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Strategic Choices for an Effective Climate Movement

Alan Shaw, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the alarming acceleration of global warming, and despite the frantic warnings of climate scientists, governments still do not treat global heating as an emergency. We have not seen the mobilization of resources, popular support, and publicity that an emergency would command. The climate movement is not winning this struggle; it needs a coherent and realistic strategy.

It needs to be a strategy that works in the short term. We do not have much time to turn things around. It is too late to hold global warming to 1.5̊ C, the lower ceiling proposed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. February 2023-January 2023 was the hottest 12 months on record (since 1850), with average global temperatures just above 1.5̊C. Although temperatures may moderate, it appears the struggle now is to prevent temperatures rising above the Paris Agreement’s upper limit: 2.0̊ C by 2100, relative to the pre-industrial level. A group of eminent climate scientists, including James Hansen, predict we will reach the 2.0̊ threshold in the late 2030s, if current trends continue.

This higher ceiling will prove devastating for most species and many people, but it is better than 3̊-6’C increase. Tipping points may be reached that lead to rapid jumps in global temperatures. We have only a few precious years in which to act decisively. Humanity has entered its decisive decade. 

So, what can we do? To find our way, it may be useful to cut through the jargon and abstract formulations to present a simple, coherent account of our options. Such an overview runs the risk of simplification. However, if it avoids this pitfall, the account may bring us face to face with our reality. It is an easy matter to sketch scenarios leading to a desirable and even viable, decarbonized future. The hard part is to identify paths to decarbonization that are not only just and viable, but also politically feasible. If technocratic rationality ruled the world, we would have solved the climate/ecological problem by now. But politics and power structures get in the way. We are not fated, however, to climate catastrophe; we have agency, and should use it wisely.

To understand what is possible within the short time available, we must not limit ourselves to policies that can work only under existing conditions. Prevailing economic and power structures restrict what can be achieved. We need also to extend our consideration to policies and programs that can work under foreseeable conditions – conditions created through our political action. We want to understand what possibilities exist beyond, as well as within, neoliberalism.

And does it make sense to address the climate crisis in isolation? What we face is a crisis of nature. The climate dimension is the most dangerous, but we also confront a bio-diversity crisis, a freshwater crisis, a crisis of oceans, of soils, of forests, of coral reefs…of everything. There is a risk of saving the earth in one way while destroying it in another. The energy transition - from fossil fuels to renewable - threatens to do just that. To avoid this threat, we need to tackle the climate crisis within the context of the larger ecological crisis.

I contend that the usual framing of the macro-alternatives – reformist versus radical - leads to an impasse. The impasse arises because what is politically possible in neoliberalism – “Green Growth” – is inadequate to the challenge of climate change, whereas what is necessary and desirable – “degrowth” in its various guises – is impossible, or at least improbable in the short time available. The escape from this impasse, I suggest, lies in radical-reformism: a supplemented Green New Deal. The supplementation involves constraints on throughputs of energy and materials. Constraints are necessary because we are already living beyond planetary boundaries.

Why should we think that such a Green New Deal is viable and feasible? It is viable, I contend, because capitalism is more versatile than it is usually depicted to be. Radical-reformism is incompatible with the neoliberal form of capitalism, but a sustainable alternative type of capitalism is attainable. As for its political feasibility, I cannot demonstrate that in a short article. However, there are reasons to conclude that this option is the best available. For one thing, it does not challenge the entire business class as degrowth does. There will be allies throughout society, including among business, though, as I suggest, excluding the denialist far right. By default, the task of climate mitigation has fallen to the centre and left of the political spectrum.

A limitation of this approach is its focus on national strategies, whereas the climate/ecological problem is global in scope. That is true, but do we not need to start at the national (and municipal) level?  The national state is crucial in implementing the shift to an equitable and sustainable society. No other organization possesses the same command of resources and personnel, and, to a more limited extent, popular trust. The socio-ecological transition is most likely to occur in liberal democracies, where a greater degree of popular control exists than in the authoritarian regimes. Clubs of states undergoing an equitable and sustainable transition can then favourably influence the global rules of the game. That, at least, is my reasoning.

Reformism: “Green Growth” under Neoliberalism

Green growth is the dominant perspective, adhered to by governments, international organizations such as the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, corporations, and most people in their role as consumers.

The bold claim of this perspective is that countries can combine perpetual growth and prosperity with safeguarding ecological conditions for later generations. Such a positive outcome depends on following the right policies and maintaining support for technological development. The right policies include market-corrective and price-based policies, together with occasional green stimulus programs, such as the Inflation Control Act under President Joe Biden in the USA. Regulation, such as fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, are also part of this approach. Technological optimism pervades this viewpoint. Green growth thus focuses on making growth resource-efficient and cleaner, not reducing it.

Green growth entails a struggle without an enemy. Or rather, as Pogo observes in the famous cartoon, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” Greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of global warming, and we are all responsible, via our consumption, for these emissions. Neither neoliberalism nor capitalism is identified as problematical from an environmental perspective. To the contrary, the academic school of “ecological modernization” holds that continuing economic growth yields the resources and the middle-class demand for green capitalism.

I’m contending that green growth, though politically possible, is inadequate to the challenge of climate change. If this conclusion is warranted, it forms the first part of the impasse in climate thinking. There are three reasons to think that this conclusion is warranted, and therefore that green growth is a very risky gamble.

            First, we need global CO2 emissions to peak and substantially decline in this decade to have a chance to keep average temperatures below 2̊C. Yet this is not the trend. Global emissions grew by 56 percent between 1990 and 2019. (They dipped in 2020, during the depths of the pandemic, but have risen continuously since 2021). To achieve a prosperous world with net zero emissions, green growth must attain the absolute decoupling of growth from CO2 emissions. Decoupling has spawned a lively, even acrimonious, academic debate. I have space only to touch on that debate.

Although the relative decoupling of economic from emission levels (and other ecological harms) is common, absolute decoupling is rarer and appears insufficient to hold global warming below 2̊ C. Relative decoupling means that economic growth continues, but emissions remain constant or increase less than the rate of growth. Many countries have achieved this goal. Thirty-two countries have also achieved absolute decoupling over a period of 14 years, whereby growth continues while total emissions decline in absolute terms. It should be noted that this decoupling reportedly includes “consumption emissions” – emissions embedded in the goods consumed in a country, though produced abroad. The 32 cases include mainly rich countries that depend on a low-emissions service sector for their well-being. However, how one tallies “consumption emissions,” where polluting manufacturing industries are located offshore and export their goods, is subject to controversy. Also, some countries achieving absolute decoupling are major oil exporters, especially the United States, and the emissions resulting from these exports are not part of that exporter’s carbon tally. In any event, heavy emitters such as China and India have not attained absolute decoupling. Unless their emissions peak and then decline in the next few years, we will have trouble limiting global heating below the upper limit proposed in the Paris Agreement.

Secondly, converting the energy system from fossil fuels to green sources (solar, wind, hydro and perhaps nuclear), at the current level of consumption, will cause widespread eco-system damage. This damage will arise from the exponential growth of mining for critical minerals. To build the batteries, solar panels, windmills, electrical infrastructure, electric vehicles and so on will require a massive increase in the production of lithium graphite, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earths. Global demand for critical minerals doubled between 2017 and 2022, and demand is still on a sharply upward trend. In British Columbia alone, 16 new mines are planned. Whether sufficient supplies of copper and lithium can be rung from the earth is in contention.

In any case, mining of these minerals exacts high environmental costs. One of the most dire examples is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country rich in mineral resources. Vast reserves of coltan, copper, and cobalt feed the electronic revolution. “As global finance gears up for ‘green growth’, the DRC’s resource wealth has again brought violence, robbery and ecological destruction.” A local mining activist trenchantly observed that “inside every phone is the blood of a Congolese person.” World-wide, as demand (for lithium, for example) exceeds supply, new mines are opened in ecologically sensitive areas such as rainforests, tundra, deserts, and, before long, the seabed. Ecological damage arises from some combination of violent gangs, open-pit mining, chemicals that pollute groundwater, tailings that remain contaminated, and dependence on copious supplies of water. Cleanup and maintenance costs are already astronomical. Many abandoned mines require continuing maintenance and even indefinite water treatment to prevent the pollution of waterways. Taxpayers are often left paying the bill. For example, the Faro Mine in the Yukon, abandoned in 1998, may end up costing the government $C2 billion for cleanup and continuous maintenance Such costs may be affordable in a rich country like Canada, but are not so in less developed countries.

This destructiveness, not surprisingly, has instigated local opposition movements, especially when indigenous land rights are also at issue. For example, where lithium mining moves globally, protest follows – whether the mine is located or proposed in Chile, Serbia or Portugal, protests delay or block lithium mines. Environmental damage, whether actual or predicted, will inspire widespread protests and delay the massive expansion of mining entailed in the energy transition.

The conclusion is obvious: we can’t expect the critical minerals to be available just because we need them. We can’t simply make a transition from fossil fuels to green energy at the current level of consumption. Hydro-electricity cannot fill the gap owing to the falling water levels of rivers world-wide as temperatures climb. Nuclear energy takes a long time to build, is very expensive, and has a reputation for danger. There is thus no alternative to reducing demand; for example, instead of thinking we can just shift to electrical vehicles of the same size, we have to accept smaller and fewer vehicles on the road.

Pushing also in the direction of reducing consumption is the issue of land. It appears that we will depend heavily on solar and wind power. If that is the case, we will need to set aside thousands of square kilometers of land and sea for solar and wind farms. Such massive installations will have their own detrimental environmental effect.

We must, in short, guard against saving the earth in one way while we destroy it in another.

The third reason for skepticism about green growth is its technological optimism. It is certainly important to continue to invest heavily in promising technologies to reduce emissions. A technological breakthrough may happen. But can we count on it? Many highly touted green technologies are either ineffective, or too expensive, or too dangerous:

·       Carbon Capture and Storage: requires an expensive and carbon-intensive infrastructure and confronts the dangers of leakage from underground CO2 storage and the contamination of groundwater.

·       Direct Air Capture: exorbitantly expensive to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

·       Nuclear Fusion: has been touted for decades as a carbon-free energy source but it has never proven viable; it uses more energy to create fusion than it produces.

·       Small Modular Reactors: their design, financial viability and dangers are in question.

·       Nuclear Energy: Can new designs overcome the problems: it is expensive and carbon-intensive to build reactors, takes years to construct, and carries dangers in the proliferation of nuclear wastes.

·       Green Hydrogen: Perhaps the best bet, but it will take immense hydro, wind or solar energy to produce green hydrogen on a large scale.

Betting on a technological fix to arrive in time is risky. And geoengineering will not ride to the rescue. Even if it works, a topic I’ll discuss later, it is not a cure for global warming, but more a stop-gap measure while decarbonization takes effect. There is no alternative to eliminating emissions and drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

            Although the debate is not over, green growth seems inadequate to the challenge of climate change. In the end, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Radicalism: Degrowth, Eco-socialism, Post-growth, Post-capitalism

            Let’s begin by clarifying some concepts. All eco-socialists are degrowthers, but not all degrowthers are eco-socialists (though most are). The degrowth movement is diverse; yet many (probably most) degrowth proponents, together with eco-socialists, believe that system change is needed to safeguard the environment and build an equitable society. Radical degrowth advocates prefer to refer to the future they want as “post-capitalism” rather than post-growth or socialism. Post-growth is a suspect term, from this viewpoint, because those degrowthers who think that capitalism is compatible with ecological sustainability refer to themselves as post-growth proponents. Post-capitalism, on the other hand, does not carry the ideological baggage of socialism, while still implying an anti-capitalist orientation.

            I will focus on degrowth because it is a growing intellectual movement and incorporates most eco-socialists. Degrowth as a theory and program emerged in France in the 2000s, later spreading to the rest of Europe, and then to North America and the world. Degrowth has long intellectual roots. The movement sides with the famous Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome in 1972. André Gorz, a French eco-Marxist who wrote presciently about ecological destruction and capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, is another important influence.

            That the origins of degrowth lay in the universities, and remains an intellectual movement, is an important fact. Many books and articles in the degrowth tradition are demanding to read for those who lack training in the social sciences. One wonders who the audience is for much of the literature: mainly activist-scholars, it appears. The academic exigency of publish (in certain journals) or perish seems to have molded the expression of degrowth. There is an effort to popularize the approach, such as in the perplexing slogan found on climate marches – “System Change, Not Climate Change.”           

What is degrowth in general all about? I think nearly all advocates would agree the degrowth concerns an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the national and global levels “- with degrowth starting in the rich countries, but soon including, with technological and monetary assistance, the countries of the global South. Proponents promise a good life for all within the planet’s ecological boundaries.

            The popular, radical variant includes three elements:

·       a critique of capitalism as inherently growth-oriented,

·       a vision of a sustainable and equitable future, which we could build

·       Sets of policy ideas concerning national and global levels, covering social equity, employment, production, transport, buildings, universal services, basic income, technological transfer, but with an underdeveloped political strategy of how societies move to this world from our present circumstances.

Although the vision and policies suggest a socialist project, the terms post-capitalism or post-growth are often used instead to refer to the transformative program.

            The problem with this approach, and the criticism that sparks anger in its adherents, is the improbability of achieving this transformative program within a couple of decades (which is the time we have available). The quandary of degrowth is captured by the ironic slogan that was scrawled on the walls of Paris in 1968: “Be realistic. Demand the Impossible.”

·       “Be realistic”: Degrowth’s central idea is realistic. The idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is absurd.

·       “Demand the impossible”: If terminating growth is essential, and if that necessarily entails the end of capitalism, then we must demand the end of capitalism. However, as a famous Marxist once observed: “ it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

There is, in short, a major political problem with degrowth. Consider the dimensions of this problem.

·       Who will vote for degrowth (besides you and me)? Degrowth has a negative connotation. “Post-growth” is more positive, if vague. “Post-capitalism” would scare many people – what actually is proposed? Right-wing populists would feast on the doctrine, were it to be a contender for power. They would swiftly discredit the program as the product of “woke” socialists whose real goal is to abolish private property and impose new taxes and restrictions on liberty (to consume what you want).

·       Where is the mass movement? Degrowth constitutes an intellectual movement, mainly of those associated with universities throughout the world. The doctrine is complex, assuming prior knowledge of economic history, ecology, and social theory. Many of the major works on the topic are unlikely to engage a mass audience.

·       Degrowth in one country will not work.   It is predictable what will happen if a degrowth-influenced government assumes power. Capital flight and capital strike will lead to a decline in the value of the national or regional currency; the resulting inflation of prices and growing unemployment and shortages will produce an economic crisis; and this economic crisis will precipitate a political crisis in which the government backs down or collapses. What is needed is a globally coordinated movement in several countries at once; but such coordination is hard to achieve and is nowhere in sight.

·       Will an ecological crisis galvanize support for a radical degrowth program? It might. However, we encountered such a crisis in 2023 in the form of extreme weather throughout the world, along with the warmest year on record, and it did not lead to a shift to the left. Indeed, a widespread ecological crisis, owing to the insecurity and fear it would unleash, might bolster the far right. Fascist themes of blood and earth and of imposed order might prevail, together with the scapegoating of migrants fleeing ecological and political disasters in their homelands.

In sum, degrowth is right in identifying continuous economic growth as a problem, though its further argument that capitalism is inherently growth oriented is problematical. Its vision of a future society governed by the equitable and democratic downscaling of production and consumption is highly attractive. Degrowth advocates have also developed an array of worthy policies. But the political strategy is lacking, even though degrowthers recognize the political challenges.

            If green growth is inadequate to the climate challenge, degrowth is impracticable. We arrive at an impasse. But this dichotomy is too crude: there is a third alternative (leaving fascist denialism and eco-anarchism aside): a radical-reformist Green New Deal.

A Way Out via Radical Reformism?

            Green New Deals aroused excitement from 2018 until the pandemic stifled popular movements in 2020. Note the use of the plural: there is not one Green New Deal (GND) but several. Some formulations, such as that by Jeremy Rivkin, are a progressive spin on green growth. Others are close to the degrowth perspective. The radical-reformist Green New Deal, in contrast to degrowth, implies a transformation within capitalism, from the dominant neoliberal form of capitalism to a sustainable, egalitarian form.

This Green New Deal is thus an alternative to neoliberalism, though not necessarily to capitalism. Reversing global warming at this late stage requires deep changes in production, distribution, consumption and social structures. If we had seriously responded three decades ago, when the science of climate change was already established, more minor actions might have sufficed. Ecological transformation now cannot be achieved without deep economic and social changes, both as an end (to cut emissions) and as a means (to win popular support). The transition to a net-zero carbon economy must be just and comprehensive to be effective.

What then is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism as a Type of Capitalism


Resurgent since the late 1970s, neoliberalism wielded the myth of the free market to restore the privilege and power of the top one percent. Whether the progenitors of neoliberalism intended to restore class privilege is immaterial. What matters is that it did so – and, in doing so, received the embrace of the rich and powerful globally.

Neoliberalism is best understood against the backdrop of the nationally regulated capitalism of the Keynesian era. Memories of the destruction wrought by the Great Depression and World War II justified a range of economic controls, most importantly, on cross-border capital movements. The era was one of growing and broader, if not inclusive, prosperity. The universalistic welfare state and a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and income were enormous achievements, dependent to a large extent on a relatively large and organized working class.

But stagflation in the 1970s provided a political opening for the neoliberals, who had bided their time in foundations, think-tanks and university economics departments. The self-regulating market would, they promised, reignite economic growth and enhance freedom.

Neoliberalism restored class power largely by removing curbs on the factors of production, land, labour, and money. Strong leaders – Pinochet, Thatcher, Reagan, at the forefront – promoted the culture of a market society, including the values of individual freedom (market freedom was basic), self-reliance, personal responsibility, choice, commodification and happiness through consumption. The doctrine relied heavily on reducing the inevitable tension between democracy (equality) and capitalism (accumulation) by shrinking the sovereign powers of democratic national governments. For instance:

  • Central banks were made independent and control of inflation, not full employment, was to be their major goal.

  • Capital-account deregulation, together with new bank regulations, permitted finance capital to move globally in an instant and engage in speculation.

  • “Free” trade agreements allowed corporations to move production facilities abroad in search of cheap labour, low taxes, and lax regulation, while retaining control of intellectual property rights.

  • Investor-state dispute settlement clauses in trade agreements empowered private corporations to sue governments for policies or actions that “unjustifiably” restricted their profits.

  • Economic decision-making gravitated to largely unaccountable regional and international agencies where neoliberal technocracy held sway.

In these and other ways, the myth of free markets underpinned the concentration of wealth and income, above all in the hands of a financial elite.

A mutually reinforcing spiral typically emerges. The greater the concentration of wealth, the stronger the plutocracy’s political influence, and the more biased in its favour is economic policy. Fossil-fuels corporations fueled the economy, forming, together with their allies, a powerful coalition, especially in fossil-fuel producing countries. But neoliberalism produced problems it could not resolve.

·       Turbo-globalization went too far, bringing a protective reaction that empowered right-wing populism.

·       Poorly regulated markets and mobile capital led to periodic financial collapses, culminating in the global collapse of 2008.

·       Vast and growing inequality undermined social cohesion and democratic processes.

·       The recommodification of nature. as growth continued, threatened ecological collapse.

Hyper-globalization, the 2008 collapse, vast and growing inequality, and the climate crisis signaled the failed promise of neoliberalism. Yet it stumbled on, for lack of a politically powerful and economically viable alternative. Is this all that capitalism has to offer? Is the only progressive alternative degrowth/eco-socialism, whose realization is improbable? Or is there a more sustainable and just alternative to neoliberalism within capitalism?

Toward a Green New Deal Alternative

Green New Deals became topical from 2018. Significantly, activists and politicians articulated this approach, not technocrats as in the case of green growth or academics as in degrowth. The politicians include, in the USA,  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markie, who sponsored the congressional resolution on the Green New Deal in 2019 (and continued to champion the program ever since) and Bernie Sanders, who made the GND part of his program in in presidential primaries of 2020. Jeremy Corben, while he headed the British Labour Party, was also an advocate. Activists include Avi Lewis, a prime organizer of Canada’s Leap manifesto, Naomi Klein, a writer-activist, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, whose credentials are well known, and Kate Aronoff, a writer-activist.

These activist origins account for the more “user-friendly” feel of the Green New Deal in contrast to degrowth or green growth. “Degrowth” is a bleak term; “Green New Deal” is softer, redolent of past political success (FDR’s New Deal). The GND is also more readily understood than degrowth or green growth.  Vagueness as to whether the GND involves saving capitalism from itself (reformism), or eventually transforming capitalism (revolutionary), is part of the term’s appeal in coalition-building.

Either way, an effective GND cannot avoid radicalism in dealing with the challenge of climate change. It will require a mobilization of resources, as advocates like to say, on a scale similar to that of nations engaging in the Second World War.

            The New Deal evokes the directive state, as employed by Roosevelt in the 1930s. In this approach, the state relies heavily on public investment, regulation, and incentives to advance a plan, with some public ownership. A National Investment Bank would be useful in providing lines of credit for green projects. To drive the transition to renewable energy, a publicly owned green power company makes sense. Nine of the ten top European countries committed to a green transition have such a public company. Demand for clean energy will be immense with the shift to electrical vehicles, and a publicly owned company dedicated to that end would be an asset. In countries where state agencies have atrophied during the neoliberal phase, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, reinvigorating the public sector is a priority. This reinvigoration would not only enhance state effectiveness, but also depend upon accountability to the public and decentralization where feasible. This GND involves the displacement of neoliberalism, but it is not an attack on private property.

One of the forerunners of this GND was Canada’s Leap Manifesto in 2016. It was the outcome of deliberations involving organized labour, indigenous peoples, and environmental and social activists. It contains most of the key elements:

·       100% renewable energy by 2050;

·       Protection of workers who lose their jobs in the energy transition, including safeguarding their pensions and providing a job guarantee;

·       Recognition of indigenous land rights;

·       Creation of a more egalitarian society, partly by imposing a wealth tax

·       The construction of a mass movement to support this vision whose attainment requires concerted political action.

The “leap” to a new society thus included both ecological and social transformation.

Consider, briefly, the range of policy issues that arise in implementing this version of the GND.

  • Phasing out of coal, oil and gas fields. The goal is to attain 100 percent renewable energy in a decade. This goal will be achieved by switching to electoral power generated by zero-carbon sources. Fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if this critical goal is to be achieved.

Coal fields would need to be shuttered quickly, but oil and gas fields would phase out as demand declines or caps on production rachet lower. One expert estimates that holding global warming to 2°C would strand more than half of the assets of fossil fuel companies, while the 1.5°C target would strand 80 percent. The first oil and gas fields to close would be the dirtiest and most costly to operate – including Alberta’s oil sands. In Canada, 28 percent of carbon emissions derive from producing and transporting fossil fuels. Caps on production would produces losses to shareholders and job-holders (the latter being guaranteed new jobs) and the probability of loan defaults. 

Realistically, climate action will involve taking on the fossil-fuels industry. Fossil-fuel corporations have known for decades about the “greenhouse” effect and its deleterious consequences, including a rising annual death toll. Yet they have focused on extracting and selling as much coal, oil, and gas as they can, while they can. It is a clear example of profit trumping the general good. This situation cannot continue.

·       Massive, public and private, green investment. It will be necessary to build out the electricity infrastructure, rapidly augment the supply of renewable energy, retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, expand public transport, increase efficiency in manufacturing while it shifts (where possible) to low-carbon energy, reduce the ecological impact of the modern food system, provide facilities for universal public services, and assist the global South in reducing their emissions.. It will be necessary to devote 2-4 percent of GDP per annum to the socio-ecological transition. That means generating US$3-4 trillion each year.

How would the funds be raised for this massive investment? Removing fossil fuels subsidies would cover part of the cost. An International Monetary Fund report estimated that, in 2022, “explicit” fossil fuel subsidies worldwide totaled US$1.3 trillion. “Implicit” subsidies, which included externalized health and environmental costs of burning fossil fuels, amounted to US$7 trillion. In the United States, removal of subsidies would release at least $US20 billion for reallocation, in addition to saving the future expenses of damage remediation from extreme weather. Cuts to defense budgets would provide more funds. In 2022, countries devoted US$2.24 trillion to defense (with the USA alone accounting for US$877 billion). Even a cut of only ten percent would yield US250 billion for reallocation. Higher income and wealth taxes would also be needed not only to raise funds, but also reduce the inequality that neoliberalism has accelerated.

Central banks, though usually independent of government under neoliberalism, would need to play a major role. Central banks became powerful actors in economic governance with the shift to neoliberalism and the vast expansion of the assets and power of financial institutions. The key role of central banks in averting catastrophe during the financial crisis of 2008-2010, and again during the pandemic (2020-2022) has vastly expanded their power. Quantitative Easing schemes moved trillions of dollars of corporate bonds, including those of fossil fuel corporations, onto their balance sheets. The conservative cast of central banks, with their focus on inflation control, stabilized a deleterious economic model.

These banks are only now coming to terms with climate change and climate risk assessment. Will they become “green” by assisting the transition to a new economy that assigns priority, not to GDP growth, but to avoiding ecological catastrophe? Will they align global finance with ecological targets via monetary policy and regulatory frameworks?. They could purchase government bonds during the transition (that is, print money), tilt to low-carbon assets, promote low interest rates for low-carbon industrial investments, and float “green’ bonds. Much can be done, but who will force the issue with the “independent” central banks?

The financial sector would lose some profitable opportunities in the transition to a green economy, but new opportunities would open up. Finance has seen its power and profits grow under neoliberalism, with the lifting of controls on cross-border financial transactions and domestic banking. Investment banks are heavily invested in fossil fuels. Bloomberg financial data reveals that they provided financing of more than $US2.66 trillion to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement (2016-2019). A GND would involve some losses for the banking sector as their veto power over policy is removed, and anti-monopoly legislation enforced. New investment opportunities of investing in the green economy would mitigate these losses, however.

·       Just transition. The fossil-fuel industry generates many good jobs. For the sake of justice, but also to gain trade-union support, those who lose their jobs in the transition would be guaranteed a comparable job, job retraining, and safeguarded pension entitlements.

More generally, addressing today’s vast inequalities, both within countries and in the global population, is an essential part of the solution to climate change.

·       For one thing, the wealthy account for a disproportionate share of carbon emissions. Globally, wealthiest one percent are responsible for 16 percent of consumption emissions. Put another way, this one percent of the global population produced, in 2019, as much carbon emissions as the poorest two-thirds of humanity (5 billion people). These emissions would lead to an estimated 1.3 million heat-related deaths between 2020 and 2030. The poorest, moreover, poorest, both within nations and within the global population, are more exposed to the dire effects of a warming climate than the well-off. This degree of disproportion cannot continue: to build popular support for a GND as well as to reduce emissions, inequality must be tackled. High income, inheritance and wealth taxes together would help support a comprehensive and generous welfare state, a minimum income and a job guarantee. That is one way to build a good life for all within planetary boundaries.

·       Concentrated wealth tends to produce a plutocracy with the political power to block policies, such as those associated with a Green New Deal, which are deemed contrary to its members’ interests., For this reason, too, it will be necessary to the massive wealth inequalities that are characteristic of neoliberalism.

In sum, inequality is a climate problem. Equity and climate stability are conjoined, though equity in this case does not imply absolute equality. Income and wealth inequalities will not disappear; they will be minimized.

·       International solidarity. As emissions peak and decline in the global North, they continue to rise in the global South. We cannot hope to reach climate goals if emissions in the global South continue to grow. The United States contributes about 15 percent of global emissions; only China produces more. Yet US emissions are falling while China’s (and India’s) are rising. Although China is a major producer of green technology, it is also financing and building coal plants domestically and throughout the world, especially in Asia. Coal is still in demand. Therefore, it is in the national interest of the rich countries to help finance and to facilitate technically an energy transition in the global South.

So far, however, the wealthy countries have not carried through in fulfilling their commitments to the global South. In 2009, the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change inaugurated a Green Climate Fund, with the World Bank as trustee. The resources were to finance low-emission and climate resilient projects, especially in highly vulnerable areas such as tropical islands and arid countries. The goal was to generate contributions of US$100 billion by 2020, a goal that has not been realized. The World Bank, however, has set aside US$38 billion per year for climate action, which is a major increase. But much more is needed – something in the order of a Marshall Plan for the global South.

Private investment in “climate-friendly ventures” is needed. Global assets currently under private management total a massive US$120 trillion. The goal, of the international financial institutions and some rich-country governments is to encourage green investment in the global South by “derisking” such investments.  Multilateral and bilateral institutions are expanding their financial guarantees, while the investment guarantee agency of the World Bank pools its funds with those of private investors.

To allow poor countries to leap to a green transition, technology transfers are crucial. In protecting the climate and safeguarding crucial eco-systems, the profits of corporation holding the relevant intellectual property rights may need to take second place. In any event, much of the research for the patented processes was publicly-financed , especially at universities. World Trade Organization rules governing intellectual property rights will need to be revised. This, and other, dramatic changes of the rules may require cooperation among the major powers, which is clearly lacking now.

Finally, the adoption of radical GNDs by the United States and other liberal-democratic countries would have an important ripple effect throughout the world.


·       Constraints on energy and material throughputs. There is no way around it. The GND needs to be supplemented by constraints on throughputs. Humanity has already crossed six of nine planetary boundaries. In the transition to low-carbon and renewable energy, we cannot supply electricity to meet demand at the current rate of consumption. Whether sufficient reserves of some critical minerals exist to supply the high demand is one question. But even if we could wring enough metals out of the earth (and sea-beds), the immense scale of mining would devastate numerous ecosystems. We must beware of saving the earth in one way while destroying it in another.

Curtailing energy and resource use will make it easier to decarbonize and preserve eco-systems. Robust growth would accompany the early years of the energy transition, though with a different composition than now. The earlier discussion of green investment has already made that clear. However, as the transition proceeds, growth would need to wane. To be more precise, the volume of energy and resource throughputs must decline.

Central planning might theoretically achieve this decline. It has, however, been tried, and it has failed. And “participatory” or “democratic” planning assumes a socialist abolition of private property and a market economy That is not on the horizon. Thus, in liberal democracies in which people are acclimated to markets, the most efficacious approach would be to apply constraints on market forces. The main obstacles in doing so are political and cultural.

One interesting proposal to aid the socio-ecological transition arises from Earth for All, a Club of Rome report on how to surmount the climate crisis. It suggests (among other policies) a Citizen’s Fund and a universal basic dividend. This set of policies aims not only to constrain throughputs and wastes, but also to ensure that everyone has a minimum income. The idea, originally sketched by Herman Daly, is to tax what we want to have less of – resource depletion, damage to eco-systems, invasion of privacy, and pollution (especially GHGs).

The proposal is built around the “commons” as collectively owned by all citizens; thus, everyone in society should benefit from its use. The commons encompass nature, both as “natural resources” and as a sink for wastes, as well as our personal data, which is now appropriated by data companies as a commodity. The point is that private interests have “enclosed” (commodified) large swathes of the commons. To rectify this situation in the name of justice and restraint, the state would impose fees on companies that have enclosed the commons by appropriating resources, sinks for waste, and personal data. The fees will encourage companies to become more resource efficient, reduce and recycle waste, Fees will be returned to each citizen in the form of a dividend; the basic dividend will abolish poverty and generate more life options. Levies would be imposed on

·       Carbon emissions

·       Pollution of waterways, land, sea

·       Lumber extraction

·       Mineral extraction

·       Freshwater industrial use

·       personal data access

·       intellectual property that draws on public research.

The levies and rebates reward the carbon and resource frugal, among other positive outcomes.

            This idea of constraining throughputs (and thereby reducing growth) is desirable, but is it viable and feasible?

Economic Viability?

Is there a form of capitalism that can survive when constraints are placed on growth? Eco-socialists, Marxists, most degrowthers, and many other people insist that capitalism is inherently growth oriented. If “grow or die” is the logic of capitalism, the search for a path to sustainability within capitalism is doomed. Economic growth is normally associated with increased throughput of energy and materials, and the generation of more waste products. Yet infinite growth within a finite earth, we all agree, is impossible. The only environmental option, from this viewpoint, is to fight for a post-capitalist/socialist economy.

But is this logic sound? The idea is that, without growth, capitalism flounders. Static capitalism will fail, it is said, owing to an inevitable decline in investment opportunities, leading to a falling rate of profit. The outcome will be a deflationary spiral of shrinking incomes, growing unemployment, and unpaid debts – ultimately, economic collapse.  However, I find this logic unpersuasive. The real obstacle to ecological sustainability, under capitalism, is not an economistic imperative, but the power of sections of capital and the culture of possessive individualism. Whereas an inner logic is immutable, a political-cultural obstacle can be overcome through organization and action.

“Grow or die” is an incorrect assumption that obstructs climate-change action by suggesting that socialist revolution is necessary, albeit improbable. If the fight for ecological survival is rather a struggle to shift from one form of capitalism to another, it appears more winnable.

Let’s apply these thoughts to the Green New Deal, supplemented by constraints on throughputs and on pollution. Throughput declines but this change does not signify a static or stagnant economy. Output shifts in composition and may even increase.  What capitalism requires to survive is compatible with such constraints.

·       Firms can make profits, to sustain investment levels.

·       The incentive system rewards “effort, thrift and innovations.”

·       Firms remain responsive to shifting consumer demand.

·       An ethos of economic advancement continues.

Competition among firms continues in the Green New Deal. Those that develop more efficient production processes will undercut their competitors with lower prices. Competition will also continue over the quality of goods and services and over the introduction of new goods. In short, innovation and entrepreneurship remain key to success in the new, sustainable economy. Investment will continue, enhancing efficiency. Workers will not bear the burden of adjustment. Just transition includes a job guarantee, job-sharing and shorter hours of work; productivity growth can be shared by workers. Governments will maximize employment by taxing “bads”, such as resource use and pollution, rather than “goods, such as payroll taxes and profits.  Corporate debt will bring some firms down. But massive public investment in the early phase, together with Quantitative Easing will create new opportunities for investment in the green economy. Capitalism will survive constrained throughputs, even though some firms will not. Development will continue, even if growth does not.

A conceptual problem that clouds the understanding of alternatives is thinking of capitalism as one specific sort of economy, In reality, capitalism is a variegated economic system with individual types that are shaped by their varying institutional contexts. Capitalism, as classically defined, is an economic system in which free labour (but to what extent decommodified?) works for a wage on privately-owned means of production (but with how much public ownership?) to produce commodities (but with how many public goods?) for sale on the market (but under what sort of restrictive regulations?). The questions posed within the definition underline the reality that capitalism is an umbrella term, under which diverse economies shelter. Institutional frameworks vary significantly. For example, the Keynesian consensus (1944-late 1970s) rested on a different set of rules than the Washington and Post-Washington consensus (neoliberalism) that succeeded it (1980-present). A Green New Deal would operate under a different set of rules than either of these two.

Institutions thus shape economies; but institutions can be changed. If the rules of an economy permit the exploitation of nature (and labour), then nature (and labour) will be exploited by corporations, to the detriment of society. Why? Because the firms that scrupulously avoid degrading nature (or exploiting labour) will be undercut and eliminated by competing firms that have no such scruples. The rules of the game (institutions) must be redefined to rule out such exploitation by any actors. And firms can, and will, adjust to the new rules.

Political Feasibility?

The obstacles to changing economic institutions are political and cultural. Institutions do not just appear as a rational response to the need to efficiently and sustainably organize economic and social life; they exist because they reflect the interests of powerful elites, nationally and now globally. You can have a scientifically rigorous diagnosis of climate change, together with a plethora of reasonable policies to tackle the problem, but if your program lacks a strong coalition and powerful political strategy, it will fail.

The political problem is not only the economic, political and cultural power of fossil-fuel corporations and their allies. Yes, they have used this power, especially in fossil-fuels producing countries, to buttress climate denial of various sorts, and, where denial is insufficient, to dilute and delay climate mitigation policies. Their aim is to sell every molecule of hydrocarbons in their expanding reserves, regardless of the “alleged” climate costs. They are aided in this task by many other corporations that are dependent, in one way or another. on the fossil-fuels industry: ancillary industries and sub-contractors, banks, hedge funds, mutual funds and individual investors with major stakes in the industry; and steel and cement manufacturers. In addition, employees in the fossil-fuel industries fight to preserve their lucrative jobs, many not persuaded by the promise of a “just” transition safeguarding their jobs and pensions. Then, finally, there is capital in general, which will ally with fossil fuels if it appears the climate transition threatens private property and a market economy.

Furthermore, the widespread culture of possessive individualism means that some individuals who would benefit from a GND oppose any constraints on consumer choice. Despite all the discussion of the climate threat, and despite the focus on the anthropogenic causes of the impending disaster, people resist modifying unsustainable life-styles. Many educated and well-off people, though they are well equipped to understand climate science, have chosen not to know about the climate emergency.  They are unwilling to contemplate surrendering the right to travel and live as they please. An ingrained individualism has been nurtured by neoliberal institutions, centrally the view that government has no right to tell people how they should consume or accumulate. The right wing takes advantage of, and reinforces, this mentality.

Unfortunately, climate change has become entangled in the ongoing political polarization that afflicts rich, and many less-rich, societies. The Far Right has adopted climate denialism as a key element of its ideology. Conservative populists have cast climate change as a hoax to allow governing elites to impose new climate taxes, expand state intervention, cancel freedoms, and welcome waves of climate migrants. This populist message, couched in bizarre conspiracy theories, resonates with those who feel left behind. Inequality, globalization and the exodus of good jobs, precarity of livelihoods, and a loss of status for whites and males in multicultural, gender-neutral societies generate resentment, anger and mistrust. Populists have voiced and channeled this anger; the left has not. Those who have a lot to lose may join forces with the far right out of naked self-interest, even if they privately disparage conspiracy theories and racism.

As the political centre drifts to the right, even mainstream conservative parties, such as those in the United Kingdom and Canada, have drifted toward denialism. They have, at the least, opportunistically opposed moderate climate policies, such as modest carbon taxes.

As the world heats up, denialism shifts form and conspiracy theories become more bizarre; imminent danger does not squelch but inflame the political division. Reversing climate change is a hard sell.

By default, effective climate action, if it is to happen, falls to the political centre and the left. Conservative parties and the far right are in denial or in opposition to the alleged “wokeness” of environmentalists. Although some segments of the population will defend their gas-powered SUVs to the end, the Green New Deal is potentially an attractive option for many.  We – all the people – are vulnerable to climate change, and thus we must work in unison. We can win the struggle by making a just transition to a net-zero carbon economy, within capitalism, through measures that also create an egalitarian, secure and democratic society. 

Although powerful sectors of the business class will resist a fell-fledged GND, other sectors would be supportive – provided private property rights and markets (albeit differently regulated) survive. The growing number of entrepreneurs in the renewable energy sector will be supportive. Mutual fund managers and banks that have disinvested from fossil fuels may be sympathetic. Some high-tech industries and many academics and some foundations will be on-side. The aim is to forestall a united business opposition to rapid decarbonization.

A climate-mitigating political coalition, to be effective, must include what Americans call “liberals” and others “left-liberals.” They are the people who remain amenable to being convinced that green growth is inadequate and something more radical – radical-reformism – is required. The current moderation in climate policy will not suffice, but there is another choice that does not involve abandoning property rights and markets – the supplemented Green New Deal. It rejects both technocratic neoliberalism and Utopianism. The appeal may resonate particularly with those under 40, who struggle with debt, insecure prospects, unaffordable accommodation, in addition to climate change.

The highest priorities in the climate struggle are thus to unite the parties of the left and centre and to defeat governments of the right. Can the center and left forge a broad coalition animated by radical-reformism? Recent history is not encouraging. Civil society encompasses a variety of social movements and parties, each with its own agenda, whether social, economic, or ecological. The coalition, to be successful, would unite climate activists with liberals, human-rights defenders, non-fossil-fuel trade unions, social democrats, socialists, indigenous activists, and identity-based groups seeking justice. “Progressives”, broadly defined, constitute the majority in most Western countries, but fractiousness weakens their influence.

Despite the political and cultural obstacles, they are less daunting than those entailed by the degrowth agenda or a transition to eco-socialism or post-capitalism. The GND is anti-neoliberal, but it is not anti-capitalist.

The Future

Many of us thought that reason would prevail in responding to climate crisis. If we established that climate change is real, that human activity is the main driver, and that policies and technologies are at hand to deal with the problem, then governments would respond. An aroused public would ultimately demand an emergency response. But we know now that this assumption is incorrect. Despite all the evidence, a powerful far right, now including some mainstream conservative parties, has assumed a belligerent denialism. Centre-left political mobilization and action thus offer the best prospect for resolving the climate/ecological problem.

But it is probable that the mobilization will not be at such a scale to adequately respond to the crisis - that is, we will not cut emissions roughly in half by 2030. If we are then faced with runaway global warming two alternative, or concurrent, futures suggest themselves.

The first is that geoengineering techniques are tried, and they succeed in partially reducing global temperatures. Many climate scientists today dismiss geoengineering as “dangerous nonsense”. It is obvious why climate experts hold this view. Investments in geoengineering would reduce the pressure on governments and corporation to cut rapidly GHG emissions. It is also not clear how nations would agree to cooperate on such a momentous venture. And there is the danger of unintended consequences. War is one major risk. If one country or bloc undertakes to geoengineer the climate, and that attempt precipitates, or is thought to precipitate, calamitous weather effects in the territory of a non-cooperating great powers, war might result. Yet, despite the risks, accelerating global warming will motivate major powers to resort to geoengineering, with or without global cooperation.

The two most promising geoengineering techniques are stratospheric aerosol injection and marine cloud brightening. Both aim to cool the atmosphere despite the high concentration of carbon dioxide. The former does so by injecting sunlight-reflecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere; the second, by brightening clouds, and thus their sunlight-reflecting capacity, by relying on convention to carry sprayed droplets of seawater up to low-lying clouds. However, even if these techniques were found to be effective, considerable time and resources would be needed to reach the scale capable of lowering temperatures.

Even then, geoengineering is not a cure for global warming. It would at best provide more precious time to cut emissions and draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Which brings us back to where we began: mobilizing a coalition to support a democratic program for decarbonization and a just transition.

If neither a technological nor a democratic fix transpires, you don’t need to be a political scientist to foresee how the crisis will unfold. Extreme weather events and their dire human consequences will bring to the fore two poles of violent action. The first is fascism, which thrives in crises. With threats to property posed by mass movements and the radical policies of the Green New Deal, concentrated economic power may ally with reactionary political forces. Conservatives feeling under threat from social movements and generalized anxiety will be tempted to turn to reactionary political forces as a means of re-establishing order and safeguarding power and property (as in the 1930s). Hitherto climate-deniers on the right may see in the unfolding of tragedy an unparalleled opportunity: to appeal to the ethno-nation, casting migrants and immigrants and their elite enablers as the enemy at the gate.

Fortress America or Fortress Europe is the opposite of the Green New Deal. It means restricting liberal freedoms, closing borders, blaming “aliens”, repressing dissent and regulating national economies while reinforcing existing property rights and ethnic and class hierarchies. It involves abandoning the global South to its fate and reversing globalization in accordance with nationalist priorities. Fascism has no viable answer to the climate crisis, or the socioeconomic crisis the latter precipitates. It has recourse instead to conspiracy theories, glorification of the “people” and repression of migrants and others.

The other pole of violence emerges from the climate movement. This movement, so far, has been scrupulously nonviolent in its tactics. Civil disobedience, a form of nonviolent action, has been practised, sometimes effectively, by Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, and indigenous groups, especially in blocking pipelines, new mining ventures, and deforestation of virgin forests. But the failure of democratic protest to bring about a just and sustainable future will bring sabotage of the carbon infrastructure, and indeed destruction of industrial civilization itself, to the fore. Clandestine environmental groups  practising violence may be seen by many as a legitimate final resort, if ecological disasters push civilizations to the brink of collapse.

The climate/ecological crisis can precipitate a political as well as socio-economic crisis. Our task is to ensure that this dystopian outcome does not happen. Radical-reformism remains our best hope.


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