Paul Krugman’s Sorry Salvation

Paul Krugman has been writing about “salvation”. When it comes to global warming, the normally hard-headed economist puts aside his skepticism and awaits the fall of solar panels from heaven. Or rather, from Democratic politicians and polluting industries that dominate their climate policies. In a 2014 piece “Salvation Gets Cheap,” Krugman contended that thanks to price drops in renewable energy, small policy changes could put salvation “within fairly easy reach.” In last month’s “Planet on the Ballot,” Krugman argued that electing Hillary Clinton president would mean “salvation is clearly within our grasp”.

“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be.” The progressive pundit offers countless feel-good predictions along these lines. A deeper look at Krugman’s words, however, reveals a disturbing indifference to the loss of millions of lives, livelihoods, and homes. Currently, an estimated 400,000 people die each year from climate change, 98 percent of them in the Global South, according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, a study commissioned by twenty governments. Krugman looks away, instead seeing salvation in pathways that increase global warming far above today’s already genocidal amount.

While he mocks conservative climate change deniers, Krugman himself is in denial about the necessary solutions. A fast-paced transition, while technologically possible, is not compatible with economic growth. This presents a problem for Krugman, who has spent his career defending a capitalist economic system requiring infinite growth. “All that stands in the way of saving the planet,”the Nobel prize winner declares in “Salvation Gets Cheap,” “is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests.” Unfortunately, his own columns offer a vivid illustration. Krugman’s liberal climate denialism has five basic steps.

Step 1: Cite science fiction

Krugman dismisses the environmentalist notion, in “Salvation Gets Cheap,” “that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy.” He points to models collected by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “In fact,” he insists, “even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.”

The models Krugman cites must not be mistaken with reality. In fact, they overwhelmingly rely on speculative technologies for removing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and, in some cases, time travel. Yes, some of the scenarios involve a global peak of emissions starting in 2010, which would require the invention of the time machine. According to Tyndall Centre for ClimateChange’s deputy director Kevin Anderson, “the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% chance or better of 2°C assume either an ability to travel back in time or the successful and large-scale uptake of speculative negative emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both ‘time travel and geo-engineering‘.”

More realistically, Anderson and co-author Alice Bows-Larkin explain that economic growth is not compatible with necessary global emissions reductions. Searching the literature, they do not find a single model suggesting growth is compatible with 4% or more annual emissions cuts. Anderson and Bows-Larkin quote the leading climate economist Nicholas Stern (who Krugman professes to “deeply respect”) that annual emissions reductions above 1% have “been associated only with economic recession or upheaval.”

Step 2: Pick a “practical” target

Undeterred, Krugman proceeds by picking an alarming target of 2°C global warming. Even the “ambitious” IPCC scenarios he cites aim for merely a “likely” (two-thirds or more) chance of staying within this limit. In a book review of his mentor William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino, Krugman offers no complaint regarding Nordhaus’s choice of an even more dangerous 2.3°C target. “Some might consider even this policy inadequate,” Krugman writes in the review, “but it’s far beyond anything currently on the political agenda, so as a practical matter Nordhaus and the most hawkish of climate activists are entirely on the same side.”

The problem with this excuse is that Krugman’s bi-weekly columns make him a foremost author of the political agenda. Telling a wide, educated readership that ambitious climate policy is not practical, Krugman’s own words help define the common sense of the times.

The 2°C of warming Krugman accepts would submerge island countries underwater. The IPCC says 2°C would leave Africa with catastrophic crop yield declines, drought, and increases in water- and vector-borne diseases. Even with advanced adaptation measures “there could be very high levels of risk for Africa,” the IPCC warns.

2°C would be “highly dangerous” according a study led by Columbia University’s Earth Institute professor James Hansen, who Krugman has correctly called a “great climate scientist”. When theEarth was that hot 120,000 years ago, seas levels were several meters higher than today’s. Hansen and co-authors warn that among a number of “disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems,” the seas could rise to this level again, threatening coastal cities and towns worldwide.

Thus, Krugman’s choice of a 2°C warming target betrays a cold indifference to the effects on poorer countries and the potential destruction of coastal cities. In the religion of mainstreameconomics, this level is a practical definition of success, and thus “salvation”. To the rest of the world, it is deep failure.

Step 3: Let poor countries do the hard work

In “Planet on the Ballet,” Krugman argues that as long as Americans elect the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in November, “salvation is clearly within our grasp” on the issue of global warming. Implicitly, then, Krugman even accepts as “salvation” the meager emissions cuts of “up to 30 percent in 2025” pledged by the Democrats’ likely nominee Hillary Clinton. Her pledges fall far short of the 100% cuts by 2020 that justice demands.

By any moral measure, richer countries like the US have a responsibility to reduce emissions at a much faster rate than poorer nations. After all, richer countries caused the problem; the US alone is responsible for 29% of the world’s historic greenhouse gas emissions. No matter how one crunches the numbers, simple morality says the US couldn’t possibly go carbon-neutral soon enough.

According to IPCC estimates, even current atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases imply at least a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C. Thus, there is no carbon budget left if the world is at least 90% serious about stopping warming at 2°C.

What if the US were content to allow a one-third chance of reaching 2°C? Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and the German Advisory Council on Global Change calculate an answer using the “per-capita principle” which says no country should get to emit more per-person than another country. With this formula, they calculate the US must go carbon-neutral by 2020.

Fair Shares, a report by the Climate Equity Reference Project, arrives at the same conclusion. Their formula allocates emissions reductions to countries based on two factors: historical responsibility for emissions and current capacity to pay for reductions. They find that to keep the risk of 2°C to one-third, the US must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2020, give or take a year.

Even if the world accepts a reckless 50% chance of reaching 2°C and even if justice were to be pragmatically compromised, wealthy countries would still need to cut emissions by 8-10% a year, according to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin. This would give the poorer nations only a decade before they would themselves need to make unprecedented emissions cuts. Since Anderson and Bows-Larkin made these calculations in 2013, it can be concluded that the US would need to cut emissions by 56-70% by 2020. Clinton’s campaign pledge of “up to 30 percent in 2025” falls far short, even with the most charitable possible reading of the words “up to.”

Step 4: Allow plenty of loopholes

Clinton’s plan relies centrally on the EPA’s loophole-filled Clean Power Plan. As the Climate Justice Alliance indicates, the Clean Power Plan “runs the risk of incentivizing a massive shift, already underway, from coal to natural gas in America’s power sector rather than contributing to a clean energy transformation. It opens the door for a range of harmful energy sources, from nuclear to waste incineration.”

By ignoring the full impacts of certain energy sources, the Clean Power Plan could lead to a massive replacement of oil and coal with fuels that are even worse for the climate. The Clean Power Plan counts biomass and trash incineration as carbon-neutral, even though the EPA itself estimates that biomass incineration emits 50% more carbon per unit of energy than coal does and trash incineration emits 250% more carbon per unit than coal. Ignoring the findings of Cornell University’s biogeochemist Robert Howarth that fracked gas is 20% to 200% worse for the climate than coal is, the Clean Power Plan recklessly considers fracked gas a “bridge fuel,” an acceptable solution until renewables become more profitable.

Krugman, a supporter of natural gas, doesn’t complain. In his review of Nordhaus, Krugman writes, “Should we try to produce energy from low-emission sources (e.g., natural gas) or non-emission sources (e.g., wind)? …The answer is, all of the above.” Krugman description of natural gas as a “low-emission” source is absurd, since Krugman himself calls the methane leaked from gas infrastructure and pipelines “a powerful greenhouse gas.” As it stands, the Clean Power Plan gives polluters plenty of ways to keep using dirty energy sources and avoid real solutions.

Step 5: Await salvation

Krugman almost never bothers to look below and write about indigenous people fighting to protect their lands or young people locking themselves to construction machinery. Instead, Krugman looks above, awaiting salvation from the politician Hillary Clinton, who has taken six figures in fossil fuel contributions and who has pledged to allow fossil fuel extraction on public lands for the foreseeable future.

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), Krugman proudly situates himself among the liberal tradition of “people who believed that capitalism could be made more just without being abolished.”. He distances himself from “genuinely dangerous radicals” such as “communists and anarchists” (32-33). Although some radicals are certainly dangerous, Krugman fails to confront the comparable danger of his liberal climate denialism, which steers the Earth toward climate changes that have never happened throughout human civilization.

Krugman admitted a couple years ago that when he first read a 2007 book by the journalist Naomi Klein, he was predisposed to dislike Klein’s book when it came out, probably out of professional turf-defending and whatever — but her thesis really helps explain a lot”. Overall, Krugman has been moving gradually leftward, but it will probably be several years before he accepts the thesis ofKlein’s latest book This Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Klein’s important book shows that confronting climate change means transforming society in ways radicals have long beendemanding. It means a rapid and complete shift to small-scale agriculture and community-controlled renewable energy. It means a guaranteed minimum income and an end to militarism and “free trade” policy.

If Krugman were to accept the scientists’ warnings about the scale of change needed, he would actually find very strong arguments for progressive reforms he has himself been advocating. InConscience of a Liberal, for example, he notes that “working less improves the quality of life” (255). He could add that a radically shorter workweek, for instance, the fifteen hour workweek predicted by Krugman’s hero John Maynard Keynes, would decrease production and thus would put less stress on the planet. Krugman has advocated debt relief for working Americans. He might add that this would be a relief to the planet too, since as David Graeber observes, debt is basically a promise people make to produce more stuff in the future.

It seems unlikely that capitalism could offer such reforms to the extent the climate demands, but if Krugman is serious about trying to save the system for the long haul, he might want to put away talk of salvation and explain how it can be done for real.

Dan Fischer is a member of Capitalism vs. the Climate (affiliated with Rising Tide) and Industrial Workers of the World-CT. He can be reached at