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A Green Capitalist Solution?

With the Paris Climate Summit approaching, THE NATION magazine has featured articles about global warming induced climate change. A recent cover story by economist Robert Pollin was entitled “The New Green Economy: Think we can’t stabilize the climate while fostering growth? Think Again” His thesis is, “The global economy can bring global emissions down to the IPCC target of 20 billion tons within 20 years if most countries - especially those with large GDPs or populations - devote between 1.5 and 2 percent per year of GDP to investments in energy efficiency and clean, low-emission renewable-energy sources.” He argues that the jobs generated by these investments, coupled with targeted retraining of those who lose jobs by weaning the world off of fossil fuels will cause growth while lowering our carbon footprint.

Pollin contrasts his view with “leftists [who see] … the solution to climate change is to oppose economic growth in general and advance an alternative ‘de-growth’ agenda.” He cites one of my favorite books, Juliet Schor’s PLENTATUDE, as an example of this transgression.

Pollin argues well. He shows that if we act quickly, plan carefully, and invest wisely, we can cut carbon emissions within the confines of our current system. But he writes as if this key element of our economy is a self-contained unit. His scenario suffers from the same, albeit more sophisticated, tunnel vision I discussed in my last blog (It’s Real, but I’m not Worried), because efficient energy generation is the beginning, but not the end, of the carbon impact of what he proposes.

For instance, Pollin writes that his plan won’t cost more because, “To begin with, energy-efficient investments make it cheaper to cook meals, heat and cool homes and offices; travel by cars, buses and trains; and operate industrial machinery.” In our system people buy more if it is cheaper. All the new green jobs and lowered costs mean that more people will eat, heat, cool, and travel more. It means appliance companies, and auto dealers will advertise to get more people to buy bigger, better refrigerators, air-conditioners and cars with their newfound income. Such increases, regardless of efficiency, will produce more greenhouse gases.

Applying Pollin’s logic to his snapshot of India illuminates this problem more dramatically. In India, his plan will “produce a near tripling of average incomes within 20 years… [and] also create an average of about 10 million more jobs per year….” Under capitalism, with companies competing to sell as many products as possible, 200,000,000 more jobholders with three-times the income will cause an explosive increase in consumption. Producing and selling more goods only exacerbates our wasteful, throwaway economy, in which fashions change so quickly that local Goodwill stores can’t accommodate the mountains of discards, and we hardly have time to learn how to use new electronic devices before they must be replaced. Everyone should have a path out of poverty, but creating huge masses of new consumers and new products courts ecological disaster.

Pollin gives his argument too much credit. He demonstrates that his plan can IN AND OF ITSELF reduce the global carbon footprint to sustainable levels. But the energy producing aspect of our economy is not isolated. It is part of a larger system that mandates competition, profit and consumption-fostered growth, increasing global carbon footprint to unsustainable levels.

We must make the changes Pollin advocates. But while they are necessary, they are not sufficient. We must get off the capitalist growth treadmill if we are to survive.  Read More 
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It’s Real, But I’m Not Worried

The Associated Press reports that two of three Americans now accept that global warming is real and caused by human activity, but only one in three are even “moderately worried” about it. What’s causing this disconnect and what can we do about it?

Until recently, our national argument about human induced global warming and resultant climate change has focused overwhelmingly on whether it is happening. That dispute is being settled, but the public’s understanding of the consequences remains muddled. For instance, the AP article quotes a retiree from Minneapolis who says since she lives in the middle of the country she’ll be “the last one who will be submerged.”

Many people are confused about the extent, timing and even the nature of the challenges we face. They think it is mostly about sea level rise and monster hurricanes, because those changes have gotten the most press. They know this is serious because populations are densest near coastlines and sea level rise will cause worldwide displacement, but they think because they live further inland the impact upon them won’t be as direct. This reflects a failure to view climate as a global system that reaches everywhere and affects everyone, not surprising because people in the U.S. do not tend to view issues systemically.

The left can also suffer from tunnel vision. We understand the differential impact climate change and associated resource depletion will have on poorer people and the third world. We note that those least responsible for the problem will suffer the most. Within the United States activists focus on public health crises caused by air, water and ground pollution, heat waves, and other weather-related disasters that devastate urban ghettoes and impoverished rural areas. This is vital work, but it risks creating the false impression that average-income people are not in harm’s way. We are all in the same sinking boat.

People often fail to grasp the time-frame of climate change. That’s hardly surprising since the models are far from exact. The scientific consensus projects a range between thirty and more than a hundred years before we face globe-spanning catastrophes. It is difficult to worry about something that might not happen for a hundred years. The problem is compounded because even fewer understand that since it takes thirty years for the full impact of the carbon we emit today to be reflected in the world’s climate, we may already be crossing the point of no return. The answer to how much time we have is, unfortunately, little or none.

This leads to what is perhaps most difficult to imagine. We face qualitative rather than quantitative change in the relatively near future. This means that we are approaching the point where positive feedback mechanisms lock in further warming. Once we trigger mechanisms that cause the Amazon rainforest to burn up, and massive amounts of methane contained in permafrost and the methane hydrates of the deep ocean to be released, we will be unable to reverse course. The climate won’t just get nastier; it will become unrecognizable.

How do we convince people, who now accept the reality of global warming, that they must be worried about it? It’s a fine line – teaching that what we face is deadly serious and close at hand without engendering paralytic helplessness. But despite this difficulty, our task now is to move the debate beyond whether climate change is happening, and to focus on the systemic changes necessary to prevent it from destroying our civilization.  Read More 
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