I’ve just finished reading a powerful and sometimes quite personal book called “This changes everything” by investigative journalist Naomi Klein.
The book has a clear and simple message: Climate change cannot be fought through market mechanisms. Environmental policy is in direct competition with energy and industry policy; if we want to keep our planet from boiling over, environmental policy needs to go first.
Klein shows that all attempts by governments to incentivise good behaviour by the industry through carrots and sticks are failing. As long as pollution is economically viable, emissions increase further. The half-hearted policies by our governments, if they remain the same, will heat our planet by much more than 2°C. Klein says that our governments wasted precious years doing nothing and must now immediately pass courageous legislation to drive down absolute emissions. Market solutions are no longer sufficient if climate change is to be stopped.
Below, I have collected some of the main arguments of the book. The Canadian journalist is also working on a documentary to be released in autumn 2015 (see preview embedded at the bottom of this post).
- The total coal, gas and oil reserves already indexed for exploitation by companies today equal about 2,795 Gigatons of CO2 emissions. However, studies today can say quite exactly how much more CO2 can be burned until 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C: not more than 565 Gigatons, only one fifth of the total resources already on the books. If governments were serious about curbing climate change, extraction of these resources should be heavily restricted; investment in fossil fuel companies should as a consequence become uninteresting. However, in March 2014 ExxonMobil informed its investors that current climate policies makes them “confident that none of [their] hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’” (i.e. unusable).
- Fossil fuel companies hate renewable energy because it is a decentralised, locally- and people-owned form of energy. Meanwhile, fossil fuels rely on a centralised resource-extraction system that allows a few companies to make millions of dollars in profits.
- Fossil fuel companies and their employees follow a locust-principle: exploit and move on. None of the employees in the oil sector want to grow old in the places where they work. All want to get filthy-rich and take early retirement in a clean place far away. Meanwhile, locals in the regions under threat do not want to see their homes destroyed because of short-term profiteering. They want solutions which will preserve the local environment and lifestyle.
- 97% of the world’s climate scientists including the World Bank and the International Energy Association agree that climate change is man-made and that it will have unprecedented and dangerous consequences for the next generations. If no far-reaching changes are made, the scientists agree, we are headed for disaster.
- Right-wing politicians and businessmen in the US try to frame climate change as a hoax that the left employs to argue for more regulatory power of the state, less free markets and more redistribution of wealth. The right wingers perfectly understand the “dangerous” implications of strong carbon legislation. That’s why they spend millions of dollars to discredit the science and to kill climate legislation plans before they can get dangerous.
- Some businesspeople and scientists think that human activity doesn’t need to change. Everything can be solved by shooting chemicals into the sky that will block sunlight. However, it is proven that using them will cause serious draughts and food crises in some parts of the world. And using them instead of reducing carbon will lock us into using them forever.
- It is not enough to encourage renewable energy – at the same time, fossil energy has to discouraged with increasing severity. Since this was not done in Germany, coal in that country has become a big competitor for renewable energy. To discourage fossil fuels, governments can for example introduce higher fossil fuel taxes that can be used to subsidies renewable energies.
- Bridge technologies only work if they do not become competitors to renewable energy. By exploiting bridge technologies like shale gas and tar sands, energy companies continue to make billions from fossil fuels without any restrictions.
- Much of the necessary climate saving depends on countries like China and India. However, the West carries a massive historical climate debt for 140 years of pollution. Even today, the West continues to outsource its pollution to the developing world. As a result of both, Western states must provide much of the financial resources to save the climate.
- Indigenous people in several North and Latin American countries are becoming pivotal actors in the fight against carbon extraction because they can lay ancient claims to the land in which oil and gas are buried.
- In many parts of the world, more and more determined “Blockadia” protests have sprung up. In these protests, citizens of all generations defend their regions against the profit-and-destroy mentality of the fossil fuel companies. Many governments including Canada’s, Greece’s, France’s and Nigeria’s are bitterly opposed to the protests and try to protect the extractionists. But it looks more and more that they are losing the fight against the citizen protests.
The book makes it clear beyond any doubt that governments need to act now and impose binding limits on carbon extraction. No more market solutions, carbon-trading schemes and pollution offsets. The shift to renewable energy needs to be financed by taxing fossil fuel companies (and their customers). Obviously, this will redistribute a lot of cost to all of us energy consumers.
Klein makes no secret about the challenges. No politician wants to destroy the jobs that rely indirectly on oil and industrial production by skyrocketing the oil price. Klein answers half of the question by pointing to the potential of new green jobs. But for the rest, she is clearly putting the reader in front of the choice: Either our politicians start today to eliminate fossil fuels, at the cost of job losses and re-education, or we will have unprecedented devastation and life insecurity for the next generations. We need to choose what we want.