Naomi Klein Is Half Right About Capitalism vs. the Climate

Naomi Klein is always worth reading. If you haven't seen Capitalism vs. the Climate, go ahead. I'll wait.

Her 10,000-word exposé is well worth the effort. It makes the essential point that addressing climate change means reorganizing how the world does business.

Klein makes the point by arguing that the climate-denier crowd at the typical Heartland Institute gatherings:

may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying "green" products and creating clever markets in pollution.

I'm completely with Klein on her first point. Sure, buy green products. I do. But do it because organic, local apples are better for you and the local environment, not because you'll stop global warming.

But Klein is wrong in her more serious assertion: that we can save the planet only if we abandon capitalism:

Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency.

That's only true in so far as we consider the current situation anything close to a "free market." It isn't. Markets are woefully rigged in favor of pollution, which is also the main reason the earth finds itself in peril. (I'm pretty sure Klein would agree with that point.)

Think of it this way. My 9-month-old has less right to grow up breathing clean air than the driver barreling past us has the right to pollute. The reason is simply that markets are constructed so that few have to pay for the pollution they produce.

Every time I open my fridge, turn on the heat, hop in a car (or on a train), or do much of anything, someone else incurs the costs for the pollution my actions produce.

When I fly from New York to Vienna to see my parents, my flight produces about one ton of carbon dioxide emissions. That ton causes at least about $20 worth of damage to the atmosphere. But I don't pay a penny of that. Everyone of us seven billion pays a tiny fraction of a penny for my seeing my parents.

Klein offers two solutions. The first calls for a radical rethinking of how we lead our lives and opt for a more leisurely path. A lovely thought. I'd much rather spend weeks at a time visiting my parents in Vienna and in-laws in Bangkok than engage on jetlag-laden, multi-continent "vacations" that seem to serve no real purpose other than to make it back to my desk by Monday morning.

So yes, let's create a culture where it's OK for everyone to take off a couple of months in the summer, and perhaps another one around the winter holidays. It works for the Swedes, why not the rest of us?

But Klein realizes this sort of cultural change won't happen overnight and wouldn't by itself stabilize the climate. Which leads her to call for "taxing the rich and filthy."

Nice turn of phrase, but, unfortunately, it confuses the issue. It's really about taxing the filthy. And it's not about taxing anyone for the sake of sticking it to the man. It's about asking everyone to pay for their own pollution instead of shoving those costs onto society.

I'd gladly pay the $20 extra for my flight to see my parents. But Klein argues, correctly, that nothing will be accomplished if the only people paying are do-gooders who want to feel better about their carbon footprint. If we want to affect the planet, everyone has to pay the cost of their pollution. Only then will we truly level the playing field.

That all seems like wishful thinking, alas it can be achieved. The European Union, starting January 1, 2012, is putting a carbon price on every flight to and from the EU.

The program is starting modestly; my flight to see my parents will cost around $2 extra, not the $20 or more that would make up for my pollution. Still, it's a start. And keep in mind that the EU's system will cover a third of all miles flown -- globally. That's no longer a bunch of greens spending extra on their organically sourced ice cream. That's change on a scale the planet notices.

Europe, of course, is not alone. California will soon have the world's most comprehensive cap-and-trade system limiting global warming pollution. Australia just passed a carbon price. British Columbia has had one in place since 2008. India has a coal tax. China is pursuing carbon trading as part of its twelfth 5-year-plan. It seems only Washington is falling further and further behind.

All of these are the kinds of change that work with, not against, market forces and human desires -- desires that capture the imagination of billions and make many of us want the latest iAnything or fly on that Airbus 380.

In fact, my real argument with Klein is that in trying to escape capitalism, she is trying to evade human nature. We could and should work to make human desires less material. Some of the rich may well be in that position already, but I'm afraid that's a losing proposition for the globe.

It's not about a full-scale assault on human desires, capitalism, and free markets. It's about freeing them in the first place, and in the process freeing all of us to do the right thing. It doesn't get more ethical than that.

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