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Beyond Crisis: Climate Politics on a Neoliberal Planet

June 20, 2013

A belated sharing of a recent essay I wrote, adapted from a talk I presented at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May – Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet – and published here in Overland.

For those of you who have read the previous essay I co-authored with Philip Mirowski & Jeremy WalkerBeyond Denial: Neoliberalism, Climate Policy & the Left  – this is a more straight forward outline of the neoliberal full spectrum approach. I also try to extend the final (and what I think is the most important and difficult) part: what are we to do now? Not so easy in the face of what can seem inevitable and insurmountable to answer, but isn’t it time we moved beyond critique and paralysis to a consideration of  strategies and actions?

If you agree, please read on.

The market versus the climate

When it comes to the climate crisis, more than any other challenge we face, the odds are truly stacked against us: powerful vested interests, an intransigent political class, the collapse of international efforts and a hostile and ineffectual media. And, it would seem nature itself.

But if we are to have any hope of shutting down the coal industry and articulating a viable alternative, we will need to look beyond the current logjams.

To locate the source of our paralysis we will need a clear analysis of the politics of climate change and of neoliberalism.

While we may have developed sophisticated critiques of neoliberalism, we tend to approach it primarily as an ideology. Such an analysis will not explain how the neoliberal worldview came to be embedded in contemporary culture and political discourse. We need to approach neoliberalism as a political movement – it was conscious and deliberate. And we need to understand how it has become a source of our intellectual paralysis.

In analysing the current impasse, I’d like to highlight another dimension to the crisis: the unacknowledged dominance of neoliberal ideas across the spectrum of what is considered acceptable climate debate.

The question we need to ask is this: Why have we on the Left, who have always regarded ourselves as having science on our side, been so paralysed by climate policy? And what can be done to change this?

Unpacking the Neoliberal Full Spectrum Approach

To answer this we must first consider the neoliberal full spectrum response to global warming and how it has worked.

One reason neoliberals have triumphed over their ideological rivals is because they have ventured beyond a single ‘fix’ for any given problem. Instead they have deployed a broad spectrum of strategies: from short-term tactics, to medium-term politics, to long-horizon utopian projects.

If we fail to grasp how denialism, carbon markets and geoengineering together constitute the full neoliberal response to global warming, we risk inadvertently being enrolled into their script. While each policy may appear as distinct and contradictory, they are in fact integrated in such a way as to produce the eventual capitulation to the free market.

Step One: Manufacture Some Doubt Where There isn’t any

Denialism has been a well-documented phenomenon. It has nonetheless confounded many of us that something so transparently illogical as outright science denial has been so effective.

The Right don’t seriously believe they will, in the long run, win the war of ideas within academic science. But as we know, bashing pointy-headed elites lends them a certain populist cachet.

Science denialism works by first, quashing our immediate impulses to respond to the crisis and, second, buying time for commercial interests to find a way to profit.

Which leads us to the financialisation of the problem.

Step Two: Create Carbon Markets

Establishing markets in trading carbon permits and offsets is the highly technocratic solution that in the theatre of climate debate gets most of the airtime.

While financialisation has crept into many areas of society, what is new in this stage of the neoliberal approach to global warming is it presents us with the financialisation of environmental crisis. Environmental degradation becomes an asset, a tradable commodity.

The strategy is an elaborate bait-and-switch manoeuvre. Those of us who had been agitating for state action to curb emissions directly now find ourselves tied up in complex and endless technicalities of instituting and maintaining novel markets for carbon permits and offsets. It is particularly seductive to centrist governments, NGOs, policy wonks and the educated segments of the populace engaging in the debates, as well as to the financial sector.

This is an economic response not a political one.

What it does is divert our attention away from the political questions that conventional economics is inherently incapable of addressing. Questions like, how much nature are we prepared to destroy? Or should we dig up and export every last bit of coal and gas so we can live in our air-conditioned bubble while our navy intercepts those residents of Bangladesh who managed to get on a boat before it all went under?

Neoclassical economics is one source of our intellectual paralysis.

In conventional economics pollution isn’t wrong because it disrupts and debilitates nature. It is wrong because it somehow derails the market. Neoclassical economists tell us that we just need to price pollution in – that is assign private property rights to the atmosphere so that corporations can make investment decisions. Then we must leave it to the market to sort it all out.

But it’s becoming clearer that carbon trading doesn’t work. It was never intended to do so.

Prices of the European Union ETS, which Australia will join in 2015, dropped to zero in the first phase in 2007, and have fallen again, even though, concurrently, emissions have risen more or less continuously, excepting a hiccup during the early phase of the financial crisis.

It was this kind of financialisation that in 2007 brought global economies to their knees. Now, the neoliberal response to the planetary mess they have had a hand in creating is to set us on a road to the financialisation of the biosphere. So money that might have been used productively to transform energy infrastructure instead gets pumped into yet another set of speculative financial instruments.

While economists quibble about the rate at which we should discount the future, we lose sight of other policy options. A simple fixed, high and rising carbon tax applied universally to wholesale coal, oil and gas transactions might have accomplished the effect of a ‘price signal’ and spurred disinvestment in the ever-expanding fossil-fuel sector. It is not surprising that the Right has so vilified this strategy.

During the protracted confusion and scare campaigns that passed for policy debate, many of us got behind what was deemed the only feasible solution and supported would eventually be a market-based price on carbon.

The ‘Say Yes’ campaign in 2011 – run by a coalition of nine organisations between them claiming about 3 million members – was a depressing example of how environmental groups were effectively enrolled into the neoliberal script.

In the process we dealt ourselves out of political influence. Instead of using our resources and our people power to ask for more, we got out on the streets and marched for a market-based carbon price that was already going to happen and that many of us understood would not work.
Meanwhile the situation has become so urgent that some scientists and environmentalists have begun reluctantly considering emergency measures – and we arrive at the most arrogant neoliberal response to global warming.


A dystopian & synthetic future awaits. (Artwork for Margaret Atwood’s ‘Oryx and Crake’)

Step Three: Geoengineering Will Save Us

Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva has described geoengineering as akin to being at war with nature. While encompassing a range of strategies from the benign to the utopian, geoengineering can be defined as the intentional manipulation of the Earth’s climate on a grand scale. Some examples of its techniques would seem far-fetched even in a science fiction novel.

The option taken most seriously involves injecting sulphur into the stratosphere to block the sun’s rays. Another proposal is to send ten trillion giant ‘space mirrors’ 1.5 million kilometres from Earth towards the Sun to reflect the sun’s heat back.

These may seem like distant realities, but geoengineering is in fact a central part of the Coalition’s Direct Action plan. They are proposing cash incentives for farmers who sequester carbon in the ground. But a three-year CSIRO study raises serious doubts about how it could work – to meet a target of just 5% emission reductions by 2020 this process will require up to 500 million hectares, or two thirds of Australia’s landmass.These approaches are derived from the neoliberal doctrine that entrepreneurial science will save us.

Here we return to the question posed at the start: is science on our side?

Science should not really be on anyone’s side. Science is just science. But if it ever seemed like it was on the side of the Left or that it functioned to seek knowledge in the public interest, those days are long gone.

For some time now, science has been wrestled from the domain of the ‘public good’ and increasingly made to conform to the market imperative. In a neoliberal version of the world, science is not an independent mode of truth discovery: it is a boutique knowledge format only validated by ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

This might help us understand why the very same people attacking climate science are subjecting public education and scientific research to the ethos of corporate management and knowledge privatisation.

The deeper reasons driving this are found in this conundrum: Why would the same neoliberal think tanks, (including the Marshall Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute) which have been active in climate denialism and obstructing any measures to reduce emissions also enthusiastically promote geoengineering, a technology aimed at countering global warming?

The prospect of geoengineering as a panacea to global warming is not only convenient because it accords with neoliberal supporters and financiers in the fossil industries as a substitute for abatement and a justification for delay.

Geoengineering crucially presents a vindication of the current political and economic system. Neoliberals see geoengineering not as an opportunity to buy time but as a permanent solution – one that is offered up by the market.

The alternative, on the other hand, to curb emissions and consumption requires a profound questioning of the current political and economic system – a system addicted to economic growth and fossil fuels; and that concentrates wealth and power upwards.

Geoengineering poses another major dilemma. It is what scientists euphemistically call the ‘termination problem’. Once we start manipulating the Earth’s climate we will for centuries to come be dependent on a program of sulphur injections into the stratosphere. There will be no exit. We are being corralled into the ultimate captive market.

So therein lies the full neoliberal response to global warming.

There are two major consequences of this response. First, it leaves the problem to the market not the state. Second, none of these responses actually work. Carbon emissions continue to rise and the crisis becomes more urgent.

For neoliberals, failure is the new success. This may seem confusing, but it starts to make sense when you realize that someone, somewhere has found a way to make a profit.

What Now?

What lies ahead can seem both overwhelming and inevitable, especially since, no obvious solutions present themselves.

Yet the unavoidable urgency means we must move beyond crisis, paralysis and despair and begin formulate strategies that will bring us closer to viable – even utopian – alternatives.

In Australia, a looming Abbott government will present even greater barriers to climate action – but it presents the Left with an opportunity in the coming months and years to re-evaluate our strategies and to re-articulate our values.

What can we do right now? We can start by inoculating ourselves against the neoliberal mindset so as not to be seduced into its agenda. We must stop letting neoliberalism dictate the questions that we ask and the solutions that we put forward.

This seems obvious, yet many of us are stuck in the narrow space of what appears possible right now. The neoliberal straightjacket has been slowly strangling our political imagination.

If there is a way out of the impasse we won’t find it if we keep adopting the language of conventional economics. The way out will involve a serious reconsideration of just what ‘the economy’ actually is.

Rather than our governments adjusting economic activity to the needs of society and the planet, neoliberals seek a planet re-engineered by market forces so business as usual can continue forever.

To move beyond critique, we desperately need constructive conversations about strategies and actions. What are the lessons for the Left, if any, from the success of the neoliberal project and the pioneering of the think tank model? How might we do it differently? What are the short, medium and long-term strategies for the sustained political movement we hope to build?

We will need to shift and widen the terms of debate. To challenge the orthodoxy and be brave enough to say what we really want. We will need to defeat neoliberalism, not merely ‘denialism’. We will need to remind ourselves that even in this seemingly bleak historic moment there are alternatives.

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