Science cannot save us: The politics of climate action

by · October 16, 2010

In March 2009 I was the lead NSW delegate to the Australian Greens’ National Council in Perth when I experienced a curious fact of climate politics. Our state party put a proposal that the Senators pull back from having emissions trading as the key plank of climate policy, a position Christine Milne had enshrined in Re-Energising Australia. We wanted to stress direct government intervention with a planned “just transition” of jobs. We were met by hostility from the Senators, and incomprehension from many delegates. In essence, three arguments were put in favour of an ETS: a pragmatic view that it was “the only game in town”, a general commitment to markets, and a focus on cap & trade being able to deliver emission abatement targets based on scientific consensus.

It is the third of these I want to focus on because it illuminates a key difficulty in climate politics, the attempt to use science as a political argument for how climate action should proceed.

Climate scientists have provoked two debates in recent years. The first debate is about whether human-caused climate change is real, happening and dangerous. They have successfully convinced the majority of people of this, and that something must be done. While science can never be truly free of dominant ideologies, the breadth and depth of international consensus on the issue make collective delusion or conspiracy unlikely.

The second debate is on what is to be done about climate change, but this is a question much more framed outside most scientists’ expertise — in the field of politics. So while scientists have developed powerful descriptions of what should happen technically to shift us to a low-carbon economy (e.g. the recent Zero Carbon Australia report) there is little sense of how our existing social structures could effect such a transition.

Markets, states, politics

Mostly not being political activists, scientists have tended to present problems and solutions to governments to act on. Yet climate change became a big issue in the neoliberal era, when the dominant ideology in most rich countries has been one of non-intervention of states in the economy. So scientists have adapted to mainstream ideas in the hope of getting a hearing. As governments and sections of business have started to recognise the seriousness of the problem they have replied by proposing that market failures need to be corrected using … market mechanisms.

This explains the way that the debate has been centred on alternative market approaches to climate action, usually either cap and trade or a carbon tax of some sort. So there is a presumption that if “the science says” we need a 25 percent cut, the cap of a “well-designed ETS” will simply deliver it.

The market approach starts by looking to the main culprits of climate change to be the solution. It is a product of trying to find a form of action that is palatable to powerful capitalist interests resistant to bearing the costs of serious action. It is also about reassuring them that the same markets that create massive concentrations of wealth for the top of society remain in place. Carbon pricing as formulated in either the cap & trade or current carbon tax models is inherently regressive, as even Ross Garnaut says. All the debate around “efficiency” is not much more than a smokescreen for making sure that ordinary people and not big business pay for any transition (with some derisory “compensation” to take the sting out). In this vein, the recent Treasury Red Book has demanded regressive market reforms be implemented over climate and the economy more generally.

The collapse of global elite consensus over emissions trading at Copenhagen has created a larger space for debate, however. The Greens have shifted to a carbon tax as an interim measure, oddly enough abandoning the commitment to strong and non-negotiable targets that led them to help sink the CPRS, it seems because they want to be part of the (newest, latest) “only game in town”.

Ideas of direct state intervention that were peripheral have also started to be heard. An exciting local proponent of such ideas has been Leigh Ewbank, who studied with the US-based Breakthrough Institute, which has cogently dissected the ETS boosters from a quasi-Keynesian perspective. Leigh poses government action as a “nation building” exercise along the lines of the Snowy Hydroelectric projects of the post-war era — one that can gain broad social consensus for the transition.

There is no guarantee that a state-run solution will be progressive, or that it will be efficient or just. But there are two key advantages of demanding a serious state-based approach. First, because we know what kinds of economic transformation are necessary (a rapid shift to renewables, mass public transit networks, etc.), a state can effect such change much more quickly and directly than roundabout market signals can. The analogy is the rapid transformation of the US economy for WWII … something that would have been a disaster if FDR had relied on markets. Authors like David Spratt and Jonathan Neale have made a clear case for such an approach.

The second advantage is that ordinary people can build pressure on states to take specific action much more easily than trying to shape market mechanisms to indirectly serve a social good (the notion of “internalising externalities”). Neoliberalism hollowed out democratic possibilities by claiming states were powerless before markets, but the GFC shows us pretty starkly how dependent markets are on states. Better that we bail out the climate than another bunch of greedy corporations and banks.

Agents of change

It is this second advantage that is, in my opinion, the key to building support for climate action. But it is one that runs up against the powerful vested interests that have so far used every means at their disposal to prevent change. Which leads us to the key question of agency.

For most scientists the hope that governments and business would act on the basis of scientific evidence has proven illusory. Not even an inspiring global climate movement, made up NGOs and grassroots activists, was enough to turn Copenhagen into something more substantial. Such movements have lacked the social power to seriously affect the operations of fossil fuel centred capitalism. Any such movement needs to tap into the heartlands of the global working class in order to mobilise a force that can seriously challenge the logic of capital.

The trade union group of the UK Campaign Against Climate Change has produced an action plan for such an approach called One Million Climate Jobs Now! It repays reading, with an updated version just launched. It has gained the support of a number of key British unions and has fit a mood of growing bitterness at the impact of the economic crisis on ordinary people. But it clearly makes climate action a class issue, something most defenders of market mechanisms are committed to avoiding. This is not because capitalism is inherently tied to a carbon economy — the current state of affairs is a contingent outcome of history. As Paul McGarr has argued, the problem is more complex:

It may be argued that the measures needed to tackle climate change are not somehow fundamentally incompatible with capitalist society. And it is quite easy to imagine a capitalism that lived off the profits based on the production and sale of renewable energy. There is indeed no reason in abstract why capitalism has to be dependent on fossil fuels and industries linked to them. Capitalism can profit from anything it can turn into a commodity — and the history of capitalism is one of showing a remarkable facility for turning just about anything imaginable into commodities.

The problem is not one of principle or logic, but rather, as someone once remarked, that we are where we are. For historical reasons we have a capitalist society where the fossil fuel corporations lie at the heart of the production for profit on which the whole system depends. This fact has shaped everything about the world we live in, including the very ideologies and policies of the political parties and politicians who run most of the world’s governments and global institutions.

Capitalism has an immense inertia at its heart. Once patterns of production become established and with them great concentrations of wealth and power established, they are hugely resistant to change. The people who head the giant corporations, and who embody the logic they must follow to survive and expand as profit-seeking beasts, will resist with all their power anything which fundamentally threatens their current basis of profit and power — the fossil fuel based economy.

For this reason it is necessary to seek a politics outside capitalist logic, even if the task at hand doesn’t necessarily spell the end of capitalism. Demanding direct government intervention in that sense is a minimum prerequisite for moving beyond the dead weight of the mainstream debate. This is one discussion that will have to be redefined if we hope to get anywhere with it. But such a redefinition has a tremendous advantage — it allows to us to envisage a better world rather than simply a variation on the present mess.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. Ben Harris-Roxas says:

    Interesting piece Tad, though it does seem that you're trying to set up a monolithic scientific straw man. I take issue with your assertion that "scientists have adapted to mainstream ideas in the hope of getting a hearing." In my experience researchers with an interest in climate change mostly oppose emissions trading. The most heated arguments I've seen have been about whether mitigation is even technically feasible at this point. Are you confusing "scientists have adapted to" with "only scientists with"?

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    Ben, I wasn't having a go at scientists but pointing out that politics rather than science is what will solve the situation we find ourselves in.On whether climate scientists have been pro or anti emissions trading, it's not really relevant. Until Copenhagen the political consensus among them was to go along with emissions trading (even if there were rogue elements among them) because that was how they could keep governments' attentions. Jonathan Neale details this process in the book I've linked to above.I think that more recently the same opening out of the debate we see generally is also happening in the climate science community. It has driven the excellent NTEU statement criticising market mechanisms.

  3. David says:

    OK, so how would you like us to take your money? Pick your pocket? Night time raid? Or maybe hack your bank account? End result is identical. People taxed on essentials have to pay less on other things, until they're so poor they can only pay for food and shelter and die of the cold. Great policies guys.

  4. wrongarithmetic says:

    Two points.First. I think that this division of knowledge and politcal practice marks out the limits of politics-as-usual within capitalism. For example. There is the established fact that everyday people in Australia aren't interested in the way that government panders to corporations but would rather an essentially social democratic regime: education, health, infrastructure funding etc. Politics as usual does almost the exact opposite. Another example is Israel/Palestine. There is scholarly consensus about what has happened, what is happening and what needs to happen there. That is both Rightists and Leftists agree on the facts. The problem is entirely the limit of politics-as-usual. One could probably go on forever, showing the gap between science and politics. I think the real reason for this is the disintegration of the Left and the simple absence of any discursive opposition to politics-as-usual that resulted from its disintegration.Second. I think expecting any kind of justice from the state is conceptually wrong. Justice is an excess over the limits of what the state can do; all that states can do is regulate ongoing injustices. If we don't allow for this conceptualisation there is no space for politics as the enforcement of justice against the limits of politics-as-usual. So stuff about a just transition is problematic if it conflates this with state action on climate change. It doesn't help to built an alternative discourse but turns us always back into mouths full of corpses.

  5. Boris Kelly says:

    Tad, you argue against an ETS and its variants because of their reliance on market mechanisms which, in turn, reinforce the political status quo. Your preference is for state intervention to build national green infrastructure and create jobs. You chide the Greens for shifting from an CPRS model to advocacy of an interim carbon tax and, by inference, you disdain public-private partnerships of the NBN type and those mooted by the Zero Carbon Emissions project. You talk of galvanising 'ordinary people' around a class conscious movement for direct action from government. But, in saying all this – and I don't mean to disparage your contribution – you do not address the question of revenue. Presumably, government will need to raise taxes and issue bonds to pay for solely state owned infrastructure. This part of your argument is not clear.I was taken by a recent report from the New Economics Foundation which analyses the collapse of the UK banking system and its relationship to pending cuts to government spending on social services. The report (Where did our money go?)recommends the establishment of a Green Bank as a mechanism for government investment of the kind you are advocating. The NES is, as you know, a reformist group. Their latest report, The Great Transition, tackles some of the issues raised in your post.

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris, the issue of revenue is actually technically quite simple, and I'd recommend you look at chapter 2 of the "One Million Climate Jobs Now!" pamphlet for a summary. The more difficult issue is the politics, which demand that sectional and national capitalist actors take a hit. I would argue that market based policies are put out there either because their advocates want to make sure that the working class takes the hit, or they hope we can somehow use the logic of capital to "trick" the polluters into doing the right thing by manipulating their self-interest.I will chase down the NEF report as I haven't seen it. However, in my experience, "green bank" ideas usually start from the presumption that state investment cannot create value, and/or that we need to keep taxes on private capital low. Once we accept those things we've lost the argument.

  7. Boris Kelly says:

    Tad, of the options for raising revenue outlined in the One Million Climate Jobs Now! report,none is politically tenable, for the current Australian situation,IMO. Although technically simple, as you say, I can't see any of them flying without a substantial shift in trade union allegiance from the ALP to the Greens. This is not impossible but unlikely. If it were to occur, however, it could then be possible for the Greens to advance an argument in favour of large scale state subsidisation of green jobs but they would need to do so with a sound economic argument expressed in the language of common sense for general consumption, as the UK report does. The Greens are not strong on economic matters, so it is a big ask. And if not the Greens, who? Both the major parties along with key independents will baulk at increasing government debt or raising taxes; the situation in Australia is not as dire as in the UK and, therefore, the call for large scale state intervention would be regarded as over reaching. Perhaps the best scenario in the short term would be to see a Greens/union proposal tabled as part of both the Parliamentary Climate Change Committee and the July 2011 tax summit.So putting aside questions of technical facility in revenue raising, how do you see the idea you propose playing out politically? That is, how to render it feasible, Tad?

  8. Marc says:

    @Boris: Late as I am to the party, I have to point out, that there is a circularity to your logic. Without a substantial in union allegiance to the Greens the policies outlined in the Climate Jobs Now report are, you argue, not possible. Yet without a shift towards precisely these policies by the Greens, a wholesale shift in union allegiance to the Greens is vanishingly unlikely. A key part of this argument is precisely what Greens policy should be in a context of a strategic argument about how to build support for a left alternative to labour – only policy that harmonises the progressive agenda of the Greens with the interests of workers on issues like climate change is going to work, the rest is simply labor-style, faux-pragmatic machine politics recut in Green cloth.This suggests a deeper problem with your argument though, which is whether the logic of "feasability" that you suggest is particularly useful as a frame for solving the climate crisis? The problem is that anything that substantially alters the status quo will initially appear infeasible, given that it will clash to a significant degree with the interests of the corporations that got us into this mess, while anything that does not substantially alter the status quo will be inadequate to solve the climate crisis. The classic problem of the ruling ideas being the ideas of the rulers refracted through a contemporary policy debate …