Defence of markets and capitalism means taking aim at the wrong targets.
Michael Mann is one of the world’s leading climate scientists, who has played a pivotal role in establishing what is happening to our climate and the forces driving that change. Mann’s work on the history of climate in the Northern hemisphere over the last couple of thousand years, proved pivotal in shifting the debate around climate change. The famous “hockey stick graph” showed just how dramatic recent temperature rises and CO2 concentrations were. This work on past climate was also to prove central to showing how dramatic and abrupt climate change had happened in the past and how this affected and was driven by the various earth systems. Due to the work of Mann and many other scientists we know what is driving climate change, we also know that massive shifts in climate can happen rapidly and that we are living in such a time.
The “hockey stick graph” used by Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth” has, despite claims over the past decade by deniers, been proven absolutely correct. Its central message that recent climate change is unprecedented in the paleo record and can only be attributed to human industry and fossil fuel usage is now beyond any real debate. For his work he has been targeted mercilessly by the fossil fuel industry and its paid commentators, whether on Fox news or in the US Republican party. In short, for anyone who has been concerned about climate change over the last 20 years, and I count myself very much as one of those,Mann is a verifiable if unlikely hero.
Any book or article by Mann should be taken seriously by the wider climate movement. This is why this book is so important. It is also why it is so dangerously flawed. It will be used by many, such as the Irish Greens to shore up a central argument around market mechanisms and the role of free markets and capitalism in combating climate change. It will be used to brow beat the left in the climate movement into silence and reliance on corporate action to tackle the climate crisis.
That said, there is much here that we can agree with and that is worth knowing; such as the history of the “machinery of denial” employed by capitalist interests in the past and the funding of the pathetic rag bag of “scientists” for hire by the fossil fuel and other industries.Similarly his points on nuclear energy, carbon capture and geo engineering are excellent
Mann sees the central aim of the book as being to counter “doomism”; the idea that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, that rises in temperature of over 2 degrees are already effectively baked in and that there is nothing much we can do. Mann is right to take aim at this. I think he correctly labels it as the other side of denial; both disarm and inculcate a mood of despair and inaction; it’s too late, all we can do now is grieve for the loss of life on the planet. Mann rubbishes this argument, and as a leading climate scientist he is well placed to do so. Things are bad enough, he reiterates, and yes, on current projections we are heading toward an extinction event that will see life and civilization threatened. But there is still time to avert the worst outcomes. There may indeed be a cohort of academics, activists and writers who succumb to “doomism”. The problem is that Mann labels nearly ALL work and ALL warnings of catastrophic climate change as “doomist” when it is very evident that much of the research and warnings do not come from the view of trying to derail action or the need for urgent change.
Mann seems content to place highly respected scientists and commentators such as Kevin Anderson in the same bracket as twitter trolls or defeatist “doomists” Indeed many of his examples are not from people saying it’s too late but from fellow academics and activists like Anderson and Will Steffen. Their work is not aimed at engendering defeatism but at galvanising the movement and pointing out the limits of the present market and neoliberal economic system in trying to grapple with this crisis
Mann takes a scatter gun to all such work suggesting that they have given up the fight today and effectively cleared the way for the very catastrophic disaster they predict.
The book is absolutely correct in taking aim at any emphasis on personal or lifestyle behaviours as a remedy, although it is odd that he should again criticise those scientists and campaigners who now refuse air travel or have stopped meat eating. It’s perfectly fine to make such changes provided you don’t then pretend that such lifestyle changes are a panacea for the planet and for everyone. That would indeed be letting the fossil fuel corporations off the hook. Anderson for example won’t fly but is clear he doesn’t wish to force such personal actions on ordinary people as any kind of solution for systemic causes of the crisis.
The problem with Mann’s book is that he doesn’t differentiate between outright deniers, stooges of corporate greed and those on the left who have critiqued market mechanisms and capitalism’s reaction to the crisis in general. For Mann ANY criticism of the Democratic Party for example, of ‘enlightened’ capitalists, or of their neoliberal variant is lumped together with dubious doomers and deniers.
Mann’s claim about how market mechanisms “solved” the crisis of acid rain in the 90s is greatly overstated and not really the full story. Even taken at face value it took two decades for the US and Europe to respond to the issue and the destruction of life in dead lakes and forests. The cap and trade system introduced to deal with it was fought by vested industrial interests and similar arguments of denial now used with climate were employed. While sulphur emissions were eventually reduced and life returned to damaged ecosystems in North America and Europe the lesson is hardly that market mechanisms are a panacea for all environmental crisis. The forces in the fossil fuel industry are much more entrenched and deeply embedded in capitalism than the ones that produced sulphur dioxide. The technical steps taken did not require a rupture which would threaten the world’s most powerful and richest corporations. And the actual issue hasn’t been solved as developing countries grapple with the same pollution as geographies of production move across the globe. Its deeply ironic that George Bush Sn becomes a hero for Mann for passing a Clean Air Act that tackled the emissions of sulphur and nitrous oxides. Mann seems to have forgotten that he also waged the first Gulf War in Kuwait on behalf of oil companies. The relatively localised nature and possible ameliorating steps in dealing with acid rain pale into comparison with the steps needed in climate crisis. A cap and trade system for climate has been tried and has and is failing
Mann’s faith in the ability of mainstream US politicians like Biden, Obama and Clinton to tackle the crisis is married to a belief that free markets can be an ally to climate action and that seeking alternatives or pointing out flaws is a waste of time which ultimately plays into the hands of climate deniers and the fossil fuel industry. Already this argument has been used to attack any opposition to carbon pricing (carbon taxes). Ultimately there is a profound and central debate here; can capitalism address the crisis? Can markets be the magic bullet given the crisis and the time frame for irreversible climate disruption?
If Mann is right in this, then much of the progressive opposition to carbon taxes and even advocating for climate justice and a just transition should be jettisoned as it could get in the way of markets and capital achieving the energy transition needed.
He sees protest and mass movements as useful only if they aid leaders like Obama in pushing through reforms. Heaven forbid such movements should be critical of the sell outs and failures of such world leaders. The role of such movements is really to aid those corporations that are switching from fossil fuel use to renewables, to ensure the market is rigged in favour of one class of capitalists over fossil fuel ones
Similar blindness sees Mann give Obama a pass on climate failures and the actions of the US at the Copenhagen COP talks. Only Russia and Saudi Arabia come in for any criticism here, Obama and the Democrats are simply “undermined” by fossil fuel interests. This is comic and juvenile stuff and unbecoming any serious analysis of what happened in Copenhagen or indeed what has been happening over the past 20 years of climate obfuscation and failure.
Mann sees Putin, online trolls, petro- states and deniers behind every criticism of the Democratic party or resistance to taxes linked to climate action. Hence the Yellow Vests in France are a phenomenon caused by Russian machinations, while trolls and petro- states are behind all criticisms of carbon taxes. In fact, the sharpest criticism of carbon taxes has come from the left because they will fail utterly to achieve the reductions in emission we need and because the deflect from the causes and corporations responsible, while puttingthe burden on working people.
In a deeply ironic passage Mann rubbishes comments from Will Steffen and any attempt to link neoliberalism since the 80s with the massive acceleration of CO2 and other pollutants driving climate change. Steffen, he says is “ no doubt an expert in environmental science but his statements on economics and policy here are ill informed” For the record Steffen is indeed an expert in environmental science, being a driving force along with Paul Crutzen of the concept of the Anthropocene, and whose work as a editor of the Global Change and the Earth system series was of vital importance to our understanding of the effect of human society on the wider earth systems. Similarly, his work on developing the concept of safe operating spaces for humanity is of immense importance for anyone concerned with the impact capitalism is having on the very habitability of the planet. He is indeed an “expert”. Steffen’s sin, like Anderson and Naomi Klein, is to stray out of the science lab and look at what is driving the processes of climate change, the acidification of our oceans and the collapse in biodiversity. Like the others he sees the hand of capitalism and neoliberalism specifically and a need to reign in how it works. Therefore Mann includes him in a scattergun attack with fossil fuel lobbyists denialists, doomists, Russian trolls and petro- states. It’s quite an astonishing swipe and points to a wider problem within the climate movement that will face socialists in the coming years.
Mann, like most of the middle class dominated NGOs , environmental groups and Green parties across the globe, has comfortably accommodated himself to the very economic system driving the climate change that they are so very genuinely alarmed by. A call to put aside demands that will scare off the investors, conservatives and board room directors of “good” capitalist enterprises is in reality a call to disarm the movement and will lead us inevitably to catastrophic and irreversible damage to our world. For Mann, AOC’s Green New Deal, while worthy, would saddle the climate movement with a long list of other social programs and conservatives. This is why this book is both profoundly disappointing and dangerous. The future hope for real climate action does not lie in corporate boardrooms but in working class communities, in the organised working class and in the oppressed peoples of the Global South including and especially indigenous peoples. The policy advocated by Mann and others will ensure utter failure to deal with the driving forces behind global environmental chaos
Markets and capitalist entrepreneurial drive will not abate the crisis, it will speed it up. In every area from the roll out of renewables, the reliance on technology and carbon capture, to the dominance of big private companies and their investment decisions the steps we need to take are not aided but impeded as time speeds away from us and the crisis becomes worse. The inability to see capitalism as the cause of the destruction is becoming more unforgivable as it will demand more attacks on the very sector of society capable of fighting the very system driving the crisis – the global working classes and oppressed. Supporting the implementation of carbon taxes on ordinary people, replacing well paid unionised jobs with precarious minimum wage ones in the new industries and many other trends will alienate the very forces capable of challenging the systemic causes behind the crisis. It will also open the door to the return of denialism, backed by the fossil fuel industry, with the risk of them winning over powerful sections of ordinary people alienated by a unfolding transition from fossil fuels that is clearly hypocritical, unjust and not even working in its central aim of limiting emissions. We see a glimpse of this in the rhetoric of the far right on farmers’ protests and in feigning concern for the plight of the poor faced with rising energy costs. Mann (or for that matter pro-capitalist Greens) are powerless to counter this given their embeddedness in the system that is immiserating workers and the poor. This book is a reminder to the left in the climate movement that our role has never been more vital and the need to counter such profoundly wrong views never more urgent.
Editor’s Note: Owen McCormack is a bus driver, socialist and trade unionist in Dublin with great ecological expertise. He also works as a researcher for People Before Profit in the Dáil ( parliament)