In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate, Naomi Klein makes the bold and unpopular argument that unregulated capitalism is deterring any serious climate change legislation.
It was an unfortunate coincidence, Klein writes, that serious conversations about cutting greenhouse gas emissions began at the same time that globalization was taking off. In the 1990s, global emissions were increasing at about 1 percent per year. By the 2000s, China and other emerging markets had increased the rate to 3.4 percent per year.
But while globalization has sped up the process of pollution, Klein reserves particular admonition for wealthy capitalists that promise and fail to change the conversation. In an excerpt from her book recently featured in the Guardian, Klein trains her crosshairs on billionaire business magnate Richard Branson.
In 2006, Al Gore approached Branson during his Inconvenient Truth tour to explain the dangers of global warming. “It was quite an experience,” Branson wrote in his autobiography. “As I listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”
That year, Branson made a pledge to spend $3 billion over the next decade to develop green fossil fuel alternatives, as well as other renewable technology. He later created the Virgin Earth Challenge, which would reward $25 million to the first inventor who discovered how to suck 1 billion tonnes of carbon from the air.
Branson started strong, Klein admits, investing $130 million in corn ethanol, but his passion for the project eventually fizzled. To fulfill his $3 billion pledge by 2016, Klein calculates that he should have spent at least $2 billion by now. Instead, since 2006 Branson has contributed $230 million to the cause.
When Klein interviewed Branson about this discrepancy, Branson was evasive, calling his initial pledge more of a “gesture.”
By 2016, Branson admitted to Klein, the total donation will likely “be less than $1 billion right now.” The billionaire blamed the bad economy and failed ventures, but Klein points out that, in the decade since his initial pledge, he has launched a domestic airline, Virgin Australia, a British domestic airline, Formula One Virgin Racing, and invested $200 million of his own money on his Virgin Galactic project.
“He set out to harness the profit motive to solve the crisis,” Klein writes, “but again and again, the demands of building a successful empire trumped the climate imperative.”
Branson, like fellow billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, was more interested in finding a “silver bullet” technology that could sequester atmospheric carbon than in changing how much countries pollute. Gates, says Klein, has urged governments to research and develop “energy miracles” and dismissed renewables like solar as “cute” and “noneconomic.”
Klein is happy to point out that “these cute technologies already provide 25 percent of Germany’s electricity.”
Capitalism, writes Klein, is at the heart of the climate crisis, and trying to use it to fix the climate has proven fruitless.
“We can now take a hard look at the results,” she concludes, “at the green products shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were meant to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed to cut emissions. And, most of all, at the billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided, on second thoughts, that the old one was just too profitable to surrender.”