OpinionMeaningful climate solutions demand substantial change

A rejoinder to Ben Falcon’s “Capitalism is the solution to the global climate crisis, not the cause”
Ian DillOctober 15, 2019753 min
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Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

Last week, columnist Ben Falcon outlined a defense of capitalist solutions to the climate crisis. Though Falcon is correct to demand social change, there is a contradiction between his call for a “free market business model” and “socially-conscious capitalism” with no fossil fuel subsidies and expanded renewable subsidies. There is a lack of any academic work which illustrates that we can bring our political institutions to bear against the corporations responsible for the climate crisis without drastically restructuring our economy. Falcon’s path is somehow more utopian than the socialist position, which at least accedes to the reality that economic growth is incompatible with the needed emissions reductions.

In his reliance on the ideals of the free market, Falcon find himself at odds with the data. The question is not whether growth under capitalism can bring about the needed technological changes to reduce emissions; the question is whether those technological changes can happen fast enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last year that global emissions must be net-zero by 2040 to avert catastrophic 1.5°C warming. Market-driven efficiency improvements are simply not up to the task.

In a synthesis of climate models, Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel compared climate models substantiating different proposed solutions. There are no existing empirical models which can both demonstrate that emissions reductions via “market-based policy instruments” are possible in the limited time frame and substantiate, with data, the assumption the market will drive efficiency improvements through innovation. The data is conclusive that the free market is not moving towards emissions reductions. Even non-market methods like a carbon tax fall well short of the needed cuts. The only model which Kallis and Hickel identified as enough to stop emissions contained an economy that grew at near-zero rates and where consumption of all basic goods was substantially reduced. The data strongly indicates that the free market doesn’t reduce emissions, it just pushes them abroad. Corporations are not changing production habits and market mechanisms like the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme have not reduced emissions. The idea that capitalism can bring about this no-growth, austere world is ludicrous.

Falcon presents a false choice between socialism and ending fossil fuel subsidies. If it’s true that we can motivate the sort of political response which takes on the fossil fuel industry, why are strong emissions taxes, a universal basic income and a cap on endless consumption so “futile?” Falcon has put himself in a bind with the policy options he outlined. The policies he identifies (renewable subsidies and “market-based policy instruments”) are not a “free-market business model,” but are attempted corrections of the failure of the free market.

Falcon repeats a classic trope that free-market capitalism is a somehow the natural or logical way of organizing society. The only reason socialism appears “futile” is that thinkers continually bracket it out in a form of pessimism that masquerades as political realism. Human society existed for thousands of years with communal land and resource ownership with shared income and work. Still today, there are enclaves which illustrate that low-intensity societies can thrive. The most recent sociological modeling shows that this kind of society, supported by policies like a universal basic income and massive financial reform, are promising paths forward for a truly ecological society.

The energy for social change that Falcon is calling upon should not fall back into debunked Republican talking points about the climate. There is a real danger in tempering environmental politics with fantasies of endless growth and free market innovation. Many capitalists are incapable and unwilling to push for strong institutions which can successfully restrain the free market. We should use our political energy to create a system which makes emissions cuts sustainable over the long-term. There is a meaningful debate about which solutions are most effective at this. Potential solutions including the Green New Deal, de-growth and market socialism are worth discussing in detail. However, pejoratively labeling all non-market solutions as “socialism,” as Falcon has done, forecloses this debate.

Ian Dill

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