Chomsky, now 92, is the author of several political bestsellers, translated into several languages. His critiques of power and his defence of the autonomy and political action of ordinary people have inspired generations of activists and social organisers. He has been professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976.

By Stan Cox, published by Tom Dispatch and reprinted by Other Words.

-Most of the nations meeting in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, 31 October to 12 November 2021, have pledged to reduce CO2 emissions. Most of the time, these pledges are totally inadequate. What principles do you think should guide efforts to prevent a climate catastrophe?

-The initiators of the Paris Agreement intended to have a binding treaty, not voluntary agreements, but there was an impediment: the US Republican Party. It was clear that the Republican Party would never accept any binding commitments. This party, which has lost all pretence of being a normal political organisation, is devoted almost exclusively to the welfare of the super-rich and the corporate sector, and has no concern whatsoever for the people or the future of the world. The republican organisation would never have agreed to a binding treaty. In response, the organisers reduced their goal to a voluntary agreement, which contains all the difficulties you mentioned.

We lost six years, four under the Trump administration that was openly dedicated to maximising the use of fossil fuels and dismantling the regulatory apparatus that had, to some extent, limited their lethal effects. To some extent, these regulations protect sections of the population from pollution, particularly the poor and blacks. For it is they, of course, who face the main burden of pollution. It is the world’s poor who live in what Trump called “shithole countries” who suffer the most; they contribute the least to the disaster and are the main victims.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a path to a liveable future. There are ways to have responsible, sane and racially just policies. It is up to all of us to demand them, something young people around the world are already doing.

Other countries have their own responsibilities, but the United States has the worst record in the world. Washington blocked the Paris Agreement before Trump finally took office. But it was under Trump that the US withdrew completely from the agreement.

If you look at the saner Democrats, who are far from innocent, there are so-called “moderates” like Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat – East Virginia), the fossil fuel industry’s main recipient of funds, whose position is this: unrestricted business, just “innovation”. This is also the vision of Exxon Mobil: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you”, they say. “We are a company with a soul. We are investing in some futuristic ways to eliminate the pollution we are putting into the atmosphere. It’s all good, just trust us.” “No elimination, just innovation” is a bad idea because, if innovation comes, it will probably be too late and have a very limited effect.

Take the IPCC report that has just been published. It is much more terrible than the previous ones and says that we should phase out fossil fuels step by step, every year, until we get rid of them completely, in a few decades. A few days after the report’s release, Joe Biden called on the OPEC oil cartel to increase production, which would lower gas prices in the US and improve the president’s standing with the public. There was immediate euphoria in oil market research. There is a lot of profit to be made, but at what cost? Well, it was good to have the human species for a few hundred thousand years, but evidently that was enough. After all, the average lifespan of a species on Earth is apparently about 100,000 years. So why should we break the record? Why organise for a just future for all, when we can destroy the planet by helping rich corporations get richer?

– Ecological catastrophe is coming in large part because, as you once said, “the entire socio-economic system is based on production for profit and a growth imperative that cannot be sustained”. However, it seems that only state authority can implement the necessary changes in an equitable, transparent and fair manner. Given the emergency we face, do you think governments could justify measures such as restricting the use of national resources, creating rules for their resource allocation or rationing, policies that would necessarily limit the freedom of local communities and individuals in their material lives?

– Well, we have some realities to face. I would like to see movement towards a freer and fairer society: production to meet needs rather than production for profit, workers able to control their own lives rather than subordinate to bosses for most of their lives. The time needed for such efforts to succeed is simply too long to deal with this crisis. This means that we have to solve it with existing institutions, which of course can be improved.

The economic system of the last forty years has been particularly destructive. It inflicted a major attack on the majority of the population, resulting in a huge increase in inequality and attacks on democracy and the environment.

A liveable future is possible. We don’t have to live in a system where the tax rules have changed so that billionaires pay lower rates than working people. We don’t have to live in a form of state capitalism where, in the United States alone, the poorest 90% of wage earners have been robbed of approximately $50 trillion for the benefit of a fraction of 1%. That is the RAND Corporation’s estimate, a very conservative estimate if we look at other devices that were used. There are ways to reform the existing system basically within the same structure of institutions. I think they need to be transformed, but that will take more time.

The question is: can we prevent climate catastrophe within a framework of less savage state capitalist institutions? I think there are reasons to believe that we can, and there are very careful and detailed proposals on how to do that, including some in your new book, as well as proposals by my friend and co-author, the economist Robert Pollin, who has worked through many of these things in great detail. Jeffrey Sachs, another excellent economist, using somewhat different models, came to much the same conclusions. These are basically the lines of the proposals of the International Energy Association, not at all a radical organisation, born out of energy corporations. But they all have essentially the same picture.

In fact, there is even a US congressional resolution, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, which outlines very advanced proposals, within the range of concrete feasibility, under current conditions. They are estimated to cost between 2% and 3% of GDP, which is perfectly possible. They would not only solve the crisis, they would create a more liveable future, free of pollution, free of traffic jams, with more constructive and productive work, and better jobs. All this is possible.

But there are serious barriers: the fossil fuel industries, the banks, the other major institutions, which are designed to maximise profits and care about nothing else. After all, that was the heralded slogan of the neoliberal period: economic guru Milton Friedman’s pronouncement that “corporations have no responsibility to the public or to the workforce; their full responsibility is to maximise profits for the few”.

For public relations reasons, fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil are often sensitive and benevolent, working around the clock for the common good. This is what we call greenwashing.

– Some of the most widely discussed methods for capturing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would consume vast amounts of biomass produced on hundreds of millions or billions of hectares, threatening ecosystems and food production, particularly in low-income, low-emission nations. A group of ethicists and other scholars recently wrote that a “fundamental principle” of justice is that the basic and urgent needs of poor people and poor countries must be protected against the effects of climate change. This seems to clearly exclude these “emit carbon now, sequester it later” schemes and other examples of what we might call “climate mitigation imperialism”. Do you think the world can handle this kind of exploitation as temperatures rise? And what do you think of these bioenergy and carbon capture proposals?

– It’s totally immoral, but it’s standard practice. Where does the waste go? It doesn’t go to your backyard; it goes to places like Somalia that can’t be protected. The European Union, for example, has been dumping its atomic waste and other pollution off the coast of Somalia, damaging fishing grounds and local industries. It is horrendous.

The latest IPCC report calls for an end to fossil fuels. The hope is that we can avoid the worst and achieve a sustainable economy in a few decades. If we don’t, we will reach irreversible tipping points and the people most vulnerable, and least responsible for the crisis, will suffer the consequences first and most severely. People living in the plains of Bangladesh, for example, where powerful cyclones cause extraordinary damage. People living in India, where temperatures can exceed 49°C in summer. We will be able to observe the process in which parts of the world become impossible for life.

There have seen recent reports from Israeli geoscientists criticising their government for failing to take into account the effect of the policies it adopts, including the development of new gas fields in the Mediterranean. One of their analyses indicated that, decades from now, during the summer, the Mediterranean will be reaching the heat of a hot tub and the low-lying plains will be flooded. People will still live in Jerusalem and Ramallah, but the floods will affect a large part of the population. Why not change course to avoid this?

-The neoclassical economics that underlies these injustices is based on economic climate models known as “integrated valuation models”. They boil down to cost-benefit analyses based on the so-called social cost of carbon. With these projections, are economists trying to get rid of the right of future generations to a dignified life?

– We have no right to gamble with the lives of people in South Asia, Africa or people in vulnerable communities in the U.S. You want to do analyses like this in your academic seminar? Fine, go ahead. But don’t you dare translate it into policy. Don’t you dare do that.

There is a notable difference between physicists and economists. Physicists don’t say “hey, let’s try an experiment that could destroy the world, because it would be interesting to see what happens”. But economists do that. Based on neoclassical theories, they instituted a major revolution in world affairs in the early 1980s, beginning with Jimmy Carter and accelerating under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Given the power of the United States compared to the rest of the world, the neoliberal onslaught, a grand experiment in economic theory, had a devastating outcome. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Its motto was: “The state is the problem”.

This does not mean that you eliminate decisions; it just means that you transfer them. Decisions still have to be made. If they are not absorbed by the state, which is, albeit to a limited extent, under popular influence, they will be absorbed by concentrations of private power, which have no responsibility to the public. And following Milton Friedman’s instructions, these groups have no responsibility to society. They simply have the imperative of personal enrichment.

Then Margaret Thatcher comes along and says there is no society, just atomised individuals who are somehow organising themselves in the market. Of course, there is one little detail she didn’t bother to add: for the rich and powerful, there is plenty of society. Organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, ALEC and many more. They get together, they stand up for each other, and so on. There is a lot of society for them, but not for the rest of us. Most people have to cope with the ravages of the market. And, of course, the rich do not. Corporations have a powerful state to bail them out when a problem arises. The rich need to have a powerful state, as well as its police powers, to make sure that no one gets in their way.

– Where do you see hope?

-In the youth. In September, there was an international climate “strike”; hundreds of thousands of young people came out to demand an end to environmental destruction. Greta Thunberg recently spoke at the Davos meeting among the great and powerful and gave them a sober message about what they are doing. “How dare you,” she said, “you stole my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. You betrayed us. These are words that should be etched in the conscience of everyone, especially the people of my generation who have betrayed you and continue to betray the youth and the countries of the world.

Now we have a fight. It can be won, but the further back we go, the harder it will be. If we had solved this ten years ago, the cost would have been much less. If the United States wasn’t the only country that rejected the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been a lot easier. Well, the longer we wait, the more we will betray our children and grandchildren. Those are the options. I am not that old; many of you have done it. There is the possibility of a just and sustainable future and there is much we can do to get there before it is too late.

Taken from Portuguese by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos