Can capitalism tackle climate change?

February 4, 2021

A very short post on an issue that comes up quite a bit in left debate (by which I mean not centre left, but ‘radical’ left): can capitalism tackle climate change? Meaning: is it even possible to adequately address the climate crisis within the capitalist system?  A popular answer to this question on the left is ‘no’.  My answer is ‘in principle, yes’.  I want to very quickly make the case for that position.

First the case against.  The first reason to think that capitalism is incompatible with tackling climate change is that capitalism is intrinsically growth-oriented.  Capitalist growth, the argument goes, is incompatible with the kind of reduction in consumption of resources that is required to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Therefore, if we want to tackle the climate crisis, the abolition of capitalism is a necessary precondition.

Moreover, capitalism is characterised by a massive imbalance of socio-political power, such that the ruling capitalist class has a lot of power and the great bulk of humanity has very little power.  Since the ruling capitalist class has little interest in changing its destructive behaviour, the dire consequences of which will be visited upon the bulk of poor and powerless humanity rather than the ruling class itself, one cannot expect the capitalist system to reform itself, the argument goes.

This position definitely has a lot of plausibility to it!  But I think it’s wrong, for the following reasons.

First, on growth.  Capitalism as a system, and capital as a component of that system, is completely indifferent to the form that economic growth takes.  The valorisation of capital can in principle take place via any available mechanism.  This is one of the things that makes capitalism so internally varied, and so adaptable, as an economic system.  Capital does need to be tied to actual use-values at some point in the system – you can’t have a pure bubble economy.  But capital itself could not care less what the specific use-values are.  So: fossil fuels can be used to drive economic growth, but that’s just because fossil fuels are convenient for capital – there’s no intrinsic physical or social law that ties growth to this form of production and consumption.

Indeed, the incredible flexibility of capitalism is a cause for hope with respect to the possibility of shifting away from fossil fuels.  If we choose to make fossil fuels extremely inconvenient and costly for capital to use, capital will shift away from fossil fuels to easier forms of valorisation – that’s just what capital does.

There are two big ways to shift capital away from fossil fuels.  The first is regulation – in this case, something close to de facto global regulation.  This is, of course, a major political challenge – but we already know that capital can accommodate lots of different kinds of regulation, because capital already accommodates itself to all kinds of regulatory regimes.  Economic regulation is not intrinsically anti-capitalist – it’s just a form of capitalist governance.

The second way to shift capital away from fossil fuels is to make other energy sources more viable and appealing.  This is, fundamentally, a technological challenge.  And capitalism is good at technological innovation!  It’s common on the left to talk about how ‘tech won’t save us’, and of course in a narrow sense that’s true, but tech can potentially do a lot to save us.  Green energy alternatives are becoming increasingly widespread and viable, and this is extremely good news!  

So – it seems to me that it should be clearly within the capacity of the capitalist system to make a very large-scale shift to green energy and to massively reduce greenhouse emissions.  Capitalism’s drive to growth is not, in itself, an insurmountable obstacle to achieving this.

What about political power, though?  Even if we grant that capitalism’s orientation to growth is not an insurmountable obstacle to tackling climate change, the political problem remains: look at who’s running things.  In fact there are (at least) two political problems here.  First, there’s the general collective action problem of coordinated policy action across a large number of rivalrous socio-political actors.  Given that capitalist states are in many important respects in competition with each other, the challenge of tackling climate change is (in the game-theoretic jargon) a kind of n-player prisoner’s dilemma game, where it is often more advantageous to let other states take action than to take action oneself.  And, second, there’s the problem of who the ruling class decision-makers are in the first place, and what their interests are.

So there are several layers of collective action problem that must be overcome to get the kind of global governance structures that we need to tackle the climate crisis.  First, we need ruling class figures and groups who actually want to tackle the problem. Then we need them to be able to successfully coordinate international action in a way that overcomes the n-player prisoner’s dilemma problem of the interstate regulatory system.

Moreover, we need this coordination to persist in the face of capitalism’s ongoing tendency to ‘melt all that is solid into air’ – i.e. to revolutionise and destabilise its own structures in the pursuit of valorisation and growth.  Here capitalism’s internal diversity of institutional structure and dynamism is a cause for pessimism, because it means there are constant opportunities to overturn any regulatory regimes that have successfully pushed capitalist valorisation away from forms of production that contribute to the climate crisis.

So – can it be done?  Is it realistic to stably implement the necessary forms of economic governance within a capitalist system?

Well – maybe not!  Clearly it’s a difficult challenge.  But here’s the thing: it is also a difficult challenge to overthrow the capitalist system and institute an alternative mode of global economic organisation.  If we’re talking about things that are in principle possible, but that are also very hard, then we need to also be realistic on the comparative question of how hard the different options here are.  It seems to me that, at least on its face, overthrowing capitalism altogether is quite a bit more difficult than instituting an adequate global regulatory regime for greenhouse gas emissions.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean that abolishing capitalism can’t be done!  This isn’t a counsel of despair from an anti-capitalist viewpoint.  Rather, it’s an argument that we should be realistic about what the available political futures are.  If the climate crisis is a true crisis – which it is – then we quite likely can’t afford to hold out for our first preference solution.  If the problem is potentially fixable within capitalism, then it strikes me as a bad idea to pretend otherwise, in the hope of achieving what looks like, in present global circumstances, an unlikely prospect of a non-capitalist alternative solution. Indeed, it may be that our hopes for achieving an emancipatory post-capitalist political-economic system rest on our ability to forestall the climate crisis within capitalism.

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