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Toward a Radical Climate Movement

Climate change is unlike any other man-made challenge that society has had to confront. Hunger, poverty and unemployment are but a few examples of such issues that have been grappled with for centuries. And, although it would be abominable if these same human indignities we struggle to overcome today were to go unresolved long into the future, human civilization is in no way dependent upon their eradication. It is in this respect that climate change is qualitatively different.

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The question that looms over the heads of climate researchers is how much additional warming is allowable before positive feedbacks in the climate system establish a set of self-reinforcing feedback loops. This dire situation is commonly referred to as ‘runaway’ climate change, and once initiated, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions become futile as a means to preserve a habitable future. An example of a positive feedback that is being witnessed today is the release of methane gas from the Siberian permafrost. As the atmosphere continues to warm due to greenhouse emissions, the permafrost has begun to melt and release stored methane deposits. Once in the atmosphere, this methane speeds up the global warming process, in turn amplifying existing positive feedbacks while also triggering previously dormant ones. It is this fragility of the climate system that differentiates climate change from all other social challenges, by placing a time limit on society’s ability to act.

Although we do not know the specific amount of warming that will trigger a runaway scenario, international bodies including the United Nations agree that an increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures is a threshold that we should avoid. That is to say, once this threshold is passed the climate system will become unstable, making it susceptible to sharp temperature increases that bring us closer to the climate tipping point. However a growing number of researchers challenge this widely cited threshold as being ‘safe.’ Basing their observations on observable data in the natural environment, they contend that climate destabilization is far more likely to occur at approximately 1.5 degrees Centigrade; just a few tenths of a degree above the current global average.[1] Whichever temperature assessment for climate destabilization is correct, it is strikingly clear that aggressive public policy is needed to immediately curb greenhouse gas emissions and foster a transition to a world that is predominantly powered by renewable energy.

Given the failure of government to meet its obligation to mitigate climate change, it is clear that political protest is a tactic that must be pursued by the environmental justice community. Indeed, the historical record shows that a social movement is the most effective vehicle for forcing policy makers to respond to social problems.[2] The recent International Day of Climate Action is a step in the right direction, and its attendance of over 300,000 participants in New York City alone should give us hope that such a social movement is possible. Perhaps equally significant is the fact that Pope Francis has identified climate change as a social issue that demands immediate action. That such a well-respected public figure is calling on ordinary people to respond to the needs of the environment lends additional credence to the idea that a social movement which addresses climate change is possible. But I want to caution that it is not enough to demand more action on climate change. Such a singular focus on the environment confines any resulting public policy to the same neoliberal logics that have up until now, greatly constrained public policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, a solution to climate change lies in the ability of a social movement to effectively articulate a set of demands that address the climate crisis while also striking at the heart of neoliberalism.

a solution to climate change lies in the ability of a social movement to effectively articulate a set of demands that address the climate crisis while also striking at the heart of neoliberalism.

What’s the Problem with Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is best understood as a coup d’etat against Keynesian political economy by elites who view social democracy as an impediment to their ability to accumulate wealth. Whereas the Keynesian era was defined by a federal government that engaged in the redistributional provision of social goods and services and regulatory interventions in the market economy that serve as a counter-balance to the vulgarities that are inherently produced by private markets, neoliberalism is a rejection of this balance; instead seeking the privatization and financialization of everything[3]. In other words, it is the wholesale retreat of the federal government from its social functions. It is for this reason that David Harvey charges neoliberalism with being not so much an economic model, as it is a political project that aims to restore class power to capitalist elites.[4] As a consequence of neoliberal restructuring of the state, the provision of social goods and services is devolved to state and municipal governments that typically lack the institutional and budgetary capacity to carry out such programs. Meanwhile, the primary objective of the federal government is to serve private ends through the facilitation and expansion of markets. It is this failed dualism of devolution on the one hand, and privatization and financialization on the other that has greatly crippled America’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This essay reviews these attempts in order to demonstrate that a demand for more action on climate change must be coupled with a strategy to redirect the state away from neoliberal objectives and toward public ends.

The Devolution of America’s Climate Policy

In response to relative inaction at the federal level, a growing number of states and municipalities are attempting to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[5] At the state-level, ‘green’ standards have been imposed on products and buildings. Similar rules aimed at maximizing energy efficiency have also been placed on public sector purchasing. And although many state regulations are fairly passive, the State of California has made great strides in its efforts to reduce its carbon emissions by placing strict regulations on its automobile and other industries. However, despite the efforts of several states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the brunt of America’s climate change policy exists at the municipal level, and these efforts have been rapidly increasing since the early 2000’s.[6]

Municipal-level efforts to combat climate change take advantage of locally-based policy instruments that include land-use regulations as well as codes and ordinances that aim to reduce energy consumption.[7][8] Examples of such policies include the mandated use of energy-efficient lighting and insulation in new building construction and the development of municipal bike lanes to reduce the use of motor vehicles. More comprehensive, budget-intensive ways that municipalities are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint include the construction of mass-transportation systems; the replacing of all existing municipal vehicles with more fuel-efficient options; and the development of renewable energy infrastructure capable of meeting residential and municipal energy needs.[9] But although many of these efforts at the municipal and state levels are laudable and in some instances have more ambitious emissions reductions targets than the federal government,[10] their actual contribution to greenhouse gas reductions has been negligible.

Close inspection of sub-national climate policy reveals that only about half of all fifty states have managed to develop a workable strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,[11] and most of these efforts have only modest emissions targets. Problematically, even less has been achieved at the municipal-level where the majority of America’s climate change mitigation efforts are situated. A comprehensive review of local mitigation efforts revealed that the majority of municipalities that are associated with one or both of the two of the largest organizations that represent and advocate for municipalities working to reduce greenhouse emissions have not moved beyond the planning stage to actual policy implementation.[12] However troubling these findings are, they are not surprising given the neoliberal context within which state and municipal mitigation efforts exist. Indeed, neoliberalism imposes structural constraints that greatly limit the ability of sub-national scales of government to adequately regulate industrial carbon emissions, pursue policies that reduce the use of fossil fuels, or to facilitate a transition to renewable-based energy sources.

The withdrawal of federal support for state and municipal budgets has greatly undermined sub-national efforts to mitigate climate change. Because state and local governments rarely have the operating budgets to allow for the successful implementation of even modest policy initiatives that aim to curb carbon emissions, it is inconceivable that more ambitious projects such as the development of mass-transit or the construction of renewable energy infrastructure will be developed across the US. In response to these budgetary challenges imposed on them by the neoliberal state, municipal (and state) governments have gone from being managers of budgets and government agencies to becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, turning to the private sector in pursuit of revenue. [13] As such, great care is placed on maintaining a pro-growth, pro-business environment in order to increase the local tax base and benefit from the spillover effects that are generated by local industry. Not surprisingly, the elevated reliance that states and municipalities have come to have on the private sector translates to a general unwillingness to enact strict regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or to introduce steep corporate taxes that could potentially fund climate initiatives. We see then that a fundamental contradiction exists between devolved climate policy and the efforts of states and municipalities to be ‘entrepreneurial’ in their quest to avoid budget deficits and provide some degree of social services. However, it is important to note that even if these budgetary and regulatory obstacles were overcome, sub-national climate initiatives like California’s strict regulation of the automobile industry are only beneficial if most or all other states adopt similar regulatory measures. Therefore, federally-directed climate change mitigation policy is far more efficient because it does not require political consensus from every state and every municipality across the country in order for it to be implemented nationwide.

The Financialization of Greenhouse Gas Reductions

Very little has been done at the federal level to promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. With the exception of a handful of meager regulations, federal policy has done much more to facilitate the aggressive expansion of the fossil fuel industry than it has to force a rapid transition to a post-carbon energy economy. However, a growing number of federal policy makers are interested in developing a nation-wide cap and trade system that will serve as the cornerstone of American climate change mitigation policy. This widespread support for cap and trade fits within the neoliberal discourse because it is skirts direct government intervention in the market economy by instead creating a financial market where carbon can be bought and sold with the presumption that such activity will lead to a reduction in carbon emissions. Given its growing popularity among US policy makers is important to review its severe limitations as a mechanism for mitigating climate change. For unless a social movement is able to redirect the state to pursue proven, non-market policy interventions in the market economy, it is almost certain that if the demand for more action on climate change grows loud enough, it will be met with a nation-wide cap and trade system.

Cap and trade, also referred to as ‘carbon trading,’ places a cap on the allowable amount of carbon emissions an individual firm or industry can emit during a given time period. This cap is set by a governing body such as a federal government, a regional body or by the Kyoto Protocol. Once the cap on emissions is set, carbon credits are issued to firms according to a baseline estimate of their carbon emissions. The principle behind these credits is to issue to each firm, less credits than are equal to the amount of carbon emissions that firm is currently emitting. In other words, a carbon credit is equal to one ton of carbon.[14] Therefore, a firm that is assessed to be emitting ten tons of carbon emissions might only be issued eight permits. As such, the firm has several options before the time limit for reductions is up: 1) it can take internal measures to reduce its emissions by two tons; 2) it can reduce its emissions by more than two tons, allowing it to sell its surplus credits on the market to other firms that have failed to meet their emissions reductions requirement; 3) it can purchase two additional carbon credits to excuse their lack of mandated emissions reductions; or 4) it can ‘offset’ its reduction requirements by investing in a project – typically in the Global South – that is designed to reduce carbon emissions, allowing these reductions to be counted as the firm’s own. This last option, referred to as ‘carbon offsetting’ is the most popular approach within existing cap and trade systems.

Despite its widespread support and popularization by the Kyoto Protocol, cap and trade suffers several weaknesses and vulnerabilities that make it an insufficient and financially volatile method of climate change mitigation. Cap and trade is highly vulnerable to multiple forms of corruption that greatly undermine its ability to reduce carbon emissions. The European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) has demonstrated that corporate influence over the allocation of carbon permits can lead to their severe over-allocation. As a result, some of the worst polluting industries have had their emissions output increase rather than decrease,[15] and in one particular instance the price of carbon suddenly dropped by over 60% due to market saturation.[16] Similarly, existing cap and trade schemes including the EU-ETS have revealed the ease by which firms have been able to overestimate their baseline carbon emissions in order to receive more carbon credits than their actual emissions warrant. Incredibly, such over-allocation on carbon permits have led to windfall profits in the billions of dollars (usd).[17][18]

Carbon offsetting has its own set of unique vulnerabilities to corruption. For example, a great deal of concern exists over the ease by which offset projects can be recorded as complete without ever being developed.[19] Related to fictitious offsetting is the practice of ‘double counting’ or ‘recycling’ whereby multiple actors claim responsibility for the same offset project.[20][21] However, as problematic as this fraudulent activity within offset markets is, what is perhaps most troubling about offsetting is that it maintains a ‘business-as-usual’ emissions path in the Global North. In order to avert the destabilization of the climate system, the Global North in particular, cannot maintain its current emissions path.[22] [23]And yet, carbon offsetting is based on the premise that it is cheaper, and as such, more desirable for firms in the Global North to invest in greenhouse gas reducing projects in the Global South where such investments are cheaper, rather than to reduce their own carbon emissions. For example, most recorded carbon emissions in the European Union are a result of offset projects rather than actual greenhouse gas reductions in the EU.[24] Even more, Australia has proposed to reduce the entirety of its greenhouse gas emissions through offsets rather than changes in domestic energy consumption and production.[25] Indeed, the favored mechanism of offsetting actually encourages carbon-intensive production and consumption in the parts of the world that are most responsible for global climate change.

Beyond its inability to force the aggressive and timely reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions that must be made in order to avert catastrophic climate change, cap and trade also poses a threat to the global financial system. Carbon markets are becoming increasingly dominated by brokers, large financial firms and investment funds looking to cash in to the speculative opportunities that exist within these markets.[26] In fact, the majority of carbon trading today is being done by speculators who are pursuing capital gains rather than assisting companies in their compliance with mandated caps on emissions. This growing speculative activity is fueling concerns over the creation of a bubble economy within carbon markets that could precipitate market failure.[27] Additional concern also exists over the ways in which carbon offsets, which are essentially a form of financial derivatives, are being turned into financial securities not dissimilar from the subprime mortgage-backed securities that caused systemic failure throughout global financial markets in beginning in late-2007. This is because carbon offsets are being turned into carbon-backed securities that are bundled, split up into tranches based on the risk associated with the completion of offset projects, and sold to investors on secondary markets. Due to the risk associated with the actual completion of offsets projects, these securities are being referred to as ‘subprime carbon.’[28] Although subprime carbon does not pose a systemic threat to financial markets today, some estimates value the market share of carbon derivatives to be valued at over $3 trillion dollars by the year 2020 if countries including the United States develop their own cap and trade system.[29] Thus, should cap and trade be pursued as the dominant global approach to greenhouse gas reductions, it is conceivable that these risky financial instruments could severely threaten the health of global financial markets.

Going Forward

It is clear that we cannot allow efforts to mitigate climate change to be dictated by the logics of neoliberalism if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Therefore, it is not enough for a social movement to simply demand more action on climate change. Rather, the success of a social movement that confronts climate change will be measured according to its ability to command the federal government to intervene in the political economy not on behalf of private interests, but instead in the interest ordinary people

the success of a social movement that confronts climate change will be measured according to its ability to command the federal government to intervene in the political economy not on behalf of private interests, but instead in the interest ordinary people

and the preservation of the natural environment. In other words, our primary objective must be to shatter the monopolistic claim that elites maintain over the organs of public policy, by redirecting the objectives of the state away from neoliberal imperatives and toward public ends.

A fundamental question that arises in response to this political strategy is whether or not a social movement that is organized around the issue of climate change is capable of achieving the task at hand. Political elites have a vested interest in maintaining the existing hegemony of neoliberal political economy, and as such, a groundswell of public support will be needed to overcome their political influence. Historically, the most practical means by which to build a mass-movement is by appealing to people’s economic self-interest, and the rapid national and international growth of Occupy Wall Street is a testament to this observation. Therefore, I contend that if this social movement is going to be successful, it must transform environmentally-specific demands into demands that simultaneously address climate change and the economic needs of ordinary people.

Here are two examples that help to contextualize my recommendation: 1) the introduction of a carbon tax is often presented by environmentalists as being a more direct and potentially more aggressive approach to reducing national and international carbon emissions compared to cap and trade.[30] [31] However, the notion of a carbon tax remains extremely ambiguous for most people, and there are justifiable concerns over the ways in which carbon taxes disproportionately affect lower income people. Taking these concerns into consideration, rather than demanding a carbon tax, why not demand a steep progressive tax on wealth and income along with a flat tax on financial transactions? Not only does this approach help to reduce income inequality by setting an effective ceiling on high incomes, but the revenue from these taxes can be spent on a ‘green’ public works program. This program would put tens of millions of people to work building and installing the necessary infrastructure for a transition to a renewables-based energy economy while also developing a high-speed national rail system, and even establishing state-supported worker-owned cooperatives tasked with servicing and operating this new infrastructure.[32] 2) Another example of a climate-specific demand that can be reworked into a demand that addresses both environmental and economic justice concerns is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies. Although in principle this demand is logical, we must consider the effect that it would have on working people as the cost of energy immediately rises.

To avoid these negative outcomes, a far more effective demand is the nationalization of the energy industry. Not only could public control of the energy industry provide people with cheap energy, but with the proper legal mandate all surplus that is generated through the sale of energy will be directly funneled into the research and development of renewable energy; in other words, the sale of traditional energy will directly fund its replacement.

The existential threat of climate change and our failure to confront it has the tendency to induce an acute form of political pessimism. My reason for writing this essay is to to dispel such hopelessness by identifying the obstacles that have been standing in the way of our success at tackling climate change. Although our time to act is running out, the mitigation of climate change is still well within reach. Therefore, our task now is to forge a social movement that confronts climate change in a way that appeals to the economic needs of ordinary people while striking at the heart of neoliberal political economy.

 

 

Notes

[1] Hansen, James, et al. “Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.” PLOS One 8.12 (2013): 1-26. Print.

[2] Piven, Frances Fox. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

[3] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lutsey, Nicholas; Sperling, Daniel “America’s Bottom-Up Climate Change Mitigation Policy.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 673-85. Print.

[6] Pitt, Damian Rogero. “Harnessing Community Energy: The Keys to Climate Mitigation Policy Adoption in US Municipalities.” Local Environment 15.8 (2010): 717-29. Print.

[7] Ibid

[8] Lutsey, Nicholas; Sperling, Daniel “America’s Bottom-Up Climate Change Mitigation Policy.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 673-85. Print.

[9] Betsill, Michele M. “Mitigating Climate Change in US Cities: Opportunities and Obstacles.” Local Environment 6.4 (2001): 393-406. Print.

[10] Selin, Henrik, and Stacy D. VanDeveer. Changing Climates in North American Politics: Institutions, Policymaking, and Multilevel Governance. Cambridge: MIT, 2009. Print.

[11] Lutsey, Nicholas; Sperling, Daniel “America’s Bottom-Up Climate Change Mitigation Policy.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 673-85. Print.

[12] Pitt, Damian Rogero. “Harnessing Community Energy: The Keys to Climate Mitigation Policy Adoption in US Municipalities.” Local Environment 15.8 (2010): 717-29. Print.

[13] Harvey, David. “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography. 71.1 (1989): Print.

[14] Bumpus, Adam G., and Diana M. Liverman. “Accumulation by Decarbonization and the Governance of Carbon Offsets.” Economic Geography 84.2 (2008): 127-55. Print.

[15] Clifton, Sarah-Jayne. “A Dangerous Obsession: The Evidence Against Carbon Trading and For Real Solutions to Avoid a Climate Crunch.” Friends of the Earth (2009): 1-64. Print.

[16] Smith, Kevin. “The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Climate Sins.” Carbon Trade Watch (2007): 1-77. Print.

[17] Pearson, Anna. “The Carbon Rich List: The Companies Profiting from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.” Sandbag (2010): 1-16. Print.

[18] Smith, Kevin. “The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Climate Sins.” Carbon Trade Watch (2007): 1-77. Print.

[19] Bumpus, Adam G., and Diana M. Liverman. “Accumulation by Decarbonization and the Governance of Carbon Offsets.” Economic Geography 84.2 (2008): 127-55. Print.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Clifton, Sarah-Jayne. “A Dangerous Obsession: The Evidence Against Carbon Trading and For Real Solutions to Avoid a Climate Crunch.” Friends of the Earth (2009): 1-64. Print.

[22] Smith, Kevin. “The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Climate Sins.” Carbon Trade Watch (2007): 1-77. Print.

[23] Clifton, Sarah-Jayne. “A Dangerous Obsession: The Evidence Against Carbon Trading and For Real Solutions to Avoid a Climate Crunch.” Friends of the Earth (2009): 1-64. Print.

[24] Nordhaus, William D. “The Architecture of Climate Economics: Designing a Global Agreement on Climate Change.” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences 67.1 (2011): 9-18. Print.

[25] Clifton, Sarah-Jayne. “A Dangerous Obsession: The Evidence Against Carbon Trading and For Real Solutions to Avoid a Climate Crunch.” Friends of the Earth (2009): 1-64. Print.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Friends of the Earth. “Subprime Carbon? Re-Thinking the World’s Largest New Derivatives Market.” (2009) 1-13. Print.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Clifton, Sarah-Jayne. “A Dangerous Obsession: The Evidence Against Carbon Trading and For Real Solutions to Avoid a Climate Crunch.” Friends of the Earth (2009): 1-64. Print.

[30] Nordhaus, William D. “The Architecture of Climate Economics: Designing a Global Agreement on Climate Change.” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences 67.1 (2011): 9-18. Print.

[31] Hansen, James. “How to Solve the Climate Problem.” The Nation. 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 5 Jan. 2010.

[32] Van Arsdale, David, Michael P. McCabe, et al. “Manifesto For Economic Democracy and Ecological Sanity.” Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. San Francisco: City Lights, 2012. 177-186. Print.

 

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