It’s said that it is better to laugh than cry. But what do we do when a situation has become so beyond parody that laughter is impossible?
As Australia burns, the world is about to finish its second hottest year ever, the seas rise, polar melting is worse than previously modeled and the sixth mass extinction gains momentum, the world’s governments met in Madrid for the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP25. What did they decide after two weeks of negotiations? They issued a statement titled “Time For Action.” And here are two representative decisions concerning “action”: The conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and “Decides to hold, at its twenty-sixth (2020) and twenty-seventh (2021) sessions, round tables among Parties and non-Party stakeholders on pre-2020 implementation and ambition.”
I don’t feel like laughing.
A dire emergency threatening the long-term viability of Earth’s environment, a set of looming disasters almost certain to make refugees out of untold millions of people in the lifetimes of many people alive today, and the best the leaders of the capitalist world can do at their yearly climate summit is “note” there is a problem and that a year from now they will talk about it some more.
The representatives of the economic system, it should be noted, that is responsible for global warming. And although all indications are that it is impossible to stop and reverse global warming as long as capitalism ravages the planet, obviously as much as can be done needs to be done today because a rational economic system is nowhere near coming into being.
We have been down this road before. A year ago, at COP24 — held in a center of coal production, Katowice, Poland — the world’s governments agreed to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. The world’s governments had previously agreed to set goals for reducing their production of greenhouse gases but to do so on a voluntary basis with no enforcement mechanism, and COP24 ended with an agreement on guidelines as to how those goals will be reported that also have no enforcement mechanism. As woeful as that was, it was an improvement over COP23, when participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk and agreed they would talk some more. They did issue some nice press releases, though.
Having already agreed that talking is good, the world’s governments declared at COP25, which concluded December 15, that talking is indeed a good thing and that they shall do more of it.
No progress but there were more nice press releases
Press releases were happily issued at COP25, each giving off a quite surreal air of disconnect. For example, the web site for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change issued a release on December 13 that declared “Global Climate Action Presents a Blueprint for a 1.5-Degree World,” which breathlessly informed us that a so-called “Climate Action Pathways” initiative would establish “transformational actions and milestones.” What of substance actually did get accomplished? Beyond issuing press releases and inviting everyone to talk next year, it would appear nothing.
Recall that the world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Revolution average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although they did not make corresponding pledges to reach either goal.
The goals set for COP25 were to reach agreement on a “carbon market” scheme whereby countries could claim credits for carbon sinks such as intact forests and for renewable-energy projects that lead to reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Poorer countries would be allowed to sell their credits to wealthy countries, which could then count those credits toward their obligations. Brazil, under its neo-fascist president Jair Bolsonaro, wanted to double-count its forests — it sought to count its forests toward its national emissions targets but also sell the credits attached to them. Other countries sought to have past credits count toward post-2020 emissions accounting, another method to evade responsibility.
The result was that no progress was made in Madrid toward the goal of formalizing the agreements from the Paris agreement, nor toward boosting those commitments as the agreement had intended. And thus no progress was made toward holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C., the agreed Paris goal. Even if all pledges made by the world’s governments were honored in full (currently a quite unlikely occurrence), global warming would reach 3 degrees.
Biggest greenhouse gas producers say no the loudest
But let us not lay all blame at the feet of Brazil, detestable as its “let the Amazon burn” president is. As a Democracy Now report succinctly put it, “Scores of civil society groups condemned governments in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the United States for a deal that requires far less action than needed to avert catastrophic climate change.”
The carbon markets, if they are set up, would be a farce designed to enable the Global North to evade responsibility. As Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, told Democracy Now:
“[W]hat’s happening here now is rich developed countries, not just the United States, but Australia, Canada, backed by the European Union, not only don’t want to cut their own emissions, not only don’t want to provide finance that they promised, not only don’t want to help the most impacted people, but now want a get-out-of-jail card. And this is what Article 6, the carbon markets are, because what it basically says is, ‘I won’t have to cut my emissions, but I can pay somebody else, and you cut your emissions, and I will count it as if I cut my emissions,’ as if there is a never-ending magic box of carbon pollution that we’re allowed to do. It is not possible. … 10 years ago we had an argument, in these very negotiations, about carbon markets, and developing countries and civil society absolutely rejected them. They said they do not deliver emissions reductions. They’ll lead to huge human rights violations. They allow profit for private companies and nothing to ordinary people.”
Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at ActionAid, said in a speech at COP25 that:
“[T]he constant bullying of these big countries are making this process worse than useless. Their bullying hasn’t stopped. They’re not letting us make any progress in this space. There is no substitute for action. And what rich countries are doing, they are creating an illusion of action by just talking. When we demand action, they offer reports. When we demand money, they offer workshops.”
Perhaps the worst bullying is coming from the United States, which is scheduled to leave the Paris agreement in November 2020. Despite its intention to exit, the Trump administration nevertheless actively intervened to protect polluting industries. A U.S. “loss and damage” proposal would make it more difficult for developing countries to obtain financial support for the costs they will sustain from global warming. In an interview, Singh said:
“This is worst I have seen in the last 10 years of me attending negotiations. It can’t get worse than that. It’s arm-twisting and bullying at the highest level, where United States, which is not meeting its emission targets, is not giving any money to Green Climate Fund and not even letting a system to be created that can help people who face climate emergency now. I mean, look at the audacity of United States, the way they are behaving in these negotiations.”
Current pledges would leave emissions double what is necessary
The gap between the significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to meet the Paris goals and what has been pledged is growing wider. Climate Action Tracker calculates that the level of emissions necessary to meet the goal of capping global warming to 1.5 degrees would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be half the level of what has been pledged, assuming all pledges are met. To put concrete numbers to that statement, emissions in 2030 would need to be down to 26 gigatons (26 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO²E). The totality of Paris commitments, as of December 2019, would result in CO²E emissions of 52 to 55 gigatons.
Climate Action Tracker reports there are two countries — Morocco and The Gambia — that have made Paris commitments sufficient to meet the goal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees. Six countries are compatible with a warming of 2 degrees. All others are insufficient, highly insufficient or critically insufficient. The last of those categories, the worst, have Paris commitments that would lead to a rise of more than 4 degrees and thus most spectacularly fail to meet global responsibilities. Those in this category are Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Ukraine and Vietnam. Several large countries, including China and Japan, are rated as highly insufficient. Among those merely insufficient are Australia, Canada, the European Union, Mexico and New Zealand.
What that means in practical terms is this, according to Climate Action Tracker:
“Under current pledges, the world will warm by 2.8°C by the end of the century, close to twice the limit they agreed in Paris. Governments are even further from the Paris temperature limit in terms of their real-world action, which would see the temperature rise by 3°C. An ‘optimistic’ take on real-world action including additional action that governments are planning still only limits warming to 2.8°C.”
The United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report 2018 said that global greenhouse-emissions set a record high in 2017 of 53.5 gigatons of CO²E. Consistent with Climate Action Tracker, the UN report said, “Global [greenhouse-gas] emissions in 2030 need to be approximately 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2017 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to 2°C and 1.5°C respectively.” Emissions set another record in 2018 — Carbon Brief reported that 2018’s increase of 2.7 percent was the fastest increase in seven years. For 2019? Higher still, although at a reduced rate of increase despite emissions due to deforestation increasing faster than the previous five years.
As an additional insult, hundreds of climate activists were thrown out of COP25 at the same time that at least 42 current or former employees of the fossil fuel industry attended as part of official delegations just from Persian Gulf countries. The senior negotiator at COP25 for Saudi Arabia is a former employee for Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s giant state oil company. DeSmog further reports that a “think tank” with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump obtained accreditation for several organizations and individuals who promote global warming denial. One of those organizations, the notorious Heartland Institute, which began life a propaganda outfit seeking to deny the dangers of smoking, hosted an alternative series of talks on what it calls the “climate delusion” with titles like “The Renewable Power Nightmare in Europe.”
I know you don’t need more facts, but here are more
It takes a special level of delusion (or amoral profit interest) to continue to deny all that is happening around us. To cite only a handful of fresh reports, here is some of the latest climate science:
• The average temperature of the Canadian Arctic increased 2.3 degrees C. from 1948 to 2016 and is projected to increase almost 8 degrees by the end of this century. One result of this is that sea ice within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago has decreased by 5 percent per decade since 1968 and that the flow of sea ice leaving the Canadian Arctic Archipelago for more southerly latitudes, where it rapidly melts, is expected to accelerate.
• The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and currently contributing to global average sea-level rise at a rate of about 0.7 millimeters per year.
• Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300 million to 600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere. In plain language, the Arctic may be becoming a net emitter of greenhouse gases rather than a storage.
• The Arctic as a whole is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the speed of changes there is happening faster than anticipated.
• The six warmest years on record are the most recent six years (2014 to 2019); 2019 will be the second hottest year ever despite the lack of an El Niño event, during which the hottest years ordinarily occur.
• Remarkably, 2019 has produced 142 national/territorial all-time or monthly record high temperatures, with zero all-time or monthly record lows.
It seems almost superfluous to point out some earlier studies that portend disaster, such as studies that conclude humanity may have already committed itself to a 6-meter rise in sea level; that massive coastal flooding could happen faster than currently expected; that global warming will accelerate as the oceans reach their limits of remediation; and that Earth is already crossing multiple “planetary boundaries” that will drive the planet “into a much less hospitable state.”
We’re drowning but a few people got rich
If those disastrous predictions come to pass, our descendants are not likely to declare that coping with their immense problems was a reasonable tradeoff for the one percent among their ancestors scooping up massive profits. Saving the future viability of Earth’s ecosystems for the future is an immense task, one impossible under our current global economic system.
Capitalism requires endless growth and endless growth requires more production. Capitalism’s internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit and competition is relentless, growth and cost cutting is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business. Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances.
Leaving capitalism intact means allowing “markets” to make a wide array of social decisions — and markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Those markets aren’t going to provide new jobs for those currently dependent on the fossil fuel industry, so resistance from those who stand to lose work without a viable alternative are naturally going to resist change alongside oil company executives. It also means that powerful special interests can continue to dictate policies inimical to the environment solely to keep their profits rolling in. As much as we need the fastest possible transition to renewable energy sources — and we certainly do — that transition is insufficient by itself.
We in the advanced capitalist countries have yet to face the fact that we must consume less not only because natural resources are being used at rates well beyond replacement but because to meet the needed reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions requires not only renewables, not only more efficient energy usage, but that we use less energy, especially if hundreds of millions of people in the Global South are to have a chance to boost themselves out of deep poverty. A rational, democratic economic system based on meeting human need that can operate in a steady state or shrink with a falling population is necessary. An economic system geared toward nothing but massive profits for a tiny percentage of people and based on ruthless competition and exploitation, in which corporations can shift the costs of their behavior onto the public and the environment, can’t save us. The compete failure of the world’s capitalist countries to meaningfully begin to tackle global warming, despite the alarm bells nature is sounding, demonstrates this all too clearly.
So-called “green capitalism” is destined to fail. We need system change, not climate change.