Is Free Market Capitalism the Cause of Global Warming?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, February 12, 2015

I’m reading This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate by Naomi Klein, and she has a great explanation why conservatives are so vehemently against solving climate change. Klein says free market capitalism is the cause of global warming. We know it’s people, and I’ve always assumed climate change due to too many people being too wasteful and too inefficient. But Klein makes a case that it’s specifically free market capitalism that’s the mechanism causing the growing CO2 in our atmosphere. She thinks conservatives are savvy enough to know that, and also know to correct the problem would require big government and massive controls on capitalism. Her hypothesis feels right to me.


If you think about it, free market capitalism is based on the idea that natural forces of the marketplace will produce the best economic climate, and that’s probably true if all you care about is increasing wealth. But if rank other factors such as the environment, wellbeing of all citizens, or wealth equality, then those blind forces behind the free market fail. This really is a dangerous idea. Klein asserts that ultimately free market capitalism is no more effective than state run communism as a mechanism for creating a successful society.

I believe Klein is right. The trouble is giving up free market capitalism will put most people on Earth out of a job. What we need is enlightened capitalism, where we substitute conscious forces to regulate the marketplace for the unconscious free market forces. Of course that means Big Government, and lots of taxation – the exact solutions conservatives are rabid to eliminate.

Klein points out we’ve been dragging our feet for decades about solving climate change. Like people who wait until they’re 55 to start retirement savings, we’re at a point where we need to make massive changes. If we started back in the 1980s we could have gotten by with 10% of our GDP. Now it’s going to be painful. The hidden forces of the market place is really a nice name for greed. We live in a plutocracy, where the wealthy rule. I tend to doubt our rich rulers will allow us to make the changes needed to solve climate change. In other words, unless there’s a massive social outcry to change the way we live, we’re going to have to live with the effects of climate change. Klein shows in her book there are plenty of solutions available to us, but will we wise up in the next ten years and apply them?

That’s the other thing she makes obvious – time is running out. We’re about to reach a point of no return, where we can’t break the momentum of the freight train of climate change. Some scientists have made cases we have already passed the point of no return. It’s not like the world will come to an end if the average temperature increases 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit. But the ironic thing is, and here’s my personal prediction, is it will destroy free market capitalism, because the effects of climate change will put us into decades, if not centuries of crisis mode economics.

Predicting the future is impossible. But if you’re running towards a cliff and you’re not slowing down, then it’s not hard to extrapolate what’s going to happen next. If you are at all concerned with the future, and especially about your children and grandchildren, then I recommend reading This Changes Everything. I also recommend Capital in the Twenty-First Century and The Sixth Extinction, those three form an amazing synergy. We can solve our problems if we work at them. You can’t win the Lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.



4 thoughts on “Is Free Market Capitalism the Cause of Global Warming?”

  1. II’ve thought this for some time – with no real restrictions, with some folks thinking they’re entitled because that’s the way it’s always been (the US), and others thinking it’s their turn for the “good stuff,” what’s left? Imo, really effective measures against global warming won’t come until it’s too late. Global warming is just not something someone thinks about when they’ve got starving children. Starving children hasn’t slowed capitalism down. Trying to get anything out of those in power is unlikely without a revolution – the rich and powerful make the laws, control the news, manage the education, and marry each other.

    One faint glimmer – perhaps some capitalist enterprise/entrepreneur will come up with something which fixes global warming and folks can invest in it. lol – I am NOT a big fan of capitalism, but I haven’t seen a better option work in really large countries – outside of Scandinavia.

  2. A second thought – I think perhaps some kind of modified capitalism could provide a better answer to global warming than most other economic systems (what besides socialism?). With the right motivation, like money, capitalism can produce ideas, production methods and meet distribution needs very, very quickly. A business can reallocate resources without going through some kind of parliamentary process, it can provide for a reward system. Unchecked, of course, capitalism will also produce millionaires and serfs

  3. I sent a reply to your last email, Jim, but I might as well post some of it here. I’m not claiming anything for sure, but just wondering…

    I wonder how much difference capitalism really makes. Ask yourself why these companies can succeed at the long-term destruction of our environment for short-term profits. Fundamentally, it’s because of us, isn’t it? No one wants to spend more than they have to for transportation or utilities, and we certainly don’t want to spend more in taxes.

    That wouldn’t change with publicly-owned utilities. Human nature wouldn’t change. “Publicly-owned” means that politicians are fundamentally in charge, and we simply won’t elect politicians who ask us to sacrifice for the long-term good. Just look at the experience of Jimmy Carter. So why would you think that our policies would suddenly become environmentally sound?

    True, there’s the whole issue of money in politics. And sure, profit made by the fossil-fuel industry is spent on propaganda and political influence. And yes, wealthy CEOs are very likely to defend the status quo, just because it’s working for them. But the problem goes deeper than that. We human beings don’t want to believe what we don’t want to believe, and we don’t want to spend any more of our money than we have to.

    That’s why so many Americans deny global-warming. It’s because we don’t want to believe it. (As you know, that’s faith-based thinking, which is the root problem of science denial in general. But it seems to be human nature.)

    And that’s why Americans who do accept global warming still vote for politicians who don’t. It’s because, when it comes down to spending money, the long-term effect on our environment is far, far less important to us than the short-term effect on our pocketbook. And that’s how we vote. (Heck, if it’s just our planetary environment, rather than our pocketbook, we probably won’t bother to vote at all.)

    Without capitalism, we wouldn’t become instant environmentalists for the simple reason that we’re not environmentalists now – not when it comes to spending more money, at least. If utilities were publicly-owned, we’d elect politicians – as we do now – who promise to keep costs low (and who call scientists and environmentalists alarmists). It might be a good idea, and it would probably help some, but how much, I wonder?

    (Note that getting big money out of politics would help. It wouldn’t solve these problems, not a chance. But it would definitely help.)

    1. I would like to think we elect leaders to lead and make the right decisions for the good of all people. Of course, that’s naive. I voted for Obama three times (once in a primary) hoping he would be the kind of liberal that would do something about climate change. He hasn’t. It is possible to make the right decisions, we just choose not to. I put a lot of blame on the Republican anti-science propaganda machine, but the Democrats don’t really try to do anything either.

      We change because of laws. Would anything be different today if we didn’t have the 1965 Voters Rights Act? Or the EPA, or Clean Water Act? We could decide that coal will be as illegal as heroin by 2025, and phase it out. Making such a law would spur development in cleaner technologies. We also need to outlaw fracking.

      We really don’t have true capitalism now – but a mixture of capitalism and socialism. We need more fine-tune our economic system so it protects the Earth. We treat the Earth as if its an infinite resource and it’s not. We need a steady state economic system.

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