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Exposing the deep obstacles to climate strategy

Jake Werner
2017.08.10 / 2017.10.28

The terrifying consequences threatened by climate change demand that we

think systemically. Yet politically active environmentalists are failing in
this task.

I don’t mean that environmentalists have failed to think nature as a system.

In fact, they have been on the cutting edge of reviving the capacity to think
systemically precisely because conceptualizing the global ecosystem
demands it. As a frequently quoted line from John Muir has it: “When we
try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the

But environmentalists have failed to conceptualize society as a system. The

main obstacles that prevent us from acting to stabilize the climate are
produced structurally by the organization of global society itself. Climate
activists have not recognized this; they have failed to dig beneath the
surface to find the root causes of the climate crisis. And this is why we
continue to spin our wheels in the morass of climate politics.

Debates have swirled around the concept “anthropocene”, but all sides
should be able to agree on at least one point. Now that human life shapes
the planet’s ecology, the environment is no longer an external framework
within which economic relations play themselves out. Quite the opposite:
the environment is itself now the product of the economic system.

What this means is that, to act effectively against climate change, we cannot
merely graft a set of sustainability policies onto the existing system—
because the existing system is by its nature hostile to the goal. The failure of
political will and of organizational capacity are not moral or technical flaws,
but the necessary consequences of society as it is currently structured. To
meet the challenge of climate change, sustainability must be produced
organically as one of the outputs of our social system, and that will only be
possible after a deep transformation of the existing global economy.

Such a conclusion risks making an already daunting challenge appear

insurmountable. Yet reconceptualizing the problem in this way also opens
up extraordinary new possibilities. We can better understand the sources of
the world’s seemingly irrational failure to act on this existential threat. We
can see more clearly where the obstacles are and focus our energy on them.
We can gain strategic purchase on an otherwise overwhelming set of issues.

But most important of all: if the problem is systemic, that means the
solution is also systemic. And that means we don’t have to laboriously

remake every institution in society; we don’t ourselves have to raise the
money to convert the energy infrastructure; we don’t have to convince
every single individual to consume in a more responsible manner. Instead,
altering the underlying logic of economic growth will in one fell swoop
remake all the social relations that currently stand in the way. The status
quo has dammed up the collective energies that could be focused on
addressing the crisis, and remaking the social structure would not simply
remove the obstacles—it would unleash those energies to act in line with
the urgency of the problem.

However, the form of systemic analysis we need is not easy in a society

such as ours, which over the last four decades has mostly lost the capacity
to think beyond individual decisions and individual responsibility. The
tenacity of individualist thinking was on display in the widely shared
conclusions of a recent study: that one can best reduce one’s greenhouse gas
emissions by not having kids, giving up your car, flying less, and eating
vegetarian.1 In the context of general anxiety raised by David Wallace-
Wells’s doomsday article “The Uninhabitable Earth” and increasingly dire
reports about our chances of limiting catastrophic climate deterioration,2
many people could think of no way to respond to the threat besides
lecturing each other about their individual consumption choices.

Conceptual problems with the study aside3, the cold truth is that no one’s
individual consumption, no matter how they alter it, will ever make an
important difference in a world of 7 billion people. The only way an
individual can contribute meaningfully to containing global warming is
through involvement in a political project that might change the rules for
everyone—a point that was made persuasively in several responses.4 That
point by itself, however, is not yet a systemic understanding of the
problem—or the solution.

We already understand the general outlines of what is required to contain

and perhaps even start to reverse global warming: a rapid conversion of the
global energy infrastructure to technologies that emit no carbon; a
significant increase of research on technologies supportive of this
transformation, such as electricity storage systems; an end to deforestation
and beginning of reforestation, especially in the rainforests of Brasil and
humans.html; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/31/paris-climate-deal-
socialism-neoliberalism; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-
Indonesia; and a broad change in patterns of transportation, urban
settlement, and food production around the world, especially in the highest
per capita emissions countries like the US.

As Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project demonstrates conclusively, these are

not science fiction ideas; they are practical reforms, most of which are
already within our reach technologically, which we could begin
implementing today if we so chose. Not only that—all of these changes
would have significant social benefits beyond their effects on greenhouse
gas emissions. Most of them would even pay for themselves over the next
two decades, and some would generate savings well beyond the cost of
investment.5 So why do we continue to stand idly by as our time to stabilize
the climate continues to run out? What forces are preventing the
concentration of political will that observers so often comment upon?

Despite the huge amount of attention that environmentalists have given to

the question of scientific literacy, the answer is not a popular failure to
accept climate science. The public is not in denial. A two-thirds majority in
the US believes that anthropogenic global warming is real, and a near
majority worries “a great deal” about it.6 These numbers have risen steadily
over the last two decades. Support for taking action is even stronger
globally, and large majorities favor limiting their own country’s greenhouse
gas emissions.7

Another possible answer is that powerful special interests—above all, fossil

fuel corporations—stand to lose, while those who would gain, though far
greater in number and in need, are not organized in such a way as to defeat
the polluters. This explanation, most powerfully expressed by Bill
McKibben, contains a vital insight: politics is fundamentally a contest for
power rather than a rational debate, and large-scale, confrontational
pressure tactics brought to bear by active and organized people are essential
to altering the status quo.

This explanation, however, still fails to fully grasp the systemic nature of
the problem. The power of special interests helps us understand why the
most direct way to address the climate crisis—an economy-wide carbon
tax—has proven impossible to even place on the political agenda. It helps
us understand why obvious policy changes with overwhelming popular
support, such as Obama’s coal plant regulations, remain controversial.8 But

Paul Hawken (ed.), Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse
Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2017).
there is a deeper set of problems that has largely escaped the analysis of
climate campaigners, which would continue to pose insuperable obstacles to
climate progress even if the power of the fossil fuel lobby were broken.

Why, for example, has popular support for action on global warming
remained so weak despite broad acceptance of climate science?
Environmental issues often barely register in polls asking about the most
important issues facing the country.9 Thinking beyond the US, why is it that
other countries less dependent upon fossil fuels, whose politics and media
are less drenched in dirty money, have also failed to act with anything like
the urgency required by the threat? Why is it that two decades of
international negotiations have produced nothing more than an elaborate
and unenforceable set of promises—the Paris Accord of 2015—that would
fall short even if carried out in full? Why has global investment in
renewable energy stagnated in recent years?10

To understand the global failure to act on climate change, we need to

expose a deeper set of structures that shapes the way people both think and
act. To start, we have to conceptualize society as something more than just a
collection of individual decisions—it is, rather, a total system best
understood through the concept of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is not just an ideology of free markets and heroic

entrepreneurs11, though that is where it is most visible. More fundamentally,
neoliberalism is a coherent regime of economic growth, with an identifiable
logic of capital accumulation constituted through a characteristic set of
institutions that shape market demand, discipline labor, and channel

Making one’s way along the social terrain12 produced by these processes is
what makes the ideology of neoliberalism—individualism and free market
fundamentalism—broadly compelling. How does this happen? The
mechanisms are extremely complex, but in the interests of brevity we can
summarize along these lines:

The free market is a system of social interdependence in which the

individual’s actual reliance on everyone else in the system disappears from
view. Instead, the invisible hand of the market—a seemingly objective force
that is easily confused with a law of nature because its operations are

impersonal—is at work distributing people to the different places that “the
economy” needs them to occupy. Not only does the market come to seem
entirely natural, but by making invisible the relations of mutual dependence
and exploitation that animate the system, it appears that everything is the
result of individual choices unconditioned by a larger structure.

Already we can understand the first deep obstacle erected by life under
neoliberalism: the difficulty of thinking beyond the individual and
imagining consciously coordinated, collective action to fight climate change.
Across the political spectrum, the idea of large-scale collective projects has
fallen into disrepute since the advent of neoliberalism. For thirty years,
Democrats and Republicans alike have relied upon individual incentives to
craft policy outcomes. Yet the profit motive is not enough to transform the
energy market in the time remaining to us because of the huge up-front
capital costs and the long time horizon over which the benefits will
materialize. What we need is not private consumer decisions or small-scale
“disruptive” entrepreneurs but a public and collective decision to preserve
the ecological foundations of human life.

Neoliberalism not only rules out collective projects, it also rejects the
desirability of conscious intervention in the “natural” movements of the
market. This is the second key obstacle to acting on global warming,
because it excludes what we need most urgently: a state-led restructuring of
market dynamics through measures like a carbon tax, binding deadlines to
transition to technologies such as electric vehicles, and a winding down of
the fossil fuel industry itself. Market ideology says that the forces of supply
and demand should guide the state; the challenge of climate change requires
instead that the state shape the structure of the market.

Now an objection will be raised: these limitations on our thinking are not
caused by neoliberalism but are “hard-wired” into the human brain, which
is adapted to dealing with immediate threats and pursuing selfish desires.13
Indeed, such a narrow conception of self-interest and such a myopic view of
the future are so widespread today that they do in fact seem to be part of the
universal human condition. Yet only fifty years ago, a much different kind
of society produced a different sort of human being. This was the society
that built the national highway system and sent people into outer space, that
created Medicare and Medicaid, that assembled the intricate Cold War
alliance system. This was a society that strongly favored long-term
bureaucratic planning (within both the state and large corporations) over
short-term market incentives—the administrator and the engineer over the
entrepreneur and the entertainer. It was a society in which collective
identification flourished from the neighborhood to the union to the firm to

E.g.: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/08/02/541095519/why-we-are-naively-
optimistic-about-climate-change; http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jul/02/opinion/op-
the nation.14

These capacities were not always used for progressive ends. But the ability
to plan ahead, to think in terms of the entire social system, and to identify
beyond one’s narrow private interests were fundamental characteristics of
postwar society. These capacities are marginalized today not because of
“human nature” but because of the revival of market forces and the collapse
of collective structures since the 1970s.

What’s the connection? Under pressure of competition, all firms and all
individuals are forced to focus narrowly on how they can maximize their
own individual security and earning power. Intensifying competition
likewise turns every moment into an emergency, demanding full attention to
immediate survival and drastically curtailing the ability to think beyond the
moment.15 The long-run stability of the postwar period, which was created
by long-term planning and in turn created the conditions for it to continue,
has been replaced by a bewildering array of opportunities and crises. In
other words, the narrowness and myopia that we suffer is not human nature
itself—it is human nature under neoliberal conditions.

These effects have been intensified since the abrupt decline in the quality of
neoliberal growth after the financial crisis of 2008. Because the
development of neoliberalism required the destruction of worker power, and
because market forces create a winner-take-all dynamic that leads to high
levels of inequality, the corollary of intense market competition is an
artificial sense of scarcity. Even the tiny group of winners understand that
their wealth could be lost in a moment if the market turns the wrong way.
For the losers—in the US, the overwhelming majority of the population,
whose wages have been stagnant for forty years—the feeling of deprivation
and precarity is an ongoing reality.

At the same time, market dogma has drained public resources through
decades of privatization and tax cuts. The personal experience of scarcity
and the social awareness of a weak state work together to convince the
average citizen that large-scale public interventions in the economy and the
environment are simply beyond our power. This breeds a sense of
resignation even among those who are deeply concerned about the effects of
climate change.

Individualism and free market fundamentalism create serious ideological

obstacles to taking action on global warming; the pressures of instability
and market competition create a short-term outlook and feeling of public

A classic study of the recent erosion of collective identification is Robert D. Putnam,
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2000).
weakness that are fatal to climate solutions. These are obstacles to fighting
global warming at the level of belief and sensibility. But neoliberalism also
creates powerful practical impasses that prevent action—above all, the
structure of global competition.

Because the ecology that sustains human life is a global system, it’s obvious
that the fight against climate change must be global in scope. Yet the
foundational dynamic of the neoliberal global economy is a race-to-the-
bottom form of competition among corporations and among countries.
Because actors find their concrete interests opposed, they find it virtually
impossible to pursue the kind of cooperation that could effectively contain
and reverse the degradation of the environment.

The specific conflicts that emerge from these structurally given tensions are
many and varied. But we can illustrate the dilemma with a simple thought
experiment. What would happen if a single major economy imposed upon
itself a carbon tax adequate to the needs of stabilizing the climate? The
companies based in that country would see their costs rise substantially,
putting them at a disadvantage with their foreign competitors. Domestic use
of fossil fuels would fall, but domestic production of fossil fuels would
search for export markets; there would be no automatic guarantee that
existing stocks would go unused. Meanwhile, the global price of coal,
natural gas, and oil would actually fall because of diminished demand
coming from the carbon tax country; other major economies would gain
access to cheaper fuels and their own consumption would increase. The net
effect on global greenhouse gas emissions would be slight.

If we shift our attention from taxes to investment, we see another

competitive dynamic blocking progress. Each individual country competes
with every other for the highly mobile capital distributed by global investors.
In order to maximize their access to foreign direct investment, they have no
choice but to offer conditions that minimize business costs. That means not
only limiting environmental regulations on business as much as the local
population will tolerate—it also means offering access to cheap sources of
energy in order to draw investment in production and keep costs low for all
businesses. Restrictions on greenhouse gases are simply not compatible
with the necessity of a “competitive” business environment under the
neoliberal status quo.

The only way to overcome these structural obstacles within the existing
organization of the global economy is through multinational negotiations
that could create a binding plan, truly global in scope, to decarbonize
production. Instead we have the Paris Accord. The commitments made in
Paris were a huge step forward over the disastrous Copenhagen negotiations
in 2009, but they would only cut emissions by half as much as is needed to
avoid a 2°C global temperature increase—if participants actually follow

through on commitments that have neither an independent monitoring
system nor an enforcement mechanism. And that was before Donald Trump
repudiated the US commitment.

How can we explain the 25-year failure of the UN Framework Convention

on Climate Change process to produce a viable solution? Even as the
scientific certainty has advanced and the technological potential to act on it
has deepened, at each juncture debates over money have remained the
stumbling block. The developing countries insist on access to cheap sources
of energy for fear of slowing the growth that is desperately needed to lift
people out of poverty. As one of India’s negotiators at the Paris talks put it,
“Either we remain poor or you need to tell us a paradigm by which people
can have a better quality of life with lower energy use.”16 Since the
developing countries will produce most future emissions, success in the
climate fight stands or falls on whether we can create a global political
economy that can resolve this dilemma.

Yet the rich countries—beneficiaries of two centuries of carbon-driven

growth—are unwilling to assume the whole burden of funding the world’s
transition to sustainable energy. They are likewise unwilling to raise their
own energy prices or to spend taxpayer money on research that might
reduce the cost of the transition. Many environmentalists respond to this
willful shirking of responsibility with a powerless moralizing. What we
need instead is a structural analysis to locate the strategic possibility of
fundamentally changing the equation.

At one level, the impasse arises from the forces already discussed. The
decline of a commitment to the collective good reduces individuals’
willingness to contribute. The artificial sense of scarcity bred by
competition convinces people that society doesn’t have the resources to
pursue large projects. The extreme levels of inequality mean that the hard-
pressed majority feels too vulnerable to pay, and it concentrates such
enormous amounts of money among the rich that they can easily afford to
corrupt the political system to ensure that they do not have to pay. The
intensity of market forces makes countries suspicious that their partners in
the task will cheat to gain an unfair advantage in global economic
competition, so a binding multilateral agreement is impossible.

Yet there is a deeper problem as well: politicians are afraid that effective
measures to contain global warming will undermine growth. In this, they
are not being selfish or corrupt, they are not acting on behalf of some
special interest—they are, in fact, looking out for the collective good. As
with every form of capitalism, the lifeblood of neoliberal society is
economic growth. When growth ceases, businesses collapse, people lose

their jobs, politicians lose their legitimacy. Social unrest erupts in all
directions—as often scapegoating the weak and the foreign as targeting the
powerful. Without growth, global trade withers and nationalism expands.
Without growth, there can be no collective projects except those that arise
from a destructive zero-sum competition over a declining pool of wealth.
Social chaos and brutal conflict is the outcome—not cooperative resolution
of shared problems.

We can therefore take this one step further: without growth, there will be no
solution to climate change. One current in the environmental movement
insists that economic growth is the source of our problems, that we must
give up the “ideology of growth” and accept the limits of a finite planet. But
this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the constraints we face.
Growth is not an ideology—it is an essential practical requirement of all
forms of capitalism. The ideology emerges from the system of production,
not vice versa. Within capitalism, growth is a necessary (though not
sufficient) condition for sustaining and improving human welfare, as well as
for successful political and business careers.

Since it’s unlikely that we’ll end capitalism in the timeframe needed to deal
with the climate crisis, any viable solution will have to be compatible with
continued economic expansion. But beyond that, the systemic nature of
growth offers us an extraordinary opportunity: it could allow us to harness
the power of growth to the goal of restructuring the system of production
responsible for the crisis. The logic of the entire social system could be
turned to achieving rather than frustrating the transformation to

Is this possible? Not within the neoliberal logic of growth. As we’ve seen,
neoliberal ideology forecloses the possibility of raising collective interests
over those of the individual and of prioritizing public needs over private
preferences. The intense market forces that are a feature of neoliberal
growth create a false sense of scarcity and a race-to-the-bottom competitive
dynamic that pose insuperable obstacles to both thought and action. Perhaps
most limiting of all, the steps required to transform the system of production
undercut the neoliberal form of growth, which means that they also threaten
popular hopes for a better life and the basic interests of politicians and

What then would a form of capitalist growth that could contain global
warming look like? It would have to generate—systemically—these basic

1) a sense of collective identification and an awareness of the

individual’s stake in public priorities;
2) an equitable distribution of growth that would end the false sense

of scarcity and sustain the individual’s support for the system;
3) the institutional and cognitive capacity for long-term planning
and large-scale transformational investments;
4) a genuinely global society—something neoliberal globalization
always promised but could never make good on—that would
restructure the global system to align competing interests and to
cultivate global institutions capable of coordinating the required
investments and regulations;
5) a logic of growth in which the transformation of production to
sustainable methods is not a threat to growth but the means to it.

Is it even possible to meet these conditions within capitalism? In fact, the

first three conditions were all features of capitalism around the world during
the postwar era, often known as Fordist capitalism. From the late 1940s to
the mid-1970s, the economy was characterized by stable jobs with high
wages and good benefits; by large-scale productive corporate and
government investment that generated rapid job growth and high rates of
productivity increase; and by long-term macroeconomic stability (e.g. no
financial crises) due to the abundance of productive outlets for investment
as well as the capacity for planning and regulation that both corporate and
state bureaucracies exercised.

However, Fordist economic growth also relied on low levels of international

economic integration, and a return to the national economies of the postwar
era is neither possible nor desirable. It’s not possible for economic reasons
that I’ll explore elsewhere, and it’s not desirable because—among other
reasons—such a system would foreclose the kind of global coordination
that could overcome the threat of global warming.

In order, then, to combine the fourth and fifth conditions with the first three,
we would need to achieve on a global scale the logic of economic growth
that applied at a national level in the Fordist era. This aim—not
popularizing science, not moralizing about individual consumption, not
even divestment or pipeline protests—is the fundamental task of the climate
movement. We will fail if we cannot achieve it.

Where do these conclusions leave us on a climate strategy? First, it is far

past time for us to overcome the single-issue fragmentation of progressive
politics. While the rhetoric of environmental justice has increased
awareness of the unequal impact of environmental degradation and has
expanded the moral horizon of environmental politics, the key structural
interrelations among discrete political causes remains largely invisible.
Fighting global warming without first transforming the deeper social system
that produces it will be a valiant but ultimately futile exercise in throwing
ourselves repeatedly against a brick wall.

To achieve such global restructuring, climate campaigners will have to join
a larger movement that understands why neoliberal society produces not
just income inequality, not just deteriorating working conditions around the
world, but at the same time blocks progress on a whole range of problems
that superficially seem unrelated, from global warming to mass
incarceration17 to gender inequality in the workplace.18

The best organizations to work through are therefore not those that focus
narrowly on environmental issues, but explicitly political, multi-issue
organizations working simultaneously at the local, state, national, and
international levels, fighting to advance both specific legislation and
transformational political candidates while educating members on
organizing techniques and political analysis. In my own experience,
People’s Action in the US is such an organization, but these general criteria
should be applied wherever we seek to put our time and resources.

Second, as a consequence of this conclusion, the climate movement must

resist the urge to just “do something!” and take seriously the need to
understand the deep obstacles to progress in order to formulate a political
strategy capable of overcoming those obstacles. This requires devoting
substantially more time to theoretical and empirical study, to political
education within the movement, and to formulating a strategy that takes
seriously the systemic limitations we face as well as the systemic
opportunities that could multiply a hundred times over our power to
transform society.

Finally, if the current organization of the global economy is the ultimate

source of our inability to contain global warming, then transforming the
deep logic of neoliberal accumulation is the only strategic priority that
matters. The central driving force of such a transformation must be a new
kind of progressive labor internationalism.19 Does this mean that existing
climate organizing is completely misguided? I believe the answer is no, but
I also believe that most current climate organizing is not effectively
connecting either its aims or its methods to this deeper struggle, and in
doing so is wasting our scarce resources and diminishing time.

The challenge is to devise political demands and tactics that effectively use
the climate issue to strike at the foundations of neoliberalism while
simultaneously helping to forge a multi-issue movement that constrains
neoliberalism and develops the possibility of a post-neoliberal logic of

Loïc Wacquant, “Class, race & hyperincarceration in revanchist America,” Daedalus,
Vol. 139, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 74–90.
Stephanie Coontz, “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” The New York Times, 2013.02.16;
“Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?” The New York Times, 2017.03.31.
Future publications will explain why a global labor movement is indispensable both
politically and economically to realizing a progressive global economy.
growth. People come to progressive politics by different paths, and
environmental activism is one potentially powerful contribution to a larger
movement against neoliberalism—if the political education that
environmentalists receive once they’re active moves them toward a wider
and deeper understanding of the forces we must defeat.

Our demands should reflect this by defying the ideological strictures of

neoliberalism rather than affirming them. For example, policing people’s
individual consumption or insisting that global warming “is largely a matter
of personal responsibility”20 upholds neoliberal ideas and channels political
energy in disempowering directions. In contrast, the idea of nationalizing
the fossil fuel companies and winding them down is heresy to market
ideology and forcefully affirms the need for collective intervention in the
economy. Building a powerful campaign around this demand would not
only advance a practical solution to the problem, it would simultaneously
erode the legitimacy of the neoliberal status quo.

But beyond this, the presence of environmentalists in the movement shaping

the post-neoliberal future is essential to ensure that the transformation of
production incorporates sustainability in a foundational and systematic way.
The kind of capitalism that succeeds neoliberalism will certainly involve
economic growth, but only conscious intervention can produce a new kind
of growth eliminates greenhouse gas emissions in its very expansion rather
than reinvigorating the current death spiral of emissions.

What would this look like more concretely? One indispensable facet of an
economy based on progressive globalization would be large-scale, long-
term investment of the large amounts of idle and speculative capital,
currently circulating unproductively in the rich countries, into socially
transformative projects in the poor countries. This would require a deep
restructuring of the existing investment system, but it would also open up
huge new markets for economic growth, raising hundreds of millions of
people out of poverty in the process. If renewable energy is built into these
investments, they will accelerate the transformation of the world’s energy
infrastructure. If not, they point toward catastrophe.

The paralysis of neoliberal growth since 2008 has made such a redirection
of the global economy possible, but progressive politics remains mired in
small-scale, short-term defensive fights or simplistic oppositionism against
neoliberal globalization. To realize the extraordinary opportunities that lie
before us, and to avoid the terrifying calamities that loom over us, we must
start thinking in far more ambitious but also far more complex ways. The
ideological hold of neoliberalism is slowly disintegrating. It’s up to us
whether we seize this opportunity to win the world.