Is the capitalist system the root of the problem or the solution to climate change? It depends on who you ask.
Bill Gates, one of the richest billionaires in the world, tackles the subject with his recent book titled, How to avoid climatic disasters. He emphasizes investing in new green technologies and, for the most part, eschews politics as the solution. Gates argues that there are a lot of things that can be done differently, but unsurprisingly he is not a critic of capitalism.
A widely contrasting point of view was advanced by Naomi Klein in her 2014 book It changes everything, and several other works. While Klein does not dismiss the need to employ new green technologies, she strongly criticizes contemporary capitalism in its current form which she believes is responsible for both the vast social inequalities and the climate crisis. Its solutions revolve around socio-political change.
We are now in a climate crisis, as has been stated in a number of political jurisdictions – such as the city of Vancouver – and organizations including the University of British Columbia.
So what is the role of capitalism in solving the problem? Asking this question is relevant because the struggles over how to tackle climate change are based on different assessments of capitalism. There are many important social justice issues in this debate, but I will mainly focus on some environmental and political considerations.
Many of the solutions put forward to tackle climate change are consistent with capitalist approaches. For example, in his remarks last week at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow called COP26, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trumpeted Canada’s national carbon pricing system. Carbon pricing leaves it up to businesses and individuals to decide whether to reduce their emissions, reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, pay more taxes, or buy carbon credits. The development of the carbon market is a central element of the COP negotiations, in particular as set out in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
On the other hand, the demonstrators in front of the place of the COP26 and the militants of the whole world call for the dismantling of capitalism. The slogans on the signs read: “Capitalism is killing the planet” and “The fight for the climate is a class struggle” and “The fossil banks. No thanks. âSimilar criticisms were voiced by some civil society groups, and even some government officials – like the leader of Bolivia – at official COP26 meetings.
It’s unclear whether all of the protesters and critics believe what they say, or if the slogans are simply a stance to pressure governments and businesses to change. There is evidence that not everyone who participated in the Black Lives Matters protests in the United States really believed in the slogan “Defund the Police”. Many protesters adopted the catchphrase as a push for police reform. Others of course really did and really believe in the slogan.
It is also difficult to know precisely which system a given protest refers to as there are a variety of notions about what capitalism and socialism really mean. Capitalism in particular places can vary to the extent that it includes free markets, robust social protection systems, government intervention, and social inequalities. This is also true of socialist societies, which have varying levels of public ownership of key industries, and the level of democracy. People of a certain age tend to regard the countries of the former Soviet bloc as examples of socialism. For the youngest, the current Scandinavian countries may come to mind.
But the real question is, how do economic growth and carbon emissions come together in the real world? Despite claims by green capitalists that these can be decoupled, the evidence suggests that they are generally positively correlated. For example, the only two times that global emissions have fallen significantly in recent history have been during economic downturns associated with the Great Recession that began in 2007 and the economic fallout from the global COVID-pandemic. 19.
Is #capitalism the root of our #climate crisis problem or the solution? This is a live topic at # COP26. @dbtindall written for @natobserver
On this note, the examination of the climate change performance index for 2022 (presented at COP26) shows that Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway (which are also the top three countries in the world ) perform much better on climate change than more capitalist countries like the United States and Canada, which are near the bottom.
Why is this debate important? Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt, and the documentary of the same name, state that many prominent climate change deniers believe that climate change is simply a hoax that was invented to promote socialism. The scientific evidence for the existence of anthropogenic climate change is unequivocal: it is not a hoax. But this political reaction from conservative climate deniers underscores the importance of disentangling the science of climate change from political solutions to climate change. It seems unlikely that the marriage of climate science and socialism could help change the minds of those lagging behind in conservative climate action.
A disproportionate number of climate activists are progressives (although this is a less partisan issue outside the United States and some other English-speaking countries). But as former Greenpeace USA forestry campaign manager George Marshall observed, unless some people from all political stripes (eg conservatives) join the fight, it will be difficult to right the ship. On that note, in his speech earlier this week in Glasgow, former US President Barack Obama stressed the need to go beyond preaching to the choir to resolve the climate crisis.
Capitalist financial institutions play a central role in current solutions to climate change. Therefore, making the abolition of capitalism a central aspect of the discourse around climate solutions has certain limitations. Like the police debate, is it a better strategy to talk about abolishing capitalism, or reforming it? Before making a decision, it is wise to assess how each approach resonates with public opinion and influences broad support for climate action.