Capitalism Can’t Fix the Climate Crisis
Neither corporations nor liberals will stop climate disaster. The Left can.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
We’re facing down climate disaster all over the planet, and while the capitalist system is unable to properly respond to that disaster, it’s also an incredibly resilient system. Without intervention from the Left, capitalists’ embrace of green energy will leave the working class behind.
But the future of climate disaster isn’t written in stone. The Democrats’ vague mandate to “believe the science” won’t deliver a safe future for the millions of people, particularly in the Global South, who will be hit hardest by climate change. But pressure from leftist movements has brought us from the austerity of the Obama years to the current moment of potentially more expansive climate policy.
To discuss how socialists can play an essential role in demanding a Green New Deal built on the principles of international solidarity and class struggle, Daniel Denvir, host of the Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig and author of All-American Nativism, spoke with Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at the New Republic covering climate and energy. She is the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet and How We Fight Back, coauthor of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, and coeditor of We Own The Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the episode here.
You write: “My argument in this book is not that capitalism has to end before the world can deal with the climate crisis. Dismantling a centuries-old system of production and distribution, and building a carbon-neutral and worker-owned alternative, is almost certainly not going to happen within the small window of time the world has to avert runaway disaster. The private sector will be a major part of the transition off of fossil fuels. Some people will get rich, and some unseemly actors will be involved. Capitalist production will build solar panels, wind turbines, and electric trains.
But whether we deal with climate change or not can’t be held hostage to executives’ ability to turn a profit. To handle this crisis, capitalism will have to be replaced as society’s operating system, setting out goals other than the boundless accumulation of private wealth.”
This argument provoked a bit of controversy in the audience a few years back in Chicago when we discussed it on a panel at the Socialism Conference. Both of us would love to live in a socialist world, and we’ve got to continue to fight for one. But why do you think that it’s important for people to understand that we need to deal with climate change before we win an entirely new mode of production? What’s entailed by the conclusion that we need to pursue radical social-democratic reforms on the road to socialism?
Is this a theory of how radical social-democratic reforms can lead to socialism? Is it just a reality that the fast-ticking climate clock imposes on us? Or is it some of both?
It’s a reality. If the climate crisis were playing out over the course of two hundred, three hundred, or a thousand years, one could have an interesting theoretical debate about whether we should change the system we have and tweak it slightly in order to take on the crisis, or whether we should create an entirely new mode of production and build up a workaround alternative.
Unfortunately, we just don’t have that time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined in its 2018 report on 1.5 degrees Celsius that we had roughly twelve years. That is now nine years in which to rapidly decarbonize the global economy, which is an enormous challenge. In order to meet that ever-shrinking twelve-year window, we have to use the productive system in which we live — which is not my ideal situation, but then again, neither is global warming.
There are different ways of meeting that crisis; there are enormous political stakes in how we use those twelve years. There are different visions of climate action, which can put us on a path toward something like socialism or leave many of the extractive systems that define capitalism today in place. There’s nothing baked into capitalism that says it has to run on fossil fuels, and it’s an enormously resilient system. There’s no reason to think that it will be invulnerable to the climate crisis, or that it won’t figure out a way to extract profit off of renewables, solar, and wind.
These are the stakes we’re talking about when making the case — as programs like the Green New Deal do — that the road toward dealing with the climate crisis should be one of non-reformist reforms, to use André Gorz’s framing. We want a better world as socialists. The ultimate goal is to transcend capitalism, but we have a really short-term problem that gets lost in the mainstream liberal thinking about the climate crisis and how to take it on, which is that capitalism as a logic is incompatible with dealing with the climate crisis because it has a constant thirst for expansion.
I spoke to a climate scientist named Kevin Anderson who does a lot of modeling on this question. He said, “If we deal with this problem, it entails a root-and-branch change to capitalism as we know it.” I don’t know whether that looks like any capitalism we would recognize today. I don’t know if that looks like socialism, but it looks very different than what we have now.
The big lie of mainstream liberal thinking about the climate crisis is that there’s an easy switch that can flick on the type of power that’s flowing through our lines, keeping basically everything we have today in place and just changing what powers it. And that will deliver us from the climate crisis. That’s not true. Any sort of reasonable solution to dealing with the problem looks like a really radical shift in our current economic order.
Those liberal myths would like people to be comforted by the fact that we can have the political economic order that we have now, but without climate change. What roles do carbon capture and geoengineering play? Might they be helpful tools, or are they just techno-fixes to a problem that’s fundamentally political and economic?
That has been a very controversial question on parts of the climate left. They can be useful tools — carbon capture, storage, and sequestration more so. But part of the problem is that the current industry-led conversation about carbon capture says that we can keep up business as usual if we just add in a lot of technology that doesn’t work at scale, and hope that at some point we can scale it up to levels we’ve never seen. Right now, that seems unfathomable, given the limited use that it has.
At the same time, there is almost no climate modeling on a 1.5-degree scenario in particular, where there is no carbon capture and no direct air capture, which is another process that sucks carbon directly down from the atmosphere. We need some level of these technologies, and as a socialist, I want those conversations to be had on the Left, and not cede that ground to Occidental Petroleum or Exxon-Mobil, to determine who owns those technologies and who is profiting off of them.
Kim Stanley Robinson has written that carbon sequestrations should be treated like a public utility, which is basically right. If this technology is so needed, why leave it up to companies that have spent decades lying about this problem and misleading the public?
You write, “The main barrier to climate action isn’t a technological one. The core tools needed to deal with this problem already exist. The problem has been power, and that the people proposing the most workable, reasonable solutions don’t have enough of it.”
You continue, “One of the scarier concepts in the science of global warming has to do with feedback loops: disasters that feed on and exacerbate one another, like California’s wildfires in 2020 unleashing thirty million more tons of carbon dioxide that year than the state’s power sector.
We can harness a different type of feedback loop by prioritizing climate policies that make people’s lives better in the short run and grow the power of democratic institutions like unions. A Green New Deal can swell the multiracial working-class coalition, invested in designing and fighting to expand those programs as they scale back emissions and build up a fairer, cleaner economy. And it can create durable electoral majorities that ensure those changes stick for decades to come.”
To what extent has Biden begun to learn those lessons? He’s spending much more than Obama; Obama’s model after the financial crisis was to do an insufficient spending stimulus under the radar, and then follow that up with austerity. Finally, Biden seems to at least recognize that there’s definitely a connection between policy and politics. But is Biden proposing to spend big enough to confront the climate crisis? What level of warming is Biden’s climate policy on track to send us to?
A lot of different things can be true of the Biden administration at the same time. Biden came in talking a big game about climate policy in particular, and we don’t have any climate policy right now. Ongoing talks between Republicans and Democrats lean toward familiar tropes about pursuing bipartisanship. I don’t think it bodes well, and I don’t think Biden deserves a lot of the praise that he’s gotten for his climate plans.
Meaningful things are changing. At least for the COVID stimulus, Biden and his administration were willing to spend a lot of money. They were willing to put up a big package that expanded the social safety net, albeit temporarily, in critically necessary ways. Pandemic measures like unemployment insurance and child tax credit are probably going to go away. But there was willingness to say, “The government can spend a lot of money. We can do big things that can make people’s lives better. And we don’t have to be afraid of that.”
Even though I lived through it as a politicized and politically aware adult, some of the quotes you have from Obama about the need to impose austerity while unemployment was still at extremely high levels are astounding in retrospect.
The message to Congress from Obama and his 2010 State of the Union was, “We need to tighten our belts; it’s time to buck up, and these days of fat spending are over.” We haven’t seen that yet; maybe we will next year. I’m not totally convinced. There has been some progress on spending levels, but when you look at the climate content of the American Jobs Plan, for instance, so much of it is not designed to deliver direct benefits to people. Even if that might be true of other parts of the plan, or of the American Families Plan, when it comes to climate, the goal is to leverage private investment.
So much of spending on transmission lines, electric vehicles, or clean energy is framed in terms of tax credits, baiting banks and private finance into green spending, and little direct spending on things like a Civilian Conservation Corps. Even as Biden has taken up some of the bigger climate demands as a result of pressure from folks like the Sunrise Movement, he has not taken up the political logic of the Green New Deal, which bakes in a virtuous cycle in which climate policy has to win both big-D and small-d democratic majorities, and the way to do that is to make it clear that climate policy will make your life better.
Biden is not doing that. He’s taken up some demands from the movement. But the Green New Deal is powerful because there is a political strategy baked into it, one that is based on a reading of how climate policy in this country has ignored the lives of working people. Until there is a climate program in tune with the fact that many people in this country are suffering, and that climate policy has to make its offer clear to people who don’t care about this issue, there’s a limited ceiling on what can happen.
What is the political balance of power around climate right now? Is Biden getting pushback from any sort of constituency or power blocks that he cares about?
It’s a complicated question, because on the one hand, the overwhelming block on climate policy is the Republican Party, which will not vote for climate policy. Inter–Democratic Party coalitional politics are also holding up climate policy in their own right. Most obviously, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are not keen to vote for a Green New Deal, but they’re not alone in that.
There is still commitment to the line that climate policy is important when it’s convenient, but it’s not core to democratic governance. There’s also a complicated question around labor. Different segments of the labor movement who have sway in the highest echelons of the Democratic Party, like the leadership of certain international unions, have veto power in many influential democratic spaces to say what climate policy should look like, and to take constraints on fossil fuels off the table.
One major task of Green New Deal politics has been to break down the prevailing neoliberal form of environmental politics that pits workers against the earth, and jobs against the environment. You were just referring to the building trade unions, which have traditionally been the sector of the labor movement most committed to defending fossil fuel infrastructure.
So many members of the building trades unions get their jobs from fossil fuel infrastructure. Has any progress been made on the front of breaking down divides between labor and environment? Or is the archetypal coal miner still the victim of villainous environmentalists in the popular imagination?
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and DSA’s Ecosocialist Caucus is organizing for the PRO Act with the Painters’ Union and many other unions, pushing for what is now the demand of the US labor movement. It would be great for climate policy, and it’s important for making sure that solar and wind can be pro-worker industries as they develop. There are signs of progress. I don’t think that the climate jobs conversation is where it was a decade ago, in part because the Left has gotten a lot better at navigating those conversations.
DSA deserves an enormous amount of credit for helping drive it forward and having the concrete fight, rather than having the conversation about jobs and the environment in the abstract, and creating a ground for shared struggle around it.
At the same time, the conversation is frustratingly behind. Mainstream Democrats and even parts of the green movement still look at the fossil fuel industry as an enormous source of good union jobs. That’s obviously not true if you look at the coal industry, or if you look at the oil and gas industry, where well over a hundred thousand people recently lost their jobs.
Between March and August alone last year, 107,000 oil and gas jobs were lost while the companies made out fine.
The companies got a lot of money from the federal government. They got bailed out after oil prices crashed, took full advantage of PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, and turned around and fired a lot of people. They’re actively interested in automating huge parts of their workforce.
The interests of the fossil fuel industry are still seen by well-intentioned climate activists as synonymous with those of workers in the fossil fuel industry, which could not be less true after the last year. The most grotesque example of this is the coal industry, where companies like Blackjewel in Kentucky going bankrupt and shorting their workers of health care, pensions, paychecks.
Reliably for the coal industry, and increasingly for the oil and gas industry, these companies have used bankruptcy courts to write off any responsibility to their workers, whether through remediating mine lands or the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which the coal industry has had an obligation to pay into and developed elaborate ways to shut off.
These industries, and their executives in particular, have no interest in their workers. The coal industry, the oil industry, and the gas industry have been busting their unions for a very, very long time. It’s bizarre, when hundreds of thousands of people are being laid off, for Democrats to argue in Congress that they want to protect jobs.
Which is reaffirming a Republican and fossil fuel–friendly framework blaming Democrats and environmentalists for destroying those jobs. These jobs are actually, as you write, being destroyed by factors that have nothing to do with environmental policy.
Unfortunately, there are any number of examples of the Democratic Party swallowing right-wing talking points and spitting them back out to make themselves seem reasonable. To look at the oil and gas industry, which has gone through such turmoil over the last year, and to say that everything looks like it did in 2010 is insane.
The transition is already happening. Moving forward, that shift can be managed and orderly, on a timeline in touch with climate science and supporting communities that have historically depended on extraction to build a sustainable future. Or Democrats can be blamed for the wreckage as vulture funds descend, CEOs raid health care and pension funds and millions are left behind in states the Democratic Party should be winning.
I put out a chapter about nationalizing the fossil fuel industry as an alternative to that scenario — which is already happening, allowing fossil fuel executives to throw people under the bus. If this conversation doesn’t put things like nationalization on the table, the terms of the transition are left up to fossil fuel executives, who are more than happy to abandon whole parts of this country if they’re no longer profitable.
In conversations about climate policy, people say, “Why don’t we just regulate the fossil fuel industry out of existence?” But this leaves fossil fuel executives to make every decision about how coal, oil, and gas plants close down. This transition is horrible from the perspective of anyone in solidarity with working people: they’ll get screwed over. But in a politically pragmatic sense, it breeds opposition if you allow these processes to continue. In places like Appalachia, the coal industry has walked away and left; the public sphere has cratered. This breeds opposition that will make climate policy almost impossible.
As we know from France’s gilets jaunes protests, if you don’t know what policy means on the ground to folks who are dealing with it, then the policy doesn’t happen. If today’s oil and gas bosses manage this decline, I don’t see how massive political opposition doesn’t happen. The public alternative to this is nationalization — saying that this transition will be orderly and managed, putting workers first, which we know that we can’t trust the fossil fuel industry to do.
You point out that “the fact that union contracts for clean energy tend to be weaker than those building fossil fuel infrastructure speaks to the relative weakness of labor when standards for that industry were being set. In rooftop solar, there’s no unionized work to be had in clean energy at all, in seemingly scant interest from bigger unions in organizing those workforces.”
Do you think that the rise and fall of unions in the United States has shaped their relative power in dirty versus clean energy industries? Do you think this has shaped the way that the politics of climate play out on the ground?
When the coal and oil industries were becoming historically important, we were at a point of much stronger union density. Unions could negotiate strong contracts for oil refineries, for instance, which still have well-paid union jobs. In the coal industry, the bosses have tried to break up a lot of the unions and have succeeded, and there is still a core of strong union jobs that are being killed off, in no small part by the bosses.
But the solar and wind industries are much more recent. The recent growth and importance of these industries has come along in a period of historic weakness for labor. And that’s beneficial in no small part for solar and wind companies, who would much rather have nonunionized workforces and pay bad wages. Even in unionized parts of the renewable sector, wind tends to have more union contracts than solar.
I’ve talked to workers who build pipelines and wind turbines and say, “My work is a lot better when I build an oil pipeline than when I build a wind turbine.” The wind turbine contracts are worse, even though the work is kind of the same, and the same people can do it. The protections aren’t as strong; the work is less steady and well-paid.
All of these things have made it easy to say that renewables are anti-worker. How dare you ask people to go into this industry that does not come with the same protection that comes with fossil fuel jobs? Pitting those two things against each other makes such a tantalizing talking point for the right, even for liberal Democrats.
I don’t think that is necessarily helped by the fact that solar and wind are often talked about as inherently good actors, as if they are soldiers in the climate fight who are willing to put everything on the line so that we can save the world. But they are companies; they have a profit motive. They often are anti-union. Ignoring that fact doesn’t serve the climate movement very well.
This industry is about to get a lot of money, regardless of what happens in the United States. Policies in the European Union, China, and many other parts of the world will make wind, solar, and clean energy a much bigger factor in the global economy. Pretending that they’re climate activists instead of for-profit companies doesn’t serve anyone.
If the argument from unions is that these jobs aren’t good jobs, it’s worth asking why. There’s nothing magical about coal or oil that lends them to having strong unionized workforce. People died so that coal mines could be unionized. Solar and wind will not organize themselves magically. There have to be drives to make that happen.
In 2018, we saw massive teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. You note that those three states have fossil fuel–based economies in common. Yet the strikes were not at all explicitly about climate or the environment. Did you nonetheless see nascent ecosocialist or eco–social democratic labor politics taking shape?
This connection is important, and not necessarily because ecosocialism is budding within those strikes. But what those strikes did represent in part were claims on natural resources. Coal companies, especially in West Virginia and Kentucky, have gotten very wealthy. Their decline has meant that schools are struggling to make ends meet. The most absurd of those situations was in Oklahoma, where the oil and gas industry has made a ton of money off of the fracking boom, and yet school budgets have declined.
There are different ways to deal with resource wealth, including within the United States. In Alaska, the Alaska Permanent Fund pays out a check to people who live there because the state has enormous oil resources. Extraction has been more of the case in Appalachia — funneling these resources up toward the top.
As a climate reporter, I was interested by this story because the jobs-versus-environment debate is often framed between unions or fossil fuel workers — very masculine professions — and kind of tree-hugging environmentalists. But in practice, the decline of fossil fuels has not just affected those workers, it’s affected their whole tax bases, which are bound up in the fossil fuel economy and depend on these revenues from it.
The idea that there’s only one conversation about jobs and climate — transitioning fossil fuel workers into a clean-energy economy — ignores how our world is tangibly bound up in fossil fuels, including through public school budgets. There’s no reason not to think of teachers and nurses as low-carbon workers, people who are doing very socially necessary work, but also as workers who are on the front lines of the climate crisis and an energy transition. It’s not just a matter of transitioning a very small number of extractive workers, but instead of transitioning the whole community that is built up around these industries.
The Green New Deal is fundamentally about using government to democratically redirect what the economy produces. That includes not only what sort of work people do, but everyone’s right to a job.
The notion that people have a right to a job sounds radical today, but the demand for full employment was once very standard in left or liberal politics during the long New Deal era. How did that all come to an end under Jimmy Carter? And why do we need to bring full employment back to the political mainstream to address climate change?
Full employment has historically been a hugely important demand for big parts of the Democratic Party coalition. It’s important for climate in part because there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done, and that the private sector does not consider valuable. These are things like remediating the urban heat island effect in big cities, remediating wetlands — necessary work that is difficult to profit from.
The federal jobs guarantee reemerged as a demand in the last several years. It can do that work, saying, “If we think this sort of thing is important for the government to embark on, to remake our public sphere on the order of what the New Deal did, there’s no reason why we should trust the private sector.”
Full employment went from a mainstream liberal demand to a pie-in-the-sky impossibility. That, you argue, is part of this broader neoliberal political culture, a capitalist realism that takes hold. And you argue that it’s actually a far bigger obstacle to dealing with climate change than outright climate denialism. Why?
Why does it seem so impossible to deal with the climate crisis, in the United States in particular? We’re living at the tail end of decades of destruction of the labor movement, of left ideas, of social movements. Neoliberalism has a creative element that is important to understand, injecting radical ideas about how markets and governments relate to one another. But it’s also a destructive project: destroying the idea that anything else could exist, or that there are any sort of alternate ways of organizing society. Capitalist realism tries to say that not only is anything else impossible to imagine, but that it’s really stupid to imagine. As if what we’re living in now is so great that any alternative would be unthinkable.
The climate movement does not necessarily come out of a socialist organizing tradition; it doesn’t have a deep history of utopian thought. It’s interesting to see the Green New Deal reinject that into the climate debate, putting out a vision for how the world could look better and bringing ideas like full employment back onto the table, pushed for by the labor movement and black freedom struggle. These ideas are starting to reemerge; they aren’t new, but are being fit into a vision of what a low-carbon, better society could look like.
Republican denialism still does play a role, you write, in facilitating this neoliberal common-sense capitalist realism, in that it has lowered the bar for what it means for Democrats to be good on climate — rejoining the Paris Accords and “following the science,” whatever that means, is good enough.
You don’t draw false equivalences between Democrats and Republicans, but you do say that overemphasizing those differences obscures some fundamental commonalities that have shaped the bipartisan climate politics for decades. Have Democrats used Republicans as a foil to excuse their own record on climate, and to distract us from the fact that both major parties have the shared commitment to a politics of capitalist realism that makes confronting climate change impossible?
I was originally going to call the book The New Denialism. That’s a less sexy title than Overheated, so it got lost. But part of the inspiration for writing the book in the first place was seeing how these dynamics work in different places where denialism hasn’t been a part of the mainstream conversation.
I looked at climate politics in Europe and saw a huge spectrum of proposals for how to deal with a crisis, not just a debate about whether it exists or not. During the Trump administration, when I did most of the reporting for this book, I saw how low the bar really was. It’s not that the bar hadn’t been low before, but we had a climate-denying president who called global warming a hoax.
Slogans like “We believe the science” are lauded as progress. But they’re meaningless when they aren’t connected to a serious policy agenda. Democrats have been remarkably uncreative about how to take on this crisis. They’ve gotten a lot of credit for doing very little, not looking at the scale of the crisis head-on.
In the book, I try to mine the difference between what’s on the table politically and the astounding scale of what’s necessary. Climate change is the terrain on which politics in the twenty-first century will play out, regardless of how you think about climate change as an issue.
It’s a reality for the rest of our lives. The entire new human existence is keeping warming below 1.5 or 2 degrees; that is an awesome challenge to have to take on. For the last several decades, the Democrats have been happy to put out the idea that a few market tweaks or cautious, nudging investments are going to take that on, but really, it’s a planning challenge.
For the last thirty years, it’s been uncomfortable for the Democrats to think about the constructive powers of the state and the government, and to say, “If we think these sorts of jobs should be done, then the government can hire people directly to do them.”
The goal is not to surpass warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but the Paris Agreement sets its target significantly higher, at two degrees. We may be surpassing 1.5 degrees in the next five years. Why is 1.5 degrees important? What are the politics of all these various other higher targets? And where are we at in terms of potentially meeting 1.5?
The text of the Paris Agreement says that warming should be constrained to well below two degrees Celsius. 1.5 degrees is an aspiration. It’s good to understand where that demand comes from; it has been a standing call from the folks in climate-vulnerable countries in the Global South, for whom the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is huge. The folks talking about 1.5 degrees have been marching through the halls of UN climate talks, chanting “1.5 to survive,” because for low-lying island states, warming of 1.5 degrees represents an existential threat.
Currently we are on track for about 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming. That gives us a punishingly short window in which to meet even two degrees, which is a bit of a fabrication; there’s some debate about where the two-degree target came from. Some people credit that to the economist William Nordhaus, who is not the most reliable source on a lot of these things. But there’s something comforting about a target. There’s something comforting about saying that this thing that is happening is far-off, and that we can potentially avoid it. We have a bit of time, and two degrees gives us more time than 1.5 degrees.
Reaching targets has been the popular goal. That’s what you see in the fossil fuel industry assessments. But the conversation about targets can sometimes obscure what’s actually happening. It’s not as if somebody who is living through a hurricane or a natural disaster will say, “Oh no, we’ve hit two degrees Celsius.” The climate crisis is playing out all around us. There’s not a point at which we cross the boundary toward a disastrous future. Every tenth of a degree of warming that we avoid makes an enormous amount of difference, saving on the order of tens of thousands of lives.
If we cross 1.5 or even two degrees of warming, it’s not that we should all pack up, go home, and wait to die. There are still millions of lives that can be saved by preventing each additional tenth of a degree of warming.
You write, “Capitalism hasn’t tended to be a popular protagonist in stories about the climate crisis. Often it’s said to be a matter of faulty psychobiology: We humans are hopelessly greedy, hardwired not to deal with the earth-shattering consequences of our wasteful ways.”
Who invented and who funded that narrative? Who perpetuates it? And whose interests does that narrative serve?
The narrative that we can’t take on the climate crisis has come from many places. The line that it’s hopelessly complicated, and that we can’t know all of what’s happening, has come from the fossil fuel industry. It’s a knock-on effect of years of climate denial proper — people saying that the sun is causing global warming, that global warming might actually be good because it makes the plants grow, or that we should create more carbon dioxide because it makes our lives better. Those lines never put out a holistic theory of what was happening to the planet, but instead try to make it seem confusing.
The line about climate diplomacy similarly says that there’s something hard-wired into humans that makes us incapable of making good decisions on climate policy. This is how we talk about environmental problems — like the Pogo cartoon where he looks out at a field of rubbish and trash, saying, “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.” It comes out of an older type of environmentalist thinking that humans are the problem, and that we are feeding this mess.
That particular line flirts closely with certain veins of xenophobic thinking and nativist thinking, claiming that there are too many humans in the world and that we have to keep specific humans out in order to keep ourselves pure and clean, or to keep our emissions down. That is an incoherent, indefensible line, but it fed into the moment in the late ’80s, at the tail end of the Reagan administration, when climate change entered the popular consciousness.
In 1988, James Hanson gave testimony before Congress, saying that climate change was something to worry about. That kicked off a first round of global negotiations on global warming, or on the “greenhouse gas problem,” as it was called then. This thinking ended up working out very well for fossil fuel companies — an antidemocratic impulse to say that humans have collectively gotten us in this mess.
This individualist thinking comes from the neoliberal revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, claiming that there is no such thing as a society. There are only individuals in a family, which is the unit of societal progress, and thinking anything outside of that is a fool’s errand. That reflects a real cynicism about the positive role that states can play in society.
There are many tools we could use to take on the climate crisis, like stringent regulations on greenhouse gases or using the EPA. Those tools have largely been taken off the table. By 1988, when climate change was being talked about publicly, everything was filtered through the perspective that market forces are the most powerful force in society, as a result of fossil fuel industry lobbying.
Is the impulse to blame individuals just a happy coincidence for fossil fuel companies, or have they actively perpetuated that idea?
BP was formerly “British Petroleum.” It’s now “Beyond Petroleum,” a rebranding after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which obviously brought them a lot of bad press. In the ’90s and 2000s, BP began to perpetuate the concept of a carbon footprint. They have a carbon footprint calculator on their website, which advises people to turn off the lights and gives a menu of ways that individuals can bring down their carbon footprint.
The result of this is to say that we’re all doing our part; BP is doing its part… as if BP doesn’t have an out-sized responsibility for this crisis. It’s as if the fossil fuel industry were one of many actors, not actively fueling demand for fossil fuels and causing a lion share of the problem.
You write, “The best estimates hold that warming could displace anywhere between twenty-five million and a billion people. Border and immigration policies, in other words, are climate policies. Efforts to restrict access to temperate parts of the world will be a defining political issue of the next century. Still, even some progressive messaging on that front imagines climate-fueled migration primarily as a security threat, with borders as one of many national security assets to be defended against the effects of rising temperatures.”
It’s not only that border and immigration policies are climate policies, but also that border and immigration politics are climate politics. This isn’t so much because of eco-fascism, because it’s a fairly minor phenomenon for now, at least in the United States. But it’s because the entire spectacle of border control and anti-immigrant politics mystifies the true nature of the crises at hand — in this case, the climate crisis, the crisis in US empire, and the crisis in global neoliberal capitalism. This spectacle makes it seem as though nationalism and racism, rather than internationalism and solidarity, are the solutions to the problems that we face.
But in Europe, right-wing politicians have folded the climate crisis into their preexisting reactionary politics to make a case for ever more hardened borders. What has happened there? And do you think it could happen here?
The framing of this conversation is different in Europe, in part because climate denial has not been a through line of right-wing politics in the same way that it has been in the United States. The Republican Party doctrine is that maybe climate change is real, but they aren’t going to do anything about it. That’s really not the case for right-wing parties in Europe, including the far right. These parties have huge majorities that want to see climate action, but that do not have commitments to a pluralistic and multiracial society. In some cases, it’s quite the opposite.
Leaders in the National Rally in France, for instance, say that borders are the environment’s greatest ally. There’s huge public support for climate action. And once the question is not, “Is climate change real or not?”, the existing political spectrum holds the debate on how to deal with it.
European far-right parties have articulated the message that we need to protect ourselves from climate migrants. And it’s not only the far right. The Social Democrats in Denmark have run xenophobic campaigns and passed aggressively racist policies against Muslim people in particular. Then, they turn around and say that they’re committed to taking on the climate crisis.
I don’t know how influential a far-right environmentalism will be in the United States. Strains of it are scary, but the far right and the Republican Party itself are already writing climate policy by militarizing borders and empowering agencies like ICE to come and rip people from their homes. Whether there’s a legal designation or not, those people are climate migrants if they are fleeing a drought or a natural disaster in Central America.
Let’s talk about the apotheosis of bipartisan market mechanism and climate change policy over a decade ago — the 2009 cap-and-trade legislation under Obama and its total failure. You write, “There’s a comic-book version of how climate policy failed in the United States, in which diabolical, fossil fuel billionaire villains call on their trustee henchmen in the GOP to swoop in and snatch away the country’s best chance for climate action. There’s plenty of truth to that tale, but identifying the hero isn’t nearly so cut and dry.
A decade ago, Democrats controlled every branch of government, and for a time seemed poised to pass legislation that would curb emissions and build a clean energy economy. Corporate meddling wasn’t the only thing that torpedoed climate legislation in 2010. Neither was it only big donors who cost Democrats all three branches of government over the next decade.
You continue, “Having bought into right-wing nostrums about the dangers of regulation and the superhuman powers of the market, Democrats in Big Green eagerly treated the fossil fuel industry as a good-faith ally in the climate fight, regardless of the industry’s material interests and activities, which would keep driving greenhouse gas emissions up and ward off the threat any reasonable climate policy would pose to it.”
What are the details of this history, particularly the alliance between Big Oil and Big Green mainstream environmentalists that guided, and then ultimately doomed, climate legislation under Obama? What happened, and why did mainstream environmentalists think that fossil fuel companies could be their partners in passing climate legislation?
That passage discusses the US Climate Action Partnership, which got going just before the Obama administration and looked to pass cap-and-trade legislation. The United States dealt with acid rain through a cap-and-trade program through amendments to the Clean Air Act, and this was treated as a success story.
It became a model that could be used to take on any number of environmental challenges. Before Obama took office, there was a slew of bills from both Republicans and Democrats for carbon pricing, a lot of them around cap-and-trade. There seemed to be bipartisan energy around passing some sort of climate policy.
The Environmental Defense Fund convened the US Climate Action Partnership [USCAP], which brought together the likes of BP, ConocoPhillips, and other sort of big business types, with the theory that getting businesses on board for climate policy would unlock Republican support, allowing a bipartisan package to pass.
The coalition was undermined by the fact that the same corporations joining USCAP were also members of the Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers. All of those organizations were fueling efforts to make sure that nothing would pass; they were running campaigns against the idea of cap-and-trade.
They were on the so-called green side of the debate, watering down the bill as much as possible, while also being on the other side of the debate, convincing American voters that any sort of climate legislation poses a visceral threat to their way of life.
Exactly. It was a total win-win for them. On the one hand, they watered down anything coming out of Congress. And on the other hand, they turned around and made sure it wouldn’t pass.
Whatever happened, they were set up to win the day, combining corporate Janus-faced self-dealing with the Koch brothers energizing the Tea Party to fight back against climate policy. The climate policy died.
Part of the story is about the total ubiquity of fossil fuel money in politics and the power of the Koch brothers. But in 2009 or 2012, nobody who wasn’t deeply involved in those fights could explain to you what cap-and-trade is. In the midst of a recession, there’s no reason for anyone off the street to say that they want a cap-and-trade policy, or to articulate what that would do for them.
Focus from the green groups and Democrats pushing it didn’t convince anyone that it was a good idea. It opened up a huge opportunity for the Right to claim that this policy would raise gas prices and ruin the economy. There was no attempt to build a coalition around cap-and-trade, or even to make the case for why cap-and-trade is good.
That is what mainstream critics of the Green New Deal want to go back to. You cite Bloomberg‘s Noah Smith, who writes, “Although a big push for renewable energy is needed, the Green New Deal’s vast program for economic egalitarianisms could make it unworkable.”
As if something else had been workable. As if the alternative had ever borne any fruit. We haven’t seen technocratic climate measures work in this country, let alone carbon pricing. That’s not necessarily what Smith is talking about, but it’s an insane idea that after decades of Republican priming, you should go on offense against climate policy and write in a couple of line items for renewable energy.
The fossil fuel industry and its allies pretended to work with Big Greens, two-timing them in a way that would be hilarious if the fate of the planet wasn’t at stake. They pulled out every Machiavellian stop to shut down extremely moderate, bipartisan, think tank–approved climate legislation.
Was cap-and-trade, or any market mechanism, even capable of dealing with climate change? How much of a net good would it have been if it had passed?
That’s the big question. The Waxman-Markey bill wasn’t just cap-and-trade. It would have included a lot of spending, but it was also built to kneecap the authority of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide. Even that attempt to degrade the US government’s most powerful tool to limit carbon emissions didn’t work. The carbon-intensive industries would fight it regardless, no matter how many sweeteners were built in for them.
Christopher Leonard’s book Kochland mentions that Koch Industries had people study the effects of Waxman-Markey before they decided to mount an aggressive campaign against it, and they actually found that they would make money off of it. They didn’t like that other industries would get a better deal out of it, and that their refinery business would be impacted. If the politics around climate change are going to be so intense, why try to negotiate with a party or with industries that have no interest in passing anything? Why go groveling to them?
Fossil fuel companies attacked cap-and-trade in part by arguing that a carbon tax would be a better option. But three years ago, in 2018, those same companies spent tens of millions of dollars to successfully convince voters to reject a modest carbon tax referendum from passing in Washington state.
BP has said for years that it supports a global carbon tax. Along with companies like Exxon Mobil and other oil majors, it went ballistic against a very modest carbon price in Washington state in 2018. A big lesson of my book is that anything, no matter how modest, no matter how tailor-made it is to please industry, is going to face wrath from industries whose entire business model is structured around digging up and burning more fossil fuels.
You write, “There’s no secret long-term vision for what the world will look like in thirty or three hundred years — just a series of mostly disconnected schemes for how to make as much money as possible at any particular point in the stratigraphic record.”
Why can’t capitalists understand that their commitment to fossil fuels is undermining the conditions for their own profitability in the future — or is it not threatening their future profitability? Why isn’t the capitalist state, the entity that’s supposed to act as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, able to figure out those big-picture questions that individual capitalists cannot? How are the material interests of fossil fuel companies, and companies in general, being articulated through politics right now?
Three or four years ago, I would have said that any sort of statement from BlackRock or Wall Street touting a green initiative was plainly greenwashing. I think that is starting to change. There are arms of capital whose core business model is not fossil fuel; they see a profit to be made from green industrial policy. There is a lot of money to be made.
Increasingly in Europe, though not yet in the United States, investments are being put into green initiatives — for example, the idea that internal combustion engine vehicles are not long for this world, and that something will replace them. And if you’re a company like BlackRock, which represents the entire economy, why would you have an attachment to an industry that isn’t doing well?
If you’re a good capitalist and profit is the bottom line, you should be somewhat agnostic to how that profit is made.
Exactly. More and more, the commitment to a fossil fuel economy is not as central to capital writ large as it was fifteen years ago. There’s an agnosticism about what fuels the economy, which becomes an interesting question for socialists at the level of political strategy.
What arms of capital are the enemies in this fight; which can we abide? It’s helpful not to have the entirety of the capitalist class arrayed against climate action. But capitalism is a resilient system, and there’s no contradiction between a clean energy economy and extraction.
Recently, BlackRock backed a number of activist shareholders who won a hard-fought effort to elect dissident members to ExxonMobil’s board. What’s the significance of that election, and will it do any good?
There’s a weird shift happening among capitalists on the climate crisis question. For a while, BlackRock had tried to market itself as a climate hero. In practice, it’s offered a few niche funds that are ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] or that have green characteristics — in addition to what makes them most of their money, which are big, passively managed funds that invest undiscerningly in the big index funds and won’t make any sort of exclusions for coal, oil, or gas. They’re entirely run by an algorithm. Both here and in Europe, climate activists have called this out as transparent greenwashing. BlackRock has come under a lot of pressure by people saying, “You are a massive stakeholder in some of the biggest fossil fuel companies on earth.”
Until this recent vote, BlackRock supported fossil fuel industry executives and their boards’ choices. Then it supported the activist shareholder push. I think this augurs well for the climate movement. It shows the climate movement’s strength in pushing the conversation so that shareholders at ExxonMobil feel compelled to push for something on the inside of the company. I am skeptical that it gets us very far.
The only thing that made me hopeful at all was the fact that ExxonMobil opposed it so staunchly.
It made them mad. In the medium to long term, the goal of green ExxonMobil is to invest more in renewables and to take an increasing stake in wind and solar power. Do we want ExxonMobil to be successful in the long run? I would say no. I’m a bit of an accelerationist when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. These shareholder pushes, which often have well-intentioned roots, are setting up the companies for more success in the long term.
I don’t think the goal should be to make ExxonMobil sustainable. At some level, that’s probably just impossible. Their entire business model is to dig up and burn as much oil and gas as possible. That’s not about to change. They’ve misled the public about the existence of climate change. They’re phenomenally bad actors who have their teeth in our political system in a way that degrades democracy.
We can’t understand the economic situation and prospects for oil and natural gas companies without looking at the massive amount of state support they continue to receive. You write that natural gas only became economically viable because of the low interest rates that followed the 2007 crash. And you write that the US government has stepped in time and again to rescue the industry, including in 2016, when Obama, the liberal saint, ended a long-standing ban on fossil fuel exports. Again, in this most recent pandemic, the federal response has helped the oil and gas industry — not its workers, but the industry.
How critical has federal support been for natural gas in particular, and for fossil fuel in America more generally? What does that history of huge government support tell us about how state power might be wielded as a progressive force to shut down the industry?
The fossil fuel industry in the United States is very strange in that it’s dominated by private actors rather than state-run companies, the latter of which is the case in most major fossil fuel producers on earth. This public-private partnership has existed for as long as the fossil fuel industry has existed.
One of the big myths that the industry likes to tell about itself, and about things like the Shell Revolution after the last recession, is that they innovated new technology that makes it possible to access new oil and gas reserves, bring the United States energy independence, and create jobs. It’s a heroic tale about innovation.
In reality, it’s a creature of finance. The technology for fracking had been around for a long time before the shale revolution happened.
Wall Street’s ability to throw around a lot of money made the difference. That cash was greased by an enormous number of federal subsidies, which make oil and gas a very good deal. So it’s not true that the industry innovated its way toward a fracking renaissance, but that the US government picked a winner in the fossil fuel industry, and has been doing that for a very long time. The line that the industry likes to say is that it would be a betrayal of free-market principles if wind and solar were to receive generous subsidies. This ignores the enormous amount of subsidies that the fossil fuel industry gets.
It’s not a matter of directing new state support toward solar and wind and clean energy, electric vehicles, mass transit, or any of these things, but redirecting the enormous amount of state support that already flows into the companies that are killing us. The IMF has estimated that the fossil fuel industry collects something on the order of $5.1 trillion globally in subsidies. What would it look like to redirect the subsidies and funding that go into making those industries possible? They would not exist if it were not for state support.
We’ve talked a lot about domestic policy, but global warming is a global thing. It cannot be confronted without multilateral coordination between carbon-emitting states everywhere. Unfortunately, the forum for achieving this necessary multilateral coordination has been the United Nations climate change conferences, or COPs.
People probably know them by their most famous meetings: Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris. What are the COPs? How did we get to the Paris Accords? And to what extent have they accomplished anything meaningful at all?
COPs stands for Conference of Parties: those are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That process got its start most officially at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which set up a framework convention for world governments to discuss how to take on the climate crisis in a coordinated, multilateral way. For the first several years of its existence, it drove toward the Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration signed onto.
This became the bête noire of one of the earlier climate-denying formations called the Global Climate Coalition, convened by the National Association of Manufacturers and a number of rankling think tanks that I’m sure listeners will recognize — like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute. All these groups fought US involvement in the Kyoto protocol, with a lot of funding from companies like ExxonMobil, and they succeeded in getting the United States to pull out. They undermined the agreement and forced the global community to think about a new framework for how to take on the climate crisis under the UN auspices.
From 1997, this framework depended upon including the United States and creating an agreement that would not need Senate approval, which was the crux of why the United States ended up pulling out of Kyoto. This created the Paris Agreement.
In the Kyoto Protocol, nearly all of the emissions reductions were set to come from wealthier industrialized countries like the United States. In the Paris Agreement framework, there’s a bottom-up structure in which every country on earth comes up with nationally determined contributions. They collectively compiled a plan to limit warming by two degrees Celsius.
You write, “Decades of efforts have resulted in rules protecting corporate investments across borders that are leagues more powerful than the non-binding documents meant to protect the planet.” What can we learn from comparing the international legal frameworks built up to protect capital and investment, like the WTO, to those like the Paris Accords that are purportedly about saving the only planet that we have to live on from climate change? How do they differ, and what does that difference reflect?
The Paris Agreement has virtually no enforcement power. There are very few punishments. Compare that to the Energy Charter Treaty or the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, NAFTA 2.0, which protect the right of investors in companies to sue sovereign governments if they threaten profits. They can bring them before a court and say, “Your new climate rule is posing a threat to our coal plants. We will sue you for millions of dollars, and we will get that money in arbitration courts run by bodies like the International Chamber of Commerce.” There’s nothing like that to enforce climate rules.
You write, “Why have all these years of talks and meetings yielded an agreement without any sort of binding enforcement mechanism, and that, if all of the pledges therein were perfectly honored, would still likely warm the world by more than three degrees?” What has gummed up this international process, and why has the United States failed to pass the national climate policy within its own borders and gone out of its way to block ambition internationally?
The Paris Agreement is important. It’s good that there is a global agreement to deal with the climate crisis, and it’s depressing that it took about thirty years to get to that point.
Debates happening within the UN around climate change are similar to debates that have been happening in the UN for a very long time. The United States plays a big role in these conversations. It’s not the only country pushing this line, but regardless of what party is occupying the White House or who controls Congress, as George H. W. Bush summed up at the Rio Earth Summit, the American way of life is not up for negotiations.
There is a real commitment to making sure there is no conversation about historical responsibility — of which the United States shares an outsized responsibility. The countries that have contributed the least to climate change are feeling the worst impacts already, and have the least financial capacity to deal with it.
In the New York Times, Somini Sengupta recently wrote, “The vaccine gap presents an object lesson for climate action because it signals the failure of richer countries to see it in their self-interest to urgently help poorer ones fight a global crisis. That has direct parallels to global warming. Poor countries consistently assert that they need more financial and technological help from wealthier ones if the world as a whole is going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. So far, the richest countries, which are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, haven’t come up with the money.”
Do you agree with this rather pessimistic analysis that rich countries’ nationalist response to the pandemic is bad news for the redistributive and multilateral policies that are required right now to confront climate change?
Yes, I agree that it’s bad news. That’s an understatement. There are so many parallels between the current vaccine apartheid and eco-apartheid, even down to individual countries not getting the vaccine as the United States hoards it. The phrase “common but differentiated responsibility,” which comes from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has historically meant that wealthy nations have an outsized responsibility and capacity to fund climate mitigation and adaptation efforts that make us all safer.
There is a collective responsibility to make sure that it is not a better option for countries that are electrifying to use coal power or to extract new oil reserves. We are all better off if developing countries do not lock in thirty to forty more years of coal-powered power plants.
The United States insists on an approach that denies the Global South an opportunity to use fossil fuels in the same way that wealthy countries did to develop, because the only other way to do it is to compensate them for not using fossil fuels to develop and to give them an alternative way to develop. This isn’t just unjust. It makes dealing with climate change globally a nonstarter.
It makes the US approach to climate diplomacy look unhinged. John Kerry globetrots around the world and browbeats other countries about using coal when the entire US economy was built on fossil fuels. It’s one thing to do that with a substantive commitment to making solar power accessible. In an alternate reality, the Biden administration is offering something like a Marshall Plan, but there’s nothing on offer. There’s little money on the table to make that happen.
The United States’ approach, shaming other countries for developing in the way that it has, makes no sense — but it’s also just bad politics. It’s impossible for other countries to make a transition to a clean energy economy if there isn’t global redistribution happening in one form or the other. As long as that conversation is kept off the table, as the United States has consistently fought for within the UNFCC in an attempt to obscure the meaning of “common but differentiated responsibility,” I don’t know how we get any further.
Todd Stern, who was Obama’s lead climate negotiator, is credited with the Paris Agreement; he had a hot-mic situation in 2012 in Durban, in which he said, “If equity’s in, we’re out.” That defines how we’re dealing with the vaccine, how we’re dealing with the climate crisis, and how we think about international finance. That has been the bipartisan approach to climate diplomacy: “If equity’s in, we’re out.”
Looking ahead to the next months and years, what possible paths might climate politics take, and what can the Left in the United States and elsewhere do to make it as likely as possible that we take the best path possible?
We’re in an interesting spot. Because of movements, the national conversation on climate politics has managed to get very far, relative to where we were in the Obama administration. Big federal investment is on the table. Very expansive climate demands are discussed in the White House in a way that didn’t happen a decade ago.
But the Republican Party is not about to come to the table and pass anything called climate policy. I wish I had some magic ball to tell me what would make Kyrsten Sinema or Joe Manchin vote for an expansive climate package. A lot of work can be done to make climate policy a good deal for West Virginia and Arizona. But it’s important to focus on real investment in communities that have historically relied on coal.
When it comes to movements and climate politics, there is a lot of work to be done over the next ten years. I don’t think we are going to get a resolution to that within an infrastructure package. It’s up to the movements to make the case that climate policy can improve lives, and to focus on building a winning coalition to make more climate policy possible. Advocacy like that for the PRO Act from DSA and unions can help do the type of work that the New Deal did, making structural changes to labor law. These make it possible to build working-class power in ways that can win elections and push popular demands for climate action. They can make it clear that wind and solar will be strongly unionized industries.
This is the work of the next decade of decarbonization: Win as much as possible in the short term, through an infrastructure package, reconciliation, or whatever form that ends up taking, and fight for it to be as big and expansive as it possibly can. It feels dirty to say, but Democrats need to win reelection in 2022 in order for climate policy to pass.
I don’t trust Democrats to win reelection without new ideas from the Left. Given the scale of work required for decarbonization and the sheer amount of policy needed to even start meeting this crisis at the speed and scale required, the route runs through taking state power. I don’t see a path toward that without strong movements or militant action in the streets as soon as possible — starting yesterday.