Climate change and its discontents: finding our way forward in a planetary crisis
Governor Inslee’s proposed Carbon Pollution Accountability Act may not be perfect but it needs our support. Why? Because it’s our biggest and best chance right now to assert the value of the planet over the rights of corporations. It’s the Washington State version of “think global, act local.” Republican opposition to the proposal is grounded in the rights of specific economic interests. House Republican leader Dan Kristiansen, Snohomish, said that Inslee’s plan proposal to implement a modest carbon pollution fee in the form of a cap and trade program might harm business.
Harm business, or harm all of us? That’s the question facing the Washington Legislature this session. How we got to this place is at the heart of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
Klein charts the growth of two phenomena: the steady rise of the U.S-led version of deregulated capitalism and the steady rise in carbon emissions. Her argument gets more interesting when she describes the backstory—the belief system or ideology, that has paved the way into the dramatic showdown we are all living. According to Klein, the three big policy principles that become “normal” in the last decade or so are these: privatize the public sphere; de-regulate the corporate sphere; and lower corporate tax rates by cutting public spending. That’s our new normal.
One gift in Klein’s analysis is that she shows how moves to cut food stamps and raise the retirement age to 70 or 75 are congruent with the crazed drive to frack for natural gas even as water systems are poisoned and cancer rates go up in the surrounding communities, and drill for oil from deep water platforms even as those waters become more acidic. Through a series of calculated political maneuvers, we find ourselves in a place where the primary function of public policy has become protecting the right to profit. Because funds are finite, de-regulating corporations requires the de-funding of public services. In addition, de-funding public services creates new markets for corporations to exploit.
What these corporate-profit centered principles replace is the view that economic planning and management is necessary, because the role of government in a democratic society is to protect the rights of people. In other words, what has been lost is the belief that the government’s role is to look after the public’s welfare, rather than the health and wealth of corporate interests.
Cooked by the climate or condemned as a communist?
Klein is at her best when she takes pains to explain how we got here. For example, reminding us that President Obama took office in January 2009, Klein argues that by the following summer, the right’s rhetoric against government planning was in full force. As she writes, “flush with oil money from the Koch brothers and pumped up by Fox News, the Tea Party stormed town-hall meetings across the country, shouting about how Obama’s health-care reform was part of a sinister plan to turn the United States into an Islamic/Nazi/socialist utopia.” The right’s push against economic planning and management has been relentless and successful—a powerful reminder of the successful history of “red-baiting” campaigns in the U.S. dating back over a hundred years.
The curious fear of being labeled a communist or socialist, or even just communist or socialist sympathizer seems to paralyze those of us who position ourselves on the left. As Klein writes, “we know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need.”
We know that biological systems have limits outside our control. We should know that our economic arrangements represent choices we have made, choices we can make differently. Why, when these two ideas are so simple, are we so stuck? Klein’s answer is clear: we haven’t done the things necessary to lower emissions because doing those things goes against the interests of the wealthy elite. To address climate change, corporations have to be regulated and government must impose the regulations. As Klein puts it, we need a “muscular” political response. But muscular political leaders need active political supporters, and that’s all of us. Klein doesn’t say much about increased alienation from the political process in the form of low voter turn-out, but that’s an element too. In effect, we need a muscular political response to break the chokehold of wealthy elites but many of us have given up voting.
We’re too soft to sacrifice…
Klein takes on the myth that we are too selfish, too “addicted to gratification” to make sacrifices for a greater good, one of the lamentations used to explain our lack of action. It’s not that the ruling class prefers to profit, it’s that we are too weak to sacrifice our “lifestyle” for the sake of the planet. Debunking the myth of weakness, Klein smartly points out that we have sacrificed a lot for the sake of corporate profits. She writes, “the truth is that we continue to make collective sacrifices in the name of an abstract greater good all the time. We sacrifice our pensions, our hard-won labor rights, our arts and after-school programs. We send our kids to learn in ever more crowded classrooms, led by ever more harried teachers. We accept that we have to pay dramatically more for the destructive energy sources that power our transportation and our lives…We accept that a public university education should result in a debt that will take half a lifetime to pay off when such a thing was unheard of a generation ago.”
The essence of “Blockadia”
What’s to be done? After her analysis of how we got into the predicament we are in—a wake up call for civilization, as she calls it—Klein describes a variety of strategies that are being used to put our collective well-being ahead of corporate profits. “Blockadia” isn’t a specific action, she writes, but an approach people are taking to close, rather than open, the fossil fuel frontier. Blockades have gone up at potential mining sites, drilling sites, pipeline sites. The idea, KC Golden explains, is that we have to stop making the problem worse before we can make begin to solve it. Golden calls it the “Keystone Principle”—“step one for getting out of a hole: stop digging.”
Klein describes the struggle to limit the number of oil trains and coal trains that travel through communities, as well as the struggle to limit or halt the development of additional shipping terminals, as a struggle against “the corroded tentacles of extreme energy”. Her discussion here is useful because it focused on tactics: she points out that local struggles, like those along the Washington coast, are critical for two reasons. First, they have a material effect on the fossil fuel companies and the related subsidiaries. Second, the struggle against the superior rights of fossil fuel companies has an important ideological component—it’s an expression of the desire for new public policies that protect the rights of the public.
Chipping away at the social license
The divestment movement, the campaign to get public interest institutions—universities, municipal governments, faith organizations—to sell any financial holdings they have in fossil fuel companies, also works on two levels. It would take a massive sell-off of shares of fossil fuel companies to make any significant financial impact. But by pushing for divestment, Klein argues, climate change activists are “chipping away” at the social credibility of fossil fuel companies. Just as tobacco companies lost their legitimacy, so too, as the divestment movement takes hold, may fossil fuel companies find the legitimacy of their very operations questioned.
Contradictions—A classic North American blind spot?
Klein’s discussion of Indigenous land fights in Canada and the U.S. is robust. She discusses the importance of the resource sharing provisions that were included in early treaties, pointing out that these very provisions are creating important legal spaces to fight against drilling and mining projects. She describes the important leadership role played by the Lummi in fight against the coal terminal in Bellingham.
Klein’s discussion of Ecuador is less good. While she acknowledges that for some indigenous people in North America, working with fossil fuel companies may provide the best option for economic survival at least in the short term, she doesn’t acknowledge the same range of response among indigenous people in Ecuador. Furthermore, Klein argues that because addressing climate change is both an ideological and an ecological battle, in the context of North America, where the ideology of de-regulated capitalism is so entrenched, it may make more sense to take on the political battle of raising the minimum wage before trying to install a carbon tax. Both are necessary. Both require government to put the needs of people ahead of the unfettered right to profit.
However, Klein fails to see the value of the same political work in Ecuador. Instead, she roundly criticizes President Rafael Correa for his “center left approach”—noting only in passing that under his presidency the poverty rate decreased by over 30%. She doesn’t pause to consider whether Ecuador, like Canada and the U.S., might also have to free itself from earlier capitalist ideologies that served the elites, whether Ecuador, like Canada or the U.S., is a complex society with a complex history. In her account, the only two actors in Ecuador are the current president, who disappoints her, and a singular indigenous point of view.
And yet…here’s our chance to chip
This Changes Everything is worth the read. Klein has a good discussion of Martin Luther King’s work that resonates with the image of King portrayed in the film “Selma”. She describes King’s argument that the social changes we require can’t be had for “bargain rates”—allowing people to share lunch counters and libraries doesn’t cost much. Extending the right to vote doesn’t cost much either. Creating jobs, creating equitable access to good schools, creating adequate housing—things that were achieved not in King’s life time nor yet today—requires a set of policy principles that put people first. Addressing climate change requires adopting a set of principles that put people first.
Klein argues that fossil fuel companies will resist every bit of legislation that potentially threatens their profits. She’s right. The reigning ideology, the one we have to usurp, holds that the market should run unfettered by government regulation. Any regulation, no matter how small, is potentially dangerous because it breaks with this way of working. It puts people first.
Republican Doug Ericksen chairs the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee. He opposes Inslee’s proposal, and he’s the recipient of the largest donations from fossil fuel companies, their industry associations, and the state’s largest movers of coal, oil and gas. According to Sightline reporter Eric de Place, in the last election cycle Ericksen received $17,600 in direct donations and over $20,000 in PAC donations. Ericksen’s vice-chair on the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee is Tim Sheldon, the Democrat who sides with the Republican caucus. Sheldon and Republican Andy Hill, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, also oppose Inslee’s proposal to put a price on carbon pollution. They occupy key leadership positions in the Senate—they too were subsidized by the fossil fuel industries.
Inslee’s proposal to create a modest cap and trade system is flawed. A carbon tax would work better. Nonetheless, because climate change changes everything, we better start chipping while we can.
Emily Lardner teaches at The Evergreen State College and directs The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service of the college.