The title of this article is about the politics of climate change and how our institutions are succeeding in their goal to maximize profits while not caring about destroying human civilization in the process. I will go over how the corporation/state, the university, and the media are all working towards this goal.
Firstly, it’s important to understand how the corporation and state work together. The last 30 years has seen considerable concentration of wealth and among a tiny fraction of the population in the rich nations. This concentration of wealth allows for increased political power, by investing in political parties, which gives a return on investment of policies that allow this group to become even wealthier, and in turn investing in even more policies which allow for even more concentration of wealth. This has become a vicious cycle. There are some differences between countries on this process, but it generalizes.
A study by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright which interviewed the wealthiest of Americans and gave them a list of eleven issues asked them which of the issues were ‘very important’. At the top of the list was the budget deficit, which 87% said was ‘very important’. This is pretty amazing since the interview was taken during the great recession, and anyone who knows anything about economics would realize that taking care of the deficit at that time would have destroyed the global economy. At the bottom of this list, going through other issues like education, ‘terrorism’, unemployment and so on, was climate change. Only 16% thought climate change was very important. This shows that for the wealthy, destroying the global economy so that profits can be made is far more important than stopping a force that will destroy the environment and kill hundreds of millions of people through starvation in the process.
Now it is important to think about why the wealthy think this way. Some of the wealthy are climate change deniers, but not all of them. Many are smart enough to read IPCC reports, and as the recent news shows, Exxon Mobil have been some of the most educated and conscious people on the planet about how they are destroying the environment, and have known this since 1978. So why do the wealthy think like this? It is because they work within an institution, which is totalitarian in nature. The corporation has a goal of maximizing short term profits, and has a hierarchy, where orders come from the top. Those that do not obey the goal of profit maximization will either be filtered out of the institution or become management problems. Those that do obey the principles of the corporation become executives, and internalize the institutional values. This internalized behavior was well demonstrated by Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil. In a recent shareholder meeting, he was incredulous to those who would even suggest that investing in renewable energy was an option. Telling his audience ‘we choose not to loose money on purpose’ to loud applause.
It is even more important to realize how actual competition works in the capitalist system. I don’t mean the non-existent competition that is taught in economics classes where businesses have no control over price, but the competition for profits which makes energy corporations establish oligarchies and pursue destructive behavior to survive. When Exxon Mobil lead the market, the other energy corporations have to compete with them. The only way of competing with a giant corporation that is using fossil fuels, is to do it yourself as well. So the smaller energy corporations would go out of business if they invested in renewable energy. This creates a destructive race to the bottom.
What about the free market? Free markets hardly exist. The International Monetary Fund comes out with a study every couple of years on fossil fuel subsidies. Their most recent one published a few months back showed that global subsidies are $5.3trillion. Most of it these subsidies come from externalities, one of the problems with market systems. What’s an externality? An externality is when two agents make a transaction, and a third party pays a cost for that transaction. They are treated as a small problem in economics that can be fixed but in reality they dominate the economic system. So when someone decides to buy a car, it can have an effect on other people. Multiplied over millions of times, it can create congestion, and pollution, enough to fry the planet.
The mainstream media and the university have gone out of their way to serve the wealthy and their quest for profits. Let’s start with the easier one to critique, the mainstream media. It’s not hard to understand why the mainstream media would engage in climate change denial once you take a close look at its ownership structure. What is called the mainstream media is the media that is privately owned, which has spread all over the world into a concentrated oligopoly. Auckland University of Technology publish a media ownership report every year. In New Zealand the media is mostly owned by foreign financial institutions, which have every incentive to get their lapdogs-the commentators in the media, to engage in climate change denial and distortions. Columnists, like John Roughan for example in the New Zealand Herald have downplayed the effects of climate change by calling it ‘a metre rise in sea level’.
What about the university? Well, here it’s a bit more complex, and some contradictions arise. Capitalists need rational scientists to develop a high tech industry so they can privatize that technology and leech off it. And one of the terrible side effects is that there are scientists who study the climate and come up with facts and rational arguments which hurt the capitalist ability to make money. In the economics department however there is more freedom to subjugate them into serving power.
In the 1970’s it was pointed out by a business lobbyist Lewis Powell in a memorandum to the US chamber of commerce that there were all these people coming out of the education system who “despise the political and economic system”, and in order to solve this problem, the business class must launch a counterattack by supporting their own staff of scholars who ‘believe in the system’, as he put it.
One example of how this problem of ‘despising the political and economic system’ is solved can be read in the economics textbook. For example, the economics textbooks recommend that privatization is a solution to ‘tragedy of the commons’ problems. That is, a problem where individuals act in their own self interest, which is contrary to the interests of a group or society. And the economics profession, instead of choosing the corporations that are acting in their self interest to destroy the environment as an example of how privatization can destroy societies interests, pick an example about cattle grazing from 18th century England and how common ownership undermines the interests of the society. What’s remarkable about this is that those in the economics profession, or at least the ones who write the textbooks, have gone out of their way to pick examples which are irrelevant and have no moral value, rather than to pick an example which is relevant and would have moral value and allow people to understand society better.
Now how do we solve this problem?
There are short term solutions and long term political ideals to solve this problem. And the solutions that are available to us are dependent on how powerful we are. So our goal as society is to make ourselves more powerful. First of all it’s clear that any change has to come from ordinary people working together and no one else. It’s extremely unlikely that anything is going to be done at these UN conferences in Paris. They are convened by pretty typical Luddites who would rather throw the world back into the dark ages than ensure human survival, like John Key for example. The climate marches like the one that’s going to be on the 28th November are helpful, but we need to speed up the process of building up the size of these marches, it is too urgent not to. What we must do is to try and create our own social institutions where we can educate ourselves, and protect ourselves from the lies and distortions of the powerful which I have just pointed out. So, go to the climate march, but realize that very hard work has to be done if we want to make any real progress, and don’t forget that we outnumber the powerful by about 1000:1, and the more wealth they gain the more outnumbered they are. So, we could easily overpower them if we all worked at it.
“Douglas Renwick is an undergraduate at Victoria university studying mathematics and philosophy.