Naomi Klein piece in The Nation

Naomi Klein has an extraordinary piece in the American hard-left magazine The Nation. She argues that

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. …

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. … when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the Marriott Hotel may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

I’m an engineer. Given a problem I work backwards from the solution.Do I think an abandonment of our current system is necessary? I think the case is on the table but not proven. I’d rather not go that far if iot could be avoided.

I am uncertain that Klein is broadly correct about solving the climate situation, but I find the argument plausible. I would greatly prefer to find an argument to the contrary, because I think the odds of success would be more palatable. I will say that at this point there are two things of which I am convinced. First, that the cultural changes required will be dramatic, even if the economic changes may not be: we need to have a better way of going from real world evidence to real-world governance. Second, that the longer we delay, the more likely that her position is right.

I also think I should add that Klein’s celebration of the local is somewhat ironic. The whole problem is that our system is incapable of adjusting to global constraints. Devolving more power locally will help many things, but it will not help us develop global policies that work. Climate, like it or not, requires some binding, global decision-making power with sufficient influence on local and individual decisions. And in this respect too, (despite their incredibly garbled and self-serving science) the opposition has a point. We’re best off not pretending otherwise.




  1. I'm British so I take a lot of what Naomi Klein says for granted. It's just the way things are. Klein is right to characterize the problem as fundamentally political and quite disturbing to the conservative view.

    If we looked at the problem as purely a question of what response is merited by the state of the science and the economic predictions, we would probably all be on the same page. The fact is that things are easy for us all now and they won't be easy for any of us in the future if we don't dodge some bullets. So the science and the governance needed to handle climate change are well within our grasp. In Europe for the past umpteen years that's where we are. It's not perfect but our governments have had to face the facts.

    One particularly salient point that climate change does, present, though, is a problem that if it really exists (and it does) will affect the rich and the poor. That's a bit unusual. We've all seen the charts showing how wealth distribution, always very uneven, has become much more uneven over the past half century. Those figures are real, we're really living in a world geared towards the interests of a tiny minority. And for whatever reason we've all been successfully gulled into accepting that, even though it's manifestly against our own personal interests. But climate change will indisputably affect us all.

    Now Naomi Klein seems to want to reinvent European politics in America, to create a social democracy, or rather to bolster the weak social democracy that already exists quietly in America. I hope enough people agree with her to make a difference, because I think her suggestions are on the tame side of what needs to be done to halt the harm. The benefits would also accrue to the poorest people in America. Let Europe's blessings at long last descend on the land of the poor starving masses yearning to be free.

  2. Well put, MT. I had a very positive gut response to her piece, combined with deep suspicion that much of it likely wasn't economically sound, and her "wholesale change in all our systems is needed" does rather conflict with "it'll cost roughly 2% of GDP" (Caldeira and others).
    (personal consequence: reduced gut faith in my gut judgment)

    And to go for the former assessment ("wholesale") is to lose the people who are, or could be, ok with the latter one(2%).

    And her out&out asserting it bugs me, calling to mind the writing of others who aren't data-backed.
    (e.g. "real climate solutions are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level")

    She & Brad DeLong don't exactly think alike. And from this, she's a romantic:

    The article is of the visionary "here's what I believe is needed" ilk, not "here's why my belief is justified". A compare&contrast to Krugman's "Building a Green Economy" could shed light.

  3. > The whole problem is that our system is incapable of adjusting to global constraints. Devolving more power locally will help many things, but it will not help us develop global policies that work.

    It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an expensive-to-maintain global infrastructure to burn fossil fuels at the current rate. The "global policies that work" might take frighteningly few natural catastrophes to come into effect (to a first approximation, the Arab Spring was caused by low crop yields, for instance).

    We are talking about "global policies that work for sustainability and hurt and hurt and hurt people".

    Of course, if we need massive amounts of energy to remove carbon from the atmosphere after an energy supply chain breakdown, we are done for.

    I am being too pessimistic, because it is my nature, and I am sure there are key details I am overlooking. I would appreciate being informed of those details.

  4. 2% of US GDP. 2% of $14.58 trillion. $292 billion.

    We spend about a billion per day on imported oil. We spend around a billion per day to deal with the health and environmental damage caused by burning coal.

    If we spend a few billions to increase the rate of solar panels installation in a few years those panels will have paid for themselves and will then produce almost free electricity for decades to come.

    Same with wind turbines. Our first generation of turbines continued to perform for three decades. Newer technology will last longer and give us decades of almost free electricity post payoff.

    "Free enterprise" could build those PV panels and turbines. Free enterprise was going to have to build some sort of power generation anyway, old coal and nuclear plants do wear out and require replacement.

    Money is going to be made in our transition away from fossil fuels.

    This is not about green energy destroying free enterprise and corporate profits. It's almost certainly about fossil fuel interests attempting to protect their industry. And the other capitalists/industrialists/free marketeers on the right are allowing themselves to be screwed as we turn over the cleantech industry to the Chinese.

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