John Buell

Climate Science and Neoliberal Agenda

Doubts about the role of humans in climate change are one source of our slow response to this phenomenon. Science is inherently cautious, providing ample room for doubters and dissent. Combine a cautious science, a “free market” where incentives to serve any long term common good are minimal and a political process biased toward inaction and one gets exactly that, inaction on an increasingly serious problem. Yet before we blame science, the market, or the political process it would be wise to ask if any of these three concepts as conventionally understood is applicable to a modern political economy.

Science is increasingly less a disinterested pursuit than another weapon in advertising and propaganda wars. It has become commonplace for pharmaceutical, chemical, and agribusiness firms to fund research agendas at universities, to vet appointments of academic positions, and to patent and thus restrict access to new discoveries in these fields. This process has taken one more step in the field of climate science. Funding research on climate has gone beyond general sponsorship of broad research agendas, which is problematic enough, to requests for studies to order. Thus the New York Times recently reported on the case of one of the leading climate change deniers: “He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. The documents show that Dr. [Wei-Hock] Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.”

If science has been corrupted by corporate finance, the free market likewise is no longer the spontaneous set of practices that sustain and are sustained by our democracy. Both at the national and international level the fiscal crises engendered by deregulated fiancé have been an occasion to impose deprivations on the citizenry. Thus in the case of Greece, a “bailout” that would do more for German banks than the Greek people was itself predicated on further privatization of Greek public assets. Privatization has become a euphemism for fire sales to privileged elites. The theory and rhetoric of privatization suggest that it will encourage competition among private firms for the performance of public functions, from schools, to parking, to prisons and thereby derive the best service for the lowest price. In practice in an economy already marked by extreme inequality and concentration, the market includes relatively few competitors for the available goods even in cases where awards are not made simply on the basis of pure cronyism. With few competitors and the cooperation of a benevolent state these newly privatized social function are performed with an eye toward the least service possible. One suspects that the recent prison riot in Texas is but the tip of the iceberg in the world of privatized prisons.

Climate politics can be seen as one of the key elements of a larger political movement, neoliberalism. Classic 19th-century liberals like J.S. Mill saw free markets as economically efficient and conducive to individuality and democratic politics. Their modern neoliberal offspring still believe in markets but are less naïve. The power of the state may often be necessary to impose the magic of the market. And though market rhetoric is often used to repress government intervention on behalf of labor and social justice causes, there is no hesitancy in relying on government and the tax system to sustain key market players or the market itself.

Philip Mirowski maintains that neo liberalism follows a three step process. First one denies the problem exists at all (smoking, climate) Once denial is no longer possible, neoliberals intervene to suggest that market mechanisms can be employed to surmount the problem. Once the insufficiency of these market interventions (such as cap and trade) have been demonstrated, capitalism’s capacity for large scale technological development is looked to as a long run answer to the problem. Thus the large coal and utility companies are now seeking massive subsidies for clean coal, a nonsolution to global warming, but one that will enrich these companies. Once these fail, the neoliberal vision trumpets truly large scale geoengineering projects such as reflectors in space to resolve the problems.

Climate science denial is more than it seems. The issue is hardly a scientific dispute but rather one part of a broad neoliberal agenda to intensify control not only of climate politics but the larger political economy. And there is a lesson for progressives in this. We need not only to protect and advance climate science but also to build majority coalitions across national, religious, lines that offer compelling alternatives to our commodity driven society.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2015

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