A climatic baby step forward beats a leap backward

The world surely is approaching a danger point when the abrogation of an inadequate agreement is cursed as a disaster. The Paris Climate Summit goals can’t be characterized as anything significantly better than feel-good window dressing, but the argument that the world has to start somewhere is difficult to challenge. Better to take a baby step forward than a leap backward.

As always, we must ask: Who profits? The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord is due to factors beyond Donald Trump’s astounding ignorance and his contempt for science or reality. There is a long history of energy company denial of global warming, a well-funded campaign.

Never mind that a widely cited 2015 study by the Stockholm Resilience Center, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable. Or that two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown into the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. Or that the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers — heat accumulated in them is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

Coral reefs damaged by warming seas in the Maldives (photo by Bruno de Giusti)

So strongly has public opinion swung on global warming that even Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell joined a vast array of multi-national corporations decrying the Trump withdrawal, leaving the United States as one of only three countries outside the Paris Accord. Exxon Mobil claims to support the agreement and is “well positioned to compete” under its terms. A measure of skepticism over this recent conversion is forgivable. Exxon has spent more than $33 million on denying global warming from 1997 to 2015, according to DeSmog, a total believed to be an underestimate. DeSmog summarized these findings this way:

“Despite its advanced knowledge of the climate disruption fueled in large part by oil, gas and coal pollution, ExxonMobil turned its back on crafting responsible solutions and instead funded a sophisticated campaign to sow doubt and delay action to curb carbon emissions — honing the tobacco industry’s playbook with even more advanced public relations, advertising and lobbying muscle.”

A separate DeSmog report says that Exxon corporate documents from the late 1970s unequivocally declare “there is no doubt” that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels was a growing problem well understood within the company. Inside Climate News reports that Exxon confirmed the science on global warming by the early 1980s while publicly mocking those models for decades beyond.

Tobacco is good for you and so is a warming planet

Such denialism is alive and well. A leading global warming denialist lobbying outfit, the Heartland Institute, had this to say about the withdrawal from the Paris Accord: “Angela Merkel and what is left of the E.U. are not happy (itself a victory), but fake science and globalism would take a big hit with this move.” So childish it could have been written by Donald Trump himself! Lavishly funded by Exxon, the Heartland Institute originally was a propaganda outfit for the tobacco industry, going so far as to deny the health effects of second-hand smoke.

Then there is NERA Consulting, which the Trump administration cited in its announcement of the Paris withdrawal. The White House statement claimed that “meeting the Obama Administration’s requirements in the Paris Accord would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades” and has already cost six million industrial jobs. Among other problems with this phantasmagoria is that none of the commitments of the Paris Accord have actually been implemented. Thus it is difficult to determine how the accord caused those jobs to disappear.

What is NERA Consulting? It describes itself as “firm of experts” that provides economic analysis to corporate clients. DeSmog reports that NERA has repeatedly, sometimes anonymously, issued reports on behalf of coal, liquified natural gas and other energy corporations that claim wildly inflated job and/or economic costs. Media Matters for America reports that a NERA report attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standards “has been thoroughly debunked by multiple experts” on multiple grounds, including failure to acknowledge any economic benefits. The NERA report was explicitly prepared for several energy-industry lobbying groups.

Earlier, NERA was involved in lobbying for the tobacco industry; a vice president said the tobacco industry should aim to explain the health “benefits” of smoking.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are also active funders of global warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. The Koch brothers own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Kochs stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

Polar warming outpaces warming elsewhere

It is not a long distance from the Alberta tar sands to the Arctic, where global warming is particularly pronounced. Consistent with predictions that the polar regions would experience the sharpest rise in temperatures, the Arctic is 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century with the region’s sea surface temperatures up to 5 degrees higher than the 1982 to 2010 average. Much worse could be on the way, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns in its 2016 Arctic Report Card:

“Warming air temperatures in the Arctic are causing normally frozen ground (permafrost) to thaw. The permafrost is carbon rich and, when it thaws, is a source of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Northern permafrost zone soils contain 1330-1580 billion tons [of] organic carbon, about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere. Tundra ecosystems are taking up increasingly more carbon during the growing season over the past several decades, but this has been offset by increasing carbon loss during the winter. Overall, tundra appears to be releasing net carbon to the atmosphere.”

Long before the release of such quantities of carbon throw the climate out of control, permafrost melting has begun to alter the Canadian Arctic’s environment in worrisome ways. In an article for Inside Climate News, Bob Berwyn writes:

“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama. According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.”

At the other end of the Earth, Antarctic temperatures are up to 3 degrees C. higher since the 1950s and they could increase an additional 5 degrees by the end of the century.

So what happens if the increase in greenhouse gases continues indefinitely? Possibly, global warming unprecedented for more than 400 million years. A study by researchers at Britain’s University of Southampton and University of Bristol, and Wesleyan University in the U.S., reports that if all readily available fossil fuel is burned, by the mid-23rd century atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would be around 2,000 parts per million — levels not seen since 200 million years ago. Lead author Gavin Foster said:

“However, because the Sun was dimmer back then, the net climate forcing 200 million years ago was lower than we would experience in such a high CO2 future. So not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”

If all the Earth’s ices melted (which they would at such levels of warming and carbon dioxide release), sea level would rise more than 60 meters (more than 200 feet).

Paris commitments well short of Paris goals

At the conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, 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. Nor is there any enforcement mechanism; all goals are voluntary. 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, anticipates peer pressure will encourage signatories “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and then “undertake rapid reductions thereafter.”

The Paris goals are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in 2014, which 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 are not yet close to being feasible.

The now discarded U.S. goal had been to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels. The European Union, Brazil, Canada, Japan, India and Australia have committed to cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by anywhere from 26 percent (Japan) to 40 percent (EU) by 2030. China didn’t commit to a specific cut but said it would reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The EU goals have an additional barrier, however — the British government under Theresa May has been working hard to significantly weaken draft EU climate and energy rules, including efficiency standards, even though the rules wouldn’t take effect until after Brexit.

A critical weakness of the assumptions underlying these goals is that the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, less than 0.1 percent annually during the course of the 21st century. No more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. There need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth.

The Earth, alas, does not possess infinite resources. Certainly there should be a continued push toward the use of renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels. But the idea that “green capitalism” will magically solve the problems of capitalism is a chimera. There is no way around the need to consume less and align production to human need rather than private profit. Capitalism won’t offer people displaced from dirty industries new jobs, and if the only option someone has to feed their family is take a job in the oil sands or in a coal mine, it is pointless to blame those workers. Then there is the “grow or die” dynamic imposed on capitalists through relentless competitive pressures. As Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

There are no free lunches. Doing what is necessary to keep the climate from going out of control, with catastrophic consequences, will require more economic disruption than the IPCC acknowledges. But the price of continuing business as usual will be much higher. Our descendants are not likely to see short-term corporate profits a fair exchange for a less livable world.

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8 comments on “A climatic baby step forward beats a leap backward

  1. Alcuin says:

    I think what is missed by most analysts is why Trump pulled the U.S. out. It has nothing whatsoever to do with his “astounding ignorance and his contempt for science or reality” at all and everything to do with his narcissism. He has such a strong psychological need for adulation (think about his requirement for loyalty) that he plays exclusively to his base, particularly when cornered. The man belongs in a psychiatric ward, not in the White House. The sooner people realize this, the better the entire world will be. Will Pence be any better? Possibly – he at least seems to mentally stable. He’s a terrible ideologue, but not any worse than Walker or Scott, which is bad enough.

    • Trump’s narcissism surely played a role here, as it does with whatever he does or says. And I can’t exclude the possibility that he somehow believed this would be to his business advantage as the rare times when he thinks before doing something, that his is dominant motivation. You have a strong point here — Trump likely believes he has shown those nasty scientists who’s right and who’s the boss.

      • Alcuin says:

        It’s not so much that “he has shown those nasty scientists who’s right and who’s the boss,” it’s that he is seeking adulation from his base. I don’t think that he has any fixed beliefs – he only plays to the audience that worships him.

  2. I agree with Naomi Klein and others that the climate crisis can’t be solved under capitalism as we know it. It has to be dismantled.

  3. Ol' Hippy says:

    The fact that capitalism is the ultimate enemy of global warming/poisoning has to be addressed at some, hopefully, near point. The military machine that’s the ‘enforcer’ for the capitalists has also to be dismantled and soon. Trump has no understanding what-so-ever the extent and magnitude of the problem. A large majority of Americans don’t either and that has been made much worse by the disinformation campaigns bought and paid for by the energy giants, as you pointed out. Trump is a fool, no doubt, but this alludes to the bigger problem that will soon be faced by America in the very near future and that’s the sea level rise. Will these baby steps set forth by the Paris accords be significant? Doubtful, but at least people have been made aware of a problem that’s been ignored and subverted in the last 40-50 years. There was no doubt of the problem at the first Earth Day in 1970. I was in 10th grade and ecology was taught in the public schools I attended. My senior biology II class had an overnight field trip the the Four Corners coal fired power plant,(it’s huge) and Chaco canyon,(decimated after depleting their resources). That was all I needed to see to realize the scope of the problem. I’m curious as to what has happened since the early 70’s when the EPA was created, DDT was banned and kids were educated on the problems of pollution and ecological systems. We need a renewed effort to educate all folks on the problem and the leadership has to start scaling back endless growth if humans are to survive. Somehow I just don’t think it will happen, not in my lifetime anyway.

    • My sense is that most United Statesians are environmentally conscious and have an awareness that environmental and global warming problems need to be tackled. (Obviously, the percentage of people in other countries is higher.) An awareness of that popular opinion is reflected in so much of U.S.-based corporations offering public relations to that effect.

      The problem here is that people believe we can take some small steps — recycle, buy energy-saving appliances, support solar power — and all will be well. It’s the myth that “green capitalism” will save the world and we can have business as usual if we get our power from windmills instead of coal-fired plants. We can’t. We have to reverse a belief in endless growth, as you point out, and we can’t do that as long as capitalist relations of production dominate the world.

      We can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, nor will plans to strip-mine the Moon and the asteroid belt put off the inevitable because the solar system is finite, too.

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