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Spencer Schecht: Working With Neoliberalism to Solve Climate Change

This post contains an excerpt from a paper written by Spencer Schecht, a second year student in the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) Program, for one of his courses at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.  It has been adapted to stand-alone as a post.

Working With Neoliberalism to Solve Climate Change

“Whether from an anthropocentric or a biocentric perspective, more adequate environmental values need to be formulated and linked to areas of public policy (Tucker and Grim, 2009).”

Consulting the literature surrounding environment and development, a clear pattern of environmental destruction and climate change vis-à-vis neoliberal capitalism arises (Daly, 1998; Durham, 1995; Hansen, 2013; Hopwood, 2005; McAfee, 2012). Modern civilization has not found a way to decouple development from pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions (Ramesh, 2014). Concurrent to these development challenges, we have not found a 21st Century development model that is not, at a fundamental level, neoliberal. Correlation can be drawn from neoliberalism to environmental damage and climate change. The first choice to reverse this trend would be to completely transform, as Hopwood explains (2006, p. 49), “Given the need for fundamental change, a deep connection between human life and the environment and a common linkage of power structures that exploit both people and planet, we would argue that transformation is essential.”

Indeed, to address climate change with the haste and industriousness necessary to avoid global ecosystem collapse, rapid transformation is ideal. Rapid redistribution of responsibilities internationally as well as within sovereign states can align industry and science to output with maximum efficiency the knowledge and hardware required to rapidly decarbonize the world economy by 2050 (Kammen, 2013). An all hands on deck approach that throws away neoclassical economics in favor of global environmental necessities on the basis of realistic industrial potential as well as global and intergenerational equity is ideal.

Realistically, however, the structures that perpetuate neoliberal principles are not going to be radically transformed within the time frame needed to address climate change with sufficient ambition. Neoliberalism is baked in, so to speak, to the global institutions responsible for creating the standards of sustainable development. The global governance structures now developing modes of incentivizing action and creating accountability are neoliberal at heart. Castree explains, “The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (informally, the Earth Summit), held in 1992, was a key event… because the now famous Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity both embodied neoliberal principles—and they did so at a global level. (2010, p. 15).”

In order to act on the timescales necessary to adequately respond to climate change, we as a global society would best benefit from leveraging the socio-economic inertia of neoliberalism rather than trying to slow it down. Already, international carbon markets are staged to play a critical role in the conservation side of the climate change equation. Despite their shortcomings as poverty alleviation mechanisms, efforts to ‘sell nature to save it’ are succeeding in preventing deforestation (McAfee, 2012).

Sustainable development in the 21st Century will be defined by humanity’s response to climate change. There is much change guaranteed within the climate system, and much more if actions do not change soon. All human and natural systems will come under increasing threat as the manifestations of climate change create a new definition of normal on planet Earth. Humanity is entering uncharted territory with the amount of climate change already guaranteed by the current alterations to the composition of the atmosphere. Ceasing further jeopardy to modern society by drastically cutting down greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels is of the utmost importance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

However, the neoliberal principles that created this dilemma will not be going anywhere anytime soon. Yet even considering these misgivings, the benefits of globalized neoliberalism can be leveraged to remedy environmental destruction and climate change. The modern advancements in communication, representation, and elevation of our global consciousness created within the neoliberal capitalist system have fostered a 21st Century form of cooperation. Never before has the human species been so interdependent. Never before has their existed so much potential for solidarity to combat the environmental challenges we face as a global civilization.

We live in a transnational age with transnational problems. The globalization of neoliberalism may be the disease but it must also be the remedy. To address our environmental problems and our challenges in international development with appropriate technology and a level headed progressiveness, we need to work within existing systems, the mixed bag that they are, to forge a path of cohesive global cooperation into this daunting new century.


Castree, N. (2010a). Neoliberalism and the biophysical environment: a synthesis and evaluation of the research. Environment and Society: advances in Research, 1(1), 5-45.

Daly, Herman (1998) “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Dryzek and Schlosberg, eds, Debating the Earth. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 285-289.

Durham, William (1995) “Political Ecology and Environmental Destruction in Latin America,” in William H. Durham and Michael Painter, eds., Social Causes of Environmental Destruction in Latin America, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 249-264

Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, et al. (2013) Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

Hopwood, B., Mellor, M., & O’Brien, G. (2005). Sustainable development: mapping different approaches. Sustainable Development, 13(1), 38-52.

Kammen, Dan. “Climate Change Politics and the Economy: Rhetoric v. Reality.” Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley. 10 Oct. 2013. Web. <;.

McAfee, K. (2012). The contradictory logic of global ecosystem services markets. Development and Change, 43(1), 105-131.

Ramesh, Jairam. “”From Copenhagen to Paris – Emerging Economies and Climate Change Diplomacy”” The Georgetown-India Dialogue. School of Foreign Service Asian Studies Program, Washington, DC. 5 Oct. 2014. Web. <;.

Tucker, Mary, and John Grim. “The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.” Religion. Yale University, 2009. Web. 09 Oct. 2014. <;.

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University is a diverse and inclusive community. The program does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Please understand that our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on global environmental concerns.

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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