Business as usual at Paris summit won’t stop global warming

The bottom line of the Paris Climate Summit is this: The world’s governments say they agreed to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in actuality committed to nearly double that. A potential runaway global warming still looms in the future.

The surprise of the summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, was the decision to set a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of 2 degrees. This was done at the behest of Pacific Island countries that might be submerged with a 2-degree rise, and the new, more ambitious target, if achieved, would provide a greater margin of error as a 2-degree rise is widely believed to be the limit at which catastrophic damage can be avoided.

The world's coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The world’s coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

How is the new goal to be achieved? Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, reached on December 12, states:

“In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal [of 1.5 degrees], Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. …

Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution. … Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

What mechanisms will be created to ensure that the “Parties” (national governments) to carry out these plans? They “shall” report their progress, “shall undergo a technical expert review” (article 13) and discuss their progress five years from now (article 14). Governments will develop technology (article 10) and will “build mutual trust” through “transparency” (article 13).

In other words, peer pressure is the mechanism. There are no binding legal agreements requiring any country to achieve the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions pledged for the Paris Climate Summit.

Pledges equate to a tweak, not a reversal

A further problem is that should all the pledges actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group, comprised of four research organizations that produce independent scientific analyses, calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. Although Climate Action Tracker notes that this potential rise is less drastic than the nearly 4-degree rise that the world had been on course for prior to the Paris commitments, what has been accomplished is merely to slow the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The world’s governments have set various goals for reducing emissions by 2025 or 2030, with the European Union’s pledge of a 40 percent cut by 2030 the most ambitious among the biggest greenhouse-gas contributors. But the later that greenhouse-gas emissions are brought under control, the more difficult it will be to cap global warming at 1.5 or 2 degrees. A Climate Action Tracker analysis says:

“The need to fill in the gap between the projected [pledged] emissions levels in 2025 and the levels necessary to limit global warming to below 2°C means significantly more rapid, and costly, action would be needed compared to a situation where more ambitious targets for 2025 were adopted and where governments took immediate action now to achieve them. … Annual decarbonisation rates of 3-4%, which would be needed to catch up from 2025 [pledge] levels, are feasible, but the available modeling results indicate that such a reduction would result in much higher costs, more disruption, and more challenges than if action starts now and continues in a smooth way.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued last year foresees a rise in greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come, to above 450 parts per million, before falling to 450 ppm by 2100, which the report says is necessary to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the IPCC report relies on several technological breakthroughs, including capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which is not yet close to being feasible.

In an analysis of the summit, Ian Angus and Phil Gasper explain this leap of faith:

“Almost all of the scenarios that show an increase of less than two degrees by 2100 require, first, much greater emissions reductions than anyone is proposing in the next 30 years. And then, after 2050, they require ‘negative emissions.’ That is, there would have to be some technology invented that takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and no such technology exists. And if it is invented, no one can say how it would function on a global scale, or whether it will be safe. It’s pure fantasy, and we can’t depend on fantasy.”

Worse, not all countries have necessarily even pledged to reduce their emissions. Writing in Climate & Capitalism, Jonathan Neale calculates that several countries, including China, India and Russia, have merely pledged to slow the rate of their increases in greenhouse-gas emissions, and other governments, such as the United States, European Union, Canada and Australia, have agreed to cut their emissions by one percent per year. He writes:

“[C]ountries like India and China promise to cut emissions in terms of carbon intensity. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon in fossil fuels that is needed to produce the same amount of work. Carbon intensity has been going down in the United States for a hundred years. It is going down all over the world. This is because we learn to use coal, oil and gas more efficiently, just like we learn to use everything else in industry more productively. So a promise to cut carbon intensity is a promise to increase emissions.”

Pollution as a market commodity

Short-term profits are still given priority over the long-term health of the environment. One manifestation of this is that governments continue to rely on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity. Too many credits are provided for free, and as a result the prices for them have fallen drastically; and politically influential industries are often exempted, even if they are among the most polluting.

All the incentives in capitalism are for more growth, and the accumulation of power that accrues to corporations that grow the most enable large industry to bend laws and regulations to their liking. Stagnation in a capitalist economy causes persistent unemployment and other problems, as the past several years amply demonstrate. And that is before we get to the problem that nobody will be offering displaced workers new jobs should the polluting industries they work in be shut down or curtailed. Industry can say that any new restrictions on it will cost jobs, and rally working people behind them on that basis.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Professors Angus and Gasper, in their analysis of the Paris Climate Summit, stress the necessity of environmentalists working with labor:

“The fact is that workers don’t want to lose their jobs. Here in Canada, we have the phenomenon of people from some of the poorest parts of the country going to work in the Alberta Tar Sands. After six months or a year, they can go home, to a place where there are no jobs, and buy a house or a car, or pay off their debts. Telling those people ‘Don’t do that because you’re causing greenhouse gas emissions’ is just absurd. It’s a guaranteed way to turn working people against the environmental movement.

Now again, unfortunately, we see a lot of that. I’ve heard greens argue that we shouldn’t even try to reach oil sands workers because they’re just part of the colonial-settler assault on First Nations territory. Which is true–so we have to win them away from doing that, not force them into a firmer alliance with their bosses. We need to find ways to work with the labor movement around the whole concept of a ‘just transition.’ That concept has come out of the international labor movement–that we realize the change in the economy is going to result in lost jobs, and nobody should suffer as a result. There should be jobs or full pay, free retraining and so on.”

A worthy goal indeed. But could such a program be accomplished under capitalism? It does not seem so. Professors Angus and Gasper note that such a goal won’t be won without a strong movement. But as capitalism is a system designed for private profit, achieved through the exploitation of working people, a strong movement would have to push beyond it, to a more humane, rational economic system.

Another factor to contend with is that the goals of the Paris Climate Summit, inadequate as they may be, will be null and void should the Trans-Pacific Partnership and/or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership be approved. These multi-national “free trade” agreements would enable corporations to sue to overturn laws that protect the environment, and provide further incentives for production to be moved around the world with an accompanying increase in fossil fuels used for transporting components and finished goods across longer supply chains. TPP rules codifying benefits for multi-national corporations are written in firm language, but there is no such language for environmental or health protections. The TTIP’s language will likely be no better. The TPP does not mention global warming once in its text.

The Paris Climate Summit has been an exercise in feeling good, with the world’s corporate-media reporters at risk of sore arms from all the back pats they are giving. A future world of uncontrollable climate change, with agricultural patterns disrupted and species dying at accelerating rates, won’t feel good, however. Business as usual won’t save the future; only mass mobilization on a global scale can.

27 comments on “Business as usual at Paris summit won’t stop global warming

  1. Asteroid Miner says:

    Systemic Disorder: You are correct. GW will be stopped by the human population crash and probable extinction. The crash is already beginning [ISIS and migration] and will be complete by 2040.

    • I think that’s awfully pessimistic, AM. The full effects of global warming will unfold over decades. There are studies that conclude humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea levels — a true disaster should that come about — but such will not be the case as early as 2040. Having said that, we have little time to reverse global warming, or the cumulative effects eventually will be dire indeed.

  2. Jerry says:

    Thanks for including the article by Ian Angus and Phil Gasper. One of the areas they mention is the disruption in labor when industries get shutdown or become extinct. For 20+ years I have worked in the Plastics Injection Molding industry. Plastics Injection Molding is not an environmentally friendly industry and enables too much consumption of stuff as it is a high volume production. I believe it and industries like it need to be reduced as it just fosters consumption addiction. But how do we address the loss of jobs? I am not an advocate of Marxism but more a libertarian socialist (Chomsky) and anarchist ala Kropotkin. I like the idea of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid concepts as opposed to “state” socialism but if humans do not learn to cooperate and share then I would welcome any alternative to the current system even if it means Marx.

    • What Marx advocated was a “free association of producers” (producers here being individual people) in which members reach decisions through some form of collective decision-making. Freed of alienation, exploitation and the coercive effects of subordination to wage work and the power of capital, all people would be able to fully develop their human potential. I don’t believe this is much different from the goals of anarchists.

      Any world resembling the above would be a world very different from today’s, of course, and this would be a world that is sustainable — where production is for human need. Such a day is far in the future, so we do need to deal with issues such as job losses in concrete ways. “Green capitalism” isn’t the answer, as I have argued in previous posts, because such a thing can not exist, although that is not an argument for not going ahead with further developing renewable resources.

      There seems no way out of this contradiction within capitalism, yet someone in danger of being out of work can’t wait. To return to the point of Ian Angus and Phil Gasper, the environmental movement has to link with labor organizations to forcefully put forth the idea that alternative jobs have to be created, and perhaps the growing recognition that such jobs won’t be created under capitalism will move people more toward actively seeking to transcend it from the current position of being content with making critiques.

      • Jerry says:

        Not being well read on Marx I would welcome any suggestions on articles that outline the description of Marx socialism you mention above. I do not have the time to read Capital but would like suggestions on shorter writings. I think many people in the overly individualistic USA society have misconceptions about socialism (forced leveling of playing field) that they see as stark contrast to their “upsides” of capitalism i.e. if I do well then all rewards go to me”. Most people do not probably associate socialism with freedom as you mention above so the current framing of socialism as oppressive by the current media and capitalists needs to be countered with education.

        In a related note one area of US society already practices a form of socialism…pro sports. The NFL and MLB have revenue sharing in place where the Yankees and Cowboys among others have to share some of their revenue with small market teams. The Yankees and other teams do this as they see the benefit of all teams being competitive benefits them as well.

  3. The Paris CO21 farce was an extremely expensive public relations stunt. I can think of lots better ways to spend the money.

    • Not to mention the money the French government spent on police suppressing demonstrators. They even placed a couple of dozen environmental activists under house arrest. There’s the “state of emergency” in action.

      • tubularsock says:

        Hmmmm, there ALWAYS seems to be money for repression but not for pre-school child care. Does Tubularsock detect a pattern here or is it just market forces?

        Excellent post SD ….. and even though Tubularsock doesn’t like heavy reading Tubularsock will be first in line buying your book …….. THEN I’ll get smart!

        Love the work you do pushing this shit and really looking forward to your book.

        • Aww, thanks, Tubularsock! I appreciate your humor on our insane world.

          Both a pattern and market forces, in my opinion. Market forces, after all, are nothing more than aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus they set the pattern.

  4. Steady State says:

    “capitalism is a system designed for private profit, achieved through the exploitation of working people”

    Well said. More people need to understand this.

  5. Neoagrarian says:

    This may seem off topic, and not within the necessarily circumscribed frame of this piece (the focus on the inability of capitalism to coexist with a sane response, with which I mostly, if not wholly agree). But I would like to add something that needs voicing by somebody, somewhere.

    It seems that our culture, society, civilization – call it what you will because by now it has become so homogenously manifest anyway – seems to have saturated the entire arena of public discourse around climate change with facts and figures, number and measure. The sheer arrogance and narcissism of us! All this talk about saving or not saving the planet, and endless abstract discussions about whether we should “dial in” the planet to what to the best of our knowledge is safe or not safe is insane. Have we really become Gods?

    Or is planet earth the very same thing as…well…you know….a plasma TV? We can just dial in whatever channel seems appropriate to us? It is this kind of thinking that got us into this unenviable and desperate situation in the first place, and now we are desperately haggling over how to attenuate certain misery.

    Yes, I’m being facetious and perhaps offensive to certain sensibilities, but all this rationalism and reductionism and empiricism just kills me because it is the jargon of death. If we buy into this kind of managerial/engineering relationship with the sources and origins of our being (not to mention other beings!), we are, as Wendell Berry said in a recent essay, already dead.

    “We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations. If the future is threatened by the present, which it undoubtedly is, then the present is more threatened, and often is annihilated, by the future. “Oh, oh, oh,” cry the funerary experts, looking ahead through their black veils. “Life as we know it soon will end. If the governments don’t stop us, we’re going to destroy the world. The time is coming when we will have to do something to save the world. The time is coming when it will be too late to save the world. Oh, oh, oh.” If that is the way our minds are afflicted, we and our world are dead already. The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence.

    Or maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly in it.”

    It seems that for the last 10,000 years or so “we” have been trying to “de-bug Eden” and the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

    • Not off-topic at all. Wendell Berry gives us much to ponder. If we did start living rationally, we wouldn’t have to worry about saving the world because it would be a natural consequence. But living rationally does mean living much differently — with much less consumption — than much of the world is used to.

      It was only in the 20th century that humankind gained the ability to make Earth much less habitable, whether through nuclear annihilation or runaway global warming. In all of human history before, we really couldn’t do much to the planet; we didn’t have the power to do so. Now that we do have that power, I would argue that we have no choice but to find a way to not do so.

      In the long run, Earth will be here, with or without humans and those species that human activity drives to extinction. But if Earth’s climate is thrown out of balance, people already alive will be forced to deal with the consequences that will likely be dire by the dawn of the 22nd century. We do have a moral obligation to try to mitigate that potentiality, to not take so much that too little will be left for our descendants. That people should be thrown into misery in the future so a handful of profiteers can reap more riches than they can possibly spend ought to be seen as immoral.

      • Neoagrarian says:

        Thank you for your measured and respectful reply. You know, one of the burdens of attaining an unfiltered and encompassing awareness of the scope and scale of “our” dilemma is the resultant “neutering effect” of self-agency. Among the minority who are well along the path of comprehending the enormity of present reality and future likelihoods, I see a lot of defeatism and fatalism. Understandably, I suppose. Neurobiologically, we are not “wired” for such enormous considerations.

        This itself is a real dilemma, and explains a lot of the teflon-coated refusal to acknowledge evidentiary, biophysical reality, from the top levels of “thought leaders” down to the rank and file commoners.

        We need both systemic change, and fast, as much as we need a rekindling of our own sense of personal responsibility within the limits and potentialities of our own lives I see too many people who refuse to make material or behavioural change until “the system” does. (and let’s face it: a not insignificant majority see no need to make any change, thank you very much) Well, we might as well wait for the oceans to boil or the sun to burn out then if that is our logic. Who wants to blink first?

        I am not a resigned fatalist by nature…though there are days…

        I think what ol’ Wendell Berry so articulately exposes is that there is an important sense in which thinking at scale exclusively essentially “outsources” personal responsibility to some other entity off in the distance. This is why it is so difficult to build community cohesion around causes that actually could make a difference in the very tangible and very concrete places in which we live our lives.

        I am hopeful (though not delusionally so) that as the present censure around overshoot crumbles, more people will get the picture and maybe, just maybe, there will be enough consciousness to thwart the seemingly inexorable outcomes we now see bearing down upon us.

        Only time and effort will tell.

  6. Apneaman says:

    Yes COP21 was just another PR exercise to keep the fantasy going a little longer. Does it matter? Industrial civilization is finished no matter what and the combination of AGW, ocean acidification and the well underway mass extinction makes it unlikely the species will be around for many more generations.

    As for the Alberta oil patch workers, economics and despair seems to be taking care of them. I guess it’s always possible that oil will spike again, but most other commodities are tanking as well because regular folks have no more money or credit, so I don’t really see that happening.

    Suicide rate in Alberta climbs 30% in wake of mass oilpatch layoffs
    ‘It says something really about the horrible human impact of what’s happening in the economy,’ counsellor says

    • We usually think of the “resource curse” as endemic to the developing world, but here we have an example of it in an advanced capitalist country. How can such booms and busts be anything other than irrationality? And there will be more irrationality as long as the entire economic system is based on irrationality.

    • Neoagrarian says:

      Apneaman: consider too that a lot of those poor buggers went out there from the maritimes, where their cod fishery collapsed and so did the local economy. Here’s a question for a fellow Canadian: when do you remember first hearing the phrase “the oil patch”? I’ve always thought it sounded so benign, almost pleasant. I have a “cabbage patch” in my garden, and it surely does no harm. Maybe that’s the idea, huh? Lil’ ol’ “oil patch”. What’s there to worry about?

      On another note: whatever happened to ol’ XRay Mike? Did he give up blogging? I wouldn’t blame him if he did. Must wear on you after a while chronicling one damned doom scenario after another. Just sayin’.

  7. Joel Meyers says:

    Last week I had the strangest dream I’ve never had before
    That states, banks and yes NGOs had met, the environment to restore

    I dreamt I saw a pompous room all filled with sponsored men (and now some women)
    and the papers they were signing there, deplored climate change again.

    And the people in the streets, far below, were dancing round and round
    But the authorities upstairs sent guns and uniforms to gas and club them to the ground.

    The pretext for the public speech ban was a previous atentat terroriste,
    resulting from the imperialist war to inflict their brand of democracy through the MidEast.

    Obomber actually cast the Conference as an answer to the terrorist ranks,
    While his empire boasts superiority with depleted uranium, missiles, drones, fighter bombers and tanks.

    The agenda of the point 01 percent to clean up their fuming mess,
    was for everyone else in the world to learn to cut back more while reproducing less.

    The media embedded with the corporate polluters praises the empire for its hypocritical crackdown in every respect,
    while everyone else is paraded in a perp-walk of usual suspects.

    It’s in the spirit of the majesty of making it equally a crime,
    for the rich and poor to steal a loaf of bread or sleep under a bridge, how sublime.

    100 billion bucks initially promised to countries who could not afford to put the austerity measures in place,
    Was withdrawn to the nonbinding preamble, moneys stolen from colonial super-oppressed in the first place.

    The deeper message of the Conference aimed at dashing all scientific socialist vision and hopes,
    rendering its material basis in technological abundance in production and consumption as an unachievable, dangerous hoax.

    Thus the real purpose of the Conference is to erase and discredit, the prerequisite for any environmental/ecological solution:
    An equality-based rationally guided world economy, ecologically sound and based on human need, uniting oppressed and exploited internationally for working-class-led revolution.

    • A game of public relations: Say they are doing something without really doing anything. Given the “logic” of their situation, we can’t really expect anything different as the ability of capitalists stay on top requires there be no changes that would threaten their system, and thus their right to accumulate more, regardless of the damage done in the longer term.

      I believe we are living in the final century of capitalism; it is too unsustainable to go on for much longer. What follows will only be better if enough of us are willing to act on our knowledge.

      • Joel Meyers says:

        It’s probably a case of “be careful what you wish for, ’cause you might get it.” True, they’re doing little or nothing to solve the problem. But if they were doing *more*, it would probably be imposing more austerity, while the environmental destruction goes on and on.

  8. Bob Zuckert says:

    Many who write about the target 3.8F warming for 2100 do not seem to understand that warming will not stop at that date but will continue for centuries afterwards, even if we were to hit the target.

    I take a totally pessimistic view of human nature, i.e., its greed and short-sightedness. I think we will burn it all, despite progress with solar and wind, and probably reach 1,000 ppm of CO2 some centuries in the future. It’s all part of the human-driven Sixth Great Extinction.

    • At 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide, a self-extinction would be a distinct possibility. It may not be possible to contain the temperature rise at 2 degrees C.; there are multiple studies that conclude humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level because of the heat already stored in the oceans. And look at the graph above: C02 levels are already far above the inter-glacial periods over the past 800,000 years. Frightening.

  9. troutsky says:

    if we follow capitalist irrationality to its rational conclusion, we end up with geo-engineering. While tin-foil hat conspiracy lovers believe it is already underway as a means to subjugate the world population, more mainstream actors (Council on Foreign Relations, scientists and academics) are becoming more and more comfortable with the concept as solution to global warming. And the capitalist logic is straightforward.

    As for a “just transition”, until the ideological propositions that “the Market is in us” and “free-enterprise = freedom” have been thoroughly discredited at the level of popular culture, a Blue-Green alliance will be a chimera.

    • Your comment brings to mind a novel by Stanisław Lem that I read many years ago, The Futurological Congress. The world seems to be cornucopia of plenty, but it turns out that everything is an illusion; hallucinogenic drugs are repeatedly administered so that what is actually a grim, overpopulated world is masked. People believe they are driving an automobile but are actually running in the street and many other absurdities. It’s Lem at most satirical.

      The novel could be seen as an allegorical warning against geo-engineering. We start throwing aerosols or other substances into the air and there will be unforeseen consequences. Then they’ll want to do more geo-engineering, with more unforeseen consequences and on it would go. It’s insane (except from a capitalist perspective, which tells us how rational the system we live under is). As to what is necessary for a “just transition,” I am in full agreement. We have much to work to do on destroying the “free enterprise is freedom” meme, although the breakdown of the system will have to do a good part of that work.

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