Ever since the renowned Nasa scientist James Hansen started issuing dire public warnings about the risks of man-made climate change in the late 1980s, the same question has haunted environmental campaigners: how to get political momentum behind an “invisible” and global problem whose impacts would not be felt for many years?
Attempts to outsource the answer to some grand international bargain in succeeding decades have done little to abate the volumes of carbon still belching into the atmosphere. Wealthy countries such as the US have bridled at binding global targets, while national regulations have simply shifted emissions from wealthy countries to those with less exacting environmental rules.
Earlier this year, two American progressive politicians, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, launched the latest attempt to break the political logjam. Granted, their “Green New Deal” is more of a political brand than a practical programme. But it sets out to provide that elusive energising factor by tying climate action to the notion of greater social justice within the US.
The deal offers jobs for millions to restore US infrastructure, extends universal healthcare and proposes switching to local community-led renewable energy systems with the aim of reaching 100 per cent renewable power in the next 10 years.
The goal is to make decarbonisation a defining national mission rather than an internationally mandated chore.
It is not the first time a “Green New Deal” has been touted. But the original, cooked up by the US journalist Thomas Friedman in 2007, gained little traction.
Conceived as a mission that would bolster US energy security as well as (happily) saving the planet, it argued for a technological revolution; one where the government showered fiscal incentives to replace fossil fuels with unlimited green power.
Friedman’s was a consumer-friendly vision; one where western knowhow bailed us out without us actually having to change our lifestyles very much.
A decade on, proponents of the latest Green New Deal, such as the activist Naomi Klein, are much less optimistic about the ability — or will — of western private capital and technology to solve the world’s environmental woes. In On Fire, the longstanding critic of corporate globalisation argues for a much more comprehensive economic reboot.
“Markets play a role in this vision, but markets are not the protagonists of this story — people are,” she writes. “The workers who will build the new infrastructure, the residents who will breathe the clean air, who will live in the affordable green housing and benefit from the low cost (or free) public transit.”
Klein’s book is a collection of essays spanning the past decade, which chart her growing despair at environmental degradation and conclusion that any solution must involve radical and urgent economic change. The story moves from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010, through the wildfires of western Canada, the refugee crises in Africa and the Middle East all the way to the Vatican, where Pope Francis is attempting an extraordinary “ecological conversion”. These journeys have left her with a profound mistrust of the way markets allocate resources. Klein argues that we must change more than just our energy sources; we must master our urge to dominate the natural environment — what she calls our “expansionist, extractive mind-set”.
This is partly a long-lensed critique about humanity’s relationship to nature. As a Canadian, Klein is acutely aware of her own country’s history, and the way early colonial settlers treated it as “their God-given larder”, killing first the native species, such as auks and beavers, for profit, before turning to its woodlands and mineral resources.
But she also blames modern globalisation for hindering climate action and leaving it too late for less abrupt changes. The explosion of post-1980s “neoliberalism” tamped down the collective spirit necessary for decarbonisation just as action became vital, she argues. Instead it set the world on an extractive binge that may have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but has seen CO2 emissions rise 60 per cent over 1990 levels. And it did so on what she sees as a wildly misguided prospectus: “in the name of liberating ‘free markets’ in every aspect of life”.
Essentially Klein’s argument is that our unbridled urge to extract has created what she calls “sacrifice zones” around the world, such as the Louisiana marshlands after Deepwater Horizon, or the toxic wilderness created by tar sands extraction on First Nations lands in her native Canada.
These activities clearly hurt the environment and those who live in these places. But Klein also focuses on the effect they have on the psyche of perpetrators, who rationalise the damage by treating the victims as “the other”.
Her concern is what happens when western consumers with such attitudes are confronted with real climate disruption; when, say, rising temperatures in the Middle East (already touching 50C in Iraq this summer) force a mass exodus to more temperate places.
“This is how the wealthy world is going to ‘adapt’ to more climate disruption: by fully unleashing the toxic ideologies that rank the relative value of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swathes of humanity,” she writes. “And what starts as brutality at the border will most certainly infect societies as a whole.”
Two new books on the Green New Deal
Activist Naomi Klein, in a collection of essays spanning the past decade, charts her despair at environmental degradation and concludes that any solution must involve radical change
Economist Ann Pettifor argues that the state is capable of financing a zero emissions program, but globalised markets will never push ‘a climate stabilisation project’
Now this all takes you into very radical territory. For one thing, Klein is far less concerned about preserving the productive motors of the economy. Indeed she advocates the notion of “de-growth”, which responds to the reduction in productivity caused by the localisation of trade and scrapping of hydrocarbon fuels by simply scaling back activity. She’s also against industrial forms of agriculture, preferring a return to smaller scale traditional forms.
There’s short shrift too for “get out of jail card” fixes such as geoengineering, on the basis that, as the climate affects everyone, it will never be possible to get informed consent for such risky experiments as squirting sulphate into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy is similarly dismissed because of its requirement for extractive mining.
Which brings you up against both the economics and the politics of Klein’s grand vision. One can sympathise with her concern about the sustainability of our globalised economy, and laud the idea of much needed, job creating infrastructure spending. But how sensible is it to sweep away agricultural practices that feed 7.7bn people? And how do you sell the idea of “less” to the west’s myriad consumers, let alone their emulants in the rest of the world? Or the powerful corporate giants that drive the economy? Klein confidently asserts that the “footloose investors” who back these entities can be made to curb their demands for ever rising profits, suggesting the answer is to expand “those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, non profits)”.
Maybe wealthy nations should pay climate reparations to developing countries as she suggests, as well as granting them exclusive rights to all future permitted growth. Yet short of pretty muscular coercive measures, it is hard to see how any of this will be achieved.
One way, of course, might be to beef up state control of the economy and muzzle the power of the international financial system — the prescription reached for by the economist Ann Pettifor in The Case for the Green New Deal. An adviser to Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, she sees the nation state as eminently capable of financing decarbonisation.
The enemy is globalised markets, with their propensity to fly from jurisdictions that seek to mobilise trillions of capital to pay for climate transition. We need to “get real” and recognise bankers will never “finance a massive climate stabilisation project on terms that are acceptable and sustainable”, she writes.
To achieve the “steady state” economy that would have to repay all that debt out of future tax revenues, Pettifor argues for constraints on moving capital. There are few tears shed for the citizen’s liberty to move around their money. “Much of the responsibility for today’s rise in extreme right-wing and authoritarian governments can be placed at the door of instability caused by volatile, footloose cap flows.”
Both authors assume these curtailments of economic freedom won’t stop the public cheering on the Green New Deal. And they may be right. Klein’s own “Leap” programme — a more radical variation of the GND — was condemned by Conservative politicians in Canada for its “economic nihilism”. But as she points out, when polled with the public, it received majority backing from the supporters of most mainstream Canadian parties. Even 20 per cent of Conservatives gave it the thumbs up.
Painting in primary colours may actually make some sense politically at a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is warning that the world has just a decade to start bringing down global emissions if the rise in temperatures is to be constrained to 1.5C.
True, it is easy to pick holes in the impracticality of the GND, especially the idea of moving to a zero-emission power system in just a decade. Simply backing up an electricity network that was wholly powered by renewables would presently be ruinous. Building the necessary battery storage to supply a week’s power in Britain would cost £1tn, according to the French utility EDF.
Then there is the question of the outcomes we would be avoiding. While 2C-3C increases would clearly bring suffering to many, few scientific authorities believe it would bring about mass species extinction or ecological collapse.
But that is to misunderstand the psychological attraction of the GND. It appeals not to a practical instinct, but to a latent sense of guilt and powerlessness among western consumers. The same emotions that drove 7m on to the streets around the world in recent climate protests, or cheered the Swedish schoolgirl activist Greta Thunberg at the United Nations when she accused delegates of “[stealing] my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”.
It reflects the failure of many national governments (especially the US) to come up with a worked through and detailed proposal that would avoid sweeping economic changes, or to determine what resources are needed to fight climate change and how those should be deployed.
American climate legislation has pretty much stalled since the failure of President Obama’s cap-and-trade scheme a decade ago. And even limited practical initiatives are struggling: a plan by 24 countries to double green energy R&D between 2015 and 2020 is far off course.
The GND may not actually be about doing something specific. Demanding drastic, even impossible change — as Klein and Pettifor do — may just be a way to ensure that something is done.
On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Simon & Schuster, RRP$27, 320 pages
The Case for the Green New Deal, by Ann Pettifor, Verso Books, RRP£12.99/$19.95, 208 pages
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s City editor
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