Capitalism vs. the Climate
When powerful ideologies are challenged by hard evidence from the real world, they rarely die off completely. Rather, they become cultlike and marginal. A few true believers always remain to tell one another that the problem wasn’t with the ideology; it was the weakness of leaders who did not apply the rules with sufficient rigor. We have these types on the Stalinist left, and they exist as well on the neo-Nazi right. By this point in history, free-market fundamentalists should be exiled to a similarly marginal status, left to fondle their copies of Free to Choose and Atlas Shrugged in obscurity. They are saved from this fate only because their ideas about minimal government, no matter how demonstrably at war with reality, remain so profitable to the world’s billionaires that they are kept fed and clothed in think tanks by the likes of Charles and David Koch, and ExxonMobil.
This points to the limits of theories like “cultural cognition.” The deniers are doing more than protecting their cultural worldview—they are protecting powerful interests that stand to gain from muddying the waters of the climate debate. The ties between the deniers and those interests are well known and well documented. Heartland has received more than $1 million from ExxonMobil together with foundations linked to the Koch brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife (possibly much more, but the think tank has stopped publishing its donors’ names, claiming the information was distracting from the “merits of our positions”).
And scientists who present at Heartland climate conferences are almost all so steeped in fossil fuel dollars that you can practically smell the fumes. To cite just two examples, the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, who gave the conference keynote, once told CNN that 40 percent of his consulting company’s income comes from oil companies, and who knows how much of the rest comes from coal. A Greenpeace investigation into another one of the conference speakers, astrophysicist Willie Soon, found that since 2002, 100 percent of his new research grants had come from fossil fuel interests. And fossil fuel companies are not the only economic interests strongly motivated to undermine climate science. If solving this crisis requires the kinds of profound changes to the economic order that I have outlined, then every major corporation benefiting from loose regulation, free trade and low taxes has reason to fear.
With so much at stake, it should come as little surprise that climate deniers are, on the whole, those most invested in our highly unequal and dysfunctional economic status quo. One of the most interesting findings of the studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much-discussed paper on this topic by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap (memorably titled “Cool Dudes”) found that confident conservative white men, as a group, were almost six times as likely to believe climate change “will never happen” than the rest of the adults surveyed. McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: “Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”
But deniers’ relative economic and social privilege doesn’t just give them more to lose from a new economic order; it gives them reason to be more sanguine about the risks of climate change in the first place. This occurred to me as I listened to yet another speaker at the Heartland conference display what can only be described as an utter absence of empathy for the victims of climate change. Larry Bell, whose bio describes him as a “space architect,” drew plenty of laughs when he told the crowd that a little heat isn’t so bad: “I moved to Houston intentionally!” (Houston was, at that time, in the midst of what would turn out to be the state’s worst single-year drought on record.) Australian geologist Bob Carter offered that “the world actually does better from our human perspective in warmer times.” And Patrick Michaels said people worried about climate change should do what the French did after a devastating 2003 heat wave killed 14,000 of their people: “they discovered Walmart and air-conditioning.”
Listening to these zingers as an estimated 13 million people in the Horn of Africa face starvation on parched land was deeply unsettling. What makes this callousness possible is the firm belief that if the deniers are wrong about climate change, a few degrees of warming isn’t something wealthy people in industrialized countries have to worry about. (“When it rains, we find shelter. When it’s hot, we find shade,” Texas Congressman Joe Barton explained at an energy and environment subcommittee hearing.)
As for everyone else, well, they should stop looking for handouts and busy themselves getting unpoor. When I asked Michaels whether rich countries have a responsibility to help poor ones pay for costly adaptations to a warmer climate, he scoffed that there is no reason to give money to countries “because, for some reason, their political system is incapable of adapting.” The real solution, he claimed, was more free trade.
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This is where the intersection between hard-right ideology and climate denial gets truly dangerous. It’s not simply that these “cool dudes” deny climate science because it threatens to upend their dominance-based worldview. It is that their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swaths of humanity in the developing world. Recognizing the threat posed by this empathy-exterminating mindset is a matter of great urgency, because climate change will test our moral character like little before. The US Chamber of Commerce, in its bid to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, argued in a petition that in the event of global warming, “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” These adaptations are what I worry about most.
How will we adapt to the people made homeless and jobless by increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters? How will we treat the climate refugees who arrive on our shores in leaky boats? Will we open our borders, recognizing that we created the crisis from which they are fleeing? Or will we build ever more high-tech fortresses and adopt ever more draconian antiimmigration laws? How will we deal with resource scarcity?
We know the answers already. The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. “Free-market climate solutions,” as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets. And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks.
As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed. And it will only get colder, as theories of racial superiority, barely under the surface in parts of the denial movement, make a raging comeback. These theories are not optional: they are necessary to justify the hardening of hearts to the largely blameless victims of climate change in the global South, and in predominately African-American cities like New Orleans.
In The Shock Doctrine, I explore how the right has systematically used crises—real and trumped up—to push through a brutal ideological agenda designed not to solve the problems that created the crises but rather to enrich elites. As the climate crisis begins to bite, it will be no exception. This is entirely predictable. Finding new ways to privatize the commons and to profit from disaster are what our current system is built to do. The process is already well under way.
The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy.
Shifting cultural values is, admittedly, a tall order. It calls for the kind of ambitious vision that movements used to fight for a century ago, before everything was broken into single “issues” to be tackled by the appropriate sector of business-minded NGOs. Climate change is, in the words of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, “the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.” By all rights, this reality should be filling progressive sails with conviction, breathing new life and urgency into longstanding fights against everything from free trade to financial speculation to industrial agriculture to third-world debt, while elegantly weaving all these struggles into a coherent narrative about how to protect life on earth.