Why you probably shouldn’t blow up a pipeline

A photo collage includes images of clouds on a blue sky, solar panels, wind turbines, pipelines, and puffs of smoke.
Tarini Sharma for Vox

The revolutionary left’s theory of the climate crisis puts ideology above inconvenient truths.

Seventeen years ago, the British novelist John Lanchester puzzled over a “strange and striking” fact: No one was blowing anything up to fight climate change.

This was strange, Lanchester wrote, because “terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action.” What’s more, there was no shortage of soft targets for an anti-carbon terror cell to attack. Gas stations were highly flammable. SUVs, ripe to be keyed, sat unguarded along every city’s streets. So why was no one engaging in such property destruction? Why did activists remain committed to pacifism, even as the world hurtled toward catastrophe? Perhaps, Lanchester mused, “even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it.”

The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is now nearly 10 percent higher than when Lanchester wrote those words. In 2007, limiting the increase in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels remained plausible. Today, it is not. The absence of violent resistance to carbon power might therefore seem even more curious in 2024 than it was when Lanchester wrote his essay.

Still, there are ways of resolving the apparent tension between the severity of the climate crisis and the absence of ecoterrorism. One is to question whether terrorism is, in fact, “the modern world’s most effective form of political action.” Another is for climate activists to start detonating pipelines.

Andreas Malm recommends the latter.

In 2021, the Swedish academic published a case for climate activists to embrace property destruction titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline (aspiring bombers will be disappointed by the volume’s lack of step-by-step instructions). The book was a surprise bestseller. Mainstream media does not typically shower coverage on calls for violent resistance penned by Swedish Leninists. But given the perennial failure of ordinary politics to answer the demands of climate science, the liberal intelligentsia was ready to hear Malm out. His book won respectful notices in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Economist, among other publications, and even generated a much-acclaimed cinematic adaptation.

Malm and his ideas received a new wave of scrutiny last month, after David Marchese of the New York Times Magazine conducted an adversarial Q&A with the author and activist. Marchese suggested that socialists who endorse left-wing political violence but condemn the far right’s attempts to override democratic decision-making through similar shows of force are moral hypocrites. Malm disagreed. Much debate over the permissibility of blowing up pipelines ensued.

Yet Malm’s true failing is not hypocrisy, but dogmatism. And the fundamental problem with How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t its radical prescriptions, but rather, its doctrinaire diagnosis of the social crisis that it aims to cure.

In that book, Malm makes some plausible arguments for the efficacy and morality of property destruction in some contexts. But he also paints a deeply misleading portrait of the climate crisis, one that is oblivious to many of the most vexing economic, technical, and political obstacles to rapid decarbonization. Unable or unwilling to see these barriers, Malm fails to articulate a persuasive vision for how they can be overcome in his book (and declined an interview request). Instead, he evangelizes for a course of action that would (almost certainly) undermine the climate movement’s political standing while doing little to contain global temperatures.

Malm’s argument, in brief

The perils of climate change are increasingly vivid. Wildfires, floods, and heat waves regularly take lives and make headlines. Last year was the hottest in recorded history. With each passing day, our prospects for preventing global temperatures from exceeding the red lines set by scientists grow more remote. Yet fossil fuels continue to dominate the world’s energy grids.

This disconnect between ecological necessity and economic reality is central to How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Its case for property destruction rests on the demonstrable failure of nonviolent resistance to bring about the fossil fuel industry’s demise. Malm argues that the climate movement has been scrupulously honoring Gandhian principles for decades; disrupting global economic forums, marching through city streets, and appealing to the better angels of policymakers’ nature. And none of it stopped our species’ headlong sprint toward ecological collapse.

Even if we stopped building new fossil fuel plants tomorrow, Malm writes, the lifetime emissions of existing power plants would be enough to lift global temperatures more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Yet capitalists are blithely financing new coal and gas infrastructure that will only pay off if the world’s nations blow past their emissions targets. In Malm’s words, “these capitalists do not see any wrecking balls coming their way. They think they have nothing to fear.”

And make no mistake: For Malm, it’s the capitalist class that is (more or less single-handedly) frog-marching us all to hell. How to Blow Up a Pipeline acknowledges no technical obstacles to rapid decarbonization, nor any regrettable economic trade-offs. Rather, it suggests that an immediate green transition would be relatively painless for ordinary people. Renewable energy is now “consistently cheaper” than the carbon variety, Malm writes. For this reason, the world’s poor and working classes have no compelling interest in even the near-term use of fossil fuels. Malm insists that “all emissions must be brought to zero in no time,” but that such radical measures will “not condemn the poor to eternal poverty, for what they need is not emissions but energy, and with the renewable kind cheaper across the board, the transition does not require the sacrifice of their material aspirations.”

With few technical challenges left to resolve, and no lamentable economic downsides to a swift green transition, victory, in Malm’s view, would seem close at hand — were it not for the greed of the ruling class. The wealthy, he suggests, would rather drown every coastal city than take losses on stranded fossil fuel assets. And since the world’s governments deem capitalist property “sacred,” they’re unwilling to prioritize humanity’s future over Shell’s profits. Climate activists can liberate governments from their ruinous deference to capital, but only if their movement forsakes its sentimental commitment to nonviolence.

This is where blowing up a pipeline comes in. By sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure, militants can demonstrate, he says, that “Property does not stand above the earth.” With each “refinery deprived of electricity” or “digger in pieces,” the idea of stranding fossil fuel assets will grow more politically thinkable. And militants can do this without doing bodily harm to a single soul.

Property destruction, he argues, can also change the calculus of capitalists themselves. Much fossil fuel infrastructure is highly vulnerable to sabotage. Pipelines traverse long stretches of thinly populated territory and become inoperable if even a single segment is destroyed. If pipelines became subject to routine attacks, they would cease to be attractive investments. Capitalists might not be sensitive to climate risks, but they are highly responsive to financial ones.

At the same time, the emergence of a violent, militant wing of the climate movement will make the demands of more mainstream green groups appear more reasonable. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Malm argues, violent resistance helpfully supplemented many of history’s most successful, supposedly nonviolent movements.

A pipeline cannot suffer. But poor people in frontline communities can. In Malm’s view, we should not hesitate to do violence to the former to stop CO2 emissions from devastating the latter.

Why soaking the rich won’t cleanse the atmosphere

If Malm were right, and the ruling class’s power and avarice were the overriding obstacles to a green transition, then the outlook for both ecosocialism and the climate might seem bright. In that circumstance, radicals like Malm would have a decent chance of mobilizing a mass base behind their agenda, which includes an immediate ban on all new C02-emitting devices. Attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure, meanwhile, would be liable to provoke considerable public sympathy, since most people would have no interest in the ongoing production of oil and gas.

But the ideological convenience of Malm’s narrative comes at the expense of its accuracy.

It is true that rich people in general, and fossil fuel shareholders in particular, wield disproportionate political influence. And in the United States, this influence has long undermined efforts to decarbonize the economy. The fossil fuel sector’s clout has kept the Republican Party from fighting for climate policy of virtually any kind, while constraining the Democrats’ environmental ambitions.

Although the political power of Big Oil is an obstacle to decarbonization, it is far from the only one. And the same can be said of How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s other main target, the carbon-intensive consumption of the super-rich. If every fossil fuel lobby shuttered its doors tomorrow, and all billionaires forfeited their yachts and jets, the climate crisis would persist.

This is because How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s narrative is at odds with some basic facts about the climate crisis. Decarbonizing at Malm’s preferred pace would require technologies that do not yet exist and economic sacrifices that few wish to make. And those sacrifices would not just burden rich people in the West, but also working people in the Global South.

Malm is right that, by many metrics, renewable energy is now cheaper than carbon power. Yet wind and solar power remain highly variable, generating more energy than needed during certain times of day and meteorological conditions, and little in others. This liability can be mitigated by massively overbuilding wind and solar assets in geographically diverse regions, and connecting them all to the grid through transmission lines. But such overbuilding could eliminate renewables’ apparent cost advantage and would require large quantities of land.

Advances in battery technology may eventually resolve the intermittency problem. But for now, renewable-heavy electricity grids need to be undergirded by firm (i.e., non-intermittent) power sources. There are some carbon-free sources of firm power, such as nuclear and geothermal energy. But the former has high upfront costs, and the latter is not currently accessible in most areas. In practice, this means that even climate-conscious jurisdictions generally need fossil fuels to avert blackouts when the sun hides and wind grows still.

Meanwhile, carbon-free approaches to aviation and heavy industry remain far from commercial viability.

The global economy’s persistent demand for fossil fuels derives less from the machinations of nihilistic capitalists than from the genuine difficulties of decarbonization. For this reason, it is not just private investors who are bankrolling new fossil fuel infrastructure, but also developmental states in the Global South.

Malm’s book suggests that the energy policies of middle-income countries, and the rising living standards of their people, play only a marginal role in the climate crisis. “Look at it which way you will,” Malm writes, “from the angle of investment, production or consumption, it is the rich that drive the emergency[.]” But the truth is far more complicated.

Last year, the world’s annual CO2 emissions increased by 398 million metric tons. China and India accounted for more than 100 percent of that increase. Take those two nations out of the equation, and global emissions would have fallen in 2023.

These trends are poised to continue in the coming decades. According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 80 percent of the global growth in demand for electricity between now and 2030 is likely to come from emerging markets and developing economies.

None of this says anything about moral responsibility for the climate crisis. The cumulative emissions of Western nations wildly outstrip those of Asia. And the per-capita emissions of an American billionaire vastly exceed those of a middle-class Chinese household.

But the atmosphere does not care about moral responsibility. Through sheer force of numbers, the Indian and Chinese people emit more carbon than American billionaires. Any political strategy for achieving decarbonization must therefore have an answer for how the Global South can industrialize sustainably.

Malm’s assurance that renewables “are cheaper across the board” does not qualify. Due to wind and solar’s intermittency problem, and the high upfront costs of renewable infrastructure, it is often more economical for developing countries to rely heavily on carbon power, according to an analysis from the World Bank.

To be fair to Malm, global capitalists are implicated in that problem. Lenders generally demand higher interest rates when financing renewable projects in developing countries than they do when bankrolling such infrastructure in wealthy nations. These elevated borrowing costs make it even harder for low-income nations to shoulder the large infrastructure expenses that low-carbon grids require.

Still, the economic incentives for carbon development persist, even when states take the reins from private investors. Take China: Following widespread blackouts in 2021, the Chinese Communist Party has made a concerted effort to increase its nation’s reserves of electricity. Theoretically, it could have done this largely through the expansion of renewables. But China’s wind and solar installations are concentrated in the nation’s sunny, windy northwestern regions, far from population centers, and would have required the construction of massive transmission lines to transport power to cities. So it was much cheaper and easier for the Chinese state to rapidly scale up electricity production by building new coal plants.

Greening the global economy isn’t much like overthrowing apartheid

None of this is meant to exonerate jet-setting plutocrats and fossil fuel lobbyists, or to deny capitalism’s structural defects. Wealthy countries should reduce the CO2 emissions of both their superrich citizens (by redistributing much of their wealth and income) and affluent households (by, among other things, expanding mass transit and urban housing). And such nations should also cease subsidizing oil companies, and increase public investment in clean energy.

Nevertheless, contrary to Malm’s populist rhetoric, the carbon economy’s persistence cannot be chalked up to the greed of wealthy shareholders, decadence of yacht owners, or corruption of democratic states. In reality, switching out the energy basis of industrial society is a genuinely difficult technical challenge. Abruptly phasing out fossil fuels and carbon-emitting devices would have significant economic costs for ordinary people.

Malm’s blindness to these facts impairs his political analysis. At one point in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the author mulls the mystery of why people in the Global South haven’t been sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure. He decides that it must be due to “the demise of revolutionary politics” and “insufficient politicisation of the climate crisis.” The possibility that people in developing countries want to keep the lights on in their homes, and are therefore uninterested in breaking their nations’ energy infrastructure, goes unconsidered. Which is odd, since many low-income nations are unabashed in their enthusiasm for new fossil fuel pipelines. Indeed, such enthusiasm has driven one of this decade’s biggest conflicts in global energy politics: Wealthy states in the Global North have been choking off financing to fossil fuel projects in the developing world, a policy that has generated furious protest from poor countries, which tend to be more concerned with mitigating their extreme poverty than minimizing their emissions.

Malm is similarly inattentive to the climate movement’s political challenges in the Global North. In making his case for the legitimacy and efficacy of property destruction, he notes that many of history’s most lauded social movements have featured violence at their fringes. He argues that the Black Power movement served to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s demands appear more reasonable. And he observes that the African National Congress had no compunction about deploying political violence in South Africa when it seemed strategically helpful, while violent insurrections abetted India’s independence.

Malm posits that one reason why the struggles against Jim Crow, South African apartheid, and British rule in India succeeded — while the West’s climate movement has thus far failed — is that the former all availed themselves of violence while the latter has largely forsworn it.

He acknowledges that Western environmentalists made forays into sabotage in the 1990s, and that these experiments yielded far more state repression than tangible progress. But he attributes such failures to both the unpopularity of the saboteurs’ goals (which included a large reduction in the human population), and the imprecision of their targets. Malm is sensitive to the threat of backlash, and chastises activist group Extinction Rebellion for attempting to shut down the London Underground in 2019. In his view, inconveniencing ordinary people who are trying to use a low-carbon form of transit advances nothing but the climate movement’s own marginalization. If activists directly target “the plinth of fossil capital,” however, he believes they are more likely to win some public sympathy, and less likely to undermine their more respectable allies.

Yet a commitment to nonviolence is scarcely the only thing that distinguishes the climate movement from all of the auspicious precedents that Malm cites. In many respects, climate radicals simply face a much more difficult challenge than did the celebrated social movements that they wish to emulate.

The struggles against Jim Crow, apartheid, and British colonialism consisted of mass movements to secure basic rights. The injustice and indignities of apartheid structured Black South Africans’ daily lives, constraining their economic opportunities and denying their political freedoms. And the same can be said of Jim Crow’s implications for Black Americans.

By contrast, the typical Westerner does not find their basic aspirations frustrated by climate change on anything like a daily basis. Extreme weather events periodically call the problem to mind, but even then it is not always clear that rising global temperatures are responsible for a specific flood or fire.

Further, the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements could plausibly promise to redress their animating grievances, and without the advent of any new technology or cooperation of any foreign power. No technical challenge stood in the way of universal voting rights. Formal political equality could be established with the stroke of pen and enforced by existing institutions of federal law enforcement.

The climate movement, on the other hand, cannot credibly promise to eliminate the problems that it seeks to politicize. The world is going to get warmer, no matter how much we reduce emissions from this point forward. In any given rich country, climate activists can’t honestly say that their agenda will improve climatic conditions, only that it might limit the extent to which those conditions get worse, assuming that other nations enact similar policies. Malm’s radical vision of decarbonization pairs this meager, uncertain prize with clear and immediate economic costs: Any near-term ban on fossil fuels would dramatically increase energy prices, and undermine the functioning of electricity grids.

It is not surprising, then, that Malm’s cause commands far less widespread and intense support among contemporary Westerners than the anti-apartheid struggle did among Black South Africans or the civil rights movement among Black Americans.

In fact, at least in the United States, polling and election results indicate scant public support for decarbonization efforts that entail any significant material costs. Last year, an Ipsos poll asked Americans whether they would be willing to pay higher income taxes to combat climate change. Just 25 percent of respondents said yes. That comports with a 2019 Reuters survey, which found that nearly 70 percent of Americans backed “aggressive” action on climate change — but only one-third would be willing to pay $100 more in annual taxes to address the crisis.

Issue polling can be unreliable. Different question phrasings can generate contradictory results. But the idea that Americans are unwilling to shoulder substantial costs for the sake of reducing emissions is buttressed by the electorate’s political behavior. In deep blue Washington, voters have repeatedly rejected a carbon tax at the ballot box, even when that levy was offset by tax breaks for working-class households. The fact that roughly half of US voters are open to supporting the Republican Party, despite its unabashed complacency about carbon emissions, further testifies to climate change’s limited political salience.

Perhaps most tellingly, even some climate activists routinely refuse to prioritize decarbonization over conflicting ideological commitments. In recent years, Maine’s Sierra Club fought to block a transmission line that would have enabled Americans to avail themselves of Canadian hydropower, New York environmentalists increased their state’s carbon emissions by shuttering the Indian Point nuclear plant, and a chapter of the Sunrise Movement backed a moratorium on large-scale solar farms in Amherst, Massachusetts.

There is little reason to believe that climate radicals’ failure to deliver decarbonization derives from the pacifism of their tactics, rather than the complexity and unpopularity of their demands, and consequent narrowness of their social base.

All this undermines Malm’s pragmatic case for pipeline destruction. Acts of violence conducted in the name of goals that the public opposes seem more likely to induce backlash than a leftward lurch in political consciousness.

To be sure, acts of sabotage don’t need to be popular to cost fossil fuel investors money. But to meaningfully deter investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, radicals would need to commit sabotage at an extraordinary scale. This is an inherently difficult feat, which public backlash and state repression would make even more daunting.

How to decarbonize the economy (without blowing up a pipeline)

Ultimately, Malm’s account of the climate crisis is at once too rosy and too bleak.

On the one hand, he makes the task facing climate activists look deceptively simple by suggesting that there is only one fundamental problem to be solved: Governments must be forced to subordinate the financial interests of the wealthy to the well-being of humanity.

But the actual challenge facing proponents of decarbonization is much more complex and multifaceted.

On the other hand, Malm exaggerates the political power of fossil fuel interests. Yes, governments haven’t found the will to put oil companies out of business by fiat (partly because doing so would increase energy costs for the broader public). But they have allowed market forces to strand all manner of carbon assets, in defiance of industry complaints. Competition from renewables and natural gas, combined with new EPA rules, devastated America’s coal industry over the past decade. By 2026, the US is expected to have only half as much coal power generation as it did in 2011. If we can solve the technical and economic liabilities of non-carbon energy sources — which is to say, if we can make them truly “cheaper across the board” — we can euthanize the fossil fuel industry.

Doing this will require a great deal of political agitation and policy action. We need to increase public investment in green technologies, slash regulatory barriers to clean energy deployment, provide generous aid and financing to green development projects in the Global South, and solve myriad other problems, all without imposing large costs on electorates, lest support for (relatively) climate-conscious political parties disintegrates.

Reasonable people can disagree about which political tactics will best advance these goals. But when self-styled climate hawks privilege ideologically flattering dogmas over inconvenient truths, they make progress on all these fronts more difficult.

By: Eric Levitz
Title: Why you probably shouldn’t blow up a pipeline
Sourced From: www.vox.com/politics/24074408/climate-change-blow-up-pipeline
Published Date: Wed, 21 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.