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Everything Has Changed | Green Capitalism and the Climate Left

Jake Bittle

The world was a very different place in 2014. The eight largest wildfires in California history had yet to occur, as had seven of the fifteen costliest hurricanes in American history. The sea level off the coast of Miami was a full inch lower. Fewer than thirty percent of Americans believed addressing climate change should be a top priority for the federal government. There had not yet been a Paris climate summit. Greta Thunberg was eleven years old.

In September of that year, hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the People’s Climate March in New York City, among them Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and Ban Ki-moon. Then the largest climate-related protest in human history, the event seemed to demonstrate a new groundswell of support for action on the existential threat of global warming. That same month, the writer and activist Naomi Klein published This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, an extraordinary and encyclopedic book that surveys decades of environmental activism and oil industry expansion. In it, Klein argues that the solution to climate change is incompatible with the ordinary functioning of capitalism, that “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.” In order to bring about an end to the climate crisis, we had to transform or dismantle the profit-oriented system. The way to do this, she wrote, was through a democratic people’s uprising — in her words, “only mass social movements can save us now.”

Another way of putting Klein’s thesis is that absent structural reforms to our global economic system, temperatures will inevitably pass the appropriate threshold. The placement of that threshold depends on whom you ask, of course — given that rising temperatures are already melting glaciers, scrambling the earth’s weather systems, and, as one expert put it, “testing the limits of human survivability,” you could argue that Klein has already been proven correct. But hers is also a predictive claim: “our political class is wholly incapable of seizing [policy] tools and implementing plans [to reduce emissions],” she writes, “since doing so involves unlearning the core tenets of the stifling free-market ideology.” So the political class would have to change, as would the economic system that had produced it. As the socialist writer Paul Fleckenstein later put it in Jacobin, “there is no equivalent substitute in capitalism” for fossil fuels, and thus “stopping climate change will never be ‘good business’.”

Klein’s book birthed a line of argument that has since come to dominate the climate debate on the left. The mild version, as expressed by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine in 2019, runs that “The most fundamental question is whether a capitalistic society is capable of sharply reducing carbon emissions”; the stronger formulation, made by farther-left writers, declares more definitively that “Solving the climate crisis requires the end of capitalism” (Salon, 2021), that “Capitalism Can’t Fix the Climate Crisis” (Jacobin, 2021), or that “Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism” (The Guardian, 2019). The stark dichotomy between an unaccountable system of profit maximization and an egalitarian people’s movement, and the assumption that reducing emissions to an appropriate extent requires replacing the former with the latter, is posited as both an explanation for the failures of the climate movement so far and a rhetorical justification for more sweeping change. 

Out of this rhetorical universe emerged a single flagship climate policy: the Green New Deal, the most recent version of which was introduced in Congress in 2019. The Green New Deal did not call for the abolition of capitalism as such, but it translated Klein’s call for a unified revolution into a proposal for total economic overhaul, combining massive state-led investment in renewable energy with such leftist planks as free higher education and a jobs guarantee. Back in 2014, Klein argued that “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than… forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” since the latter would not “merely aim to change laws” but would also “change patterns of thought.” By 2019, Klein wrote in On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, that “a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings… appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.” Transforming capitalism, she argued, would require “turning what is being derided as a left-wing ‘laundry list’… into an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots among the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed, from health care to employment, daycare to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.” 

Eight years and four federal elections have gone by since Klein introduced this argument, and the green revolution has not arrived. That’s not to say it couldn’t have, just that it didn’t: the left failed to win the battle for control of the Democratic Party, and the political sea change that would have been required to enact a Green New Deal has not materialized. A series of nightmarish climate disasters and a barrage of apocalyptic reports have indeed raised public awareness of the crisis — far more voters now call it a critical issue. But in all probability, it will be another decade before the Democratic Party regains the control it is bound to lose in the coming midterm elections. By then, we may have already passed the consensus deadline for decarbonizing the energy sector and halving domestic emissions. We don’t have that long to wait.

In the time since This Changes Everything came out, though, capitalism has put on a new face. Financiers and corporate leaders now acknowledge not just the reality of the climate crisis but the extent to which the crisis threatens profit and economic growth, and the most influential private actors are even now making an effort –– stuttering, shambolic, hypocritical, and self-contradictory, but an effort nonetheless –– to transition toward clean energy and curtail the use of the dirtiest fuels. You can hear this shift being touted by John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, who has declared that the energy transition “is going to happen… and one of the reasons is good old capitalism.… People are going to see that they can make money doing this and the market is going to move,” or by Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, who has said that his firm “focus[es] on sustainability not because we’re environmentalists, but because we are capitalists.” The nascent energy transition has involved neither a government-led overhaul of our economic system nor a popular uprising against the oil and gas industry; in other words, it is not happening on the terms sketched out by Klein and her followers. 

This hybrid state of affairs is at once promising and terrifying. The all-powerful profit motive is beginning to restrain the growth of emissions, reducing the scale of future loss and suffering in the process, but it also remains firmly tethered to the fossil economy, ensuring catastrophic results. Even as the status quo has blocked the transformative change that Klein proposed, countless opportunities have opened up for smaller interventions at the local level, in the private sector, and through avenues other than the federal government. This kind of piecemeal progress presents a profound challenge for the contemporary left: if we can’t shepherd the transition ourselves, can we nevertheless manage to shape this new green capitalism into something less deadly, and maybe even more just? And to what extent should we suspend our political principles to take action on a problem that admits no delay?

 

The advent of green capitalism is the result of a single overwhelming fact: clean energy is good business. Perhaps the biggest change in the climate landscape since 2014 has been a significant decline in the price of renewable energy. The cost of solar and battery power fell 90 percent over the course of the 2010s, while the cost of wind power has fallen 70 percent, far outpacing most projections, so that renewable energy sources are now often cheaper than coal and natural gas. These trends have slowed over the past two years, amid coronavirus-driven shocks to the supply chains for metals and other commodities, but similar disruptions have hit the oil and gas industry as well, meaning that renewable energy is still an attractive investment. 

The effect — and also the cause — of the decline in renewable costs has been a surge of private and public investment in renewable energy. Governments, corporations, and financiers have together poured trillions of dollars into building new solar and wind systems, with the result that more than 80 percent of new power capacity added in 2021 came from renewables. The share of global energy generation from solar and wind grew from around two percent to around nine percent between 2010 and 2020. (By the same token, the number of new jobs in the solar and wind industries has outpaced the number of new jobs in the coal industry.) The construction of wind farms and solar arrays has been abetted by government subsidies and tax credits, but these facilities aren’t charity cases — they are owned by private corporations who build and operate them to make money. 

The rise of electric vehicles, led by the much-bemoaned Tesla, is another object lesson in the dexterity of the market. Tesla benefited from numerous government subsidies and tax breaks, but it has also prompted an explosion of demand in its own right, and helped to create a snowball effect among other major automakers — companies like Renault and Mercedes-Benz have announced in recent years that they will soon give up internal-combustion engines altogether; Ford has raced to produce electric versions of popular models like the F-150 truck, hardly a darling of the coastal elite. The result of this investment bonanza is that electric vehicles will likely reach price parity with traditional cars in the next half-decade. The federal government has prodded along this market movement by investing in charging stations and other infrastructure, but it was not purely or even primarily the result of industrial policymaking. 

From manufacturing to tech to food services, the broader corporate world has also announced its intention to go green. Carbon-intensive industries like steel, for instance, have begun to reduce emissions through the adoption of electric-arc furnaces; industry leaders and unions have endorsed multinational trade agreements to foster further adoption of low-carbon practices. Companies from JetBlue to Disney to Procter & Gamble now buy millions of carbon offsets that allegedly mitigate the greenhouse gas profiles of their ordinary operations. Meanwhile, businesses like Microsoft, Google, and Stripe are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on as yet unscaled technology that sucks carbon out of the air, hoping to send a demand signal that creates a bona fide market for carbon removal. As corporations embrace the financial rewards of going green, the industries that orbit them have adapted, too; an entire white-collar industry of emissions monitoring and consulting has emerged in tandem, to profit off that profit.

Even the oil and gas industries, which spent decades obscuring the science of climate change and batting down emissions regulations, have now shifted toward full-time greenwashing, insisting that they’re reducing their own carbon emissions while continuing to produce fuels for other people to burn. For the most part, this has entailed research investments by companies like B.P. and Chevron into the aforementioned carbon capture technology. Last year, during the largest offshore oil lease sale in U.S. history, ExxonMobil snapped up acreage that experts say is too depleted to yield oil, suggesting it intends to use the territory to store carbon by injecting it into the seabed. Meanwhile, this year’s massive offshore wind auction on the New York Bight saw companies backed by Shell and TotalEnergies secure winning bids. The primary purpose of this effort may be deflecting attention from angry consumers and regulators, but oil majors are also facing significant pressure from shareholders to mitigate their emissions. Last year, for instance, an activist investor campaign focused on climate risks acquired three seats on Exxon’s twelve-member board of directors. As yet, these companies have no reason to stop drilling, but the balance of incentives is substantially different than it was a decade ago.

The world of finance, which underwrites all the sectors listed above, has also started to funnel resources toward green energy and, albeit to a lesser extent, away from the most egregious polluters. Banks now make more money financing renewables and other green projects than they do financing fossil fuels, and financing for new fossil fuel exploration is far harder to access than it used to be: dozens of financial institutions have ended their support for new coal projects and controversial drilling ventures like those in the Alberta tar sands and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. New York’s massive state pension fund has partly divested from fossil fuels, and even major asset managers like BlackRock, which have hundreds of billions of dollars of exposure to fossil fuels, have trumpeted vague plans to shift resources toward green projects. Oil and gas now account for a much smaller share of the typical investment portfolio than they did a decade ago. Even the most inveterate funders of fossil fuels — for instance, the private equity firm EnCap — now have renewable energy funds. The insurance and reinsurance industries, which cover the financial risk of new ventures, have retreated en masse from oil and gas, with large insurers like Swiss Re announcing they will not support the construction of most new fossil fuel infrastructure. Insurers and financiers that don’t take these steps voluntarily, meanwhile, are seeing shareholder proxy votes that pressure them to follow suit.

Advocates for this new investment regime, which is often grouped together under the label “environmental, social, and governance,” or ESG, have a few ways of justifying the shift in financial flows. One is that backing green enterprises is advantageous because climate change will cause huge financial losses, so it behooves investors to counterbalance those losses. Another bet is that consumers will want to support only climate-positive companies, so climate-negative companies face near-term financial risks. In both cases, the assumption is that the private market will give expression to rational actors’ beliefs about the severity of the climate crisis, and thereby alter the world’s energy mix by moving funding over the course of years and decades. 

Governments and social movements have had a substantial role in helping bring about all of these developments, to be sure. Over the past three decades, more than 30 states have established renewable portfolio standards that set concrete targets for the share of electricity coming from green sources, and which amount to a state-by-state industrial policy. Still, the present shift toward renewables has happened within the context of a more or less free market, and it has been driven in large part by advances in the private sector. Growing awareness of climate change aside, the basic political and economic structures that exist today are the same ones that existed when Klein wrote her book, and more or less the same ones that existed three decades earlier, when the phrase “global warming” first entered the mainstream. No capitalist has, as she put it, “unlearned the core tenets of the stifling free-market ideology,” nor are these changes the result of “mass social movements” that do not “fit within the capitalist culture.” Business-friendly governments are acting in concert with private financiers and large corporations to build out alternate systems for producing power, automobiles, food containers, and so on. 

Even now, we can trace the emerging contours of a green capitalism, one in which financial firms and large corporations align themselves with moderate governments against the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Rather than a wartime mobilization to save the earth, the coming years, it seems, will bring a slow adoption of low-carbon transport and power, financed by the selective attention of private industry; rather than a community-led revamp of the energy system, we will see a supply-chain frenzy over the raw materials needed for electric vehicles and photovoltaic panels; rather than a just transition away from the coal and oil industries, we will see a bumpy economic upheaval; rather than a people’s environmental democracy, we will see a slow herd migration driven by a semi-woke shareholder capitalism. The world economy will cross the canyon on the tightrope of profit — instead of a Green New Deal, we will get a green Art of the Deal

The problem, of course, is that green capitalism, while far better than the unrestrained emissions scenario that scientists call “business as usual,” is still calamitous for the planet. The present regime may have gone a long way toward flattening out emissions, and it may even put us on a path toward cutting emissions over the next decade, but the timeline of this market-led transition is nowhere near fast enough to forestall one-and-a-half or even two degrees Celsius of warming. 

Look a little closer at the market-led shift sketched out above, and you’ll see that many parts of it are overhyped or downright fraudulent. The vast majority of those corporate net-zero pledges hinge on misleading or meaningless carbon offsets that may not actually reduce emissions (i.e., a company pays to protect a forest that no one was going to chop down anyway). Furthermore, many of the banks that lead the Net-Zero Banking Alliance are still pouring billions of dollars into the fossil-fuel industry, and recent shareholder attempts to coerce these banks into divesting from oil and gas have achieved pathetic results; indeed, large asset managers like BlackRock have come out against these resolutions in recent months. Meanwhile, even when asset managers and pension funds do divest from coal operations, the operations themselves tend to wind up in the hands of devil-may-care hedge funds and private equity firms. The oil majors continue to emit methane at astounding, inadequately measured rates, warming the earth in ways we cannot even track, and new oil and gas infrastructure comes online every single month — in blatant disregard of expert consensus that calls for a total moratorium on new fossil operations, and with the tacit consent of the financial and insurance sectors.

All this is the result of market dynamics, too. If financiers have followed the money into green energy investments because those investments are profitable, it follows that they will continue to fund fossil fuels for as long as they’re profitable — and they still are. An “energy transition” with no profit disruptions will be a lot slower than the one we need to save the planet. Perhaps in a few decades, once renewables become ubiquitous and cost-competitive everywhere, the private withdrawal from fossil energy will pick up speed, leading to trillions of dollars of stranded assets and millions of lost jobs. The market is going to try to have it both ways, and it will keep doing so for as long as it can. 

Back in 2014, it was perhaps easy to conceive of the left’s relationship to a truculent fossil capitalism. The only sensible way to fight such a system was to grab the wheel and turn the car around. It is much harder to conceive of our relationship to this new green capitalism. How should we fight it, and which parts of it should we fight? In order to answer these questions, we will first need to discard a few inherited notions about how the climate crisis works.

 

At some point while you’ve been reading this essay, chances are you remembered a certain oft-cited statistic: more than 70 percent of all carbon emissions come from just 100 companies. Heard that one before?

For a long time, the popular discourse around climate action focused on behavioral changes, like carpooling or turning out the lights, that could help reduce each person’s “carbon footprint.” This idea was popularized by the marketing team at BP, and it’s easy to see why they liked it. Hydrocarbons are an essential part of the modern global economy; they sustain almost every industry and product we use on a daily basis, and marginal reductions in individual demand for these fuels can’t possibly have any aggregate effect on the systems for extracting, refining, and selling them.

In sketching out a theory of climate action, the contemporary left has taken great pains to dispel the canard of personal action. Everyone from the chairman of an environmental nonprofit to the writer Rebecca Solnit has warned that “Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do” and that “Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed.” Klein herself, in a 2015 commencement speech, said the idea “that we — as atomized individuals — could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate is objectively nuts.” In his laudatory profile of the Sunrise Movement, New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz drove down from New York to Philadelphia wondering whether he should “sav[e] fuel by forgoing air-conditioning” or whether opened windows “created drag, which surely made my gas mileage worse,” only for the Sunrise team to chant at him in unison that “The biggest driver of emissions is the political power of the fossil-fuel industry, not individual behavior.” 

The 100-companies statistic comes from a report by the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project, which purports to identify the hundred biggest “carbon majors” by attributing historical emissions to companies rather than countries. At first glance, this framing seems to confirm the top-down vision of anticapitalist climate action that underpins the Green New Deal. If the climate crisis is being caused by a few unaccountable corporations, the only way to tackle the crisis is by bringing those entities to heel, or else by deploying public resources that could match their private power. You can think of this as the Godzilla vs. Kong theory of climate action, wherein the future will be decided by a slugfest between capital and the state, a title bout to which billions will be innocent spectators.

Except it’s more complicated than that. Setting aside for a moment the fact that many of the “companies” in the carbon majors study are state-owned enterprises that prop up entire national economies (the list of top emitters includes Saudi Aramco, Rosneft, and “China”), what the study really concludes is that the world economy runs on fossil fuels, and that those fuels are produced largely by a few major corporations. But to assume therefore that the climate crisis is being caused only by those corporations and not by their customers is to ignore the fact that we all rely on one or more of the majors for commodities and goods we use on a daily basis — gasoline, electricity, plastic, you name it. The reason BP felt comfortable urging its own customers to use less gasoline is that the company knew the customers couldn’t do it — our entire society depends on the byproducts of oil and gas, and in the absence of affordable alternatives, we will have to keep buying those products. So to say “these corporations are the ones emitting the carbon” is to commit a comparable category error as talking about your “carbon footprint.” 

That’s not to say there aren’t clear and identifiable villains. It was Exxon that shut down its own research on global warming; it was the oil industry writ large that papered over the mounting evidence of climate change; it was the fossil fuel lobby that blocked decades of legislation to slow down the crisis; it was the conservative movement that spent half a century denying the reality of climate science. When it comes to the actual emission of carbon, though, the culprit is the entire modern world, governments and companies and financial firms and individuals, anyone and everyone who uses fossil fuels or buys products made with fossil fuels. 

The bright side is that you can attack this massive superstructure from all sides. The sheer complexity of the fossil fuel-driven world economy allows us to think beyond an all-or-nothing formula for political mobilization. When it comes to climate change, the fact that emissions come from every industry and every part of the globe means you don’t have to land one knockout punch. Federal, state, local, and private interventions are all chipping away at the same carbon debt. You may not be able to kill the climate crisis with a thousand cuts, but every cut does matter, and there are countless opportunities to strike. 

Some writers on the left, most notably Kate Aronoff of The New Republic, have granted that there are ways to slow down climate change without ending capitalism. “The private sector will be a major part of the transition off of fossil fuels,” Aronoff allowed in her 2021 book, Overheated. “Some people will get rich, and some unseemly actors will be involved.” Even this amount of hedging is anathema to some on the left: when Aronoff did an interview with Jacobin, her interlocutor noted that hers was a controversial argument among socialists. For Aronoff, though, the best strategy is still to vie for total control. “To handle this crisis, capitalism will have to be replaced as society’s operating system,” she writes elsewhere in Overheated. Two years earlier, in A Planet to Win, the 2019 manifesto she co-wrote, she had argued against a “faux Green New Deal” that “focuses narrowly on swapping clean energy for fossil fuels” when “what we really need is a new political economy.” 

This same win-it-all mentality also animates organizations like the Sunrise Movement, whose website lists electing politicians who support the Green New Deal and pushing for a federal jobs guarantee as two of the organization’s four ongoing campaigns. The Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, meanwhile, launched a “Green New Deal priority campaign” this spring that seeks to elect “a slate of insurgent climate candidates.” The organization’s statement of principles on the Green New Deal, unchanged since 2019, calls for a “major left turn in American politics” and “massive structural changes.” These massive structural changes are less attainable now than ever, but much of the left still cleaves to the idea that a top-down economic overhaul represents the best path to a rapid reduction of emissions. 

All this is understandable. An aphorism from the climate journalist Amy Westervelt has it that “it’s the power structure, not the energy source” that’s to blame for the crisis, and this is unimpeachably true as a statement about history. But what if it turns out that the constraints of time and politics mean that we can only change the latter and not the former? What do you do then? A concern for the welfare of the billions in the crosshairs of disaster would dictate that you try to change the latter anyway, even if it means settling for what once seemed like half measures. Given the current trajectory of global warming, the current makeup of the power grid, and the current composition of the American political system, the most pressing questions are: What can the left accomplish in the next ten years to slow down the climate crisis? What are the achievable policies and interventions that would bring about the greatest reduction in carbon emissions? To ask these questions is not to say that we shouldn’t implement the Green New Deal. It’s to say that the enormous amount of private money that has already poured into renewable energy gives the left a license to look beyond solutions that require it to occupy the driver’s seat of the economy, and to take a more targeted approach.

The first way to speed the shift away from fossils by working within the system would be to raise the cost of doing business. To the extent that protest and civil disobedience make it more expensive and time-consuming to build new fossil-fuel infrastructure, they aid the market transition by making that construction unpalatable to investors and governments. Protests on their own will not guarantee that the grid gets any cleaner or the world stops choking on plastic, but they may increase the relative attractiveness of green assets for financiers who are still trying to choose which side they’re on. The protests that led to the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline did not stop oil production from growing in the Alberta tar sands, but they made oil mining in the area less profitable than it might have been. In the same way, divestment campaigns against universities, banks, and insurers make it costlier and more inconvenient for otherwise apathetic executives to maintain the status quo. 

Beyond slowing the expansion of fossil fuel supply, there is a vast realm of small-scale interventions we can make in the short term to reduce fossil fuel demand, all without recourse to Capitol Hill or the White House. This can be accomplished either by aiding the buildout of renewable energy or by shifting behaviors to reduce overall usage of oil and other fuels. There is ample private money for renewable projects, but many of these projects face stiff opposition from anti-development community organizations and wary locals, and even from environmentalists operating under unsound cost-benefit principles; consider for instance the conservationist opposition to the proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express hydropower transmission line, or the referendum that defeated a similar transmission line in Maine, both of which would have helped the Northeast move toward clean energy. Every new solar array, wind farm, and hydropower transmission line gets us a little closer to a decarbonized grid, which in turn increases the emissions benefits of electric vehicles and building electrification. 

Looking beyond power generation to other sectors like buildings and transportation, activist pressure could lead to bans on natural gas hookups (such a ban passed last year in New York City), local measures to incentivize the adoption of low-carbon heat pumps (such regulations just passed in Washington State), better bike infrastructure (rolled out recently in Mexico City), new investments in public transit development (the Kochs killed a referendum in Nashville), passive heating in office buildings, protections for remote work, the creation of natural carbon sinks, and congestion pricing fees. States could divest their pension funds (like New York), funnel infrastructure money away from carbon-intensive highways (Texas activists are trying to do so right now), and mandate denser construction (Berkeley ended single-family zoning last year). Given that many of these decisions can be made at the local level, in city councils and community boards, dedicated on-the-ground support can make the difference between emissions trending up and down. It helps that cities, which are often the most liberal jurisdictions, also account for a large and growing share of emissions. 

Most of the climate movement supports these actions already — several New York DSA chapters, for instance, led the charge for the landmark Build Public Renewables Act that nearly passed this year in New York State. But the focus on pushing a camel of federal legislation through the needle’s eye of a divided Congress has to some degree directed attention away from these opportunities. Zeroing in on the federal government, perhaps an inheritance from the Medicare for All debate that helped congeal the Sanders-era left, must now give way to a more robust and multifaceted strategy of intervention. With issues like healthcare and immigration, there is no real alternative to federal policy — you can’t make Medicare universal by attending your city council meeting any more than you can by handing out Band-Aids on a street corner. 

The situation is different when it comes to climate change. Engagement at the state, municipal, and neighborhood level is not a paltry complement to engagement at the federal level; given the current political landscape, it is a necessary substitute for that engagement. The federal government may exert many times more control over emissions than a city does, but both entities add to or deplete the same carbon budget. Any emissions reduction, anywhere, in any sector, counts as progress toward the same goal. Every pension fund that divests from coal, every homeowners association that bans gas mowers, every town that designs for car-free streets will be reducing the same emissions that the Green New Deal would have reduced, just at a slower pace. And when you’re facing down tens of trillions of dollars in damages by the end of the century, slow is better than holding out for a revolution that may or may not come.

 

Yet another Jacobin contributor, writing in 2020, asserted that “either we take on capitalism… or we’ll be unable to stop runaway climate change.” But contrary to some of the most apocalyptic views on the left, capitalism has turned out to be amenable to the gradual reduction of fossil fuel usage. This amenability by no means guarantees that we will escape climate catastrophe, but it does mean that the absolute worst climate scenarios are far less likely than they seemed at the beginning of the century. Every quarter-degree of warming we have averted through these market movements has meant not only that billions of dollars of property will remain intact, but also that thousands fewer people will die from heat exposure and famine and millions fewer will lose their homes. 

The fact remains, though, that the coming transition will leave much to be desired — not just from an environmental standpoint, but in terms of economic justice. The slow death of the coal, oil, and gas industries will put millions of people out of work, with no job guarantee or free higher education to help them move to new sectors. The process of replacing traditional power sources with renewables will make energy more expensive and less reliable for decades, with dire consequences for low-income people; the renewable sources that have come online so far, meanwhile, are almost all under private ownership, and only a tiny proportion of wind and solar jobs are unionized. The poorest countries, and the poorest parts of this country, will experience the most devastating climate impacts, and find themselves with scant money for recovery — developed nations failed to meet their Copenhagen climate summit promise to allocate $100 billion to climate adaptation for the developing world by 2020, and even that amount was nowhere near sufficient. Green capitalism is far from the worst imaginable outcome of the climate crisis, but it will still make for a very cruel world.

The brutal dynamics sketched out above are the very same big picture dynamics that the contemporary left has been critiquing since long before 2014. Those who advocated the Green New Deal were correct that a stronger social safety net was necessary in order to ensure a just transition. Still, a single federal package that both reduces emissions and creates that safety net has become rapidly outdated.

To the extent that the turbulent shift toward renewables will benefit the very wealthy and create more instability for everyone else, though, it will also strengthen the same economic critiques that animated the Sanders campaigns. The political principles that resonated to a surprising degree with the American electorate — workers’ rights, guaranteed access to basic necessities, a redistributive internationalism — are only going to become more salient over the coming decades. If capitalism has proven wily enough to make money off an energy transition with which it once seemed irrevocably at odds, there may be room for the left to pursue its agenda, even if it cannot gain the filibuster-proof legislative control that would have been needed to enact a Green New Deal. If the left is committed to fighting capitalism, it needs to learn how to fight within and against an evolving green capitalism, and needs furthermore to recognize that even partial victories in a cruel economic system contribute to an overall future reduction of poverty and suffering. 

When people talk about the urgency of the climate crisis, they tend to use the language of deadlines — we have twelve years, ten years, five years to avert global collapse. As Emma Thompson put it, way back at the 2014 protest, “unless we’re carbon-free by 2030 the world is buggered.” Averting global catastrophe, however, is not a binary choice, something we must either do or not do by a certain moment in time. There is only an ever-compounding urgency, in which every day counts more than the next. This constraint demands realism, and it is incompatible with abstract and idealistic thinking. To take the climate crisis seriously entails asking ourselves what we on the left can do in the next decades to make the world a cooler and more equitable place, not what ought to have been done. That the forces driving the energy transition over the past decade have turned out to be private and profit-oriented, rather than egalitarian and democratic, does not mean that we must embrace capitalism wholesale, but that our critiques need to be updated. Furthermore, the fact that we have not been able to enact an ideal program for solving climate change does not absolve us from finding other ways to address the problem — and soon. In other words, there is nothing shameful about having a plan B. 

Jake Bittle is a reporter and writer who lives in Brooklyn. His book about climate migration is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

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