Parallel universes

Of the 20 years or so that I’ve been observing climate change policy, global developments over the past year have been the most hopeful I can remember, particularly as regards electricity generation

* The Paris Conference was a big success, at least relative to expectations
* Coal-fired power stations are shutting down around the world
* China has reduced its coal use for two years in a row
* India has increased its coal tax, and greatly expanded use of renewables

Whether emissions reductions will be big enough and fast enough remains to be seen, but at least we are going in the right direction.

As far as climate science is concerned, the string of temperature records broken recently has killed any idea that we are in a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. Even the favorite source of deniers, the satellite data from UAH, is now showing a new record. The only remaining issue is the second-order debate over whether there was a pause or perhaps slowdown at some point in the first decade of the 2000s.

At the same time, following the US election, I’ve been paying more attention than usual to rightwing blogs, most of which run climate denialist pieces fairly regularly. Given that nearly all the major US coal companies are now bankrupt, and that coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly, I’d have expected a lot of “wrecking ball” pieces on the supposed damage to the economy (in reality, the effects are small and mostly offset by the expansion of renewables) now that mitigation policies of various kinds are taking effect.

But I don’t see anything like that. Rather, most of the articles I’m reading are claims of victory in the debate over both science and policy. Here’s a fairly typical example, with the title “Is the Climate Crusade Stalling?

We really do live in parallel universes.

186 thoughts on “Parallel universes

  1. @Ronald Brak

    Oops, I made a mistake. I used the term “simple majority” when I should have said “absolute majority” or “more than 50%”.

    “An economy is capitalist when more than 50% of economically active people derive their main source of income from wages while working for an enterprise which is privately owned, in the majority, by owners who are other than the workers themselves. Said owners control the enterprise directly or through hired managers and seek to take a profit from the enterprise.”

    Further notes. From a Deloitte report in 2012;

    “The private sector (in Australia) employs 83% of Australian wage and salary earners, equivalent to 9.5 million Australians as at June 2011.”

    Now, this doesn’t exactly match my definition but at a rough guess about 80% of economically active people in Australia would derive their main source of income from wage work for private enterprise, as I defined things above. In turn, the defining of “economically active” will be somewhat problematic for my purposes. It is clear that non-working children and non-working students will be excluded. It is also pretty clear, I think, that the unemployed and pensioners will be excluded. However, self-funded retirees (whose super income is market linked or bank interest linked) might well have to be counted as economically active people as they are owners of shares in businesses directly or indirectly and usually derive their main income from that source. Self-funded retirees are capitalists or rentiers. Then, in turn, by a kind of technicality, recipients of defined benefit government super are not economically active and are not capitalists and/or rentiers…. or are they? Definitions get difficult at this point.

    Self-disclosure: I am a recipient of a defined benefit government super payment. I like to think I am not a capitalist or rentier. Question of the day, am I kidding myself in this matter?

  2. Self funded retirees are not capitalists because they use their assets to obtain their own living wage (which can be quite high). This does not disrupt the circular flow.

    However if a retiree uses their payment to employ a servant “on a wage” to grow vegetables which are then sold on the market for maximum revenue – then this is capitalism.

  3. @Ivor

    An interesting definition. But is not a self-funded retiree a “rentier” or “rentier capitalist”?

    “Rentier capitalism is a Marxist term currently used to describe … economic practices of monopolization of access to any (physical, financial, intellectual, etc.) kind of property, and gaining significant amounts of profit without contribution to society. The origins of the term are unclear; it is often said to be used in Marxism, yet the very combination of words rentier and capitalism was never used by Karl Marx himself.” – Wikipedia.

    Of course, all these problems of fine definition illustrate the relative futility (and probably social disutility) of attempting to tag each and every individual and enterprise as “capitalist” or “not capitalist”. More to the point is the identification of an entire system as capitalist, predominantly capitalist, mixed economy (mixed capitalist and statist, socialist or social democratic elements) or socialist and so on.

    To my mind, “capitalism” is a system tag and in turn various hybrid systems may exist in almost any proportions. “Capitalist” as a judgmental term is best reserved for the clear outliers who merit it. I will say no more on that point.

    It’s important to remember that some pure systems will never work. It is clear from historical examples trending that way, that a pure capitalist system would tear itself to shreds in short order. Pure socialism might disintegrate in a different way. However, in my opinion we need to move ourselves a long way towards the socialist end of the spectrum. Mere social democracy with a still predominantly capitalist base is not going to prove sustainable at this juncture in history (limits to growth plus late stage capitalism is a really dangerous combination) … again in my opinion.

  4. Further discussion of the definition of capitalism and so on should be taken to the sandpits, please

  5. @Ikonoclast

    If there is a degree of monopoly in the rent then it may be a form of capitalism due to this extra gain.

    But if rent only covers socially necessary labour costs to produce and repair the asset, there is no possibility of accumulating capital.

    There is too much junk in Wikipedia so cannot be used as a definitive basis for understanding these issues.

  6. I can’t resist another another post. Ronald Brak’s insistence of super simple definitions is a trap in many ways (intentional or not) and I fell into it. David Harvey’s marvelous short paragraph “definition” or explanation of capitalism given below illustrates well why my over-simplistic definition of capitalism falls well short of the mark.

    “Capital, Marx insists, is a process of circulation and not a thing. It is fundamentally about putting money into circulation to make more money. There are various ways to do this. Financiers lend money in return for interest, merchants buy cheap in order to sell dear and rentiers buy up land, resources, patents, and the like, which they release to others in return for rent. Even the capitalist state can invest in infrastructures in search of an improved tax base that yields greater revenues. But the primary form of capital circulation in Marx’s view was that of production capital. This capital begins with money which is used to buy labor power and means of production which are then brought together in a labor process, under a given technological and organizational form, that results in a new commodity to be sold on the market for the initial money plus a profit.” – David Harvey.

    In many ways, the above is an excellent and elegant short description of capitalism or at least of industrial capitalism. I am tempted at this moment to think it is the best short description I have found. It contains the seeds of understanding that capitalism is a process and an evolving process; that industrial capitalism could morph into something else like financial capitalism, information capitalism, prosumer capitalism or even prosumer socialism etc. etc. The first thing you need to understand if you are trying to understand capitalism is that you are trying to understand a system as it evolves before your eyes. There is no fixed target, definition or diagram which is going to be easily and simply understood.

  7. “I can’t resist another another post.”

    Please try harder, as any further OT posts in this thread will be deleted

  8. John Mashey,

    That list of 300 denialist signatories would be interesting to revisit in 5 and 10 years time to see if their opinions have changed.

  9. In this parallel universe, ex-minister speaks about how we (Austraya) are doing our bit, working hard to help businesses adapt to climate change, without considering the cuts they brought down the moment they got into power. Furthermore, it is misleading to talk about the money spent on climate change and mitigation research, without mentioning the current crop of redundancies of people doing the fundamental research upon which the mitigation and adaptation strategies are so reliant. This government, with a budget whose chief architect was Joe Hockey himself, did real damage, damage that is ongoing.

    On a lot of fronts, we are making good progress. Sadly, there are those who refuse to participate when they are the ones who can make the biggest difference, and that includes the government of the day. I think back to the early 1980’s, and how arguments about electric power cars would swirl around, with the inventors and the engineers (devoting free time) who would see it as something that could be made commercial, while on the other side of the fence the businesses and the governments said it couldn’t be done, so don’t fund it. Catch 22: fund it, and it can be done, or, say it can’t be done and don’t fund it. The missing meat in the sandwich was fundamental research that affected both the scope of available technology, and improved means to use it; some of that research was privately funded, some by government, but it always felt like driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator. The same kind of loon arguments were applied to solar energy, and once again the arguments against it were based on the technologies available then, not on the new technological improvements made possible by investment in it; once again, many researchers, both scientific and engineering, led to what we have now. There is still scope for massive change in today’s solar energy methods, so we are nowhere near the limit of what is physically possible.

    Governments can make or break the necessary links that enable such changes to be accomplished. It is admirable that governments put some effort into research-to-business links, but that is really the tail of the dog; the rest of it is in the more blue-sky style, fundamental, research. We need to maintain, or to even increase, our efforts there. Fundamental research could just as easily be called keystone research, the stone that holds the rest of the arch above our heads.

  10. @Donald Oats

    With respect to the electric car, have you watched “Who killed the electric car?” The movie might seem dated now as Elon Musk has resurrected the electric car. However, it is not dated in the sense that it illustrates how new technologies or applications which we needed were delayed as long as possible by fossil capital.

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