Why Conservatives Deny Climate Change

The politics of climate are dominated by two groups who seem incapable of understanding how their mutual objectives could both be advanced.
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In Fighting to Protect Climate, Progressives Can Be Their Own Worst Enemies

The left assumes conservatives live to maximize profits at the expense of people and the environment. I don't find that true. Conservatives fear big government the same way progressives fear big corporations.

And when it comes to the climate issue, the concerns of both are easy to understand. Much of the progressive prescription for climate protection is anathema to free markets. Much of the conservative response is to just say no.

It doesn't need to be. But the politics of climate are dominated by two groups who seem incapable of understanding how their mutual objectives could both be advanced.

On the one hand are the climate fundamentalists, who fear the biosystem is in imminent collapse, and often advocate radical big government solutions to save the planet now.

On the other hand are the market fundamentalists, who fear that freedom and free markets are under attack, and that acknowledging climate risk begins a slippery slope descent to complete government control of our lives.

I read the world very differently. When it comes to fundamentalism, I'm a dualist. I worry about individual freedom and ecosystem resilience, and I want to do something to protect them both, now.

When their cause is challenged, fundamentalists from both the pro-climate and pro-market communities each tend to behave the same way. They "dumb down" their movements by calling for a mechanistic "to do" list of defenses that only set them up for failure. They "know" their followers can't handle anything more complex, like the truth. And, to a significant degree, they are right.

Yet no two movements should be more aligned in advocating systemic solutions than those that believe in free-flowing economies and free-flowing ecosystems. The libertarian and environmental communities each revere a complex system that produces emergent value beyond our capacity to predict, calculate, or control. One champions free markets, the other free ecosystems. Yet each seeks to protect its favorite, by sacrificing the other.


Naomi Klein is a champion for climate protection. Her first book, No Logo, showed how big brands can build consumer trust even while exploiting the people who make their products. The book came out just after the WTO protests in Seattle and became a bestseller. Her next major book, The Shock Doctrine, argued that conservatives often use crises to profiteer through the marketplace as well as favorable government contracts and policies.
I like Klein, and her first books were well-researched and important. But I fear her next one, scheduled for 2014, will miss the mark badly. Based on her recent pieces in The Nation and The Guardian, Klein will apply lessons from The Shock Doctrine to climate change.

In 2011, to research her climate book, Klein attended a conference convened by the Heartland Institute, which prides itself as the leading think tank for climate skeptics. Her insight from the conference was that the "deniers" aren't motivated by disagreements with the science. They disagree with the science because they don't want to accept its implications, which include the overthrow of free market doctrine.

"The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their "free market" belief system.

"Then I came to the idea that climate change could be a kind of a "people's shock," an answer to the shock doctrine - not just another opportunity by the disaster capitalists to feed off of misery, but an opportunity for progressive forces to deepen democracy and really improve livelihoods around the world.

"Then I came across the idea of "climate debt" when I was doing a piece on reparations for Harper's magazine. I had a meeting with Bolivia's climate negotiator in Geneva - her name is Angélica Navarro - and she put the case to me that climate change could be an opportunity for a global Green Marshall Plan with the North paying climate debts in the form of huge green development project."

So: harness the Shock Doctrine, but this time for good.

Klein isn't happy to be so right. "There is no joy in being right about something so terrifying. But for progressives, there is responsibility in it, because it means that our ideas--informed by indigenous teachings as well as by the failures of industrial state socialism--are more important than ever. It means that a green-left worldview, which rejects mere reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity's best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises."

But unless Klein opens her mind a bit, to let the free marketers inside, she seems destined to advocate a strategy as flawed as the one she attributes to conservatives - one that applies the Shock Doctrine to drive a major expansion in federal government spending and control, ostensibly to protect climate.

To some, it might be refreshing to see the left turn the tables in this way, and use a crisis to create momentum for solar power instead of the Keystone Pipeline. But Klein's prescription is ecologically flawed. She would superimpose a Year 2010 solution that doesn't allow for adaptation.

In What We Learned in the Rainforest, my colleague Tachi Kiuchi and I argue that the economy is a living system that creates value much the way a rainforest does, through feedback and adaptation. Simple resource-intensive ecosystems, like young mangrove and pine forests, lay the groundwork for complex innovation-rich ecosystems, then gradually decline as their more diversified successors flourish.

The same can happen in human economies, so long as they are not kept artificially simple and vulnerable by vested business or government interests eager to embed their power. Klein's proposals, while well-intentioned, would lay down the economic equivalent of a simple pine forest, destroying myriad more complex economies in the process. They would sacrifice economic diversity in the name of ecological diversity, establishing government overseers to prevent the economy from adapting, unless those adaptations were found, by experts, to reduce carbon intensity.

It's not that carbon audits, transit systems, or in-fill developments are evil - they're sensible and important. But establishing a western-centric Year 2010 model of "sustainability" on a global basis, complete with free subways and organic food for all, simply imposes another monoculture on a world that, to be resilient, requires a genuinely organic path of development.

Klein doesn't choose to hear this message - at least not yet. Her intentions are not to reduce economic diversity and impose a global monoculture, so she can't see how her methods might lead to it - unless experts determined that it was absolutely necessary.

But she does see denial elsewhere: "a deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it's been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we've lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results."

The first of these is "the European Union's emissions trading scheme - we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it's disastrous. Not only are emissions up, but you have no end of scams to point to, which gives fodder to the right. The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it's going to bankrupt us, it's handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it's not going to work. And they were right ... that this was a massive corporate giveaway, and they were right that it wasn't going to bring us anywhere near what scientists were saying we needed to do lower emissions."

She's right. But what does she propose instead? "Follow science to its logical conclusions," she says. "Getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth."

That means a return to command-and-control, to explicitly drive down economic growth in the affluent world, while allowing it to increase, to a point, in the developing world. "What we know is that the environmental movement had a series of dazzling victories in the late 60s and in the 70s where the whole legal framework for responding to pollution and to protecting wildlife came into law. It was just victory after victory after victory. And these were what came to be called "command-and-control" pieces of legislation. It was "don't do that." That substance is banned or tightly regulated. It was a top-down regulatory approach."

President Reagan brought that to a close, Klein says, when he "essentially waged war on the environmental movement very openly. We started to see some of the language that is common among those deniers - to equate environmentalism with Communism and so on. As the Cold War dwindled, environmentalism became the next target, the next Communism."

The movement took the hint, and led by "Big Green" groups like EDF, NRDC, and WWF, aligned with corporate interests, as she sees it: "It could have fought back and defended the values it stood for at that point, and tried to resist the steamroller that was neoliberalism in its early days. Or it could have adapted itself to this new reality, and changed itself to fit the rise of corporatist government. And it did the latter. Very consciously if you read what [Environmental Defense Fund president] Fred Krupp was saying at the time."

The movement's leaders made it clear that future victories would come through corporate partnerships, Klein argues. "It's not, 'sue the bastards;' it's, 'work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.' There is no enemy anymore. More than that, it's casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That's the model that has lasted to this day."

One example of the model's effects was environmentalist support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) advanced by President Clinton. "The Big Green groups, with very few exceptions, lined up in favor of NAFTA, despite the fact that their memberships were revolting." As a result, "We've globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It's now successfully spreading across the world, and it's killing us."

Their biggest failure was advocating a market-based cap-and-trade system, rather than command-and-control mandates, she says. "The green groups are not nearly as clever as they believe themselves to be. They got played on a spectacular scale. Many of their partners had one foot in US CAP [Climate Action Partnership] and the other in the US Chamber of Commerce."

Klein criticizes "'green growth' advocates like Thomas Friedman (who) tell us that the process of developing new green technologies and installing green infrastructure can provide a huge economic boost, sending GDP soaring and generating the wealth needed to "make America healthier, richer, more innovative, more productive, and more secure."

Industrialized countries can't meet "the deep emissions cuts demanded by science (at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050) while continuing to grow their economies at even today's sluggish rates," Klein believes.


Climate can only be protected by overthrowing "the growth imperative" itself, and wresting control of the economy from corporations "controlled by footloose investors who demand ever greater profits year after year," says Klein.

When climate skeptics "react to evidence of human-induced climate change as if capitalism itself were coming under threat, it's not because they are paranoid. It's because they are paying attention," she adds.

Her prescriptions sound like a Top Ten list of Libertarian's Worst Nightmares. Here is how she summarizes them: "Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as "people" under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative."

Whew. It's no wonder many who care about freedom don't want to give climate science the time of day. Klein's "progressive" prescriptions are a mechanistic compilation of best hits from the early 1970s. They aren't organic - they are forced, urgent, and panicked. They overlook how sustainability actually works in nature or the economy. And if adopted in whole, they would drive more depletion, not less.

What specifically needs to be done now? She proposes six steps.

1. Klein calls for "Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere," with "big-ticket investments" in publically-owned "subways, streetcars and light-rail systems that are not only everywhere but affordable to everyone; energy-efficient affordable housing along those transit lines; smart electrical grids carrying renewable energy; and a massive research effort to ensure that we are using the best methods possible."

She doesn't suggest this approach should just be done in high-density cities. Her prescription is sweeping - we need to do this everywhere, and fast, she says, "to get ourselves off fossil fuels and to shore up communal infrastructure for the coming storms."

Klein contends the new systems will cost more than the private sector could afford. "The private sector is ill suited to providing most of these services because they require large up-front investments and, if they are to be genuinely accessible to all, some very well may not be profitable."

Bigger deficits may be needed to cover the costs, but the crisis demands sacrifice. "Government budget deficits are not nearly as dangerous as the deficits we have created in vital and complex natural systems."

2. "Planning. Lots and lots of planning," including an "energy descent action plan" in "every community in the world." That means "reversing the thirty-year privatization trend" and upending decades of "market fundamentalism." This would happen "not just at the national and international levels. Every community in the world needs a plan for how it is going to transition away from fossil fuels."

"In the cities and towns that have taken this responsibility seriously, the process has opened rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about how to reorganize their communities to lower emissions and build in resilience for tough times ahead."

Central planning is also needed "for workers whose jobs will become obsolete as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.... That means bringing back the idea of planning our economies based on collective priorities rather than corporate profitability--giving laid-off employees of car plants and coal mines the tools and resources to create jobs, for example, with Cleveland's worker-run green co-ops serving as a model."

3. "Reining in Corporations," through "the rapid re-regulation of the corporate sector." The actions needed range "from imposing strict caps on the amount of carbon corporations can emit, to banning new coal-fired power plants, to cracking down on industrial feedlots, to shutting down dirty-energy extraction projects like the Alberta tar sands (starting with pipelines like Keystone XL that lock in expansion plans)."

4. "Relocalizing Production," by stemming the "devastating free trade" policies that have led wealthy nations "to move their dirty production to places like China," driving the flow of "cargo ships, jumbo jets and heavy trucks that haul raw resources and finished products across the globe (and) devour fossil fuels and spew greenhouse gases."

These examples of "energy-intensive long-haul transport would need to be rationed--reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally or where local production is more carbon-intensive."

5. "Ending the Cult of Shopping," through "a managed transition under which "growth would be reserved for parts of the world still pulling themselves out of poverty." Not all U.S. growth would have to end - just the kind that involves a profit motive. "In the industrialized world, those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impacts (such as the caregiving professions).

"A great many jobs could be created this way," Klein contends. "But the role of the corporate sector, with its structural demand for increased sales and profits, would have to contract."
That's because, in addition to being caused by "greedy people wanting greater corporate profits," the recent economic collapse was caused by "the growth imperative" - the need to keep people buying stuff they don't really want or need. "The threat was real: within our current economic model, a drop in production is by definition a crisis--a recession or, if deep enough, a depression, with all the desperation and hardship that these words imply."

6. Taxing the Rich and Filthy. "How on earth are we going to pay for all this?" Klein asks rhetorically. "The old answer would have been easy: we'll grow our way out of it.... (B)ut in a world hitting multiple ecological limits, it is a nonstarter. So the only way to finance a meaningful response to the ecological crisis is to go where the money is."

"It means increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, cutting bloated military budgets and eliminating absurd subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. And governments will have to coordinate their responses so that corporations will have nowhere to hide .... Most of all, however, we need to go after the profits of the corporations most responsible for getting us into this mess. The top five oil companies made $900 billion in profits in the past decade...."

And "since corporations can be counted on to resist any new rules that cut into their profits, nationalization--the greatest free-market taboo of all--cannot be off the table."

"(O)nce the reality of climate change is recognized, wealth will have to be transferred not just within wealthy countries but also from the rich countries whose emissions created the crisis to poorer ones that are on the front lines of its effects."

What these steps will bring us, somehow, is a new green Eden of local community-based enterprise.

Klein insists this won't all devolve into what Czech President Vaclav Klaus has called a green version of "the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire society." That's because this climate-focused planning will, somehow, decentralize power. "Real climate solutions are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users."

So, in her mental construct, the revolution that overthrows industrial capitalism will be brought about by giving government enough power to control the global corporations, then taking that power back from government, and distributing it evenly to people at the local level, who will use it to build a robust community-level economic system.

Exactly how that transfer will happen makes Vice President Cheney's "they will welcome us with flowers" expectation in Iraq seem quaint.

Unfortunately, revolutionary change doesn't work that way. Only evolutionary change does - the kind we see in complex natural ecosystems like the rainforest, and in complex economies where externalities are internalized and owned, not socialized and subsidized.


Klein joins the Heartland Institute in insisting that climate protection requires economic sacrifice. In some ways, they are right - every priority requires tradeoffs. But in most ways, they are absolutely wrong. Forcing either a carbon-blind or carbon-zero monoculture on the global economy would damage both economic and ecological diversity, and drive both forms of poverty.

Like it or not, we are evolving beyond fossil fuels, but not in the absolutist ways either side thinks. Carbon intensity is already declining, and it can be systematically reduced much further, in ways that strengthen the economy and drive a different style of growth - organically sustainable growth that brings more prosperity using less stuff.

It's a gradual path, one that happens today at around 1-2% a year - not enough to lead to net reductions - but could readily be accelerated to 3-5% a year. To absolutists, that's either too fast or not fast enough. But based on studies by McKinsey Global Institute and others, it could drive global prosperity, pay off national debts, and cut first world carbon emissions 80% by mid to late century.

Young voters sense this. They reject the idea that to grow the economy you have to damage the environment. Fossil fuels are no longer the chief drivers of growth. Knowledge is. We are three generations into the information economy. Environmental protection is fully compatible with economic growth. It's expected - it's assumed.

When forced to choose, young voters split about evenly, giving a slight edge to the environment over economic growth. A March 2013 Gallup survey of American adults showed more 18 to 29 year-olds saying environmental protection should take priority (49%) than those saying economic growth should take priority (45%).

Yet in terms of urgency, the economy needs help right now. People need jobs to put food on the table today. They need the environment to live for the long term. So 45% want political leaders focused on the economy as their top priority, while only 8% want them focused first on climate change, according to polls conducted for the College Republican National Committee.

Climate-blind absolutists use that data to argue that young voters don't care much about the environment. Yet a majority of young conservatives under age 35 - 30% of whom doubt climate change is real - still favor action on climate.

Here's where young voters differ with the Democratic Party on the issue: they are "not all convinced that government action on issues like climate change and green energy would be positive overall." They won't buy the Klein plan, at least not in whole.

Nonetheless, if nothing else is on the table, they favor government action. About 80% of voters under 35 support "President Obama's climate change plan" - even though most have no idea what's in that plan. But they favor action. If the GOP doesn't offer an action plan, they won't expend a lot of effort to figure out a better approach - they will take what's on the table that the Democrats set.

Messages that assume the economy and environment are at odds are counterproductive, and damage the Republican brand. Focusing on the "job-killing EPA" may be partly right, but also sends two wrong messages: first, that Republicans will sacrifice the environment to benefit a special interest group, and second that they hold the view that to grow the economy, they have to sacrifice the environment and benefit a special interest. This makes them look old and out of touch.

The failure of the GOP to offer a climate policy of its own makes a big government approach a self-fulfilling prophecy. GOP leaders rightly worry that a Democrat-led climate policy, while not as radical as Klein's, will lead to more regulations, higher costs, and higher taxes. Rather than offering no alternative, strategic Republicans could seize the high ground on the issue.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz has proposed a "Climate Insurance Policy" approach that emulates the GOP's leadership on ozone protection during the Reagan administration. "There were ozone skeptics back then, just as there are climate skeptics now. But we all agreed that, if what some scientists feared were to happen, it would be disastrous. So we agreed to take out an insurance policy." The Montreal Protocol quickly led to innovations that vastly reduced ozone depleting substances. "In retrospect, the non-skeptics turned out to be right, and the Montreal Protocol came around just in time."

On climate, Shultz's policy preference combines sound policy with deft strategy. It would lead to long-term tax and spending reductions, by shifting taxes from forms of prosperity that tend to go up (income, profits, savings, and payroll) to forms of pollution that tend to go down (carbon or other pollutants). While the initial tax cut would be small, in the long term taxes would decline significantly.

Greg Mankiw, Arthur Laffer, Luigi Zingales and many other conservative economists have also proposed a federal "carbon tax shift" that cuts taxes on income or payroll, and makes up the difference with a price on carbon. Consumer product companies and retailers have noted that it puts more money in the pockets of "WalMart moms." Economically, the shift would increase jobs, income, technology and innovation. It would smooth the transition toward natural gas and away from coal, while delivering most of its tax benefits to coal states.

That path also cultivates the kinds of cultural shifts Klein wants to see, without resorting to a forced march approach. As we shift taxes to pollution and wind down subsidies to the vested interests of the past, we decentralize power, putting both choice and responsibility in the hands of everyday people. With other steps we have documented in What We Learned in the Rainforest and elsewhere, we shift from a centralized power-based economic system to one where diversity emerges naturally and organically, and see resilience rise. We also continue a cultural shift that began decades ago, as we started to sense the limits of materialism, and rebel against the cult of shopping.

We have a long way to go, yet not so long, in a way. People are ready for a change. Yet the left and right hold fast to outdated prescriptions from the industrial age, when power needed to be centralized in big government and big corporate institutions that fed one another.

Carbon, unfortunately, has become an ideological litmus test on both the left and right. The hard left uses it to drive home the need for economy-wide regulation. The hard right resists it just as strenuously, to avoid such regulation. Republicans may be more successful if they support a pollution tax shift that covers a "market basket" of contaminants, rather than just carbon, as an alternative to EPA carbon mandates. Pollution taxes are the one form of taxation that a plurality of GOP voters actually support, according to polls by Hart Research.

Even if some GOP lawmakers remained skeptical, the party would seize the issue from Democrats, and regain its historical conservation leadership. "All of the most important federal environmental actions were taken by Republican presidents," Shultz reminds us.

Naomi Klein and the Heartland Institute, respectively playing the role of the carbon and market absolutists, are both offering the same false solution. We can do better. People don't have to choose between global monocultures, one corporate and the other governmental. People can undermine concentrated power in all its forms.

I'm not worried about Klein's prescriptions becoming law - that won't happen. Instead, an unidentifiable mish-mash of rules and penalties will likely be adopted at various levels of government, which will do very little of any consequence, beyond creating vested interests to perpetuate them. What I do fear is that progressives will be misled, for years, into seeking impossible non-solutions to the climate crisis, while much more nature-friendly, people-friendly, and freedom-friendly alternatives go unrecognized.

I worry about the destruction of nature, and a loss of freedoms. If you dam the river and flood the forest, you destroy it. The same thing happens if you dam and flood the economy with money but create no value. Better to step back and appreciate these two magnificent systems, begin to understand how they flourish even in the face of resource limits, and then apply those principles.

Source: Naomi Klein quotations from The Nation 11-28-11 http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate?page=0,5#axzz2ezh90E72, and from The Guardian 9-10-13, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/10/naomi-klein-green-groups-climate-deniers

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