Naomi Klein Redux: Capitalism And Climate — Can This Marriage Be Saved?



My recent article critiquing a Naomi Klein interview engendered among the most positive and negative reactions I have ever received. I take that to mean it hit one or more major cleavage points for readers — how one feels about the major environmental groups’ effort in the failed cap-and-trade bill and, more broadly, how one feels about capitalism.

The Climate Psychologist even offered “Couple’s Therapy: Tough Love for the Feuding Naomi Klein and Joe Romm.” Let me be the first to point out that Naomi and I are not, in fact, a couple. I think the Climate Psychologist may have been watching too many sitcoms, romcoms, and Shakespeare-coms where the bickering couple is secretly in love (though if James Carville and Mary Matalin can be a couple, I suppose any two people on the face of the earth can be).

But there is a metaphorical coupling in the climate movement of those who work within the system (especially with businesses) and those who think the system must be upended:

The substance of Klein and Romm’s disagreement is about capitalism, and about environmental groups’ acceptance of the capitalist system by making partnerships with corporations. Klein thinks that because “Big Green” groups partnered with corporations and supported cap and trade legislation, which she views as an abject failure, that these groups deserve a great deal of blame. Romm disagrees with this particular assignment of blame. Romm quantifies his blame assignments assigning, “60% right-wing deniers/disinformers (including politicians) and 30% the media.”

This is all very interesting. But it is irrelevant. The only relevant question is what to do, now. How can we effectively fight climate change?

I must differ with our therapist, a bit. On the surface, the argument about who is to blame appears irrelevant. But as is so often the case in a couple’s arguments what lies beneath is not. The argument is really a proxy for who we should listen to going forward.

One member of the couple is accusing the other of having acted in such an obviously reckless and counterproductive manner (by embracing cap-and-trade) that they should not be listened to going forward. For that reason, I will excerpt below my 2011 piece, “Why did environmentalists pursue cap-and-trade and was it a doomed strategy?

First, though, three points. We here at Climate Progress embraced the Keystone fight very early on and I’m happy to recommend to people who want to get more politically active that they get involved with an organization like (which Klein is a board member of).

Second, in her brief note, “All the Response Joe Romm Is Going To Get From Me,” Klein has a postscript, “BTW, you do know I didn’t write the headline, right? Just checking, cuz you seem to know so much.”

I’m going to take that in the positive spirit of her closing (“Respectfully, Naomi”) and say 1) I’m glad you don’t like Salon’s headline either and 2) thank you, I have been working on this issue for 25 years, and it’s always nice to get some recognition.

Seriously, though, let’s look at Salon’s headline:

Naomi Klein: Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers
The “No Logo” author explains how environmentalists may be more damaging to their cause than climate change deniers

Presumably your saying you “didn’t write the headline” means there is something about it that you also don’t like and would have written differently.

Yet you said in your interview:

Well, I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results….

We’ve globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It’s now successfully spreading across the world, and it’s killing us.

It’s not that the green groups were spectators to this — they were partners in this. They were willing participants in this.

Since neither you nor the interviewer have said those statements were not ones you uttered, I can’t see how the Salon headline was factually wrong. Thus the only objection I could see you having is that you believe their emphasis on this part of the interview was misplaced.

But the whole point of Dave Roberts’ tweets was that “The key ankle-biter insight is that … if they chew on the ankles of fellow climate hawks, they’ll get attention. It has always been thus, for any progressive movement.”

Just as Roberts thought that was well-known, so did I. But again your postscript seems to imply that you don’t agree with Salon’s focus on your critique of enviros. So if you were truly unaware that this part of your interview was going to get a lot of attention and indeed overwhelm the rest of your message, then you are not an ankle-biter like Bjorn Lomborg, who I feel quite certain knows precisely what the media response will be when he attacks enviros.

But here’s the thing. Roberts was right. Salon’s headline should be what anyone would expect from a major media outlet. The easiest way to see that is to look at the UK Guardian’s headline for the exact same interview:

Naomi Klein: ‘Big green groups are more damaging than climate deniers’
Environment movement is in ‘deep denial’ over the right ways to tackle climate change, says Canadian author

They also viewed your harsh critique of your fellow environmentalists as the “news.” So if your forthcoming book and film also suggest that the Big Green Groups who pushed cap-and-trade — and presumably by extension the rest of us who supported it (however reluctantly) — have truly been more damaging than right-wing deniers, you should no longer be surprised if that drowns out the rest of your message.

Third, some who emailed me thought your post-postscript sounded ominous: “I could have forgiven a lot, but lumping me in with Lomborg? That one is going to haunt you buddy.”

But I prefer to focus on the word “buddy” rather than “haunt” and take this in the light-hearted and conciliatory fashion in which I’m sure it was meant. I know you realize that you could hardly be upset with being lumped in with Lomborg after you told an interviewer that the big advocates of cap-and-trade were worse than the Koch brothers and James Inhofe. So you were being ironic, right?

More seriously, I had wanted to write a piece focusing on the question of whether or not climate change would destroy capitalism as we know it before capitalism destroyed the climate as we know it. I will leave that for another time.

Finally, I can’t in good faith ask most of my readers to wade through another couple thousand words on cap-and-trade, which, as I’ve said, is a horse so dead it can be found in Elmer’s Glue. But because there clearly is still a great deal of anger over the failure of the cap-and-trade bill — and well there should be — I am going to excerpt at length my 2011 explanation of why it is not fair to characterize it as an obviously doomed by-product of environmentalists selling out to big business.

Why did environmentalists pursue cap-and-trade and was it a doomed strategy?
We’re starting to see pieces of counterfactual history on the climate bill in The New Republic and elsewhere based in part on a widely debunkedfalse narrative.” Since cap-and-trade has been so vilified by the entire right wing and even some on the left, I thought I would try to set the record straight on some key points.

I’m not here to say cap-and-trade was the “correct” strategy. And it may be that any strategy was extrinsically “doomed to fail” — that the Senate’s anti-democratic, super-majority 60-vote “requirement” meant that a dedicated minority could have killed any approach — once the Republican Party decided to become the only major political party in the world dedicated to denying science and blocking any action.

I mainly want to show that cap-and-trade was not intrinsically doomed to fail, that it was not obviously or inherently a flawed idea in, say, 2008 — or even 2009. Quite the reverse. Only someone who doesn’t know history — or who chooses to ignore it — could believe that.

Environmentalists and progressives and others pursued cap-and-trade for several reasons most of which have been utterly ignored by the counterfactual revisionists:

  1. The obvious alternatives — especially a carbon tax or a major push on clean energy — had already been harshly rejected, primarily by Republicans. They were both widely seen as divisive and failed strategies.
  2. Cap and trade had strong bipartisan political support, with genuine Senate GOP champions.
  3. Cap and trade had strong public support.
  4. Cap and trade had strong business support, especially from the crucial electric utility industry.
  5. Cap-and-trade could plausibly achieve the key goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas an “innovation agenda” couldn’t.
  6. Cap-and-trade could allow the U.S. to make a firm, credible GHG reduction commitment to the world, which was an essential prerequisite for a successful international agreement, which is vital for addressing the problem.
  7. Cap-and-trade could pay for domestic and international adaptation efforts — as well as an international regime to stop deforestation.
  8. Cap-and-trade could pay for a major clean energy effort.

Let’s dive into these:

  1. The obvious alternatives — especially a tax and a major push on clean energy — had been harshly rejected, primarily by Republicans. They were both widely seen as divisive and failed strategies. The BTU tax was killed in the Senate, primarily by the GOP, in 1993 and widely seen as contributing to the loss of control of the House by the Democrats. Clean energy — both research and development as well as deployment programs — have been rejected by Republicans for decades, starting with Reagan gutting Carter’s clean energy push. Reagan cut renewables R&D deeply, along with efficiency, clean energy deployment, tax credits — he even took solar panels off the White House. In spite of that, Clinton and Gore tried to meet our Rio Treaty greenhouse voluntary commitment [yes, an oxymoron], returning to 1990 levels by 2000 — with an “innovation agenda” but Gingrich and his fellow GOPers campaigned against the Department of Energy and its clean energy programs and gutted many of them once in power.
  2. Cap and trade had strong bipartisan political support, with genuine Senate GOP champions. Indeed, it was essentially a Republican market-based idea embraced by Reagan and both Bushes. A cap and trade bill for clean air pushed by Bush Sr. had passed Congress easily: “The House of Representatives (401-21) and the Senate (89-11).” George W. Bush had actually campaigned in 2000 on a cap and trade for utility CO2 emissions. People who hated clean energy, like McCain, were ardent supporters of cap-and-trade (see “The greenwasher from Arizona has a record as dirty as the denier from Oklahoma“). Heck, even clean-energy-destroyer Newt Gingrich endorsed it! Even after McCain abandoned it, Lindsay Graham embraced it. But once a cap-and-trade bill became a real possibility after Obama was elected with large Democratic majorities, the fossil fuel industry and conservative movement launched a voracious effort to undo this bipartisanship — especially after the House passed a cap-and-trade bill with some moderate Republican support (see The GOP flip flops on cap and trade and Tim Pawlenty: “Every one of us” running for president has flip-flopped on climate change). Perhaps everyone was duped by this bait-and-switch, but there is little doubt they would have launched a similar effort against any plausible strategy.
  3. Cap and trade had strong public support. It retained support in 2009 even though opponents of the climate bill vilified it with a brilliant disinformation campaign and even though “opponents of climate bill far outspent environmentalists….
  4. Cap and trade had strong business support, especially from the crucial electric utility industry. Could you pass a climate bill that the utility industry opposed? Now that seems like a strategy intrinsically doomed to fail. But in this case the utility industry had experience with cap-and-trade and had been brought to the table through the US Climate Action Partnership. Many other major companies were also on board with this strategy. Yes, it meant that utilities were going to demand a substantial fraction of the allowances, much as they had gotten 97% in the sulfur trading program of the bipartisan Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. I am aware that many of my fellow progressives think that we should have had a cap-and-dividend program where the money goes back to the public — but the big problem with this bill was not public support. We had that. Yes, it might have been broader than it was deep, but absent the support of utilities, no bill could have passed the House.
  5. Cap-and-trade could plausibly achieve the key goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas an “innovation agenda” couldn’t. I had issues with the final version of the climate bill, but one thing is certain, a purely clean energy agenda could not achieve the primary goal of a climate bill. Indeed, during the mid-1990s I had overseen the most detailed analysis ever performed on how clean energy (efficiency and renewables and cogeneration — and including natural gas and nuclear power) could cut emissions. It was performed by five national laboratories (See full study here and some history on it by California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld here.). That analysis showed that without a price on carbon, clean energy would mostly displace new natural gas, not old coal. Only a price on carbon gets you the emissions reductions. A massive ramp up in clean energy spending would be great, but it’s always been strongly opposed by conservatives and in any case couldn’t possibly solve the problem. A carbon tax could reduce emissions, but it was a political nonstarter.
  6. Cap-and-trade could allow the U.S. to make a firm, credible GHG reduction commitment to the world, which was an essential prerequisite for a successful international agreement, which is vital for addressing the problem. The Europeans had already embraced cap and trade, so it was viewed as credible internationally, despite the obvious flaws in the market for international offsets (the clean development mechanism). Indeed, internationally it was viewed as a good idea that the United States would join this larger market. We could never have come to the table with just a clean energy spending program. Everyone in the world had already seen in the 1990s that we couldn’t deliver with that.
  7. Cap-and-trade could pay for domestic and international adaptation efforts — as well as an international regime to stop deforestation. We keep being told that adaptation is important strategy — but it ain’t cheap. Anyone who truly believes we should be spending money on adaptation has to support a bill that generates substantial revenues to do so — otherwise they merely support rhetorical adaptation, whose inevitable result is misery and/or triage and/or abandonment, which has been the main adaptation strategies of choice so far (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery“).
  8. Cap-and-trade could pay for a major clean energy effort. Money doesn’t grow on trees. The folks who somehow claim this could all be done with a massive ramp up in clean energy funding still need to pay for it in an era of big deficits. If their answer is a carbon tax, then they would have been trying to sell two, polarizing, failed ideas at the same time. And that’s all for a strategy that would not allow an international treaty to be signed and wouldn’t actually reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. That isn’t just a doomed-to-fail approach. It is a suicidal one.

This is not to say that the environmental and progressive movements didn’t make mistakes. I have discussed many of them, including the wrong message (see Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?) and lack of a hard push by the President (see The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2).

Indeed, cap-and-trade itself clearly has its flaws. It is complex to explain and market-based solutions seemed less appealing in an era when markets were failing — although that last point could not have been anticipated when the strategy was being developed.

My colleague Dan Weiss likes to point out that we simply don’t pass environmental legislation when the unemployment rate is high, as he explained in his excellent post, “Anatomy of a Senate Climate Bill DeathThe deep recession, unified and uncompromising opposition in the Senate, and big spending by oil, coal, and other energy interests all had big roles in preventing climate legislation from moving through the Senate this year.” He notes, “an analysis of the unemployment rate when fundamental environmental protection laws were enacted since Earth Day 1970 found that the annual unemployment rate was 6 percent or lower most of the year of enactment”:

unemployment levels when environmental laws passedThat said, the public did support action — and specifically cap-and-trade — in spite of all the obstacles….

… The 41 votes needed to kill anything in the Senate can come from states who comprise far below 40% of the population. So the media’s failings and the big spending advantage the opponents of the bill had really do matter in the Senate, much more than in the House, where a bill’s overall popularity with the public makes it considerably easier to pass. Counterfactual histories can claim otherwise, but only by ignoring history….

This is not meant to be a definitive analysis of the climate bill and what went wrong. But the notion that pursuing cap-and-trade was a strategy that was intrinsically doomed to fail is simply wrong. Could it have been done better? Yes. Would doing it better have worked? Who knows? But was there an obviously superior alternative that met even a majority of the 8 critical features of a cap-and-trade bill described above, let alone all of them? No.

UPDATE: I asked David Hawkins Director of Climate Programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to look this post over, and he adds these thoughts on why they supported cap-and-trade:

The goal was to get some GHG reductions quickly and set us on a path to get more reductions over time.

The lesson from acid rain (in contrast to the CAA SIP process) was not to have to implement on a series of administrative rulemakings to get reductions — that takes too long. Better to put reduction targets in the statute and make them as self-implementing as possible. That is the basis of the declining cap architecture.

The trading element was supported by groups like NRDC, a) to engage as many economic actors as possible in the search for lower emitting technologies, fuels, designs, etc. And b) to use flexibility to bargain for deeper cuts than would have been agreed to if there was no market flexibility. The lesson from acid rain was that we were able to get business and Republicans to support deeper cuts when bundled with trading flexibility.

Formation of USCAP, whose biz members strongly supported trading flex, reinforced these preferences.