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Clearing skies: Opening a new path on climate and the future

December 24, 2023

Adapting to climate change does not address the societal systems and values that spawned the current crisis. What’s needed is “systemic adaptation” that fundamentally changes our economy, our politics, and our priorities in ways that put community and the planet first.

Of the many climate struggles going on today, the great one, played out in hundreds of arenas around the world, is the struggle to rein in and then halt the buildup of greenhouse gases. Gaining ever-more attention is the struggle to adapt to the climate impacts already upon us. But there is a new struggle that needs to be joined now: the struggle to learn from our mistakes — the Big Mistake of climate catastrophe. What is it about our society, our economy, our politics, and our culture that has let this giant failing happen? What is it that has led us to this tragedy?

There are a set of readily available answers to this question, the conventional wisdom of the matter. Soulless corporations bent on ever-increasing profits at any cost and on controlling both natural resources and political reality to ensure that their paths stay clear. Pliant consumers susceptible to advertising’s great skill and endlessly, obliviously enjoying the historically unprecedented benefits of cheap energy.

These answers have the ring of truth. But it is critical, particularly for today’s children and the generations after, to understand at a deeper level what has driven the climate emergency. If we can identify the underlying factors and forces that have caused the Big Mistake, then we can say with conviction that these are things that must be different in the world we want for today’s kids and future generations.

Systemic adaptation looks beyond preparing for floods and extreme heat and asks what type of societies will fare best in the future.

Here is one way of framing this challenge. If tactical adaptation is the practical preparation for climate change’s impacts, then what I would call “systemic adaptation” is the design and adoption of the societal changes needed to correct the fundamental flaws that have brought the climate crisis to our doorstep. Systemic adaptation looks beyond tactical measures like preparing for floods and extreme heat, and it asks what type of societies will fare best for people and the planet in the future. It is time, past time, to take up systemic adaptation with great seriousness.

It is not for lack of knowledge, technology, or thoughtful policy proposals that we face a climate crisis. I would argue that we have this crisis for four fundamental reasons.

First, America decades ago unleashed a virulent, fast-growing strain of corporate-consumerist capitalism. This system of political economy — the basic operating system of our society —greatly rewards the pursuit of profit, growth, and power and does little to encourage a concern for people, place, and planet. “Ours is the Ruthless Economy,” said economists Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus in their well-known text Macroeconomics. And indeed, it is.

Such an economy begs for restraint and guidance in the public interest — control that must be provided mainly by government. Yet the captains of our economic life, and those who have benefited disproportionately from it, have largely taken over our political life. Corporations have long been identified as our principal economic actors; they and their well-to-do spawn are now also our principal political actors. The result is a combined economic and political system of great power and voraciousness pursuing narrow economic interests without serious climate and other constraints that responsible democratic government might have provided.

In today’s economy, output, productivity, profits, the stock market, and consumption must all go up. This growth has required vast amounts of energy, to this day largely fossil energy. Growth is measured by tallying GDP at the national level and sales and profits at the company level, and pursuit of GDP and profit are dominating priorities in economic and political life. GDP, of course, simply adds everything up, the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is no deduction for climate change’s vast social and environmental costs.

Profits can be increased by keeping social, environmental, and economic costs externalized, borne by society at large and not by the company. Profits can also be increased through subsidies, tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, and other gifts from government. Today, the annual U.S. government subsidies to the fossil industry are estimated at $15 billion. Together, these external costs and subsidies lead to dishonest prices, which in turn lead consumers to spur on the businesses that do damage to people and planet and to buy more fossil fuel.

It is taken for granted that banks should seek high financial returns, not high social and environmental returns

There are other sociopathic features of today’s capitalism, like the skirting of regulatory requirements and the prevalence of corporate and individual crime, but the system of money and finance deserves special note. Perversely, it is taken for granted that banks and others in the investment business should seek high financial returns, not (with rare exceptions) high social and environmental returns. One result is that today the big banks are financing, among much else, the destruction of the planet’s climate.

Second, our political economy evolved and gathered force in parallel with the U.S. role in the Cold War. The post-World War II era and the rise of the U.S. security state powerfully affected the political-economic system, strengthening the priority given to economic growth, giving rise to the military-industrial complex, and draining time, attention, and money away from domestic and international needs. This deflection of attention and resources continued with the rise of military operations in the wake of the Cold War’s end and, more recently, with the response to international terrorism and near endless conflicts around the globe. A 2019 Brown University analysis concluded that the U.S. military was the largest institutional source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Third, a weak, flawed democratic system has also made the Big Mistake possible. The U.S. political system is corrupted by money, focused on the short time horizons of election cycles and guided by a discouraging level of public discourse on important issues like climate change. From our revered Constitution to today’s campaign finance, the federal government is and has been stacked against climate action. The Great Compromise made by the Founding Fathers gives disproportionate power to states rich in resources but few in people, as does the Electoral College. Supreme Court decisions viewing “corporations as people and money as speech” further empower the corporate sector.

Climate change has been a difficult issue for our political system. It is scientifically complicated, and until recently its impacts have not been acute or immediate, so the problem has been thought a speculative, uncertain matter for the future. Huge swaths of the public distrust science and “pointy-headed experts.” The stage has thus been set for the intentional spread of misinformation and for an entire political party to be in climate denial. Climate action has been further stymied by neoliberalism and its convenient insistence that markets can better manage things than government. The politicians who do acknowledge the climate problem have seen little to gain in expending political capital. No president has set a course to guide the country off fossil fuels, although the Biden Administration has tried.

Our self-centered individualism blocks consideration of the community as a whole. Future generations? What have they done for us?

Fourth. The final, and in many ways the most fundamental, flaw leading to the Great Mistake are a set of dominant cultural values and habits of thought — an outmoded and now dangerous consciousness. Today’s values have allowed us to totally miss the point that the climate crisis is a moral failing. American values are strongly materialistic, anthropocentric, individualistic, and contempocentric. Consumerism and materialism seek to meet human needs, even non-material ones, through ever-increasing purchase of goods and services. Consumption is the biggest variable in the GDP equation. Today’s individualism wars against community and social solidarity. The habit of focusing on the present and discounting the future leads away from a thoughtful appraisal of long-term consequences, as has happened in economists’ models of the future costs of climate change. Future generations? What have they done for us?

In considering climate change, the most relevant failure of our value system is its view of nature and our place in it. Today’s thinking sees humanity as something separate and distinct from nature, and superior to it, rather than as offspring of its evolutionary process and as close kin to wild things. Nature in this view is humanity’s to dominate and exploit, lacking both intrinsic value independent of people and rights that create the duty of ecological stewardship. The idea that the economy is nested in the natural world and should behave like it is largely absent. For greenhouse gases, nature is a ready, free disposal site.

Perhaps there are other paths to today’s climate crisis, but I see these four as the main ones leading to the Big Mistake, at least for the United States. When one considers them, it is clear why systemic adaptation is needed. Taken together they are destructive of people and planet, and unless change occurs, they will continue to be. The emerging climate catastrophe is their most obvious and threatening manifestation, but it is far from the only one.

Yet as daunting as the challenge of systemic adaptation appears, there is some good news. Both practical thinkers and dreamers have turned attention to identifying the initiatives needed to change fundamentally these four drivers of destruction, indeed, to replace them with alternatives aimed at a flourishing planet and flourishing people. Bookshelves are actually full of good ideas in this regard — some reformist, some radical, some near-term, some more distant. These include moving away from GDP as the measure of our economic health and shrinking the parts of the economy that depend on resource extraction, as well as implementing new strategies for building equitable community-based wealth. And there is plenty of room for more ideas as fresh minds turn to the matter.

More and more people are seeing the root of the problem in our misguided value system, and they are searching for new values.

There are positive, encouraging signs and, even more, avenues for civic engagement. Doubts about the current order are surfacing, and calls for transformative change grow louder. Economic democracy is in the air, as evidenced by the growing interest in public and worker ownership and co-ops. A rebirth of protest is stirring in America. Activism is increasing, including labor advocacy and activism among the young, the marginalized, and the victims, including climate victims.

Climate legislation, notably the Inflation Reduction Act, challenges the hold of market fundamentalism. The conventional wisdom that markets are good and government bad is being questioned. The rising menace of climate change is underscoring the imperative of a strong, effective government of, by, and for the people.

Paralysis at the federal level is countered at least partially by impressive initiatives by some states and localities. Indeed, the greatest things happening in America today are at the local level where the future is being brought into the present in countless initiatives. Check out the New Economy Coalition or the Solidarity Economy movement or, more internationally, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

More and more people are seeing the root of the problem in our misguided value system, and they are searching for new values and new lives to go with them. Many now see the need, not for more analysis, but for a spiritual awakening to a new consciousness.

Progress towards systemic adaptation is hardly certain, but for those who care about our future, the struggle is essential.

Gus Speth

James Gustave Speth is author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (Yale Press) and, most recently, They Knew: The U.S. Federal Government’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis (MIT Press). He has served as Dean of the Yale School of the Environment, as President of the World Resources Institute, and as Administrator of the UN Development Programme. He was Chair of the US Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter Administration.

Tags: social transformation