Science cannot save us: the politics of climate action

Wind turbineIn March 2009 I was the lead NSW delegate to the Australian Greens’ National Council in Perth when I experienced a curious fact of climate politics. Our state party put a proposal that the Senators pull back from having emissions trading as the key plank of climate policy, a position Christine Milne had enshrined in Re-Energising Australia. We wanted to stress direct government intervention with a planned ‘just transition’ of jobs. We were met by hostility from the Senators, and incomprehension from many delegates. In essence, three arguments were put in favour of an ETS: a pragmatic view that it was ‘the only game in town’, a general commitment to markets, and a focus on cap & trade being able to deliver emission abatement targets based on scientific consensus.

It is the third of these I want to focus on because it illuminates a key difficulty in climate politics, the attempt to use science as a political argument for how climate action should proceed.

Climate scientists have provoked two debates in recent years. The first debate is about whether human-caused climate change is real, happening and dangerous. They have successfully convinced the majority of people of this, and that something must be done. While science can never be truly free of dominant ideologies, the breadth and depth of international consensus on the issue make collective delusion or conspiracy unlikely.

The second debate is on what is to be done about climate change, but this is a question much more framed outside most scientists’ expertise — in the field of politics. So while scientists have developed powerful descriptions of what should happen technically to shift us to a low-carbon economy (eg. the recent Zero Carbon Australia report) there is little sense of how our existing social structures could effect such a transition.

Markets, states, politics

Mostly not being political activists, scientists have tended to present problems and solutions to governments to act on. Yet climate change became a big issue in the neoliberal era, when the dominant ideology in most rich countries has been one of non-intervention of states in the economy. So scientists have adapted to mainstream ideas in the hope of getting a hearing. As governments and sections of business have started to recognise the seriousness of the problem they have replied by proposing that market failures need to be corrected using … market mechanisms.

This explains the way that the debate has been centred on alternative market approaches to climate action, usually either cap and trade or a carbon tax of some sort. So there is a presumption that if ‘the science says’ we need a 25 percent cut, the cap of a ‘well-designed ETS’ will simply deliver it.

The market approach starts by looking to the main culprits of climate change to be the solution. It is a product of trying to find a form of action that is palatable to powerful capitalist interests resistant to bearing the costs of serious action. It is also about reassuring them that the same markets that create massive concentrations of wealth for the top of society remain in place. Carbon pricing as formulated in either the cap & trade or current carbon tax models is inherently regressive, as even Ross Garnaut says. All the debate around ‘efficiency’ is not much more than a smokescreen for making sure that ordinary people and not big business pay for any transition (with some derisory ‘compensation’ to take the sting out). In this vein, the recent Treasury Red Book has demanded regressive market reforms be implemented over climate and the economy more generally.

The collapse of global elite consensus over emissions trading at Copenhagen has created a larger space for debate, however. The Greens have shifted to a carbon tax as an interim measure, oddly enough abandoning the commitment to strong and non-negotiable targets that led them to help sink the CPRS, it seems because they want to be part of the (newest, latest) ‘only game in town’.

Ideas of direct state intervention that were peripheral have also started to be heard. An exciting local proponent of such ideas has been Leigh Ewbank, who studied with the US-based Breakthrough Institute, which has cogently dissected the ETS boosters from a quasi-Keynesian perspective. Leigh poses government action as a ‘nation building’ exercise along the lines of the Snowy Hydroelectric projects of the post-war era — one that can gain broad social consensus for the transition.

There is no guarantee that a state-run solution will be progressive, or that it will be efficient or just. But there are two key advantages of demanding a serious state-based approach. First, because we know what kinds of economic transformation are necessary (a rapid shift to renewables, mass public transit networks, etc.), a state can effect such change much more quickly and directly than roundabout market signals can. The analogy is the rapid transformation of the US economy for WWII … something that would have been a disaster if FDR had relied on markets. Authors like David Spratt and Jonathan Neale have made a clear case for such an approach.

The second advantage is that ordinary people can build pressure on states to take specific action much more easily than trying to shape market mechanisms to indirectly serve a social good (the notion of ‘internalising externalities’). Neoliberalism hollowed out democratic possibilities by claiming states were powerless before markets, but the GFC shows us pretty starkly how dependent markets are on states. Better that we bail out the climate than another bunch of greedy corporations and banks.

Agents of change

It is this second advantage that is, in my opinion, the key to building support for climate action. But it is one that runs up against the powerful vested interests that have so far used every means at their disposal to prevent change. Which leads us to the key question of agency.

For most scientists the hope that governments and business would act on the basis of scientific evidence has proven illusory. Not even an inspiring global climate movement, made up NGOs and grassroots activists, was enough to turn Copenhagen into something more substantial. Such movements have lacked the social power to seriously affect the operations of fossil fuel centred capitalism. Any such movement needs to tap into the heartlands of the global working class in order to mobilise a force that can seriously challenge the logic of capital.

The trade union group of the UK Campaign Against Climate Change has produced an action plan for such an approach called One Million Climate Jobs Now! It repays reading, with an updated version just launched. It has gained the support of a number of key British unions and has fit a mood of growing bitterness at the impact of the economic crisis on ordinary people. But it clearly makes climate action a class issue, something most defenders of market mechanisms are committed to avoiding. This is not because capitalism is inherently tied to a carbon economy — the current state of affairs is a contingent outcome of history. As Paul McGarr has argued, the problem is more complex:

It may be argued that the measures needed to tackle climate change are not somehow fundamentally incompatible with capitalist society. And it is quite easy to imagine a capitalism that lived off the profits based on the production and sale of renewable energy. There is indeed no reason in abstract why capitalism has to be dependent on fossil fuels and industries linked to them. Capitalism can profit from anything it can turn into a commodity — and the history of capitalism is one of showing a remarkable facility for turning just about anything imaginable into commodities.

The problem is not one of principle or logic, but rather, as someone once remarked, that we are where we are. For historical reasons we have a capitalist society where the fossil fuel corporations lie at the heart of the production for profit on which the whole system depends. This fact has shaped everything about the world we live in, including the very ideologies and policies of the political parties and politicians who run most of the world’s governments and global institutions.

Capitalism has an immense inertia at its heart. Once patterns of production become established and with them great concentrations of wealth and power established, they are hugely resistant to change. The people who head the giant corporations, and who embody the logic they must follow to survive and expand as profit-seeking beasts, will resist with all their power anything which fundamentally threatens their current basis of profit and power — the fossil fuel based economy.

For this reason it is necessary to seek a politics outside capitalist logic, even if the task at hand doesn’t necessarily spell the end of capitalism. Demanding direct government intervention in that sense is a minimum prerequisite for moving beyond the dead weight of the mainstream debate. This is one discussion that will have to be redefined if we hope to get anywhere with it. But such a redefinition has a tremendous advantage — it allows to us to envisage a better world rather than simply a variation on the present mess.

Cross-posted from Left Flank.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. The politics of climate chance give me the craps, being someone who works from the science side of things. All this talk about what is palatable and acceptable and minimal cost. The emphasis on cap and trade has always been that it will have the lowest cost to businesses on economic grounds (if abating is cheap, those who can will do it rather than pay for permits, which will be sold to those for whom it is expensive to abate, therefore allowing the cheapest transition to a lower carbon economy).

    But I think I saw a report recently that showed that of methods to achieve reductions floated so far, cap and trade will be the least effective and most expensive. We’re being scared off carbon taxes as ‘great big new taxes’ despite evidence they’re probably among the most effective things in reducing not only CO2 emissions but consumption generally. Australia is an extraordinarily carbon intensive nation (see Green and Minchin: Screw Light Bulbs), and if we’re ever going to be internationally competitive on carbon and environmental emissions, we NEED a new big tax to scare us off our coal-burning, gas-guzzling ways. Not some bloody cash-for-clunkers scheme argued to cost 300 per tonne of averted emissions, FFS.

    And this is all while we stay in the neoclassical, environmental economics mindset. There are different ways of doing things, without being overly radical! And if we do want to be radical, there’s a lot to be said for Steady State Economies (I heart you, Herman Daly) and ecological economics, acknowledging social and environmental costs as well as economic costs in all our valuing. It’s not rocket science that what we’re doing so far isn’t working, but our politicians want to sell everything to us as achieving what’s politically possible, ‘protecting jobs’. Let’s ignore how much of their paychecks are being paid by oil interests, and just recognise the potential in a new low-carbon economy. Yes, the UK sees a million jobs in climate; I’m sure we could do something comparable in the Australian context. I’m sick of climate change being seen as a problem and something that will send us back to the dark ages; it’s a bloody huge challenge and something that could prompt huge economic growth if we would fucking face up to it and step up to the challenge.

    I mean- one of the world’s best solar panels was designed in Australia, at UNSW, in the 1980s. The scientist waited for government funding and support for twenty years before he went to China – where he’s a now a several times millionaire. It’s not that there isn’t potential, our politicians are just getting way too good at getting us to look the other way.

    *big exhale* Ahhhhh. I feel so much better. Thanks for the ranting space!

  2. Tad’s article is really important. I recently attended a trade union conference in Melbourne which was less that 100 but an important collaboration between climate activists and unionists, organised partly under the Trades Hall Climate Committee. The conference passed the statement, see below:

    I wanted to make a comment about what Tad has argued and what I think was a weakness of the conference, which was that many union and climate activists were quite cynical about the potential for governments to respond to reformist demands. I think we have to discuss and relearn lessons from the past. Governments, even very right wing governments, will respond to powerful movements, depending on the balance of forces. We can build confidence among activists by understanding two points: 1. While today there is strong attachment by governments to big business, the state is not the same as business – businesses are divided and in competition, while the state must maintain its own strategies. There are examples in history of independent action by the US state, eg with the re-building of Europe after the Second World War, the US had to break with US capital (albeit temporarily). 2. Union-based campaigns have won reforms like equal pay for women – catch the new film about the women strikers in Dagenham, plus others like Green Bans, Anti-uranium (against a Liberal Fraser govt) etc. More recently…Remember Jabiluka, Anti-WorkChoices…Usually to win we need working class support because workers have power in industrial action. Tad is right: we need to think outside the capitalist square.


    – SATURDAY, 9 OCTOBER 2010

    This Conference of Victorian union activists and local climate activists commends the report by Beyond Zero Emissions and Melbourne University’s Energy Research Centre. The report outlines a technically feasible and economically viable way for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy within 10 years.

    We are also mindful of the fact that economic restructure in the past has led to many sacrifices by working people. In this transition it must not be workers and their communities that are forced to accept lower living standards and be disadvantaged.

    This conference believes that ‘just transitions’ are required. Commitment from Government is needed to implement strong industry policy to develop and direct new industries for renewable energy, support the expansion of existing industries and the establishment of new industries particularly in the manufacturing sector.

    One thing is clear – we cannot rely on the free market to support those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

    We reject market based solutions like carbon pricing and instead call for regulation, and direct government investment in renewable energy, to really ensure the ‘polluters pay’ for the transition we need.

    We are opposed to the proposed HRL coal fired power station. It undermines the concept of a just transition. This coal-fired power station will create very little employment and continues our reliance on fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We instead urge government to support jobs rich renewable energy solutions as outlined by Beyond Zero Emissions.

    We support the work of the Gippsland Trades and Labor Council (TLC) and Trade Unions representing workers in the Latrobe Valley who are demanding a regional development and assistance program to provide new jobs and the trainings for skills required for a strong and viable manufacturing sector with well paid union jobs into the future.

    Substantial emissions reductions in the Victorian economy are achievable, but requires urgent government planning and immediate and long-term government commitment, including substantial government investment. We resolve to encourage in every way possible, both the Gillard government and the Victorian Government elected on 27 November 2010, to grasp the opportunity to provide leadership on what remains today ‘the moral issue of this generation’.
    From Judy MCVEY

  3. Thanks for your comments, guys.

    Georgia, I’m more skeptical than you about steady-state economics. I have addressed some of my concerns here:

    On “consumption”, it is a concept loaded with multiple meanings that are not always clarified. Most production in rich countries is of producer goods and not consumer goods, yet both “consume” natural resources and both contribute to carbon emissions. It is how production is organised that is the real problem in my opinion, and to democratise that requires more than a tax, which only provides a disincentive rather than carrying a positive transformative power.

    Judy, thanks for copying that resolution. I think the way that the state under neoliberalism has come to be seen as only responding to the needs of capital accumulation is part of the ideological problem the Left gets trapped in. This resolution is very welcome, however. The next step is to put forward a more concrete program like the UK effort.

    1. Dr T –

      When I talked about steady state economics – and typically, when Daly does – I’m talking about steady state within the context of ecological economics, not environmental economics. Which, yes, will pay attention to social inequality and distribution issues as well as economic and environmental issues, and change the way we produce. That’s what I want. However, given the short term issues rather apparent in attempting to totally change the way our economic system functions, I will settle for a tax – grumpily. In the short term, it will be a disincentive, and maybe it can fund change. Maybe. Probably not the kind of transformative change we need, but I’m at the ‘take what I can get’ stage of this process.

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