Climate and Capitalism

Zachary Karabell offers an interesting critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything:

In fact, capitalism—in the form of multinational corporations—is doing more than many governments and multilateral institutions to stem the progression of climate change. They are doing so because of self-interest, not altruism; the relentless demand for profit is compelling an increasing percentage of the world’s largest companies to take concerted, forceful action. Yes, many companies remain obstacles to action, as Klein argues, but increasingly, more are becoming the agents of rapid and necessary change.

To say that corporations are doing more than governments to combat climate change is not to say much, since governments have proved so incapable of communicating the problem and rallying the public behind policies to address it.

But, sure, there are corporations that are looking to make profits from developing goods and technologies that will reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, there is no question that there is a multitude of corporations, even beyond the carbon energy sector, whose businesses hurt the climate and whose profits depend on fighting changes in their business practices. And Klein is very effective in explaining how that works.

But to me, the real issue is not the behavior of specific companies. It is the structure and nature of the form of capitalism that humanity has developed and celebrated. Klein is correct, I think, that the era of deregulation gave corporations more freedom to pursue business and profits that harm the environment and climate. But the underlying dynamic is a global form of capitalism that relentlessly pursues growth and sales, promotes consumption, and does not hold corporations fully accountable for the external costs to the environment of their business practices and products.

So this shouldn’t really be an argument over whether capitalism is good or bad. Instead it should be an argument about how to reform or reinvent capitalism so that the incentives in play for both businesses and consumers don’t destroy the planet.

The single most powerful reform I can think of would be to hold businesses and consumers accountable for the choices they make, by starting to adding to the sales price of most goods the costs to the environment and climate. That would mean a tax on carbon, and much more. Want to drive a Hummer? Sure, but you will pay extra. Want to eat burgers every day? Go for it, but boy will that get expensive.

Pricing is the key variable that, to paraphrase Klein, can change everything. If businesses had to pay for their impact on the planet they would change how they do business, and carbon-heavy industries would wither away while carbon-friendly industries would grow and thrive. If consumers had to pay for the way in which their consumption impacts the planet, they would change the what they consume and how much they consume.

Of course, getting governments to make this shift is the hard part. Part of the reason that corporations and governments haven’t done a better job of confronting climate change is that their publics don’t really want to make the changes, and fear that change means sacrifice. In this regard, Klein’s argument is vital. Governments and corporations will change when voters and consumers demand it.

 

 

Deepwater Horizon And Marine Life

It could be years before we know the full impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the marine life of the Gulf Of Mexico. But an initial study is   pretty devastating:

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years ago, but the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that it released are still killing dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life in record numbers, according to new research.

The report, “Restoring a Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Three Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster,” found that dolphins were among the hardest hit animals. As of just earlier this year, infant dolphins were dying six times faster than they did before the spill. Scientists aren’t even yet sure of the extent of the massive spill, given that it was impossible to fully clean up the chemical-laden, carcinogenic oil.

“Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold,” Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation and lead author of the report, said in a press release. “Dolphins are still dying in high numbers in the areas affected by oil. These ongoing deaths — particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin — are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem.”

 

Here are some of the key findings:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the dolphin die-off “unprecedented” a year ago.
  • More than 1,700 sea turtles were found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012 — the last date for which information is available. For comparison, on average about 240 sea turtles are stranded annually.
  • A coral colony seven miles from the wellhead was badly damaged by oil. A recent laboratory study found that a mixture of oil and dispersant affected the ability of some coral species to build new parts of a reef.
  • Scientists found that the oil disaster affected the cellular function of the killifish, a common baitfish at the base of the food web. A recent laboratory study found that oil exposure can also harm the development of larger fish such as mahi mahi.

The BP spill is one of the most dramatic and damaging reminders in recent history of one of the major external costs (pollution) attached to reliance on oil, and we’ve seen plenty of indications that dolphins are paying a price. I don’t think you can ever create a system of production and use that would eliminate pollution (or health costs; and greenhouse warming is permanently embedded in oil use). But if you price oil to include these costs you can reduce the amount of oil we use, and reduce the external costs. Yes, there is a gas tax to help pay for roads and highways, but that tax doesn’t even pretend to help cover health and pollution costs. And a carbon tax would need to be perhaps $80 a ton (which would add about 80 cents to a gallon of gas) to really start addressing the impact of oil and carbon on the climate.

Bill McKibben Calls Out The Democrats On Climate Change

And breaks down clearly the challenge of arresting climate change before it hits a catastrophic tipping point. He knows the Republicans are hopeless, but he hopes that the Democrats can “evolve” on climate change faster than they did on gay rights and marriage:

Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.

He doesn’t have much hope that they will, though, which is why his thinking leads him back to the necessity for a powerful citizens movement to change the culture and change politics:

And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve”. At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.

The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”

“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.

McKibben makes a key point. The challenge of climate warming (along with the ongoing destruction of the environment) is not a challenge that allows for decades of slow and incremental change. These are not ordinary times. These are times that call for revolutions in the way we think and act.

I am constantly struck by the fact that previous generations were in the streets to protest and decry injustice and immorality. Yet out streets are quiet. Hopefully, that will change because the times demand bold thinking and bold action. Nothing less will pass moral muster when the history of this epoch is judged (and hopefully not lamented).

Shell: Not Really Ready For Arctic Prime Time

That seemed pretty obvious as Shell suffered one setback after another in the Arctic over the past 6 months. But it’s nice to know the Interior Department noticed, as well:

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Thursday released the findings of a Departmental review of Shell’s troubled 2012 Arctic operations, painting a scathing picture of Shell and its inability to oversee and manage key components of its arctic program…

…The assessment found that Shell entered the 2012 drilling season without having finalized key components of its program, including its Arctic Challenger containment system, which put pressure on Shell’s operations and schedule and limited Shell from drilling into oil-bearing zones last summer. Weaknesses in Shell’s management of contractors on whom they relied for many critical aspects of its program – including development of its containment system, emission controls to comply with air permits, and maritime operations – led to many of the problems that the company experienced, the report found.

Well, yeah. Plus, it’s the, um, Arctic.

You might think that Shell’s failures would cause a re-think of the Obama Administration’s “”all-of-the-above” energy strategy, of which Arctic resource exploitation is a prominent component. But you’d be wrong. Apparently, it will take some sort of spill or oil drilling disaster to cause a re-think of the idea that the climate-warmed Arctic is there for the drilling (and mining, and fishing, and…).

Ozymandias Award: Shell Oil Kulluck

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

[Backstory is here].