Bill McKibben’s and the Climate Movement’s Fatal Misunderstanding of the Role of Demand (for Energy/Fossil Fuels)

By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

Last week, Bill McKibben penned an op-ed in the New York Times with the title “Obama’s Catastrophic Climate-Change Denial” in response to the Administration’s decision to allow Shell Oil to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Here finally, after years of gentle chiding, I thought, one of the leaders of the US (and worldwide) climate movement would compare the Obama Administration’s rhetoric to the stark reality of the Administration’s negligent policy with regard to energy and climate action.  Obama (whom I campaigned for in 2008) has been treated gently by most progressives in ways that have compromised the content of contemporary progressive politics as well as action on climate change. Of course, the Obama Administration’s actions, such as his EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants are preferable to what is likely the Republicans would have done in office. This McKibben also acknowledges.

But compared to the possibility of destruction of human civilization due to carbon emissions and subsequent warming, the Obama Administration’s climate-related government actions can only be viewed as weak concessions or palliatives. Obama and the Democrats also have, with tepid policy proposals and concerned-sounding rhetoric, partially paralyzed the climate movement and encouraged false hope and paralysis within a movement that might have grown in number and risen up to change our government’s policies on climate (and other issues).

And indeed, on the issues of the Obama Administration’s policy attitude towards fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration projects, McKibben, at the end of the piece does make a convincing case that the Obama style of climate action is the type that

accept(s) the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground”

As someone who has been deeply critical of existing climate policy and sees a crucial role for a combative yet policy-savvy climate movement, I have looked forward to the “real” climate movement defining itself more clearly from, applying Yves Smith’s term for false progressives, the pacifying “Vichy” climate movement, enmeshed as it is in neoliberal ideas about government and the economy. Here from McKibben is at least one point of differentiation from the warm, stultifying embrace of the center-right, neoliberal Democratic Party apparatus.

However, as right as McKibben is, on a moral level, to call out the Obama Administration’s hypocrisy, he also, as clearly as ever, displays in his logic a theory of social, economic and technical change that is at best naïve and at worst a catastrophic dead-end for the climate movement and therefore, probably, humanity. In this theory, the role of demand for fossil fuels takes a backseat to the implied political scenario of “stoppering” the SUPPLY of fossil fuels, “keeping carbon in the ground”, as if via the sheer force of a moral-ethical “lid”. I understand and encourage the symbolic power of protests such as those occurring in Puget Sound by valiant kayakers against Shell’s Arctic-bound oil rig but, unfortunately, the climate movement cannot remain only in the realm of symbolism.

If it is any comfort to McKibben and the climate movement more generally, their view of how progressive social change happens is widely shared not only in the climate movement but also more generally on what might be called the “moralistic” liberal-Left, with its roots in the abolitionist movement of the 19th Century.  In this tradition, morality and moral outrage sometimes obscure a fuller understanding of the details of human society that enmesh and preoccupy most people in society as a whole, including their anchoring in economic life and economic preoccupations. McKibben is not the originator but he is a key proponent of a view of society and therefore a political strategy that limits the climate movement to its current fairly circumscribed role in the politics of key industrial and extractive economies on the world stage.

In the course of his op-ed, McKibben, waves off the idea of dealing with what he terms, the “demand side” as the trite, gradualistic and already-tried policy orientation of the Obama Administration and other governments. After a brief paragraph that listed three initiatives of the Obama Administration, only one of which could be characterized as dealing (meekly) with the demand side (Obama’s higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks in the future), McKibben blithely dismisses this aspect of policy and politics, which he obviously doesn’t fully understand, as hackneyed and not the “real deal”:

But you can’t deal with climate on the demand side alone. If we keep digging up more coal, gas, and oil, it will be burned, if not here, then somewhere else.

Somehow, it appears that McKibben believes that demand, which he recognizes within the same sentence as literally voracious, can be ignored and the focus must be on supply, which he believes is the place to start climate politics and policy. In the subsequent sentence, McKibben cites a study in the venerable natural scientific (but not social scientific) journal Nature as support for his previous assertions drenched in unrealistic assumptions about human nature and how economies work:

This is precisely the conclusion that a study in the journal Nature reached in January: if we’re to have chance of meeting even Mr. Obama’s weak goal of holding temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, we have to leave most carbon underground.

Contra McKibben’s assertion here, the study in Nature wasn’t endorsing McKibben’s implied theory of HOW to keep “most carbon underground”.   With this rhetorical move, McKibben makes it appear as though his views about society, politics and the economy are “natural” or at least the only ethically supported position based on natural (climate) science, i.e. indisputable.

The Magical Politics of Heroic Abstention/Heroic Blockade

Returning now to the beginning of the op-ed, McKibben suggests an implied theory of social change that is actually quite bizarre given the nature of the climate change challenge, a challenge which he has otherwise done so much to expose and against which he has valiantly agitated for 25 years.   I am 100% with McKibben in supporting the GOAL of keeping as much carbon as possible in the ground. But the MEANS by which McKibben imagines this happening is strange and unscientific, in terms of our best understanding of human societies, individual human beings, and the functioning of the economy.

Before turning to address the Obama Administration’s failings more fully as cited above, McKibben starts by scolding Shell Oil for its lack of responsibility to people and planet, while putting Obama in the role of the enabler rather than a primary moral actor.

No, what’s extreme here is the irresponsibility of Shell, now abetted by the White House. A quarter century ago, scientists warned that if we kept burning fossil fuel at current rates we’d melt the Arctic. The fossil fuel industry (and most everyone else in power) ignored those warnings, and what do you know: The Arctic is melting….

McKibben makes Shell and other oil companies those most lacking in responsibility in climate change, an attitude that is widespread in the climate movement, in particular that part focused on fossil fuel divestment, a cause which I also support. Despite the op-ed’s title, he (still) finds the oil companies, in this case Shell to be the primary culprits.

While a familiar stance in the world of the liberal-left, calls for moral regeneration within and social moral leadership from the corporate world are, I believe, asking way too much of corporate entities like Shell and others. Corporations, in general, are not the leading edge of any moral crusade, generally adopting the rhetoric of such movements only when it is amply clear that their stance is close to, if not trailing, conventional wisdom. Certainly corporations will almost never take stances that endanger their revenue stream and profitability, as would climate action for the fossil fuel sectors.  Effective climate action will be humanity’s greatest moral crusade but it takes an act of perverse creativity, to say the least, to imagine that oil companies will have a major role in leading people away from the use of their product. While the leaderships of the oil companies are adults, to ask the oil companies to foreswear sale of their core products, before the general population foreswears their use, is a little like telling a baby not to poop in its diapers.

Furthermore, to fill out the context of these remarks, the climate movement has not yet held up a positive role for government in the transition to a net zero carbon, climate-stable future.  Some in the “right-wing” of the climate movement are beholden to neo-liberal ideas about the leading role of markets in the economy while others on the “left-wing” of the climate movement are caught in anarcho-communitarian ideas about “communities” making government functions redundant. In my reckoning only the Climate Mobilization, a new and relatively small group, has in the United States held up an activist role for government, commensurate with the challenge of climate catastrophe and the possible end of human civilization. The call of the Climate Mobilization to date has not gotten the traction it deserves. Along with McKibben, the climate movement has been too busy decrying the perfidy of the fossil fuel companies and ignoring what government and the citizenry at large can do to lead society out of its fossil fuel dependence.

Rather than focus on how government and the people can help build the climate-stable future, it would seem that McKibben is waiting for two fairly unlikely events to magically usher in the post-fossil fuel era. On the one hand, the fossil fuel companies would have to heroically abstain from the profits they would achieve from the “carbon bubble”.  Or in another version of this same scenario as outlined by McKibben, government would cease to “enable” the fossil fuel companies and they would then be forced to become “responsible” moral leaders of society as a whole or more particularly the energy industry. This is, in itself a low probability event if asked of any business group, let alone companies who profit from using the atmosphere as an emissions dump.

On the other side of the coin, McKibben and others in the movement imagine what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia”, various acts of civil disobedience by members of the movement, literally “stoppering” fossil fuel extraction projects, thereby literally “keeping the carbon in the ground” by sheer moral force or by representing a moral example.   We have such an heroic example of this, this weekend in Seattle, facing Shell’s oil rigs bound for the Arctic. I am all for this type of protest that has great symbolic value but despite this heroism and symbolism, climate politics, unfortunately needs to be much more. It does involve, in some way, as Klein has stated “changing everything”.

McKibben and the climate movement seem to be imagining that, in ways that remain unstated, these heroic acts of resistance or, given the forces arrayed against them, the power of the symbolism of their actions themselves would “force” people not to buy and use fossil fuels. Alternatively, and I would wish for this unlikely outcome, they hope that people and governments would have an “ah-ha” moment upon observing the heroic blockades and suddenly “invent the post-carbon future,” with no specific demands from the climate movement other than “stop” or maybe a vague call for “100% renewable energy”.

Effective Climate Action = Transformation of Demand + Alternative Supply

The “demand-side” cannot be so easily dismissed both in designing effective climate action/climate policy and more generally in any realistic understanding of the economy. The Keynesian Revolution in economics, still unfortunately controversial but a significant advance over non- and pre-Keynesian economics, pointed out that human wants and needs plus the social sanction to purchase goods and services, i.e. money/credit, drive economic activity and the business cycle. In fact the end of the fossil fuel age will occur, barring some unforeseen disappearance of the supply of these fuels, when demand for them will have shriveled up. That demand will shrivel up because governments and people together design policy and act so as to make fossil fuels superfluous for a functioning complex society.

McKibben in his oped betrays an unbelievably narrow understanding of how demand for fossil fuels drives the fossil fuel economy and therefore most of the positive forcings on global temperatures. McKibben and the climate movement must come to understand that people buy fossil fuels and the devices that use those fuels because they want to use ENERGY, the helpful “genie” of the economy. And most people are using that energy not primarily because they have a fascination with energy or its direct physical effects like the sensation of kinesis. Energy is an “intermediate good” for almost all activity in our current economies, the satisfactions which people require to live or desire to live what they believe to be a better life.

It is strange that this needs rehearsing but the demand for fossil fuels or alternative sources of energy exists because people want to travel, regulate the temperatures of their immediate environments, connect with other people they know, receive goods and services they enjoy.  The energy per se is secondary to the goals that people have in our current societies. People don’t generally desire the energy they desire what the energy can do for them or make easier for them to do.

It is from a psychological standpoint understandable though fatally wrong for members of the climate movement to simplify the conflict into a moral contest between the evil fossil fuel industries and the good climate movement. The actual terrain of effective climate action is and will be in persuading politicians and the public to transform via savvy political actions, via policy, and via everyday decisions the demand for energy and the type of energy produced. This is a more daunting task for those prone to see the world in black and white, good vs. evil, as this will require people to engage in an all-fronts battle to persuade their neighbors, friends, and relatives to contemplate a change in lifestyle and politics before it is too late for succeeding generations.

To be fair, though not beloved of McKibben and “Blockadians”, the more mainstream parts of the climate movement have embraced a tepid demand-side policy, carbon pricing, often in weakened forms, such as in cap and trade.   The most direct effects of carbon pricing at appreciably high levels will be to suppress demand for fossil fuels and perhaps to shape demand for energy by making low- or zero-carbon energy more attractive. However, carbon pricing-only or pricing-based models of climate action are based on wishful, even magical thinking about the role of markets in innovation and producing new energy and transport systems. They also, in some forms and in isolation, can penalize the poor and can overlook critical functions of government unrelated to regulating and shaping market activity, for instance the mobilization of resources, as in wartime or for other high national purposes, for public ends.

What is required, to act quickly on climate, is a thorough-going change, though not exactly an inversion of how our society uses energy, i.e. a return to tribal life, idealized by some. We have opened the “Pandora’s Box” of using mechanical energy to do work for us and we will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. A return to a simplified tribal existence is not a prescription for rapid, decisive climate action. We must together change our society’s metabolism of energy and chemicals that are either in limited supply (such as phosphorus) or create unacceptable damage to the ecosystems that sustain us and the species we depend upon to live.   We must tread more lightly upon the earth and the atmosphere, keeping in mind that we are irrevocably in the Anthropocene and cannot put the “genie” back in the bottle. I am not with the self-proclaimed “eco-modernists” who minimize the challenge of climate change, is has seemed for the purposes that these sophists can twit those with environmental sensibilities and “green” morality.

Climate activists and climate policy cannot just suffice themselves by saying “no” to fossil fuels and holding the producers of those fuels entirely responsible for our predicament. They need to realize that their movement is a multi-issue, multi-sectoral movement to make it possible for people, in the very near future, to foreswear fossil fuel use and still realize many of their current goals: to have families, see their relatives, make friends, accumulate some goods of value to them, have valuable employment, etc. To ignore these strivings, the basis of demand for fossil fuels and energy more generally, is to concede to the fossil fuel economy and the status quo, the immediate welfare of human beings at the expense of the our and future generations welfare in the future.

To do this involves embracing an enormous, government-organized building project to restructure energy use combined with a moderation of energy use, curtailing at least for a few decades the wasteful and luxuriant use of energy enabled by the current relative cheapness of fossil fuels.   I have outlined some of the components of this project here, here and here.   In short summary form, this involves, electrification of all powered machines in our society, structuring urban/suburban infrastructure to enable low-energy or human powered alternatives like bicycles, electric bikes, and walking and frequent electric buses. Buildings can be built or retrofitted to the Passivhaus standard, reducing the need for energy input to buildings and enabling more of the local energy demand to be generated on site, depending on the use of the building itself and its location. Energy generation should be largely from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, buttressed by energy storage and by a wide-area supergrid to match energy generation with demand. I remain agnostic with regard to the role of nuclear energy, which carries with it much higher risks and longer deployment timeframes than most forms of renewable energy. However, I cannot dismiss out of hand that some of the most dangerous aspects of nuclear energy can be dealt with by improvements in the technology.

There exist already advocacy groups, practitioners, and “fans” of each of these individual measures or technologies but it is up to the climate movement to create an overarching vision and drive to push these individual solutions to their full potential. This has not happened to date, as the climate movement has remained either focused on heroic resistance or credulous belief in carbon pricing alone.

Coda on Demand in Climate Ethics

I am open in recognizing that some version of rule-based ethics is one of the primary drivers for effective climate action: if we rely on narrow self-interest as some claim that we can, we will never transform our energy systems in time to spare future generations a climate hell and possible extinction. I prefer a deontological ethics which places survival/saving the human species at the top of a nested list of ethical goals (teloi); I do not see how other ethical stances could lead to anything close to effective climate action.

I surmise that McKibben and others in the climate movement are loath to discuss the demand for energy and for fossil fuels in particular because they feel that this gives ethical justification to the fossil fuel industries, as noted above their supposed primary opponent. Demand for fossil fuels certainly gives BUSINESS justification for the existence of the fossil fuel industry but that in no way is ethical justification.   That people are addicted to nicotine and buy cigarettes is not an ethical justification for the tobacco business but it explains the (still) ubiquity and size of that industry as well as the difficulties that people face in quitting smoking. As some people know, to adopt a “just say no to cigarettes” attitude enables some people to quit but others require techniques of slow withdrawal and use of various palliatives along the way. Social prohibitions may help but they are not the only “tools” for quitting. Despite this, nicotine is not required for people to live and is an individual choice, so people always have a choice to quit smoking.

As noted above fossil fuels and the supplementary energy they provide are different than tobacco use or other mind-altering substances in that they enable other goods and services to be delivered upon which our lives depend. The ethical choice that we face is not “saying no” or “failing to say no” but “which means do we use to make fossil fuel use redundant in a rapid enough manner so we can continue our lives and enable those of the next generations”.

It may help some to come to the “which means” choice by means of a prohibition or a symbolic “stoppering” of fossil fuel extraction but that is not the only road. I would argue that for some that “stoppering” is a distraction and is dependent upon protestors feeling, implicitly that they are taken care of already, so they have the enormous luxury of saying “no” in a symbolic manner. The bigger ethical questions in my view are

  1. Am I willing to engage in an enormous and risky popular political struggle for the benefit of future generations, often opposing large corporate and vested interests?
  2. Am I willing to work on the enormous project of refashioning the energy, energy-using and transportation systems of the world?
  3. Am I willing to, perhaps temporarily, sacrifice certain conveniences to preserve the world for future generations or, alternatively, trade-off one convenience or pleasure for another?

Rather than shut out demand, climate ethics must engage with both the social-psychological and the monetary bases of demand. Similarly climate politics must do the same or face continued marginalization.


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