Can capitalism save the Earth from climate change?
On December 15, two speakers from the Pembina Institute gave an on-line presentation to more than 100 people about the economic impact of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. Matt Horne and Josha MacNab cited a recent report (see box), which suggests that with the right environmental policies, including a sharp increase in wind-powered electricity generation, the country’s gross domestic product could rise, on average, by 2.1 percent annually between 2010 and 2020—and emissions could still be reduced to 25 percent below 1990 levels.
They said this would be in line with the cuts necessary to ensure the average temperature won’t rise two degrees on average above that of the preindustrial period. “It doesn’t mean that at two degrees, we won’t see impacts,” MacNab said. She pointed out that B.C.’s stated target for 2020 is for emissions to fall 14 percent below 1990 levels. The federal government’s stated target for 2020 will bring emissions only three percent below 1990 levels, she added.
The presentation was sponsored by the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, which promotes carbon-neutral electricity generation, including run-of-river and wind-power projects. The report was released by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation and, according to Horne, was supported by TD Bank and written by SFU resource economist Mark Jaccard.
These days, groups like the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation are playing an increasingly big role in the national and provincial climate-change debate. This concerns David Peerla, a former Greenpeace forestry campaigner who wrote a PhD thesis on environmentalists’ tactics.
“Good environmental campaigning and good social-justice campaigning makes the production process more transparent,” he said in a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office.
He claimed that “business environmentalism”, on the other hand, is characterized by backroom deals with companies and governments that inhibit transparency. And in Peerla’s eyes, the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation are more interested in playing the “inside-Ottawa, inside-Victoria, inside-the-corporate-boardroom game” than traditional, grassroots B.C. environmentalists, who have sometimes engaged in civil disobedience to force changes.
“Let’s just take the slogan 'cap and trade’,” Peerla said. “There are two styles of campaign. 'Cap’ people are like old-time toxics fighters—block the pipe, end the industry—they’re the guys who say 'No.’ ”
In this camp, he listed Greenpeace, the Wilderness Committee, and people fighting run-of-river power projects. Peerla contrasted the “cap” folks with the “trade” people in the environmental movement, who embrace market solutions to environmental problems. These groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, favour run-of-river power because the emergency is so great that only businesses can move quickly enough to bring about solutions.
“This looks to me like a Naomi Klein disaster-capitalism scenario,” he noted. “There’s a disaster. The planet is on fire. Therefore, the solution is capitalism, which is ironic given what happened on Wall Street just recently.”
The market-oriented environmentalists trumpet trade, such as the sale of energy-efficient light bulbs and organic juice. And he said that those “cap" environmentalists who practise civil disobedience will rarely get money from U.S. foundations.
Peerla cited Tzeporah Berman, a Cortes Island climate-change campaigner, as an example of an activist who crossed over from practising civil disobedience to embracing business environmentalism. In her 20s, she led protests against clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound. Then Berman became a negotiator to save the forest. “Now, she calls herself a facilitator,” Peerla said. “What’s the next step?”¦Corporate director?”
Berman, like Suzuki, has spoken out in favour of carbon-neutral, run-of-river power as a necessary measure to combat climate change. Peerla, however, said it appears to him that there is no transparency and no accountability in the approval of these projects. He speculated that the premier might go so far as to eliminate the B.C. Utilities Commission as a necessary measure to deal with a planetary emergency. This would please former mining speculators who now stake their claims on B.C. rivers. “Again, it’s the trade-style solution,” Peerla claimed.
He added that Wall Street capitalists are “licking their chops” at the prospect of trading carbon credits in response to the disaster of climate change. “Some are saying that’s the next speculative bubble,” he said.
Can Canada sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase economic growth?
“It’s very possible. It takes time, but I think that there’s a lot of economic spinoff, or economic benefit, from fixing the problems that we’ve created over the past 50 or 100 years. For example, the automotive industry. All the technology that would go into creating an emissions-free car is an opportunity for a lot of different industries and companies.”
“I think it’s possible to sharply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. I think there is a fallacy if we believe that we can have unlimited economic growth. The Green party supports strong, resilient, local self-sufficient economies. So there would be lots of economic activity. It just wouldn’t be based on consumption.”
“In the long term I think it can be done, but it’s going to take decades to move to new energy systems. I’m very pessimistic that large greenhouse-gas reductions can be achieved quickly at a low cost. I simply don’t buy that at all. It may be necessary to do it, but the cost is going to be significant. That’s especially true for a place like Canada.”
“The answer is yes, because the form of economic growth that we need is not industrial growth; rather, we need growth in different sectors, such as sustainable agriculture, education, the arts, in small at-home businesses. This type of work does not cause massive increases in greenhouse-gas emissions.”