Ukraine-Russia war, Covid pandemic and Brexit: Disaster capitalists have exploited them all to enrich themselves and wreck the planet – Joyce McMillan

It’s 15 years since the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein published her book The Shock Doctrine, on the theory and practice of what she called “disaster capitalism”; some admired the book, while others, at the time, dismissed her thinking about capitalism as naive, and lacking in nuance.

The war in Ukraine is being used as a pretext for declaring the end of attempts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions (Picture: David McNew/Getty Images)
The war in Ukraine is being used as a pretext for declaring the end of attempts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions (Picture: David McNew/Getty Images)

Yet as it happens, the years since 2007 have offered ever more dramatic opportunities for observing the conduct of at least some exponents of corporate capitalism, and their political backers, in a series of global crises that began with the financial crash of 2008-09, and have now reached a new level of horror with Russian’s brutal invasion of Ukraine; and on every occasion opportunities have certainly been taken to make the rich richer, at the expense of the rest of us.

In the UK, it happened over Brexit, and again during the pandemic; and now it seems that even those episodes may be about to pale into insignificance, when set beside the sustained effort, in recent weeks, to use the horrific war in Ukraine as a pretext not only for hiking domestic energy bills to extortionate levels, but for declaring “net zero dead”, and for resuming business as usual in the non-renewable energy industries, including what is known as “new nuclear”.

The question of the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon economy is complicated, of course, particularly in countries which – unlike the UK – already depend heavily on nuclear capacity.

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When it comes to the burning of gas and oil, though, the situation could hardly be clearer; we need to end our addiction to them within the next decade, or the planet that gives us life will be altered irrevocably, and may, within half a century or so, become uninhabitable for our species.

In the past week, weather stations in both the Arctic and Antarctic have recorded temperatures so far above average – 30 and 40 degrees Celsius respectively – that climate scientists are stunned, and seriously alarmed.

Nor is the reason for the planet’s increasingly unstable climate difficult to grasp; carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, causing rapid rises in temperature, and levels are now 47 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times, with a terrifying quarter of that rise taking place in the last 20 years.

These are facts that almost all of us now know, and the vast majority say they accept; a terminal diagnosis for much of what we know as life on Earth, unless we act immediately to change our energy and economic model, and to stop burning fossil fuels.

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Yet in the face of this huge existential crisis, what we get, from sizeable sections of our political, business and media establishment, is a desperate and indeed contemptible effort to defend the status quo; a parade of ageing, well-paid, hollow men, with dead eyes and evasive voices, who say that they accept the need for action on climate change, but then line up to argue that in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, we should instead enhance our “energy security” (a laughable phrase, under the circumstances) by opening up new oil and gas fields, including the controversial Cambo field north-west of Scotland, and reversing decisions across the UK not to develop a fracking industry.

And the most profound irony of their position is that they dare to call their position “realistic”, and to mock those seriously trying to reduce carbon emissions as foolish idealists, when the exact reverse is true.

The old objection that renewables only work “when the wind blows and the sun shines”, still trotted out with astonishing regularity by ill-informed UK government ministers and MPs, has long since been overtaken by new developments in storage and battery technologies; and as the recent dash to grab Scotland’s offshore wind licences shows, many major energy corporations are now fully aware that renewables represent a faster and more sustained return, for a much lower investment, than complex new oil extraction or nuclear projects.

Yet still, humankind’s fatal fossil fuel addiction drags on, in defiance of science, or even commercial common sense. Western governments, in particular, often continue to spend far more on subsidising fossil fuels than on renewables; and it is no coincidence that the current “Net Zero Scrutiny” group of Tory backbenchers, pressing the Prime Minister to drop the UK’s carbon reduction targets, contains many of the same blinkered denialists and nostalgists who made up the notorious pro-hard-Brexit European Research Group, and the subsequent Covid Recovery Group, which pressurised the UK government to adopt its current position of pretending that the Covid epidemic is over, when it clearly is not.

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In a powerful intervention last week, by contrast, Labour’s shadow energy minister Ed Miliband argued that the Tory government must not “cave in” to climate sceptics, and made a powerful case for Labour’s proposed £28 billion programme of investment in a “dash for renewables”, which he rightly sees as by far the most rapid, effective and rational response to the current crisis; the Scottish Government’s position is the same.

And although facing up to the facts about climate change is a painful and frightening business, to be borne only in short bursts, it should at least, by now, be crystal clear to voters everywhere who the realists are in this situation, trying to offer a viable future; and which voices are still seeking, in a mood of stubborn rebellion against 21st century realities, to peddle the lie that business as usual is still possible, and to sell out the future of humanity for a few more bucks of short-term profit – most of it destined only to rot in the bank accounts of those wealthy people who still dream of becoming ever richer, on a planet where there may soon be little left to buy.

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