The impoverished imagination of neoliberal climate “solutions

“All of the above” is a highly selective proposition.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readOct 31, 2023

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The cover for the paperback of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ The rising sun image has been replaced with a flaming, angry Earth, which has scorched a nearby building.

This morning (Oct 31) at 10hPT, the Internet Archive is livestreaming my presentation on my recent book, The Internet Con.

There is only one planet in the known universe capable of sustaining human life, and it is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by humans. Clearly, this warrants bold action — but which bold action should we take?

After half a century of denial and disinformation, the business lobby has seemingly found climate religion and has joined the choir, but they have their own unique hymn: this crisis is so dire, they say, that we don’t have the luxury of choosing between different ways of addressing the emergency. We have to do “all of the above” — every possible solution must be tried.

In his new book Dark PR, Grant Ennis explains that this “all of the above” strategy doesn’t represent a change of heart by big business. Rather, it’s part of the denial playbook that’s been used to sell tobacco-cancer doubt and climate disinformation:

https://darajapress.com/publication/dark-pr-how-corporate-disinformation-harms-our-health-and-the-environment

The point of “all of the above” isn’t muscular, immediate action — rather, it’s a delaying tactic that creates space for “solutions” that won’t work, but will generate profits. Think of how the tobacco industry used “all of the above” to sell “light” cigarettes, snuff, snus, and vaping — and delay tobacco bans, sin taxes, and business-euthanizing litigation. Today, the same playbook is used to sell EVs as an answer to the destructive legacy of the personal automobile — to the exclusion of mass transit, bikes, and 15-minute cities:

https://thewaroncars.org/2023/10/24/113-dark-pr-with-grant-ennis/

As the tobacco and car examples show, “all of the above” is never really all of the above. Pursuing “light” cigarettes to reduce cancer is incompatible with simply banning tobacco; giving everyone a personal EV is incompatible with remaking our cities for transit, cycling and walking.

When it comes to the climate emergency, “all of the above” means trying “market-based” solutions to the exclusion of directly regulating emissions, despite the poor performance of these “solutions.”

The big one here is carbon offsets, which allows companies to make money by promising not to emit carbon that they would otherwise emit. The idea here is that creating a new asset class will unleash the incredible creativity of markets by harnessing the greed of elite sociopaths to the project of decarbonization, rather of the prudence of democratically accountable lawmakers.

Carbon offsets have not worked: they have been plagued by absolutely foreseeable problems that have not lessened, despite repeated attempts to mitigate them.

For starters, carbon offsets are a classic market for lemons. The cheapest way to make a carbon offset is to promise not to emit carbon you were never going to emit anyway, as when fake charities like the Nature Conservancy make millions by promising not to log forests that can’t be logged because they are wildlife preserves:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/03/18/greshams-carbon-law/#papal-indulgences

Then there’s the problem of monitoring carbon offsetting activity. Like, what happens when the forest you promise not to log burns down? If you’re a carbon trader, the answer is “nothing.” That burned-down forest can still be sold as if it were sequestering carbon, rather than venting it to the atmosphere in an out-of-control blaze:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/26/aggregate-demand/#murder-offsets

When you bought a plane ticket and ticked the “offset the carbon on my flight” box and paid an extra $10, I bet you thought that you were contributing to a market that incentivized a reduction in discretionary, socially useless carbon-intensive activity. But without those carbon offsets, SUVs would have all but disappeared from American roads. Carbon offsets for Tesla cars generated billions in carbon offsets for Elon Musk, and allowed SUVs to escape regulations that would otherwise have seen them pulled from the market:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/11/24/no-puedo-pagar-no-pagara/#Rat

What’s more, Tesla figured out how to get double the offsets they were entitled to by pretending that they had a working battery-swap technology. This directly translated to even more SUVs on the road:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Tesla,_Inc.#Misuse_of_government_subsidies

Harnessing the profit motive to the planet’s survivability might sound like a good idea, but it assumes that corporations can self-regulate their way to a better climate future. They cannot. Think of how Canada’s logging industry was allowed to clearcut old-growth forests and replace them with “pines in lines” — evenly spaced, highly flammable, commercially useful tree-farms that now turn into raging forest fires every year:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/09/16/murder-offsets/#pulped-and-papered

The idea of “market-based” climate solutions is that certain harmful conduct should be disincentivized through taxes, rather than banned. This makes carbon offsets into a kind of modern Papal indulgence, which let you continue to sin, for a price. As the outstanding short video Murder Offsets so ably demonstrates, this is an inadequate, unserious and immoral response to the urgency of the issue:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/14/for-sale-green-indulgences/#killer-analogy

Offsets and other market-based climate measures aren’t “all of the above” — they exclude other measures that have better track-records and lower costs, because those measures cut against the interests of the business lobby. Writing for the Law and Political Economy Project, Yale Law’s Douglas Kysar gives some pointed examples:

https://lpeproject.org/blog/climate-change-and-the-neoliberal-imagination/

For example: carbon offsets rely on a notion called “contrafactual carbon,” this being the imaginary carbon that might be omitted by a company if it wasn’t participating in offsets. The number of credits a company gets is determined by the difference between its contrafactual emissions and its actual emissions.

But the “contrafactual” here comes from a business-as-usual world, one where the only limit on carbon emissions comes from corporate executives’ voluntary actions — and not from regulation, direct action, or other limits on corporate conduct.

Kysar asks us to imagine a contrafactual that depends on “carbon upsets,” rather than offsets — one where the limits on carbon come from “lawsuits, referenda, protests, boycotts, civil disobedience”:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/aug/29/carbon-upsets-offsets-cap-and-trade

If we’re really committed to “all of the above” as baseline for calculating offsets, why not imagine a carbon world grounded in foreseeable, evidence-based reality, like the situation in Louisiana, where a planned petrochemical plant was canceled after a lawsuit over its 13.6m tons of annual carbon emissions?

https://earthjustice.org/press/2022/louisiana-court-vacates-air-permits-for-formosas-massive-petrochemical-complex-in-cancer-alley

Rather than a tradeable market in carbon offsets, we could harness the market to reward upsets. If your group wins a lawsuit that prevents 13.6m tons of carbon emissions every year, it will get 13.6 million credits for every year that plant would have run. That would certainly drive the commercial imaginations of many otherwise disinterested parties to find carbon-reduction measures. If we’re going to revive dubious medieval practices like indulgences, why not champerty, too?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champerty_and_maintenance

That is, if every path to a survivable planet must run through Goldman-Sachs, why not turn their devious minds to figuring out ways to make billions in tradeable credits by suing the pants off oil companies?

There are any number of measures that rise to the flimsy standards of evidence in support of offsets. Like, we’re giving away $85/ton in free public money for carbon capture technologies, despite the lack of any credible path to these making a serious dent in the climate situation:

https://www.spglobal.com/commodityinsights/en/market-insights/latest-news/energy-transition/072523-ira-turbocharged-carbon-capture-tax-credit-but-challenges-persist-experts

If we’re willing to fund untested longshots like carbon capture, why not measures that have far better track-records? For example, there’s a pretty solid correlation between the presence of women in legislatures and on corporate boards and overall reductions in carbon. I’m the last person to suggest that the problems of capitalism can be replaced by replacing half of the old white men who run the world with women, PoCs and queers — but if we’re willing to hand billions to ferkakte scheme like carbon capture, why not subsidize companies that pack their boards with women, or provide campaign subsidies to women running for office? It’s quite a longshot (putting Liz Truss or Marjorie Taylor-Greene on your board or in your legislature is no way to save the planet), but it’s got a better evidentiary basis than carbon capture.

There’s also good evidence that correlates inequality with carbon emissions, though the causal relationship is unclear. Maybe inequality lets the wealthy control policy outcomes and tilt them towards permitting high-emission/high-profit activities. Maybe inequality reduces the social cohesion needed to make decarbonization work. Maybe inequality makes it harder for green tech to find customers. Maybe inequality leads to rich people chasing status-enhancing goods (think: private jet rides) that are extremely carbon-intensive.

Whatever the reason, there’s a pretty good case that radical wealth redistribution would speed up decarbonization — any “all of the above” strategy should certainly consider this one.

Kysar’s written a paper on this, entitled “Ways Not to Think About Climate Change”:

https://political-theory.org/resources/Documents/Kysar.Ways%20Not%20to%20Think%20About%20Climate%20Change.pdf

It’s been accepted for the upcoming American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy conference on climate change:

https://political-theory.org/13257256

It’s quite a bracing read! The next time someone tells you we should hand Elon Musk billions to in exchange for making it possible to legally manufacture vast fleets of SUVs because we need to try “all of the above,” send them a copy of this paper.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/10/31/carbon-upsets/#big-tradeoff

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