The climate impasse reveals the bankruptcy of Liberalism

If you are paying attention, the climate crisis is an utter and total indictment of the liberal-capitalist world order.

The science on emissions and climate change has been fairly accurate since at least the 1970s, and internationally known and acknowledged since the early 1990s. The UN’s climate framework, which makes clear what needs to be done, has been in effect since 1994. States have spent the three decades since essentially wasting time, trying and failing to make sustainability more immediately profitable than destruction.

It may have been possible at the time to save both capitalism and the planet, in theory. But this would require directly assaulting fossil fuel fortunes, making them unprofitable or even worthless by means of state intervention. Capitalism as a whole could have continued, perhaps, simply using different sources of energy and different avenues for investment. But theory aside, this was never practically attainable within the liberal order.

Despite the liberal pretension to enabling reasoned debate to set public policy, this kind of action was – and still is – deemed unconscionable, because the liberal system is in fact set up to allow those controlling massive wealth to protect their property. Wherever public power threatens private profits, the wealthy can mobilize their wealth in the legal, political, and public realm, and nip the threat in the bud.

These battles have gone on for decades while all of the “reasonable,” “serious” people insisted that only gradual, market-based efforts could ever work, pinning much hope on future technological innovations. But the market has other priorities, above all to make whatever profits can be made; rather than pave the way to a sustainable future, energy-related innovation has largely focused on better ways to locate, extract, refine, market, burn, and use fossil fuels – the market in its infinite wisdom has willed it to be so. And why should it not? As far as securing profits is concerned, juicing a tried-and-true source of revenue like fossil fuels is obviously a better investment than exploring avenues where profitability is just one of many open questions.

A world in flames

For decades, in other words, capitalism has been proving its inability to respond to anything but near-term profitability, while the political system supporting it has been proving its complete inability to temper this near-sightedness with reason or concern for the public interest.

And now we find ourselves in a world literally up in flames, with short- and long-term threats to civilization converging across all continents – and the liberal-capitalist system continues to display an utter inability to do what needs to be done.

The science, having been generally clear for half a century, is now more detailed and unassailable than perhaps any other area of science has ever been before.

Politicians, trapped in the mind-prison of Liberalism and the golden cage of capitalism, continue to mutter “but what do you propose?” And no wonder: any effective action would ultimately require pursuing the economically insane aim of preventing private firms and state enterprises from making profits from highly valuable natural resources, materials which are just lying there, waiting to be turned into money.

Whether fossil fuel reserves are owned by private individuals, corporations, or the state itself, denying their ability to do this would entail a massive showdown with vested interests, the kind of thing that prudent politicians generally avoid.

In this way, the intrinsic irrationality of an economic system predicated on infinite growth, along with the massive concentration of wealth and power it has promoted, now stand in the way of common-sense rational action based on an irrefutable scientific consensus.

Listen to the science!

If you did not already reject capitalism to begin with, you might at this point be irritated. I am obviously biased and presenting the story in a way that serves my pre-existing communist agenda. Be this as it may, the science is clear: just read the IPCC reports.

These reports, compiled by volunteer scientists based on thousands of studies, and approved line for line by hundreds of representatives from nearly every government in the world, spell this out as clearly as can be. In the crucial 2018 report, they call for “rapid and far-reaching transitions,” about which they say: “These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.”

On the pivotal topic of fossil fuels, they write: “Some fossil investments made over the next few years – or those made in the last few – will likely need to be retired prior to fully recovering their capital investment or before the end of their operational lifetime.”

The International Energy Agency – originally an oil industry lobby group – has since piled on, calling for an immediate global stop to investment in new fossil fuel supply.

How to strand an asset

If you believe this is possible within capitalism, without violating private property, let us think this through. Consider the fact that about a sixth of the world’s wealth is invested in fossil fuels. How do you suppose we are to retire these investments, across the globe, before they even recover the initial costs, let alone turn a profit?

Do you expect the owners of these investments – including fabulously wealthy individuals, royal families, democratic states, dictatorial states, and of course corporations bound to shareholder profits – to simply come to their senses now, after four decades, and voluntarily forfeit this wealth? The corporations in question are legally barred from doing so, while the individuals and leaders in question would be objectively irrational to do it – they would be, simply put, destroying billions and trillions of dollars in value.

Yes, I am a communist, and have been since before I started down the climate rabbit hole. Nonetheless, I truly wish this weren’t so. I truly wish capitalism could continue to exist without destroying the climate, if only to give the left more time to organize to overthrow it.

But unfortunately for all of us, whether left, right, or oh-so enlightened center, time is running out. The current state of things is utterly unsustainable, and if there is any way out still conceivable, even any way to significantly mitigate the damage – it is being blocked by liberal ideology and capitalist economics.

Seriously reviewing the science and the history of this crisis makes any other conclusion untenable.