Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Green Keynesianism and green protectionism, again

Here's today's Guardian article about the new report from the IEA, which says that globally coal burning is increasing globally despite US emissions reductions due to shale gas usage.

Here's Revkin's blog today, in which Andy delivers himself yet again of the opinion that "reality-based" carbon policy cannot rely just on provisions passed by the US and other developed nations (even were we ready to pass such provisions in the US). He adds a pitch for shale gas.

He must be getting tired of repeating himself. I know I am.

Here's the link again to my article on Revkin's blog in which I outline a way to get from the current situation to a better one that actually takes into account these important geopolitical factors, rather than ignoring them or pretending they don't exist.

Here it is broken into bullet points.

  1. Climate change is a critical threat to the quality of human life the world over. It is fully a geopolitical, not a national political problem, although many if not most advocates are arguing for national-level action, such as carbon taxation or cap-and-trade. Such action will be inadequate.  Emissions will continue to rise because of economic growth in developing nations. Global action is required.
  2. Climate change is not the only geopolitical problem. There is also the problem that the democratic world (primarily the west) is threatened in multiple, large and small ways by various forms of aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, by the rise of China, a new world power that is not a democracy and has no plans to become one, and, of somewhat lesser importance, by various rogue states and dictatorships. Either of the two main threats is capable of producing a large conflict that would prevent emissions reduction goals from being reached. A serendipitous or planned combination of the smaller threats would achieve the same.  (One lesser threat from Russia that I identified at the time I first thought out this approach appears to be abating somewhat because of the growth of domestic energy supplies in the west, including shale gas.) We might collectively describe all these threats as global anti-democratic forces. This period differs from the preceding century, when totalitarianism was the greatest threat, in that a larger variety of anti-democratic forces are now apparent. (Many were there before, but not important enough to be "on our radar.")
  3. Simultaneous action to reduce emissions and strengthen democracy is therefore required. Therefore, the problem of sustaining and growing democracy has to be addressed using some reasoned global action approach at the same time we address climate change. Idealistic or utopian visions of the world order do not aid in this project. Undemocratic regimes with vast weaponry led by dictators and juntas crowd every continent except Europe and North America. Some have weapons of mass destruction. Their subjects depend on the democracies, particularly the western ones, as the only possible source of any eventual salvation. Our institutions, particularly the Internet, are often the only sources of political and/or religious freedom. The west must lead. To do so, it must clearly have a military advantage over the non-democratic states and non-state actors. The alternative is to cede ground, year after year, as more and more countries and territory fall to anti-democratic forces and/or chaos, particularly in Africa and south Asia.
  4. There's no way forward in the short term without capitalism. To the extent that any climate policy induces low or negative economic growth in the democracies, relative to economic and military growth in China, and to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the democracies will be weakened, as we were by the recession that began in 2007, which resulted in cuts to military expenditure in almost all the western democracies. (Our bargaining position vis-a-vis China was also weakened.) This can't be expected to have a good outcome. It would be far better to strengthen the democracies, not weaken them, at this juncture. Any theory that this can be achieved in the short term without corporate capitalism must also have a means and system to replace capitalism economically, including an understanding of how this system might be achieved through the ballot box. In the absence of such means, it hardly seems worth debating such theories. Capitalism seems therefore a necessary evil, if we are to reduce climate emissions and support democracy.
  5. Capitalist-militarist democracy is a second- or third best solution, but one we have to learn to live with. The original spread of democracy in the west was not without conflict and internal inconsistency, particularly in that a non-democratic economic system, capitalism, has been used to economically support democracy. This is particularly apparent in one of the weakest of western democratic political systems, the Anglo-American one. Horrific western betrayals of democratic ideals are easy to find in 20th century history, from Armenia (1915) to Rwanda (1994), via Yalta to My Lai. But it required two world wars and a Cold War to get us even to the level of weak democracy we have in the world right now, at great cost to western blood and treasure, and with this great internal inconsistency. No-one will benefit, and many will be harmed, if we lose all or some of what we have gained. It would be better to proceed against the climate change threat without also having to proceed against capitalism at the same time. I don't think that climate activists will help themselves by linking emissions reductions to a radical anti-capitalist agenda at this point. In fact, this just plays into the hands of the leading denialist organizations, who already argue that climate change is just a Trojan horse for socialism.
  6. Given all this we need a pro-capitalist solution to climate change that also advances democracy, provided below.

  1. Stage One: Green Keynesianism: The first stage in a concerted attempt by the democracies to gain control of this combined climate-democracy problem should be a growth-oriented, pro-capitalist climate policy, essentially a Green Keynesianism, whereby the developed western nations and important developing democratic allies (India, Brazil, others) attempt to regain economic supremacy by stimulating the economy using the inherent economic multipliers that are found in the development and deployment of domestic renewable energy systems and energy efficiency measures. This will have the secondary effect of reducing energy prices, stimulating the economy in developing countries. Domestic supplies of conventional energy may have a part to play in this process because they too have powerful inherent multipliers. They certainly can't be imagined away. We're probably going to end up using some of them, just because climate activists don't have to power to stop the process, and the result may be initial domestic emissions reductions as we replace coal with gas, and additional economic strength in the short term. Both are helpful, in a qualified sense, in the short term.
  2. Stage Two: Green Protectionism: The second stage is to spread the benefits of Green Keynesian growth to democratic developing nations, trying deliberately to isolate non-democratic regimes. At this stage some form of green free trade area within which green protectionism is practiced on the basis of compliance with carbon emissions reductions will be helpful, although there are probably other less overt, less agressive means to the same goal. The goal is to stimulate democracy and climate emissions reductions at the same. 
  3. Stage Three: Ecological Economics: Once this has been largely achieved, democracy is spreading and emissions reductions are working, a third stage is then possible, the shift to a fully ecological economics in which overall growth itself is deliberately reduced or eliminated on the basis of a more complete economic calculus, a gross national happiness or sustainable economic welfare approach. Such a stage will inevitably result in the eventual trammeling of capitalism. But by then we may not need it. (And then again, we might. But capitalism, like all other ideologies, has to prove itself by its usefulness -- a point ignored routinely by those who wish us to take capitalism's helpfulness as a matter of faith.)
  4. Stage Four: Vigilance: Even at this point, great care must be taken to prevent the rise of non-democratic regimes. The democracies must unite wherever possible. Democracy must expand wherever possible (perhaps starting with Russia, which may soon be ready to give up autocracy). The united democracies must retain a military arm that is larger than the next two or three non-democratic competitors combined. The development of global policing and conflict resolution systems must continue. 
The difficulty I have with the economics implied by the current leading climate activists is that they seem to want to jump to Stage Three without first going through Stage One and Two. The best (or worst) example is the Guardian's George Monbiot.

I think the result of such a policy would be an economically and politically weakened west, beginning as a result the slow eclipse of democracy, eventually leading to a world dominated by China, possibly at the same time tormented by fundamentalist Islamic regimes and non-state terrorists. 

The result would likely be growth in emissions, not reductions, as everything slips far out of rational control.

I know that this linked approach to climate and democracy is difficult for some of my students and even my former mentors to agree with, and many might consider it capitulation to capitalism, but I'm not your usual upper middle-class left-leaning academic. As both a Cold War veteran, and a trained historian, I tend to see the world very differently. As an engineer and technician, I'm interested in what works. As a former activist, I know how little thought often goes into radical activism.

In particular I'm very much more conscious of threats to democracy, and more aware of the military sacrifice it has taken to provide even the very inconsistent and weak democracy we have right now, than many of the contemporary thinkers are.

It should be noted that the I'm essentially on the same side as the radical climate activists. I would just argue that I've thought through the consequences of their theory before they have. This is because their theory used to be mine. I spent many years in which my academic and personal work was primarily directed towards studying and experimenting with theories of a new, post capitalistic economic order. That's why I fought for my QR 67 discharge from the British military, spent time in the Findhorn commune, helped organize the first Green Parties, learned to live off the land, became an Earth First! activist, studied the political economies of the Celtic minorities in Great Britain and the religious Peace Church minorities in the US, took a PhD under Daly and Brown, and on and on. In this thirty-year personal odyssey of the mind, I've either imagined or lived my way through many if not most of these ideas to the bitter end. All were eventual dead ends. Even those that were promising require more time than we have.

These days I've begun to see the mentality of the climate radicals as romantic barrier-storming. It seems at least possible that the protagonists see themselves as leading characters in some modern climate change version of Les Miserables. I dislike capitalism as much as the next barrier-stormer. I'd much prefer to live in one of the utopian fantasies of my youth. But the best I've been able to achieve is a small farm in Maine, and even that runs on the profit-and-loss accounting system as much as it runs on net-negative carbon production and social equity. Despite the idealism with which it's pursued, our farming is not much more, economically and theoretically speaking, than the Marxist notion of "primitive capital accumulation,"except that moderate attention happens to be paid to social and ecological accounting as well as capital accounting. You can romanticize it all you want, but all we do on the farm is add a couple of dimensions to the economic calculus and introduce an inherent tension between goals that is hard to reconcile at any point in the process. It's the political economy of climate in miniature. As the product of a thirty-year personal odyssey, I admit, it's not that impressive. But at least I understand why it is only what it is. I like to think I understand that very well indeed.

As the radicals dream and pontificate, we're beginning to see the outlines of this pro-capitalistic Green Keynesian agenda emerge in the impacts of measures already undertaken -- the current reduction in US carbon emissions, the outline of responses to California's AB 32, and so on.

Read this article on the effects of AB 32 on a tomato processing plant in California, and you'll see the emergence of the protectionist mentality that is inevitable if Green Keynesianism does turn out to be the way forward. I predict much more of this interesting thinking as we move along. And notice how easily the managers adapt to the new double-bottom line calculus -- bless them. Sensible pragmatic people that do useful and productive things in the world, even as mundane as commercial tomato-processing, are beginning to realize they have to reduce emissions, and are now trying to find a way to process tomatoes with less carbon. We have to reward this behavior, not punish it by screaming aloud that it's not enough.

We'll see how well we do in all this, won't we, if we manage to come out of the other side of this century of climate change with any kind of democracy intact and flourishing.

We live in interesting times.

Author's Note: Since this essay has begun circulating on the Internet, I've improved on it here and there. Please bookmark this page and check back often to get the latest version as my ideas improve and develop.

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