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Climate Change:
What is to be Done?


Let me start with a blunt statement: It seems to me quite likely that weather calamities will get worse in coming decades and major climate catastrophes implying many fatalities, perhaps many hundred million deaths, will occur before the end of the century. There are major uncertainties about such a forecast but, unfortunately, considering the key aspects of the problem, the chance of avoiding a catastrophic outcome of that kind seems slim. The progress toward disaster will likely evolve as a continuation of present trends, with increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts, major hurricanes, and flooding because of torrential rains. Leaving aside the possibility of more unpredictable events, also catastrophic—like changes in oceanic currents that would lead to freezing temperatures in Europe—the process of increasingly frequent weather extremes will be eventually compounded by the flooding of coastal areas due to the melting of Antarctic and Greenlandic ice. Recent heat waves in Europe and Australia, wildfires in Portugal and California, droughts and hurricanes worldwide and specifically in major areas of the United States and the Caribbean, illustrate how climate changes and weather extremes, which are already causing severe harm to natural systems, are also causing disruption of human societies. Of course, weather extremes like these have occurred previously, and it is impossible to be certain that any particular hurricane or drought in recent years is attributable to man-made climate change. But, for instance in the Peruvian Amazonia, 2005 and 2010 saw two of the worst four droughts in the past 120 years; then in 2011 and 2012 flooding took place with water reaching levels that had only been registered twice in the past 100 years, with the largest river flow ever measured there registered in April 2012. What meteorologists tell us is that there is very little doubt that the increasing frequency of weather extremes worldwide is caused by human activities.

Of course, the damage caused by climate change to human societies will become much more serious when flooding will start to significantly affect the coastal areas where a rapidly increasing population lives—now over 1.5 billion, about a fifth of the world people. Before the end of the century nations that are largely at sea level—like Bangladesh, Vanuatu, or the Netherlands—and cities—such as New York, London, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Sidney, Shanghai, Havana, Venice, Jakarta, Manila, Dacca, and many others—may be largely or totally under water. Significant disruption of food production because of altered weather patterns and reduced harvests and large displacements of many millions of people stoking international tensions and conflicts will increase the likelihood of local wars and of course, world war. Even without war, forced migration and social disruption is likely to cause millions of deaths.

Climate experts agree that there are major uncertainties about how quickly climate change can reach critical levels. But they also are largely in agreement that the range of outcomes to be expected if present trends continue includes catastrophic climate disruption and sea level rise of at least several feet before the end of the century. In terms of mortality, the burden could be overwhelming.

The inability of the world community to put in place effective policies to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses, which during the industrial era have mostly evolved following the rhythm of the global economy, is the main reason for that ominous forecast. The United States now has a president who is a climate change denier, which is of course an extra reason to be pessimistic. But it is also true that nothing effective was dine to cut emissions significantly in the U.S. during the Obama years, or in other countries. The New York Times, many other newspapers and media outlets, and quite a number of intellectuals have presented the change from the Obama to the Trump administration as a major reversal in the fight to prevent catastrophic climate change. Certainly, we can agree with the liberal intellectuals that with the Obama administration climate change denial was at least not supported by the most powerful government of the world. However, trends in relevant data show that, as in other things, the frequent criticism of the Obama administration applies: it was mostly, if not all, talk. As demonstrated by the most recent data shown in Figure 1, in the United States CO2 emissions rose significantly when the economy was booming, reaching a peak in 2007; then they sank precipitously when the economy tanked during the Great Recession, reaching a trough in 2012; then they increased again when the economy started to gain momentum in a slow recovery. There is no evidence at all that any of these changes in US emissions was the effect of policies. As will be discussed below, the same story can be told for the global economy.


To prevent a major change of the Earth’s climate is in the interest of all human beings, but unfortunately what is needed to advance in that direction is against the short-term interests of major and powerful social and economic forces. Several political actors oppose any policy that actually might curb the production of greenhouse gasses, particularly CO2. The members of this “Holy Alliance” opposed to climate-change policies include, of course, the fossil fuel-rich countries—like Russia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—and both the workers and the owners of several industries—particularly gas and petroleum extraction, coal mining, and automobile manufacturing—whose jobs and profits are threatened by any policy that could be effective in reducing CO2 emissions. But the most important component of the bloc opposed to effective climate change policies is the business community at large, as represented in the United States by the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. These associations, as well as the oil, coal, and auto industries, have been major funders of the organized denial of climate change. The systematic attack on climate change science has been organized since the late 1970s through “think tanks” and astroturf organizations that have received generous funding to deny scientific knowledge of climate change.

The fact that the business community at large is the key opposition to effective policies to prevent climate change is quite evident, though hardly ever mentioned in the media or by most intellectuals discussing climate change. The business community is opposed to climate change policies not because of any kind of myopia about climate change science, but because in the short run, and excepting selected industries—say, manufacturing of solar panels, wind mills, or bicycles—any effective policy to curb greenhouse emissions will increase the cost of business and therefore reduce sales and profits for business in general.

Precisely because of their strong links to the business community—that is, in less aseptic terms, to capital—politicians and economists have been probably the two professions that have done the most to block any policy to prevent the advance toward climate catastrophe. Since the early scientific reports on the importance of global warming for a not-so-distant time, politicians were mostly deaf and dismissive, while economists ignored the problem, in spite of its obvious links with the “economic stuff.” In 2004, as part of the so-called Copenhagen Consensus, a panel of prominent economists—including five recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics—considered climate change to be a relatively unimportant issue and concluded that approaches based on “too abrupt a shift toward lower emissions of carbon” would be needlessly expensive. In 2009 a similar panel recommended investigation of spraying seawater into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight as the top priority on climate change research; climate change itself was ranked 14th as a research priority. All this illustrates how the economics profession has been to a large extent a valuable ally of climate change deniers. It also explains why the Stern Review, published in 2006, caused a great commotion in the profession.

The Stern Review was a 700-page report on the Economics of Climate Change released for the government of the United Kingdom by the prestigious economist Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics. Climate change was acknowledged in the review as the most important market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for economics, and it was concluded that, in the words of Wikipedia’s article on the review, the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting. Without action, it was estimated that the overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year, now and forever, though considering a wider range of risks and impacts could increase this to 20% of GDP or more, also indefinitely.

Many in the economic profession thought the Stern Review was an exceedingly alarming forecast that over-emphasized the potential risks of climate change. Since the publication of the Stern Review the economic profession has been quite silent on the issue. Certainly there are many economists who acknowledge that climate change is a real problem, but probably there are many more who do not even have an opinion on it. Considering how confident economists of almost any kind are about the self-healing properties of our economic system, it is not surprising that most of them view climate change as a minor issue which will be solved by some minor tinkering, or just by the market itself. Among the economists who have proposed policies to prevent catastrophic global warming the main position is to advocate for cap-and-trade policies, which, as will be explained below, attempt to use the market to deal with a market failure.

On the pitiful role of politicians, leaving aside notorious exceptions like Al Gore, U.S. readers do not need to be told much. However, as recently as January this year the British newspaper The Independent reported that the government of the UK had “tried to bury” its own alarming report on climate change. The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Report, which by law has to be produced every five years, was published on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Despite predicting the doubling of deaths during heat waves, a “significant risk” to supplies of food, and the prospect of infrastructure damage from flooding, no government official commented on it and no mainstream media organization covered the report. 


To be skeptical or pessimistic about the possibility of success in the prevention of catastrophic climate change is no reason to abandon a worthwhile struggle. Unfortunately, fighting does not always bring with it perspectives of success. This is gloomily illustrated by the stories of Treblinka or Sobibor or by the biography of Viktor Kravchenko. Struggle often arises from desperation, because it is better to fight than to be complacent about irrationality, injustice, or repression. The struggles that took place in the Nazi extermination camps, in the Soviet Gulag, and in so many other places were often of such a desperate kind.

On the brighter side, perhaps it must be said that we human beings have a high ability to be wrong about the future. Thus we should be less enthusiastic about our perspectives when a brilliant future looks probable and, more importantly, we should probably also be less pessimistic about our perspectives when they look very poor, as they appear now.

Millions of people in the world have very little capacity to form an opinion on climate change, or else just believe what intoxicating media financed by powerful business interests have taught them, that climate change is just a hoax, or “a theory still unproven.” Of course, there are also millions who are persuaded that climate is indeed changing or, in more formal terms, that scientific evidence on climate change is conclusive, so that they are convinced that something must be done to prevent catastrophe. But, what is to be done? Scientists and intellectuals who have proposed policies to prevent climate change—what I will call the climate change community—widely agree that emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses need to be cut, and that zero-emission technologies for energy production should be developed and implemented as soon as possible.

However, the climate-change community is strongly divided on a number of issues: there is disagreement, first, between those who propose carbon taxes and those who propose cap-and-trade policies; second, between those who propose a large use of nuclear energy as a mode of clean energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and those who believe nuclear energy has too many problems to be used for this purpose; third, between those who propose geoengineering as a way to prevent catastrophic global warming and those who are opposed to this; fourth, between those who think the prevention of climate change catastrophes is compatible with economic growth, or with the market economy more generally, and those who think it is not. James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Paul Krugman and Daniel Tanuro are public figures who illustrate these divisions, which are extremely important for climate-change activism.


James Hansen is arguably the scientist who has had the most prominent role in raising the concern of the public on climate change. Since his interventions in the 1980s conveying the results of his research in climatology to the public and the US Congress, Hansen’s has been a strong voice which did not chicken out from making dire forecasts on the calamitous dangers that climate change will bring to humanity. But Hansen is a practical person too, and his role as scientific spokesman led him years ago also to adopt the role of scientific activist and advocate. He started to propose specific common-sense policies to combat climate change, as he wondered why it was either denied or not acted upon. During the years of the Bush II administration, Hansen, who was working for NASA as he had been for his whole scientific career, was often put under pressure to keep his mouth shut about questions of climate-change policy. Rather than bending his knee, Hansen stated on National Public Radio—this was the first time I heard him—that in his view the US government was acting on the scientific issues surrounding climate change as the Soviet government had acted in the past on many scientific issues: by putting scientists under political pressure and trying to gag those who had views unaligned with those of the government.

James Hansen has long advocated taxing fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions. By doing so, he has found himself opposing not only climate change deniers, but also many politicians, businessmen, and economists who favor so-called cap-and-trade policies. A carbon tax implies making fossil fuels more expensive, which presumably would create incentives to reduce their use and promote the use of zero-emission sources of energy. Contrarily, a cap-and-trade scheme starts by giving polluters permits to emit given quantities of CO2; then a cap on emissions is set and in following years this cap will be reduced, supposedly creating a market for businesses, so that those who have developed strategies to reduce emissions will be able to make a profit by selling the permits they do not need, all of which will supposedly lead to reductions in emissions.

Experience with implementation of a carbon tax is very limited. The Canadian province of British Columbia has tried this, but a carbon tax never has been attempted in any national economy. Schemes for cap-and-trade of CO2 emissions, on the other hand, have been tried in the European Union, Australia, Canada, and California. Looking at the results of these cap-and-trade experiments, it is hard to deny that they have been completely unsuccessful in reducing emissions. That is certainly the opinion of James Hansen, who also thinks that these cap-and-trade schemes for CO2 emissions are “popular” among politicians and bankers because they open up nice opportunities for corporations and banks to make windfall gains from trading permits. The Australian economist Clive Spash has provided substantial evidence that Hansen is right on this issue.

The carbon tax that Hansen advocates has sometimes been criticized by left-wing intellectuals as a regressive tax. This, besides being a dubious criticism—taxes against tobacco, alcohol, and sugared beverages are also regressive, but that does not diminish their enormous value in favoring the health of precisely those people who are most affected by the tax—is not correct. Hansen recently prefers to explain his policy proposal not as a carbon tax but as a carbon fee with full reimbursement. The carbon fee that he proposes would tax at source—that is, at the mine, extraction field, or port of entry if it is an import—all oil, gas, and coal; 100% of the revenue obtained from that tax would be paid out to households on a per-capita basis. Hansen says that this tax, or fee, would strongly affect many goods and services that are consumed in greater quantities by high-income individuals, such as airplane flights, or electricity for cooling or heating big houses. Thus giving 100% of the revenue generated by this fee to households on a per-capita basis would favor low-income households by giving them a much greater share of the revenue outflow than the inflow they paid as taxes when buying specific commodities. By redistributing income in the same way that taxes paid by rich people redistribute income when they are used to finance public education or urban parks that benefit mostly low-income households, the carbon fee with full reimbursement, Hansen argues, would be a very progressive tax.

Hansen presented many of these views last April in a conference on Eco-Utopian Futures organized by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In that conference Hansen made a number of statements that revealed his political radicalization. He said, for instance, that he views the reluctance of US politicians to do something effective to stop the progress toward irreversible climate disasters as a consequence of both Republicans and Democrats being under the control of special interests, particularly the fossil-fuel industry and the banks. Both Wall Street and the fossil-fuel producers, Hansen said, have major reasons to maintain a status quo that allows them to obtain big profits but leads us all to disaster. In a colorful statement revealing how far he has gone towards criticizing cherished views in American politics, Hansen said that America has become “the land of the rich and the home of the bribe.”

Maintaining these views puts Hansen on common ground with millions of environmentally conscious citizens who in many countries have advocated policies to prevent global warming. But in recent years, the strategy Hansen has proposed to prevent catastrophic climate change has come to have another key element, the quick construction of nuclear plants as a way to obtain zero-emissions clean energy. In 2013, Hansen and three other prominent climate scientists cosigned a letter addressed “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” in which the signatories as “climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change,” urged the addressees “to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems.” Concern about global warming and the advocacy of renewable energy is to be commended, said the letter, but “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.” Later, in an open letter supporting the use of nuclear energy, Hansen claimed that nuclear power has saved millions of lives that would have been lost if the energy produced by nuclear power had been produced by burning fossil fuels, which involve industrial accidents and cause pollutants leading to cancer, respiratory diseases, and many other ailments.

The carbon fee with full reimbursement that Hansen has proposed raises no opposition among environmentalists, but the full-scale nuclearization that he proposes meets with strong opposition not only among environmental activists and organizations but also among many intellectuals who view nuclear energy as risky and incompatible with any decent model of society (perhaps not by chance, the strongest rebuttal to Hansen’s defense of nuclear energy came from a group of Japanese scientists). Hansen argues that electricity is greatly needed above all by poor countries, and that new models of nuclear plants have neither the risks of accident nor produce the nuclear garbage that plagued former plants. He advocates nuclear plants built to a standard design, which would make them cheaper and less susceptible to accident, as floating islands attached to the coast, so that any major accident might sink the plant, but would not generate major land contamination as in Chernobyl and Fukujima.

On the one hand, by advocating nuclear energy Hansen has put himself at odds with activists and organizations in the environmental and conservationist fields; on the other hand, by criticizing cap-and-trade schemes for CO2 and condemning the Paris agreement as a fig leaf to cover the ass of governments that are actually doing nothing to prevent climate catastrophe, Hansen has put himself at odds with politicians of the Democratic Party and supporters of cap-and-trade schemes such as Paul Krugman and other liberal economists who advocate these climate-change policies. Hansen’s position has evolved in this way toward a tragic and isolated stance that perhaps illustrates how ominous is the issue at hand.


One of the climate change scientists who joined Hansen in signing the letter in favor of using nuclear energy to prevent climate change was the Australian physicist Tom Wigley. According to published reports, Wigley had a major role in developing the climate-change science that is behind the reports of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If his advocacy of nuclear power to prevent catastrophic climate change suggests a tendency to look for technological solutions to social problems, the fact that Wigley is also an advocate of geoengineering for the same purpose seems to confirm this. In a paper published in the journal Science in 2006, Wigley advocated a combination of geoengineering and more conventional policies to mitigate global warming and reach the goal of climate stabilization. Wigley explained that his thinking was stimulated by the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano, which was associated with a significant decrease of global temperature in the following months. Scientists studying the phenomenon concluded that this drop in atmospheric temperatures was probably due to sulfate aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by the eruption. Wigley proposed to use Pinatubo-like artificial emissions of sulfate aerosols or similar stuff to counter the greenhouse effect due to accumulating atmospheric CO2.

To my knowledge this idea of Wigley’s has generated very little discussion in the climate change community. However, it has elicited major enthusiasm from some business people, like Bill Gates. In a class on the political economy of climate change that I taught, I assigned Wigley’s Science paper as required reading. Then in class I tried for a while to be the devil’s advocate, defending the rationality of Wigley’s idea. My students were unmoved and apparently unconvinced. Those who expressed an opinion on the paper said that it would be even more irresponsible to tinker with the climate of the whole planet based on a theory that may be correct, but may also be wrong, and might indeed trigger unintended effects that could be worse than those we wish to prevent. I fully agreed with them.

Other means of geoengineering have been proposed—for instance, putting iron or other substances in the ocean to increase the ability of the seas to capture CO2, or setting a kind of parasols in outer space to generate substantial shadows on the Earth and reduce the inflow of sunlight and energy. The Belgian engineer and climate change activist Daniel Tanuro refers to the ideas of full nuclearization or geoengineering as “infernal alternatives,” or sorcerer’s apprentice schemes, as these wish to use something that is very poorly understood—like the effects of volcanic eruptions on the weather and the climate—to put in place a contrivance that will supposedly save us from catastrophic climate developments, or at least, as Wigley says, will buy us time to find better solutions. For Tanuro the recommendation of geoengineering and nuclear energy to limit global warming reflects the myopia of those who think catastrophic climate change can be avoided without questioning the foundations of the present economic system, the so-called market economy or capitalism, the system of economic organization ruled by monetary gain.

The American economist Wesley Mitchell wrote a century ago that in our money economy natural resources are not used, industrial arts are not exerted, and individuals needing jobs are not given them when there is no expectation of monetary gain for those who organize production. Just a few decades earlier, the German businessman and socialist activist Friedrich Engels had written that individual capitalists “are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profits,” so that “only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account.” Thus Spanish planters in Cuba, wrote Engels, “burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

Capitalism is production for profit and not human need. Evidence indicates that under its governance, the Earth’s climate will be irremediably altered, since the means to avoid that disruption conflicts strongly with the short-term interests of the capitalist classes that rule the world. The second part of this article will focus on these issues and on the more concrete aspects of what can be done.

 References, sources, and further reading

Section 1

On freezing temperatures in Europe as outcome of climate change see the interview of Piers John Sellers in Before the Flood, the 2016 admirable documentary film on climate change by Leonardo DiCaprio. Sellers was a British-American meteorologist and NASA astronaut who became an authority on climate change. He explains in the movie how a likely possibility is that because melting of the Greenland icecap, the Gulf Stream be largely moved from its regular course, which would lead for years to extremely low temperatures in Europe. Sellers died shortly after he was interviewed for the film.

News on recent weather extremes worldwide are all over the place. On recent weather extremes in the Peruvian Amazonia, see Oscar Espinosa et al., “Cambio climático y comunidades indígenas en la Amazonía peruana” in Agenda de investigación en temas socioambientales en el Perú, ed. by G. Damonte et al., Lima, PUCP, pp. 153-184, 2014.

Section 2


On organized activities to promote climate-change denial, see “Citizens Climate Lobby” on Wikipedia, accessed June 2017, and Chapter 10, “Organized climate change denial” by R.E. Dunlap and A. M. McCright, in Oxford Handbook of Climate Change & Society, ed. by J. S. Dryzek et al., Oxford University Press, 2011. “The Rockefeller Family Fund Takes on ExxonMobil” by David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman is an exceptional document (The New York Review of Books, December 8 and December 22, 2016) in which two representatives of the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) explain the RFF decision to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. As exposed by Kaiser and Wasserman, since the 1970s ExxonMobil “tried to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change, protecting its profits at the cost of immense damage to life on this planet.”

About the Copenhagen consensus, see “Copenhagen Consensus” in Wikipedia, and the official page of the Copenhagen Consensus in On the stance of the economic profession on climate change, see Tapia & Carpintero 2013, “Dynamics and Economic Impacts of Climate Change”, in Combating Climate Change: An Agricultural Perspective, ed by M. S. Kang and S. N. Banga (Boca Raton, CRC Press)

The article “Government 'tried to bury' its own alarming report on climate change” appeared in The Independent, 22 January 2017,

Section 3

Victor Kravchenko was an Ukrainian member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who became a Soviet defector in 1943 and wrote I Chose Freedom, published in 1946, about the realities of life under Stalinism. There are several editions of the book. Escape from Sobibor is a 1987 British TV film on the 1943 revolt of the inmates of the Nazi Concentration camp in Sobibor. Treblinka by Jean-François Steiner was published in French in 1966 and translated as Treblinka: The Revolt of an Extermination Camp (Simon & Schuster, 1967). In This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, published in English in 1959, Tadeusz Borowski made some dark and insightful remarks on how hope was the main cause that kept people from revolting even when they were under extreme repression. In Survival in Auschwitz and other books Primo Levi narrated with superb literary skill some of these stories.

Section 4

I was present at two of Hansen’s lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in April 2017. Recent views of Hansen are reported in Hansen on construction of floating nuclear plants in @@@…

The 2013 pro-nuclear open letter “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power” by E. Caldeira, James Hansen, and Tom Wigley, is at It was answered by quite a number of authors with the rebuttal by Japanese scientists titled “Nuclear Power is not the Answer to Climate Change Mitigation” by J. Asuka, S. J. Park, M. Nishimura, T. Morotomi, being particularly strong in my view. In, Hansen and Wigley have re-stated their views in favor of nuclear energy.

Clive L. Spash can be cited as an example of an economist discussing the economic and political issues involved in climate change from a common-sense perspective that is often absent in those “armed” with economic theory. Spash has explained how cap-and-trade schemes which are ineffective to cut emissions are however very proper to open nice opportunities for corporations and banks to make windfall gains. See “The Brave New World of Carbon Trading,” New Political Economy Vol. 15, No. 2, 2010. Very interesting is also Spash’s “The political economy of the Paris Agreement on human induced climate change: a brief guide,” Real-World Economics Review, Vol. 75, pp. 169-95, 2016.

Section 5

Tom Wigley views on geoengineering in “A Combined Mitigation/Geoengineering Approach to Climate Stabilization,” Science Vol. 314, pp. 452-4, 2006.

Daniel Tanuro has written extensively in French and many of his pieces are available online in French or Spanish. In English, Tanuro’s views can be read in Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work (Halifax, Fernwood Publishing, 2014). Unfortunately, the translation is quite deficient.

Section 6

On the main characteristics of capitalism or the “money economy,” as Wesley Mitchell called it, see Business Cycles, University of California Press, 1913, particularly pages 21-26. Engels referred to the difficulty of estimating the natural and social consequences of human activities and the short-term approach of capitalist entrepreneurs in his Dialectics of Nature (International Publishers, 1940), pp. 293-6.


José A. Tapia

José A. Tapia is associate professor of politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.


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