Richard Smith: Must capitalism end to avoid climate collapse?

Before last night’s passionate and well argued debate at the Royal Geographical Society on the motion “To stop climate collapse, we must end capitalism,” 38% of the well-heeled audience of about 500 supported the motion; 28% were against, and 34% (including me) were undecided. The importance of the debate organised by Intelligence2 was illustrated that the 1200 people were on the waiting list for tickets.

Arguing that capitalism is dead, began George Monbiot, Guardian journalist, polemicist, and long term environmentalist, is the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century argument that God is dead. He then made the case that it was inevitable that capitalism would lead quickly to climate collapse.

Both sides of the debate agreed that we had just a decade to reduce carbon consumption dramatically to avoid global temperatures rising to 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels with resulting climate collapse—meaning mass starvation, inundation of islands and major cities, and probable war over falling resources. This means that global emissions must fall by 7.6% a year, reaching true carbon negative (no offsetting) by 2050. Currently emissions are increasing. Both teams agreed, as well, that capitalism meant private ownership of the means of production with market competition and the pursuit of profit to produce goods and services. Indeed, there was agreement that capitalism in its present form would produce climate collapse. The debate hinged on whether to ditch capitalism or try and reform it.

Monbiot argued that capitalism had three qualities that meant it would inevitably cause climate collapse. Firstly, capitalism depends on growth, and growth means more consumption, which means more plundering of the planet and more carbon emissions. People have argued that Britain in recent years has grown its economy while reducing carbon emissions, but, argued Monbiot, if you strip out the fact that the UK has exported its carbon emissions to countries that manufacture the goods it consumes, and add in emissions from aviation and shipping (which are not included in official figures) then there has been no reduction in emissions. In those years Britain has made massive efforts to reduce its carbon emissions—by, for example, switching from coal to gas and increasing renewable energy—and yet has still not managed to reduce carbon emissions. Capitalism means that those trying to reduce carbon consumption are like people trying to run down an escalator going up.

The second inevitability is that money in the bank means that the wealthy control land, goods, and property. Those land, goods, and property are not available for the common good. Thirdly, capitalism has the aim of making us all rich, but there is just not enough space. The carbon emissions of the richest 1% on the planet are 175 times the emissions of the poorest 10%.

We need, concluded Monbiot, to whoops and huge applause “private sufficiency and public luxury.”

It would be crazy, argued Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, the first chair of the UK Climate Change Committee, and former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, to ditch capitalism at this stage. He had just come back from meeting with the Indian government on reducing its carbon consumption and spends much time in China. If I said to them, he said, that they must start by ending capitalism then the conversation would be over—the Indians and Chinese want the rich that the West have. And it is possible, he argued, to grow and not consume more carbon by buying things like theatre tickets and meals in good restaurants where you are paying for the design not the substance. He argued as well that competition among private companies is the best way to produce ever more efficient and cheaper forms of renewable energy and the batteries needed to store the energy. The sun, he pointed out, each day bathes the earth with energy that is 8000 times that needed by humanity. It will, he said, cost trillions of dollars to convert the whole planet to renewable energy by 2050, but that is affordable as it is only 1-2% of the global domestic product.

But, he insisted, capitalism must be regulated, directed, and taxed to achieve real zero carbon emissions by 2050. For example, all cars powered by petrol must be banned by 2030. He ended with a dig at Monbiot, who has just made a television programme Apocalypse Cow in which he argued that meat production and consumption must end; Turner pointed out that the fake meat that Monbiot praised was produced by a Finnish private company Solar Foods.

The problem with Turner’s argument, said Farhana Yamin, a climate lawyer and leading activist in Extinction Rebellion, is that all our attempts to regulate capitalism to reduce carbon consumption have failed. She worked on the Kyoto and Paris agreements on carbon reduction, and they just haven’t worked. Capitalism leads to concentration of power, and those with power lobby and bribe to keep their power, the value of their investments, and their carbon emissions. Oil, gas, and coal companies spend billions on lobbying and ensuring the election of politicians who support their businesses. We need, she concluded, something like the Marshall Plan (American money and plans to rebuild Europe after the Second World War) or the Green New Deal proposed by Democrat politicians in the US.

Tony Juniper, a former executive editor of Friends of the Earth, argued that if capitalism is to be replaced we must be clear by what and how it will be done. He didn’t think that Monbiot and Yamin had clear answers to either question. We have only a short time to avoid the climate collapse and trying to replace capitalism would create chaos and lose the time we have for change. He proposed a plan to reform capitalism. Firstly, there would be hard legal caps on carbon emissions. Secondly, tools and policies would be developed to achieve and enforce those caps—for example, a carbon tax of $100 per ton. Thirdly, all subsidies to fossil fuels would end. Fourthly, gross domestic product would be ditched as the aim for governments and countries to achieve and be replaced with a measure that pays much more attention to what matters to humans.

In the questioning that followed Monbiot was pushed on what alternative to capitalism he proposed, and he talked of the Commons, meaning, I think, that local people would control land and resources and use time wisely for the common good. But what he proposed, said Turner, was wholly unclear. Nor was there any answer to the question of how we would get there, especially in the short term available.

In the end the failure of Monbiot and Yamin to describe a clear alternative and a route to get there seemed to sway the audience despite the deep skepticism of the capacity of capitalism to reform. The vote after the debate was 58% against the motion, 35% for, and 7% undecided. Turner and Juniper had achieved what rarely happens in debates—they had changed many minds. I felt privileged to have been at such a high quality debate, and I moved from undecided to against the motion. 

A dramatic moment came in the debate when a woman asked what hope she could offer her three children under 10. Turner answered her question by saying that he thought we had only a 30% chance of avoiding collapse, but that he favoured the saying of Antonio Gramsci  that we should adopt “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” He worked every day to try and move the 30% chance to 31%, 32%, and upwards. I cycled home inspired, but wondering if such privileged debates will still be happening in 2050.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interest: RS was a member of the Young Communist League when a teenager, but in 1989-90 spent a year at the Stanford Business School. Subsequently he was chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group, which was a business making profits. He is now the chair of Patients Know Best, a for-profit company, but also chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and a member of the NHS Net Zero Panel.