Capitalism vs the Climate

Capitalism vs the Climate

This week I finished reading a book: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. It was an incredibly long book, and a bit difficult to read. I definitely had to force myself to read it. The content of the book is not exactly what I was expecting going into it, either.

However, it also taught me lessons that I was not expecting. There is so much to this book, that I wanted to challenge myself to write about it. To see what I had learned — and to publish it. As difficult as it was to read, I think it had a large impact on me.

Part One: Climate Change is already here

Something that this book has brought to my attention is that Climate Change is not some far-off future. It is not even coming in the near-future. It is here already and it is having an impact.

The worst part is that it is not affecting everyone equally. Coastal communities are being flooded. Indigenous people are having their water poisoned and their food sources are dying off. Poorer countries have experienced droughts.

I can see myself typing these things, knowing that I have already read these things in the news before, but I have never spent the time to sit with these thoughts. To empathize with those who are being affected. I think this action alone has impacted me.

With these impacts in mind, the book argues that richer countries (those who have polluted so much already, and continue to do so) should pay the price of the impact. It is unfair that rich countries get to continue polluting while poorer communities have to bear an unequal amount of impact — which only serves to make their situation worse.

In summary, these rich countries should be required to make payments to poorer communities and countries to help them transition through their own industrial revolutions, and toward greener jobs.

Part Two: Capitalism is not working

Here is the problem: We are still polluting and we are still polluting more every year than the last. We have made policies to combat climate change, but some of them are just not working as well as we hoped.

For example, and I might get some of this wrong, there is a 'cap and trade' system called the EU Emissions Trading System operating in 31 countries. It sets a limit on the emissions of corporations in these countries, as well as sets up a market to buy and sell 'allowances'.

In effect, this system is supposed to incentivize reducing emissions (by selling allowances) and disincentivize over-polluting (because you have to buy more allowances). In actuality, this system has not been incredibly impactful — and might even be harmful.

It has allowed many companies to game the system: For example, there are financial incentives for businesses in certain regions to capture their emissions instead of burning it. Which means, the more they pollute, the more they are paid.

Part Three: Big Green is corrupt

Something that really bummed me out in this book was the amount of times it mentioned Environmental NGOs that have sold out to the fossil fuel industry and that have made tremendously corrupt decisions.

For example, the largest environmental group in the USA, The Nature Conservancy, earns money from drilling for oil on a reserve meant for prairie chickens. Even worse, they continued to do it despite prairie chicken populations declining, and eventually disappearing from the reserve.

The book also points out that many Big Green organizations have been invested (with millions of dollars) into the oil industry. There was a huge call for divestment in the recent years, but in some cases, it is still happening.

When NAFTA was first announced, many Big Green groups were opposed. However, one by one, each one eventually decided to support it despite the impact on the environment that unchecked global trade would have.

Furthermore, some of the governmental departments in the US have been severely undermined by the oil industry. Here is an excerpt from the book:

An internal U.S. government report pronounced that what was then called the Minerals Management Service—the division of the U.S. Interior Department charged with collecting royalty payments from the oil and gas industry—suffered from “a culture of ethical failure.” Not only had officials repeatedly accepted gifts from oil industry employees but, according to a report by the department’s inspector general, several officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” For a public that had long suspected that their public servants were in bed with the oil and gas lobby, this was pretty graphic proof.

Not all environmental NGOs have displayed these levels of corruption. Agencies such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club have had better track records.

Part Four: Green Billionares will not save us

If big environmental non-profits won't save us then who will? Well, not philanthropic billionares either.

This book mostly focused on one: Richard Branson. Richard Branson met with Al Gore to discuss climate change in 2006. Richard Branson was inspired by Al Gore to combat change.

He pledges 3 billion to find a low-carbon fuel over the next decade. By 2014, he had paid out about 300 million. A little off the mark.

He also sets up an Earth Challenge in 2007, offering 25 million to find a way to remove greenhouse gases from the air. It still has not been paid out. Furthermore, it seems that the finalists are mostly being used as a way to make money: to capture the carbon in the air and sell it. Who is buying? The oil industry.

Why does the oil indsutry want to buy captured carbon? There is a process called EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery) which allows oil companies to squeeze more oil out of their oil fields by injecting them with CO2. So, what once seemed like a well-intentioned fund now has participants positioning themselves to help out the oil industry.

What else is wrong with depending on philanthropic billionares? They are a bit more focused on geoengineering than on reducing emissions.

Part Five: Geoengineering is probably worse than climate change

One risk of geoengineering is that it cannot really be safely undone. One of the most promising solutions is to fill the stratosphere with sun-blocking particles, in order to cool the earth. We have actually experienced effects like this: some volcanoes eruptions have been severe enough to have this effect, such as Mount Pinatubo.

However, if we pollute the upper atmosphere in order to block the sun, when do we stop? If we just keep allowing ourselves to pollute, then the effects of the sun will only be worse when we stop blocking the heat — because there will be no gradual adaptation available to wildlife on Earth. Plus, do we really think we will ever be able to stop blocking the sun once we start?

In this hypothetical, even if we temporarily block the sun, we are only reducing our chances of being able to switch to renewable energy. Solar panels will not work very well when there is no sunlight to absorb.

Lastly, blocking the sun may not actually be a solution for everyone. If we release the sun-blocking particles in the northern hemisphere, it has been shown that it will cause drought in other parts of the world. In fact, this has already happened and with a proven link to volcanic eruptions in the past.

If we release the particles in the southern hemisphere, then the United States will see a 20% increase in hurricane frequency. These solutions are not necessarily better than the adverse effects of climate change that are already predicted.

This is only one example of geoengineering, but it is a pretty bleak picture. That is not to say that all geoengineering opportunities are this poor: but that they do need to consider a wide variety of problems, including who it will impact the most.

Another danger of geoengineering is that even having the technology could be dangerous. If a poorer country knows it will suffer from climate change, and none of the rest of the world is helping, will a risk of catastrophic effects to the rest of humanity stop them from deploying their own risky solutions, such as dumping iron in the ocean?

The book goes on to talk about how geoengineering is just another version of playing god. The belief that humans are in control of the world, instead of the other way around — that we are playing with variables that we do not fully understand.

Perhaps it is better to just stop polluting for a little while?

Part Six: The Glue of the Progressive Left

It is a bit of a mixed feelings situation, but many of the solutions to Climate Change are in line with what the progressive left has been demanding for years:

  • redistribution of wealth
  • affordable and dense housing
  • better public transit
  • global public aid
  • green jobs
  • respect for indigenous people
  • returning energy grids to the public sector

The political right is right to be afraid of policies to combat climate change. It is not a conspiracy, but the politics of the left certainly align with preventing climate change.

Part Seven: Indigenous Solutions

This is actually the last and final part that I can remember from the book. The rise of Indigenous people in the media recently is not a coincedence. The truth is that some of the laws signed many years ago, reserving rights for indigenous people in the USA, Canada, and many other countries, could be a huge legal win for the environmental movement.

I am running out of steam to finish this article, so I will not link to any examples, but many indigenous protections have already been used to stop oil pipelines and operations in many places around the world. We have aboriginal groups to thank for these wins, and we should do our best to share the burden and contribute: for many indigenous communities are notoriously lacking in financial wealth.

Furthermore, the way of living portrayed by these communities sets a good precedent for the rest of us. Memories from how we used to operate as a species have been stored in these communities: contributing back to the Earth, and acquiring energy by interacting with nature, rather than extracting it.

Part Eight: Hope to continue

There was a lot to this book, and I did not manage to cover everything in this article. I am still processing what I learned and how to use this information. The final chapter of the book is focused on restoring hope to the reader. Do we have any?

The book argues that in order to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees celsius, we will need massive and swift political changes. It goes on to show that this bottom-up approach of activism has been successful in the past: including women's rights, gay rights, and most importantly the abolition of slavery.

The economic impact of slavery is roughly equivalent to the impact of the oil industry now. The elites of the time were set to lose substantial amounts of money: yet the abolition happened. As horrific as this history was, it should give us hope that such massive change can happen. Hopefully, this time, without a civil war.


If this description has inspired you to read the book, it is called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, written by Naomi Klein.

I am sure I missed some parts and did not get everything right. If have anything to say, feel free to reach me on Twitter at @NickOnTheWeb.

Nick Pierson

Comic by Joel Pett