In your cover story for the
Nation last year, you say that modern environmentalism
successfully advances many of the causes dear to the political
Left, including redistribution of wealth, higher and more
progressive taxes, and greater government intervention and
regulation. Please explain.
The piece came out of my interest and my shock at the fact that
belief in climate change in the United States has plummeted.
If you really drill into the polling
data, what you see is that the drop in belief in climate change
is really concentrated on the right of the political spectrum.
It’s been an extraordinary and unusual shift in belief in a
In 2007, 71 percent of Americans
climate change and in 2009 only 51 percent believed
- and now we’re at 41 percent.
So I started researching the denial
movement and going to conferences and reading the books, and
what’s clear is that, on the right, climate change is seen as a
threat to the Right’s worldview, and to the neoliberal economic
worldview. It’s seen as a Marxist plot.
They accuse climate scientists of
being watermelons - green on the outside and red on the inside.
It seems exaggerated, but your piece was about how the Right
is in fact correct.
I don’t think climate change necessitates a social revolution.
This idea is coming from the
right-wing think tanks and not scientific organizations. They’re
ideological organizations. Their core reason for being is to
defend what they call free-market ideology.
They feel that any government
intervention leads us to serfdom and brings about a socialist
world, so that’s what they have to fight off: a socialist world.
Increase the power of the private sector and decrease the public
sphere is their ideology.
You can set up carbon markets, consumer markets, and just
pretend, but if you want to get serious about climate change,
really serious, in line with the science, and you want to meet
targets like 80 percent emissions cuts by midcentury in the
developed world, then you need to be intervening strongly in the
economy, and you can’t do it all with carbon markets and
You have to really seriously
regulate corporations and invest in the public sector. And we
need to build public transport systems and light rail and
affordable housing along transit lines to lower emissions. The
market is not going to step up to this challenge.
We must do more: rebuild levees and
bridges and the public sphere, because we saw in Katrina what
happens when weak infrastructure clashes with heavy weather -
it’s catastrophe. These climate deniers aren’t crazy - their
worldview is under threat.
If you take climate change
seriously, you do have to throw out the free-market playbook.
What is the political philosophy
that underscores those who accept climate change versus those
who deny it?
The Yale cultural cognition project has looked at cultural
worldview and climate change, and what’s clear is that ideology
is the main factor in whether we believe in climate change.
If you have an egalitarian and
communitarian worldview, and you tend toward a belief system of
pooling resources and helping the less advantaged, then you
believe in climate change. And the stronger your belief system
tends toward a hierarchical or individual worldview, the greater
the chances are that you deny climate change and the stronger
your denial will be.
The reason is clear: it’s because
people protect their worldviews. We all do this. We develop
intellectual antibodies. Climate change confirms what people on
the left already believe.
But the Left must take this
confirmation responsibly. It means that if you are on the left
of the spectrum, you need to guard against exaggeration and your
own tendency to unquestioningly accept the data because it
confirms your worldview.
Members of the Left have been
resistant to acknowledging that this worldview is behind their
support of climate action, while the Right confronts it head on.
Why this hesitancy among liberals?
There are a few factors at work. Climate change is not a big
issue for the Left.
The big left issues in the United
States are inequality, the banks, corporate malfeasance,
unemployment, foreclosures. I don’t think climate change has
ever been a broad-based issue for the Left.
Part of this is the legacy of
siloing off issues, which is part of the NGO era of activism.
Climate change has been claimed by the big green groups and
they’re to the left. But they’re also foundation funded. A lot
of them have gone down the road of partnerships with
corporations, which has made them less critical.
The discourse around climate change
has also become extremely technical and specialized. A lot of
people don’t feel qualified and feel like they don’t have to
talk about it.
They’re so locked into a logic of
market-based solutions - that the big green groups got behind
cap and trade, carbon markets, and consumer responses instead of
structural ones - so they’re not going to talk about how free
trade has sent emissions soaring or about crumbling public
infrastructure or the ideology that would rationalize major new
investments in infrastructure. Others can fight those battles,
During good economic times, that may
have seemed viable; but as soon as you have an economic crisis,
the environment gets thrown under the bus, and there is a
failure to make the connection between the economy and the
climate crisis - both have roots in putting profits before
You write in your article, “After years of recycling, carbon
offsetting, and light-bulb changing, it is obvious that
individual action will never be an adequate response to the
climate crisis.” How do we get the collective action necessary?
Is the Occupy movement a step in the right direction?
The Occupy movement has been a game changer, and it has opened
up space for us to put more radical solutions on the table. I
think the political discourse in the United States is centered
around what we tell ourselves the American public can handle.
The experience of seeing these
groups of young people put radical ideas on the table, and
seeing the country get excited by it, has been a wake up call
for a lot of people who feel they support those solutions - and
for those who have said, “That’s all we can do.”
It has challenged the sense of what
is possible. I know a lot of environmentalists have been really
excited by that. I’m on the board of 350.org, and they’ll be
doing more and more work on the structural barriers to climate
The issue is why? Why do we keep
losing? Who is in our way?
We’re talking about
challenging corporate personhood and financing of elections -
and this is huge for environmental groups to be moving out of
their boxes. I think all of the green organizations who take
corporate money are terrified about this.
For them, Occupy Wall Street has
been a game changer.
What comes after communism and
capitalism? What’s your vision of the way forward?
It’s largely about changing the mix in a mixed economy.
Maybe one day we’ll have a perfect
“ism” that’s post-communism and -capitalism. But if we look at
the countries that have done the most to seriously meet the
climate challenge, they’re social democracies like Scandinavia
and the Netherlands. They’re countries with a strong social
They’re mixed economies.
Markets are a big part, but not the
only part, of their economies. Can we meet our climate targets
in a system that requires exponential growth to continue?
Furthermore, where is the imperative of growth coming from? What
part of our economy is demanding growth year after year?
If you’re a locally based business, you don’t need continual
growth year after year. What requires that growth is the
particular brand of corporate capitalism - shareholders who
aren’t involved in the business itself. That part of our economy
has to shrink, and that’s terrifying people who are deeply
invested in it.
We have a mixed economy, but it’s
one in which large corporations are controlled by outside
investors, and we won’t change that mix until that influence is
Is that possible?
It is if we look at certain choke points like corporate
personhood and financing, and it makes sense for us to zero in
on aspects of our system that give corporations massive
Another is media concentration. If you had publicly
financed elections, you’d have to require public networks to
give airtime to candidates. So the fact that networks charge so
much is why presidential elections cost more than a billion
dollars, which means you have to go to the 1 percent to finance
These issues are all linked with the idea that
corporations have the same free-speech rights as people, so
there would also be more restrictions on corporate speech.
Entrepreneur and writer Peter Barnes has argued that what’s
missing is adequate incorporation of the “commons sector” in the
economy - public goods like natural and social capital.
“Capitalism 3.0” he calls it, which we’d achieve not by
privatizing these goods but by creating new institutions such as
public-asset trusts. What’s your opinion of this approach?
I definitely think it’s clear that the road we’ve been on -
turning to the private sector to run our essential services -
has proven disastrous.
In many cases, the reason why it was
so easy to make arguments in favor of privatization was because
public institutions were so cut off and unresponsive and the
public didn’t feel a sense of ownership. The idea that a private
corporation has valued you as a customer was a persuasive
Now it turns out both models have failed.
So this idea that there is a third
way - neither private nor state-run public - is out there.