In recent debates around solutions to the climate crisis, several ideas hold the largest share of government support and media coverage. These include: green consumerism, carbon offsetting, carbon taxes, carbon trading, geo-engineering and carbon capture and storage.
But do these “solutions” take, as their frame of reference, the full extent of the problem? Here are some reasons to be doubtful.
Green consumerism is one variation of the argument whereby “your dollar is your vote”.
It assumes that the choices of individual, ethical consumers will significantly change the conduct of big business.
However, it is often the case that the environmentally friendly claims of these “eco-products” are vastly overstated.
As long as profit is the sole focus for corporations, any claims to the “greenness” of their products should be met with suspicion.
The phenomenon of “greenwashing” is now well known. But more important is that, despite the claims economists make about “consumer sovereignty” in the market, consumers do not determine production. Largely, it’s production that governs individual consumer behaviour.
Green consumerism may be capable of mitigating some environmental impacts of some products, but it does nothing to change the overall scale at which resources are used up. Considering that the planet is currently being used at 150% its capacity this is a critical concern.
As has been pointed out by radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek, green consumerism functions to deprive people of their ability to act on their recognition of the extent of the climate crisis. Instead, it provides them with an easy, guilt-assuaging quick-fix.
The related “solution” of carbon offsetting is even more problematic. First of all, offsets allows high-emitting industries to carry on without making big changes to their production, precisely at the point when the world should be stopping all emissions.
Also, carbon offset companies can give no guarantee that their permits represent real emissions cuts.
In their recent book, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster point out that one of the most popular carbon offsets involves Chinese companies that are paid millions of dollars to destroy a gas called HFC-23.
The gas, which is about 1000 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, is used in refrigerators.
However, Magdoff and Foster said “there is evidence that some plants in China have been producing more refrigerant than they can sell in order to have more HFC-23 that they can be paid to destroy”.
A carbon tax is not necessarily something to oppose in principle. The one Australia is likely to receive in the near future is another matter: it will still see emissions rise for decades to come.
To make a serious difference, a carbon tax would need to be absolutely resolute in its task and not make concessions to polluting industries — a very difficult feat given the power corporations wield over government.
It would also have to find a way around companies merely passing on the tax to consumers through price hikes — something all too easy under monopoly capitalism.
On the other hand, environmentalists should oppose carbon trading on principle. For instance, the European emissions trading has allowed Europe’s most polluting corporations to make billions of euros without cutting pollution.
Governments have used the existence of carbon trading schemes as an excuse to not fund renewable energy or other green measures directly.
The general idea behind most proposals for carbon taxes and carbon trading is to internalise what mainstream economists call “externalities” — that is, the social and environmental costs of capitalist production that corporations do not pay for.
The argument is that if prices can be made to include the environmental costs of an industry (such as pollution), the industry will look to reduce these costs to stay competitive.
In theory, by “internalising the externalities” these carbon markets are supposed to drive investment to more eco-friendly industries and practices.
Magdoff and Foster make a simple, but persuasive argument against this idea.
They say: “The contradictions and complexities of actually implementing a new way to price commodities, in a system in which the profit is the only god, and power rests in the hands of people who have no interest in doing this, makes all of this an insurmountable task.”
They quote the Marxist geographer David Harvey, who said, “if capitalism is forced to internalise” all of the social and environmental costs it generates “it will go out of business. That is the simple truth.”
The more radical solutions of geoengineering are perhaps the most problematic of all green capitalist proposals.
Supporters of geoengineering tend to assume that things will go on the way they are now, that endless growth and environmental destruction will not be stopped in time.
Rather than try to change the social system so it accords with natural limits, geoengineering proposes to change the natural conditions of the planet so it accords with capitalism’s needs.
Geoengineering proposals include loading the stratosphere with tonnes of sulphur dioxide to cool the planet or dumping tiny iron filings in the ocean to increase its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.
The problems with these ideas should be evident. The global ecosphere is intricate and interdependent. It’s impossible to predict the impacts of radically manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere or oceans.
The risks of experimenting with the planetary system are simply too great.
Furthermore, even if any of these strategies were to help with the climate problem, it would still do nothing for the other “planetary boundaries” that capitalism is pressing against, such as freshwater usage, chemical dispersion and biodiversity loss.
It’s essential we remain within all these planetary boundaries if human civilisation is to survive on this planet.
Another common technological fix to climate change proposed is carbon capture and storage — the idea that carbon pollution from coal- and gas-fired power stations can be captured before it is released into the atmosphere.
It suffers from some of the same problems as geoengineering. Even its biggest supporters have no answer to the question of how to safety store the captured gases. After years of research and funding the technology is not commercially available, and may never be.
All of these market-based, green capitalist “solutions” are also marked by a logic of denial.
The logic of denial is not the same as outright climate change denial. It is found whenever the real extent of the climate crisis is forgotten or repressed in favour of easier responses that don’t drastically disrupt the capitalist system.
These “solutions” also play an ideological role and help disorient people searching for answers.
In the past few decades, the green movement has split over support for various green capitalist solutions, precisely at a time when the scale of the crisis became more obvious, and when the real solutions, such as 100% renewable energy, became more achievable.
Solutions based on green consumerism encourage individual action, but real environmental gains will come from collective action in mass movements.
In the face of this whirlwind of false solutions, it’s important to uphold a few simple points:
• The extremity of our ecological problems should always be the starting point, not the ease of the solution.
• The profit motive is incapable of producing genuine solutions.
• Collective action, not individual choice, is the only thing capable of forcing the real solutions into the realm of the possible.