Is Naomi Klein Right That We Must Choose Between Capitalism and the Climate?

By
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything. Photo: Cole Bennetts/2015 Getty Images

One of the hardiest and most irresistible political fallacies holds that, if your side’s agenda is failing, it has failed only because weak-kneed leaders have presented to the public a compromised version. The right and left alike have their own, structurally identical versions of this fallacy. (The right-wing iteration is currently tearing apart the House Republican caucus.) The arguments repeat familiar tropes. The compromisers have conceded important premises to the other side, muddying our intellectual clarity and allowing the terms of the debate to be controlled by the opposition; they never gave their own activists anything sufficiently inspiring to work for; indeed, the leaders may well have sold out to the well-heeled forces of the Establishment.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate uses a rendition of the purity fallacy to explain climate change. Klein’s book came out last year, and a documentary based on its reporting premiered this week in many cities across the country. The odd thing about her ideologically comforting explanation for the failure of the anti-climate-change movement is that the movement is not actually failing. Or, at least, it is more closely approaching success than at any time in its history. By either economic metrics (the plummeting cost and rising usage of renewable energy) or political metrics (growing international movement for commitments to reduce emissions across the globe), the efforts she dismisses as a failure have entered a golden age and can be gainsayed only on the grounds that they aren’t progressing quite fast enough to keep up with the speed required of them.

One might forgive Klein for having the misfortune to have published at an auspicious time: Her book hit stores just before international climate negotiations kicked into overdrive, and documentaries take time to produce. Yet here, this month, is the film’s director pronouncing mainstream efforts to limit emissions dead (“market-based solutions have largely been a failure at creating the type of U-turn on emissions that the science requires”) on the cusp of a historical international agreement. Klein’s argument has received glowing praise from the New York Times book review, which called it “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since ‘Silent Spring,’” along with more predictably left-wing organs like Salon and the New Republic. Neither inconvenient recent world developments nor its glaring analytical failures undercut the galvanizing vision Klein offers to critics of capitalism.

For those unfamiliar with her background, Klein rose to prominence in the 1990s as one of the foremost intellectual voices associated with the anti-globalization movement. Her 2007 manifesto, The Shock Doctrine, accused free-market conservatives of ghoulishly exploiting tragedy to rebuild societies in their preferred image. After page upon page of Klein waxing moralistic over the practice of using an emergency to impose a preexisting agenda — “the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities,” she put it then — it comes as, well, a shock to see Klein urging her side to do exactly the same thing. This Changes Everything makes the case that the problem of climate change reduces to the same problem that aroused her before, and the solution entails the exact same things she has always favored. Tragedies “that kill thousands and cause billions in damages serve dramatically to educate the public about the terrible costs of our current system, driving an argument for radical change,” she notes happily, even at one point calling this a “reverse Shock Doctrine,” but not recognizing that she has demolished her previous argument.

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It is not the right but the center-left that provides the main target of Klein’s polemic. Mainstream liberalism, in keeping with classic economic analysis, has always seen pollution as a straightforward market failure. If an individual or a business is dumping a harmful by-product into the commons, economic logic dictates they be forced to internalize the cost. Creating a price for carbon emissions, so that greenhouse gasses cannot be emitted for free, will give the marketplace the correct financial incentive to reduce its emissions to the necessary level.

Klein insists, on the contrary, that liberal remedies that leave in place the underlying structure of the market economy do not, and cannot, work. Klein portrays the 2010 failure of a cap-and-trade bill as a victory for true environmentalism against the corporate neoliberal sellouts that promoted it. “The fact that the U.S. Senate failed to pass climate legislation in 2009 should not be seen, as it often is, as the climate movement’s greatest defeat,” she writes, “but as a narrowly-dodged bullet.” Klein attacks the cap-and-trade bill for compromising with energy producers in order to neutralize their opposition. At one point, she mocks the bill as a giveaway to Big Energy (“a huge amount of wealth being transferred to their companies”). Two pages later, she mocks the bill for being opposed and defeated by those energy companies (who “made it abundantly clear that they had never stopped being its enemies”). Cap-and-trade is damned by evidence of energy companies supporting it, and it is also damned by evidence of energy companies opposing it.

If her logic does not make sense to you, that is because you fail to grasp Klein’s moral code, which considered corporations an irredeemably evil force tainting anything with which they come into contact. Consider a passage in which she dismisses the Environmental Defense Fund, a moderate green outfit. EDF, she writes, “prided itself as putting ‘results’ above ideology, but Krupp’s EDF was highly ideological.” Its neoliberal ideology led it to advocate a cap-and-trade system in the 1980s to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, which caused acid rain. “The new approach worked and it was popular among foundations and private donors, particularly on Wall Street,” she reports. If you’re a neoliberal sellout, you probably think the important part of that sentence is the beginning, where Klein concedes that the cap-and-trade system proposed by EDF “worked.” The successful results would seem to disprove Klein’s accusation that EDF is hyperideological and merely pretends to be results-driven. Indeed, she might even pause to consider the possibility that this program’s success demonstrates that it is possible to reduce pollution through market mechanisms. (Numerous other examples can be found.) Instead, Klein just blows right past the fact that EDF’s program worked right into associating it with Wall Street, a fact that tells her everything she needs to know.

This is not the only time Klein comes face-to-face with evidence that falsifies her thesis and ignores it. In one passage, she castigates the World Trade Organization, an old bête noire, for blocking a Canadian law designed to protect a domestic solar manufacturer. This episode, she tells her readers, shows how free trade prevents the transition to a clean economy. Yet, in a footnote, she complains that China “flooded the market with cheap panels in recent years, contributing to a global oversupply that has outpaced demand.” Klein presents this as more evidence of the WTO’s nefarious impact. But, from the standpoint of the climate, aren’t cheap solar panels good?

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The most fascinating thing about This Changes Everything is how much factual refutation of Klein’s thesis is contained within the book itself. She faithfully reports huge amounts of damning facts, but confines them to subordinate clauses and footnotes. Klein’s major thesis, remember, is that the triumph of anti-corporate economics is the only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In another brief but damning passage, she concedes that a number of governments with sufficiently progressive economic character have taken power in recent years, citing Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Greece. Alas, she admits, “have so far been unable to come up with economic models that do not require extremely high levels of extraction of finite resources, often at tremendous ecological and human cost.”

In other words, Klein’s proposed remedy of addressing climate change by electing a left-wing government has been tried repeatedly, and it has failed every single time. Even left-wing governments turn out to not be keen on shutting down their fossil-fuel industries and jacking up energy prices on their voters. Once again, though, Klein moves quickly past this deep record of unbroken failure. Her book and the documentary linger extensively on positive anecdotes she gathers from activists. “Large and growing social movements in all these countries,” she reports, “are pushing back against the idea that extraction-and-redistribution is the only route out of poverty and economic crisis.” Klein backs this up with lots of inspiring drum-circle footage.

If Klein’s arguments do not pass any plausible evidentiary standard, it may be a result of her lack of interest in traditional standards of evidence. Klein’s narrative rests heavily on moral disgust with market-based mechanisms and the cold reasoning associated with them. She dismisses the “language of risk assessment,” a traditional economist way of measuring the dangers of climate change, and approvingly quotes a spiritual leader who tells her, “Water is holy.” Klein deems this analytic method superior to economic modelling of how to restrict pollution. “These truths,” she writes, “emerge not out of an abstract theory about ‘the commons’ but out of lived experience.”

Klein’s fervently ideological, anti-empiricist style, and her deep skepticism of the mainstream liberals who believe emissions can be controlled without destroying capitalism, places her in odd agreement with the far right. Visiting a conference of climate-science deniers, Klein discovers the kind of absolutist ideological reasoning and suspicion of mushy technocracy to which she can relate. Climate-science deniers see the fight to restrain emissions as a pretext to expand government power over the economy. Since that is exactly how Klein sees climate change, she thinks they are on to something: “I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the ‘warmists’ in the political center … ” she writes, “when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money.” Finally, somebody else who understands that the real choice is capitalism versus the climate.

In the actual world outside this jointly inhabited ideological bubble, capitalism and climate science are discovering ways to co-exist. Klein dismisses the “past quarter century of international negotiations,” which she characterizes as “struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals.” In reality, American greenhouse-gas emissions peaked several years ago. European Union emissions peaked several decades ago. Chinese coal use has peaked, and its energy intensity has fallen. The world may not be decarbonizing as rapidly as it should, but it is moving rapidly. It may be slow by the standards of atmospheric conditions, but it is fast by the standards of global political cooperation.

U.N. efforts to fight climate change have only been under way since 1988. Compare this with the notion of replacing capitalism with a radical egalitarian alternative, which has been around for a century and a half. The project does not seem to be moving forward. Waiting to limit the damage of greenhouse-gas emissions until the people can overthrow the yoke of unfettered capitalism may represent the most dangerous advice the left has come up with in a very long time.