Why Market Fundamentalism Is Incompatible with Climate Action

Yves here. This article is consistent with something we have said for some time: that it will take war-level mobilization to make real headway on reducing greenhouse gas emission. Invoking wartime action is a polite way of saying that the public will have to accept greatly reduced levels of some goods and services, as well as much more top-down direction of the economy. Needless to say, this is diametrically opposed to our current markets uber alles ideology.

By Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies in the Department of Peace Studies and International Relations at Bradford University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College. He is openDemocracy’s international security correspondent. He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers. Originally published at openDemocracy

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) delivered a report this week that is especially sobering in light of the fact that the committee is an independent, statutory body, established under the Climate Change Act 2008. The CCC is not just a think tank. Its function is “to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change”.

Funded by the government, the committee is developing a reputation for being surprisingly blunt when it comes to government policy.

This was amply demonstrated in this week’s report, covered in some detail by the Environment Journal and neatly summed up by a single paragraph:

Simply put, the National Adaptation Programme (NAP) – which should respond to the scale of the challenge – falls well short. According to the CCC, it lacks a clear vision for the future, is not underpinned by tangible targets, and is not driving policy changes or steps towards implementation. If this does not improve then wider measures, including the net zero journey and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems, will also fail.The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Just a day later, the government delivered its revised plan to meet its climate change targets, with a heavy emphasis on carbon capture and nuclear power. It was received with relief by the oil and gas industry, but with a singularly large raspberry by environmental analysts.

By coincidence, the week also saw a study published following research by Australian climate scientists. As reported in The Guardian, it predicted: “Melting ice around Antarctica will cause a rapid slowdown of a major global deep ocean current by 2050 that could alter the world’s climate for centuries and accelerate sea level rise.”

This is just one of several reports on recent research showing that radical and rapid decarbonisation is now vital if climate breakdown and chaos are to be avoided. The reports raise two vital questions: What does rapid decarbonisation involve in practice? And what are the chances of success?

Back in 2020, the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IGCC) estimated that to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C, a 7% decline in carbon dioxide output was needed every year for the whole decade. That has already failed for the first three years of the 2020s and a per annum decrease of about 10% is now needed, equivalent to a 60% decrease overall.

On the question of how to achieve this, Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the universities of Manchester (UK), Uppsala (Sweden) and Bergen (Norway), and co-founder of the Climate Uncensoredwebsite, spells out what is required in the Scientists for Global Responsiblity’s journal, Responsible Science.

He writes that a starting point is that the world’s major emitters, the wealthier states, must get to zero carbon emissions by 2030 to 2035 to allow the poorer states extra time to follow suit. On this timescale, the likes of carbon capture and more nuclear power for the richer states are simply a non-starters. It would take far too long to reach net zero using these methods.

So what would this involve for a country such as the UK? Anderson sketches out a few examples, starting off with an immediate moratorium on airport expansion and an 80% cut in air travel by 2030. No new internal combustion engine cars would be built after 2025, and there would be a huge shift away from private cars in urban areas and towards public transport and active travel (such as walking and cycling). There would be a nationwide retrofit on all existing housing stock “rolling it out street by street at mass scale”, and new housing would be built to “passive house” standards.

Anderson underpins the whole process by a massive expansion of electrification across the entire energy system, with an obvious emphasis on wind, solar and other renewables, already cheaper than coal, oil or gas.

There is much more to Anderson’s article, so you should read it yourself, but three elements stand out. The first is that what is required is, in effect, a ‘Marshall Plan’ for a greened world. He uses the term to indicate the ambition necessary rather than, as in the original, the US helping Europe.

That brings us to the second element – the money to effect that change must come from the richer sectors of society right across the world. Although Anderson does not spell it out in detail, these cannot just be the super-rich, the ultra-high net worth individuals who now number close to 600,000 worldwide. It must also include the many millions more who are merely ‘high-net-worth’ people on a global scale.

This questions the very basis of the current economic model, but that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has looked in any detail at what needs to be done. A frequent conclusion is that neoliberalism just isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to wealth distribution, and it is also not able to respond to climate breakdown at anything like the speed that is needed.

For his third point, Anderson points to some of the benefits that would follow in the wake of the changes. They include the elimination of fuel poverty; improved and warmer homes that are cheaper to run; better internal and external air quality; high-quality, reliable public transport; quieter urban spaces with more room for playing fields, parks and recreation; and plenty of skilled jobs supporting the green transition.

We might add that it also means finally facing up to the deep flaws in neoliberalism, especially those market fundamentalist dimensions that simply cannot, by their nature, respond to climate breakdown .

We might not meet Anderson’s timetable, but we will have no option over the next decade but to come very close to it, since the alternative of a chaotic global climate will be increasingly evident.

In any case, look at it this way. Not only will we get on top of climate breakdown, but we will start the transition to a fair and sustainable global economy. That really is something worth aiming for.

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  1. Ignacio

    “the public will have to accept reduced levels of goods and services”

    This, i believe might also bring some real happiness, or at least reduced anxiety, not feeling the necessity to own the latest SUV, the largest McMansion, or Macron’s 20.000€ watch for a few examples. Might some Buddhist culture help with the fight against climate change? Watch, I am talking about a certain kind of “public” here. There are lot’s of people out there who have very little left to sacrifice.

  2. mrsyk

    Money quote: “A frequent conclusion is that neoliberalism just isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to wealth distribution, and it is also not able to respond to climate breakdown at anything like the speed that is needed.”
    Yet here we are. Shakespeare’s last tragedy. Front row seats. Audience participation mandatory.

  3. ArkansasAngie

    Wow …”a polite way of saying that the public will have to accept greatly reduced levels of some goods and services, as well as much more top-down direction of the economy” What could possibly go wrong?

    We … the world … does not have the means to grow the food required to feed the world without the ability to use fertilizer to grow (harvest) the crops or the means by which to move the food to the BILLIONS who will be suffering from the resulting food insecurity

    BTW — The population doesn’t listen real well when it’s staving. And I sure as heck don’t trust (agree to, approve, accept) the “more top-down direction of the economy.”

    Crickets ain’t going to do it.

    Crossing fingers, wishing upon a star or invoking star trek aren’t generally reliable

  4. some guy

    Does an ” 80 % cut” in air travel mean the bottom 80 percent of people get to do zero air travel at all and the top 20 % of people get to reserve all the air travel for themselves?

    My first suspicion is that is exactly what it means. Can the advocates of ” 80% cut in air travel” show otherwise? Can they show that ” 80% cut in air travel” starts with the banning of all private jets? Which would be proved by the public forced-sale-and-seizure and proven physical destruction of every private jet in existence? ( Because that’s the only proof which would ‘prove’ it).

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        That’s right. I did an online survey a few years ago. I was on, near enough, UK minimum wage. I still came out as being in the top 20% on a world wide basis. The is a widespread meme that we would need five more worlds for everyone on Earth to enjoy a ‘Scandanavian’ lifestyle – the corollary, as we don’t have five more Earths, is that all ‘western’ lifestyles have to come down drastically to meet those in the ‘third world’ and elsewhere, coming up.

        1. some guy

          Well, lets figure out what “lifestyle level” every single person on the whole Earth would have if every single person had the same “lifestyle level” and it was an Earthwide “lifestyle level” which needed only ” one Earth” to support it.

          And then lets tear the Western Upper Class down to where the Western Lower Class currently is First . . . . and if that is still above the “Average Worldwide Survival Level”, then we can all go down together to meet that level.

          But lets remember that the Western Lower Class does not have a “Scandinavian Lifestyle”. America’s homeless and one-paycheck-away-from-homeless certainly don’t have a “Scandinavian Lifestyle”. And suggesting that America’s homeless and near-homeless become as poor as South Sudan famine-camp refugees in order that all the Crazy Rich Asian oligarch families of Ancient Wealth can all keep their Ten Billion Dollars per Family is a non-starter for all Americans, including the heavily armed ones.

    1. digi_owl

      Frankly historically speaking that has been the norm. Only the the wealthy and powerful where regularly hopping across the oceans for business, never mind pleasure. Only by being treated barely above cattle did anyone else afford such a journey. And then it was done to settle, not visit.

  5. irrational

    The scale of the challenge is certainly daunting and, yes, a Marshall plan or something similar is probably needed. I am just skeptical that it will happen – collectively we seem too busy fighting wars on the one hand and staring at our “smart”phones on the other.

    1. jan

      I’m always dreaming about a nice high speed rail network. Here in the USA it could replace a lot of domestic flights. Never going to happen, of course. We’re not China.

  6. John

    The US had interurban trolleys before the automobile age. It had a vast rail network before trucks replaced it. It had canals that fell out of use as well. These are well tried ways. Are they as individually convenient as a personal automobile? No, but how convenient is a personal automobile in a big city? Travel by sea is slower than by air, but I would like the opportunity to try it.

    If climate change is to be mitigated in any useful degree on any timescale that averts the coming catastrophe, nearly everything must fundamentally change.

    1. Paul Whittaker

      In the UK the Roman built Via ducts were built into the industrial era canal system. (more canal’s in Birmingham than Venice) I guess you could even go back to using horses to pull the barges. Please read “wind in the willows” for the scene of the time.
      Number one reduction will have to come from an end to US provoked wars and occupation, or this whole debate will not matter a hoot.

  7. BeliTsari

    Climate action, to our betters, IS simply Catastrophe capitalism! Bottling rural water, or import from Fiji. 80% cannot afford a trip to airports we paid for. In their MARKETPLACE, we’re the feed-stock to be extracted, our indentured peonage; our “value” to be redistributed. Geo-engineering, carbon sequestration, GE monoculture/ metastatic mystery meat, (methane spewing, lethal) bridge fuels to unleash exponential, run-away AGW, slapping together decaying reactors & coal-fired plants requires our dwindling tax funds & as bridges, highways and buildings collapse; planes, trains, barges & ships wreck & we discover a second million excess fatalities President Joe Biden needs WAR to distract us from what’s about to cascade out of control on formerly affluent, speciously oblivious, sneeringly brainwashed PMC & yuppies?

  8. The Rev Kev

    You can actually draw a parallel with the inability of the west to supply the Ukraine with weaponry and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under our type of economy, corporations are loath to invest in new manufacturing capabilities along with the trained workforce that will be required unless there are massive profits locked in and preferably government subsidies involved. Such is the present situation and I have heard that some arms manufacturers are slow-walking their involvement as they think the war will be over soon leaving them with unused capacity which has to be paid for. Same with switching over to a new economy that will generate lower carbon emissions. They will only do so if it is immensely profitable for them and involving government subsidies. Even if some of those corporate executives were inclined to make the change, will their institutional shareholders agree with this change in policy or would they nix any changes? The Hamptons could be completely submerged and Wall Street would still fight any changes to the present economy. Not looking good.

    1. Keith Newman

      My problem with articles like this, and I’ve probably read hundreds of them over the last 20 years, is they leave aside the politics of the situation. Reduce air travel by 80%, seriously move away from private automobiles, etc, etc. Really?
      Which political party that has more than trivial popular support says that, let alone would be able to enforce consumption of less stuff? And how could broad support be built for such a program in the middle of the vast propaganda (i.e. advertising/TV/ movies) pushing us to consume as much as we can’t even afford?

      1. Mr Robert Christopher

        And we are not supposed to question the Science behind Climate Change. It isn’t settled. In fact, it was causing palpitations in 1972:

        And it still hasn’t come to pass. There has been much new understanding about how cloud cover and variations in the Sun affect the Earth’s climate and weather, yet this isn’t allowed to be discussed, publicly.

        It is said that the Political Climate Agenda can be explained by Science, yet Science requires there to be free discussion between knowledgeable people from all relevant disciplines: we don’t have that, especially on the BBC. We don’t even have knowledgeable people. Any response requires knowledge about the Physics, Chemistry, Business, Mining and the incredible skills required that could keep us a fully functioning 21st century country. And it is becoming obvious that we don’t have that either.

        For example, what about the imminent sinking of the Maldives, below the waves? Not a peep, but they have built a new hotel, and three airports: not something that should be done if the are on the point of submerging.

        While China, India, Russia and many other nations are building coal-fired power stations, at a rate of over two each week, the West are blowing them up, not mining their own coal, not fraccing their gas, and not designing and building their own nuclear power plants.

        We are are destined to be poor and cold while, outside the West, the People will thrive.

      2. AJB

        Agree 100%. Power and politics. We need to think about who owns the billions worth of planes, airports, airlines. The bankers won’t want their assets written down will they? A brand new Boeing 787/Airbus A350 today that could be worthless within 10-years won’t be accepted. “The public” might need to accept reduced availability of goods and services but will the corporate and banking classes accept the write downs if the policies suggested are implemented? That’s certainly a good reason for vested interests to indirectly encourage and influence the narrative and to question the science of climate change through their media connections. Winners and losers all fighting to maintain their positions.

  9. KLG

    “Economic growth is the number one goal of nearly all economists, politicians, and governments. To argue against it on the grounds that so-called ‘economic’ growth has now become uneconomic, because it increases environmental and social costs by more than production benefits, is to poke a big hornets’ nest with a short stick. It rudely upsets a very large and comfortable consensus (of the regnant PMC in the Global North). Without growth, how do we reduce poverty? By redistribution and sharing (Seriously, you want us to give up our killer SUVs – aka “trucks” – and most air travel and second “homes” in the mountains and along the coasts? You want me walk or to take the bus or light rail to work?)…Without growth how will be pay the huge, accumulated costs of environmental repair? By reducing current resource depletion to allow natural systems to recover, and by stopping the mining and burning of climate-ruining carbon-based fuels. Redistribution, population policy, and reduced resource consumption – each by itself is considered a political anathema.”

    – Herman Daly

    1. Susan the other

      And even this doesn’t say it clearly enough. The blunt truth is that our frenzied and frivolous free market cannot continue. It would be one step forward and two steps backward. A total waste of precious time and resources. We most certainly need to mobilize but bot behind another “uncertain trumpet”. I think that was Maxwell Taylor’s term and book title back in the 60s. It applies aptly to our present hesitation. I’d think, optimistically, that the best transition would put in place a big green engine to pull us through economically. Yes, the government spending into the crisis asap, doing all the things listed above… but much more in order to replace the commercial energy that makes it all work now with an energy of a different sort. I want to hear a better definition of it.

  10. MrOutcomes

    How about channelling the market’s resource allocation efficiency into the public good? Climate Stability Bonds aim to do this by rewarding people for bringing about climate ‘stability’ (not necessarily for reducing greenhouse gas emissions), defined in terms of a number of variables encompassing: numbers of people made homeless by adverse climatic events; and plant, animal and human health.

  11. Mikel

    Some environmental issues in the here and now that affect people in the here and now: mountain top removal, pollution of water that causes diseases, pollution in air that cause high rates of asthma and other diseases, etc.
    None of this seems to spur the hair on fire reaction as the existential crisis of an imagined future. That’s a diplomatic take on it.
    Not so diplomatic: I doubt people unconcerned with the health and well-being of the masses in the here and now have any workable plans, excitement, or intent about saving the masses in the future.

  12. Peter

    This is obscene – If Carbon capture and nuclear power is the focus – you are clueless. 1. Currently, there is no fully operational cost-effective commercial carbon capture technology. 2. Nuclear power has a very high risk, given the incredible damage an accident has proven to have. Measuring how safe it is by using how many people have died from Nuclear is absurd – that is NOT what RISK is. It is a contrived way to lie and say it is safe because it does not kill a lot of people. 3. Finally, there has NEVER been a nuclear plant that has been built at or under budget or projected time to build. Most have been more than DOUBLE the estimates. Plus if your read the Price Anderson Act (1955) revisions it limits the damages that the utility has to pay to $63,000,000 ( see revisions 1988 ). Nuclear accidents are ALWAYS in the BILLIONS with ZERO cost assigned to the clean up which would certainly cost MORE than the original inflated cost of the new project. The balance to the costs go to – Hmmm, let’s see, oh yes, to the PUBLIC. Take a look at who is paying for the high overruns in the Georgia plant – customers.

    1. Rod

      Obscene–greatly appropriate word for PMC tunnel vision proposal w/o merit or viability–but continuing the show as is
      imo–mrysk at #2 above points out the money Quote:
      Money quote: “A frequent conclusion is that neoliberalism just isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to wealth distribution, and it is also not able to respond to climate breakdown at anything like the speed that is needed.” and all 17 of us commenting could have a ten item list of reasons and ways to turn that back in a couple of minutes I believe.
      Wealth Distribution being both the subject and issue of course.
      that the general scope of threat was plainly stated pleased me–seldom is it put forward so simply
      I like this exposition because it is in the vein of the KISS principle–Keep It Simple Stupid and struck me as optimistic compared to other Blah Blah with details (yes details are necessary of course).
      I also think things may be salvageable to an extent–not without disruption or pain or loss but salvagable without total human/fauna/flora extinction–like the path we are on now in our idleness and blindness.
      Why a bit of Optimism??
      While we humans invented/ control/live under the thing generally known as The Economy, everything else falls under the control of Natural Systems–Nature. You know Nature is a Powerful Self Adjusting Force and Ally–but doesn’t give a shit about us–or even need us to continue–we have hard archeological evidence of that. And of course our little human invention of the Economy thing is fucking up those Natural Systems from the great thing they had evolved to when we came on the scene. But Nature itself is designed to get past that. And it will.
      For a poor boy I have had an opportunity to travel the World more than my fair share and my general observation is that despite a lot of people out there, most are not First/Second or even Third Worlders–but Strivers for the First World of things by comparison to those that flout what privilege they have–who cooking with Dung Paddies in Patagonia or Charcoal in the CAR would not be–right? Or give up that five mile walk for water for a Solar Pump pushing water through PVC down to the settlement. An Electric Refrigerator for the community or light to enjoy family time or read/learn in the darkness. Footwear that fits.
      I would be.
      Want is a huge driver of Human Effort–for whatever reason–altruistic or craven.
      And right now we have the resources to make all that happen–women (and most men) don’t want 13 kids and an early death from malnutrion.
      Billions–BILLIONS– of those struggling now in their myopic way would change their efforts, lifestyles, and aspirations with the promise of a safe place to lay and enough food to eat and something spiritually/mentally uplifting–like real Community in the Commons–
      If not for the Contrived Concept of stratified Economy benefitting the few.
      We invented that thing–the Economy–at one point it helped break some enslaving bonds which we have reinvented to only become enslaved by other falsities we have invented.
      We Invented.
      We need to understand the Human Nature beyond what is innately felt/understood–and change what isn’t real– for in that is our real doomsday threat.
      FWIW that’s why i found this brief essay optimistic.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe the ‘Market’ approach to climate change and the impending exhaustion of critical resources can best be summarized by the saying: “I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone.” [IBGYBG] — perhaps augmented with “Dance, dance, dance until the music stops.” The notion of “deep flaws in neoliberalism” is comic hyperbole of understatement.

    Neither “massive expansion of electrification across the entire energy system, with an obvious emphasis on wind, solar and other renewables” nor “carbon capture and nuclear power” will provide realistic or meaningful approaches to climate action. The near future Earth will not support a human population of eight billion plus humans. I fear it may be too late for Humankind to gradually solve this problem by gentle means. I believe the full meaning of “greatly reduced levels of some goods and services” extends far far beyond “an 80% cut in air travel” and mandating electric vehicles, and driving a huge shift away from private vehicles to public transport and active travel.

    Statements such as:
    “transition to a fair and sustainable global economy”
    “facing up to the deep flaws in neoliberalism”
    “elimination of fuel poverty; improved and warmer homes that are cheaper to run; better internal and external air quality; high-quality, reliable public transport; quieter urban spaces with more room for playing fields, parks and recreation; and plenty of skilled jobs supporting the green transition.”
    lend a sense of the surreal to this post.

    1. Glen

      I tend to agree. I think the future modeling and predictions discussed here are more realistic and prescient. We are accelerating into the Jackpot, and through action or more correctly in-action as a result of unparalleled efforts by elites to preserve wealth hording and maintenance of the status quo (as Biden told Wall St “nothing will fundamentally change”), there will be no world organized effort to mitigate global warming. I think there will be nation lead efforts to deal with the problem, and in America, we see actions at the state, city, and local level, but these are not sufficient. America’s last realistic chance to deal with this problem was the 2000 Presidential election, and the oil guy won.

      So how do you tell people we have to get by with less? You don’t. You just let the two laws of neo liberalism kick into action:

      1) Because markets.
      2) Go die.

      Emphasis on law 2.

  14. Phichibe

    Markets manifestly fail when price for a good or service is inelastic. I’m reading the book “Late Victorian Holocausts” which makes the case (persuasively so far) that the terrible famines of the 1870s may have been provoked by the failure of the Asian monsoons due to an extremely strong El Nino (ominous parallels to the recent news of El Nino’s return in 2023) but that what caused the mass starvation was the decision by British colonial administrators to export grain from India due to market speculators driving up the prices in London. These same price signals were then used in China, Brazil, and elsewhere to justify similar ‘market’ decisions.

    The mischief wrought by the Chicago school (which actually pre-dates Milton Friedman) of laissez-faire triumphalism seems to know no bound. The allocation of scarcity (supposedly the raison d’etre of modern economics) can not be left to the tender mercies of market forces with the inescapable overshoots, panics, and other failures they are prone to. The next centuries are going to be bad enough for the poor without allowing the logic of profit maximization dictating who lives and who dies.


  15. GlassHammer

    The assembly of resources, their use, and distribution is constrained by the relationship between elites.

    Neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, etc…. provided a satisfactory means to stabilize elite conflict just enough for the state to function.

    Any new solution to the question of resources will have to provide a similar stabilizing dynamic to elite conflict or it won’t be adopted. The current solutions aren’t doing this which is why are reading about them instead of seeing them implemented.

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