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Tiptoeing into solutions: Dieter Helm’s The Carbon Crunch

Book review: Helm, Dieter. The Climate Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong — and How To Fix It. New Haven CT: Yale UP, 2012.

(crossposted at DKos and at VOTS)

Dieter Helm, for those who are unfamiliar, is a professor at Oxford and otherwise a prominent figure in environmental economics in Europe. His (2012) book The Carbon Crunch is motivated by the perception that “in almost a quarter of a century virtually nothing of substance has been achieved in addressing climate change.” (ix)

There are three parts to his book. The first deals with the topic of “why should we worry about climate change,” and is a discussion, familiar to many readers here, about the nature of human-caused climate change in this era. It’s a discussion, in short, of “greenhouse gas emissions.” The issue of “who is to blame” is of interest, for the most part because Helm would like to suggest some sort of equalization as regards who is to be regarded as entitled to burn the Earth’s carbon reserves. “The fact that emissions are lower per head in developing countries,” he argues, “is relevant to apportioning carbon targets.” (61) In the end, Helm recommends the idea of “carbon pricing,” which has become a sort of code for an additional tax on fossil fuels. “The trick is to get that price established,” he argues. “The challenge is not to get the price exactly right, but to make progress away from a situation where carbon is not priced at all and therefore is exactly wrong.” (71) The phrasing here appears to me to be inexact. Carbon is already “priced” — everyone is paying for energy production already when they participate in consumer life, buying goods and services. Helm’s real concern appears to be that they aren’t paying enough, and if they were paying more that would be “something which goes in the right direction” (71).

Part two of this book is about the topic of “why is so little being achieved?”. Helm’s discussion here revolves largely around energy consumption. It is obvious that human-caused climate change has occurred because of the burning of fossil fuels — so what can be done about it. Here Helm correctly recognizes that renewables, conservation, efficiency, and nuclear power are at best limited as tools to cut demand for fossil fuels. We are not, moreover, running out of fossil fuels at a rate with which Helm is satisfied. Current technologies will be able to burn enough of them to fry the planet.

The last chapter of part two of this book discusses the possibility of an international agreement to deal with climate change. Here Helm is pessimistic. He doesn’t think anything “legally binding, international, and enforceable” will be done for a decade, “and possibly never” (170).

Part three is about “what should be done”? Helm begins this section with an advocacy of “carbon pricing” — i.e. a tax on fossil fuels. I don’t share Helm’s rhetoric about “markets”:

Markets are neutral as regards the demand and supply sides: they look for the most efficient responses, and usually this in both demand and supply. They lock out lobbying and rent-seeking. But, as with any policy instrument, what matters is the design of the market, and in particular the level of the price. (180)

I rather suspect this approach of being chained to market ideology. “Markets” in the real world are a vehicle for one side to take undue advantage of another. This is in fact what capitalism is all about — “markets,” especially markets for labor, allow the investor classes to profit by moving money around, and encourage the rest of us to envy those who make a living from profit as such.

Oh, sure, “we” (assuming the fantasy of “if we were dictators”) can create more or less useful “markets” as regards “carbon emissions” and thus as regards climate change, but if we were to do so, the economy would still be stuck on the wrong track. From Magdoff and Foster’s “What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know About Capitalism”:

A carbon tax of the kind proposed by James Hansen, in which 100 percent of the dividends go back to the public, thereby encouraging conservation while placing the burden on those with the largest carbon footprints and the most wealth, could be instituted. New coal-fired plants (without sequestration) could be blocked and existing ones closed down. At the world level, contraction and convergence in carbon emissions could be promoted, moving to uniform world per capita emissions, with cutbacks far deeper in the rich countries with large per capita carbon footprints. The problem is that very powerful forces are strongly opposed to these measures. Hence, such reforms remain at best limited, allowed a marginal existence only insofar as they do not interfere with the basic accumulation drive of the system.

Indeed, the problem with all these approaches is that they allow the economy to continue on the same disastrous course it is currently following.

Anyone advocating prohibitive “carbon prices” is doubtless going to go up against the outrage, both populist and corporate, of those who must pay such prices while remaining in the competitive tug-of-war of a capitalist system.

At any rate, having established a sort of “market” purview for his notion of solutions, Helm then proceeds to analyze energy solutions. Since in his opinion alternative energy is not quite yet economically “viable,” the author recommends a transitional energy approach largely based upon the exploitation of natural gas and of conservation options until renewable energy technologies are more advanced. Helm does not like ecosocialism, writing that it “arguably goes against the grain of human nature” (239).


Helm’s book on climate change is definitely not as difficult to digest as Mark Lynas’ The God Species (Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2011), which argues that economic growth is unstoppable and that we need nuclear power and genetic engineering to make world society prosperous while we phase out our carbon addiction. Lynas should instead be famous as the author of a graphic, convincing, and well-researched depiction of global warming titled Six Degrees which I reviewed back in 2007. Lynas’ analysis in The God Species is the result of an overspecialization upon global warming combined with an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism, as this reviewer showed. At the end of his book Lynas argued that:

I hope this book has shown convincingly that while ecological limits are real, economic limits are not. We can respect all of the boundaries at the same time as eliminating poverty, allowing for a peak in world population around mid-century and within the context of an economic system that requires growth. (Lynas, 241-242)

The problem, of course, with capitalist economic growth is that there really are natural limits to it, and these limits don’t restrain themselves to global warming side effects. Jason W. Moore refers to this as “peak appropriation” — the representatives of capital regard the whole world as a profit making machine, and so they rearrange the world to make profit. But that process can really only go so far before the capitalist world system fails to make a profit. Meanwhile, spreading ecological devastation will continue to do its dirty deed upon the rest of us.

Unlike Lynas, Helm recognizes, at least, that there will be no pain-free mitigation of climate change. Helm’s caution with some of the more oft-proposed “solutions” to the climate change problem is to be admired. At the same time, unfortunately, Helm proposes “market” solutions which would in fact require the invocation of the sort of political change that he himself regards as unfeasible when applied to other proposals.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984