The world’s governments got together in Germany over the past two weeks to discuss global warming, and as a result, they, well, talked. And issued some nice press releases.
Discussing an existential threat to the environment, and all who are dependent on it, certainly is better than not discussing it. Agreeing to do something about it is also good, as is reiterating that something will be done.
None of the above, however, should be confused with implementing, and mandating, measures that would reverse global warming and begin to deal concretely with the wrenching changes necessary to avoid flooded cities, a climate going out of control, mass species die-offs and the other rather serious problems that have only begun to manifest themselves in an already warming world.
The 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP23, wrapped up on November 17 in Bonn. Fiji was actually the presiding country, but the conference was held in Bonn because Fiji was not seen as able to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend. The formal hosting by Fiji, as a small Pacific island country, was symbolic of a wish to highlight the problems of low-lying countries, but that this was merely symbolic was perhaps most fitting of all.
These conferences have been held yearly since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Two years ago, at COP21 in Paris, the world’s governments negotiated the Paris Accord, committing to specific targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Although capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (as measured from the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took off around the world) has been considered the outer limit of “safe” warming, a goal of halting global warming at 1.5 degrees was adopted at Paris. The catch here is that the goals adopted are far from the strength necessary to achieve the 2-degree goals, much less 1.5 degrees.
Before we explore that contradiction, let’s take a brief look at the self-congratulatory statements issued at the Bonn conference’s conclusion.
Agreement that summit participants like to talk
The official COP23/Fiji web site exalts:
“In Bonn, the support for climate action from countries, regions, cities, civil society, the private sector and ordinary men and women was clearly on display. Together, we have done the job we came here to do, which is to advance the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement and prepare for more ambitious action in the Talanoa Dialogue of 2018.”
The German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety provided this message:
“One key outcome of the conference is the Talanoa Dialogue. Talanoa is a Fiji term for a conversation in which the people involved share ideas and resolve problems. As the sum total of the current climate targets under the Paris Agreement is not yet sufficient for limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, agreement was reached in Paris that the international community would have to raise the level of ambition over time. The Talanoa Dialogue is the trial run for this ambition mechanism.”
And the United Nations itself, on its UNFCCC web site dedicated to COP23, had this to say:
“The ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, inspired by the Pacific concept of constructive discussion, debate and story-telling, will set the stage in Poland in 2018 for the revising upwards of national climate action plans needed to put the world on track to meet pre-2020 ambition and the long-term goals of the two-year old Paris Agreement. … With so many climate action pledges and initiatives, a further strong message from all sides at COP23 was the growing need to coordinate efforts across policy, planning and investment to ensure that every cent invested and every minute of work contributed results in a much greater impact and boosts ambition under the national climate plans.”
Again, discussion is better than no discussion, and at least no country other than the United States came to Bonn to push coal, isolating the Trump administration further as the U.S. is now the only country that intends to stay outside the Paris Accords. And let us acknowledge that a baby step forward is far better than a giant leap backward, as the Trump gang wishes to attempt.
The main takeaway of COP23 is that people will get together and talk some more. The “2018 Talanoa Dialogue” is said by the United Nations to be “an inclusive and participatory process that allows countries, as well as non-state actors, to share stories and showcase best practices in order to urgently raise ambition — including pre-2020 action — in nationally determined contributions.” Beyond that, there was a bit of money committed — the German government pledged €110 million to an insurance fund, an adoption fund was replenished with US$93 million of new pledges, and the World Health Organisation said it would commence a “special initiative” to help island countries that has a goal to “triple the levels of international financial support to climate and health in Small Island Developing States.”
It you feel less than overwhelmed by the above, it would seem a reasonable reaction.
The world’s biggest advertising conclave?
A commentator for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle certainly was less than overwhelmed, referring to the event as a “massive advertising offensive.” The commentary published by Deutsche Welle, a most sober mainstream news organization not known for flamboyance, summarized the COP23 outcome this way:
“The negotiations in Bonn sound more like agenda points run through by a working group of midlevel importance than the work of the largest multination conference ever held in Germany. Two years after the international climate accord was signed in Paris, the task at hand in Bonn was to establish just who was required to do what in the fight against climate change and how their contributions could be measured. Binding agreements were not on the agenda. … It would also be in poor taste to ask about the carbon footprint left by the conference — especially as most of the electricity used to run Bonn’s charging stations is derived from the region’s lignite coal power plants. Such a query would only upset the mood of those inhabiting this taxpayer-funded parallel universe.”
Ouch! At least the host Germans, and most others in attendance, wanted to do the right thing even if words and actions are yet to synchronize. The public-policy magazine Pacific Standard pulled no punches in reporting the embarrassing antics of the United States delegation in Bonn. The article opened with this passage:
“The United States delegation held a side event at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn on Monday, an affair run by fossil-fuel and nuclear-industry boosters that reprised the same tune heard at the G7 and G20 summits this summer: According to the U.S., using clean coal and nuclear energy is the only way to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.”
The Pacific Standard report went on to say:
“At the U.S. panel, Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, claimed that clean coal is needed to reach many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including universal access to energy, zero hunger, and zero poverty. … Worthington also drew on the Trump administration’s demagogic notion of an ongoing ‘war on coal,’ charging that international development banks have an ‘anti-fossil bias’ that blocks investments for financing coal plants in poor countries, potentially at the expense of public safety. The U.S. side event also included pitches for liquid natural gas exports from the U.S. to developing countries as a bridge fuel to help power the shift to renewable energy, as well as for small-scale modular nuclear reactors that can serve a similar purpose.”
Clean coal and safe nuclear energy? Still oxymorons. Although fairness compels an acknowledgement that the concepts of “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” were championed by the Obama administration, which in fact was nearly as enthusiastic as the Bush II/Cheney administration in throwing bottomless sums of money at nuclear power companies.
At least the Obama administration was willing to promote renewable energy as part of its ill-advised “all of the above” energy program and did believe that breathable air and drinkable water are good ideas, even if not willing to disrupt corporate business as usual to achieve those ideas, or so much as hint that resource consumption far beyond the Earth’s capacity might necessitate consuming less. The Trump gang can’t be bothered to do even that. Searches for any statement on COP23 on the official White House web site turns up not a word. One can find statements about favorable editorials in Murdoch newspapers but nothing on the climate summit.
Do you get half credit if the bridge collapses when walkers are halfway across?
This about brings us to the point where the latest dire reports of catastrophe that would result from a failure to tackle climate warming is appropriate. We’ll get to that momentarily, but first it would be useful to reiterate just what was committed two years ago, none of which have been updated or improved upon despite cheery press releases.
National global-warming commitments made in time for the 2015 Paris Climate Summit included these goals:
- The United States pledged at the time to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels; instituted new national regulations on power-plant emissions; and announced a state-level cap-and-trade system whereby states, rather than enterprises, will trade pollution permits.
- China intended to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; intended to inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledged to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
- The European Union’s goal was a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of EU efforts is a failed cap-and-trade system that will not be reformed until 2021.
- Brazil said it would cut emissions by 37 percent in 2025, relative to 2005, and intended to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil said it would generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledged to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
- Canada committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and failed to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
- Japan intended to reduce emissions by 26 percent in 2030, relative to 2013 (the equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), reductions that would include international “offsets” and “credits” for forest management.
- India pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, and to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by that year. This goal, however, is a commitment to only slow the rate of emissions rather than cut them.
- Australia committed to a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions, relative to 2005, reductions to be achieved in part through land-use changes and forestation. But the coalition government in power then and now repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.
Of the above countries and regions, only India is rated by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of three research organizations, as compatible with a goal of capping global warming at 2 degrees. Every other one has been found to be insufficient, with the United States joining Chile, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine as “critically insufficient,” the worst category.
Should all the pledges made at the Paris Summit actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group 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. In other words, global warming would advance at a slower pace that it would have otherwise should all commitments be fulfilled. But there are no enforcement mechanisms to force compliance with these goals; peer pressure is expected to be sufficient.
This is reminiscent of a Group of 7 Summit a few months earlier, in June 2015, when the G7 governments said they would phase out fossil fuels by 2100, a case not of closing the barn door after the horse has left but rather declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon.
In case you needed still more evidence …
OK, we’ve reached the point where we should summarize the latest scientific reports. In just the past few weeks:
- A report published in Lancet reported that the health of millions of people across the world is already being significantly harmed by climate change, thanks in part to increased risk of infections diseases. This risk, the Lancet report declared, qualifies as “the major threat of the 21st century.”
- As carbon dioxide increases, accelerating global warming, scientists fear that Arctic melting will trigger a massive release of methane, a gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in ability to causing atmospheric warming.
- It is a virtual certainty that human activity is responsible for all global warming since 1950, according to the Climate Science Special Report, a report prepared by hundreds of U.S. scientists. Humans are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of Earth’s net global warming, the report said, meaning that Earth might have cooled slightly in the period absent human activity.
- Hundreds of millions of people would face displacement due to their their home cities becoming flooded as a result of rising sea levels triggered by global warming of 3 degrees, which would be reached if current trends continue. Alexandria, Miami, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai are among the many cities to be drastically affected.
- Extreme rains of at least 20 inches from a single storm are six times more likely than they were in the 1990s, and will become another three times more likely by 2090.
Those represent just some of the most recent research. Earlier studies have found that humanity may have already committed itself to a sea level rise of at least six meters from the greenhouse gases already thrown into the atmosphere and that several more decades of global warming would occur even if all greenhouse-gas production ceased today because the oceans will release much of the heat they have absorbed from the atmosphere.
You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet
The bottom line is that business can’t continue as usual. That means wrenching changes to the economy in a system, capitalism, that offers no alternative employment to those whose jobs would be eliminated. Conservatives see that seriously tackling global warming would trigger significant disruption, so their solution is to deny global warming, policies unfortunately being carried out by the Trump administration. Liberals acknowledge the severity of the problem, but advocate renewable energy and techno-fixes requiring technologies that unfortunately are yet to exist in order to claim that any dip in the economy would be no more than a statistical blip. That’s not realistic, either.
Already, the demand for resources to support present-day consumption is equal to 1.7 Earths. That indeed is not sustainable. And although renewable energy obviously should be developed, with fossil fuels phased out as soon as practical, those changes will only get us part of the way, before mentioning that manufacturing the parts for wind and solar energy have their own environmental concerns. Renewable energy is not a shortcut to reversing global warming. Alas, there is no alternative but for the global North to consume much less.
Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us must be abandoned. Capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society. Thus every incentive is for more production. Maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby holds back ecological reform — this is reflected in the “maximization of shareholder value” that is elevated to a holy cause and even a legal requirement.
Consumerism and over-consumption are not products of a particular culture nor the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into a system that can’t function without growth. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.
There can’t be infinite growth on a finite planet, and even if humanity begins to strip-mine the Moon and the asteroid belt, that would merely postpone the reckoning because the solar system is finite, too (assuming that off-world industrialism could be made financial viable). What the planet needs is action, not only words, and the later that action is put off the more painful will be any attempted cure. Environmental crisis can no longer be disentangled from economic crisis.