Chomsky: Climate Change is an institutional problem

Transcribed from a recent interview in Wales:

When you have a financial crisis there is a way to rescue it: you go to the taxpayer, the taxpayer bales you out. So there is a possible answer; Goldman Sachs can make risky investments and when it all crashes you take your copy of Hayek or Milton Friedman and run to the nanny state. But in the case of climate change the externality in this case… is the fate of the species. So when you’re making decisions as the director of a corporation, one of the externalities you can’t pay attention to is “what’s the effect on my grandchildren?” – you have to maximize short term profit and market share. In this case there is nobody to bail you out, no taxpayer can come and take care of it. But these are institutional necessities and that’s what makes them so dangerous. There is no point convincing a CEO that you shouldn’t be doing it; he knows it already. But if he doesn’t do it someone else will do it. It’s just the way the institution is set up; it’s the way markets work. To the extent that we have unregulated markets we’re going to get more and more of this. These (anti-climate change) propaganda campaigns in the last couple of years have had a big effect, you can see in opinion polls. Now about a third of the population thinks there is a serious risk of global warming. This is exasterbated by the recession, for a large part of the population it’s back to the depression, and worse because the jobs aren’t going to come back; people don’t want to hear about things that don’t matter to their immediate survival.



  1. What makes this a really major problem is the time lag between emissions and their full effects. If all the problems that humanity’s emissions so far will cause were already evident, governments would be more willing to regulate.


  2. There have always been lags between the recognition of a problem and its full effect. Why can some societies respond early and adequately to challenges, whereas others (like the Easter Islands) cut down the last tree? We can blame individuals if we want, but I think it’s a lot more coherent to talk about specific institutional forces. It gives us a relatively coherent picture of how things work and what to do about them. It also has the advantage of linking together the different social justice problems which have a common cause; if we fix the institutional problems that are on the way to causing the end of the species, we’ll be well on the way to dealing with various other hypocritical aspects of the nation state.


  3. Institutions are usually bad at being proactive. Unless you can show them with overwhelming clarity that a problem is going to be hugely significant in the near future, it will probably be impossible to make them actually do anything.


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