Writing in the National Post, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Philip Cross writes that discounting the role technological development will play in curbing climate change ignores the importance of innovation in a capitalist system.
“Removing technological change from the dynamics of capitalism is like cutting oxygen from a fire”, writes Cross. “Of course the fire would die, but fortunately the supply of oxygen is inexhaustible, as is the wellspring of innovation in capitalism”.
By Philip Cross, March 24, 2015
Naomi Klein, author of assorted anti-capitalism books, appeared recently on Tout Le Monde En Parle (Everybody’s Talking About It), Radio-Canada’s popular Sunday night talk program, burnishing her brand as an environmental activist and long-time critic of capitalism even if she can’t talk French (the show makes exceptions for favourite high profile anglos like Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban).
Unlike the English CBC, the French branch didn’t just swoon over Klein’s every pronouncement. They teased her about being a brand (“I strive to be a bad one”). She felt obliged to reconcile her call for reduced fossil fuel consumption with jetting to Montreal to tape the program. Klein’s disturbing rationale was that without air travel the conversation about global warming would only involve 10 people reveals the conundrum; it’s ok to consume fossil fuels, as long as it’s for a good cause. But who determines what causes are worthwhile?
Klein’s answer implies it’s the individual involved, opening the door to everyone flying for their own business or using an SUV to ferry the kids around all day on the grounds it’s for a good cause. Instead of showcasing how new technologies or social media could be used creatively to reduce her own fossil fuel consumption and still get the message out effectively, Klein provides a rationale for the very decisions that she criticizes others for making.
The interview confirmed how little Klein understands capitalism. She argues that it is absurd for our society to consider “science fiction” technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions instead of thinking about fundamental changes to capitalism. This ignores that a major benefit of capitalism is fostering innovation and technological change.
Removing technological change from the dynamics of capitalism is like cutting oxygen from a fire. Of course the fire would die, but fortunately the supply of oxygen is inexhaustible, as is the wellspring of innovation in capitalism. It is why the amount of all major types of pollutants eventually has receded over time (Montreal just had its first year ever without a smog advisory), with the exception of greenhouse gas emissions up to now.
Klein simply doesn’t appreciate the close relationship between energy consumption and economic growth, regardless of whether the economy is organized under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other “ism” you care to use. The preferred energy source is always the cheapest one, which for the foreseeable future will be fossil fuels and not more expensive energy sources like wind and solar power.
Our continued reliance on fossil fuels suggests three possible long-term outcomes for our society. One is the possibility the models predicting global warming will be borne out, and disruptive climate change will force us to adapt. Another is that technological change may break the link between energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, allowing us to rely on more energy consumption for economic growth without the risk of climate change. A third possibility is the models used to forecast climate change are proved wrong, and more energy consumption does not lead to pronounced global warming.
Economists acknowledge this possibility more than most modellers. After all, our models of the macroeconomy are several vintages older and more complex than climate change models, but remain pitifully embryonic; the models used by central banks before the 2008 financial meltdown did not even have a financial sector — that little oversight helped cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars.
Similarly, some scientists now speculate the reason global temperatures have not risen nearly as fast as their models predicted is they neglected the impact of oceans acting as a carbon “sink” that trap greenhouse gas emissions. This oversight is quite understandable, since oceans only cover two-thirds of the planet (much like forgetting to include the financial sector in models of the economy, even though finance touches all sectors of the economy). It is preposterously hubristic but entirely human to think we correctly modelled all the complexity of the climate in our first serious attempts at it.
Klein welcomed the recent drop in oil prices, despite the boost it will give to fossil fuel consumption, because “you can’t think when you’re making that much money.” Actually, it’s hard to think when you have a dogmatic view of how the world works based on ideology and herd thinking that is impervious to facts, logic and changing circumstances.
Philip Cross is the former Chief Economic Analyst at Statistics Canada.