Climate Abolitionism and the Economy Lie

Climate-change deniers are hoping to confuse the public on a crucial point: Defending big business isn't the same as defending the economy.

By Nathan Pippenger

Monday brought climate news that can only be described as, well, frightening. An apparently-unstoppable melting process of the huge West Antarctica ice sheet has begun, which will almost certainly lead to long-feared rises in sea levels. The total rise over the next few centuries could be ten feet or more—far beyond the point that would be catastrophic for millions living in coastal areas.


The news provides a good reason to read—if you haven’t already—Chris Hayes’s recent essay in The Nation calling climate activism “the New Abolitionism.” Hayes is careful to insist that “there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison” between carbon emissions and chattel slavery. Instead, the essay is intended to draw attention to an overlooked economic point: Because slavery was connected to an unbelievable amount of America’s prewar wealth, calling for its elimination was an almost unthinkably radical demand. Before the Civil War, slaves represented about 16 percent of total household assets in the entire country, and they were at the center of the booming Southern cotton industry. Abolition was therefore not just a moral crusade; it was a call for the dismantling of an entire system of wealth and labor.

For understandable reasons, most people today don’t think of abolitionist politics as a form of economic radicalism. But Hayes’s piece helps illuminate an important parallel between the abolitionist era and our own. Just as with slavery, climate activists should never allow their opponents to confuse economic arguments with plutocratic ones. Slavery might have been central to the prewar Southern economy, but it wasn’t good for it. Instead, it was “a kind of crutch,” allowing the South to over-rely on a form of labor “that stunts economic diversification and development.” While the North built up manufacturing capacity, the South remained an economic backwater, “largely mired,” Hayes notes, “in the pre-industrial age.” Slaveowners defending their peculiar institution challenged their opponents to imagine a world without King Cotton. But examined closely, this wasn’t a defense of the Southern economy—it was a defense of a certain arrangement of the cotton industry. Confusing the two allowed a wealthy slave- and land-owning class to defend its special interests while actually harming the broader economy.

Climate denialists rely on a similar confusion of plutocratic arguments with economic ones. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” this past Sunday, Marco Rubio announced his disbelief in human-caused global warming and declared, “I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it. Except it will destroy our economy.” Charles Krauthammer asserts that “all that we’re doing is committing economic suicide in the name of do-goodism that will not do an iota of good.” Mitch McConnell decries an environmental policy aimed at “alleviating the guilt complexes of liberal elites” whose costs would “be borne by the Middle Class.” But of course, climate change is already imposing huge costs—not just on the middle class, but on everybody who has to deal with unpredictable changes in animal and plant life, unprecedented droughts, superstorms, and more—not to mention the cost of huge coastal areas (home to some of the world’s most economically-productive cities) being flooded by rising seawaters.

Opponents of action against climate change tend to conflate what’s good for the economy with what’s good for the fossil-fuel industry. But whatever economic costs are imposed by steps against climate change, they’re all aimed at changing a trajectory that, from an environmental and economic standpoint, is utterly suicidal. Hayes is right: Climate activists resemble abolitionists in the far-reaching economic impact of their demands. But his point can be taken even further. Their opponents, like those who warned of the downfall of King Cotton, are far from the voice of economic sanity against pie-in-the-sky radicals. Instead, they represent a set of narrow special interests that would sacrifice everything—economy included—for the interests of a few.

Photo credit: Liam Quinn

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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