Monday, February 2, 2015
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster 2014 – Kindle e-book edition)
This is a provocative and intelligently conveyed approach to our energy/climate/environment dilemma. It is also wrought with arrogant, judgmental, uncompromising, and condescending propaganda that leaves little room for other approaches. Klein is a very eloquent and thorough journalist and I agree with a variable amount of her overall assessments but I find her rather militant approach self-defeating and overly prone to confirmation bias. She is clearly a leader in the more leftist/progressive arm of the climate movement and I am sure she is inspirational to many. One goal of the book is clearly to demonize and blame fossil fuel interests and any who cooperate with them in any way as the cause of all our woes. She and others like Bill McKibben have been relentless and uncompromising in this approach. I will say of her what many of the climate change denying politicians like to say of themselves – she is not a scientist. Yet she seems to be quite sure of everything. She basically accuses more moderate environmental groups like Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) of being traitors and sell-outs for trying (and often succeeding) to get things done through cooperating and collaborating with business interests. She thinks that only a broad, vocal, and uncompromising social movement can fix the climate issues. She strongly ties resource extraction to colonialism, human rights violation, even to slavery. Many of these characterizations are unfair to modern sentiments and likely deeply insulting to businesses who see themselves as an overall benefit to society. Notice, I used the word ‘uncompromising’ three times in the paragraph. That word seems most descriptive to me of her approach and also the approach of those who want to automatically ban everything that has risks, such as fracking and using pipelines. She and others calling for the banning of fossil fuels and their replacement by renewable energy in a short time are basically calling for the most ambitious, expensive, and technically intensive project/experiment in human history. To be uncompromising in such a vast venture is a bit irresponsible and unreasonable.
Klein suggests that we are all living with some degree of cognitive dissonance as we continue to apply a carbon footprint. Perhaps this is true but it is still unclear to what degree our emissions affect climate. She says lifestyle changes are not enough. We must instead go after the industries that cause the emissions (albeit at our request, or demand). Again, the question remains: How much of a crisis is climate change? She compares the climate crisis to the crises of slavery, racial and sex discrimination, and apartheid. I think this is unfair and misleading as those were pretty clear social injustices rather than multi-variable possibilities based on complex scientific models. Climate change is a crisis if we decide it is, she says, but science does not really work like that. I do think it could be a potential crisis but there are still uncertainties. She invokes every extreme weather event as support but we all know there was extreme weather before the Industrial Age. In her previous books and writings about the “Shock Doctrine” and disaster capitalism she points out situations where disasters were used as money making opportunities by corporations (another great evil) and governments (commonly an accessory to evil). Of course, no one likes exploiters and such injustices should be pointed out and eliminated. I do agree with her that privatization has been overemphasized in recent decades and the value of public works has been underemphasized. There are many different modeled scenarios of what could happen if climate feedback loops accelerate and tipping points are crossed, some more or less severe than others. She notes that climatologists and glaciologists have been particularly concerned with ice melt accelerations and tipping points. Many of us agree that we should act more to mitigate climate change but the biggest policy split is perhaps not whether we should act or not, the evidence is compelling enough that we should IMO, but to what degree. Is a wartime effort with harsh economic sacrifices and demonization of all fossil sources of energy necessary? I don’t think so. Many think fossil fuels, particularly lighter and less emitting hydrocarbons like natural gas, can play important roles in slowing emissions, as has been the case. She mentions the fact that global emissions have increased since 2009 and the economic downturn but she does not mention that U.S emissions have stabilized and even dropped due to efficiency gains, fracking and replacing coal power plants with gas power plants, and adding renewable energy. She sees the ideology of deregulated capitalism as the main hurdle to climate change mitigation. True to a degree I think. In one sense we all regulate our own energy use. In another sense we use what is available. Hurdles to energy efficiency in the form of utility monopolies is one example of the opposite – where regulation is favoring energy wastage and disincentivizing by preventing energy from being sold by companies other than the utilities. In terms of timing, it is true as she says that serious consideration among scientists of climate change began at the end of the 1980’s at nearly the same time as deregulated capitalism was being strongly established. She thinks the momentums of both are counter so that climate change policy was basically shelved – but one might also say that there was still very much uncertainty then about the severity and implications of climate change. She does make a good argument that free trade mostly benefited the multinational corporations and that the promised trickle downs have been meager to what was promoted. She says that gradual and incremental progress toward emissions reductions are not enough and so unacceptable, yet she includes several examples of such things as desirable and admirable like a Lakota man who installs small-scale solar systems on the reservations.
Her argument is that it is capitalism, particularly free market deregulated capitalism that threatens the planet. But underlying such assumptions are the explosion in population and the desire of people to be free from poverty. While free market deregulated capitalism certainly advantages the corporation, there are pros and cons to that as many analysts say. She picks out the flaws, which are certainly there, but ignores the benefits. One of her arguments is that trade rules were enforced (by the WTO) while emissions reduction commitments were on an honor system by country.
She attends a ‘climate change denier’ (a somewhat derogatory but well-used term) conference put on by right-wing Heartland Institute. They are easy to brush off with their conspiracies that climate change is a ploy to check capitalism and redistribute wealth. But there are scientists at these conferences as well, some climate scientists. The 97% argument is simply not true. My guess is that about 70% of scientists agree with the IPCC assessments on climate change, and some more than others. She notes that the ‘talking points’ given in these conferences will flood forums and discussions around the country and the web – not unlike the style of Fox news where views are learned by continuous repetition of one main scenario. That allows the view to be cemented and regurgitated close to verbatim. While it is true that many of these ideological warriors and deniers of climate change lack credibility, they are also a contrasting force against what is seen by many as a biased and coercive liberal force for regulation. She is quite correct to note that ‘belief’ in climate change is well-divided along party lines in the U.S. She notes evidence from social science analysis that people of egalitarian and social justice backgrounds accept the climate science consensus while others of more hierarchical and individualistic backgrounds can see it as a threat to their belief systems such as capitalism, extractivism, and even among the more extreme, religion, since climate is considered an act of God. Psychologists may call it ‘confirmation bias’ where one tries to hold on to one’s belief system by beefing it up with cherry-picked data while ignoring other data. This is quite probably the case with many of these climate-change deniers. However, she does not consider that among climate-change believers, the same can be true. Some of the climate change activist media is among the most biased I have ever seen, whose goal seems to be to beef up the official view at any cost. She states in the book where she gets her climate news – and those are the sources to which I am referring. They certainly have an official and inflexible agenda, not unlike Fox News. It is true, however, that the far right-wingers, those who portray climate change as a hoax perpetrated by liberals to redistribute wealth, look the most ridiculous. Thus, it is easy to disregard them, as they give a bad name to better informed scientists who are skeptical of climate change policies.
Klein is a fan of the ‘global equity’ argument – that countries who have emitted (and polluted) the longest owe the most and so must allow other countries to pollute while cutting their pollution. While that is sensible in some ways it is not really practical. She sees climate change as the ultimate threat to conservatives, mainly as the ways to mitigate it seem to require more socialistic policies. Certainly, there will eventually be more backlash against unchecked capitalism if problems of economic disparity are not addressed, since some of the profiteering has been to ridiculous levels. Regulation is not at all a bad thing in some cases. The argument for regulation vs. deregulation should not at all be ideological, as each situation is different. To present social problems and try to solve them in terms of ideology is quite outdated in my opinion. It is also easy for the Heartland Institute people to criticize people like Al Gore (for his mansions) and Jim Hansen (for his high speaking fees). They say that climate-change gives the left leverage to do what they wanted anyway. So in this scenario we have climate-change seemingly threatening the ideology of right-wing free market capitalists and seemingly vindicating the ideology of regulation-minded environmentalist liberals. Thus, I think that ideology, gets in the way of evaluating and solving the problem. Klein would disagree. She sees this as the way things are and (most disturbing to me) she criticizes the middle who advocate more gradual and less disruptive responses to climate change. Her call is clearly for war, particularly against fossil fuels interests. She criticizes the ‘dark money’ funneling into climate denial groups but it is now well known that similar dark money also flows to climate change activism and anti-fossil fuel activism. She sees the deniers as protecting their worldviews as well as their financial advantages. It is true that the ideological war is real, but to be fair, any ideology is almost always at war with opposing ideologies. The way out IMO is to disconnect from any ideology and be flexible. Klein accuses the climate deniers of a lack of empathy as they mention some benefits of a warmer world as she sees climate-change hurting indigenous and poor people more than anyone. That may be correct as some models suggest and certainly there have been problems in the past with the excesses of colonialism and extractivism but that does not have to be the case in the future. She sees the corporate quest for natural resources becoming more violent in the future, but I do not think that is realistic at all. While businesses, countries, and scientists have speculated about how climate change (and presumed increased frequency of extreme weather) will affect them and us, no one really knows the future so to depict these happenings with any certainty is not realistic.
Klein talks much about ‘disaster denialism’ and ‘disaster capitalism’ (making a profit off of disasters) but in another sense one can say she also makes money talking about and analyzing such disasters and their implications. Sure, there will be some profiteering but such should be exposed as such and kept to a minimum. After Hurricane Sandy, some of her ideas about disaster capitalism were vindicated, but some forms are perfectly fine such as paying more to rebuild with back-up systems in vulnerable areas. That is just common sense. Another issue is the direness of climate change. Many say that acting as soon as possible and deeply to cut emissions is the only way to mitigate less than 2 degree Celsius warming by mid-century. How potentially catastrophic is climate change in the short-term and mid-term? There is much disagreement, even though, as she points out, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the IPCC, and others think it could very well be catastrophic. Klein goes on to show different ways for climate-change activists to market their concerns to right-wing people, playing on their biases. She derides potential climate-change mitigation solutions like nuclear power and geoengineering that would seem to fit in more with right-wing values of top-down corporate methods. She sees climate change mitigation policy as a potential catalyst for social and economic justice. While that could happen, I don’t think it should be bundled as such. Social and economic justice are of course, very important, and warrant utmost attention. Her ideals of sparking broad social movements based on anti-extraction grassroots environmentalism are not without potential dangers. Revolutions are rarely peaceful. While she and many others have praised revolutions like the Arab Spring, there has also been quite a vast amount of suffering that continues, that may not have occurred under the more repressive, yet more socially controlled regimes. The mess in Syria is an example. Her seeming praise of any movement counter to extractivism is a bit disturbing. She praises revolutionaries in Nigeria who opposed the oppressive policies of Abachi, whose regime supported oil extraction in the Niger Delta where many poor and exploited people live. Their revolutions have killed many and wreaked environmental destruction as people sabotaged pipelines and stole oil. Although the oil companies were not without blame I find the justification of violence unwarranted. I think her idea of mass populist movements will just spawn new populist counter-movements like the Tea Party extremists. Her argument that capitalism as an ideology is inherently anti-environment is not useful I think. There are obvious benefits to society from capitalism. Throughout the book, of course, she does not give a real alternative to capitalism. She does not embrace socialism but seems to favor the social democracy of some European and Scandinavian countries. She seems to admire the anarchist consensus approach of protest movements like Occupy but that is unlikely to take off as a social movement. She demonizes the profit motive and equates it wholly with a lack of empathy but it is the basis of business success, or as it should be, one of its foundations. Nowadays we can incorporate the values of social and environmental justice into the capitalist model as well as check growth as the sole goal. We can recognize and trim the excesses of ‘crony capitalism’ and reorient to a more conscious capitalism. She talks about “life-saving climate action” but one could also talk about “life-saving” capitalism, economic opportunity, and access to technology that capitalism has wrought.
Klein reported on trade law amidst the globalism of the 1990’s and so has perspectives on it. She notes that renewable energy subsidization in several countries (she notes China wind and Canada solar) have come up against trade laws and lost since they would be considered a form of ‘protectionism’ in context of those laws. I agree that this needs to be amended and that more subsidization of renewable energy should happen. While there is expense, there are also multiple benefits that make it worthy. Encouraging local industry in such projects generally should not be considered protectionism but clearly some compromises need to be worked out here. While these situations may be a failure of free trade rules as they stand, they are not evidence of the overall failure of free trade. Most analysis suggests that free trade has been a slight plus. In light of climate through increased energy usage – mainly to transport goods long distances – it has perhaps been a slight minus. She notes the manufacturing revolution in China and other low-cost manufacturing countries as evidence of increased energy usage to make cheap goods for our material culture. Fair enough – but many of those workers are no doubt happy for a chance at relative prosperity. Renewable energy requires subsidizing in most places in order to be economic compared to fossil fuels. She goes through a case in Ontario where the government subsidization requirement was that 40-60% of products for a large renewable energy project had to be sourced within the province. The deal was blocked by trade rule courts (WTO) and scrapped. She sees it as trade trumping climate and I agree. Global subsidization of renewable energy and other pollution abatement, poverty reduction, and quality of life projects, need to be able to work with local resources. These issues perhaps should be seen as public works issues rather than free market business, though it is unclear how to make such a system fair to everyone. So it is clear enough, as economists and environmentalists have noted that trade laws need to be amended to encourage deals that are in the global public and local public interests. She does note interestingly that the new trade laws arose after the fall of the Berlin wall as did the first climate change inklings from Jim Hansen, who said in 1988 that he was 99% sure that there was a warming trend and humans were part of the cause. The early reductions agreements like the ones from Kyoto in 1997 paralleled new free trade agreements, and it was not considered how one would affect the other. More transport of goods over longer distances uses more fuel so localizing is often a more sustainable option and this is another good argument against free trade trumping local subsidizing. The World Bank, WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other groups were set up to facilitate and monitor international trade. Although there are certainly some obvious important benefits to international trade, there is also the increased greenhouse gas emissions. Trade and climate are certainly both global issues that require global attention and careful watch. Klein cites global food trade ala NAFTA and similar deals as a key emissions generator as “food-miles” increase. I think that the trade groups and orgs and the climate groups and orgs need to coordinate better. Klein compares trade and climate: countries are responsible for the pollution and ghgs they emit from within their borders even if manufacturing for the benefit of consumers elsewhere. She specifically notes China as a manufacturer for the U.S. but nowadays global manufacturing is quite established so altering it too drastically would be problematic. In this “neoliberal era” as she calls it, emissions increased quite a bit (but so did population and access to services like electricity). She sees cheap labor and dirty energy as a package deal. Throughout this book she harps out the contrasting terms dirty/clean, brown/green, exploiters/protectors, care/careless, etc. etc. but often these issues are not so black and white. For example, cheap labor can be seen as exploitative and/or as a welcome improvement over deep poverty. One problem with China as a manufacturing hub is that it runs on coal and pollution controls are not well implemented. Now Chinese cities are facing dangerously poor air quality and smog. Clearly mistakes were made but now is the time to move toward better conditions rather than harp on the evils of what she perceives as ideological free-market fundamentalism. No ideology nor anti-ideology will save us from errors, but we can probably do better. She ties this back to the early Industrial Revolution when cheap labor and increased pollution were coupled. Yes, capitalism itself is part of the “evil” that threatens the planet. She does not use the term “evil” but in her verbose condescending style all the villains seem to line-up: capitalism, extractivism, corporatism, market-based solutions to problems – so in a real sense she espouses an ideology as an anti-ideology. These are the very foundations of the modern world. I do think that our economic models need to bend and better accommodate social, environmental, economic fairness, and climate-change mitigation values. She, however, seems to insist that the whole system be torn down and restructured asap. She faults her “Big Green” groups which in this case even includes Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for helping to promote deals like NAFTA. She praises groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Sierra Club, and NRDC after they changed their attitude. Clearly, there is a split in the environmental movements between the so-called centrists who favor market-based approaches to problems and the more radical groups who favor more regulation and other penalty approaches. She does offer some good hindsight in ways things could have been done if climate and pollution were taken into account more. She faults growth economies as the ultimate source of emissions rises yet one may also tie growth economics to perpetually increasing population. Her call for “managed degrowth” is further complicated by population increase. Efficiency increases, more mindful and smart consumption, smart grids, using the right kinds of energy in the right configurations as is technically and economically available, distributed non-monopolized power production, along with some improvements in abatement technologies and regulatory framework can all help to lower emissions. Her and others’ uncompromising call for the dismantling of fossil fuel energy and the infrastructure that supports it makes one wonder how it could be replaced reliably and quickly with intermittent, inefficient, low-capacity, and expensive wind and solar. Green capitalism and green tech will not be enough, she insists, though it is unclear what will be. She seems to favor forced reduced consumption by making energy very expensive. Certainly, things like luxury taxes, promotion of income equality, and opportunity for all are desirable but more than that would be required.
Next she praises and parades Germany’s renewable energy efforts. Though a commendable effort, there are some problems with energy in Germany. Costs are high and since nuclear is being taken out there are increases in coal power (from poor quality high-emissions lignite) and the rather shocking practice of importing trees from the U.S. southeast for wood-burning power plants that as biomass are considered to be renewable energy! Wood emissions are more carbon intensive and more toxic than coal and could only be considered renewable on a long time scale as it may take 100 years for the carbon sequestration capability of the trees to be replaced. So when people read about “renewable” energy in Germany this is often included! Some suggest that a certain amount of pelletized wood is carbon neutral (dead wood, branches, wood waste, and fast growing trees) but this is extremely unlikely on the whole and recent evidence shows that much of the wood is from hardwood forest trees. German emissions have actually increased in spite of the renewables due to replacement of nuclear by more lignite power plants. On the other hand, their adoption of government-subsidized community owned distributed power through solar and wind projects may serve as a model for other countries and show that it can be implemented on a larger scale without too much disruption. She favors the German gradual return to publically-owned utilities by buying them back from public corporations. Historically, particularly in Europe, public ownership of energy has favored faster transitions to renewables (including imported wood pellets as biomass). She seems to think that there is no place for business interests in energy ownership – but it is business interests that have built and maintained the infrastructure that powers the whole world. She goes on to tout Stanford engineer Mark Jacobson’s blueprint for a complete transition to renewables as early as 2030, a multi-trillion dollar vague possibility. Perhaps they were unaware of such things as the new Ivanpa solar thermal plant producing just over half of what it was expected to produce and other capacity, intermittency, and retooling issues.
She goes on to praise ‘Occupy Sandy’ who genuinely helped people out after Hurricane Sandy. Poor people do seem to suffer more risks of serious damage in natural disasters as they are least likely to be prepared to weather storms. She favors more governmental organizations devoted to disaster relief. She sees the lack as part of the privatization that went along with the embrace of free-market capitalism. It is still debatable whether the rate and severity of disasters have increased but there is a fair case for it. Who will pay for the billions, maybe trillions needed for disaster preparedness? Why the fossil fuel companies, of course, the polluters. So they can pay for all this while being put out of business by renewables? I am not sure how that could happen but I do know that companies can’t exist if they are not profitable. She touts the large profits of ‘Big Oil’ like Exxon – but really there are only a few companies near that big and profitable – and now they are losing billions in the recent oil price crash so that Saudi Arabia can gain back a bit of its market share. She compares fossil fuel use to smoking as if there is a choice and fossil fuel companies are peddling a known poisonous product that addicts us. It is a rather poor argument I think – another negative association. She gives a list of how things could be funded through carbon taxes and other measures that punish fossil fuel companies. The basic idea is to make fossil fuels so unprofitable that renewable energy will be easier to implement by necessity. It is pretty much asking fossil fuel companies to dig their own graves and hoping they will finish before they die! She advocates the necessity of wartime austerity and rationing asap in order to fund complete transition to renewable energy right now. Rationing is not so popular in the American mind as President Carter’s speech about rationing energy and notions of carbon footprints revealed. She talks about fairness for all in rationing. Stories of private jets filling resorts where climate talks take place don’t help. She does note that the public has been supportive of Obama’s 2014 Power Plant emission rules and I hope this is true for they are useful guidelines that can really help and do seem fair overall. The same could be said about new rules for ground level ozone and methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Most seem to be OK with both, even many in the oil and gas industry, even though officially they will complain and the more vocal groups like Chamber of Commerce and the right wing groups will fight furiously. I think people would be willing to sacrifice (basically pay more for energy) if there is great certainty that what they are doing is really necessary. But do we really know how necessary? Many would invoke the Precautionary Principle and that offers some ‘just in case’ insurance but also rebalances economics in favor of those who do nothing. She seems to suggest that people around the world are perfectly willing to sacrifice to mitigate climate change but only the politicians and corporations are not. “Polluter pays” is the solution she puts forth but in order to stay in business the “polluters” would have to pass much of the cost on to the public. Nobody wants to be “phased out” and certainly nobody wants to be forced to pay to phase themselves out by paying their replacements.
Throughout the book Klein rattles on in a seemingly feigned emotional context about the harm fossil fuel interests are inflicting on the planet and all the pure good that activists do – real radical activists, not fake activists who work with the enemy. The Canadian tar sands and one of its outlets, the Keystone XL pipeline are an easy target and I agree that they are too carbon intensive, that there are more benign sources of oil to tap. Of course, that does mean giving financial support to autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, the top financier of terrorism whose human rights abuses can be quite similar to those of the Islamic State (ISIS). She goes on to say that Obama’s power plant emissions reductions were too timid. We can only hope they will remain, rather than demanding that they be increased. I agree with her that we should not rely on technological advancement like the Heartland Institute people suggest.
Next chapter is called ‘Planning and Banning.’ Next she goes on to fault Obama for not using the stimulus money for climate change mitigation and to restructure society. Instead of climate mitigation he focused on health care in his first term. Public transit, smart grids, and electric cars would have been useful but there were perhaps more immediate concerns. There was much funding for wind and solar energy included which really didn’t make much of a dent. Now we have $75,000 Teslas – not exactly a working man’s price. Her scenarios involve things like worker-owned collectives and investment in low-carbon infrastructure – both good ideas. She blames fear of communism and belief in the power of corporations for his failure to transform the world coming out of the economic downturn of 2008. She says free-market idealists equate industrial planning to communism (as in Stalin’s five-year plans). Industrial planning and public works have been proven to be useful and should not be maligned as government control mechanisms or communist plots. She goes on to tout fixing infrastructure, greening energy, and distributed and community grids – all good ideas but all needing government subsidies.
I disagree with her lumping of modern natural gas extraction as a form of extreme extraction on par with Canadian tar sands and Appalachian mountaintop removal. While modern gas and oil extraction may be prone to occasional accidents like blowouts, explosions, and spills, which can be quite damaging, the positive climate and pollution benefits relative to coal are real and quite significant. There is also the argument that cheap natural gas keeps renewable energy from being developed. In one sense this is true but in another, since American families, from the shale gas revolution, are saving enough in 5 or 10 years for a small rooftop solar system, then one could also say that the situation is economically equivalent, just that high gas and oil prices are not forcing renewable parity with fossil fuels at the public’s expense. That is one reason some argue for a high carbon tax – high enough to bring the cost of fossil fuels up to the level of renewables. If one’s electric and gas bills tripled or quadrupled then getting solar panels would seem more feasible. She actually advocates public takeover of natural gas so that it can be put to use as the logical and necessary assistant to renewables (presumably for baseload capacity). She does not understand how exploration and innovation have worked in these industries to make such comments. She also touts the few studies by anti-fracking activists that also happen to be scientists about fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas systems – those that have been thoroughly discredited by many other studies, including current large direct ongoing studies by EPA and EDF and the University of Texas that have shown low methane emissions – far less than the discredited studies. Unfortunately, the anti-fracking movement has continued to only select certain studies, most often refuted and/or discredited, that support their cause and avoid other ones. This selective media feeding is a big problem with groups that have agendas, whatever they may be. She shows her ignorance, as many have, when she says that fracked gas has higher methane emissions than conventional gas. There is no difference in terms of infrastructure and methodology of gas flow. Shale gas was the main culprit in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 1992 levels, not to mention the vast improvement in air quality due to it replacing coal. She criticizes as fake, well-meaning efforts like the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, another collaboration between environmental groups, including EDF, and corporations, to develop best practices and standards.
Some decentralized control over energy can be a good idea in some local markets – as Germany has proved, but the scale of investment and the energy needed would be very expensive. The innovation of the energy entrepreneurs has proven valuable for technological breakthroughs. It is unclear that they could be sustained without business incentives of some sort. It is fairly easy to fault fossil fuel development by focusing on the increase in accidents that go along with the increase of energy produced to be utilized by increased demand from an increasing population. Deepwater offshore drilling has more dangers than shallower water drilling as the BP disaster showed. There are a few extra dangers of energy from fracking compared to conventional drilling, such as more wastewater to handle. However, there are some environmental advantages to horizontal drilling and fracking over conventional drilling: more hydrocarbons can be accessed from smaller land footprints, infrastructure can be shared to some extent, and hydrocarbons can be extracted more efficiently. Large deep water and tar sands projects require decades to become economic and so the problem of avoiding stranded assets can become an issue if projects are abandoned. However, some climate models do declare that significant fossil fuel assets, in terms of possible, probable, and proved reserves, would have to be stranded in order to keep temperature increases below 2 deg Celsius. She equates fossil fuel lobbying to bribery and it probably could be seen that way, but for any lobbying really, if money is involved. I do think such lobbying should be curbed. She refers to business interests: fossil fuels, medical, gun, and financial lobbies as perverters of politics. However, there are some sound reasons to reduce some regulations on these factions. I agree that “special interests” influence on politics needs to be addressed and one can see it as a form of corporate corruption. Corruption is a problem in many ways and scales around the world and this is one of them. However, having an opinion that differs from Klein’s and her more radical ilk, is not the same as corruption, as she seems to suggest.
Over-regulation and favoring businesses based on “perceived” pollution/emissions could also be seen as a form of corruption, especially if those perceptions turn out to be incorrect. Groups like the IPCC have been strongly politicized – they are not just scientists as they may seem – but also politicians, journalists, and policy wonks. The call for “System Change, Not Climate Change” is a fair one but also a daunting one that best engages all parties. Personally, I am not comfortable putting the world into the hands of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and 350.org – however noble some of their goals may be. Klein’s advocating of revolution in terms of a broad but uncompromising social movement seems pretty messy to me. Clearly, her approach is one that seeks to define enemies and crush them. It is not a collaborative approach but a confrontational one. To her, extracting natural resources is a kind of evil – relating to the earth with violence – as she states it. That is rather irreverent to those who worked for our technology-based world. Her fire and brimstone sermoning resembles that of an apocalyptic preacher who presents a well-defined good vs. evil scenario. I predict many people will embrace her approach emphatically but I think it is flawed.
Next comes the historical beginning of the extractivist/colonialist mindset which she traces to Francis Bacon. There were many new discoveries at the time and they had to be organized and analyzed somewhat in secret from the Church so groups like the Royal Society did such. Bacon put out writings emphasizing that nature was to be conquered and exploited but in those days that could be quite in line with the Church doctrine of dominion over nature. Inventions like the steam engine powered the industrial revolution with fossil fuels. The market economy rose with the fossil fuel economy – economies require energy. It is quite unfair to blame early users of fossil fuels as ignoring effects on the climate as such effects were not known – yet she seems to do just that. Certainly, the effects of coal pollution could not be ignored and should not be ignored today because they literally kill many people. She seems to prefer demonizing people like Bacon and James Watt as creators of doom. Certainly, there is much benefit and detriment that came from the Industrial Revolution – ailments from pollution but also longer lifespans from reduced overall labor and medical advancements from technology, sanitation, and refrigeration provided by fossil fuels. She does note that early socialist movements and countries also had pollution problems and worker’s rights difficulties. She sees the social democracies of Scandinavia as bright spots and maybe so but they are small countries with small populations and specific features like abundant hydropower and layouts amenable to group heating but they are extractors too. She seems to like the South American people-oriented leaders, some who are really tyrants in disguise – just because they dislike fossil fuel interests, although she berates them for the extractivism that they so. It is quite true as she suggests that many countries are overly dependent on extractivist economies – Venezuela, Nigeria, etc.
She notes that the earliest environmental movement, that of John Muir and the conservationists, was successful due to quiet lobbying rather than vociferous protesting and perhaps she is on to something there. Then came Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and in 1972 a book called the “Limits to Growth” which made more people aware that natural resources are finite and we can’t keep growing forever. She sees the free market/Neoliberal revival of the 1980s and 1990s as a reversal of such ideas. This may well be but there are/were other issues such as bringing the rest of the world out of poverty and equalizing development into the “modern” world.
Her chapter subtitled – The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green – is probably the one that irks me the most as she seems to see collaborators as traitors and I think that is quite unfair. For some reason she thinks only “true” environmentalists can be fond of green solutions. Nobody wants to destroy the earth. She berates the Nature Conservancy for letting Mobil drill wells on some of their land and EDF for collaborating with business interests, but groups like EDF have gotten way more done than the radical groups. I think there is a role for radical groups as a kind of force to keep things in check and to put things in the public eye but such actions can be overdone and overly focus on the wrong issues especially if they do not utilize accurate information. Any donations from fossil fuel interests, including utilities, to green groups is automatically seen as bribery. If one sees things as a war this is treason but if one sees it as negotiation, collaboration, and co-education, it can be useful. She only praises biased groups like Food & Water Watch. She talks down about “reform environmentalism” that is not based on people protest but on engaging “experts in the scientific, legal, and economic communities. I think engaging such experts is a very good idea, much better than having common people under the influence of biased journalism with uncompromising militant-esque views and tactics. I don’t like how she accuses people who work with fossil fuels interests in any way as being corrupt. Fossil fuel companies are big companies with highly educated and technical people. Certainly there are anti-green people and factions within them as well as in any companies or in government but there are also pro-green people and factions. She sees what she calls “top-down” environmentalism as a failure and our only hope being a “bottom-up” approach demanded by large groups of people.
As she notes the U.S. environmental “victories” in the 1970’s such as the Clean Water Act can be seen as a golden age of environmental law. These successes did improve our environment, no doubt about it. China and India are perhaps due for such rules. Reagan was especially hard on environmentalists and his policies perhaps turned back much of their momentum and led them to work more with the capitalist powers-that-be than before. She tries to make it as if money and politics forced environmentalists to split up into true warrior radicals (the real ones according to her) and collaborators. She especially seems to despise Fred Krupp and EDF. EDF ran the acid rain cap and trade system in the late 80’s that successfully reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. She complains that it was not a flat demanded reduction across the board, which would have been better, but a system of trading where overall reduction was the goal but with a ratcheting cap that went down over time. It was successful but perhaps not as painful to the polluters as some wanted.
Pollution trading through cap-and-trade systems has had variable success. The system devised by the European Union in cahoots with the U.N. was filled with problems that could have been avoided and corrected earlier than they were. Some difficulties in such systems include allocation of pollution allowances, evaluation of whether allowances for some things should be allotted or not, and how much to back the system with regulations. She gives the example that oil companies working in Nigeria wanted to be paid for discontinuing flaring gas in the oil fields. In such cases, especially with today’s technology, banning most flaring, is reasonable. Apparently, in the EU/UN system there were quite a few questionable assessments and allocations where some people and companies profited unfairly from the carbon market as she points out in some obvious cases. Carbon offset trading needs to be more closely monitored for fraud. Much of these problems were eventually rooted out but not fast enough. As newer carbon markets in states like California, regions of the U.S., and many local areas show, such abuses and misallocations were likely just part of the learning curve combined with poor management. Most of the newer markets have been deemed fair and functional. She notes that the economic slowdown reduced emissions and so there was an excess of carbon credits in the EU system and so no incentive to reduce emissions. This can also be seen as a design fault in that the market designed to incentivize emissions reduction was not design to withstand such a market fluctuation as the downturn caused. She goes on to deride the US carbon trading system devised by USCAP which consisted of environmental groups, utilities, and affiliated energy industries. The bill did not pass and it is unlikely the U.S will adopt carbon trading real soon. She thinks it would not have worked anyway. Obama’s new power plant rule and ground-level ozone reduction are other measures that may help if not somehow blocked by Congress. Clearly the solution to emissions reductions is not the market alone, nor regulations alone, but a careful combination of the two.
The section on green billionaires is easy to agree with as it notes the questionable intentions of new green converts like Richard Branson who owns a carbon intensive airline. He has offered money to those who would develop technologies to mitigate carbon emissions through his Earth Challenge. I agree with Klein that we should not really rely much on technology to save us. Of course, we can’t rule it out completely. She covers Warren Buffet, Tom Steyer, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, T. Boone Pickens, and others, with variable judgments of them. People do develop a sort of climate guilt related to their carbon footprint and that of the companies and industries they work in or represent. It is perhaps a strange moral psychology at work. We should not discourage or overly criticize such efforts at redemption as they may yield useful fruit but we certainly should not rely on them either.
Next she describes a weekend at a geoengineering conference put on by the Royal Society in the U.K. (Of course she eventually ties the society back to its inspirer – Francis Bacon). I generally agree with her that we should not rely on geoengineering to save us as some suggest and that much could go wrong with such tinkering. However, there may be some benign and inexpensive methods that could be employed such as olivine exposure. Planting trees could be seen as a benign form of geoengineering so one should not get too caught up in the terminology. She goes through sun-dimming, or solar radiation management (SRM - adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere) and mitigating ocean acidification with iron. She notes the taboo against geoengineering that may be based on the dangers of weather modification that have been done for militaristic purposes. One concern about adding aerosols to the atmosphere, like volcanoes do, is that it could disrupt weather, specifically, needed monsoons in SE Asia and Africa. She plays up scenarios where desperate attempts at geoengineering to save crops in a wealthy country, for example, would negatively affect a poor country. Her idea of the “shock doctrine” is that in crisis situations more extreme options become more viable and fairness to others is sacrificed. Her sensible preference is to try Plan A (reduce emissions) before resorting to Plan B (geoengineering). She also notes that surveys have shown that the public strongly distrusts geoengineering (likely relating to the taboo mentioned above).
Next we come to strategy in the chapter titled – Blockadia. Here is another method to which I generally don’t agree though it may be useful in some situations. If there are very clear reasons and enough public support for such actions then they will work. But if gathering the public support happens through deceptive biased journalism posing as science then they will probably not work, or at least should not. She sees people sharing with one another in comradeship and fellowship as they fight the common enemy – extractors of raw materials. Of course, solar and wind power, increased on the vast multi-trillion dollar scale recommended will also involve drastic increases in extraction of materials for solar and wind farms. Silica mines (sand mines), rare earth minerals mines, petrochemicals for materials requirements, cement and steel materials from mines and quarries, and more toxic waste from those industries would increase. Her blockadia is a confrontational approach that could potentially attract over-the-top radicals aimed at destruction which happens on occasion. Sabotage can grade into property destruction and danger. She advocates for a new “contagious fighting spirit.” She sees the non-negotiable demands of extreme extraction protestors as examples of moral clarity. She especially seems to like and has worked to inspire various tribal First Nations protest against fossil fuel interests in Canada and beyond. She does note and I agree that people in places like cities in China that have poor air quality will eventually get fed up with it if nothing is done. They are scrambling now to prevent it. The tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline as well as mountaintop removal coal mining are terribly destructive, carbon intensive, and pollution intensive. In contrast, shale gas, has improved air quality and reduced emissions compared to coal. Gas power plants are more efficient than coal, can be built faster, use less water, and the carbon from them can be more readily sequestered. The water contamination, radioactivity, earthquakes caused by overpressured injection wells near fault lines, and spills and accidents associated with fracking are rarer and likely less damaging than the press makes out. The air contamination is likely acceptable although further improvements should be sought. The health impacts, like those cited for banning fracking in New York State have been especially blown out of proportion. In virtually every study, every negative effect could attributed to other factors. She actually praises semi-violent revolutionaries in Nigeria that have taken over oil installations (hundreds were killed) and demanded ransoms and reparations. While the old militaristic government there who profited from oil exploration did commit atrocities one should not condone militaristic takeover of people conducting legitimate (according to the rules of that country) business. She talks a lot about “sacrifice zones,” usually poor people in the way of extractive and resources industries. She also talks about indigenous peoples having “rights” to their vast tracts of traditional lands. That is not an easy issue sometimes as there are over seven billion people who need heat, cooling, light, refrigeration, and energy provided by raw materials. It may depend somewhat on old treaties in Canada but such rules can be re-negotiated or re-interpreted in more modern times. Oil by rail increased from about 9000 rail cars per year in 2008 to 400,000 rail cars per year in 2013 with a few accidents and one terrible deadly one in Quebec. More transport means more chance for accidents. It is well-known that pipelines are safer. New rules for building rail cars, some re-routing, better railroad rules, and required testing of oil flammability before transport should help reduce such accidents. Extreme extraction is the enemy that has galvanized the progressive environmental movement. I totally agree with her that the U.S. coal industry needs to downsize rather than sell coal to Europe and Asia. Another issue of importance are the refineries located near to where people live and contributing to poor air quality. She is also correct that lax corporate attitudes toward fixing known problems with pipelines, extracting operations, and chemical storage have led directly to unnecessary disasters. Such companies should be held accountable. Industrial self-regulation is only possible if everyone participates and fixes known problems in a timely manner. Safety culture is of utmost importance to any industry where there are risks. Oil companies have poor reputations among the public for these reasons and along with perceptions of corporate greed among many types of companies leads people to distrust them.
She sees local people as ‘rooted’ and having a sense of place and fossil fuel interests as transitory, looking for the next resource, although quite a few companies are in an area for many decades employing local people and contributing quite a bit to local institutions.
She praises the recent fossil fuel divestment movement that is taking place among universities, companies, cities, and more recently philanthropists like the Rockefellers who made their fortune from fossil fuels. This started as divestment from coal to quell mountaintop removal but groups like 350.org extended it to oil and gas as well. Bill McKibben and Jim Hansen talk much about fossil fuel that must be left in the ground. Reserves are already captured so we must abandon new ones. The problem with that scenario is that we must pay countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela for their found reserves instead of developing other sources. In that sense, one could even suggest that they advocate financing terrorism, oligarchy, Russian expansionism, and anti-Americanism! Another problem with that scenario is that natural gas the nation’s primary heat source basically functions through more local markets with reserves that are tapped due to fluctuating supply and demand. Sure, we could import gas from Russia, Canada, the Middle East and other places but that is not feasible nor reasonable. Over 75% of gas in the U.S is fracked gas and the amount is growing. If fracking were banned, the price of gas would likely triple or quadruple and conventional drilling would boom for a long time just to try and keep up with demand. It would help a transition to renewables but at a very high cost to consumers. People would have to replace their gas furnaces, stoves, and water heaters for electric ones so demand for electricity would rise and with limited natural gas the utilities would be forced to return to coal and emissions would go through the roof. It is just not practical in the short-term. If the Saudi’s cut oil supply, then we would have to build more electric cars to basically run on coal as wind and solar could not ramp up nearly fast enough. Trillions would be spent and emissions would rise in the meantime. A move to the use of lighter hydrocarbons would be much more feasible in the short term – cleaner-burning natural gas vehicles, ships, trains, and other heavy equipment and replacement of coal power with gas. That should lower emissions considerably while renewables, smart grids, distributed grids, combined heat and power, public transit, and energy efficiency measures are gradually ramped up in a carefully planned manner. It is a saner move that would also cost money – but billions instead of trillions. Klein and McKibben are not only declaring war on corporations but also on governments as collaborators with the enemy. Their climate movement in some ways resembles the anarchic protest democracy of the Occupy Movement who may have had some good ideas (especially outing the issue of income disparity) but no real detailed alternative plans. Reinvigorating the political power of local groups is not really a bad idea but it has to be integrated with the needs and rights of counties, states and the fed.
She devotes a chapter to indigenous rights and treaties. Each case is generally different and there are different ways to see the various issues. It is likely that there have been many treaty violations by governments in cahoots with natural resources extractors such as loggers, drilling, and mining companies. She clearly wants to associate her anti-fossil fuel agenda with indigenous rights as that would add power and a sense of justice to it but it is also true that many groups of indigenous peoples benefit from resources leases and some work in those industries. She goes through some well-known cases: Ecuador, Nigeria, and the Canadian tar sands, pipeline projects, many coal projects, and fracking which was banned in New Brunswick. She sees younger indigenous people as a new generation of warriors in the war against fossil fuels.
She talks about climate debt, the idea that the countries responsible for the Industrial Revolution made the most emissions so they owe the rest of the world. I am not sure I like the idea for one because no one was really aware of this until the late 1980’s except in the case of pollution, which was considered an unpleasant side effect of progress. She presents people who lease to drillers and miners as doing so unwillingly, being desperate for the money but that is often not the case. She notes the cool story of the town in Kansas that was destroyed by a tornado and the town was rebuilt on a sustainability model with efficiency, passive solar, and renewables.
She talks about India, China, and the Global South (SE Asia, Africa, equatorial places where large populations live). They are developing fast and emissions are rising. Many of these people could benefit from renewable energy and small-scale solar is more applicable in many of those places that are rural. The recent agreements between Obama and China and his recent trip to India are encouraging. Of course, Obama, and his energy and interior secretaries and the head of the EPA all favor natural gas as a bridge fuel.
Again I think her depiction of the Industrial Revolution, and particularly the coal that fueled it, as also being what fueled the North American slave trade, is a practice in negative association, something she does throughout the book. While the Industrial Revolution was wrought with many injustices trying to use them in modern arguments about resource extraction seems out of place and presumptuous. She talks about global funds to help renewable projects and public social projects. Taxpayers should not pay for them but corporations, particularly fossil fuel corporations, she says. Her equation of the climate movement (as she sees it) as equivalent to less uncertain justice movements like the civil rights movement and South African apartheid is over the top. She directly equates heading an oil company that denies climate science to a “heinous moral crime.” Of course, she ties her version of the climate movement to all that is good: human rights, reproductive rights, income equality, etc.
She talks about experiencing ecological despair, which apparently is a psychological thing some people may experience. However, I have heard many such claims and tend to distrust them. In my opinion it is not unlike the nocebo effect, where someone believes that something is harming them and so develops symptoms. This is what I suspect occurs in the anecdotal health problem stories that came about from local fracking (but curiously never from previous local conventional hydrocarbon production) and so-called wind turbine syndrome. It is certainly true that we need to know as much as we can about potential environmental harms to ourselves and avoid them. Sometimes there is uncertainty. She notes the recent study about a slightly greater percentage of birth defects near oil and gas wells but the study was quite vague and there could have been many other reasons for the slight difference. We should all be reminded that correlation does not imply causation – unless perhaps one wants to fuel their political agenda. However, the studies around refineries, especially the ones near high populations, where there are far more toxins and emissions released are on better footing.
One thing I do like about her approach is the needed changing of the “extrativist mindset,” of “taking without care taking.” I do agree that natural resources industries need to take more pride in the care taking part and many certainly do. Every spill or accident is not due to neglect but some are. Her faction of more direct action protest environmentalism is probably here to stay but I do not think it should be the dominant force. It needs to be checked by more moderate forces. It is a resistance movement and one that has had and will continue to have an effect. It also a movement that fossil fuel interests can’t really ignore or brush off. Some sort of conflict resolution is preferable to war in most situations and this one too. If resolution is to be achieved the activists need to tone down the biased rhetoric and the corporate interests need to be willing to compromise and be more accountable and transparent. She sees populist movements being the key to change. I like a model where collaboration (like the ones the green groups that she despises do) as a better key especially with the support of more intelligent and tech savy and less loud populist movements. It is no easy task to change the world for the better and try to be fair about it. Fossil fuel extraction is wrought with risk and potential safety and environmental hazards. There are great rewards with those risks and there should also be greater responsibility. I do not believe that 100% renewables is as easily within reach as some of the super-optimistic assessments suggest. But we can certainly move in that direction.