Noam Chomsky’s Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal takes on capitalism and politics

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Several books on the Green New Deal have been released in the past year or two, but none boasts a more illustrious set of authors than Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal, out Tuesday from Robert Pollin and Noam Chomsky.

Pollin teaches economics and co-directs the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has been writing about climate economics and green growth for years, as well as consulting with various nonprofits and governments (he advised Obama’s Energy Department for a few years) on policy and poverty reduction.

Chomsky, of course, has been a notable intellectual presence on the left since the mid-20th century. He’s an analytic philosopher, one of the founders of cognitive science, and a giant in the field of linguistics, alongside his notable contributions as a historian, essayist, and social critic. The author of more than 100 books, he is known as one of the most cited authors alive.

The book is structured around a series of questions, prompts, and discussion points from political scientist C.J. Polychroniou (credited as a co-author), and despite its compact length, it is a sweeping inquiry into the nature of climate change, its relationship to capitalism, what a global Green New Deal might look like, and the effects it may have on politics.

I reached Pollin and Chomsky by Skype to chat about some of the book’s themes, including capitalism, green investment, and the prospects for social solidarity in the face of rising chaos.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

Naomi Klein’s climate book This Changes Everything famously argued that consumer capitalism and climate change are effectively one and the same, that the one is the inevitable consequence of the other. Is that something unique to capitalism, or is it just human nature to be shortsighted?

Noam Chomsky

We should recognize that if global warming is an automatic consequence of capitalism, we might as well say goodbye to each other. I would like to overcome capitalism, but it’s not in the relevant time scale. Global warming basically has to be taken care of within the framework of existing institutions, modifying them as necessary. That’s the problem we face.

When we turn to human nature, the first thing to remember is that we know essentially nothing about it. It’s what I work on all the time. There’s a few small areas where there’s some understanding of cognitive human nature and very little about the rest. It’s all surmise.

If it is true that human nature is incapable of dealing with problems developing over a longer term, if that’s a fact about the way humans are structured and organized, we can, again, say goodbye to one another. So let’s assume it’s not the case.

Then we work within a set of parameters. The fundamental institutions are not going to change in time. Human nature allows the possibility of thinking about what’s going to happen in a couple of decades, even centuries. Assume all that.

Then we turn to solutions. And there are solutions within that set of assumptions. So let’s proceed and work on them. If those assumptions happen to be wrong, tough for the human species. It’s what we have.

Noam Chomsky.
Leo Canabarro

David Roberts

What historical analogues demonstrate the ability of capitalism’s institutions to reform themselves with the sort of speed and scale we’re talking about to limit climate change? I know we always go back to World War II, but there are obvious disanalogies — for one thing, there’s no enemy with a face. What prompts your optimism that the logic and momentum of capitalism are subject to change this big and fast?

Noam Chomsky

The analogue to World War II says that we easily have the resources to deal with this within existing institutions. Then comes the question of, is there an analogue in human history to facing a problem of destruction of the species within several generations? Answer: no. We’re in a new situation.

Actually, we’ve been in a new situation for 75 years. As soon as the nuclear age began, it was evident that humans had reached the intelligence and capacity to effectively destroy human life on Earth. That’s what we’ve been living with for 75 years. What wasn’t known at the time, but is now understood, is that it was also the beginning of what the World Geological Organization calls the Anthropocene, a period in which human activity is having very significant and deleterious effects on the environment.

So for 75 years, we’ve been living with a unique situation in human history. We have the means to destroy organized human life on Earth. That’s never been true before.

We also have the means to overcome that. World War II showed that with existing institutions, it was possible to amass resources on a scale well beyond what is required today. Bob’s work shows that very effectively. So let’s use what’s available. And let’s make the assumption that human beings are capable of looking beyond tomorrow.

David Roberts

A naive view of history might say that as the fruits of science become clear, there’s a sort of inevitability to greater democratic organization and complexity. But the last decade has seen a white revanchist backlash across the developed world, lots of places reverting to crude nationalism and authoritarianism. It certainly seems to throw a wrench in the notion that we’re on a one-way road to greater enlightenment.

Noam Chomsky

What history teaches us is that we have no idea. There are all kinds of lessons. Just take Germany. In the 1920s, Germany was the peak of Western civilization, in the sciences and the arts. And if you look at political science literature in the 1920s, the Weimar Republic was regarded as the peak of democratic achievement. Ten years later, it was the worst place in human history. And years after that, getting back to where it was.

Those are the lessons of history, namely, we don’t know.

Now, if you want to ask what’s happening now, I think we’ve been hit by an assault, the neoliberal assault, which has been devastating. Its basic design leads to high concentrations of wealth and power in unaccountable hands and massive growth of basically predatory institutions, most of them financial. That’s led to feelings across much of the world of anger, resentment, and distrust in institutions, which has some justification. And it’s fertile territory for demagogues; we’ve seen them arise.

But it’s also an opportunity to counter, and we’re seeing that too, everywhere from the streets of America to mutual aid groups in Brazil. Humans are capable of lots of things.

David Roberts

On the left these days, there’s a push for more public ownership in energy. But across the world, it seems like energy markets are already some of the least capitalist. What’s the right level of public involvement in the sector?

Robert Pollin

Globally, 90 percent of fossil fuel assets are publicly owned. So if we say the problem of climate change is private ownership of fossil fuel assets, and we need to transition to public ownership, well, we’re 90 percent of the way there! So that clearly is not a solution.

The cost of generating a unit of energy from solar power, wind power, and geothermal power is now fully competitive, at parity. Trump’s own Energy Department statistics show that, for a kilowatt of electricity, solar is 6.3 cents. Onshore wind is 6.0 cents, geothermal 4.7 cents. Now, coal with carbon capture is 13 cents. Nuclear is 9.3 cents. This is from the Trump administration.

The issue is, how do we mobilize investments adequately to transition into these already affordable energy-generating processes, and energy efficiency? As Noam mentioned, yes, we have a massive challenge, but it is not on the scale of World War II, at least not yet. My own estimate on a global model, we are looking at something like 2.5 to 3 percent of GDP per year, investing in renewable energy, transitioning to electricity, energy efficiency, and reforestation.

As Noam said, we don’t have time to totally overturn capitalism. We have to get to net zero emissions in no less than 30 years, and capitalism is still going to be around then. So we have to think about ways through which we can incentivize this transition that will also be egalitarian, in the sense that it will open up opportunities for small-scale enterprises. It’s going to generate jobs, and we have to make sure those are good jobs, union jobs. There will be jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector, so we have to create a just transition. But that’s all within the institutions of capitalism.

Robert Pollin.
PERI

David Roberts

One longstanding political debate is over how to pay for things, or whether to pay for them. A lot of progressives these days are pushing the idea that the only limit on federal spending is inflation. Where do you come down on that question?

Robert Pollin

You’re talking about modern money theory — I don’t know if Noam has any interest in this question. [laughs]

My own financing model does make use of printing money, just not 100 percent, all the time. I had a piece in the American Prospect last December called “How to pay for zero emissions economy,” and I combined revenue sources. I have a carbon tax; 75 percent of the carbon tax is rebated back to the lower half of the income distribution, so it’s egalitarian. We take money out of the military budget. And then the rest, yeah, I say the Fed can print the money — just like right now they’re printing $4 trillion, minimum, at the drop of a hat. And I’m talking about maybe $50 billion. It’s a minuscule amount.

When this article was published, one of the main proponents of MMT, Randall Wray, somebody I’ve known for a long time, attacked my articles. “How dare you talk about paying, even $1!”

I said, I have 50 percent of the public money coming out of this pool called debt monetization, but there’s limits to that. If we’re going to pay for the green New Deal 100 percent by printing money, and on top of that Medicare-for-all, and on top of that everything else that gets us to full employment, we’re talking about a very dangerous policy tool. When do we know, exactly, we’re going to get to high inflation? And once we get there, all of a sudden, are we supposed to flip a switch and go from zero tax revenue to $4 trillion?

The proposal Noam and I have in the book relies significantly on the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank printing money — just not 100 percent.

David Roberts

Environmental justice has moved to the center of the climate discussion. What’s your degree of hope that, in the face of fear and anxiety and panic, we’re going to transition compassionately, in an egalitarian way?

Noam Chomsky

I don’t see any contradiction. I’m old enough to remember when the Black maids all disappeared from the middle-class households and got good jobs in factories for military production. That had an egalitarian effect. It wasn’t the purpose of it, but it had that consequence. Now we can make it the purpose of things like, say, developing efficient mass transportation, instead of jamming up highways with cars. That contributes to justice and makes people’s lives better, especially poor people.

The effect of pollution is radically oriented toward harming the poor and deprived. When the Trump administration removes pollution controls from factories, who does that hurt? It’s people living near the polluting factories because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. If we end that, we’re helping them. So there’s just a lot of [egalitarian] things that happen almost automatically as the result of the Green New Deal policy, and it can be modified to make it more so.

One of the major issues of climate justice is dealing with the global South — the people who didn’t really contribute to the problem but are now suffering more from it than anyone else. That’s been discussed since the Paris negotiations, but the Republican Party has refused to provide even minimal aid that would be necessary in poor countries.

In India, the temperatures are going extremely high. Well, you need air conditioners. There are cheap, highly polluting air conditioners and there are slightly more expensive, efficient, non-polluting ones. The amount of money that would be required from the rich countries to provide Indian people with decent air conditioners would be almost undetectable. A tiny sum would make enormous difference in people’s lives. There are things like that all over the place.

Nationwide Lockdown To Curb Covid 19 Pandemic
Transporting air conditioners in India.
Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

David Roberts

What do you think about the degrowth movement, the idea that the only way to stabilize the climate in the long term is to cut back on consumption?

Robert Pollin

I’ve been in debates with these people — I have a lot of respect for them and fundamentally share their values. I’m sure I myself could live much more modestly than I do.

But affluent people in rich countries living a high lifestyle do not represent the standard of living for 95 percent of the world’s population. So when we say we have to live more simply, I don’t think it’s fair to apply that to everybody on planet Earth. In addition to that, people are going to keep consuming energy, and we should be in favor of delivering more energy, affordably, so that people can get around and have electricity and have a better standard of living.

The fact of the matter is, degrowth is not a solution, just in terms of simple mathematics. Right now the globe generates about 33 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Let’s say we cut global GDP by 10 percent, which would be a bigger depression than the 1930s. What happens? We cut emissions by 10 percent, from 33 billion tons to 30 billion tons. It’s no solution at all.

David Roberts

It’s not difficult to imagine the right responding to the undeniable reality of climate change with increased nationalism and hostility to immigration. How confident are you that climate change won’t spark a global wave of “green fascism”?

Noam Chomsky

I think the number of people who would think like that is so small that they really don’t matter. If they want to build themselves a gated community up in the Rockies, it’s not going to change much. It’s not gonna hurt the situation. It’s the general population that has to be reached.

Take a look at polls. Turns out that among Republicans, about 20 percent think that climate change is an urgent problem. That’s where the problem is, not with a group of reactionaries who think, I’ll save myself somehow, I’ll take a spaceship and live on Mars. The problem is the great mass of the population who are being deluded by constant propaganda. That’s a problem that can be solved by education, by organization, by reasonable forms of activism. That’s the way big changes have taken place in the world.

Just take our own country. We’re a very different country from what we were, say, 50 or 60 years ago. You go back to the 1960s, the United States had anti-miscegenation laws that were so extreme the Nazis refused to adopt them. We had federal laws in place that required that federal housing be effectively denied to African Americans. Women were not legally considered equal peers until 1975. Things that were considered normal at that time would be considered so outlandish now, you can barely even talk about them.

It didn’t happen by a miracle. And it didn’t mean convincing a couple of white supremacist reactionaries. It meant changing the nature of consciousness in the country. The Black Lives Matter protests created the biggest social movement in history, quickly, because the background had already been established. The same kind of background made it imaginable for the New York Times to publish the 1619 series. …

Awareness and consciousness can change, pretty fast, and that can happen on this too. It better happen, or we’re all in for it.

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