‘Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism? from the December 4, 2014 issue

Andrew Quilty
A house swept into a lake by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, Mantoloking, New Jersey, October 2012; photograph by Andrew Quilty from #Sandy: Seen Through the iPhones of Acclaimed Photographers, just published by Daylight

To the Editors:

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of my book This Changes Everything [NYR, December 4, 2014] humans are too selfish to respond effectively to the climate crisis. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes, “when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car.”

Kolbert’s only proof for this sweeping judgment is her partial account of a single Swiss research project that began in 1998. The researchers behind the 2,000-Watt Society, as the project is known, determined that if humans are to live within ecological limits, then every person on earth will need to keep their energy consumption below 2,000 watts. They created several fictional characters representing different lifestyles to illustrate what that would entail and, according to Kolbert, “Only ‘Alice,’ a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.”

From this Kolbert concludes that my argument—that responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation—is a “maddeningly” optimistic “fable.” Fortunately, Kolbert’s grim conclusions are based on several mischaracterizations of the most current research on emissions reduction, as well as of the contents of my book.

Let’s start with the Swiss project. It is indeed difficult to reach a 2,000-watt target while living in a society that systematically encourages wasteful energy use (through long daily commutes, for instance) and when energy is overwhelmingly derived from fossil fuels. But that’s precisely why we need the kind of bold energy transformations described in my book and already underway in some countries: there is no need to accept the outdated fossil-fueled infrastructure that we have now, let alone what we had in 1998.

Big investments in renewables and efficiency, as well as reimaging how we live and work, can deliver a low-carbon, high quality of life to everyone on this planet. And as I write on page 101,

In 2009, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, authored a groundbreaking, detailed road map for “how 100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030.”

Today, low-emission living is considered so achievable that the city of Zurich has adopted the 2,000-Watt Society as an official government target, a piece of good news Kolbert chose not to share.

To make sure I wasn’t missing something, I ran Kolbert’s invocation of the Swiss study by one of the world’s leading experts on radical emissions reduction, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He was also baffled by the reliance on such out-of-date assumptions:

Arguably back in 1998 there may have been some merit in the sole focus on energy consumption as an adequate proxy for emissions—as the prospect of large-scale low carbon alternatives was still a long way off—both technically and in terms of economics. Sixteen or so years later and many of the alternatives are now sufficiently mature to compete with fossil fuels.

In short, the world has moved on.

It is true that it will take time to roll out the infrastructure and technologies to get off fossil fuels, and we will burn a lot of fossil fuel in the process. As a result, those of us who consume a great deal now will need to consume less in order to drive emissions down. In the book, I explain that “we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.” The majority of the world’s population, however, would be able to consume more than they do at the moment.

Kolbert’s review makes the quite extraordinary claim that my book “avoids looking at all closely at what [emission reduction] would entail.” In fact the book contains an in-depth discussion of emission reduction strategies employed by large economies like Germany and Ontario. It dissects the policies that work and those that do not and explores how international trade policy needs to change to make such policies more effective. It delves into which agricultural practices carry the most climate benefits, goes into detail about how to pay for green transitions (from luxury taxes to public control over energy grids). It calls for a revolution in public transit and high-speed rail, for shorter workweeks and serious climate financing so that developing nations can leapfrog over fossil fuels. It also calls for moratoriums on particularly high-risk forms of extractions—and much, much more.

I know Kolbert didn’t miss all of this because that would have meant missing hundreds of pages of text. It seems she would prefer me to have written a book focused on individual consumer behavior: how much people can drive and turn on their TVs. Yet there have been dozens of books that reduce the climate challenge to a question of individual consumer choices. My book is about the huge public policy shifts needed to make those low-carbon choices far easier and accessible to all. It is, therefore, a book first and foremost about ideology, and the need for a dramatic move away from the dominant free-market logic that has made so many of these necessary policies seem politically impossible.

This part of my thesis has been well understood by a great many reviewers, yet strangely ideology was not even mentioned by Kolbert. Her bleak conclusion, however, is confirmation of precisely why no real solutions have a chance unless this ideology is challenged. Right now we have an economic system that encourages and relies on selfishness and rampant consumption. Unless we change, well, everything, many of us can be counted on to cling to our HDTVs as the screens flash ever more apocalyptic images of a world in collapse. It may be wild optimism, but I insist on believing that humanity can do better.

Naomi Klein
Toronto, Canada

Elizabeth Kolbert replies:

In her response to my review, Naomi Klein seems particularly disturbed by my reference to the 2,000-Watt Society. She characterizes this project—the work of many well-meaning scientists, architects, and engineers—as misguided and irrelevant. This surprises me, as the point of the 2000-Watt Society was to try to address the two central concerns of Klein’s book: climate change and global equity.

If, instead of calling up a British scientist apparently unfamiliar with the 2000-Watt Society, Klein had spoken to anyone involved in the project or had even just read the entry on it on Wikipedia, she would have realized she was laboring under a misapprehension. Far from “accept[ing] the outdated fossil-fueled infrastructure that we have now,” the 2,000-Watt Society envisions a wholesale transformation of our energy infrastructure, our public infrastructure, and the rest of our built environment.

The project is essentially a thought experiment, an effort to rigorously work through what it would take to slash global emissions and do so in a way that’s fair to all. To meet this double goal, the researchers on the project concluded that not only would average power consumption have to be held to 2,000 watts per person—a radical cut in some parts of the world, a radical increase in others—but also that 1,500 of those watts would have to be generated from carbon-free sources. Rather than dismissing the work of the 2,000-Watt Society as foolish and outdated—which it’s not—Klein should be actively promoting it.

If Klein has any argument, it is not with the 2,000-Watt Society, but with me. I wrote that I found much of her book compelling, but indicated that, on several crucial issues, I found it vague. In particular, I wrote that the book glossed over the really significant—and politically unpopular—changes in American life that meaningful climate action requires.

Klein’s letter only confirms this assessment. She reiterates a claim she makes in her book that as far as cutting consumption goes, “we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.” This claim is either purely impressionistic or just plain wrong. If you look at the figures, which, once again, are readily available online, you’ll see that since the 1970s, per capita energy consumption in the US has actually declined, as have per capita emissions. How far back would we have to go to make the kind of difference that’s needed? To do this calculation, we’d need to know the specifics of what Klein is proposing. But these are never provided.

At another point in her letter Klein writes, “Today, low-emission living is considered so achievable that the city of Zurich has adopted the 2,000-Watt Society as an official government target.” Here she seems to conflate emissions with power use. To meet the project’s target, per capita power consumption would have to decline dramatically even as high-carbon energy sources were replaced by low-carbon ones. Klein goes on to say that Zurich’s decision is “a piece of good news” that I “chose not to share.” Here’s a piece of bad news I will share: since adopting this target, Zurich has made almost no progress toward it. Setting abstract goals isn’t difficult. The US does this all the time, and so does Canada. The hard part is fulfilling them.

There are very good political reasons to err on the side of optimism—to maintain that dealing with climate change is something that can be done with minimal disruption to ordinary people’s (i.e., voters’) lives. But if this is Klein’s stance, then, as my review pointed out, the difference between her position and that of the environmental groups she condemns for “still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless” narrows considerably.

Klein seems offended by my use of the word “fable.” But fables are important. The most consequential book of the modern environmental movement—the book that changed if not everything, then certainly a lot of things—begins with a fable. That book is Silent Spring.