3. Capitalism

Why is capitalism the root of this threat?

The histories of capitalism and climate catastrophe are intertwined like strands of a double helix. Merchant capitalism came onto the scene of world history at roughly the same time as the industrial revolution began; the climate movement arose just as the age of globalization did as well. 

“What is most remarkable about these parallel processes — trade on the one hand, climate on the other — is the extent to which they functioned as two solitudes,” Klein writes, “ignoring the most glaring questions about how one would impact the other. Like, for example: How would the vastly increased distances that basic goods would now travel — by carbon-spewing container ships and jumbo jets, as well as diesel trucks — impact the carbon emissions that the climate negotiations were aiming to reduce? How would the aggressive protections for technology patents enshrined under the WTO impact the demands being made by developing nations in the climate negotiations for free transfers of green technologies to help them develop on a low-carbon path? And perhaps most critically, how would provisions that allowed private companies to sue national governments over laws that impinged on their profits dissuade governments from adopting tough antipollution regulations, for fear of getting sued?” (Klein 76)

If one side was cannier than the other, it was the capitalist architects of free trade agreements. At each turn, they included strict enforcement mechanisms in their legal provisions that allowed countries to sue companies for protectionism under international trade agreements (Klein cites numerous examples in which these lawsuits have been brought to bear against green efforts: 64-5); as WikiLeaks revealed, their lobbyists succeeded in editing out climate-conscious language from founding documents of trade partnerships, like those of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in order to protect such partnerships from environmental lawsuits (78). In contrast, no major climate accord — not Kyoto, not Copenhagen, not Paris, etc. — has had anything like real teeth for real economic enforcement. They have remained gentlemen’s agreements.  

An illustration. Klein tells the story of a solar factory built in Ontario whose immense promise resulted in the closures of all but one coal plant in that province in the early 2010’s. The promise that had earned it its funding and popular support — a promise to source at least 40-60% of its content locally and to hire from within the province — created 31,000 new jobs, many of them for unemployed workers from recently shuttered auto factories. One such worker spoke movingly of how his teenage son told him his work was finally “creating a better future for all the younger kids.” 

But then some free trade hawks in Japan and the European Union went to the WTO asking it to sue this factory for its local-content requirement, claiming it would “discriminate against equipment for renewable energy generation facilities produced outside Ontario.” The WTO ruled in Japan’s favor, the factory had to pay out vast sums and restructure its local sourcing, investors backed out, the project collapsed, and several other solar factories that had looked up to it abruptly ceased production (65-9). 

In this single yet telling episode — in which, for a second, we see the possibility of a compromise between Trumpian protectionism (with its focus on “American jobs”) and anti-capitalist, anti-globalist liberal protestors of the WTO — there’s the whole story of a cruelly litigious, blindly ideological free trade mindset causing damage it has also wrought elsewhere: Canada is now suing the EU in defense of sales for oil extracted from the Alberta Tar Sands, and the EU is using bilateral trade talks to get around U.S. restrictions on international exports of fracked gas from North Dakota (71). Under the logic of capitalism, it’s all about national wealth — money — self-interest — and not what’s best for the planet. 

“Indeed the three policy pillars of the neoliberal age — privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — are each incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels…[these] pillars form an ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades” (72-3). 

Look, for instance, at the way that “fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump,” ensuring that there is no truly “free” market in energy in which green start-ups can possibly, under the rules of capitalism and profit, compete (70). Look at the way in which countries evade their responsibility for CO2 by the fact that the international ledger that keeps track of emissions doesn’t attribute to any country pollution caused in transporting goods across borders — as on container ships, “whose traffic has increased by nearly 400 percent over the last twenty years” (79). Meanwhile, emissions are counted against producing rather than consuming countries, so that our greedy lifestyle — our demand for TVs, computers, cell phones, clothes — isn’t charged against us but against poor countries like Bangladesh that cram their exploited workers into perilous firetraps where they are economically enslaved to the demands of the minority world.

In simple terms, late capitalism has kept global heating alive and well for two reasons: it has expanded the rapacious consumption model of the west into the developing world, and it has necessitated the carbon-belching transport of goods over vast distances. As China became both the “workshop of the world” and the “chimney of the world” — and such a consumer to rival its main influence, the United States, that it could take a global pandemic to halt it — global emissions shot up by 6% in just one year (2010), leaving climate watchers “reeling.” Between 2002-2008, half of China’s emissions were due to export (80). As India and other countries enter this fatal dynamic of consumption and global transport for its own 1.3+ billion population, the world has reason to tremble. It’s “a free trader’s dream — and a climate nightmare” (81). 

And it is preeminently worth mentioning that cheap labor and dirty energy are, in Klein’s terms, a package deal. In China as everywhere else where “wages [are] extraordinarily low, trade unions [are] brutally suppressed, and the state [is] willing to spend seemingly limitless funds on massive infrastructure projects” all for the sake of ultra-cheap, ultra-efficient factory production, “the same logic that is willing to work laborers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls.” Why? “Because it’s the cheapest way to produce” (ibid.). Capitalism is all about money. It even boasts about this…or have you ever heard a defense of capitalism that doesn’t brag about how it’s the best system to bring about economic “prosperity”? (Questions of “for whom” — and “at what cost” — are typically elided.)  

Klein quotes Margrete Strand Rangnes: We’re in this climate crisis “because of this model of globalization,” which will take “a pretty fundamental re-formation of our economy” in order to solve (80). There is nothing in the logic of the free market that will enable us to save ourselves. Incrementalism won’t work: it’s too late for that. “In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert the collapse of civilization” (Blue Planet Prize Laureate report, quoted on Klein 22). A centrist president may save us four more years of Trump-induced headaches and real human rights abuses, but it will not save the planet. Only revolution — and I grant the scariness of that term, as I grant the scariness of the unknown — stands the wildest chance of doing so. 

Klein quotes Gary Stix: “If we are ever to cope with climate change in any fundamental way, radical solutions on the social side are where we must focus…The relative efficiency of a new generation of solar cells is trivial by comparison.” And Klein herself concludes: “Because of our lost decades…is it possible” to turn the tide on apocalyptic global heating? “Absolutely. Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance” (24).

Read on for more.