How Capitalism Prevents Confronting The Climate Crisis

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Above Photo: AP

On Meet the Press yesterday, Utah Senator Mike Lee said about our climate change crisis, “all the proposals I’ve seen so far that would address any of these issues would devastate the U.S. economy.” This is considered a reasonable explanation of maintaining the status quo. This is the insanity built into capitalism.

Lee was specifically explaining why he would not support a carbon tax, the single most direct, rational, and market-friendly way of restricting carbon emissions. The context for the question was the release on Friday of a report from the US government itself saying that, within a century, climate change could cost our country “hundreds of billions of dollars annually” and kill thousands of additional Americans per year. 

Mike Lee is a right wing ideologue. But on this issue, his position is the mainstream one. The entire world—led by the rich developed nations, the US in particular—is staring down a huge, slow-moving tidal wave called climate change. We know it is coming. We have been told repeatedly the devastation that it will cause. And yet world leaders collectively go about their business as usual, taking no action concomitant with the level of danger that we all know we are facing. On a very basic level, this is insane. If we were standing on the train track, and we knew the train was coming, and we did not rouse ourselves to step out of the way, we would be suicidal. We are doing exactly that on the issue of climate change. Are we suicidal? No. We are capitalists. And we are following the logic of capitalism straight to hell.

As practiced in America, capitalism incentivizes the maximization of short-term, private profits. This private profit seeking is bolstered by the implied public safety net should anything go wrong, as the financial crisis amply demonstrated. Capitalists operating within the framework of capitalism have every incentive to grab every possible dollar they can as soon as possible and keep them all. Should disaster strike, the government can ride to the rescue. Compensation from investment is supposed to be tied to risk—the higher the risk, the higher the reward. When you have a political system in which it is possible to purchase political power, as we do, you can do something neat: you can shove your risk off onto the government. It is privatized profit and socialized risk. It is the best deal you can get. It is also, at its core, corrupt, the most inhuman manifestation of crony capitalism. But that is what we have, and companies and investors and by extension all of us are engaged in a system that encourages us to drive directly into a wall of doom, rather than, say, allow carbon to be taxed.

The fossil fuel companies and energy and transportation companies and other companies that would be directly impacted by sharp restrictions on carbon emissions see this as a very simple issue within the capitalist framework. A carbon tax or any other drastic measures to address the enormity of climate change would certainly cut into near-term profits. Therefore these measures are bad. But what about the long-term risks? Those are not the concern of the companies or the investors. Those are the concern of the government. The government will be the one that will have to deal with the floods, the hurricanes, the droughts, the fires, the mudslides, the erosion, the rising seas, the displacement, the battle for resources, the heat-induced deaths, the starvation. Such things are not the purview of the corporation nor its investors. The corporation and its investors know that these disasters will come, but not for a while. And if you can make enough money in the meantime, then you personally can be insulated from these downsides. If you make enough money now, you can buy yourself a nice place somewhere safe and warm and stable. You can buy yourself food and comfort and, if need be, protection. You can buy these things on the private market with the short-term profits you made by pushing all of us a little closer to the ditch. You will not be made to suffer the consequences of your business decisions; that will be someone else’s job. You will just privatize those profits, and socialize the risk. This is the only form of socialism that capitalists love.

Within this system, climate change denial and foot-dragging in the face of looming disaster is rational. All the bad things will be someone else’s problem. You just take the money and live a great life. The earth itself has a perfect feedback mechanism: we pollute, and climate change is the feedback. Our economic system lacks this mechanism, because the people who cause the feedback can buy their way out of it.

This, writ large, is what is happening today, and I don’t see any reason why it will stop happening until the people who are making it happen are made to feel the consequences themselves. That means either waiting a few generations until climate change has gotten so bad that nobody can escape its wrath, or changing the way that we operate now so that those who profit by causing or enabling climate change in some way feel the long-term suffering they are creating. This can be done with taxes. It can be done with laws. Or it can be done outside the law. But if it is not done somehow—if people can go on getting rich off of carbon emissions and using those riches to save themselves—why would it ever change?

The business executives and investors and politicians who cooperate in this system are not stupid. Many of them are very intelligent. They know what is happening. They just don’t care. It is sad to say, but there is not much more to it than that. Maybe it is human nature. The reason we build systems, though, is to improve on human nature. A well-designed system can provide a path for us to follow that leads us away from our own natural failings. A poorly designed system allows us to wallow in those failings until we drown. Or burn up, as the case may be.

  • REDPILLED

    The U.S. political/economic system is rigged for corporate control and against democracy. BOTH major political parties depend on corporate money to fund their campaigns and influence legislation. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 (Buckley v. Valeo) that money equals speech, and then, in 2010 (Citizens United), that unlimited money can be spent on political campaigns, those decisions marked the end of any slight chance of democracy left here.

    So how does one go about changing this corrupt, anti-democratic system when the highest court rules in favor of corporatocracy and oligarchy? Petitions, protests, marches, phone calls to Congress members, and even voting are not nearly enough as the Climate Emergency Doomsday Clock continues to tick down. What specific, realistic suggestions are there for changing this corrupt system in time to avert the inevitable disaster that is now accelerating? I see no realistic signs of hope for us, or all the other creatures on earth.

  • mwildfire

    It can be argued that a carbon tax is not the best approach to dealing with climate change. But the point of this piece was that this most popular approach, or any other is consistently shot down despite the certainty of catastrophic consequences–Hell is mentioned here, and Hell is generally depicted as a hot and miserable place. Hell is the planet our children will live on, thanks to out refusal to countenance any sacrifice of lifestyle, and our inability to vote sociopaths out of office thanks to what Redpilled talks about below. But the author says the culprits can profit now, and then use their ill-gotten wealth to insulated themselves from the consequences. True, but I think it suggests a tactic I think has been neglected. Most of these people have kids, and if they are full-on pure sociopaths they don’t care about their kids–no one outside their own skin matters. But probably a lot of them are borderline sociopaths, who do care about their kids at least some–and no amount of money is going to protect their kids. By 2050, no place on the planet formerly known as Earth will be a reliable place to grow crops, the cities will mostly be flooding regularly since most are on coasts, there will be massive famines most years because you can’t grow crops when you don’t know whether this year will bring drought, floods, hurricanes, hail or a plague of locusts; the famines will lead to conflict, which will exacerbate famines and both will make the population vulnerable to plagues, which in this context of chaos will not be fought by the likes of the CDC and will thus rage out of control. The elite hiding in their enclaves will not be safe.
    So. Surely a good many people now aged 12 to 30 or so can see all this coming, and those who are the children of the elite can see that their parents are condemning them to this dystopian future. Perhaps if people especially knowledgeable about the details reach out to these youth, they can be persuaded to use their own unique powers of persuasion on their parents. And report the results.

  • chetdude

    Any “solution” that ignores the underlying systemic disease that uses capitalism as one of its primary tools and doesn’t have as a major goal curing the disease is doomed to failure.

    For a decent history and description of that systemic disease, read Peter Joseph’s “The New Human Rights Movement”…

    His “solutions” are somewhat opaque and incomplete but his description of the pathology is AFAIK the best in print…