Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is one of the more comprehensive and ambitious books I have read in a long while. Conveniently organized in three parts, the book makes three basic claims. First, capitalism is the key reason for our addiction to fossil fuels. Second, current solutions, such as the greening of business or major the big green environmental groups, are not solving the problem. Finally, grassroots mobilization against fossil fuels and for a new economy can solve the climate crisis.
As a piece of writing, the book is a real show of strength. Filled with interesting case studies and beautifully written, the book is impossible to put down. The argument against capitalism, which combines a critique of the growth imperative with a harsh judgment of the way the fossil fuel industry operates, is clear and logical.
This itself is notable. While many people, myself included, will disagree with Klein about the necessity of carbon pollution for economic growth, Klein cannot be accused of trying to hide her assumptions or being transparent what she’s arguing. In her view, fossil fuels remain the cheapest form of energy. In a capitalist society, economic growth is the overriding concern for the elite. Therefore, fossil fuels cannot be replaced without fundamental changes in our political and economic system.
Klein’s argument is one explanation for our inability to stop climate disruption. Another is the challenge of global collective action. If countries cannot enforce agreements on mutual carbon cuts, the argument goes, efforts to address the problem are futile. Yet another is the pernicious effect of the fossil fuel industry and its allies on climate policy. Even if capitalism can be green in principle, the reality is that, in many key countries, groups benefiting from fossil fuels — coal mine owners, electric utilities burning coal, oil and gas companies, the heavy industry, and so on — have tremendous political influence.
I don’t see a necessary connection between capitalism and carbon pollution, so to me Klein’s argument about capitalism is not compelling. Many of the destructive policies that cause climate change, such as fossil fuel subsidies, go against the logic of capitalism and free markets. Some capitalist societies, such as Denmark, have made tremendous progress toward decarbonization. I believe an alternative capitalism that puts severe limits on environmental destruction is possible. Private property need not destroy the planet.
Even some of Klein’s own chapters suggest that the case against capitalism is not always very strong. For example, Klein argues that the deregulation of the power sector in the United States and elsewhere has prevented utilities from investing in renewable energy. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is no empirical evidence for it, neither in Klein’s book nor in the literature on power sector deregulation and renewable energy. Second, there has been very little deregulation of the power sector in the United States. Most states continue to regulate electric utilities and have the statutory ability to impose renewable energy requirements on them. Indeed, renewable portfolio standards are thriving everywhere, including red states. This suggests that deregulation and capitalism are but a margin note in the grand story of renewable energy.
Despite my skepticism about Klein’s argument regarding capitalism, I found the book very valuable for my own thought and activism. Klein provides a compelling account of the booming movement against fossil fuels. In my view, this movement can welcome people who approve of capitalism. Efforts to stop “extreme energy” (Klein’s term) extraction are about environmental destruction and limiting the damage that the fossil fuel industry is causing. If this movement can, perhaps as a side-product, put pressure on governments to tackle the climate crisis, it can turn the tide. Klein’s account provides ample reason for optimism and is certainly inspiring. We can all join the movement regardless of our ideological dispositions.
To summarize, Klein’s book is an important contribution to the climate debate. Everyone working on the topic as a researcher or practitioner should read it. Few people in the field have tried to tackle the problem of climate change at the level of economic systems, and Klein does a fantastic job at it.