Climate Change vs. Capitalism: Winner takes all

10th Oct, 2014

“Climate change fundamentally challenges the logic of austerity.”

— Naomi Klein, speaking in Oxford in October 2014

“Money is no object.”

— David Cameron, speaking in response to flooding in the South of England in February 2014

The last few years have seen financial pressures – at both household and national level – dominate the global narrative as a sub-prime mortgage crisis spiralled into a credit crunch which nosedived into the deepest and longest recession the world has experienced since the 1930s. This year the UK finally emerged from the economic downturn (as total GDP reached its pre-crisis level) and other concerns are asking for our attention.

One such concern is climate change – an enduring and potentially apocalyptic issue which never really went away. In a new book released this week – This Changes Everything, No Logo and Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein argues that the two issues inextricably linked. The financial crisis and the spending cuts unveiled in response to it have asked serious questions of capitalism and the increasing urgency of climate change tests it further. The market will always choose profit and economic growth over sustainability, and regulation is required to ensure that need is met where it arises in society.

Of course, this is not the political climate we currently experience, with an austerity drive delivering modest economic growth at the expense of reduced public services. As Klein points out in her book, world leaders – in both business and politics – have acknowledged the need to combat climate change, with anything more than a 2 degree rise in global average temperatures considered dangerous (the business as usual scenario currently forecasts a rise of between 4-6 degrees this century), but are generally unwilling or unable to effect change that would avert such a rise.

Klein argues that the real battle here is between capitalism and climate change, with an effective response to the latter impossible under the former. Examples of effective, localised action abound: from the city of Hamburg in Germany buying the energy grid back from the private sector to the University of Glasgow voting to divest from investment in fossil fuels.

In the UK, David Cameron came to power in 2010 pledging the ‘greenest government ever’ – but the austerity measures of the coalition government, are, as Klein points out, incompatible with a response to national or global climate change. One example from Holland shows that investment in social housing – building homes that are carbon neutral – has a short term impact on health and personal security, while also a long term positive impact on preventing climate change. But such investment conflicts with the logic of austerity. This conflict came to something of a head this year when Cameron declared – apparently without irony – that ‘money was no object’ in the relief effort for record-breaking floods in the South of England.

Of most importance in this debate is the need to engage positively with the opportunities. Certainly the mood is changing in this regard, with the recent publication of The New Climate Economy encouraging exactly this spirit of optimism and innovation  (one such innovation being this university campaign…). Perhaps even more encouraging is the extent to which the general public have embraced the need to act – something evidenced by the recent mass demonstrations in New York, London and around the world.