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Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy


When the BBC asked me if I would participate in a debate panel on climate change, capitalism and democracy, I first panicked and then said yes. All I really wanted to do this week was finish up and (re)submit some research I started a long time ago. This research shows that, despite their massive growth, energy and carbon emissions cannot (statistically) explain improvements in international life expectancy. I call it the “carbon-development paradox.” But the 1.5degree IPCC report dropped, and life, research and plans all had to make way for a new, more urgent reality.

The BBC debate itself was fine, I guess. Unfortunately, because the public discourse has been so starved on this topic, especially considering its existential importance (i.e. the real and present threat it constitutes to hundreds of millions, if not billions, in the medium term, based on actions that are very much right now in our present ), we only were able to repeat basics, and scratch the surface.

So below are two questions I wish we had been asked, and my contributions as answers: is preventing climate change compatible with capitalism? And is preventing climate change compatible with democracy? Read on …

Is preventing climate breakdown compatible with capitalism?

This is a key question, apparently, because, in some polite circles, preventing planetary-scale, irreversible harm to ecosystems and humans can only be justified if we promise not to change the economic system that this harm arose from in the first place. Sydney Azari, an eco-socialist based in Los Angeles, as usual has the best pithy comment here:

Capitalism is a big word, and covers many different definitions. Kate Raworth wisely refuses to be drawn into debates on that word, because of the toxic combination of strong feelings and vague meaning, of which she distinguishes three:

The third definition is the one that applies here, and we can sharpen it: our current capitalism is fossil-based, and fossil-fueled capitalism has made the companies that provide this fuel the most profitable in the history of humankind.

The fossil giants and their adjacent industries, such as automotive & aviation, represent our current capitalist system. Our infrastructure and cities are built for them, our markets function for them, our governments are in thrall to them.

Pushing fossil capitalism off the (emissions) cliff

Monday’s IPCC SR15 report, finally, clearly, shows that our emissions must go from 40-odd billion tonnes per year to zero within the next 20 years. Effectively, our emissions must fall off a cliff, and then keep falling.

The cliff edge of emissions, from the SR15 report’s summary for policy makers.

That cliff is utterly incompatible with the continued existence of fossil industries and their adjacent friends.

Never mind the usual greenwash PR, of Shell calling for more trees the day after the IPCC report was released: what we really need, of course, are fewer Shells. None at all, zero, nada, zip, to be precise.

And the simple fact that preventing climate breakdown is incompatible with the very existence of fossil companies means that taking climate change seriously means bringing down fossil capitalism, with its inbuilt drivers of accumulation, domination, exploitation and destruction. This monster cannot be tamed or reformed: it must be destroyed, so that the rest of us and the ecosystems we depend upon can live.

Does this mean the end of all private enterprise and profit? Of course not. In fact, as multiple business sectors and organizations have realized, their futures align far better with sustainable pathways (i.e. non-Mad Max wasteland prospects). Predictably, their voices and positions have been drowned out by the vast sums of money and influence pushed by the oil, coal and gas barons. So ending fossil capitalism does not mean ending markets, private ownership or profit: however it does mean actively, consciously working to stop fossil companies cold.

New voices for clarity

Encouragingly, what used to be unspeakable (except by the fringe of usual Cassandras, those who see and speak only with principle, not worrying about their reputations in “polite” circles — I’m thinking of Kevin Anderson, Alice Larkin, Naomi Klein) is now finally said overtly: we need to do whatever it takes to stop fossil and adjacent industries, and thus bring emissions to zero. Deep down, everyone who knew the reality of climate change also knew this, but they found it convenient to politely hide that reality: I call it “hiding behind the market.” It would work like this: we’d have a model of the energy system and monetary costs of carbon and various technologies (renewable, electric…). Then to achieve a livable future, the model would have to crank up the carbon cost to a high level at a certain rate. This would then make the fossil industries’ products unprofitable, and they would go gently into that good night where the most-profitable-ever-mega-giant corporations go when their balance sheets turn red. Ok, I wasn’t able to help myself from editorializing there, but you get my point: this idea of carefully balanced markets, where you can just gently dial up the price of carbon past the point where you’ve put Exxon-Mobil, BP, Shell, Gazprom, Saudi-Aramco & Co. completely out of business, without them noticing or intervening in any way, is laughable. Markets only work like that in a nice model: in reality, the big bad (fossil) dogs do everything they can to keep the gentle fluffy (renewable and lower energy consumption) puppies out. There is a name for that in political economy: vested interests.

There has been a sea change of late, and though it is late, it is welcome. Scientists and economic commentators are no longer quietly “hiding behind the market”, and just advocating for high carbon prices or taxes or trading schemes: they are connecting the dots to where those prices, taxes and trading schemes need to go to be effective, and talking openly about the power of vested interests. Just a few recent quotes show how the new awareness of our urgent reality has made this clarity possible:

“One such [effective] policy would be a carbon price starting around €30 per tonne of CO2, which would very likely render investments in coal-fired plants unprofitable. Zero-carbon mobility, such as electric cars, could then become an attractive option as consumers would expect an increasing carbon price, and the internal combustion engine would gradually be phased out.” — Ottmar Edenhofer & Johan Rockstrom in The Guardian.

“Even in the absence of a new body, they [international institutions] would be working together to face down the inevitable opposition to change from the fossil fuel lobby.” — Larry Elliot, Economics Editor for the Guardian

“I think we need to start a debate about who is going to pay for [the costs of climate change and carbon removal from the atmosphere], and whether it’s right for the fossil-fuel industry and its customers to be enjoying the benefits today and expecting the next generation to pay for cleaning it up.” — Myles Allen, Oxford University, in Nature.

This clarity makes it our mission and its challenges ever clearer and easier to grasp: our fight, our struggle, has to be to rapidly free our societies from the vested interests of fossil-fueled industries. But how can we do this?

Removing the dragon of fossil capital from our societies

There are many ways to act to remove fossil industries and their harmful influence from our midst. Moreover, actions to ban fossil fuels have pervasive and wide-ranging effects: they ripple out through societies, making the next steps of change ever more likely and swift. Working on divesting, i.e. removing investment revenues from fossil companies, is one of the best avenues for action. The European Parliament, under the leadership of Molly Scott Cato (who was also on the BBC panel), has made great strides in this direction: a broad coalition now realizes that investing in fossil industries is both risky and harmful. Many pension funds and organizations (such as universities) have already successfully divested from fossil fuels, and their numbers keep on growing. As a further step, we need to compel our leaders and governments to end all funding and subsidies to fossil industries.

Another strong action to ban fossil fuels is to intervene physically, by stopping extractive industries at the locations of extraction or transport. This is the mission of the anti-fracking movement in the UK, anti-pipeline movements in Canada and the US and so on.

These are all direct actions we can take to stop the power of fossil industries, and through these actions we can rapidly render them toxic and nonviable.

But it will be a bitter and unfair fight, where the full force of capitalist power will on overt display, as in the extreme jail sentence harshly handed down to non-violent anti-fracking protestors in the UK just 2 weeks ago. And that’s why I believe it is helpful to use the C-word in describing what we are up against, because without seeing the fossil capital dragon for what it is, an immense, profitable, accumulating monster, with tentacles in every corner of our governments and planet, we will not be ready for the fight ahead, and might too easily become discouraged. If we have a realistic view of the fight for our future, we will learn from past efforts, anticipate the vicious actions of the fossil lobby, and keep each others spirits up, because the stakes here are far too high for failure to be an option.

Is preventing climate breakdown compatible with democracy?

This question is based on a false premise, a false storyline, that goes something like this: because a large majority of people have not, of their own volition, already stopped consuming fossil fuels or demanded large scale change, it means that the “people” are not to be trusted with this agenda, and only a dictator, benevolent or not, can take effective action and force unpopular measures.

That storyline is a hot mess of wrongness that only deserves unraveling because it is so widespread. First of all, “people” are not a uniform blob, equally guilty of causing climate breakdown. Secondly, it’s not exactly as though “people”, or the vast majority of them, have been provided with impartial information and their options regarding climate change. Indeed, the influence of powerful fossil industries, including automotive and aviation, has succeeded in delayed and diminishing actions, as well as confusion and misinformation regarding the realities facing us. So instead of fictional benevolent dictators ramming climate mitigation actions down our throats, in reality, we have been and are under the yoke of fossil interests, compelling us to consume their poisonous products whether or not we benefit (and if this sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence that fossil companies hired the tobacco industry’s propaganda arm to delay action on climate change: sadly their tactics mostly worked).

The real question here is whether or not we can reclaim our democracies, and make them fit for purpose for the immediate and immense challenge we face. Most people, those who are not psychopaths (or whose sense of empathy and decency has not been stunted by having inherited stupidly large amounts of wealth), want good things for themselves, their neighbors, families and other people more generally. They want to contribute to a sense of building and purpose, to better lives. And naturally, if and when they understand the scale, scope and urgency of climate breakdown, they want to act to diminish that threat. A new generation of politician in the US is rising, led most prominently by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, with sweeping, uncompromising plans to promote renewable energy and decrease fossil use. Youth-led initiatives, like ThisIsZeroHour and PlanB lawsuits demanding that governments act responsibly in countering climate breakdown.

This all points to a reversal of the question: of course democratic processes will accelerate climate action, but only if certain conditions are met. First, we (not just scientists!) need to create mass awareness, and conduct (and keep on conducting) a global teach-out the scale and pervasiveness of which has never been matched. We need to bring climate change awareness, using the IPCC SR15 report as our basis, to schools, community meetings and workplaces, and devise action plans to push on elected officials and other decision-makers.

Every investment, every intervention, every decision is a fork in the emissions pathway: do we take the lowest emission route, or do we continue feeding the fossil dragon?

We need to ensure that at every decision, the one entailing the lowest emissions is taken (and if there is a lower emission alternative not currently considered, that we make that option visible and viable). Of course, we will have to continue to contend with a world of post-truth propaganda and manipulation, but the antidote to that is again more democracy, not less.


Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American ecological economist at the University of Leeds. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.