We're going to have to solve climate change with capitalism
Like it or not that's what we're stuck with.
I can gauge how productive I’m going to be on any given day by how quickly I get pulled into The Discourse on Twitter. Sadly, the other day was not a particularly edifying high-point, as within moments of logging on1, I was already dropping truth-bombs.
What got me riled up was this tweet from left-wing commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan.
I think her tweet2 is illustrative of is what frustrates me about a particular genre of left-wing climate take. Essentially, it frames climate not as a problem to which we can find solutions but as a battleground in a much broader epic struggle between good and evil.
Responding to climate change, from this perspective, isn’t like increasing the tax on cigarettes to reduce smoking, or hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes. It’s not a policy challenge, but a morality tale.
As I wrote in a footnote to my contrarian post about why Elon Musk is actually good:
I think a lot of socialists see it in eschatological3 terms. Climate change isn’t just a problem, it is a moral reckoning with the excesses of capitalism. The way it is supposed to work is that we either fail to stop climate change, which causes us to lose our false consciousness and realise that we want socialism, or we decide beforehand that only a socialist system can create the necessary behavioural change needed to mitigate it.
And from this straw-person perspective I have created, the worst possible thing that could happen is humanity dodging its much-needed reckoning with capitalism by using capitalism to avoid it.
Leaving aside whether or not climate change is the fault of a “very small group” who should be held to account4, I think this eschatological approach to climate change is bad. And it is counter-productive for a very prosaic reason:
You’re not going to get your revolution in time.
I don’t say this with relish. If you’ve read my work before, you’ll know that I describe my politics as being somewhere on the centre-left. The society I think we should aim for is the same boring, Scandinavian-style social democracy that basically every sensible lefty claims to want5.
But the fundamental problem with any approach to climate that involves fundamentally rewiring society is that we’re already too close to the deadline.
The scientific and worldwide political consensus is that 2050 is the point of no return. That’s only thirty years away. That’s not a very long time to do something, and it’s an even shorter time if before we can tackle climate change we have to remake capitalism, hang the billionaires and whatever else first.
I mean, Britain is struggling to build a single new railway line and change the planning rules to build a few more new houses. So building a worldwide, or even national political consensus around a much wider range of left-wing policy demands is a pretty tough ask6.
The reality is that as far as the climate is concerned, we don’t have the luxury of time. We’re already at the scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA guy slaps down a bunch of junk on the table, and the people in the room have to figure out how to save the astronauts using only what is in front of them.
In other words, given the ticking clock, the only option we have as a species is path dependent on the choices we’ve already made. Britain and the world’s economic status-quo in 2050 is going to look, for better or worse, a lot more like it does today than a fully automated luxury communism utopia7.
So our only option, like it or not, is to tackle climate change within the context of the current status quo. In other words, the only tool we have available to fight climate change is capitalism.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “But James! This is a climate emergency! We have to do big, transformative things!”
I don’t disagree that climate change is a big, important thing. It is much more significant challenge than smoking or class sizes. I agree that we need to think bigger than we currently are.
But I just can’t envisage a plausible theory of change for how we get to the “lefty climate transformation” vision of society more quickly than we can get to the much more boring vision of “basically the same as now but with technocratic interventions to replace activities that produce carbon emissions with activities that don’t produce carbon emissions.”
Again, this isn’t to judge which of those visions is more desirable, I’m just saying one is more achievable than the other.
I mean this first and foremost in electoral terms. We know that in the abstract voters are very supportive of measures to curb climate change. Even Tory MPs and Tory voters care about climate change8.
But pair that with the lefty ideological stuff? At best that fractures the political consensus towards taking action. And at worst it discredits the idea of doing something about climate change in the eyes of people who don’t share the left’s worldview - which, unfortunately, is most people.
Essentially, I share a similar view to the one Matt Yglesias expressed in his piece on the excesses of the American climate left. That (to paraphrase), if the climate really is a climate emergency, then it would make sense to prioritise solutions to climate change, rather than pairing it with a laundry list of other ideological goals.
What about the pandemic?
The obvious point to raise in opposition to my view is the pandemic.
Over the last 18 months it has sometimes been actually illegal to leave our homes. And yet… everyone basically went along with it. Does this not demonstrate that the public will support and go along with big, transformational measures of the sort the eschatological left are pitching on climate? After all - climate change is an even bigger issue than COVID.
But I actually think this is a flawed comparison, and the pandemic actually supports my point of view.
Firstly, the pandemic and climate change are very different threats. There will never be a single moment with the climate where the shit hits the fan. The effects of climate change are long term and diffuse. That’s very different from a nightmare virus appearing from nowhere in a few short weeks, making people around you seriously ill and maybe even directly killing at least one or two people you actually know.
Even though there are increasing numbers of extreme weather events around the world, and scientists do argue they are linked to climate change, the causality is much less clear. Extreme weather is only a second order consequence of climate change, so assigning “blame” is less clear for obvious reasons.
And amplifying the difficulty, with climate change we’re trying to do something about it before it gets really bad. So building the political will to impose radical measures is much harder.
Imagine if Boris Johnson had tried to close the borders and lock us down in Mid-February 2020. In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea. Looking at the data from China, we should have been able to predict that it would soon engulf us. As Michael Lewis chronicles in The Premonition, some very smart people knew what was coming9.
But there’s no way in hell that Johnson or any other politician, however talented, could have built a political consensus to make a lockdown happen that early10.
And secondly, the reason I think the pandemic actually supports my argument is evidenced by the political response we saw.
Though the measures put in place and the management of the crisis were flawed in many ways, the initial response enjoyed broad political support because the shit did hit the fan all at once. Everyone understood the stakes, and agreed that making the virus go away was the number one most urgent issue. The pandemic was in and of itself the big issue - it wasn’t treated as a cudgel for other ideological concerns.
I mean, imagine if the Tories had tried to use the crisis to support an ideological agenda. If Rishi Sunak had announced that he would let universities, charities and public sector organisations go bankrupt. That the real villains of the pandemic were the inefficient public sector hospitals, and so the only way to beat the pandemic is to have COVID patients find care for themselves from private providers. “The best vaccine is the free market,” tweets whoever is the right-wing equivalent of Ellie Mae O’Hagan11.
In that comically exaggerated circumstance there’s no way that the political consensus over what to do about the pandemic would have held12 , and as a result, the outcome would have been much worse13.
Lucky for us, in reality the government did the sensible thing of not treating the pandemic as a big ideological land-grab14, and instead as a discrete problem. It then threw what it could at meeting the challenge of the pandemic within that context15.
So what will work?
What’s the point of all of this? What’s the point of me beating up on what I’m calling the eschatological lefty climate take? No doubt advocates of this view are all nice people who have the same opinions as me on a wide range of issues16.
The reason is because accepting the reality of our situation is important. It means that discussion about climate change can go from Marxist fanfiction on Twitter, to engaging with the reality of the situation17.
This means answering unromantic questions like “How do we reduce the amount of fossil fuels in the grid?” or “What’s the most effective way of building out a viable electric charging network?” or “How can the government persuade people to insulate their homes?”.
Some of these questions will necessarily involve the public sector and the regulatory state. Some of the solutions will probably be tinted a heavy shade of red. But crucially, the solutions we arrive at will have to be found in the context of our current capitalist society18.
This doesn’t mean that I’m proposing that we have to accept some ultra-libertarian approach of just sitting back, waiting for climate disaster. We can do more than hope that by 2050 some enterprising start-up has created a version of AirBNB that finds homes for people whose houses are now underwater.
It just means that the solution is going to probably lie in really boring stuff, like fiddling with taxes or the government underwriting loans in order to shift incentives towards low-carbon activities. It probably means that by 2050 we’ll still have lots of problems. The bankers will still be getting rich. There will still be income inequality. Power will still be unevenly distributed across society. But at least hopefully, the amount of warming will be limited.
Yes, this vision isn’t quite as exciting as identifying the enemy and holding them to account. It isn’t as romantic as rebuilding society from its foundations. But this is the only option we have because time is running out. So like or not, the solution to climate change will be found using capitalism. Because it has to be.
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Okay, fine, I’d already been scrolling on and off for three hours at this point.
Like a coward, I took a screenshot of rather than quote-tweet. But I don’t even want to specifically pick on O’Hagan here. My beef is not with her. I appreciate that she clearly feels just as strongly about climate change as I do. What we differ on is how to frame the problem - and I’m just using her tweet as a convenient hook on which to peg this piece.
I just want to make sure you don’t breeze past how smart I am for using a big, clever word here. It means “The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”
Though my actual view is that she is wrong on the merits here. To the extent that we can read anything meaningful from the tweet - whether that small group is “fossil fuel CEOs” or “the top 5% by income in the entire world”, the inconvenient truth is that any attribution of blame needs to be shared with vast swathes of people in middle-income countries rudely developing themselves out of poverty over the last several decades.
I’m sure some bore is going to tweet back at me “Yeah but in Norway they are bad because of [thing]”, even though I’m obviously not saying I want to be exactly like Norway in every specific way and am instead trying to capture the broad idea of “democratic politics but anchored somewhat further to the left in several key areas”.
It would probably help if the left and centre-left parties around the world could win a few elections first.
Maybe by 2050 you’ll be able to catch HS2 to Birmingham and absolutely no further after the later legs of the project are inevitably and stupidly abandoned.
Obviously there are a few ignoble exceptions, but for the most part our Conservative Party isn’t particularly analogous to the Republican party, however politically useful it is to suggest they are.
Meanwhile what was I doing in February 2020? I was having the time of my life on an almost month long road trip from Chicago to Orlando, completely oblivious to what was about to happen. It’s hard to imagine now just how many door handles I licked on that trip too.
If the world had locked down much earlier maybe COVID would be remembered like the Millennium Bug: A big non-event in the popular imagination, even though that was only the case because of lot of people worked very hard to make it so.
And then the centre-right equivalent of me does a long “Well Akshually” Substack post.
I mean for a start, I’d be storming Downing Street while waving a red flag along with everyone else. Though I’d probably let some of the bigger, tougher people do the initial storming, and instead try and make myself useful by configuring the IT for the new provisional Workers Soviet of Great Britain.
Yes, even worse than what actually happened.
Consider this footnote a preemptive eye-roll at the “Something something herd immunity” people.
To be clear, I’m not denying there were political or ideological choices made in the pandemic response. There obviously were, such as where to sit on the spectrum of “total lockdown and mega recession” to “out of control virus with some economic activity taking place”. But my point is that these decisions were not designed to remake society in some fundamental way first. And also, yes it wouldn’t surprise me if we get more of an attempt to reshape society along ideological lines during the recovery (Sunak is reportedly on the austerity train) - but again, my point is that during the dealing with the emergency bit, the problem being dealt with was the emergency. What happens after is different.
Tax rich people more, let’s be nice to immigrants, redistribute more cash and so on. I’m even on team “Don’t kill the alpaca” as even though it is a completely irrational and bad position to take, I can’t bring myself to wish death upon such a delightful creature.
This critique doesn’t just apply to the socialist inclined. I think you can make the same points about the insane and morally grotesque “degrowth” movement, which Tom Chivers has written about excellently here.