With the coronavirus bringing economies and billions of lives to a halt, an even more significant existential threat that has been looming around, for decades now, has taken a backseat. Climate change is one of the most pressing problems upon humanity, along with the ones created by it, that had been prominent in public discourse before the emergence of the coronavirus. There is ample evidence to prove that lockdowns around the world will not have any significant impact on decelerating climate change. Hence, it is crucial to pay attention to the persistent threat of climate change over humanity.
The core problem with understanding climate change is not the lack of scientific application to make accurate projections but the misunderstanding or lack of attention towards its real cause. To make headway in resolving climate change and better evaluate its causes, the public needs to realise the innumerable ways in which capitalism and governments shape our lives in elementary aspects: our insatiable desire to consume and live materialistic lifestyles, our perception of an ideal life, and how we interact with people, nature and the market around us. Russia’s stance on climate change, a possible benefit for its economy, and the failure of Canada’s promising solar energy project due to the World Trade Organisation provoke discussions of climate change in this article. I discuss these two cases to show that the ideological dominance of capitalism and the political influence of governments over our lives are the root causes behind climate change.
Russia is planning to benefit from climate change, which is causing the melting of the Arctic ice due to increasing temperatures. These environmental changes have been greeted with optimism by the Russian government, industries, and the people. The most important concept to understand Russia’s incidents is ideological dominance and hegemony: how capitalism and governments have designed and influenced the very nature of our lives and, most importantly, our ideas. Our desires and interactions with the world constitute the nature of our lives. Ideas are the primary motivation behind our interactions, actions, and desires. Ideas lie at the core of how we function, and capitalism has been successful in framing our various conceptions of economic growth, the idea of a happy life, and climate change. The endeavor to consistently exploit nature for resources, an aspect of the nature of humanity’s power, is an outcome of the ideology of relentless economic growth.
The rapid melting of the Arctic ice has made the Northern Sea Route accessible for the cargo industry in Russia. The sea route is a lucrative shipping option for the industry because it reduces travel time by nearly 15 days. The opening of the Northern sea route also provides an opportunity for the oil and mining industry in Russia to ramp up their production by installing new mines and oil plants on land and the Arctic ice. Acid rains in Norilsk, a major industrial city, have left the city barren with decimated flora, polluted water, and air which is unbreathable, at times, due to the emissions from factories. However, the residents of the city are jolly about the employment received from the industry giants, even if it comes at the cost of a poor lifestyle. President Vladimir Putin’s top climate change adviser, Alexander Bedritsky, affirms that since the Arctic is a sensitive region to climate change, “the changes occurring are creating a greater opportunity to master the natural resource potential of the Arctic.” The perceptions of the oil companies, the Russian government, and the people echo a similar narrative of the tremendous benefits that warming provides to Russia in terms of economic growth and employment opportunities. Economic growth and employment have come at the cost of the environmental disasters that directly affect Russians and the world; however, they do not seem bothered.
The negligence of the people towards climate change is a consequence of the mindset that has been embedded in their minds by the capitalist empire. Capitalism has manufactured the perception that the primary aim of humanity and every country is economic growth. Excessive consumption, an urge for material wealth, and the yearning for comfort are the factors that characterise our lives, and this form of life helps the capitalists run their factories and generate wealth. This form of life does not seem to be a logical option because it has made it difficult for our species, and other forms of life on earth, to sustain ourselves on this planet; however, capitalism has implanted this conception of economic growth and consumption in our minds, over the past few centuries, as the ideal way to live a happy life. Fighting climate change requires challenging capitalism and the building blocks of materialism. The theory of ideological domination proposed by Marx “suggests that there is in most societies a set of beliefs which dominates all others,” and they do so through their “incorporation in the consciousness of subordinate classes.” Marx’s theory constructively explains the phenomenon of dominant capitalistic ideology governing and shaping our lives. The appalling testimonies of the people in Russia is an extreme manifestation of this ideology. People are blinded by their fetish for relentless economic growth to a point where they are prioritising it over climate change, which appears to bring short term benefits but is a long-term existential threat.
Naomi Klein proposes the theory of disaster capitalism in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,’ which stands for the approach of capitalism to find opportunities for business in times of disaster. The acclaimed theory of disaster capitalism is an upshot of the ideological dominance of capitalism. The Russian industry’s measures towards exploiting the Northern Sea Route and escalating oil and resource extraction is the textbook case of disaster capitalism.
Klein proposes the idea of “looking away” which stands for the various ways of climate denial where people accept and ignore the reality of climate change to different extents. People, including factory workers, industrialists, and climatologists in Russia, present an interesting example of looking away. Russians don’t look away from climate change because they accept that it is causing the melting of the Arctic ice and global warming. However, they don’t perceive these changes to be catastrophic and require immediate action. Russians believe climate change to be a boon because of its potential benefits and opportunities for the industry and employment. Although people consciously accept climate change, they adopt the capitalistic lens to perceive this event. The capitalistic lens is the opportunistic approach followed by the capitalistic edifice during times of crisis through policies like lifting regulations and forcing large-scale privatizations of the public sphere. The phenomenon of disaster capitalism is essentially utilising incidents of crisis to create industries and generate money, and this phenomenon is driven by the primary aim of capitalism: relentless economic growth.
The dominant ideology of economic growth is paradoxical in two ways. First, the benefits that will be reaped out of such disaster capitalism are reserved for a small elite. The industrialists and the government are going to be the only group profiting from the boom in economic growth, i.e., GDP, whereas the people of Russia have more to lose than gaining short term employment. The second paradox is the catastrophic impact this economic growth has for Russia. The effects of global warming and melting Arctic ice that Russia is celebrating has already triggered devastating forest fires around Lake Baikal and in the arctic region of Northern Russia. The environmental impact has been ignored by the people who will be the worst affected by these incidents. The economic system is at war with the planetary system, various forms of life on earth, and human life.
Another aspect of the various obstacles to solving climate change is political influence and power. In “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” Klein addresses the example of Canada’s successful Green Energy and Green Economy Act that was abolished due to the World Trade Organisation’s guidelines and restrictions. Canada had enacted the law in Ontario to promote the transition from coal to renewable energy in the province by providing incentives to the solar energy industry and the local manufacturing sector. It had provisions that required prospective companies to source at least 40-60% of employment and materials from within the province to boost the local manufacturing industry. The plan was lauded by energy experts around the world, and it proved to be a huge success in reducing coal consumption. Japan and the European Union objected to this policy at the WTO for protectionism and discriminating equipment produced outside Ontario. The WTO ruled against Canada, which had to retract the objectionable provisions from the act. This incident resulted in the collapse of the solar industry. Canada’s case indicates the flawed approach international organisations and governments have adopted towards climate change: undertaking counterproductive measures towards and creating obstructions to effective action for climate change.
The WTO and governments around the world have prioritized economic growth over taking productive measures towards tackling climate change. The WTO’s actions and the arguments by opposing countries emphasise that our efforts towards climate change should be in sync with the modern rules of economics. The perception that efforts for climate change need to adhere to economic goals is flawed because not only is it driven by the idea of the superiority of economic growth, it also fails to recognise the massive amount of steps, monumentally more than being taken right now, that governments need to take for fighting climate change. In Canada’s case, Klein posits that the WTO interfered with a successful policy to let “trade trump the planet itself.” Significant progress in efforts for climate change shouldn’t be impeded for economic interests.
Russia’s commitments for climate change in Paris give it the privilege to increase industrial production and its carbon emissions for years to come where, at this point in time, every country needs to take stringent measures for drastically reducing carbon emissions. Top Russian climate change advisor, Alexander Bedritsky, suggests that conventional climate treaties specify that efforts to lower emissions cannot hinder a country’s economic growth. In Russia’s case, international organisations are promoting economic growth at the cost of a disastrous impact on the environment.
The two incidents in Canada and Russia showcase two different ways in which the international organisation and the political climate obstruct effective actions for combating climate change. In Canada, they act as a serious obstruction and, in Russia, a promoter for prioritising the agenda of economic growth. The ideological dominance that capitalism has established is the central cause of the various perceptions of and actions for fighting climate change. People in Russia, international organisations, and governments all around the world exhibit and follow a similar ideology; however, the people are disadvantaged and blinded from harsh realities. The environment and the urgency of climate change are sabotaged for economic and political benefits.
- Borunda, A. (2020, May 20). “Plunge in carbon emissions from lockdowns will not slow climate change.” Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/05/plunge-in-carbon-emissions-lockdowns-will-not-slow-climate-change/
- News, Vice. “Russia Is Profiting Off Global Warming | VICE on HBO”. YouTube video. March 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbtZaqWVUgA
- Abercrombie, Nicholas, and Bryan S. Turner. “The Dominant Ideology Thesis.” The British Journal of Sociology 29, no. 2 (1978): 149-70. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/589886.pdf
- Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Knopf Canada, 2007.
- Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything : Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York :Simon & Schuster, 2014.
- Watts, Jonathan. “Arctic Wildfires Spew Soot and Smoke Cloud Bigger than EU.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/12/arctic-wildfires-smoke-cloud
Aman Khullar is a Student of Political Science and Economics at Ashoka University.