Climate Change and Self Interest


 I'm reading Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything" currently.  I'm enjoying it quite a bit, although it's quite depressing since it main theme is we, as a species, are creating an existential crisis in climate change because we have no interest in dismantling the unregulated capitalism that caused it. 

As the planet heats up the consequences are likely to be disastrous for the nearly 7 billion people living on earth. (If you want to read a particularly apocalyptic article, I suggest this long NY Magazine article from July.) So why isn't anyone doing more about it all? Why is the United States reversing the Paris Agreement?  

The answer lies in an economic principle: self-interest. This was first discussed by the father of economics, Adam Smith, 

"Self-interest refers to actions that elicit the most personal benefit. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, explains that the best economic benefit for all can usually be accomplished when individuals act in their own self-interest. His explanation of the invisible hand reveals that when dozens or even thousands act in their own self-interest, goods and services are created that benefit consumers and producers."

Why Do Climate Deniers Exist?

So when we look at climate change, and especially climate deniers, who call it bad science, it's useful to see where their self-interest lies. Unsurprisingly 92% of books that emerge about climate change denial are from conservative think tanks. And the modern conservative movement is built on unregulated capitalism above all else. While the current Congress passed their 2017 tax bill, they lied to everyone that this was better for the middle class, when the majority of the tax cuts were for the rich.

But climate change poses a problem for unregulated capitalism because if climate change is true, unregulated capitalism cannot survive. Regulating industry would have to happen for the good of the planet. It is likely that the government will have to raise taxes substantially, including a carbon tax, cap-and-trade agreements, and a large-scale divestment from the oil and coal industry. And all of this will hurt the bottom lines of those in power.

It is likely every person will have to sacrifice how they live also. That means using public transportation more and driving less. That means fewer plane flights. That means eating less meat. And all of those actions will hurt some of the powerful industries in the United States, including the automotive, airline and meat industry.

And so at its core, because it will do damage to their bottom line, it serves most corporations and the governments that support them to deny that climate change exists. (It is not as if these corporations are reading every scientific study on climate change and making strong scientific decisions. No, they are looking for evidence that will back up their worldview.) Greed is all consuming, it seems. And we are willing as a species to possibly be driven to extinction to keep the party going for the rich as long as possible.