Earth burns and the capitalist world talks

Yes, the time for talk is well past and one more report isn’t likely to change minds or induce new action. Nonetheless, it is always useful to have the latest information when dealing with an ongoing emergency. The world’s governments shouldn’t need the latest United Nations report on the state of Earth’s climate to act but if some do care to pay proper attention, the situation is ever more dire.

Officially, the paper under discussion is the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, summarizing the knowledge of the world’s climate scientists. The technical summary of the report spans 150 pages, and that is what we’ll be quoting from. The report is intended “to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.”

Having paid little more than lip service to past reports, and the ongoing avalanche of scientific papers and the accelerating pace of weather disasters, the world’s governments, beholden as they are to the planet’s industrialists and financiers, aren’t likely to suddenly spring into serious action should office holders bother to read the memos their assistants who might have actually read one of the summaries have sent along.

I wish I could be more optimistic, but consider the recent evidence. At the last gathering of the world’s governments to tackle the issue, the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2019 in Madrid, otherwise known as COP25, the conference ended with participants announcing the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and agreed there would be more opportunities to talk at the next two annual conferences. (Last year’s conference was put off a year and will be held in November in Glasgow.)

Graphic credit: NASA, slight adjustments by Femke Nijsse for accessibility.

The previous year’s COP 24, in Katowice, Poland (the host country’s pavilion featured displays of everyday items such as walls and soap made from coal, for added irony), the conference ended with an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. The world’s governments had previously agreed to set goals for reducing their productions of greenhouse gases but to do so on a voluntary basis with no enforcement mechanism, and now those agreements will have guidelines as to how those goals will be reported that also have no enforcement mechanism. And governments will be allowed to use their own methodologies to calculate their progress, a gaping loophole sure to be used to cook the books.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying. Or perhaps he wasn’t so fond. No matter, the current state of the world’s climate really isn’t a fun topic nowadays. Let’s take a look anyway.

Well on our way to reaching temperature limit

Among the, if you’ll excuse the expression, highlights of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paper are that the increase in global surface temperature is more than two-thirds of the way toward the 1.5-degree C. limit set by the Paris Accord, the 2015 agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Specifically, the IPCC paper states, “For the decade 2011–2020, the increase in global surface temperature since 1850–1900 is assessed to be 1.09 [0.95 to 1.20] °C.” Further, “many of the changes observed since the 1950s are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Updated paleoclimate evidence strengthens this assessment; over the past several decades, key indicators of the climate system are increasingly at levels unseen in centuries to millennia and are changing at rates unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.”

The report says, “human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere. … [I]t is now an established fact that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes since 1850, in particular for temperature extremes.”

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

If an increase since the early years of the Industrial Revolution of 1.5 degrees is a breaking point, how long do we have until that threshold is breached under business as usual? The report says, “combining the larger estimate of global warming to date and the assessed climate response to all considered scenarios, the central estimate of crossing 1.5°C of global warming (for a 20-year period) occurs in the early 2030s, ten years earlier than the midpoint of the likely range assessed in [a 2018 IPCC special report], assuming no major volcanic eruption.” A decade from now!

And that’s not all. The report noted that the global water cycle is being disrupted and “projects with high confidence an increase in the variability of the water cycle in most regions of the world and under all emissions scenarios.” That means, in plain language, more droughts and more flooding. The report additionally projects ocean oxygen loss “substantially greater in 2080–2099 than assessed in” another IPCC special report released in 2019.

More heat, more melting in future centuries

Wish for more bad news? How about this:

“Levels of global warming … that have not been seen in millions of years could be reached by 2300, depending on the emissions pathway that is followed. For example, there is medium confidence that, by 2300, an intermediate scenario used in the report leads to global surface temperatures of 2.3°C–4.6°C higher than 1850–1900, similar to the mid-Pliocene Warm Period (2.5°C–4°C), about 3.2 million years ago, whereas the high CO2 emissions scenario SSP5-8.5 leads to temperatures of 6.6°C–14.1°C by 2300, which overlaps with the Early Eocene Climate Optimum (10°C–18°C), about 50 million years ago.” [Page TS-11]

Even if humanity were to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions today, our descendants will be faced with rising sea levels. Seas will be at least a meter higher by the end of the century, a forecast that would have to be revised upward if the amount of additional sea level rise that would occur from disintegration of marine ice shelves or faster than expected loss of ice from Greenland is included. The report states, “Although past and future global warming differ in their forcings, evidence from paleoclimate records and modelling show that ice sheet mass and global mean sea level (GMSL) responded dynamically over multiple millennia (high confidence). … Beyond 2100, GMSL will continue to rise for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean heat uptake and mass loss from ice sheets, and will remain elevated for thousands of years (high confidence).” [Pages TS-14, TS-45]

The long-term forecast is for a weakening of the Gulf Stream with centuries necessary for a return to present strength. A near complete loss of Greenland ice sheet and a complete loss of West Antarctic ice sheet are projected to occur irreversibly over multiple millennia. And thus the conclusion that:

“The increase in global ocean heat content will likely continue until at least 2300 even for low-emission scenarios, and global mean sea level rise will continue to rise for centuries to millennia following cessation of emissions due to continuing deep ocean heat uptake and mass loss of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets (high confidence). … The response of biogeochemical cycles to anthropogenic perturbations can be abrupt at regional scales and irreversible on decadal to century time scales (high confidence). … Continued Amazon deforestation, combined with a warming climate, raises the probability that this ecosystem will cross a tipping point into a dry state during the 21st century (low confidence).” [Page TS-72]

Even with the uncertainty about the future of the Amazon, that clear cutting of the world’s lungs can only have a negative effect on global climate is not in dispute, however difficult it remains to determine the extent or speed of the damage.

There is plenty more material for readers with a strong stomach, but the above paints the picture clear enough.

Setting a goal but doing little to achieve the goal

Under current conditions and scenarios, it would be impossible to keep the global temperature increase below the 2-degree threshold commonly seen as the outer limit before the climate spirals beyond control and catastrophic change is likely, much less the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Accord. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by the research organizations Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute, the pledges and targets set by the world’s governments, if achieved, would result in a temperature rise of 2.4 degrees by 2100. Current policies, if not altered, would result in an increase of 2.9 degrees.

Drastic reductions, well beyond what has been committed to, are necessary to attain even the 2-degree target. Two University of Washington statisticians, Peiran Liu and Adrian Raftery, in a paper published in February 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal Communications Earth & Environment, calculate that the world’s governments need to increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions cuts by 80 percent from current levels. The authors write:

“On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 °C of warming is only 5%, but if all countries meet their nationally determined contributions and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, it rises to 26%. If the USA alone does not meet its nationally determined contribution, it declines to 18%. To have an even chance of staying below 2 °C, the average rate of decline in emissions would need to increase from the 1% per year needed to meet the nationally determined contributions, to 1.8% per year.”

Considerably deeper reductions would be needed to attain the 1.5-degree goal, and would require “reaching close to global net zero emissions by 2045.” Even to achieve an increase of no more than 2 degrees would require a 66% reduction in emissions from 2010 to 2070. The world certainly is not on any such course.

We can’t shop our way out of global warming

It should be obvious, but unfortunately needs to be continually restated, that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. The dynamics of capitalism demand that growth be ceaseless; the system can’t function without it. And given that corporations, through their stranglehold on the world’s governments, can offload their responsibilities such as damage from pollution onto society, there is little incentive for them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions or reduce their pollution of the environment. Financial markets demand ever higher profits, and will punish the stock of corporations that fail to do so. Stock prices represent expectations of future profits; if profits don’t rise, the stock price doesn’t rise, making financiers angry and thereby put pressure on executives to do as they are expected.

Every incentive in a capitalist economy is for there to be more production, and a capitalist economy that doesn’t grow also means fewer jobs. Even a small increase in gross domestic product can result in overall job loss because jobs are cut faster by cost-cutting capitalists than tepid growth in demand can create them. Moreover, even if government regulation were to make it difficult or impossible for an industry to remain solvent, capitalism doesn’t guarantee anybody a job. People don’t travel across continents to take jobs at a North Dakota oil well or an Alberta tar sands dig if there are viable alternatives back home. Corporate executives accustomed to taking home gigantic salaries aren’t eager to see their businesses wind down.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park in August 2015, during the hottest and driest summer in Pacific Northwest history. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Green capitalism” isn’t going to save us. Green capitalism is an illusion. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. Effecting such a change is impossible under capitalism. Not even a total switch to renewable energy, as laudable and necessary as such a change would be, is sufficient by itself to reverse global warming. Solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and other renewable-energy infrastructure require heavy manufacturing and the use of metals and sometimes toxic rare earths to make. And a whole lot of them will have to be made.

The task of any capitalist corporation is to accumulate capital, and it must grow while meeting the rigors of competition to do so. Although greedy or immoral people are certainly not unknown in corporate boardrooms, the personality of the capitalist doesn’t particularly matter. Competition mandates corporate behavior, and the whip of the financial industry is there to enforce that behavior.

As Joel Kovel, in his classic book The Enemy of Nature put it, industrialists and financiers (those who control the economic system and thus exert decisive influence over the political system through their economic power), are structurally incapable of dealing with the environmental crisis. He wrote:

“Each society selects for the psychological types that serve its needs. It is quite possible in this way to mold a great range of characters toward a unified, class purpose. To succeed in the capitalist marketplace and rise to the top, one needs a hard, cold, calculating mentality, the ability to sell oneself, and a hefty dose of the will to power. None of these traits is at all correlated with ecological sensibility or caring, and they are induced by the same force field that shapes investment decisions. … Of course greed plays a role. How could it not when stupendous fortunes can be had for compliance with the rules of the game? But the question is how greed, or the drive for power, or cold and calculating ways of thought, lead to blindness and rigidity. These are the salient traits, and they arise from the intersection of psychological tendencies with the concrete lifeworld of the capitalists. … If you sit at the heart of the world’s financial centers, fly in private jets, manipulate billions of dollars with the tap of a keypad and control a productive apparatus capable of diverting rivers and sending missions to Mars, you are not likely to experience the humility of a St. Francis or the patient tenacity of a Rachel Carson.”

Make the future worthless so tomorrow doesn’t matter

Even standard accounting works against dealing with global warming and pollution. Capitalist economics discounts the future so much that future life is seen as nearly worthless. Thus, in this type of accounting, there is no cost for future pollution.

Authors Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster put this plainly in a thoughtful May 2009 article in Monthly Review. They wrote:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

Even with a humanistic accounting regime and the needed changes to make the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of achieving the goals of averting catastrophic climate change will be high. The idea that all the new jobs created by the transition to renewable energy will somehow mean there will be no cost to the economy as promoted by many liberal environmental organizations is not credible, and it would be better to face up to that. Denying that reversing global warming will be virtually cost-free is not much more realistic than the conservative fantasy that global warming isn’t reality.

Nor should we deny the likelihood that the peoples of the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less energy in the future. Although renewable energy will become more efficient in the future and the problem of battery energy storage will probably be reasonably solved in the not too distant future, they simply won’t provide the bang for the buck that fossil fuels provide. There is a reason those are used — they provide more energy than alternative sources. This reduction in energy usage needn’t mean trying to read by candlelight. Ending planned obsolescence, making products last much longer and becoming serious about recycling can make up a significant part of the energy gap. Humanity is using natural resources far beyond their replacement rate. Basic mathematics tells us that can’t continue indefinitely.

But what would be the cost of not seriously addressing global warming? That price will surely be vastly higher than the costs of not doing so. What price should our descendants pay if we don’t move to an economic system that values life rather than only profits, a system that produces for human and community need instead of for the profit of the one percent? That price will likely be a very high one, and our descendants are not likely to look kindly upon us for despoiling their world and leaving them with enormous problems, not least drowning cities, a chaotic climate and diminished areas for reliable agriculture. Our choice remains socialism or barbarism.

14 comments on “Earth burns and the capitalist world talks

  1. Thomas F. McGourty, Jr says:

    Pete – I want you to know that I find your posts extremely instructive, clear, and well supported by your ‘homework’. Thank you my friend for the truth here.

    T

  2. dylanfreak says:

    If all the published reports on climate change issued since 1965, the year the first climate study came out (during the Johnson administration), they’d probably reach higher than the Empire State Building. If the world’s *deeds* in response to climate change from that era to the present were measured, they would reach a depth *below* where we were in 1965 equivalent to the height of the ESB, because we’ve been going full speed in the wrong direction. As usual, the villain is capitalism.

    This creates a terrible psychological dilemma: if the world’s population agrees to enormous sacrifices to avert the *worst* of climate change, there will *still* be climate change, only just as bad or slightly more so, rather than dramatically worse. So all the people’s blood, sweat and tears on behalf of humanity’s future would still lead to… a world at least as awful as the one we have now. Is there a solution? I don’t see it.

    • A colorful, vivid and depressing picture you have painted. A picture that I can’t refute as much as I wish I could. Mitigating damage rather than averting damage is the best we’ll be able to do, especially since many research studies show that sea level rise is inevitable even if we could stop all greenhouse gas emissions today. What else can we do but continue organizing? That young people are so focused on this issue gives a glimmer of optimism for the future.

  3. Brian says:

    In the words of the late, great Leonard Cohen:

    “It’s torn in the highest, from Kingdom to Crown
    The Messages fly but the network is down”

    In other words, inchoate paralysis amidst complexity that exceeds the thresholds of comprehension and sane action. “We” got too BIG.

  4. iamselma says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. Perhaps the worst outcome of all is that when coastal areas need to be evacuated, in some cases with little time to prepare, there will be no one to staff the nuclear power facilities and ensure that there is sufficient coolant covering the reactor core in these plants, which would then trigger a wave of Fukushma scale nuclear explosions that would release enormous quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere and the ocean, sealing our doom for millennia.

    • Yet another problem in need of a solution. Reminds me of the “plan” for evacuating people near the Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City, which, a local Green Party activist once told us, consisted of having bus drivers make repeated trips in and out of the evacuation zone in the midst of radiation release. The activist noted dryly it would be unlikely you’d get many people to do that while their own families were in need of evacuation.

  5. tubularsock says:

    Pete: Tubularsock is always impressed with your detailed work and intelligent overview of the decaying mind set of the capitalistic waste-mongers.

    But SOLUTIONS are what are necessary and Tubularsock figures with his solar powered calculator that if we started to pave the roads with the multitudes of commission reports the heat reduction by the replacement of asphalt would be phenomenal thus lowering the earth’s temperature by 73.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Tubularsock realizes that he is swimming upstream but the joy of swimming in the LAST stream is worth the effort.

    Thank you for all that you do!

    • Or maybe we could inject all those reports into the atmosphere, creating an aerial sunblock that would cool the planet. Maybe you are on to something here, Tube. We’ve got to think creatively!

      • tubularsock says:

        Not a bad idea. Tubularsock will get right on forming a committee to study your proposal, Pete. We’ll submit your proposal to the under-committee for planetary adjustments for their tri-quarterly meeting in 2073 followed by a full committee presentation in 2127.

        Tubularsock knows you agree that speed is of the utmost importance when it comes to climate science.

  6. Pete, I concur with all of those who have already commented about your thorough, informative analysis. As I read through Naomi Klein’s work, “This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate,” I keep asking myself “what can we do on a local level?” Klein convincingly argues that we’re up against widely shared beliefs that we can’t live without corporations and we are powerless to control what they do.

    My colleague and I are going to try something new with the students this semester to encourage them to think critically about practical things we can change as a community and plan some type of awareness-raising campaign to mobilize local action. (They’ve already learned about Edward Bernay’s and the Wetiko.) Success in small things raises hope and can build networks that are willing to take on larger issues. Youth are far better at spreading the word via social media in creative ways. The bigger issues feel too overwhelming at this point to tackle head-on to me and most people I talk to.

    • That is a welcome, constructive idea, Carol. I am heartened to hear of the efforts of you and your colleague. Taking practical steps at a local level will give people confidence that can do something. It is understandable that so many people feel overwhelmed, given the enormity of the problem and the power of those institutions responsible. And when local activists link with activists in other areas, more becomes possible.

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