­nate path­ways to des­ti­na­tions that are safer. If that hap­pens, well, it changes everything.

Social move­ments, such as the fos­sil fuel divestment/​reinvestment move­ment, local laws bar­ring high-risk extrac­tion, bold court chal­lenges by Indige­nous groups and oth­ers, are ear­ly man­i­fes­ta­tions of this resis­tance. They have not only locat­ed var­i­ous choke points to slow the expan­sion plans of the fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, but the eco­nom­ic alter­na­tives these move­ments are propos­ing and build­ing are map­ping ways of liv­ing with­in plan­e­tary bound­aries, ones based on intri­cate rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ships rather than brute extrac­tion. This is the fric­tion” to which Wern­er referred, the kind that is need­ed to put the brakes on the forces of destruc­tion and destabilization.

Just as many cli­mate change deniers I met fear, mak­ing swift progress on cli­mate change requires break­ing fos­silized free mar­ket rules. That is why, if we are to col­lec­tive­ly meet the enor­mous chal­lenges of this cri­sis, a robust social move­ment will need to demand (and cre­ate) polit­i­cal lead­er­ship that is not only com­mit­ted to mak­ing pol­luters pay for a cli­mate-ready pub­lic sphere, but will­ing to revive two lost arts: longterm pub­lic plan­ning, and say­ing no to pow­er­ful corporations. 

There are many impor­tant debates to be had about the best way to respond to cli­mate change — stormwalls or ecosys­tem restora­tion? Decen­tral­ized renew­ables, indus­tri­al scale wind pow­er com­bined with nat­ur­al gas, or nuclear pow­er? Small-scale organ­ic farms or indus­tri­al food sys­tems? There is, how­ev­er, no sce­nario in which we can avoid wartime lev­els of spend­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor — not if we are seri­ous about pre­vent­ing cat­a­stroph­ic lev­els of warm­ing, and min­i­miz­ing the destruc­tive poten­tial of the com­ing storms.

Pub­lic mon­ey needs to be spent on ambi­tious emis­sion-reduc­ing projects — the smart grids, the light rail, the city­wide com­post­ing sys­tems, the build­ing retro­fits, the vision­ary tran­sit sys­tems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spend­ing half our lives in traf­fic jams. The pri­vate sec­tor is ill-suit­ed to tak­ing on most of these large infra­struc­ture invest­ments. If the ser­vices are to be acces­si­ble, which they must be in order to be effec­tive, the prof­it mar­gins that attract pri­vate play­ers sim­ply aren’t there.

The pol­luter pays

So how on earth are we going to pay for all this? In North Amer­i­ca and Europe, the eco­nom­ic cri­sis that began in 2008 is still being used as a pre­text to slash aid abroad and cut cli­mate pro­grams at home. All over South­ern Europe, envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions have been clawed back, most trag­i­cal­ly in Spain, which, fac­ing fierce aus­ter­i­ty pres­sure, dras­ti­cal­ly cut sub­si­dies for renew­ables projects, send­ing solar projects and wind farms spi­ral­ing toward default and clo­sure. The U.K. under David Cameron has also cut sup­ports for renew­able energy.

If we accept that gov­ern­ments are broke, and they’re not like­ly to intro­duce quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing” (aka print­ing mon­ey) for the cli­mate sys­tem as they have for the banks, where is the mon­ey sup­posed to come from? Since we have only a few short years to dra­mat­i­cal­ly low­er our emis­sions, the only ratio­nal way for­ward is to ful­ly embrace the prin­ci­ple already well estab­lished in West­ern law: the pol­luter pays.

Oil and gas com­pa­nies remain some of the most prof­itable cor­po­ra­tions in his­to­ry, with the top five oil com­pa­nies pulling in $900 bil­lion in prof­its from 2001 to 2010. These com­pa­nies are rich, quite sim­ply, because they have dumped the cost of clean­ing up their mess onto reg­u­lar peo­ple around the world. It is this sit­u­a­tion that, most fun­da­men­tal­ly, needs to change.

And it will not change with­out strong action. For well over a decade, sev­er­al of the oil majors have claimed to be vol­un­tar­i­ly using their prof­its to invest in a shift to renew­able ener­gy. But accord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, just 4 per­cent of the Big Five’s $100 bil­lion in com­bined prof­its in 2008 went to renew­able and alter­na­tive ener­gy ven­tures.” Instead, they con­tin­ue to pour their prof­its into share­hold­er pock­ets, out­ra­geous ex- ecu­tive pay (Exxon CEO Rex Tiller­son makes more than $100,000 a day), and new tech­nolo­gies designed to extract even dirt­i­er and more dan­ger­ous fos­sil fuels. As oil indus­try watch­er Anto­nia Juhasz has observed, You wouldn’t know it from their adver­tis­ing, but the world’s major oil com­pa­nies have either entire­ly divest­ed from alter­na­tive ener­gy or sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced their invest­ments in favor of dou­bling down on ever-more risky and destruc­tive sources of oil and nat­ur­al gas.”

Giv­en this track record, it’s safe to assume that if fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies are going to help pay for the shift to renew- able ener­gy, and for the broad­er costs of a cli­mate desta­bi­lized by their pol­lu­tion, it will be because they are forced to do so by law.

It is high time for the indus­try to at least split the bill for the cli­mate cri­sis. And there is mount­ing evi­dence that the finan­cial world under­stands that this is com­ing. In its 2013 annu­al report on Glob­al Risks,” the World Eco­nom­ic Forum (host of the annu­al super-elite gath­er­ing in Davos, Switzer­land), stat­ed plain­ly, Although the Alaskan vil­lage of Kivali­na — which faces being wiped out’ by the chang­ing cli­mate— was unsuc­cess­ful in its attempts to file a $400 mil­lion law­suit against oil and coal com­pa­nies, future plain­tiffs may be more successful.”

The ques­tion is: How do we stop fos­sil fuel prof­its from con­tin­u­ing to hem­or­rhage into exec­u­tive pay­checks and share­hold­er pock­ets — and how do we do it soon, before the com­pa­nies are sig­nif­i­cant­ly less prof­itable or out of busi­ness because we have moved to a new ener­gy sys­tem? A steep car­bon tax would be a straight­for­ward way to get a piece of the prof­its, as long as it con­tained a gen­er­ous redis­trib­u­tive mech­a­nism — a tax cut or income cred­it — that com­pen­sat­ed poor and mid­dle-class con­sumers for increased fuel and heat­ing prices. As Cana­di­an econ­o­mist Marc Lee points out, designed prop­er­ly, It is pos­si­ble to have a pro­gres­sive car­bon tax sys­tem that reduces inequal­i­ty as it rais­es the price of emit­ting green­house gas­es.” An even more direct route to get­ting a piece of those pol­lu­tion prof­its would be for gov­ern­ments to nego­ti­ate much high­er roy­al­ty rates on oil, gas and coal extrac­tion, with the rev­enues going to her­itage trust funds” that would be ded­i­cat­ed to build­ing the post – fos­sil fuel future, as well as to help­ing com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers adapt to these new realities.

Fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions can be count­ed on to resist any new rules that cut into their prof­its, so harsh penal­ties, includ­ing revok­ing cor­po­rate char­ters, would need to be on the table. But the extrac­tive indus­tries shouldn’t be the only tar­gets of the pol­luter pays” prin­ci­ple. The car com­pa­nies have plen­ty to answer for, too, as do the ship­ping indus­try and the airlines.

More­over, there is a sim­ple, direct cor­re­la­tion between wealth and emis­sions — more mon­ey gen­er­al­ly means more fly­ing, dri­ving, boat­ing and pow­er­ing of mul­ti­ple homes. One case study of Ger­man con­sumers indi­cates that the trav­el habits of the most afflu­ent class have an impact on cli­mate 250 per­cent greater than that of their low­est-earn­ing neighbors.

That means any attempt to tax the extra­or­di­nary con­cen­tra­tion of wealth at the very top of the eco­nom­ic pyra­mid would — if par­tial­ly chan­neled into cli­mate financ­ing — effec­tive­ly make the pol­luters pay. Jour­nal­ist and cli­mate and ener­gy pol­i­cy expert Gar Lipow puts it this way: We should tax the rich more because it is the fair thing to do, and because it will pro­vide a bet­ter life for most of us, and a more pros­per­ous econ­o­my. How­ev­er, pro­vid­ing mon­ey to save civ­i­liza­tion and reduce the risk of human extinc­tion is anoth­er good rea­son to bill the rich for their fair share of taxes.”

There is no short­age of options for equi­tably com­ing up with the cash to pre­pare for the com­ing storms while rad­i­cal­ly low­er­ing our emis­sions to pre­vent cat­a­stroph­ic warm­ing. Con­sid­er the following:

  • A low-rate” finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax — which would hit trades of stocks, deriv­a­tives and oth­er finan­cial instru­ments — could bring in near­ly $650 bil­lion at the glob­al lev­el each year, accord­ing to a 2011 res­o­lu­tion of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (and it would have the added bonus of slow­ing down finan­cial speculation).
  • Clos­ing tax havens would yield anoth­er wind­fall. The U.K.-based Tax Jus­tice Net­work esti­mates that in 2010, the pri­vate finan­cial wealth of indi­vid­u­als stowed unre­port­ed in tax havens around the globe was some­where between $21 tril­lion and $32 tril­lion. If that mon­ey were brought into the light and its earn­ings taxed at a 30 per­cent rate, it would yield at least $190 bil­lion in income tax rev­enue each year.
  • A 1 per­cent billionaire’s tax,” float­ed by the U.N., could raise $46 bil­lion annually.
  • A $50 tax per met­ric ton of CO2 emit­ted in devel­oped coun­tries would raise an esti­mat­ed $450 bil­lion annu­al­ly, while a more mod­est $25 car­bon tax would still yield $250 bil­lion per year, accord­ing to a 2011 report by the World Bank, the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund, and the Organ­i­sa­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co-oper­a­tion and Devel­op­ment (OECD), among others.
  • Phas­ing out fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies glob­al­ly would con­ser­v­a­tive­ly save gov­ern­ments a total $775 bil­lion in a sin­gle year, accord­ing to a 2012 esti­mate by Oil Change Inter­na­tion­al and the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Council.

These var­i­ous mea­sures, tak­en togeth­er, would cer­tain­ly raise enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great Tran­si­tion (and avoid a Great Depres­sion). Of course, for any of these tax crack­downs to work, key gov­ern­ments would have to coor­di­nate their respons­es so that cor­po­ra­tions had nowhere to hide — a dif­fi­cult task, though far from impos­si­ble, and one fre­quent­ly bandied about at G20 summits.

To state the obvi­ous: it would be incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to per­suade gov­ern­ments in almost every coun­try in the world to imple­ment the kinds of redis­trib­u­tive cli­mate mech­a­nisms I have out­lined. But we should be clear about the nature of the chal­lenge: It is not that we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our polit­i­cal class is utter­ly unwill­ing to go where the mon­ey is (unless it’s for a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion), and the cor­po­rate class is dead set against pay­ing its fair share.

Bat­tle for the planet

Seen in this light, it’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that our lead­ers have so far failed to act to avert cli­mate chaos. Indeed, even if aggres­sive pol­luter pays” mea­sures were intro­duced, it isn’t at all clear that the cur­rent polit­i­cal class would know what to do with the mon­ey. After all, chang­ing the build­ing blocks of our soci­eties — the ener­gy that pow­ers our economies, how we move around, the designs of our major cities — is not about writ­ing a few checks. It requires bold long-term plan­ning at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment, and a will­ing­ness to stand up to pol­luters whose actions put us all in dan­ger. And that won’t hap­pen until the cor­po­rate lib­er­a­tion project that has shaped our polit­i­cal cul­ture for three and a half decades is buried for good.

All of this is why any attempt to rise to the cli­mate chal­lenge will be fruit­less unless it is under­stood as part of a much broad­er bat­tle of world­views, a process of rebuild­ing and rein­vent­ing the very idea of the col­lec­tive, the com­mu­nal, the com­mons, the civ­il, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is over­whelm­ing about the cli­mate chal­lenge is that it requires break­ing so many rules at once — rules emerged out of the same, coher­ent world­view. If that world­view is dele­git­imized, then all of the rules with­in it become much weak­er and more vul­ner­a­ble. This is anoth­er les­son from social move­ment his­to­ry across the polit­i­cal spec­trum: When fun­da­men­tal change does come, it’s gen­er­al­ly not in leg­isla­tive dribs and drabs spread out even­ly over decades. Rather it comes in spasms of rapid-fire law­mak­ing, with one break­through after anoth­er. The Right calls this shock ther­a­py”; the Left calls it pop­ulism” because it requires so much pop­u­lar sup­port and mobi­liza­tion to occur.

So how do you change a world­view, an unques­tioned ide­ol­o­gy? Part of it involves choos­ing the right ear­ly pol­i­cy bat­tles — game-chang­ing ones that don’t mere­ly aim to change laws but change pat­terns of thought. That means that a fight for a min­i­mal car­bon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, form­ing a grand coali­tion to demand a guar­an­teed min­i­mum income. That’s not only because a min­i­mum income, as dis­cussed, makes it pos­si­ble for work­ers to say no to dirty ener­gy jobs but also because the very process of argu­ing for a uni­ver­sal social safe­ty net opens up a space for a full-throat­ed debate about val­ues— about what we owe to one anoth­er based on our shared human­i­ty, and what it is that we col­lec­tive­ly val­ue more than eco­nom­ic growth and cor­po­rate profits.

Indeed, a great deal of the work of deep social change involves hav­ing debates dur­ing which new sto­ries can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of mak­ing the kind of civ­i­liza­tion­al leap required of this fate­ful decade, we will need to start believ­ing, once again, that human­i­ty is not hope­less­ly self­ish and greedy — the image cease­less­ly sold to us by every­thing from real­i­ty shows to neo­clas­si­cal economics.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, the task is to artic­u­late not just an alter­na­tive set of pol­i­cy pro­pos­als but an alter­na­tive world­view to rival the one at the heart of the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. A world­view embed­ded in inter­de­pen­dence rather than hyper­indi­vid­u­al­ism, reci­procity rather than dom­i­nance, and coop­er­a­tion rather than hier­ar­chy. This is required not only to cre­ate a polit­i­cal con­text to dra­mat­i­cal­ly low­er emis­sions, but also to help us cope with the dis­as­ters we can no longer afford to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emis­sions, an unshak­able belief in the equal rights of all peo­ple and a capac­i­ty for deep com­pas­sion will be the only things stand­ing between civ­i­liza­tion and barbarism.

This essay was adapt­ed from This Changes Every­thing: Cap­i­tal­ism vs. the Cli­mate by Nao­mi Klein. Copy­right © 2014 by Nao­mi Klein. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of Simon & Schus­ter, Inc.

Nao­mi Klein is a for­mer colum­nist for In These Times. She is the author of No Logo: Tak­ing Aim at the Brand Bul­lies, Fences and Win­dows: Dis­patch­es from the Front Lines of the Glob­al­iza­tion Debate and The Shock Doc­trine: The Rise of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism.
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