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Debunking the Myths of Green Capitalism ❧ Current Affairs

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Debunking the Myths of Green Capitalism ❧ Current Affairs


Adrienne Buller, of the progressive U.K. think tank Common Wealth, is the author of The Value of a Whale: On The Illusions of Green Capitalism. The book is a thorough, devastating critique of market-based approaches to solving the climate crisis and is an essential primer for those who want to learn how to see through fraud and fakery in proposed climate policies. Buller came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about how bad economic thinking has allowed corporations and governments to embrace pseudo solutions that appear to address climate change but in fact do almost nothing. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

What is a whale worth?

Buller

A very good question. If you are the International Monetary Fund, which is the example that I start with in the book, then a whale to you is worth about 2 million USD per species or about $1 trillion for the entire global stock. And that’s only great whales, mind you: orcas and porpoises are sadly excluded from that calculus. But they base that evaluation off of a combination of factors like ecotourism—people going on whale watching trips—and their ability to sequester carbon over their lifetime. Ultimately they are trying to make the argument that instead of investing in very expensive technologies, like CCS [carbon capture and storage], we should all just invest in saving whales instead.

Robinson

I assume that what a whale is worth to the International Monetary Fund is not what a whale is worth to you?

Buller

No. I would say that whales have enormous intrinsic value and value to the ecosystems in which they are embedded. Far beyond that, they have a value that we definitely can’t readily put a dollar price on. This is a big theme in the book: the application of the price system to absolutely everything when it comes to the climate and ecological crisis.

Robinson

You’ve said that the International Monetary Fund values a whale this way, but I want to break that down a little bit more. It is not that you can buy a whale for that amount of money. This is not a price list for purchasing pieces of nature. When you say they are putting a price on it, what does that mean? What are they generating that number for?

Buller

This gets to the heart of the market-based approach to the climate ecological crisis that I think defines the agenda for a lot of governments, whether it’s the U.K. or Europe or the U.S. or Canada. Basically, it’s the idea that carbon emissions or environmental degradation are currently external to the market, which means we don’t have a price on them. So if a company engages in environmental damage, there’s no direct cost to them associated with that unless they’re fined for some legal violation. And so because those costs and the value of ecosystems or a stable climate aren’t reflected in the cost of economic activity, that means that we tend to take them for granted and overexploit them or over-emit, for example. And so the whale calculus is one more extreme example of what is a widespread attempt to internalize those costs to the market. The idea is that if you say that an ecosystem or carbon emissions have a certain price, and that you’ll charge corporations for their engagement with those things, then corporations will inevitably adjust to try to cut costs and find other less harmful ways of conducting business. And then we’ll solve the problem of biodiversity loss or the climate crisis in that way.

Robinson

When you were talking about what goes into the financial value of a whale, one of the things you mentioned was ecotourism—going and looking at whales—but that will surely vary over time based on how interested people themselves are in looking at whales. Many of these prices for nature, these estimations of the damages that are done by emissions, depend on what things in nature mean to us, not what they necessarily mean to themselves. And it opens up the disturbing possibility that nature is only worth something to the extent that we can do something with it. And if people decide they don’t like going to look at whales, then they might as well die.

Buller

Yes. That really gets to the heart of one of the critiques that I put forth in the book, which is that this is an incredibly blunt instrument when it comes to actually determining what value anything really has. We can only apply price to something that we know how to quantify. A whale is really tough to quantify. Do we care about them intrinsically? What is their value beyond that which serves the human economy? Exactly as you suggest, this calculation completely excludes anything that might be intrinsically or socially or culturally valuable. But also, from an ecological perspective, it’s complete nonsense. If you extract out of an ecosystem just those select elements which we decide are important to the human economy, then you ignore the fact that ecosystems are incredibly complex, cohesive wholes, and you can’t just select out little items that you find economically valuable and still maintain a consistent and thriving ecology. And that is a huge problem with this approach. But this isn’t something that’s happening on the fringes with some nerds at the International Monetary Fund running some equations in their spreadsheet. It is becoming an increasingly popular way for policymakers and the private sector to think about this issue.

There are two concepts that have emerged and are growing in popularity, which are ecosystem services and natural capital. Ecosystem services are the services that the environment provides to us for free. So, for example, clean water, breathable air, or resistance to disease or pandemics. And then natural capital includes stocks of natural resources like forests or minerals or species of animals that we can attach a value to. And these are two concepts that allow us to internalize those costs and value to the market. But at the same time these calculations abstract away the complexity of ecological systems. They create discrete elements that have a specific function to the global economy as determined by some people working in finance or in the treasuries of powerful governments.

Robinson

In some ways, climate change is referred to as the mother of all externalities, right? In a free market transaction, you’re not pricing the damage that is done by carbon emissions. That damage turns out to be huge. You write a lot in the book about how economists have tried to deal with this problem of climate change. They said, Okay, well, we know how to deal with externalities. What we do is try to figure out the cost of the damage being done that is not going into the transaction and then we try to correct the prices. The proper role of the government is to price the damage incorporated and adjust the market accordingly. They’ve all come to love carbon taxes because they can say, Okay, if using carbon is causing this damage, then we’ll tax it. And then everything will be at its more proper price reflecting the damage that has been done. And it has a very intuitively appealing logic to it. I can see why it has caught on. So where do you begin to identify the colossal flaw in that thinking?

Buller

I’ll start from the point that you raised there, which I think is really interesting. Carbon pricing is intuitive and logical. In some ways it appeals to our sense, in the abstract, of fairness. So there’s this idea that if you put a price on those emissions, then it means that those who are emitting more will have to pay more. And that all sounds great from the perspective of fairness. And it also sounds great from the perspective of classical economic thought, which, as you described, puts a price on things within a profit-motivated system. It means that those profit-motivated actors will do everything in their power to eliminate those costs. And, therefore, that means they’ll stop emitting and over time it will solve this problem.

There are many problems with this logic. From a practical perspective, existing carbon pricing schemes have done very little to deliver emissions reductions. One of the only large ex post analyses of existing carbon pricing schemes was done by an academic named Jessica Green. She basically reviewed all sorts of papers and found that the overwhelming majority of academic papers that discuss carbon pricing just affirm the idea that they are effective and that they work. In reality, these efforts have delivered between half a percent or maybe 2 percent, maximum, reductions in emissions per year, including some of the most famous and supposedly successful examples, like the European emissions trading scheme. This is a cap and trade mechanism as opposed to a direct carbon tax. But they effectively have the same intended outcome.

And there are several reasons for that. One is that carbon pricing is meant to be based on a price that actually in some way reflects the harm that’s being done by carbon emissions. The problem is figuring out even the lower end of what a carbon price should be. William Nordhaus [Editor’s note: see our article about the dubious conclusions of Nordhaus], for example, is one of the most famous mainstream climate economists. He suggests that maybe we should start at $40 a tonne and over the years increase it to much higher than that in order to get to three degrees of warming. Other people have much higher estimates, some ranging as high as $14,000 a tonne. But the actual world average carbon price right now is about $2 a tonne, or it was at the last time that the IMF did an estimate. And that’s obviously far lower than even models that would get us to 3 C of warming, which is itself a potentially catastrophic outcome for humanity.

So we’re nowhere near the level that we need to be at for carbon pricing to come close to working. And a big part of that is that the mechanism itself is based on this abstracted version of how it should work. So people will just trade carbon permits or whatever, and we can just eliminate carbon in proportion to the price. But the reality is that there are two huge obstacles in the way of that, one of which is that we have political systems that are highly resistant to action on the climate crisis. That’s tricky to resolve no matter what your solution is. But carbon pricing is meant to appeal to people on the political right, the free market thinkers. And it’s meant to provide a way to sidestep and get around the messiness of climate politics. But it has completely failed to do that.

In the U.S, Waxman Markey [the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009] was a resolute failure in terms of getting political support from either the left or the right. And it has been more than a decade since then. And we’ve continued to squabble over the details of carbon pricing schemes under this idea that they’re somehow more politically viable. Clearly, they’re not.

The European Union has faced the same problems in terms of lobbying by industry or certain states around who gets free permits in their emissions trading scheme. This has reduced its effectiveness. The other problem is that fossil fuels are hugely embedded in our economies, in our energy systems, and in our ways of life. It’s not as easy as just saying, Okay, now this has a cost, and I can immediately switch to some alternative. This is an unprecedented degree of change that is needed. The pace and complexity of transformation is completely ill suited to a tidy market mechanism.

The holy grail for economists is a uniform carbon price. If we just say each tonne of carbon is worth x amount, and we’re starting from the world as it is, that doesn’t discriminate between people heating their homes or the ultra rich driving around in massive SUVs. Or, as exploded on the internet this week, Kylie Jenner taking ten five-minute flights a week. So it’s not discriminating between spurious carbon and things that people need to survive.

It also doesn’t confront the reality that there will be quite a bit of investment and infrastructural growth needed to build a decarbonized economy and to build decarbonize infrastructures and energy systems that in the near term are going to rely on industries that produce carbon. Price discourages that and actually makes us stumble over the transition to a decarbonized economy. So this price mechanism is completely ill suited to the challenge we face.

Robinson

Right. So the existing prices are simply underestimating the damage. And an economist could respond by saying, Well, I agree we have underestimated the true price. So we need to price carbon correctly. But you ask us to discard this way of thinking entirely. It’s not about finding the right price. There’s this fantasy that a lot of economists have of finding the right price which will ensure that justice will be done. They think that if a market is just adjusted properly then the transactions within it will efficiently allocate to everyone that which they are due. And that way of thinking is never going to be adequate for this problem.

Buller

Exactly. There’s a really good turn of phrase from two economists, Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers. They wrote a really interesting piece on carbon pricing, saying that to try and use it now to actually address what is an unprecedented infrastructural transformation at a global scale is to draw from “the wrong chapter of the textbook,” to use their phrasing. Markets can do some things in the way that classical economists imagine that they do. In this case, we’d need readily available alternatives that could easily replace fossil fuel options. Carbon pricing could be a tool somewhere down the line much farther along in our transformation to a decarbonized economy, maybe to deal with some of the residual choices that people make in their daily lives. But when it comes to total global infrastructure transformation, it is a fantasy to imagine that that can be done without a significant degree of planning. Maybe you could set an extremely high carbon price that approximates what economists think is necessary. But the response to that would be to create huge disruption and, in all likelihood, an incredibly unjust set of outcomes, which is another aspect, I think, of carbon pricing that is really often overlooked, if not entirely ignored, by the economics literature.

The focus on efficiency and an effective cost distribution completely disregards the pace and scale required. We also need to build a much more equitable outcome when it comes to the climate crisis. A huge amount of climate and ecological crisis is based on enormous inequalities in emissions and resource use, both within and between countries. By definition, a market mechanism is disinterested in those distributions and will fail to resolve them.

Carbon pricing is hugely disinterested in how we get to a zero carbon, or net zero, future. And that matters. It’s absolutely necessary to do so in a way that builds a more equitable economic framework, but that also doesn’t cause another global injustice. So to make carbon markets and carbon pricing work, we’d have to really scale up the world of carbon offsets, which basically allow you to pay to offset any emissions that you might produce. And a lot of those are based on projects that don’t work because they’re offered by companies that aren’t actually interested in delivering carbon reductions. And there’s very little oversight over the industry as a whole. A lot of it is based on incredibly spurious claims. But it also creates huge injustice for communities in the global south when it comes to land grabs and displacement of subsistence farming communities and complete overhauls of traditional economies. And all of that is in service of having as little disruption as possible to the ways of living of the globally affluent. These problems make carbon pricing less a viable solution to this problem.

Robinson

One of the central problems with what you call ‘green capitalism’ is that it tries to find solutions to the climate crisis that do not violate certain assumptions. One assumption is that we cannot disrupt the economic status quo in certain ways. So if you aren’t allowed to do even minimal disruption to business as usual, then you will get to things like carbon offsetting.

You talk about how all of the fossil fuel company websites mention how seriously they take the problem of climate change. They say things like, Well, we’re going net zero. So, you’re not going to be a fossil fuel company anymore? And then, as you point out, it turns out a lot of it is based on offsetting, this idea that you can do the same thing you were already doing as long as you agree to pay a penance fee, an indulgence for your sins. And so this whole industry springs up. And you point out that this industry is not interested in looking too closely at whether it’s actually delivering on the promises. And there are so many carbon offsetting projects that are bullshit. I don’t think you use the word bullshit in the book, but I’m going to use the word bullshit.

Buller

Yes, there really are. One of the most depressing ones I talk about in the book was a shipment of liquefied natural gas which was meant to be “carbon neutral” based on some complete fantasy math. There’s a certain amount of gas in the shipment, and, therefore, we can offset that by paying a certain amount to a community to clear some underbrush of their local forest to prevent it from hypothetically being more vulnerable to the risk of wildfire. And that is meant to somehow be an offset. So some people clearing an underbrush of a forest somewhere that may or may not at some point be at risk of wildfire is meant to offset an absolutely enormous shipment of fossil gas that is guaranteed to be used. These are the kinds of logics that underlie a lot of these things.

There’s very little oversight whatsoever of what goes on in them. In many cases, these “offsets” are doubly bad in that emissions don’t go down but they also give license for people or companies to emit further rather than consider avoiding emissions in the first place.

Sometimes there are truly depressing examples. Last summer, I was on the West Coast of North America where I’m from, and a number of huge carbon offset plantations—these big forest plantations for big companies like Microsoft—were just going up in flames amid the Bootleg wildfires. Even if you have this temporary forest offset you’re contributing to, there’s no guarantee of permanence. But the carbon that you’ve emitted, because you paid for that offset, is, by all intents and purposes, permanent from the perspective of climate change.

Robinson

Many of the pseudo-solutions that you discuss in the book seem to be based on hubris about what human beings can know about the effects of the climate crisis. You point out that one of the most famous models for how much economic damage climate change is going to do says, Well, we assume it’s not going to have much of an effect on these sectors of the economy because the people who work in these sectors work indoors, and indoors can be climate controlled. Of course, if your city burns to the ground, it doesn’t really matter whether you were inside or outside.

Buller

Yes. That relates to one of the origin stories surrounding how we arrived at the 2 C target that’s enshrined in the Paris agreement. I have a bit of a beef with William Nordhaus, famed climate economist. He is one of the originators—if not the sole originator—of this idea which, essentially, came out of a thought experiment that he did in the ‘70s about this idea of what optimal climate change would be based on. There will be some negative impacts of the climate crisis on the economy, and there will be some, in his mind, positive influence of the climate crisis on the global economy. And there are costs to changing our fossil fuel-based infrastructure and fossil capital-based economy. So how do we balance all those things out? And the calculations are, to put it mildly, interesting.

As you pointed out, there’s a calculation based on GDP, which in and of itself is a hugely contestable indicator of a thriving economy or human well-being. But he also bases that calculation off of assumptions that manufacturing, finance, and insurance will all be unaffected by climate change because they take place indoors and in climate controlled environments. So people don’t need to worry that it’s 48 C [118 F] outside in London. They can just sit in their towers in the city and continue trading stocks and speculating, which, obviously, as you said, is a bit of nonsense. And that’s just one particularly egregious example. And for anyone who’s interested, there’s a brilliant takedown of these models by Australian economist Steve Keen. I cite this in the book.

Economic models are quite notorious for excluding pretty critical elements—like land use or nature—from the idea of the economy as a whole, treating them as entirely separate from the physical world in which they operate. But they also tend to have no ability to or no interest in accounting for the best available science of how the climate crisis is likely to progress. So they tend to focus on some models that are showing smooth, gradual temperature rises rather than many of the models that show non trivial risks of acute, catastrophic events, tipping points, and feedback loops. There is still a catastrophic risk here, and economic models are very ill suited for dealing with that. And it makes the idea that you should calculate any economically optimal degree of global heating quite a dangerous one. Yet this is the basic standpoint of a lot of people working in this space. And this informs a lot of modeling that is cited in IPCC reports. These aren’t at the fringes. They’re at the very core of the way that the world is approaching these problems.

Robinson

One of the core flaws of mainstream thinking about mitigating the damage of climate change is the lack of ability to incorporate severe risk and the complexity of the interacting systems that makes predictions difficult. What are a few of the worst kinds of things that are distorting our thinking and taking it in the wrong direction?

Buller

You’ve very aptly captured several of them there. One that I would add to this is that the mainstream market approach to addressing and thinking about these problems is, as we’ve said, fundamentally disinterested in issues surrounding global and within-country inequalities that contribute to these crises. Maybe that’s an politically unpopular position; it involves uncomfortable truths for politicians, particularly in the global north. But we need to rethink the way that we organize our lives and the way that we have distributed wealth and resources in our society. That is, from an ecological and from a scientific standpoint, absolutely imperative. And that feeds into what I think is a very prevailing view among policymakers in the global north. And it comes through in the fact that although most people know about the IPCC, far fewer know about the equivalent works on biodiversity. And we have huge coverage of international climate conferences, but not those related to ecology or related issues. And that’s this idea that decarbonization is something that happens on its own and in isolation, the idea that all we need to do is find ways to toggle the amount of carbon emissions on a spreadsheet. And that is a process that is disembodied from the truth.

Let me just reiterate something that’s extremely important. We have to decarbonize very quickly. But everything that we do has a material basis and involves resources—probably a lot of land and labor. And we need to be thinking about whose lands and whose labor and whose lives are being used to sustain our programs of decarbonization. So, from my perspective, a program of decarbonization that is based around doing everything we can to maintain our middle class lifestyle in the global north is inherently one predicated upon a lot of pretty egregious extractivism. It probably means that we are condemning many parts of the world to not only being sacrifice zones for our carbon offset programs or our resource extraction, but also to a future in which we don’t leave equivalent space for poor economies to grow and to provide the basics for their people to thrive. To me, that is unjustifiable.

To say that people living affluent lifestyles are the problem is politically challenging. However, there are two competing challenges there. One is the political challenge, and the other is ecological and scientific reality. And my perspective is that one of those is going to have to give, and only one of them can give. And that’s the political question. And so I think the big project is to replace green capitalism with a very frank and honest discussion about what in our lives we actually value. What enables us to thrive and live happy, healthy, and fulfilled lives? And what in our economies and societies can we discard or rearrange in order not to be committed to this future of enormous global injustice?

Robinson

One of the reasons I think your book is so important is that, as you say at the beginning, you’re not talking about the denial of climate change or about those who simply don’t believe that the problem ought to be solved. Those people do exist. I read the Wall Street Journal op-ed page every day, and their take on the current heatwave in Britain is that it is a weather problem, not a climate change problem. I think they said that if Britain had focused more on installing air conditioning, than on reducing emissions, this would be fine. That’s their take. So those people exist.

But one of the most important points of your book is to guide us away from pseudo-solutions and to force us to confront the really difficult question of how we can not fake an attempt to deal with climate change. What you point out is that, as the scientific consensus has grown, as more things catch fire, it has become more and more difficult to be an outright climate change denier. So then we move into the second phase, which is taking the problem very seriously and attempting to solve it. And if capitalism is riddled with con artists trying to peddle fake solutions to problems for their own private profit, we need to be on the lookout for the difference between fake things and real things. You’re helping us try to think seriously about the problem. Now we face this problem of everyone saying they’re committed to solving it.

Buller

That’s one of the most serious problems that we’re going to have to contend with over the next few years. We’ve wasted so much time already as a result of climate denial, but also as a result of the pursuit of solutions that won’t really get us there like carbon pricing. We’ve been trying to make an effective carbon pricing regime happen for more than a decade in the U.S, and very little has happened. Even if we were to eliminate the denialist perspective from influence altogether, these false solutions are a big risk. Every year that we delay radical transformations we need, then the possible solutions become more radical and disruptive and difficult to sell politically.

I think it’s a mix of truly terrible self-interest among capitalists and many well-meaning people that have been drawn in by what is quite an appealing offer, such as “sustainable investing.” Many people very rightfully think, Oh, this sounds great, I can still invest my pension savings in the future and contribute to fighting the climate crisis. And, in reality, that isn’t going to happen, for reasons I explain in the book. And I think that’s a huge concern. It dispels energy and a lot of growing concern among people about the climate and ecological crises. It diverts that concern away from the huge political momentum that we need to build to actually grapple with these problems.

Robinson

There’s a lot of magical thinking in the U.S. Oh, yes, you can have absolutely everything you want. There will be no costs or downsides. And it’s really the case that we aren’t looking at any of the costs or downsides. Let’s finish by discussing capitalistic thinking. It’s this ideological prison that’s difficult to break out of. You cite all the quotes about how it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, how it’s very difficult to start thinking about real alternatives. So where do you recommend we start in terms of our mindset? How do we clear our minds and start to approach the climate crisis rationally and in terms of our values? What would be the first question to ask ourselves?

Buller

First and foremost, in terms of evaluating an approach to address the crisis: does it work? Will it actually be effective in reducing carbon emissions or helping us achieve ecological sustainability, restore and protect biodiversity, and so forth? That’s principle number one. The other principle is: does it do so in a way that is durable? Is this something that is not just a temporary, glossy technofix but one that is creating a fundamental and permanent change in the way that we organize our economies, and will it do so in a way that addresses and rectifies enormous inequalities both within and between countries to whatever extent possible? And then, finally, is it something that is helping us build a future that isn’t just livable but actually worth living in for the vast majority of people around the world?

So, I’m talking about a future in which we create fundamental security for all of the world’s people. So in terms of material security, people have the basics to live thriving lives in a way that doesn’t violate the boundaries of our ecological systems. People talk about planetary boundaries a lot. In ecofascist circles, they talk about planetary boundaries but in an anti-population sense. But the point is that we have more than enough space and resources to live happy, thriving lives within those boundaries. But what does that look like? It’s a return to very fundamental values. What makes your life better? And what is actually secondary in terms of your thriving and happiness and well-being?