If You Want to Save the Planet, Drop the Campaign Against Capitalism

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao,
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

—The Beatles, 1968

This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report concluding that it is all but inevitable that overall global warming will exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius limit dictated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The report also discusses the potentially catastrophic consequences of this warming, which include extreme weather events, an accelerated rise in sea levels, and shrinking Arctic sea ice.

In keeping with the well-established trend, political conservatives generally have exhibited skepticism of these newly published IPCC conclusions. That includes U.S. President Donald Trump, who told 60 Minutes, “We have scientists that disagree with [anthropogenic global warming]. You’d have to show me the [mainstream] scientists because they have a very big political agenda.” On Fox News, a commentator argued that “the planet has largely stopped warming over the past 15 years, data shows—and [the IPCC report] could not explain why the Mercury had stopped rising.” Conservative YouTuber Ian Miles Cheong declared flatly that:

This pattern of conservative skepticism on climate change is so well-established that many of us now take it for granted. But given conservatism’s natural impulse toward protecting our heritage, one might think that conservatives would be just as concerned with preserving order in the natural environment as they are with preserving order in our social and political environments. Ensuring that subsequent generations can live well is ordinarily a core concern for conservatives.

To this, conservatives might (and do) counter that they are merely pushing back against environmental extremists who seek to leverage the cause of global warming as a means to expand government, eliminate hierarchies of wealth, and reorganize society along social lines. And while most environmentally conscious citizens harbor no such ambitions, there is a substantial basis for this claim. Indeed, some environmentalists are forthright in seeking to implement the principles of “ecosocialism.” Meteorologist and self-described ecosocialist Eric Holthaus, for instance, responded to the IPCC report by declaring that:

One of the most prominent voices in this space has been Canadian writer Naomi Klein, whose 2015 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, argued that capitalism must be dismantled for the world to avert catastrophe. While I am sympathetic with some of the critiques that Klein directs at corporations and “free market fundamentalism,” her argument doesn’t hold water—because mitigating climate risks is a project whose enormous scope, cost and complexity can only be managed by regulated capitalist welfare states. Moreover, it’s difficult to see how she isn’t simply using the crisis of climate change as a veneer to agitate for her preferred utopian socio-economic system. As has been pointed out by Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, Klein appears to be adapting a mirror image of the same strategy she critiqued in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, wherein she claimed that cynical politicians, pundits and corporations seize on crises to lock in economic restructuring along radical free market principles.

Simply put, describing the call for climate action in economically or politically revolutionary terms is always going to be counterproductive, because the vast majority of ordinary people in most countries don’t want a revolution. Environmentalists such as Klein are correct, however, in their more limited claim that market mechanisms alone can’t prevent global warming, since such mechanisms don’t impute the environmental costs associated with the way we produce goods and live our lives. Without some means of capturing the social price of environmentally destructive practices—resource extraction, in particular—we will invariably embrace wasteful and damaging practices.

Consider, for instance, the vast quantities of natural gas that are flared at oil wells simply because it’s seen as too costly to build gas pipelines to these facilities. This is a context in which we’d urge government to exercise its regulatory power; or to impose some kind of pricing mechanism that, either by carrot or stick, incentivizes the capture of the flared gas. Public policy has a necessary role in guiding capitalist decision makers toward the long-term sustainability of the environment. Unfortunately, this outcome is hard to achieve in a political environment characterized by tribalism, polarization and blame-shifting.

It is true that when it comes to climate change, the political left is more closely grounded in science than the right (even if both sides often tend to deny inconvenient truths more generally). But the left also has proven to be blinkered when it comes to appropriate responses, a tendency that has seeped into the latest IPCC report. While it’s not surprising that the report advocates support for renewable energy, its authors fail to acknowledge the warming effect that scaled up renewable-energy generation would have on land use due to their low energy density (think of the enormous footprint of solar farms). Likewise, the pro-environmental left’s distaste for nuclear power persists, despite its status as a geographically dense, safe, virtually carbon-free energy source.

The whole issue has become a sort of microcosm of the blind spots and dogmas embraced by both sides. As Jonathan Haidt argues, conservatives tend to be skeptical of top-down governance, preferring to focus on smaller nested structures that are less ambitious in scope, and hence easier to manage. This general principle takes form in conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s approach to environmentalism, which argues that activism on issues such as climate change should be undertaken by communities at the local level, rather than by national (or international) bureaucrats and politicians—because the local level is where “people protect things which they know and love, things which are necessary for their life, and which will elicit in them the kind of disposition to make sacrifices, which, after all, is what it’s all about.”

While Scruton’s environmentalism gives us a reason to protect our local environments, the reality is that the effects of many environmentally damaging practices are not just experienced locally. A community may be motivated to protect a nearby forest from logging because it forms part of their love of home, but greenhouse gas emissions are displaced and dispersed into the shared atmosphere, contributing to global atmospheric degradation. Because of this, any approach that dismisses broader policy initiatives is unlikely to succeed in bringing down global carbon emissions. But at the very least, Scruton’s analysis awakens us to the reality that such policies will gain popular support only if they are justified and implemented in a manner that takes into consideration the views and sentiments of conservatives and liberals alike. Wind and solar farms will face less opposition if local communities get a greater say in where they are located. And while carbon taxes are effective in reducing emissions in some jurisdictions, conservatives will usually oppose them unless they are structured in a revenue-neutral manner, by legislating them alongside equivalent reductions in income tax, for instance.

Environmentalists also should acknowledge that some conservative objections to large-scale, top-down global instruments such as the Paris Agreement are perfectly legitimate. The provisions in such treaties typically are non-binding and require the good faith of all signatories. With many authoritarian countries seemingly misleading the rest of the world about their levels of economic activity, it’s not unreasonable to assume they would do the same when it comes to reporting carbon emissions. Moreover, those countries without the means to enforce reductions in carbon emissions domestically can’t be regarded as reliable participants in a global agreement to voluntarily decarbonize their economies.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be discussing climate change at a global level, or that international agreements don’t have any value. But environmentalists’ tendency to treat these documents as holy writ comes off as naïve, and thereby tends to undermine their cause.

Overall, our best hope for dealing with the emissions of developing countries is likely to assist them in managing their energy infrastructure so as to bypass high-emissions technologies. China, despite often being lauded for the amount of renewable energy it produces, now emits more carbon dioxide than the U.S. and Europe combined. With technologies such as large-scale solar generation becoming cost competitive with coal, progress is possible, but far from guaranteed without Western support.

These measures aren’t revolutionary. But that’s the point: In the environmental sector, just as in every other arena, there’s an opportunity cost to adopting revolutionary postures—since these revolutionaries tend to make more enemies than allies. If this project is really about saving the planet, rather than destroying capitalism, cooling the earth will mean cooling our rhetoric as well.


Andrew Glover is a sociologist who tweets at @theandrewglover.