Issue of the economist, with "spin, science and climate change" as the main headline

The Economist newspaper has cultivated a self-image of being the paper of rational capitalist elites for nearly two centuries. In many ways diametrically opposed to the Green movement that challenges the trade-off of capitalism, the rationality of industrialisation and the legitimacy of elites. This week it led its leader with a call for climate action – one of increasingly vigorous calls in recent years.

It’s not only The Economist. The Financial Times leaders call for car firms to be forced into tougher climate commitments while Bloomberg has set up an entire division covering climate change. Do they not understand that ‘“to save the planet we have to kill capitalism”?

The adult thing to do?

One element of this is that The Economist has never been the monolithic defender of the establishment that The Times, or the Telegraph – who still flirt with climate denial – have been. Its ownership structure and subscriber model mean it is not as much a plaything of it’s funders as The Sun or the Mail. It is a defender of a particular view of capitalism, free markets and globalisation, and mostly opposed to crony capitalism of the sort practised by Donald Trump. It also seeks to write from the perspective as the rational adult in the room.

Unchecked climate change would undoubtedly bring to an end The Economist’s liberal, trading globalised world. The weight of evidence is such that no serious paper can deny the threat – which is why the publications mentioned in the previous paragraph represent such a waste of toilet paper. Moreover, there has been a shift in the last few years as even The Economist has realised that the unequal model of global capitalism is heading for a fall, and the fair markets it cherishes cannot be sustained against rampant environmental destruction and inequality. It has consequently become more accepting of government intervention and less keen on austerity.

Renewable energy and green capitalism

As renewables have gained price superiority over fossil fuels, there is a growing movement suggesting that climate change could be solved through renewable energy transition where big oil and coal are overtaken by wind, solar and batteries. The internal combustion engine is replaced with the electric one and the gas heater with a heat pump. This would be a revolution transforming how our society organises and operates, destroying some of the most longstanding and powerful firms in the process. Might it be a capitalist one, measured not be victories of social movements, but by deployment of new technology?

It would need a reworking of market incentives. The Economist is inordinately keen on carbon pricing to fix the market failure that is climate change, particularly carbon market schemes. It could be done and in a way that protects the new giants of capitalism, the tech firms, and some of the old financial elite.

There is money to be made with renewables, more currently than with oil. The world would keep the same economic system. It is an advanced version of the maligned technical fix.

There is much the green movement can agree with. The Greens were the only party to go into the election promising a carbon tax, they are also internationalist and support mass deployment of renewable energy. Outside of climate change they share common perspectives with The Economist on protecting renters and land value taxes.

The parting of the ways

However, beyond there is increasing divergence. Green capitalism is broadly unconcerned with improving workers’ rights, sustainable resource extraction and the threat of corporate power. Tech titans seeing the benefits they could gain from a smart grid are some of the narrative’s biggest advocates. Clean tech mogul Elon Musk has shown a willingness to put his workers at risk for his quarterly return.  Ultimately unconstrained economic growth, as we understand it, and rising overall consumption is incompatible with environmental responsibilities. Basic psychology suggests that while there is inequality there will be a race to increase consumption and while there is inequality there will be poverty.

The relationship of The Economist to the Green Party is similar to that of the Green Party and the Neo-Malthusians, who talk of rationing. As outlined in the series of recent Bright Green articles the Green Party focus is on environmental justice. At this late hour, green capitalism, as The Economist advocates for should be welcomed to start to build a coalition for climate justice, but ultimately it does not go far enough.

PS. Bright Green has big plans for the future, but we need your input. Take 2 minutes to see what we’re planning and tell us your thoughts.

Image credit: David Orban – Creative Commons