The climate crisis is also a crisis of capitalism

Article Summary:

We’re way beyond denial now, as the new Assessment Report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Actually, that quote was from the previous IPCC assessment, in 2013 when the consensus among climate scientists was 90%. Now it’s 100% of the 234 scientists from 60 countries involved in writing this latest, landmark report. It makes for chilling reading.

This past decade’s temperatures were probably the hottest it’s been on our planet in 125,000 years. Meanwhile, carbon emissions were higher in 2019 than at any time in at least 2 million years.

The world will reach the catastrophic 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels within 20 years. And this is the best-case scenario, with temperatures rising at least to 2050 and beyond. This outcome only happens with “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, sustained 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius are baked in the cake for centuries, with the accompanying extreme weather events, geopolitical destabilization and vast economic costs.

No wonder U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the report’s conclusions are “a code red for humanity.”

And the long process of vetting and writing the latest report didn’t take account of this year’s drought, fires and floods worldwide.

Extreme heat struck the Pacific Northwest this summer. Ocean acidification is threatening wildlife and fishing stocks. Sea-level rise will swamp some communities, including the lower village on the Quinault Indian Nation in Grays Harbor County. Drought is endangering agriculture — in 2020 this was Washington’s most valuable merchandise export.

As Anjana Ahuja wrote in Financial Times, “Climate reality is here and is outrunning the simulations.” This isn’t alarmism but facts.

One of the most important questions is whether capitalism can be part of the solution or will it inevitably be the heart of the problem.

For people of a certain age, this is crackpot heresy. They remember the environmental damage done in communist countries, by many measures far worse than in the West. They recall then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous proclamation, “There is no alternative.” Meaning no alternative to a market economy.

China is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — and this is used by some as an excuse for the United States to do nothing. But Beijing signed the Paris climate accords and is implementing several initiatives to become carbon neutral by 2060. It’s only a start, undermined by the coal dependency of its Belt and Road program.

Reducing emissions is part of the business plans of major corporations. For example, in 2019 Amazon co-founded the Climate Pledge, “a commitment to be net-zero carbon across our business by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.” More than 100 companies have signed on.

Boeing, aware of the huge carbon footprint of aviation, is testing hydrogen-powered small turboprop airplanes at Moses Lake. The goal: to show that low-emission hydrogen has a future in larger aircraft.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles are driving (forgive me) the future of major automakers. Ford is investing $22 billion through 2025 in creating electric vehicles, including an all-electric Mustang. GM is doing the same. President Joe Biden is calling for half of all auto sales to be electric by 2030.

And yet, can capitalism move fast enough and far enough? The evidence isn’t heartening considering how much of the economy remains dependent on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, younger Americans have less faith in capitalism and are more open to socialism.

Whatever you call the economic system, it must speed the rapid decarbonization necessary to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.

That means strong government action to tax carbon with the goal of keeping most of it in the ground; investing in extensive networks of electric-powered high-speed trains and transit; extensive tree planting; incentivizing low-carbon technologies; preventing wasted food (everything from production to methane emissions produce enormous climate problems); and requiring “carbon smart” farming that stores carbon in the soil instead of releasing it in the atmosphere.

Market forces alone won’t achieve these and other steps necessary to drastically cut emissions.

Meanwhile, is America’s experiment in self-government up to the task? A 2020 Pew Research Center poll found two-thirds of respondents think the government should do more to address climate change.

But Republicans especially are opposed to most policies needed. Another Pew poll found that climate change is low among the priorities of GOP voters; only 17% said humans contribute a great deal to the crisis — something the latest IPCC report soundly refutes.

Decarbonizing the economy can be a net gain in jobs and prosperity, especially in the long run. More people work in the solar and wind industries than in coal or other fossil fuel extraction.

But we can’t sugarcoat the pain of the near-term transition. People will need to drive less, pay the actual cost in carbon emissions for suburban or exurban lifestyles, and require assistance moving out of fossil fuel jobs.

Here another noncapitalist response needs examination: the universal basic income. This could be guaranteed to all citizens or tailored to those most affected by decarbonization.

Ultimately, political will and popular support are required for all this. But the alternative is hell.

Jon Talton: jtalton@seattletimes.com; on Twitter: @jontalton. Talton writes about business and the Pacific Northwest economy in the Sunday Seattle Times.