Climate Change

Naomi Klein Changes Nothing With This Changes Everything

The laws of nature do not mandate a progressive paradise.


This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $30

Naomi Klein keeps coming up with fresh new ideas about how to spark an elusive mass social movement against capitalism and corporations. In her 2000 bestseller No Logo, the progressive journalist attempted to harness the nascent anti-globalization movement to unleash "a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations." In 2007, her book The Shock Doctrine bogusly asserted that free market institutions spread only by taking advantage of coups, wars, and natural calamities. The book debuted at the beginning of a massive recession and featured economist Milton Friedman as its chief villain. But still no dice.

Now comes Klein's newest screed, This Changes Everything. "Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war," she asserts. Climate science, Klein claims, has given progressives "the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism" ever. If the stresses of globalization and a massive financial crisis cannot mobilize the masses, then the prospect of catastrophic climate change must.

Canonical Marxism predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its class "contradictions," in which the bourgeoisie profit from the proletariat's labor until we reach a social breaking point. In Klein's progressive update, capitalism will collapse because the pollution produced by its heedless overconsumption will build to an ecological breaking point. "Only mass social movements can save us now," she declares.

Is she onto something? Man-made climate change, if unaddressed, may well become a significant problem for humanity as the 21st century advances. But is Klein right that progressive values and policies are "currently being vindicated, rather than refuted, by the laws of nature"?

First, a quick review of the state of the climate. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is indeed increasing because humanity is cutting down forests and burning coal, oil, and natural gas. As a result, the world has warmed, glaciers are melting, and the seas are rising. Since 1951, average global temperature has been increasing at a rate of 0.12°C (0.22°F) per decade. "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th Century," states the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2013 Physical Sciences report. The vast majority of climate researchers agree that man-made global warming is now underway. It bears mentioning, however, that the global average atmospheric temperature has not significantly increased for the past 17 years, a "pause" not predicted by the computer climate models.

Klein acknowledges that not all weather disasters can be attributed to climate change. But she doesn't let that stop her from trotting out tragic stories of hurricanes, typhoons, and droughts to shore up her thesis. She quotes the Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann: "There's no question that climate change has increased the frequency of certain types of extreme weather events, including drought, intense hurricanes, and super typhoons, the frequency and intensity and duration of heat waves, and potentially other types of extreme weather though the details are still being debated within the scientific community."

Yes, those details are still being debated among climate scientists. The United Nations' Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (2012) projects that global warming will generate more heat waves, coastal floods, and droughts as the century unfolds. The researchers, however, could not draw firm conclusions about its effects on current trends in hurricanes, typhoons, hailstorms, or tornadoes. Given projected carbon dioxide emissions, the report notes that weather extremes will likely remain within the normal range of nature's own inherent variation during the next several decades. 

What's more, while the world has experienced greater economic losses as a result of extreme weather, that's due primarily to the fact that the world has gotten richer and more populous: There are more people with more stuff of more value to destroy. A 2011 review of 22 weather damage studies in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society reported, "The studies show no trends in the losses, corrected for change (increases) in population and capital at risk that could be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, it can be concluded that anthropogenic climate change so far has not had a significant impact on losses from natural disasters."

Even more happily, a 2011 Reason Foundation report found that deaths from all "extreme weather events globally has declined by more than 90 percent since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events." This is mostly good news, despite This Changes Everything's scaremongering.

Klein's list of remedies is more alarming than her exaggerations of climate change's present-day effects. She wants to ban fracking, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, geoengineering, carbon sequestration, and carbon markets, thus turning her back on some of the climate-friendliest solutions currently on offer. She wants to block the Keystone pipeline, which would transport petroleum from Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries; she would pressure pension funds and endowments to divest from fossil fuel companies; and she thinks we should transfer trillions of dollars to poor countries to pay off the rich countries' debt for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth," Klein declares, updating one of the most tired historical metaphors for her purposes. "It is entirely possible to rapidly switch our energy systems to 100 percent renewables," she asserts. As an example of "one of several credible studies" showing how such a vast energy transformation could be achieved, she breezily cites a 2009 Energy Policy paper by two researchers, Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of the University of California, Davis. Jacobson and Delucchi think we can replace all coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power by 2030 with wind, solar, and hydropower while fueling a fleet of electric cars. How? By deploying 3.8 million 5-megawatt wind turbines, 5,350 100-megawatt geothermal plants, 500,000 1-megawatt tidal turbines, 720,000 0.75-megawatt wave power generators, 1.7 billion 3-kilowatt rooftop solar panels, 40,000 300-megawatt solar panel farms, and 49,000 300-megawatt concentrated solar power plants.

Sound easy? Well, if the world were to begin deploying these renewable energy technologies next year that would mean erecting approximately 250,000 wind turbines each year for the next 15 years. As of the end of 2012, there were a total of 225,000 wind turbines operating around the world.

Similarly, the world would have to install 113 million rooftop solar panel systems per year in order to meet the 2030 goal of 1.7 billion. In 2013, the U.S. installed a record 4,751 megawatts of solar panels, which would be roughly equivalent to 1.6 million 3-kilowatt rooftop solar panels. As of 2013, the entire world had installed 100 gigawatts (100 million kilowatts) of solar photovoltaic panels. Combining the rooftop and solar panel proposals, this hyper-solarization would mean deploying more than 10 times the current installed capacity of photovoltaic panels, not just once but every year for the next 15 years. And never mind that there are virtually no commercial wave or tidal energy production systems currently operating.

Klein never ever discusses how much her solutions to the climate crisis will cost. But Delucchi and Jacobson estimate a price tag of about $100 trillion for their program. That entails spending about $6.6 trillion per year from now until 2030, more than 11 percent of the entire world's 2013 output of $75 trillion. Such a crash plan for global energy transformation might be possible, but it would be a massive shift from our current course. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected in July 2014 that $7.7 trillion total will be invested in building new power plants between now and 2030, of which renewables will get around two-thirds. And Klein accuses the proponents of free markets of "magical thinking"?

Klein is giddy over the renewable energy schemes in Germany and Denmark, which she lionizes as "two of the countries with the largest commitment to decentralized, community-controlled renewable power." Specifically, she adores Germany's national program of feed-in-tariffs (FITs), which have subsidized huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines. Klein rhapsodizes that "roughly half of Germany's renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizens groups, and almost nine hundred energy cooperatives." She adds that they are "offered a guaranteed price so the risk of losing money is low."

In fact, owners of new renewable energy plants are paid a guaranteed fixed rate for every kilowatt-hour they generate, at administratively set prices far higher than conventional generation. Utilities must take the energy generated and consumers must pay the fixed fee for the energy. Somehow, Klein concludes that these government-set prices "make renewable energy affordable."

But a July 2014 report by the Swiss economics consultancy Finadvice, commissioned by the U.S.–based Electric Power Research Institute, found that the cost of Germany's FIT program has been more than $412 billion so far and will rise to a total of $884 billion by 2022. As a result, German household electricity rates have more than doubled, increasing from $0.18 per kilowatt-hour in 2000 to $0.38 per kilowatt-hour today. Households in Denmark pay even more: $0.39 per kilowatt-hour. Meanwhile U.S. electricity prices have remained stable, at an average of around $0.13 per kilowatt-hour.

The installation of solar and wind energy systems has contributed to reducing Germany's carbon dioxide emissions, but at an estimated cost of more than $1,000 per ton avoided by solar power and $80 per ton avoided by wind power. The average price for carbon dioxide emissions permits in Europe hover at about $20 per ton. Electricity rates this high might well be the price for protecting the climate, but Klein is keeping her readers in the dark about what her proposals would cost them.

Even as Klein claims that it's a delusion to think we can rely on market forces and technological progress to solve our climate problems, a consensus to the contrary is emerging. Groups such as Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the Breakthrough Institute, and the Brookings Institution favor a policy platform that rejects energy puritanism and embraces technology.

This new coalition spurns schemes to restrict energy use, such as the International Energy Agency's anemic recommendation that annual access to 100 kilowatt hours of electricity per person will be enough. (That's the amount of electricity that the average American burns in three days.) Instead, proponents of the new consensus tend to support more government spending on research and development aiming to make clean energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels. 

Given pervasive and massive government meddling in energy markets, subsidizing low-carbon energy R&D is arguably the least bad feasible policy option for addressing climate change. The new consensus also embraces fracking. In fact, the U.N.'s Physical Sciences report identifies power generation using natural gas as a "bridge technology" that can be deployed now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; burning natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide that burning coal does. Coal-fired electric power plants are largely being shut down in the United States because they are being outcompeted by natural gas–powered plants that emit far less carbon dioxide.

And nuclear power is back on the table, after a long decline. In 2013, climate researchers James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley—people not known for soft-pedaling the threat of global warming—issued an open letter challenging the broad environmental movement to stop fighting nuclear power and embrace it as a crucial technology for averting the possibility of a climate catastrophe through its supply of zero-carbon energy. The letter states that "continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change." They add, "While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power."

Klein acidly dismisses reliance on science, technology, and markets to address the problems of climate change as embodying the attitude that "We will triumph in the end because triumphing is what we do." Well, yes. And that's a much better bet than imagining the laws of nature mandate a post-capitalist utopia.