Do We Need to Remember How to Plan?

Please have a look at Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein. This is not the newest article, but I don’t think it got mentioned on P3 before and is well worth your attention.

Klein observed that “it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.” She quotes Dellingpole: “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.”

Naomi Klein offers her own “inconvenient truth”. She says that on this point, Dellingpole is right.

She begins with a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel report on a meeting of the Heartless Heartland Institute:

[a] question for the panelists, gathered in a Washington, DC, Marriott Hotel in late June, is this: “To what extent is this entire movement simply a green Trojan horse, whose belly is full with red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine?”

Here at the Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change, the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, this qualifies as a rhetorical question. Like asking a meeting of German central bankers if Greeks are untrustworthy. Still, the panelists aren’t going to pass up an opportunity to tell the questioner just how right he is.

But after a bit of barrel-fishing, Klein makes a deeper argument.

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. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

But 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.

After years of recycling, carbon offsetting and light bulb changing, it is obvious that individual action will never be an adequate response to the climate crisis. Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action. One of the key areas in which this collective action must take place is big-ticket investments designed to reduce our emissions on a mass scale. That means subways, streetcars and light-rail systems that are not only everywhere but affordable to everyone; energy-efficient affordable housing along those transit lines; smart electrical grids carrying renewable energy; and a massive research effort to ensure that we are using the best methods possible.

In addition to reversing the thirty-year privatization trend, a serious response to the climate threat involves recovering an art that has been relentlessly vilified during these decades of market fundamentalism: planning. Lots and lots of planning. And not just at the national and international levels. Every community in the world needs a plan for how it is going to transition away from fossil fuels, what the Transition Town movement calls an “energy descent action plan.” In the cities and towns that have taken this responsibility seriously, the process has opened rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about how to reorganize their communities to lower emissions and build in resilience for tough times ahead.

A key piece of the planning we must undertake involves the rapid re-regulation of the corporate sector. Much can be done with incentives: subsidies for renewable energy and responsible land stewardship, for instance. But we are also going to have to get back into the habit of barring outright dangerous and destructive behavior. That means getting in the way of corporations on multiple fronts, from imposing strict caps on the amount of carbon corporations can emit, to banning new coal-fired power plants, to cracking down on industrial feedlots, to shutting down dirty-energy extraction projects like the Alberta tar sands (starting with pipelines like Keystone XL that lock in expansion plans).

Now is this really closet Stalinism? A return to totalitarianism in the guise of environmentalism?

Klein doesn’t think so.

Only a very small sector of the population sees any restriction on corporate or consumer choice as leading down Hayek’s road to serfdom — and, not coincidentally, it is precisely this sector of the population that is at the forefront of climate change denial.

Still, while it would be nice to leave left vs right (a.k.a. “politics”) out of it, this is a question we really need to grapple with. Exactly how much of a threat is dealing with climate to the status quo. How much do we need to challenge the structures of the modern corporate world to solve our immediate problems? What can we afford to leave to later generations, or abandon altogether, or even gleefully discard? We have a lot to achieve; we’d best have some idea of what the least we can stand would look like.

Can we just implement Hansen’s climate tax and have Business-As-Otherwise-Usual? Is there a simple, market driven solution?

Is there a way to finesse the COP process and just get where we need to go, possibly with a bilateral agreement between the US and China? Is such an agreement possible?

Can we put off dealing with the perpetual-growth question for a while, until the climate matter is resolved? (I argue that we could, except for the economists using it to construct castles in the air, so insofar as we consult economists in planning the policies, we unfortunately cannot.)

What is the least threatening change that will suffice to keep us reasonably safe from collapse?



  1. FWIW, over at George Mason University, they are working to bridge the political divide by trying to apply free-market methods to solving climate change problems. I think it's a brilliant idea.

    I am no economist, but I suspect they're on to something.

    The REAL problem is going to be overcoming plutocrats who hide behind free market rhetoric while quietly distorting the free market with government subsidies and with pushing the costs of cleaning up their messes back into the Commons. If the actual costs of burning carbon were reflected in the price, I'm not even sure we'd need a carbon tax to move people toward renewables. And thus climate change denial -- if you acknowledge that your product is frying the planet, your business model is, uh, toast.

  2. Oo yes, all very good questions! I recall the article. I think Klein asks those questions well but does what's perhaps inevitable for all of us: concludes that the world must be reshaped to fit the particular political outlook she happens to have. That's why I like Elinor Ostrom: there's a much richer sense that the outcome WILL be messy and multi-polar - and should be. From some angles, if you squint and remove his peculiar tendency to be with-us-or-against-us about everything, Hayek sort-of says the same thing (he's for 'evolutionary rationality' not 'constructive rationality', which is - again "sort of" - what Ostrom says).

    But as I was trying to say at stupid length in this earlier comment, the global battle of the 20th century was all about competing economic + power models - something that the sort-of-fictional work Red Plenty captures wonderfully.

    So is it, in any way, possible to avoid the fact that you only need to take one *single* step beyond the physics before you're immediately mired in the politics? There are no technocratic answers, are there?

  3. > after a bit of barrel-fishing, Klein makes a deeper argument.

    I'm glad you read that far. I'd have got bored by her first page or so. Continuing:

    > The deniers ... 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. …

    You won't be surprised to find that I disagree with lots of this. In detail:

    > lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands

    That's jumped through a whole pile of assumptions without even noting they exist. "Climate science" by itself demands nothing of the sort. You need a prefix of "to limit emissions to X ppm", or "to limit temperature change to Y oC", or somesuch.

    > only by radically reordering our economic and political systems

    I'm dubious about this, too. A carbon tax is no threat to their political system, or indeed their economic system. Its a threat to a number of entrenched interests, but that's rather different.

    OTOH, emissions standards on their SUV's *is* a threat to their belief system. And that's what a lot of folk here are offering them.

  4. "That’s jumped through a whole pile of assumptions without even noting they exist. “Climate science” by itself demands nothing of the sort. You need a prefix of “to limit emissions to X ppm”, or “to limit temperature change to Y oC”, or somesuch."

    As I've said many times, of course strictly speaking that is incorrect, and it's reasonable to castigate a scientist for using such phrasing, but it's really close enough to true in common parlance as to give it a pass when somebody else says it. Of course "to limit temperature change to 2 C which has been adopted as a threshhold of danger" is probably what she means, but it would be just as true if she merely went for a 4 C threshhold, which most people consider terrifying.

    " only by radically reordering our economic and political systems"

    I'm dubious about it too, but the radical reordering is what the vested interests want us focusing on, not the least-friction alternative.

    I expect a radical reordering is both necessary and inevitable in the very long run, because sustained growth is clearly either impossible or meaningless on a finite planet. I think it would obviously be better for that reordering to be as near frictionless as possible, i.e., to be incremental and unthreatening.

    Will the modest carbon taxes people propose suffice for the carbon problem? I rather doubt it but it's probably the first thing to try.

    I think the suggestion that the resistance to emissions standards is different in kind from the resistance to a carbon tax is an example of you taking the economists too seriously.

    That's not the issue on the ground. People accept taxes and regulations all the time. The trouble is any tax or regulation on carbon has winners and losers, and the losers map onto the rural individualist culture. That's why the opposition lines up with a right-wing ideology. But that association is more or less accidental. And whether it is a tax or a regulation is a matter of indifference except to economic ideologues, who also happen to line up with right-wing ideology.

  5. "Whether it is a tax or a regulation is a matter of indifference except to economic ideologues, who also happen to line up with right-wing ideology."

    Whu? So you can't think of any examples where regulation failed and a tax approach worked?

  6. " And whether it is a tax or a regulation is a matter of indifference except to economic ideologues, who also happen to line up with right-wing ideology."

    Thanks, that was sloppy.

    I mean that *among defenders of the carbon-intensive lifestyle*, as well as among its purveyors, the opposition to regulation and the opposition to a tax are interchangeable. I think the idea that the carbon tax is more politically viable among the American right than carbon regulation overvalues the intellectual coherence of the right. It is mostly about defending the dominant culture and ethnicity of the rural areas from the internationalist culture of the coasts. That libertarian philosophy has its own adherents is convenient, but it's a mistake to treat the American right as originating from intellectual coherence rather than from cultural coherence.

    The reason I keep saying that the American right is not Tory, by the way, is not that Toryism lacks its cultural/ethnic base, but that the American base is populist, radically egalitarian and (somewhat paradoxically) anti-authoritarian, not aristocratic nor cultured nor arrogant.

    The 100% rebate idea is very clever and may defang some corners the opposition somewhat. But I don't think it will win the day until the people understand the threat that they are under. The libertarian coloring is just camouflage. What we are dealing with is much more like ethnic rivalry. And any restriction on fossil fuels will amount to a transfer of wealth from rural to urban cultures.

    The earth, of course, is also indifferent to which social constructs control the composition of the atmosphere.

  7. "I think the idea that the carbon tax is more politically viable among the American right than carbon regulation overvalues the intellectual coherence of the right."

    Ah OK. Yes, limiting our options to what's politically acceptable to this subset is myopic, especially given how quickly political winds can change direction.

    The US social/political/sociological stuff is fascinating and pretty unknown to me. A bit sobering to think that the world has a wealth of such factors to consider in different regions and countries.

  8. I'm for messy and multi-polar, but with the caveat that we need to stop immediately. I'm using an obesity metaphor lately - before losing weight we have to stop gaining, then level off. That means noticing what we are doing and changing the behavior. All very difficult.

    Another piece is the consistent and organized nature of contrarians. They are not letting anything go. Accepting their use of Stalin (a new meme around the place), for example, is letting them set the terms. Stalin didn't really do central planning, he did dictatorship.

    The climate bomb, being composed of the waste products from the habit of exploitation of all of modern civilization (starting with the biblical idea that the planet is "given" to us for the taking and we are at the center of all things (well, we are, in a sense, but only from inside, and the idea that god is made in our image causes a heap of trouble) is bigger than any collection of bombs ever dropped. In fact, it includes their emissions along with everything else.

    Our entertainment nexus is not in the business of self-reflection. It is accelerating, not changing at a level rate, slowing down, or stopping. I don't see how we can cross this line without many Sandy- and derecho-scale losses of power, so we are thrown into reality without all that stuff.

    Well, geez, I got ahead of myself in a hurry, but that's a start. You can't deny this problem, and you can't get most people to pay any attention at all. There is an active and skilled effort to keep it that way.

    But we must!

  9. MT: "And any restriction on fossil fuels will amount to a transfer of wealth from rural to urban cultures."

    As a somewhat rural libertarian, I have to agree there is truth to the above observation being a concern of my neighbors, especially when that transfer is perceived as going to special interests and corrupt politicians. An often mentioned model is Hunger Games Capitol City vs. rural areas.

  10. This strikes me as a "stop me before I kill again" plea. These corporations that are mining coal, drilling for oil and gas, burning natural gas and coal to generate electricity, manufacturing Ford F350 dualies, Phenom 300 bizjets (wow, I want one), Boeing 787 Dreamliners, plastic forks and spoons, etc. ad infinitum are doing so because we are buying what they sell.

    How well has squelching the supply side worked in the drug war? If we want cocaine, heroine, crystal meth, ecstasy, it WILL be supplied. Similarly, we buy these carbon intensive things because we want them and we can afford them (well, sadly, I can't afford the Phenom 300). The price of the externalities must be built into the price of whatever it is and that is a helluva task. As was pointed out in the Keystone post, coming to a conclusion on what that price actually is a perilous exercise. And will it be the case that this pricing will affect the poor much more than the rich? Yes, it will. What price doesn't?

  11. The idea that fossil fuel is like sex or drugs or food, that people will pursue it for its own sake, is silly.

    People in New York take the subway or the bicycle or a cab because those modalities are better than owning a car in New York, which is an unmitigated PITA. There is no demand to change New York so it will be otherwise. People like New York that way. One of the things that makes Austin interesting is that it is striving for enough density in the core that a car become a nuisance. Oddly, core properties are at an immense premium right now.

    The toys you want depend on the context in which you want them. That context is a collective, social decision.

    I understand that airplanes are more like sex than like popsicles, by the way. The desire for an airplane is certainly visceral and unmanufactured. But you would still not want one if there were not an FAA and a network of airports with predictable rules and fees.

    Anyway, clearly we want the end product of energy expenditure. We don;t even want energy. We certainly don't want fossil energy. The decision whether or not to ship dilbit around the country in cheap pipes or to fracture the shale in the countryside a county at a time is a legitimate public decision, just as are the decisions whether to have airports or universities or weather satellites or grade schools or highways or monorails or food inspection...

    The marketplace does not exist independent of the rulemaking system and it is the rulemaking system, not the marketplace itself, that is responsible for whether the market serves the public interest.

    I know it's popular to believe otherwise. I don't believe it. I don't even understand it: I don't understand how that belief makes sense in the modern world.

    What's more the fatalism of it offends me as a free man. It really seems a denial of the liberty of a free people to deny them the right to put constraints on economic activity just because it proves difficult in some cases.

  12. PS - There is plenty of demand for slavery, and it used to be a normal economic activity. Yet, the property of slave owners was removed from them by collective action in one country after another.

    What's more, as we were reminded in the case of the shocking decade-long abduction in Cleveland recently, it is impossible to entirely eliminate slavery without exception given the intensity of the demand. Does that mean we should abandon public regulation against it?

  13. It's not that fossil fuel is like sex or drugs, it's that Ford F350 dualies are like sex or drugs and those take fossil fuel to manufacture and burn fossil fuel to enjoy. I'm not a doctrinaire libertarian, railing against regulation. Traffic doesn't work very well without stoplights, speed limits, lane markers, etc. My point is that you (we) will need to convince "them" (the populace) either that their F350 is evil or that owning and operating it is too expensive. Otherwise, the regulations you seek will never happen. This is what happened with slavery - the vast majority of people were able to be convinced that ownership of human beings is evil and thus, as you state, in country after country it became possible to enact laws against it.

    But my main point is that unless demand is squelched, the supply will be there. You won't get there by advocating regulations on corporations without convincing the majority of the populace that their lifestyles are (the equivalent of) evil.

  14. I absolutely agree. In my opinion, until the bulk of the population understands the problem and accepts the role of their own behaviors in it, no regulation will succeed.

    Unfortunately, there are talented and resourceful forces working to prevent this understanding.

  15. mt: “And any restriction on fossil fuels will amount to a transfer of wealth from rural to urban cultures.”

    Everyone is allowed to buy electric vehicles. Buses should not be limited to cities. All benefit from the smart grid. Rural areas may be closest to new power sources. Rural residents have the most space for their own solar panels and can sell power to the cities. Po folks in Appalachia would profit from jobs constructing new power plants.

  16. Yes, large property holders in rural areas can sell solar and wind power. That helps a bit, but will not help the guy with a couple of acres.

    The idea of lots of buses and electric cars in rural areas is, hmm, creative.

  17. Rob, the F350 duallies are not evil but ridiculous.

    Methinks pointing out ridiculousiness is a better strategy than pointing out evil. Evil energizes denial (me German notes a striking and distressing similarity of the psychotic energies of Auschwitz denial and Earth science denial).

    Ridicule at least generates some fun.

    Nobody wants to look ridiculous, esp. the Very Serious People. Evil people alas have less a problem with looking evil. And if, there's the great powers of human Ego in denial, excuse and obfuscation.

  18. Pingback: Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, May 26, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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