Climate Catastrotunity!

Lately I’ve been looking into industries that spend hundreds of millions of Dollars attacking climate science in order to make sure we don’t do anything about it. The usual interpretation of this behaviour is that certain vested interests are trying to protect their profits because action on climate change will cost them more money or even drive them out of business. Carbon taxes and subsidies for renewable energy will make fossil fuels more expensive and renewables more competitive. So will removing the massive subsidies currently granted to fossil fuels. Regulation to improve energy and fuel efficiency will mean people burn less fossil fuel, denting the profits of the Exxons and Chevrons of the world. And of course a lot of people in business and their followers just hate environmentalists. Partly this is because they think progress is about moving further away from nature, and environmentalism is about taking us back closer to nature. So environmentalism is against progress. Progress has given us wealth, disposable leisure time, better health and longer lives and has improved the human condition. So environmentalists that want to take us back to nature must be anti-human. Then there are the religious nut jobs who think they’re some sort of chosen people, and that the great American project of wealth creation based on consumption of natural resources is part of God’s plan. So anyone opposing the business of ripping stuff out of the ground and turning it into money is some sort of satanist working against the Almighty’s grand design. Yes folks, you can pretty much blame Henry Ford, Ayn Rand and Jesus (what a trinity that would be – although maybe we don’t need Jesus now that business can transubstantiate oil into greenbacks).  Oh, and we mustn’t forget Al Gore, who stupidly made climate change a party political issue by being a Democrat and then banging on about how we had to stop global warming.

In a nutshell, that’s the general explanation for why so many industrial lobbyists and political ideologues fight against action on climate change. But I wonder if that’s the whole story. You see, we’re always told that business is about change and innovation, and all I see in the conventional explanation of fossil fuel lobbying is people trying to stop change and suppress innovation, at least outside the narrow horizon of incremental improvements in ways of getting oil out of the ground and putting it into machines. Surely this can’t be! No, I refuse to believe that these hugely successful businesses are anti-change and anti-innovation. After all, that would mean everything we believe about business as dynamic, innovative, risk taking and go getting is wrong. It might even mean Ayn Rand was wrong about the wealth creators, and I won’t hear that sort of heresy!* Surely there’s something wrong here, and I think I know what it is.

Here’s my theory. The people representing the huge corporate interests that lobby against action on global warming fully accept the science of climate change. They see it for what it is – an opportunity. Climate change will transform the world, changing the natural environment in a way that hasn’t happened in all of recorded human history. These changes will create new needs, as people try to adapt. The potential opportunities for business in this new world are huge. Think of all those coastal cities that will need to spend billions on new flood defences. The areas that will need costly desalination, water transport and irrigation infrastructure. The new cities that will have to be built as people migrate away from areas that become uninhabitable. The new crops that will be needed to feed people in areas where existing crops fail. The technology that will be needed to do the job of all those ecosystems that disappear (think bees folks). The weapons that governments will buy to fight each other over dwindling resources.

And not just that, but as the climate fan sprays more and more shit everywhere, there wil be demands to reverse global warming. Governments will pay businesses to carry out massive geoengineering schemes. Injecting particles into the atmosphere to block out sunlight and cool the Earth. Building space mirrors. Filling holes in the desert with water to counteract sea-level rise. Building scrubbers to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Dropping iron in the ocean so it soaks up more carbon dioxide. Altering the land surface to reflect more sunlight.

It’s going to be a freakin’ feeding frenzy, and big business must know it. It’s the ultimate in disaster capitalism – a coalescing of innumerable climate change opportunities into one massive catastro-tunity**.

So all this ‘we don’t believe in climate change’ shit is just a cover. If people are angry with the deniers now, just imagine how mad they’d be if they knew this was all part of a massive conspiracy to create a big juicy carcass off which big business could scavenge for the rest of the century and beyond. Because that must be what’s happening. The people heading up the world’s richest corporations must be intellectual giants, right? If they weren’t then they wouldn’t have earned their place at the top of the heap through the social Darwinian, Randian struggle on which we all know human society is based.

But I have one small doubt remaining. Obviously this is because I’m not smart enough to understand that climate catastrotunity business model, so I’ll be happy for anyone smarter than me (say, someone running a Fortune 500 company) to set me straight. My doubt is that the scientists –  and even organisations like the World Bank – seem increasingly to be soiling their lab coats about climate change bringing about the end of civilisation or something like that. They keep telling us that we’re looking at a global warming of 7 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees C), and maybe more, by 2100, and that this is really dangerous for society.

What if this means the collapse of society and – more importantly for business – the collapse of government? Like a lot of people, I hate government, but like the corporations that pretend otherwise, I recognise that government plays a vital role in channelling money to business through all those juicy construction and service contracts and what some uncharitable types call corporate welfare. Now, all of those massive projects that I alluded to earlier are only likely to get off the ground if they’re paid for by governments, so those big corporate interests need to make sure that governments survive and are stable enough to make those investment decisions.

So, to foster the innovation that goes hand-in-hand with creative destruction, we want to make sure that the destruction only goes so far. We need a controlled catastrotunity. Just enough climate change to reshape the world but not so much that global civilization disappears down the can completely. The scientists used to say that we should avoid a warming of more than about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), and that anything above that would be ‘dangerous’. But now they’re saying that the maximum allowable warming should be a fair bit less than that. To keep warming below 3.5 F, we need to reduce emissions by huge amounts, really quickly. And we’re not doing that – we’re still spewing the stuff out at an increasing rate. So we’re going to cross that threshold whether we like it or not.

So, from a disaster capitalist perspective, we’re running the risk of driving destruction that isn’t creative but rather, well, destructive. If societies and governments fall, the climate change profiteering model won’t work. No doubt those clever ubermensch like the Koch brothers realize this, and we’ll see all the energy that’s gone into climate denial being redirected into climate change profiteering soon. I hope so, because if not, we might miss that catastrotunity.

______________

*I’ve always respected Rand for her forthright condemnation of Christianity as ‘monstrous‘, for her championing of the individual, and for her criticism of the state and the bland and unimaginative parts of society that can only copy and steal rather than create. But her apparent view that the role of a woman is to be subservient to the strong man has always made me feel a little icky. Lately I’ve been wondering if she isn’t just a low-budget Neitsche, or worse, a beta-version of Anne Coulter (no, that’s too unfair). But I need to read more to work out how I really feel.

**I’ve stolen the term “catastrotunity” from The Bugle Podcast.

4 thoughts on “Climate Catastrotunity!

  1. briancartwright

    Just discovered your interesting perspective – thank you! Now suppose you and I had our own oil companies… wouldn’t we be thinking about how to use our massive resources and infrastructure just in case we have to stop selling oil or coal? So I suspect denialism is a cover for a big shift underway that could produce massive profits of the kind you describe. I do have hope for certain kinds of geoengineering, though, such as biochar (see web site I listed), which can operate at human/village community scale and produce a lot of improvements in people’s lives.

    Reply
  2. misanthropocene Post author

    I have heard rumours (from sources who seem reliable) that certain oil companies have contingency plans to go carbon neutral very rapidly if they have to. But rumours should always be treated with suspicion. It’s notable that BP pulled out of solar power late in 2012, very quietly (http://bizmology.hoovers.com/2012/01/05/bp-pulls-the-plug-on-its-solar-business/). As Jeremy Leggett argues in this short film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWeTwcue30), do we really think that theyrve pulling out of solar and not telling the UK government that solar is a bad idea. Leggett also mentions the 50 odd energy company employees on secondment to UK government departments. But we know from Deepwater Horizon that BP isn’t the smartest of companies, so maybe they’re an outlier.

    That aside, there’s an awful of climate change profiteering going on, so it’s clear that some big firms have seen and grasped this opportunity. I’ll probably do a post on that sometime.

    Things like biochar could help with carbon sequestration and so with addressing climate change, but the reductions in emissions needed to stay below those so-called ‘dangerous’ thresholds are so massive that nothing short of a coordinated, global effort on comprehensive decarbonisation will do it. And because growth is so closely tied to fossil fuels, and the timescales to achieve this decarbonisation will be measured in decades, this would probably mean a voluntary global economic recession. That’s why I’m not holding my breath expecting us to do anything meaningful about climate change.

    Business looks for opportunities, and even those that aren’t using denial to foster a bit of creative destruction now are likely to jump on the bandwagon sooner or later. I sort of hope that some of them are just too stupid to do even that – it would justify my contempt for the likes of BP and Koch even more. Innovation killing, progress hating dinosaurs that they are, if you take their actions at face value.

    Reply
    1. briancartwright

      I appreciate the response. Disagree about a couple of points, though, and hope you’ll avoid what look to me like unwarranted assumptions…
      — “nothing short of a coordinated, global effort at decarbonisation will do it” — sounds like centralized control which will be skewed toward the wealthiest and most established entities. Better to allow a billion flowers to bloom.
      — “because growth is closely tied to fossil fuels” — but if fossil fuels have to be abandoned, growth will happen in ways we’re not expecting. Difficult times, of course, but I trust there will be much to celebrate.

      Reply
      1. misanthropocene Post author

        Brian

        Thanks for the engagement on this new blog. Nice to know I’m not sending my weird mix of bile, sarcasm and serious comment into a vacuum.

        I’d argue that whatever individuals do, it won’t be enough unless energy infrastructure is decarbonized, and to do that quickly would require some form of centralized decision making – at the global level or at the national level by many individual nations. Energy systems tend to be pretty centralized and most of us put fossil fuel products in our automobiles. So individuals either have to stop using energy generated centrally and stop putting gasoline in their vehicles (I’m all for short circuiting the problem like that but it’s a big ask), or we need the energy systems and companies to get off fossil fuels rapidly.

        A lot has been made about how investment in renewable power generation has recently overtaken investment in new fossil fuel generation, but much more is still spend on fossil fuel research, development and exploration – investment locking us in quite far ‘downstream’. Only about 5% of global energy is generated from renewables today, and I’ve heard estimates that some $1 trillion of subsidies (direct or indirect in the form of tax breaks etc) go to fossil fuels. So there’s massive institutional lock-in that means we’re committed to dependence on fossil fuels for years to come.

        I agree that if we abandon fossil fuels there will be innovation and growth as people find new solutions to energy needs. But it’s how we ditch them that’s the problem. Growth doesn’t have to be based on fossil fuels, but right now it is, and we probably can’t ditch them as quickly as we need to without accepting a reduction in growth. This is because we won’t be able to get the other sources online quickly enough to have them replace fossil fuels on the required scales if we’re to cap global greenhouse gas emissions like we need to. There are too many vested interests propping up and subsidizing fossil fuels, and we need political action to break this. These vested interests are deliberately suppressing innovation in the alternatives. Governments won’t force the necessary changes because their too close and too influenced by the big money and the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters.

        I think ultimately we’ll ditch fossil fuels – maybe around the middle of the century, but it will then be too late to prevent changes in climate that might be pretty dramatic (making what we’re seeing now look pretty tame). We could develop ways of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, but whether we’ll be able to do this on the timescales and space scales needed I don’t know. If we can, people who have adapted to new climatic conditions might lobby against it anyway!

        I do think that it’s worth taking individual action, say, going off grid and stopping individual dependence on centralized, dirty energy systems. This can only be a good thing. I just think the scale is too big, and the time too short, for this to deliver the ‘climate stabilization’ that so many people say we need. I’ll try and post some content that looks at this with a bit more background and numbers – I realise this is all out of my head and not supported by evidence here, so won’t demand anyone take my word for it.

        For my money, in the end we’ll have a century or two of chaos, and then new societies will emerge out the other side. Hopefully they’ll be better at managing the place than the ones we have today…

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