The Climate and The Market

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Tompkins Weekly 5-5-14

By Gay Nicholson

Climate change and inequality. These are humanity’s most pressing problems according to Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. Many would agree with this analysis, and further note how the impacts of climate disruption hit hardest on the poor.

Where is our economic system taking us? The powerful forces of industrialization and globalization may have raised living standards for billions, but have they also sowed the seeds of collapse?

Sustainable Tompkins is hosting a spring salon series on ‘The Climate, the Market, and the Commons’ at 7 pm on Thursday evenings at the Sustainability Center, 111 N. Albany, on May 8, June 5, and June 19. The first salon on the topic of climate denial attracted a large audience for a lively discussion on why we seem stuck in denial even as predictions of catastrophic climate impacts intensify.

Our topic on May 8 will be on the role of business and technology in both creating and solving the problem of climate change. Our guest speakers will be Stu Staniford (computer scientist and blogger at Early Warning and the Oil Drum), Marty Hiller (science writer and EcoVillage resident), and Karl North (former sheepfarmer and instructor in ecological agriculture, and writer on systems thinking tools for a sustainable future). They will kick off the salon discussion by framing the debate over whether we will experience a “power conversion” scenario via green capitalism or a “power down” scenario driven by economic collapse…. or some combination designed for a more sustainable transition driven by society and their elected representatives.

Advocates for clean energy, such as The Solutions Project, point to the potential environmental, social, and economic benefits of a swift conversion from dirty fossil fuels to a portfolio of renewable energy sources combined with highly efficient systems for transport, housing, and manufacturing. Leaders like Van Jones of Green For All have worked to demonstrate how this green energy conversion could simultaneously address inequality by creating thousands of good jobs in marginalized communities.

Skeptics of this scenario applaud clean energy initiatives, but have strong doubts that the Market will self-regulate away from the precipice of climate chaos. After all, ExxonMobil is assuring shareholders of its intention to fully exploit their oil and gas reserves, while Russia and other circumpolar nations are jostling for position in the race to drill the Arctic as the polar icecap melts. The Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests are spending millions to defeat the spread of rooftop solar. Given the nature of capitalism with its devotion to profits and the geopolitical power-seeking interests of Russia and China, how will a transition to renewables move fast enough to stop global temperature increases to dangerous levels?

Furthermore, skeptics point to the paradox of energy efficiency measures that have consistently resulted in more carbon emissions as the savings from efficiency allows more consumption in other areas. Market controls such as cap and trade systems have been ineffective and consistently corrupted; and carbon taxes thus far have been too low to deter consumption, while potentially creating a perverse dependency for governments on tax revenues from carbon pollution.

What are our choices in going forward? How much intervention in the marketplace is possible under capitalism? Is there any way to power down our economy in order to protect the future without triggering a painful collapse? Is it reasonable to have faith in technology advances to either aid in power conversion or geoengineer ways to cope with climate change?

The purpose of our conversation salon is not to agree on answers to these questions, but rather to get used to asking them and exploring their implications with each other. The pathway out of our collective denial is built from our engagement with the issues and greater confidence in our ability to create solutions.

(Details about the other salon topics and guest speakers will be posted at

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Tompkins.


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