‘Neoliberalism’ And The Climate Change Debate

If there’s anything that the past several months worth of blog posts about “neoliberalism” have convinced me of, it’s that nobody should ever use this word again. Yesterday’s post from Dave Roberts on neoliberalism and climate change, concluding with the observation that “big changes are necessary, but Fieldman’s handwaving on that front isn’t much more helpful than everyone else’s—something about Gramscian moments and counter-hegemonic projects” seems to me to be a case in point.

To reboot this in terms of a series of concrete disagreements about climate policy that do arise all the time, here’s what I see happening. On the one hand, you have the “do nothing” crowd. This mixes the concrete interests of fossil fuel producers with the hegemonic project of valorizing industrial capitalism with ressentiment-driven dislike of the aesthetics of the environmental movement. But then you have a debate that’s not so much between two sides as existing along a spectrum. At one maximal pole people say “let’s price carbon, eliminate all market distortions, and fully offset the revenue with reduced taxes.” That’s basically classical liberalism + air pollution. What would John Locke Do? At another pole, you have a kind of prescriptivist maximalism. That says, let’s set a nationwide emissions target. Let’s apportion our emissions between electricity, transportation, and household heating. Let’s look at the electricity slice and apportion our generation between coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and renewables, then let’s say exactly how energy intensive everyone’s appliances need to be. Turn to transportation and see how fuel efficient our cars have to be and how many people can be allowed to own. It’s basically Total War on air pollution.

Probably no one adheres to either of those views. But a lot of debates reflect one mentality or the other. On the one hand, there’s the view that energy markets are inherently weird and non-competitive and the issues are highly technical and we basically need to tell people what to do. On the other hand, there’s the view that the ultimate ecological impact of this or that is so immensely complicated that only a price system can actually process the issue. It’s a very classic markets vs regulation debate, but with a huge chunk of the people who’d normally be inclined to talk about markets instead off in the corner somewhere shouting “climategate!”