Crises and change

Wheel and chains

I came across a quote from Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning Chicago School economist, that seems well suited to the practice of trying to combat climate change:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

It certainly seems to apply well to all those who kept researching and debating climate policies in the U.S. through the long darkness of the Bush years. Now, some of the most compelling of those ideas are being voiced as serious possibilities.

The lesson for those hoping to change things, perhaps, is not to despair during times when necessary actions seem politically impossible, but rather to use those times for further preparation, as well as to try to provoke the kind of political crises that permit real change to occur.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

19 thoughts on “Crises and change”

  1. The Friedman quote is discussed on page 122 of the hardcover copy of James Gustave Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.

  2. It’s ironic that you should choose that quote, since it forms the basis of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which warns us against those who seek to impose grand schemes of organization that ignore human practice and seek to start over from scratch, and thus can only be executed in the wake of a disaster.

  3. It’s also ironic to use a quote from a Chicago School economist to argue that those seeking carbon pricing and further regulation need to prepare and wait for when the time is right to reverse the laissez-faire policies of the past.

  4. The quote also reminds me of a piece of advice I once received from a friend who works in government:

    “Work on the margin. Best recipe for avoiding either extreme of apathy or eco-depression. Be ready for blue-moon opportunities to advance something useful, maybe once every two years. The rest is preparation.”

  5. I would have never expected a Milton Friedman quote on this site.

    If I see an Ayn Rand quote I am leaving and never coming back! ;-)

  6. “Work on the margin. Best recipe for avoiding either extreme of apathy or eco-depression. Be ready for blue-moon opportunities to advance something useful, maybe once every two years. The rest is preparation.”

    Yes, as Rahm Emanuel said, “you never want a serious crisis go to waste”.

    But I say, forget waiting for a blue moon, it may take too long. Why not just create a crisis to expedite an agenda?


  7. Countries other than the US have been acting on climate change for some time now. This isn’t something that popped on the RADAR to accommodate the Obama administration. Rather, it’s something the US has been lagging on for many years, but where the Obama administration has a chance of making an improvement in policy.

  8. I would have never expected a Milton Friedman quote on this site.

    I actually saw him speak once, at a very nice lunch provided by Vancouver’s notoriously free market think tank, the Fraser Institute.

    I got on their mailing list by entering an essay contest about how the free market could solve an environmental problem. I suggested that someone could extract the copper leaching from the Britannia Mine, sell it for a profit, and thus reduce the extent of the heavy metal generated dead zone in Howe Sound. While the mine was operating, a facility existed which profitably extracted the metal from Britannia Creek, but it closed when the mine did.

    I didn’t win, but did get invited to some future events.

    See: Britannia Mine copper leaching

    P.S. It’s amusing to note that the Fraser Institute has misspelled ‘responsibility’ in the title of their webpage. ‘Responsbility,’ indeed.

  9. Milan,

    Just because I quoted Rahm Emanuel, doesn’t mean I was refering only to the U.S. or the Obama administration, after all, the IPCC is representative of many countries.

    Of course, in my ignorance of being misled, I discovered that the IPCC was established by two U.N. organizations.

    Becoming further misled, I started reading things put out by the U.N., such as this report from their Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)……

    I may have mistaken a few lines in this report as wanting to redistribute global wealth, not through global growth, which would harm the environment, and “give yet more to those who already have too much, in the hope that a few more crumbs will fall from the rich man’s table” (page 19 conclusion), but through a change in policies and global economics.

    Now, as crazy as it sounds, it appears I may have been misled into thinking that the IPCC, established by the U.N. may have similar policies in mind.

    And amidst all this misleading on my part, the more I hear about a futuristic catastrophic crisis, that needs to be addressed immediately, by changing policies before it’s too late……I have to wonder out loud…….”you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.

  10. You are right to see crisis as oppertunity. But, vigilance is needed – it’s certainly possible that those in power will use this crisis to make sure their power is not contested. By “those in power” I don’t mean the particular parties in power, but the current representative system which is representative primarily of business interest rather than popular interest.

  11. I meant that your attempt to subvert that tactic by providing a potentially positive account of the strategy was ironic, because adopting that quote opens you to the type of criticism Klein levies against Friedman. It was (and has had the effect) of stoking those who are critical of your presentation of the issue.

  12. Ecological debt: No way back from bankrupt

    Andrew Simms

    While most governments’ eyes are on the banking crisis, a much bigger issue – the environmental crisis – is passing them by, says Andrew Simms. In the Green Room this week, he argues that failure to organise a bailout for ecological debt will have dire consequences for humanity.

  13. “The IPCC isn’t the only body that has concluded that climate change is real, human-induced, and dangerous.”

    No, but that doesn’t negate the issues regarding the IPCC that I mentioned above.
    Does the U.N. agenda correlate with the IPCC in any way? Is there enough link between the two to warrent skepticism, or does it indicate ignorance on my part or indifference on yours?

    In addition, the statement from the Joint Science Academies (I assume that’s what you linked me to) appears to be based on the findings of the IPCC….as stated in the JSA’ notes…….

    “2 IPCC (2001). Third Assessment Report. We recognise the international scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

    “5 Recognising and building on the IPCC’s ongoing work on emission scenarios.”

    And this note…….

    “Although long-term projections of future world energy demand and supply are highly uncertain, the World
    Energy Outlook produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA) is a useful source of information about possible future energy scenarios.”

    They admit projection for world energy demand are “highly uncertain” yet consider the IEA a useful source for ” possible future energy scenarios”

    Useful for what? Making the uncertain appear certain?

  14. You think the IPCC is some sort of UN-run, socialist cabal. Do you think this is something that might be true, but which the national science academies of the G8, Brazil, China and India would also be happy to ignore?

    The fact is, the science on the key elements of climate change is very well understood: a fact reflected by the broad consensus of support among serious scientific organizations. The IPCC reports are really just the Coles Notes summaries of the peer reviewed scientific work that has been done. This overall body of work strongly supports the fact that climate change as it is being experienced today is real, caused by people, and dangerous.

    Does the U.N. agenda correlate with the IPCC in any way? Is there enough link between the two to warrent skepticism, or does it indicate ignorance on my part or indifference on yours?

    The IPCC is a bunch of scientists who produce texts later approved line-by-line by governments, including those most committed to preventing climate change mitigation (Saudi Arabia, et al). If anything, the IPCC conclusions are less alarming than is warranted by the peer-reviewed science.

    If anything, the need for consensus means that the most cautious governments are the ones that have the most influence on the final reports – not the states that are most concerned, or the states with the most respect for the quality of scientific methodology.

    They admit projection for world energy demand are “highly uncertain” yet consider the IEA a useful source for ” possible future energy scenarios”

    Huge growth in energy demand is not necessary in order to produce catastrophic climate change. Just sticking to today’s energy mix is enough to do it. As such, it doesn’t matter fundamentally whether demand stays constant, doubles, or increases tenfold by 2050. In any case, we need to decarbonize our energy system.

  15. the best policy
    Two Crises Wasted
    Washington’s perverse refusal to grapple with the energy crisis or to genuinely reform Wall Street.
    By Eliot Spitzer
    Posted Tuesday, July 27, 2010, at 10:04 AM ET

    The past news week was dominated by the Shirley Sherrod saga, a miserable episode that involved political operatives masquerading as journalists distorting fact in order to promote pre-existing bias, followed by a rush to judgment on the part of those too weak or fearful to exercise independent thought. A casualty of the Sherrod story’s domination of the news is that it obscured the whimpering end of two of the largest crises of the past several years: the signing of the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill and the plugging of the BP well.

    As we all now know, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and here we have wasted two of them. The momentum for change will now fade into the haze of a long, hot summer. Many Americans hoped that the BP leak would finally focus us on generating an energy/climate policy that would deal simultaneously with global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels. That hope has now totally disappeared. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the end of meaningful reform in the energy arena, and the politics after the midterm elections will make that issue even less palatable.

    Behind the Dodd-Frank celebrations and Rose Garden linguistic bouquets, nothing really changed about the financial sector: The same regulators are in charge, the same CEOs are still running bigger, more concentrated financial institutions, and, oh, by the way, the pay czar announced last week that TARP beneficiary institutions overpaid their executives by $ 1.7 billion—yet nothing will or can be done about it. The TARP IG reported last week that the Treasury-department mortgage reformation program has been a disaster: Fewer than 400,000 mortgages have been altered. And while Goldman was paying a fine of two weeks’ profits to give the SEC cover, there was no structural reform in the securities industry. A decade has gone by with no net private-sector job growth, initial unemployment claims last week jumped to 464,000, the average duration of unemployment is the longest in modern history, and the deficit for fiscal year 2010 is projected to exceed 2009’s 1.41 trillion dollars.

    So all in all, a pretty dismal week. The White House needs to do something to transform this dreadful political moment. How about a simple, three-part proposal? First, adopt a carbon tax (supported by virtually all in the environmental community and some conservatives as well; see Pete Peterson in the Wall Street Journal) . Second, offset the revenues from the carbon tax with a reduction or even elimination of the payroll tax for all new hires. Third, increase the retirement age for Social Security one year for every two calendar years over the next six years (a net increase in three years on the retirement front), and start to put in place some obligation for the wealthiest to pay more for Medicare. These are simple but necessary bargains.

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