The wrong targets for a climate solution

I AM writing this letter to disagree with the perspectives of Lynn Goldfarb of Citizens Climate Lobby in her recent letter to ("The answer to global warming").

Goldfarb argues that we need to "address the root cause" of climate change, which is necessarily both political and economic. I agree completely with her on this point. However, her perspective on what political and economic changes are necessary--and more fundamentally, what actually drives climate change--is seriously flawed.

Goldfarb calls for a national tax on carbon emissions to make the production of fossil fuels less profitable than investment in renewable energy resources. She believes that the higher costs of consuming coal, natural gas and oil would push working and poor people to "switch to clean energy," discourage imports from "carbon polluters like China" and encourage workers to "buy U.S. goods." The appeal to anti-Chinese nationalism is both an absurd and sad reflection of where portions of the environmental movement are today.

The U.S. has emitted more carbon than any other country in history. Although China now emits more carbon per year in absolute terms, its per capita emissions rate still is only one-third that of the U.S. Appeals to such reactionary nationalism to make the case for environmental reforms only strengthen the U.S. state, which is actually the biggest culprit behind climate change. We must reject this language and work alongside our brothers and sisters in China to build an internationalist movement for climate justice.

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I ALSO want to comment on her other arguments, as they are very popular within the mainstream environmentalist movement today.

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The idea of a national carbon tax is similar to the policy of "cap and trade" that countries in the European Union and elsewhere have pursued to discourage pollution through marketization. The basic assumptions of these policies are significantly influenced by neoclassical economic thought. Neoclassical economics assumes that the capitalist market is inherently efficient and naturally self-corrects as long as meddlesome external forces--such as working-class organizations--do not interfere with the efficient operation of competition and profit incentives.

From a neoclassical perspective, the driving force behind climate change is the ability of individuals and firms to avoid paying for the "externalities," or costs of pollution (e.g., environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and droughts), by shifting them to society as a whole. This artificially decreases the costs of fossil fuel production and consumption, undermining investment in renewable energy technology.

The neoclassical "solution" to this problem is to bring all of the world's natural resources into the domain of the market and assign them clear prices. With the entire world fully commodified, governments can utilize taxes and other fiscal tools to incorporate the newly assigned prices into the individual costs of producing and consuming fossil fuels.

This would impose what Marx termed the "coercive laws of competition"--the competitive imperative that forces capitalists to either cut costs as low as possible and expand their market share or go bankrupt--and allow the market to "self-correct" naturally. As Goldfarb argues, it "might cause a rush for the exit among fossil-fuel investors." Market competition is therefore considered to be the solution to climate crisis.

Although neoclassical solutions to ecological crises work very efficiently within the parameters set by mainstream economic textbooks, where assumptions of perfectly rational individuals and appeals to ceteris paribus provide a convenient escape from reality, they inevitably fail when applied as policy.

This is not surprising, as the absurdity of such logic is hard to overstate. How do we measure the price of a tree or a prairie? How much economic value should we assign to natural wetlands? In reality, it is the competitive imperative for perpetual economic growth at the heart of capitalism that inevitably drives climate change.

As production grows, the consumption of resources also necessarily expands as well. The consequences of the contradiction between capitalism's infinite drive to expand profits and nature's finite limits established through millions of years of evolution are becoming clearer daily.

Yet the individual capitalist has no choice, even though they also may be concerned about climate change. If there is not sufficient growth at the aggregate level, capitalism falls into crisis, undercutting profits, throwing noncompetitive capitalists into bankruptcy, and forcing countless millions of workers into greater misery. Frederick Engels noted this back in the 19th century:

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.

Even if it were possible to incorporate the costs of pollution into production and consumption decisions, that would not change the vast sums of money that fossil fuel corporations have already invested in fixed capital (e.g., pipelines, oil rigs, and coal mining machines). Firms will to either recoup these costs through production and sale of fossil fuels at profitable rates or incur losses in the billions of dollars, which would almost certainly lead to their collapse without state intervention. They will not submit to that willingly, and the state as it exists today will never force it upon them without immense working class struggle.

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ANOTHER SERIOUS problem with Goldfarb's argument is her claim that a carbon tax would encourage working and poor people to "switch to clean energy." This ignores entirely the actual conditions of life for working people, for whom there is no real alternative to fossil fuels available. How can a single mother working multiple jobs in a poor neighborhood, a coal miner in the heart of Appalachia, or a recent college graduate struggling with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt "switch" to renewable energy?

Although Goldfarb would have the carbon tax revenue distributed to working people, her argument nevertheless mirrors the neoliberal ethos of "personal responsibility" that the ruling class has disseminated over the last 40 years to pay for capitalist crisis on the backs of the working class. It is the capitalist class as a whole, and not the consumption of individual workers, that has caused climate change.

None of this is to say that reforms that take aim at the power of fossil fuel corporations but leave the system intact are worthless. On the contrary, we must fight for immediate reforms now to cut carbon emissions and prepare for unavoidable ecological crises. A carbon tax could provide one means of paying for such measures.

However, as we fight for reform, we must recognize that we will not solve the problem until we overturn the political and economic system that has created it. The fight for reform is only useful insofar as it provides some immediate mitigation and builds the fighting capacity of the working class.

As the scientist and socialist Chris Williams has argued:

To truly end the exploitation of nature in the service of profit requires that the profit motive be excised from society in a revolutionary reconstitution by the majority on whose labor the system depends. The right to privately own the land and the means of production [. . .] must be abolished. Only by holding land, along with the instruments of production, in common and producing to meet social need will the simultaneous exploitation of nature and humanity end.

It is crucial that we bring this vision for an alternative society into the climate justice movement today.
Tim Joseph, Columbus, Ohio