The economy of climate change. Does capitalism lead to ecological disasters?

Essay, 2014
7 Pages, Grade: 84

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In the United Kingdom, images of inundated streets and houses have persistently flooded the headlines this winter, giving the impression that communities were built on river beds. In addition to this are the assertions that 2014 marks England’s wettest winter since record keeping began in 1766 (Reuben, 2014). A similar story is told of France where hundreds of individuals in the South were displaced due to heavy rains and consequent flooding. Indeed, worldwide, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters has increased and has also reignited the debate on the urgency of action to be taken to tackle climate change or face the consequences. The assertion that ‘capitalist development expresses itself in environmental imbalance and ecological disasters such as climate change’ (Koch 2012) is a view widely maintained by environmentalists or green movements who oppose the wanton exploitation of the planet’s non renewable resources characteristic of capitalism. To begin, it is essential to define a few key terms within the given quotation. Firstly, an ‘ecological disaster’ is defined as an event that is caused by human activity and results in serious negative impact on the environment. Classic ecological disasters include the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 and more recently the BP oil spill in 2010 which caused extensive damage to marine ecosystems. Climate change, according to the quotation, constituting an ecological disaster speaks to the implication of human activity therein. These activities include the burning of fossil fuels which was first linked to climactic changes by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrenhius (Koch, 2012, p. 3). The United States Environment Protection Agency defines climate change as “any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time... [usually] over several decades or longer.” The increase in the temperature near the Earth’s surface is due to an increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and is an aspect of climate change called global warming. Koch (2012) asserts that due to human and industrial activity, greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide are being returned into the atmosphere approximately one hundred million times faster than natural processes can remove it which leads to the ‘environmental imbalance’ highlighted in the quotation. Finally, capitalist development speaks to the expansion of capitalism through the processes of liberalization and globalization. It is marked by large-scale production through the use of industrial and technological infrastructure (Irwin, “Posing Global”) and increased exportation of goods due to free trade which opened access to foreign markets. However, in addition to this economic aspect of capitalism is what can be called social capitalism, which refers to the spreading of the capitalist ‘culture-ideology of consumerism’ through globalization and its agents such as the media - advertising (Sklair, 2002) as well as a capitalist elite class which possesses the ‘habitus’ as according to Pierre Bourdieu that is aspired to by other social classes. Sklair (2002) asserts that the expansion of this overly consumerist ideology is paralleled with the exponential growth of transnational corporations and has helped maintain capitalism in its divisive and unequal nature. In this essay, the role of capitalist development - through globalization and liberalization - in environmental degradation and especially climate change will be explored.

Contrary to the past 400,000 years which were marked by a relative balance in the climate system; since the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the emission and accumulation of greenhouse gases and particularly carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has “greatly expanded in scale…overwhelming the capacity of natural sinks…to absorb the additional carbon, leading to climate change” (Clark & York, 2005 in Koch, 2012, p.31). This assertion highlights the undeniable role of human industrial activity in accentuating the problem of climate change. For capitalist institutions such as multinational corporations, the world and its ecological resources are a ceaseless expanse of space for more intensive economic use, control and manipulation. This is highlighted in the example given by Dietz and Wissen (2009 in Koch, 2012, p. 39) that “the rainforest is cut down in order to use the wood for industrial purposes, then the very biological diversity is being diminished that produces the seeds that the pharmaceutical industries requires”. Hence, where capitalist ideology would assert that “there will always be a way to dispose of waste and repair the planet” (Sklair, 2002); environmentalists would retort in support of conservation, sustainable development and the irreversibility of damage done to the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. Indeed, as stated by Koch (2012) in order to increase or maintain profits, the scale of production of the corporations is greatly increased which accelerates the depletion of environmental resources through deforestation, overfishing and similar activities but also increases the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. Rosalind Irwin (“Posing Global”) asserted that new technologies have revolutionized the market in terms of an accelerated rate of exploitation of natural resources which could lead to the brisk occurrence of environmental changes which surpass the predictive and managerial capacity of experts.

However, as highlighted in one of the most fundamental laws of economics, without demand there will be no supply; or rather, since the goal of capitalism is the creation of profit, supply would not be profitable if there were no demand. Hence, it is necessary to consider the role of consumerism and social capitalism in the phenomenon of climate change. Koch (2012) highlights the symbolic nature enshrined in the act of purchasing which is in line with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’. Indeed the capitalist culture-ideology of consumerism that glorifies the acquisition and possession of particular valuables thereafter attributes social standing in society and a sense of belonging based on possessions (Koch 2012). In fact, so great is this “competition for positional goods” (Hirst, 1976 in Koch, 2012, p.42) that “continuous efforts [are] made by all social agents to reestablish or improve their original position and to distance themselves from other people… [so as to] continuously [demonstrate] one’s unique taste and position in society…” (Koch 2012). Two important aspects of Global Political Economy are globalization and liberalization. Supporters of neo-liberalism advocated the promise of economic prosperity for countries which followed its principles by implementing free-market policies and competition, facilitating the free trade of goods to countries once out of their reach, hence supporting capitalism. Hence, globalization through its “widening and deepening of worldwide interconnectedness” (Baylis & Smith, 2008) has helped to spread this consumerist ideology to all corners of the globe, fuelling the accelerated production of ‘desirable’ goods and lessening the time between production and consumption due to the persistent demand of consumerism (Sklair, 2002). This point is reiterated in Max Koch’s assertion that “what and how much we buy and consume is of the greatest relevance for the carbon cycle, since such decisions are normally bound to matter and energy transformations, which more often than not necessitate the burning of fossil fuels” (Koch, 2012, p. 41). Hence, globalist forces such as the internet and the media coupled with industrial and technological advancements and a liberalized world economy all ensure the survival and persistence of capitalism to the detriment of the environment. Climate change then stems from the increased industrial activity which occurs to meet the consistent global demand thereby exponentially increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that much faster than the natural process can reabsorb it especially with the depletion of tropical forests.

On the other hand, as Koch (2012) highlights, the resilience of capitalism to climate change highlights the presence of special interests within governments which continue to neglect and trivialize the issue of climate change. This environmental-cynicism is seen in dismissive comments trivializing concerns of climate change and environmental degradation such as that of Daniel Hannan, MP of South East England who asserted that “the environment is cleaner than it has ever been… [and] keeps getting cleaner…Western countries are breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water. Cheer up things keep getting better!” In truth, despite the creation of various international forums, organizations and treaties to regulate and reduce the level of greenhouse gases of states, such as the Climate Change Forum in 1950, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol to name a few, much is left to be desired in terms of proactive action and response. In fact, for the most part, State and non-State actors agree that action must be taken to tackle the impending disaster; however decisive and concrete action has yet to be taken raising fears that continued delays will be detrimental to the planet’s ecological balance.

Finally, Koch (2012) asserts that capitalism as a social structure developed almost simultaneously with climate change, which would seek to point to the direct cause-effect correlation between the two. However, the opposition to the notion of climate change and the imperative of regulation stems from the tensions between capitalist interests and environmentalist ones. Since the 1960s and 1970s with the increased attention paid to environmental problems (Irwin, “Posing Global”), not much in terms of concrete action has been taken to ensure efficient regulation of the problem on the part of the majority of states. However, despite the staunch resistance to the assertions of environmentalists, it is clear that green movements are having an increasing impact on contemporary capitalist globalization. According to Sklair (2002), this is evidenced in the fact that capitalist and political interests have “all jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon” in a bid to create policies favourable to themselves. Moreover, the unbiased recurrence of ecological abnormalities seasonally such as the heat wave in Europe in 2003, the present unprecedented flooding in many Western countries and the drastic changes in Small Island Developing States which have all been associated with climate change, serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the situation at hand both for present and future generations. Hence, as arguments for climate change and general environmental awareness slowly gain legitimacy, the question that remains is: will tomorrow be too late?


Baylis, J., & Smith, S. The globalization of world politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Evans, M. "Environmental Disasters."Earth Times (blog), May 12, 2011. (accessed February 21, 2014).

Koch, M. Capitalism and Climate Change Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development and Policy Responses. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Reuben, A. "UK Floods, how bad have these floods been?."The BBC News. no. 13 (2014). : (accessed February 18, 2014).

Rosalind Irwin. “Posing Global Environmental Problems from Conservation to Sustainable Development,” in The International Political Economy of the Environment, ed. Assetto, J. & Stevis, D. (London: Lynne Rienner, 2001).

Sklair, L. Globalization, Capitalism and its alternatives 3rd edition. NY: Oxford, 2002

Stevis, D. & Assetto, J. The International Political Economy of the Environment. London: Lynne Rienner, 2001.

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The economy of climate change. Does capitalism lead to ecological disasters?
University of the West Indies
International Political Economy and Climate Change
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Tamara Taylor (Author), 2014, The economy of climate change. Does capitalism lead to ecological disasters?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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