Opinion

Capitalism Is Our Only Hope of Rescue From Climate Change

With all due respect to the squishy socialist collective, no other system can adapt to the needs of a warming world

In this Dec. 13, 2009 file photo, a view of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, in Nottingham, England. Britain expects Friday, April 21, 2017 to be the first full day since the Industrial Revolution when it hasnג€™t used coal to generate electricity.
David Davies/PA via AP

The UN conference on climate change wound up in Bonn last Friday without offering progress in stabilizing, much less reversing, the relentless warming of the planet. Some advances were made on technical issues, but bigger questions about cutting carbon were left unresolved.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has assumed the mantle of climate change leadership since Donald Trump tossed it aside, conceded that her country wouldn’t meet goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Germany is still too reliant on coal power, it turns out.

The 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change created a framework for the countries of the world to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the  national goals are voluntary and they aren’t very ambitious. Even if they are met, which as Merkel signaled is not assured, the world will warm at least 3 degrees Celsius in this century, on average.

Unless something changes, it literally looks like we’re toast, and now Benjamin Y. Fong, an Arizona State University scholar, proposes that the solution lies in abandoning capitalism for democratic socialism. Writing for The New York Times, he concludes, “So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen .It’s capitalism that is at fault.”

Capitalism’s fundamental flawis that it’s driven by profit rather than sustainability, Fong argues. The popular notion that intelligent people, like technocrats, scientists and thoughtful politicians, can fix climate change is fundamentally mistaken because they will always run up against the profit imperative. Only politics will save the planet.

His critique of capitalism is hardly unique. Naomi Klein made the same case in her 2014 book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate,” which posits that capitalism can’t deal with climate change because it demands endless economic growth and profligate consumption.  

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis,” Klein writes.

Fong’s answer is some kind of Eden-like democratic socialist state where policies to counter warming would be enacted simply and easily because wicked capitalists would no longer have sway.

How the world will get there without costly social upheaval he doesn’t say except to casually posit that climate change has removed class warfare from the anti-capitalist cause.

Tell it to the coal miners

Yeah, sure. Tell that to the coal miners and SUV owners who voted for Trump and can’t wait for instructions from Fong’s politburo about job reassignment and rules requiring them to take a bus to work. Climate change may unite the classes – against measures to fight it that require real sacrifice.

On paper, Fong and other critics of capitalism have some points. But the reality is very different. In a modern capitalist economy, far from being the jungle that Fong and Klein portray it, business is subject to regulations, societal values and forces beyond its control. It may fight back, and sometimes fight back nasty, but it accepts the outcome.

Take the energy crisis of the early 1970s, which combined all of these factors, and in some respects echoes the dilemma facing business in the era of global warning.

Suddenly OPEC raised oil prices. But rather than threaten war (as leftists who see no bounds to capitalist rapaciousness would assume), the capitalist economies adjusted. Corporations became more energy efficient and developed products that provided the same savings for consumers, because that’s what the market demanded. Government stepped in with regulations that filled in the gaps where the market couldn’t or wouldn’t.  

It worked. If energy use per unit of GDP in the United States were still at 1973 levels, the country’s energy use would be over 40% greater than its current level.

The fact is, capitalism’s critics are so focused on the system’s fundamental wickedness, as they see it, that they ignore its assets, namely its dynamism – its willingness to dispense with anything that doesn’t work and try something else, not because it has the good of humanity in mind, but because it wants to beat the competition and make bigger profits.

Given the right set of incentives, businesses in capitalist economies will conform to rules that limit environmental damage. More importantly, they will develop the technologies to help mitigate climate change further.

Electric and self-driving cars, solar and wind power, smart transportation and a host of other energy-saving technologies are being developed by corporations, not by government, and certainly not in the world’s last surviving bastions of socialism.

Fong doesn’t go into the particulars of the democratic socialism that he fantasizes will rescue the world from warming. If it’s a kind of centralized economy, he might do well to look back at the environmental record of the old Soviet Union, which was a disaster.

If he imagines some kind of squishy network of socialist collectives, what is to prevent them from engaging in the same selfish behavior as corporations?

Capitalism is messy and uncooperative, but against climate change, it’s the best chance we’ve got.