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Book review: Helm, Dieter.  The Climate Crunch: How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong -- and How To Fix It.  New Haven CT: Yale UP, 2012.
(crossposted at VOTS and at FDL)

Dieter Helm, for those who are unfamiliar, is a professor at Oxford and otherwise a prominent figure in environmental economics in Europe.  His (2012) book The Carbon Crunch is motivated by the perception that "in almost a quarter of a century virtually nothing of substance has been achieved in addressing climate change." (ix)

There are three parts to his book.  The first deals with the topic of "why should we worry about climate change," and is a discussion, familiar to many readers here, about the nature of human-caused climate change in this era.  It's a discussion, in short, of "greenhouse gas emissions."  The issue of "who is to blame" is of interest, for the most part because Helm would like to suggest some sort of equalization as regards who is to be regarded as entitled to burn the Earth's carbon reserves.  "The fact that emissions are lower per head in developing countries," he argues, "is relevant to apportioning carbon targets." (61)  In the end, Helm recommends the idea of "carbon pricing," which has become a sort of code for an additional tax on fossil fuels.  "The trick is to get that price established," he argues.  "The challenge is not to get the price exactly right, but to make progress away from a situation where carbon is not priced at all and therefore is exactly wrong."  (71)  The phrasing here appears to me to be inexact.  Carbon is already "priced" -- everyone is paying for energy production already when they participate in consumer life, buying goods and services.  Helm's real concern appears to be that they aren't paying enough, and if they were paying more that would be "something which goes in the right direction" (71).  

Part two of this book is about the topic of "why is so little being achieved?".  Helm's discussion here revolves largely around energy consumption.  It is obvious that human-caused climate change has occurred because of the burning of fossil fuels -- so what can be done about it.  Here Helm correctly recognizes that renewables, conservation, efficiency, and nuclear power are at best limited as tools to cut demand for fossil fuels.  We are not, moreover, running out of fossil fuels at a rate with which Helm is satisfied.  Current technologies will be able to burn enough of them to fry the planet.  

The last chapter of part two of this book discusses the possibility of an international agreement to deal with climate change.  Here Helm is pessimistic.  He doesn't think anything "legally binding, international, and enforceable" will be done for a decade, "and possibly never" (170).  

Part three is about "what should be done"?  Helm begins this section with an advocacy of "carbon pricing" -- i.e. a tax on fossil fuels.  I don't share Helm's rhetoric about "markets":

Markets are neutral as regards the demand and supply sides: they look for the most efficient responses, and usually this in both demand and supply.  They lock out lobbying and rent-seeking.  But, as with any policy instrument, what matters is the design of the market, and in particular the level of the price. (180)
I rather suspect this approach of being chained to market ideology.  "Markets" in the real world are a vehicle for one side to take undue advantage of another.  This is in fact what capitalism is all about -- "markets," especially markets for labor, allow the investor classes to profit by moving money around, and encourage the rest of us to envy those who make a living from profit as such.

Oh, sure, "we" (assuming the fantasy of "if we were dictators") can create more or less useful "markets" as regards "carbon emissions" and thus as regards climate change, but if we were to do so, the economy would still be stuck on the wrong track.  From Magdoff and Foster's "What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know About Capitalism":

A carbon tax of the kind proposed by James Hansen, in which 100 percent of the dividends go back to the public, thereby encouraging conservation while placing the burden on those with the largest carbon footprints and the most wealth, could be instituted. New coal-fired plants (without sequestration) could be blocked and existing ones closed down. At the world level, contraction and convergence in carbon emissions could be promoted, moving to uniform world per capita emissions, with cutbacks far deeper in the rich countries with large per capita carbon footprints. The problem is that very powerful forces are strongly opposed to these measures. Hence, such reforms remain at best limited, allowed a marginal existence only insofar as they do not interfere with the basic accumulation drive of the system.

Indeed, the problem with all these approaches is that they allow the economy to continue on the same disastrous course it is currently following.

Anyone advocating prohibitive "carbon prices" is doubtless going to go up against the outrage, both populist and corporate, of those who must pay such prices while remaining in the competitive tug-of-war of a capitalist system.

At any rate, having established a sort of "market" purview for his notion of solutions, Helm then proceeds to analyze energy solutions.  Since in his opinion alternative energy is not quite yet economically "viable," the author recommends a transitional energy approach largely based upon the exploitation of natural gas and of conservation options until renewable energy technologies are more advanced.  Helm does not like ecosocialism, writing that it "arguably goes against the grain of human nature" (239).   My conclusions about all this are below the fold.


Helm's book on climate change is definitely not as difficult to digest as Mark Lynas' The God Species (Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2011), which argues that economic growth is unstoppable and that we need nuclear power and genetic engineering to make world society prosperous while we phase out our carbon addiction. Lynas should instead be famous as the author of a graphic, convincing, and well-researched depiction of global warming titled Six Degrees which I reviewed back in 2007. Lynas' analysis in The God Species is the result of an overspecialization upon global warming combined with an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism, as this reviewer showed. At the end of his book Lynas argued that:

I hope this book has shown convincingly that while ecological limits are real, economic limits are not. We can respect all of the boundaries at the same time as eliminating poverty, allowing for a peak in world population around mid-century and within the context of an economic system that requires growth. (Lynas, 241-242)
The problem, of course, with capitalist economic growth is that there really are natural limits to it, and these limits don't restrain themselves to global warming side effects. Jason W. Moore refers to this as "peak appropriation" -- the representatives of capital regard the whole world as a profit making machine, and so they rearrange the world to make profit. But that process can really only go so far before the capitalist world system fails to make a profit. Meanwhile, spreading ecological devastation will continue to do its dirty deed upon the rest of us.

Unlike Lynas, Helm recognizes, at least, that there will be no pain-free mitigation of climate change. Helm's caution with some of the more oft-proposed "solutions" to the climate change problem is to be admired. At the same time, unfortunately, Helm proposes "market" solutions which would in fact require the invocation of the sort of political change that he himself regards as unfeasible when applied to other proposals.

Originally posted to Postcapitalism on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 02:40 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, Climate Hawks, DK GreenRoots, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (29+ / 0-)

    "Every time you opt in to kindness/ Make one connection, used to divide us/ It echoes all over the world" -- from Dar Williams' "Echoes"

    by Cassiodorus on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 02:40:38 PM PST

  •  We can't win by playing by the rules (14+ / 0-)

    Capitalism is like yeast. It will grow until it consumes all in a suicidal feast of terminal narcissism.

    Unfortunately, all "modern" growth oriented systems suffer from the same basic flaw as capitalism. Nature is treated as a place where you can get something for nothing or very little.

    Traditional societies that were based on survival, not growth, are more sustainable and durable.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 03:09:43 PM PST

    •  Right -- (7+ / 0-)

      this is what Bill McKibben gets.

      "Every time you opt in to kindness/ Make one connection, used to divide us/ It echoes all over the world" -- from Dar Williams' "Echoes"

      by Cassiodorus on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 03:49:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And This Shows That Both Individuals and Human (10+ / 0-)

      culture generically are adapted to scarcity and hard limitations. But our modern economies and governing systems have spent the last 1,000 years with cheap surpluses flowing into the system and so they're very poorly adapted to scarcity and as you say zero growth.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 04:37:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yeast analogies (10+ / 0-)

      have a glaring truth to them that is often missed. Yeast, in their "suicidal feast of terminal narcissism" are natural organisms; they have evolved their behavior over aeons and it has led to their success at surviving in Nature's evolutionary forge.

      When we compare ourselves to yeast we are comparing ourselves to a natural organism. "Narcissism" - a hungry lion would kill and eat the last black rhino on the planet without a second thought.

      The thing that has really screwed us up is our unique pre-frontal cortex wherein we can escape the natural narcissism of evolution and think about what we are doing... while at the same time thinking up powerful tools to enable that natural narcissism to realize the "goal" of every species - to cover the planet with their, and theirs alone, offspring.

      Death keeps this natural narcissism in check - whether it be predation, disease, starvation or competition - all forces we are actively fighting against with our uniquely capable big brains. Brains that may end up destroying the planet we have evolved to survive upon.

      muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

      by veritas curat on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 04:47:24 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeast sporulate (0+ / 0-)

        Then they sit dormant in the bottom of the bottle for a long time, until conditions are again favorable to reproduce.

        Do the Kochs know something we don't?  Have their paid shills figured out a way for them to sporulate until the next Ice Age and global warming is but a distant memory?

    •  yeah. that's the scary part. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cassiodorus, SolarMom

      if necessary for years; if necessary, alone

      by SouthernLiberalinMD on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 10:13:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  People are conserving, driving smaller cars b/c hi (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Calamity Jean, SolarMom

      Of high gas prices. Now. Already.  With a carbon tax on gas, the higher price of gas will change people's consumption habits.  You dont have to convince them of climate change with elaborate theories and extensive, complicated data.. etc.  The high price will tell them to use less gasoline.  The revenue from a carbon tax could be invested in more renewable energy, green jobs or to balance the federal budget.  In Texas, wind farming is taking off - not because people are environmentally conscious and concerned about AGW - but because it is an easy way to make money.

      •  That's nice. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        If more people use less gasoline per person, the price of oil goes down and more people will be able to afford gasoline.  Good optimism about the capitalist system, but not about the Earth's atmosphere.

        If they pump it, it will be burned.

        "Every time you opt in to kindness/ Make one connection, used to divide us/ It echoes all over the world" -- from Dar Williams' "Echoes"

        by Cassiodorus on Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 06:01:23 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •   Solution : Gas price support (0+ / 0-)

          Peg gas price at a certain level - high.  Even if demand drops and price drops, make it up with an sliding tax.

          Another solution would be for government to raise prices by buying gas when prices fall, putting gas into a reserve.

          Frankly, everything points to higher energy prices in the future, especially oil.  And if renewables - like wind power - becomes profitable, as in Texas and Iowa, the private sector will take the lead.

          And people want to spend less on heating and cooling.  My apartment building is an example.  We use all flourescent lighting; low flow faucetts; we are charged extra if we surpass electricity quota, so I shut off air conditioning during the day.

          If you dont use market incentives and price incentives, you  must "force" and "coerce" people to do things.  And if you think people hated a minor change like Obamacare, wait to you get the huge backlash when you force/ command them to do things...

          •  No. (0+ / 0-)
            If you dont use market incentives and price incentives, you  must "force" and "coerce" people to do things.
            This assumes the market economy beforehand.  People are forced to participate in "markets" when they could do otherwise -- capitalism IS something people are forced to enjoin.  

            And I'm not seeing a lot of recognition of the major change coming down the pipeline.  Global warming will terminate major ecosystems.  Do you imagine that life will go on as usual?

            "Every time you opt in to kindness/ Make one connection, used to divide us/ It echoes all over the world" -- from Dar Williams' "Echoes"

            by Cassiodorus on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 05:01:56 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Scarcity, High Prices will change behavior (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      We have already entered a period of scarcity.  Tax revenues are down at all levels of government forcing cut backs in government services.  In my state of Michigan, low tax revenue has meant that the road system is not being well maintained, let alone expanded.  The automakers in Detroit are ,  for the first time in my memory, emphasizing small cars, fuel efficiency and electrics.  Lack of government revenue means government workers are being laid off.  Jobs are scarce.  People are questioning - for the first time - the high cost of a college education.

      Scarcity, is having some effect on federal spending.  There is much talk of cuts to military spending and cuts to social spending - Social security and Medicare etc..

  •  Also on global warming (kind of): (3+ / 0-)

    the agroeco diary (if you haven't seen it already):

    "Every time you opt in to kindness/ Make one connection, used to divide us/ It echoes all over the world" -- from Dar Williams' "Echoes"

    by Cassiodorus on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 04:17:03 PM PST

  •  Why Do I Suspect That the Market Will Solve Climat (5+ / 0-)

    change when the pain caused entirely excludes ownership?

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 04:35:16 PM PST

  •  Why we must act on climate change (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, Bob Guyer, Arlys, SolarMom

    Climate change is an express train speeding toward us.
    We cannot stop it, all we can do is slow it down.
    To do this we must, as rapidly as possible transition to renewable energy sources and stop burning fossil fuels.
    We must do this to have any chance of maintaining a livable climate.
    If we fail to act Australia  and its recent fires will be what the future holds for an increasingly large portion of the world.
    If we fail to act the environmental beauty and bounty of this world will vanish

    What follows is a whitehouse petition to transition us to renewable energy sources and get us off fossil fuels within 40 years using a carbon tax and using import duties agains nations that do not have similar plans
    We must do this for our children

    Please sign the petition
    Barry Allen

  •  A few misunderstandings here (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marsanges, Bob Guyer, SolarMom

    I haven't read the book, so I'm going on your summary and general knowledge.

    The phrasing here appears to me to be inexact.  Carbon is already "priced" -- everyone is paying for energy production already when they participate in consumer life, buying goods and services.  Helm's real concern appears to be that they aren't paying enough,
    I'm assuming that like many commentators in this field, he isn't talking about the pricing of carbon fossil fuel, which you are correct, is already priced.

    He is talking about carbon emissions, which the author is correct has a zero price. Hypothetically, for example, if A Corp builds a coal fired power plant and discharged CO2, and if B Corp builds a coal fired power plant and somehow sequesters all the CO2, they nevertheless pay exactly the same price for their coal. Hence emitting CO2 (the "carbon" in the phrase "carbon pricing," not the coal) has a zero price.

    Secondly, I think you are confusing markets and capitalism. Markets have long preceded capitalism. Markets may have emerged with early humans. People have always traded things, and the earliest civilizations traded things using money or some sort of symbolic trade item. There is an odd tendency on the left lately to equate or conflate markets and capitalism.

    Capitalism is a much, much more complicated thing which, yes, centers most economic life around markets, but also involves other institutions like property and contract, employment and wages.

    "Markets" in the real world are a vehicle for one side to take undue advantage of another.  This is in fact what capitalism is all about -- "markets,"
    Actually no. In many cases, markets are simply arrangements where people trade their stuff for something someone else has that they want more than the stuff they have and that the trading partner values less.

    So condemning markets a priori as a solution because you prefer socialism doesn't make sense because almost every socialist society has also employed markets. What makes socialist systems different is that they don't try to organize the exchange of all resources, goods and services through markets.

    Markets work for somethings and don't work so well for other things. They may work for carbon emission pricing. I think it may be "free market fundamentalism" to assume that if we organize carbon emission limits around markets it must therefore work. That is not what he is saying, though. It simply being open minded and open to all solutions to say that markets may be one element of the solution to carbon emissions.

  •  Hey I'm a anti-theorist (0+ / 0-)

    I'm an  artist and the art that leaves me cold and pisses me off  the most are the one's who adhere to theory as though that makes their bad art somehow good. But art is a fantasy it's nothing more then expression of the artist's projection of reality or non reality. A projection a concoction for better or for worse.

    Economic theory when divorced from the reality we all live in tends to set my teeth on edge and is a slap in the face to all human progress and the real consequences of physical  cause and effect.

     Economic theories are a whole other kettle of fish from theories scientific or truthful . A nasty stew that has rendered our home the planet and our human social structures into fuel to feed the beast of growth. Not growth but destruction of both human well being and the earth's capacity to deal with the wanton destruction all for profit for the most vicious, lizard brained, assholes on earth.

    The world we live in is not theoretical it's our reality. The hand of the free market is not good but a real disaster to both humans and the world we inhabit. Growth is part of life but what you are growing is the only question that matters at this point. Monster seeds produce monsters be they reactions from nature or the assholes that pronounce the way forward is death, destruction and killing our our hard won  humanity. For what so that we can win? Win what?              

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