Radicals and Reformers: Part 1: Climate Change

by Robin Hahnel

There is a difference between radicals and reformers. Radicals believe we need fundamental “system change” because as long as the system is left in place it will prove impossible to solve important problems. Absent system change, radicals believe solutions can only be partial and remain vulnerable to rollback. Reformers, on the other hand, believe problems can be solved adequately without system change. Reformers are also more skeptical that system change can be achieved or will prove as desirable as radicals imagine. But radicals and reformers are bound together for at least three reasons.

1.     A cursory glance at history reveals that many people move from one camp to the other during their lifetimes. Many a youthful radical, frustrated when system change proves elusive, continues to fight for reforms within the system. And many who first became active in a reform campaign has been radicalized when the system proves not to be amenable to reform.

2.     Reformers, of course, work in progressive movements and campaigns to win reforms. But radicals must also work in reform movements and campaigns for a very simple reason: Those who are ready for system change are still too few, and only by joining reform efforts can radicals hope to interact with enough people to eventually build popular support for system change.

3.     Radicals and reformers often deliver a “one-two punch” that is more powerful than either could deliver alone. Not only do more far reaching demands reinforce convictions among the rank and file that what they are asking for is only what is right and reasonable, the threat of radical demands also induces defenders of the status quo to yield to more moderate demands for reform. The willingness of radicals to engage in more disruptive tactics than reformers can also increase the bargaining leverage of the reform movement. On the other hand, when not part of a larger movement of people whose demands are less far reaching and tactics are less confrontational, radicals will reach few with their message and be easily repressed.

In short, radicals and reformers need one another. So even when their relationship ceases to be a “marriage of love,” it must remain a “marriage that works.” In the remainder of this column I offer an example of how we all lose when radicals unnecessarily undermine reformers in the movement to prevent climate change. In columns to follow I explore how reformers sometimes undermine radicals to the detriment of both, and finally, how we all win when radicals and reformers play nicely together.

Radicals believe the global market system is the primary cause of incipient climate change, and only when this system based on competition and greed is replaced by a new system based on equitable cooperation will it prove possible to adequately protect the natural environment. Indeed, I have been making this argument in one form or another for over three decades myself. However, some leaders of the climate justice movement have gone further to argue that because the market system is the problem carbon markets cannot be part of a solution, and some have gone so far as to celebrate the collapse of the United Nations sponsored Kyoto framework on grounds that it was never more than a “pretend solution.” These climate justice radicals are dead wrong, and do serious damage to prospects of averting climate change.

It is unrealistic to believe global capitalism can be replaced by eco-socialism in the next few years. But if we are to prevent climate change before it is too late we must achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the here and now. To do this we need an international treaty that places mandatory caps on national emissions. Moreover, if caps are to be fair, then richer countries, which bear greater “responsibility” for cumulative carbon emissions and have greater “capability” to solve the climate problem, must be assigned tighter, or lower caps. However – and this is what many climate justice activists fail to understand -- if national emissions are capped fairly then (1) carbon trading significantly reduces the global cost of emission reductions and thereby lowers political resistance to necessary reductions, and (2) carbon trading generates a large flow of payments from more developed to less developed countries. Which means the climate treaty negotiated in Japan in 1997 known as the Kyoto Protocol put the world on the right track, and it was a huge setback when the Kyoto framework was abandoned at the climate meetings in Copenhagen in December 2009 and replaced by a vague agreement to discuss voluntary emission targets.

Make no mistake about it, the US delegation, headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama himself, bears primary responsibility for scuttling the Kyoto framework in Copenhagen. However, the US demolition squad got a surprising assist when radicals in the climate justice movement denounced “cap and trade” and “carbon markets” as “false solutions” in street protests outside the meetings. In short, while climate reformers were fighting desperately to “fix” the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen, some radicals in the climate justice movement witlessly aided and abetted those maneuvering to “nix” it.

When we cannot wait for system change to address climate change it is tragic when climate justice radicals cheer the demise of a treaty which placed mandatory emission reductions on the countries which are most responsible for causing climate change and can best afford to bear the costs of averting climate change simply because it permitted carbon trading – trading which worked to the benefit of lesser developed countries! What would workers think of anti-capitalists who denounce unions fighting for wage increases for their members as purveyors of “pretend solutions” because wage slavery is the problem, and therefore wage reform cannot be part of a solution?

By 2009 many reform leaders knew what was wrong with Kyoto and how to fix it. Kyoto assigned the advanced economies mandatory caps while temporarily exempting lesser developed countries from mandatory caps. In 1997 this “rough first cut” was agreed to on a provisional basis on grounds that the advanced economies needed to lead the way. But this created two problems: (1) There are large differences in “responsibility” and “capability” among lesser developed countries. So to treat them all equally, as Kyoto did, was unfair. (2) Because it is difficult to estimate how much a project will reduce emissions above and beyond what would have occurred in any case, mistakes will inevitably be made in certifying emission reduction credits for sale in international carbon markets. And if a project that is awarded more credits than it deserves is located in a country without a cap on its national emissions, the sale of the “bogus credits” undermines the global emission reduction target and thereby weakens efforts to avert climate change. But one change can solve both problems! Set caps on emissions in all countries according to a continuous index of differential responsibility and capability.

This simple change would make a post-Kyoto treaty more fair, provide powerful incentives for national governments to award only as many emission reduction credits as projects truly deserve, and most importantly, prevent sales of any bogus credits from reducing global emissions reductions below the target set by the treaty. Instead of denouncing cap and trade and carbon markets, climate justice activists should have been fighting alongside reformers in Copenhagen to protect the Kyoto framework from its enemies and fix its flaws by replacing the outdated annex-1 non-annex-1 categories with a more accurate index measuring national responsibility and capability on a continuum known as the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework “responsibility and capacity indicator.” Based on readily available data this indicator requires high income countries to reduce emissions significantly right away, middle income countries to reduce emissions only after achieving a higher level of per capita income, and allows low income countries to raise emissions for decades while they struggle to achieve a minimal level of economic development. Moreover, by solving the problem of how to cap emissions in all countries fairly the GDRF indicator makes it possible to leave the difficult job of awarding emission reduction credits to national governments -- freeing the international treaty organization to concentrate on the far easier job of measuring actual national annual emissions -- and it protects the global emission cap from being punctured by any bogus carbon trading that does occur.

Had radicals joined reformers in Copenhagen fighting to fix rather than nix Kyoto they would not only have found themselves on the side of the angels instead of the devils, they would have found a receptive rather than a hostile audience among the rank and file concerned about climate change for the message that only system change will eliminate what is causing climate change and thereby make victories secure.  Instead, some climate justice radicals unnecessarily alienated those they hope to attract. Climate justice radicals who made this blunder need to make serious amends to climate reform leaders as well as the movement rank and file if we are to patch up working relations so we can all move forward together.

Robin Hahnel is Professor of Economics at Portland State University. His most recent book is Economic Justice and Democracy and he is co-author with Michael Albert of The Political Economy of Participatory EconomicsThis column originally appeared in Portland's 'Street Roots' newspaper and exclusively available online at NLP.

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First published: 24 April, 2012

Category: Activism, Corporate power, Environment

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5 Comments on "Radicals and Reformers: Part 1: Climate Change"

By Abjection and Divides, on 26 April 2012 - 17:01 |

I think you totally overstated your message. I agree wholeheartedly in the idea of a diversity of tactics, but you came across as kind of patronizing. The issue is a two way street and I feel like you only provided one side of it.

Maybe climate reform leaders need to ask themselves how they alienated so many radicals?

For the radicals to join hands with the reformers they have to reasonably sure that the reformers aren’t going to sell them out. Screw them over, sorry to say but this is all we have seen from the reformers camp (okay not necessarily in climate politics, but it is very obviously the case in the case of other spheres- like labour).

What we need is massive change now, right? I don’t see how small incremental changes will provide a solution.

I hate to say it but system collapse is often the only way to motivate people to change. We see it in all the burgeoning social movements, once comfortable people got screwed over and are now willing to advocate for change. I am not saying we should actively pursue the collapse of the western world order. But why would a radical want to help prop up green-washed capitalism at the global scale when there are so many other things they could be doing. Like participating in community rebuilding from the bottom up through food and energy autonomy.

I think it is positive that the radicals are advocating for more fundamental change, because that is what is needed.

By Robin Hahnel, on 28 April 2012 - 16:47 |

As you say, it is a two way street. In my next article I will be discussing situations where reformers undercut radicals unnecessarily to the detriment of both. Since I am a radical I started with what “we” sometimes do wrong first, before discussing what “they” sometims do wrong. I think self-criticism should come before criticizing others if we are to move forward. So presumaly you will appreiate my column next month more, when I criticize reformers for “selling out” and “screwing” radicals “over and over” as you put it.

But here is where I think you go wrong in your comments above. You say: “What we need is massive change now, right?” This attitude ignores the importance of timing and political reality. Would massive change now be wonderful? Of course, nothing would be more wonderful. But if the kind of massive change we want must be supported by a majority of the population we cannot win massive change now. We cannot win the kind of massive change we want until many more people agree with us that massive change would be wonderful. So the real question is how does one behave now to convince more people that massive change is desirable? I think the answer to that is two fold: (1) Always explain why massive change would be wonderful, and (2) work with large numbers of people fighting against some problem caused by the present system. When we do #2 we inevitably must work with not only ordinary people who have only begun to think about whether or not they are “radicals or reformers,” we must also work with reform leaders, i.e. people who have decided, at least for the moment, that they are reformers and not radicals. My column was about better and worse ways to go about this.

Finally, let me directly answer your question: “Why would a radical want to prop up green-washed capialism at the global scale when there are so many other things they could be doing.” Ecosocialism is not going to be won for at least a decade. If we do not make serious headway reducing global carbon emissions in the next decade catastrophic climate change will be come probable, not just possible. It is irresponsible to dismiss a capitalism with much lower greenhouse gas emissions as “green washed capitalism” which by implication is worthles. It is not only of great value , it is necessary if we are to have a planet left to build ecosocialism in. Moreover, my recommendation is not that radicals only work on climate reform policies. Radicals should do many other things which only we can do. I spend much of my time as a radial arguing the virtues of a libertarian socialist participatory economy compared to capitalism and communist planning. However, if radicals stand off and do not support serious efforts to prevent climate change in the here and now, ordinary people will not respect us and be less likely to listen to what we have to say about system change. And if radicals do worse than stand aloof, if they undercut reformers working to avert climate change in the here and now as some in the climate justice movement have been doiing, we will be resented not just by reform leaders who we undercut, but by all the ordinary people working to do their best to avert climate change under the political conditions we face.

By mcmurphy, on 02 June 2012 - 21:23 |

I’ve read that cap and trade is effect little more than a shell game aimed to leave the public with some feel good sense of accomplishment while in fact amounting to no change in the amounts of carbon spewed into the atmosphere, and that Its instituting would merely greatly enhance the profits of market makers(Goldman Sachs, etc.)


By abjecty, on 03 June 2012 - 03:42 |

Hi thanks for the reply,

I guess my pessimism stems from the fact that I am not convinced that a carbon trading organized by a centralized agency will effectively combat carbon emissions, or could effectively oppose the power of entrenched corporate interest (but I guess that is also up to the success of mobilization efforts).

Also I am afraid of the commercialization of carbon sinks / carbon offsets, like the world’s forests, or the oceans, which should not be understood as private assets (even if they are assets against climate change) but as resources for the public good.

I am sure I am not as contrarian as I am coming off, theoretically I don’t draw a distinction between readicalism and reform, I think it is a false distinction. But that being said I am personally in favour of things that the liberal majority finds distasteful.

I find your analysis of radicalism / reformism to be fine, great even! Every decision needs to be thought out and an individual needs to think about what course of action is pragmatically the best, most of the time this is very hard and only retrospect allows some sort of validation / refutation of the decision itself.

I guess my main qualm is with the idea that carbon trading / greenhouse caps will work. I think this battle needs to be fought among the people, not among the politicians. (I guess this time it needs to be bottom up not top down…)

thanks again,


By Robin Hahnel, on 03 June 2012 - 15:51 |

Like many in the environmental movement I believe that nature is there for all of us—for all of us to benefit from and to protect so future generations can benefit from nature as well. (As a socialist I also believe that all of the knowledge and technologies developed by those who went before us, and all of the productive machinery we have accumulated, belongs to all of us, and should benefit all of us equally as well. And I hope that all who can apply this kind of reasoning to nature will learn to extend it to everything else!) But unfortunately we do not yet live in a world where nature, technology, and the tools we use are all managed democratically for the common good. Instead, for the time being, we live in a global capitalist world where technologies, tools, and nature are privately owned and used however their owners choose. The upper atmosphere where greenhouse gases accumulate is part of nature. Right now those emitting greenhouse gases are taking unto themselves the “property right” to put as much GHG into the upper atmosphere as they want. If we do not charge those who put greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere, then they get to do as much of it as they want to for free. When we cap emissions and force those who wish to emit greenhouse gases to buy a permit we are saying, in effect, the upper atmosphere is no longer your private property, it belongs to all of us, and you can only use it to store your GHG emissions if you pay us for that privilege. If instead of capping emissions and selling permits we impose a tax on emissions, we are saying exactly the same thing: You no longer have the right to emit GHG free of charge, you must now pay us a tax for that privilege. So, what both cap-and-auction and a carbon tax do is transfer ownership of the “property right” to emit GHG from those who have been seizing that property right for themselves to the public at large. Then we, the public, sell back permission to emit a lower amount of GHG to those wishing to do so. We don’t have the luxury of saying we don’t like the idea of selling nature if the alternative is private parties are going to seize it for themselves and use it for free. So, as long as we live in a capitalist world we need to seize the property right for the public at large and sell a limited amount of user rights. Whether to do that via a carbon tax or cap-and-auction should be determined by practical considerations. In countries that are not afflicted by “tax phobia,” and where part of the revenue collected would be used to offset the regressive effects, a carbon tax is probably best. However, at the international level a carbon tax would be terribly unfair to countries with lower “responsibility” and “capability.” Instead, an international treaty that assigns countries different caps according to differential responsiblity and capability is the only practical way to make the treaty fair to poorer countries. And once we have assigned countries fair caps it is terribly counter productive not to allow carbon trading. To ban carbon trading would greatly increase the cost to the world of reducing global emssions. To ban carbon trading would deny poorer countries the benefits of selling emissions credits at great profit to them. To ban carbon trading would increase political resistance to lowering caps as needs be in rich countries since it makes it more expensive. I know people have read critiques of cap and trade as little more than a shell game designed to profit Goldman Sachs and deceive the public into thinking something is being done to solve climate change when it is not. That is the ill-informed critique some in the climate justice movement have been peddling—widely and loudly. (Interested readers should see my “Left Clouds Over Climate Change Policy” published in the most recent issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics for a full response to all these arguments.) An international cap and trade treaty (1) with a global cap set low enough to stabilize concentrations at 350 ppm, (2) with country caps set fairly according to differential responsibility and capability, and (3) with governments in charge of certifying emission reduction credits for sale by sources located inside their territories not only would be effective, equitable, and efficient, it is the only way we can avert climate change fairly in the world we now live in.

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