Explaining neoliberal inaction on climate change

John Christopher’s 1958 work The Death of Grass follows a group of survivors as they flee civilizational collapse bought on by a catastrophic famine caused by a virus which kills most grain crops. Throughout the early chapters of the book, one of the central characters, John, puts his faith in “the scientists” being able to prevent famine in some way, however, he is ultimately proved wrong. By comparison, another character, Roger, makes an excellent criticism of this line of thinking when he says, “The scientists have never failed us yet, we shall never really believe they will until they do” (Christopher, 2009: 25). When it comes to climate change, many neoliberals seem to have adopted the same attitude as John. They seem reluctant to face reality when it comes to discussing the systemic causes of the problem, which the UN (2019) described as “the defining issue of our time.” Yet governments continue to neglect this issue and few in positions of power seriously highlight the problems of climate change. Contemporary neoliberals are quick to accuse many others who do not subscribe to their beliefs as idealist, yet, as I intend to show, it is the neoliberals who are the most idealist for their belief that neoliberal capitalism can solve climate change when it has so far failed to address it seriously. Furthermore, I will argue that it is structurally incapable of addressing global warming sufficiently and in enough time, and therefore a radical solution is needed.

The neoliberals and climate change

Shortly after coming to power in 2016 (after the fall of her predecessor David Cameron, himself at best ambivalent to the impending climate catastrophe) Theresa May disbanded the Climate department after less than a day in office (Rincon, 2016). Additionally, in February 2019, she “openly mocked” child protesters for having the audacity to protest her governments lack of action on an issue that will likely have major ramifications for their lives (Watts, 2019). Around the world, the emerging group of far-right politicians, be it in the USA or Brazil (Watts, 2018) are increasingly denying climate change even exists. Before we go any further it is key to define what exactly neoliberalism is, by no means an easy task. “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing is best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” (Harvey, 2007: 2). This is combined with a second aspect, an almost unwavering commitment to inclusion and tolerance, but not always equality (Sunkara, 2019: 3); in other words, they are concerned more with the aesthetics of capitalist injustices than the injustices themselves. Contemporary neoliberal commentary is technocratic and often portrays a revisionist version of history. Steven Pinker (2012) provides an excellent example of this kind of revisionism with Pinker’s Vietnam apologia and ignorance of history[1]  giving away that, like much history, he is more interested in satisfying the ideological needs of now than explaining and understanding the past (Frank, 1998: 3).

I mention Pinker as he has been featured in a couple of articles recently on the subject of climate change and has published one on the subject (2018). Perhaps unsurprisingly given his ideological persuasion, Pinker’s proposed solution to the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe is to rely on technology and science, arguing “environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge.” Even more egregious is his belief that seeing as the predictions of individual studies regarding climate environmental troubles in the past failed to materialise, the contemporary problem with (as he notes) its virtual complete scientific consensus can be largely ignored. He would struggle to be a more perfect comparison to John if he tried.

Yet Pinker is not alone. neoliberal politicians from across the political spectrum have shown clear disregard for the approaching climate crisis. In the UK, the conservative party has increased rates of VAT on solar panels and was willing to wave several investor restrictions to list Saudi-Aramco on the London stock exchange and governor of the Bank of England warned that “exposure to climate change targets is a potentially huge threat to savers and investors” (Pettifor, 2018: 45-6). Meanwhile in the US, Trump drew applause from both of the US’ political parties when he boasted about the US being the biggest producer of oil in 2018 (Klein, 2018). It is not necessarily that the leaders of these states don’t believe in climate change, but rather find it inconvenient and the reality of climate change conflicts with their larger political aims. What separates many of the centrist neoliberals from those in the American Republican party or on the right of the British Conservative party is that they believe in capitalist efficiency and neoliberal meritocracy, rather than the material effects (growing inequality, imperialism etc) of it that those further to the right have reconciled themselves with. it is these true believers who I am seeking to understand.

The ideological cause of the problems

There is, among this group of neoliberals, a general belief that the state serves the interests of everyone, a belief that rarely survives contact with reality (Fisher, 2018: 533). It is naïve to believe that neoliberalism can solve climate change given both its failure to address the issue in any substantial way so far, and the internal contradictions of neoliberalism which prevent it from doing so (Hursh, Henderson and Greenwood, 2015: 310). Neoliberalism, as defined above, believes that markets are fully capable of regulating themselves, a fact which in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis is obviously untrue. Recall how Hannah Arendt defines an Ideology as “the logic of an idea” and it should be clear why neoliberalism cannot address the approaching climate crisis. The doctrine of non-intervention in the market means that neoliberals must instead rely on individuals making major changes in their lives, rather than impede the freedom of the business class, even though that simply is not sufficient to prevent a major crisis (Lukacs, 2017). If the market is the most efficient form of distribution and is capable of regulating itself, as neoliberals believe, then logically climate change cannot be a serious problem as it is more profitable to disregard the climate issues than to change the methods of production and distribution to be more environmentally friendly. In other words, climate change is not profitable to prevent, and the free market is wholly unwilling to tackle the issue, instead preferring aesthetic changes (Parr, 2014: 2-3).

There is however a deeper reason for the irreconcilability of neoliberalism and climate consciousness, in that capitalism as a whole, not just neoliberalism, is structurally (and by extension ideologically) opposed to any idea of sustainability (Fisher, 2009: 18-9). The need for continuous accumulation of capital, the continuous production of commodities, and the continuous need for profitable investment that drives capitalism, must necessarily eschew sustainability. It is exactly this conflict between profit and the planet that leads David Harvey (2018: xxvii) to conclude “almost all environmental, political, social and cultural distresses are the product of a system that seeks out surplus value in order to produce more surplus value.” What this means is that businesses have to disregard the climate as well as all other possible ethical concerns in pursuit of profit, in fact economist Milton Freedman (1970) argued that a business has no other responsibility but to enrich its shareholders, no matter the social or environmental consequences.

The creation of “reality”

Lacan’s concept of the “real” best described as those facts which “reality” (ideology) necessitates the repression of; and there are few better examples of Lacans concept than climate change (Fisher, 2009: 17-8). The facts that must be suppressed are rather clear; climate change is a major issue that requires system level change and cannot be solved if only tackled at an individual level. Instead, neoliberals substitute largely aesthetic, technocratic changes such as recycling programs, green roofs, vegetarianism and the now heavily satirised switch to paper straws which, whilst making little substantial difference to the approaching crisis, give the appearance of change and can convince many that there is no need for systemic change. 

Neoliberals also fail to fully understand the role of the mass media in enforcing this “reality”, most overtly but not exclusively in the USA. In the US, the press is ineffective in discussing climate science, partly due to its complexity which limits its ratings, but more broadly, they entertain much debate about whether climate change even exists in spite of the scientific consensus that it does (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2007). Many of these neoliberals are committed to the idea of considering every viewpoint and coming to a rational consensus, assuming both sides are arguing in good faith and are working in the best interest of the nation, convinced that the solution lies in compromise within capitalism. Yet this belief in capitalism is a neutral social mechanism is (arguably utopian) ideology itself and exposes a deeper inability of neoliberals to process a non-capitalist approach (Žižek, 2009: 25). As Laclau and Mouffe (2014: xvii-xviii) point out,conflict and division, rather than being an unfortunate part of democracy that should be avoided and worked around, are the central features of a democracy without which it would fail. It is worth recalling one of Marx and Engels’ (2015) most famous phrases “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Of course, this is increasingly apparent in the case of climate change where businesses can pollute rivers and pump out huge amounts of carbon dioxide with only limited state interference. However, opposition to these practices, or even correctly identifying the failure of the market is condemned by the neoliberal intelligentsia and met with disdain and condemnation (Burgon, 2019).

The beliefs of the neoliberal intelligentsia are however reproduced and pass into general society, by virtue of being nearly unchallenged in the press and culture more broadly, eventually become common sense (in the Gramscian sense). Noam Chomsky (2015) discusses the coercive power of media which is extremely useful in discussing the disconnect between the way things really are and what “common sense” tells us they are (between the real and “reality” if you will). There has been much discussion of “fake news” in the mainstream press in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, but the same press lined up to support the official US/UK account of Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s rather than that of the international observers. The Sun newspaper went even further, claiming that “the first “clean” war, civilian deaths could be zero MOD claims” (Parry, 2012: 179). Returning to climate change, we can see how the issue has been relegated by the media to a second-rate issue, the front pages are reserved for the latest Brexit drama in Britain or the latest disaster of the Trump presidency. What is written about climate change often extolls the belief in the power of the market to solve problems, and even profit of the same climate change which is believed to decimate much of the planet (Gray, 2019). Because neoliberal capitalism is practically unquestioned and invisible to many (Fisher, 2018: 462), it is difficult for neoliberals to imagine another system. To borrow from Fisher (2009), they lack the ability to imagine a world without capitalism, and so any solution that they prescribe must still be within a capitalist framework.


In conclusion, the inability of committed neoliberals to tackle climate change comes primarily from an ideological inability to reconcile the reality of the failure of the market to address the problem, with their belief in the unfailing efficiency and necessity of the free market. In other words, neoliberal capitalism is incapable of solving a crisis of its own making. But not only is it incapable of solving the problem, it doesn’t perceive the problem as one created by capitalism but sees it as entirely unrelated. The neoliberal commitment to ideas like “civility” and “rational government” prevent them from taking any direct action at any level because they must believe that direct action is undemocratic and therefore condemn any attempt to oppose the state in any way. Instead, they believe “rational debate” will produce the best solution even though it has so far failed to do so.



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[1] for example, Pinker claims that the Vietnam, Chinese civil and Korean wars are the three deadliest post ww2 conflicts, a claim that is easily refuted by simple research which would have told him that the second Congo war dwarfs most that he lists (Stearns, 2012), why he would ignore this and other discrepancies we can only speculate. For a more in-depth criticism of Pinker’s book see Herman and Peterson (2008)