The Free Market Won’t Free Us From Our Collective Challenges, Especially Global Warming

November 4, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

For the first time in our history, the climate crisis and how to combat it is the issue dominating the presidential debate. Many Democratic candidates have released climate proposals that seek to reduce carbon emissions in order to align with recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Progressives should applaud the collective Aha! moment that is unfolding but caution that the details of these proposals must be careful not to exacerbate the power that markets and corporations hold over our economy. The market-led approach that has prevented climate action for decades should not and cannot lead us forward.

The ideological and political shift in the 1970s and 1980s toward neoliberalism was a key driver of the climate crisis, and policies built on those same market-led ideals will not save us. To tackle the existential threat we face today, it is essential that we first understand how we got here. In a new Roosevelt report, Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad provide a thorough account of how neoliberalism has contributed to climate inaction and enabled polluters to fuel climate change denialism. Specifically, they point to three core tenets that, taken together, have hindered “our collective ability to address the climate crisis”: a decentralized democracy, weak public investment, and a deregulated economy.

Together, each of these tenets has exacerbated inequality, stifled economic growth, and distorted the public consensus on public power and what government can accomplish.

A decentralized democracy forces local and state governments to compete with one another to attract fossil fuel businesses, weakened federal public investment literally keeps money out of climate action and puts the onus on state governments to act with far fewer resources, and the push for a deregulated economy means that we cannot hold corporations accountable for the pollution they cause.

This ideology is harmful to all corners of our economy and society, as our New Rules report lays out in detail. Ultimately, our ability to halt the climate crisis is limited by the reality that its effects are largely irreversible—natural resources cannot be recreated; warming cannot be undone, only slowed; and melting ice caps, causing rising sea levels, cannot be refrozen.  Outsized market and corporate power will continue to hinder a solution unless we shed the ideology that empowers and enables these forces to act in their own interest.

It is true that climate-change denial is an increasingly fringe opinion in today’s world, but those in denial of neoliberalism’s harmful consequences are in strong numbers and on both sides of the aisle. An effective response to the climate crisis—and to our economic and democracy crises more broadly—first means an ideological moment of reckoning. It will also require the federal government to address climate change head on, using significant public investment, meaningful and enforceable regulation, and federal leadership. The alternative is an unlivable planet for future generations and drastic economic costs in the near term.