Seeing Double: Solving Our Climate Crisis
Socialism as the Solution
Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22 Columnist
Right now, we have what we need to overcome the climate crisis. We have the the will: an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that climate change is both happening and dangerous, according to a 2018 study by Yale researchers. And we have the means: America is wealthy enough to make the necessary changes. The only barrier left standing is our commitment to capitalism.
Over the last 400 years, capitalism has turned our pale blue dot into a source of tremendous wealth. Capitalist extraction of the Earth’s resources have destroyed societies, poisoned our planet and blocked action on the climate crisis. Oil money props up authoritarian regimes abroad and oligarchs in America, coal mines poison workers and our air, and deforestation in the Amazon is quickly killing one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet.
Capitalism, defined as the control of the means of production by private individuals, can never take the livelihood of society or our Earth into account. It exists to produce profits for the few at the expense of the many. That’s inherent in the structure of capitalism: private ownership for private profit. That profit is generated from our collective labor.
Right now, three men — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett — have combined fortunes dwarfing those of the bottom half of Americans. That wealth, which could almost single-handedly solve the climate crisis, according to recent estimates by U.N. scientists, is instead locked up in private estates.
As a result of capitalism, the money that our society has generated has flowed to the top for years, concentrating in the hands of overwhelmingly white and male oligarchs. These oligarchs are the ones who got us into this mess. When we started to understand the climate crisis in the 1970s, capitalists like the oil-rich Koch brothers started a decades-long program to gaslight the American public. Our commitment to capitalism allowed the Kochs to crush every threat to their fossil fuel empire — at the cost of our future.
There’s an alternative to our top-down, extractive economy. First, we need to establish reforms to ensure that capitalists don’t have undue influence over our democracy. American oligarchs buy government inaction on climate change and have for half a decade.
Then, we need to transition from outdated fossil fuels to green energy. We need to begin retraining coal miners to become solar panel and wind turbine engineers. We need to use the money locked up in personal fortunes to radically improve public transit, phasing out personal cars in most cases. And we need to kickstart government investment in new technology as we search for new ways to power our lives without killing the planet. None of this can be done without immense wealth redistribution, worked-owned production and powerful, universal social programs.
The argument that socialism is slow, or that it requires violence, is disingenuous. To compare democratically-enacted socialist reforms that redistribute wealth to authoritarian, deadly regimes is intellectually dishonest and a misrepresentation of history. The socialism I argue for is not total state planning of the economy. Instead, I argue for universal social programs and powerful worker protections, coupled with the nationalization of key industries and incremental-but-radical wealth redistribution. With this economic infrastructure, we can make the changes we need to survive rather than satisfying the greed of wealthy men. In other words, production for use rather than profit.
My co-columnist makes the point that socialism isn’t inherently environmentally conscious, and that’s true. However, capitalism is environmentally unconscious by nature. The only reason we’re still on a collision course with disaster is because the few people who control our economy don’t need to worry about the climate crisis. To claim that we must focus on climate change to the exclusion of everything else is to utterly ignore the causes of our destruction. Climate change was manufactured and is maintained by our broken economic system.
Socialism isn’t a panacea, able to cure the world of its fever with a single dose. But if we’re going to make any headway against the climate crisis, the economy must work for everyone. We need to use the wealth that we’ve all worked to generate to help us all instead of giving it to the undeserving few. Under capitalism, wealth inequality is skyrocketing. So are global temperatures. There’s no time to turn around the burning car of capitalism, as in my co-columnist’s metaphor. It’s time to get out of the car altogether.
Capitalism as the Solution
Thomas Brodey ’22 Columnist
The climate crisis is an enormous challenge which will take our best efforts to combat. That’s why we need to approach the issue with utmost rationality. There is no room for error, no time for delay. We must take the tools already at our disposal and use them to the best of our ability. That’s why the only realistic solution to climate change lies in a capitalist system.
It’s easy to say that capitalism is broken and place the blame for climate change on its shoulders, but that is ultimately inaccurate. Industrialization caused climate change. Throughout the 20th century, both communists and capitalists did their best to industrialize, regardless of the environmental costs. Even today, socialist countries are no better than capitalist ones at limiting emissions. Between 2000 and 2018, per capita annual carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped 19.5 percent. The U.K. dropped 57 percent, far better than any truly socialist economy (with the exception of North Korea, truly the platonic ideal of socialist progress). China, on the other hand, increased emissions by 196 percent.
You might argue that this isn’t a fair comparison because China’s economy is still developing. You’d be right and that’s exactly the point. Factors like political activism, industrialization and development have a much bigger effect on a country’s emissions than that country’s level of socialism.
Transitioning to socialism doesn’t automatically close factories or save polar bears. Based on the data we have, it’s not fundamentally any better at preserving the climate than capitalism. In fact, making land public property can result in more environmental abuse since people tend to extract unsustainably from land they no longer personally own. The tragedy of the commons can apply just as much to socialism as it does to capitalism.
And with the clock ticking, it seems foolish to waste political capital and energy to transition to a system with no guarantee of any real short-term improvement.
Make no mistake, any transition as massive as a switch to socialism would take more time than we have to address the climate crisis. We’re in a burning car about to careen off a cliff. We could blame the car for our problem and remake it from the inside out, or we could turn the wheel and use our flawed source of transportation to save ourselves.
It is entirely possible that a socialist world would be more environmentally friendly than a capitalist one. But creating that world would take a long time. In the U.S., many politicians reject even the most basic environmental protections, partly because of a deep-seated fear of socialism. Like it or not, these politicians aren’t going away anytime soon. Pushing for a socialist overhaul would only create obstructionism and freeze the whole environmentalist project. Even if our divided political system could get behind a socialist agenda, experimenting with the untried system would inevitably lead to costly mistakes and unforeseen complications.
Make no mistake, our priorities need to change if we are to deal with the problem of climate change, but for hundreds of years, capitalism has proven its ability to adapt to shifting priorities. There’s no reason it can’t adapt to solve climate change. When properly directed by the government, it can motivate dramatic technological improvement. Last year, 3,500 economists signed a statement arguing that carbon taxes are a necessary and effective way to reduce emissions. Government subsidies on renewable forms of power will allow a huge variety of groups to turn their ingenuity into all sorts of green energy sources. Plus, capitalism’s ability to advance technology goes beyond government-driven innovation. According to the Telegraph, most of the recent green energy innovations in recent years have occurred through private research, not government projects.
It’s tempting to color capitalism as the root of all evil, but economics are more complicated than that. If we can somehow avoid the immediate danger of living in an uninhabitable world within a few decades, I would be happy to consider many of my co-columnist’s ideas. But for right now, socialism is untested, unproven and unwise. If we allow our righteous rage to turn to irrational impetulence, we risk losing focus on the central issue at hand and wasting irreplaceable time.