Attacking the messenger: Planet of the Humans spears sacred beliefs

When it comes to global warming, there continues to be plenty of magical thinking going on. And such magical thinking is not exclusive to the conservative side of the political spectrum.

It is easy to take apart conservative denial of global warming, based as it is on ideology and a total lack of scientific grounding. In their own way, however, right-wing climate deniers are consistent on one point — they know that effectively tackling global warming means economic disruption, so their solution is to deny there is any global warming. Liberals, however, have their heads in the sand as well — too honest to deny the obvious, they instead deny there will be any cost. We’ll switch to renewable energy and continue business as usual.

The latter is not realistic. And that brings us to the new environmental film Planet of the Humans, which has certainly touched many a liberal nerve. Believing we can continue capitalist business as usual, merrily consuming far beyond the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources and enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet, leads to a disinclination to be realistic about the cost of dealing with global warming. The liberal idea that we can make a seamless switch to renewable energy and continue to use Earth’s resources and consume at the same rate humanity has been doing is fantasy.

And that is what underlies the fierce reaction to Planet of the Humans.  A generally unreasonable reaction that grossly misrepresents the film.

So there is no mistaking where my perspective lies, I do believe the fastest possible switch to renewable energy should be made and we should abandon the use of fossil fuels in the shortest reasonable time. But we should be realistic about the limitations. Renewables, although part of the solution to global warming, can’t save us on their own. Humanity, at least those in the Global North, has no choice but to consume much less, including less energy. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. The limitations of renewables will be discussed below, but first let’s dismantle the disingenuous attacks on the film, produced and directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore as executive producer. For the record, I have watched Planet of the Humans in its entirety twice.

Should dissenting voices be silenced?

The first thing to be pointed out is that the attacks on the film are led by those whose hypocrisy was exposed. Let us acknowledge that those exposed can’t be expected to take kindly to that. But the attacks are hardly limited to the leaders of the large organizations who come under criticism, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Josh Fox isn’t among those mentioned, but he nonetheless was so infuriated that he circulated a letter demanding the film be banned, sadly signed by several prominent environmentalists, including Naomi Klein (who really should know better) and Michael Mann (a promoter of nuclear energy, an industry that would not exist without massive subsidies).

Mr. Fox states, “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” That’s a whole lot of accusation. Let’s unpack it.

The film frontally attacks the fossil fuel industry throughout. To imply that it is somehow aligned with the fossil fuel industry is beyond laughable. The heart of the critique was that certain prominent environmentalists are too cozy with fossil fuel interests. Further, Mr. Gibbs doesn’t “disparage” or “attack” “important climate leaders,” he allows them to speak for themselves and thus reveal themselves.

I see absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gibbs forced Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, to repeatedly declare his enthusiastic support for biomass, which generates energy through massive burning of trees. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that chopping down forests isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable, given the immense scale of biomass plants. In the final credits, the film insinuates that Mr. McKibben changed his mind on biomass after the film was first shown. That is inaccurate as Mr. McKibben published an article titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea” in 2016. It should be acknowledged he did change his mind and the film should have reported that change. Nonetheless, there was plenty of data demonstrating how dangerous biomass is before his conversion — data that should have been known to him.

Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The Biofuelwatch report was published in 2012 and the Policy Integrity report was published in 2014, so claims of not knowing are disingenuous.

It is of course possible to aim at the wrong target. The pro-vegan film Cowspiracy, for example, consistently attacked environmental groups for not seeing animal agriculture as the solution to all problems, relentlessly mocked environmentalists for not agreeing 100 percent with its thesis and took industrial capitalism off the hook. That would be an example of an unfair hatchet job. Planet of the Humans, by contrast, aims its target at industrial capitalism and the fossil fuel industry.

Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?

Like it or not, there are liberal environmental groups that promote bad environmental practices and even partner with investment funds that heavily invest in fossil fuels. Incidentally, it isn’t until the one-hour mark in a film that lasts one hour and 40 minutes before it begins to criticize mainstream liberal organizations including the Sierra Club. And it is careful to show the large gap between rank-and-file members and those group’s leaderships. Anybody who has experience in the environmental movement can tell you about how grassroots members and local leaders are often well ahead of their national leaders. That is particularly true of the Sierra Club, in my own experience.

Perhaps the most over-the-top attack on the film was conjured by Eoin Higgins and published in Common Dreams and AlterNet. Mr. Higgins goes to the extreme of accusing Mr. Gibbs of “arguing for ecofascist solutions.” I suppose it is better not to dignify such nonsense. The “review,” alas, gets no better as it drones on. We can only hope Mr. Higgins did not hyperventilate while writing his screed. It does not appear he took the trouble to actually see the film nor to grasp the immense differences between socialism and fascism.

Mr. Higgins quotes an assortment of critics peddling similarly over-the-top attacks. One, Emily Atkin, is quoted as saying, “This movie repeatedly claims that humans are better off burning fossil fuels than using renewable energy.” Once again, the film’s critique is of organizations being too closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. A basic premise of the film is that large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels and especially wind-power towers and turbines, and they have to be replaced in short periods of times. The film also notes that because wind and solar are intermittent, and current battery-storage technology far from adequate, existing fossil fuel plants have to be kept online as backup sources. Power plants thus need to run continuously because you can’t switch them on and off at will. Basic science here.

Further, because most “renewable” energy is in the form of biomass, not only do you have greenhouse-gas emissions, you also lose the carbon sink of the destroyed forests, thereby constituting a double whammy. Note the effects of biomass discussed a few paragraphs earlier — if it is true that biomass is more polluting than fossil fuels, then why use it?

Mr. Higgins goes on to allege, “In a more disturbing move, Gibbs promotes population control as the best answer to the warming of the planet,” and then quotes another critic aligning Planet of the Humans with the odious far-right website Breitbart. Thanks to watching the film on YouTube, I could stop and start at will. I added up the entire total of time in which population was discussed. It is about one minute and 30 seconds. Three professors mentioning population are given space in this brief minute and a half, and none came anywhere near advocating any eugenic ideas. The first noted there are “too many human beings using too much too fast”; one said “we have to have our abilities to consume reined in”; and all three put their remarks in the context that humanity is consuming at an unsustainable rate.

That last point ought to be obvious, but evidently isn’t, at least to Mr. Higgins. So for his benefit, Global Footprint Network (which certainly appears to me to be an environmental organization) calculates that the world is consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — in other words, humanity is using natural resources 75 percent faster than they can be replenished. A figure that steadily increases. The advanced capitalist countries obviously consume at a more furious rate than the global average. That is, ahem, unsustainable. Basic mathematics informs us that either humanity learns to consume less or nature will force it on us.

Yet another “authority” is quoted by Mr. Higgins declaring, “The truth is, pinning our problems on population lets industrial capitalism off the hook.” But, once again, there was not one sentence asserting that, and the entire film was a massive indictment of capitalism. Particularly effective was a long sequence in which the film speeds up to dramatically demonstrate the massive industrial processes and heavy metals that are used to manufacture wind towers. There is an indictment of people like Mr. McKibben and organizations like the Sierra Club being far too cozy with capitalism. You really have to ask if any of these critics actually saw the film. Or perhaps they did, and seeing their magical belief that we can have business as usual exposed so throughly decided that attacking the film for things it never says would be their best response.

Is wanting a cleaner environment really “anti-working class”?

A similar line of specious attack has been launched by Leigh Phillips in Jacobin. Mr. Phillips, consistent with his belief that we can “take over the machine and run it rationally,” absurdly declares that Planet of the Humans is “anti-humanist” and “anti-working class.” I would think that desiring a clean environment would be good for working people, but perhaps Mr. Phillips has a different understanding than I. He writes, “Progress is a dangerous myth, the film argues; there are too many humans consuming too much stuff, so everyone in developed countries — including the working class — needs to consume less, while the planet as a whole must be depopulated down to a more sustainable number,” declaring such ideas “literally anti-progressive and anti-human.”

I suppose if the film actually argued what Mr. Phillips claims it does, he’d have a point. Unfortunately, as already demonstrated, the film at no point advocates forcibly reducing the population. It is necessary again to point out that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that capitalism can’t function without constant growth. There is no way to make the irrational rational.

Because he is a target of the film, it is only fair to note Mr. McKibben’s reaction. “A Youtube video emerged on Earth Day eve making charges about me and about 350.org — namely that I was a supporter of biomass energy, and that 350 and I were beholden to corporate funding,” he writes. “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry. … It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The film shows repeated public appearance where the 350.org leader extravagantly praises biomass. It also shows him acknowledging funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among other corporate sources, while mostly dodging a question on the source of 350.org’s funding. Are we supposed to ignore his own words? Among his appearances were sharing a stage with a Goldman Sachs executive who talked of organizing $40 trillion to $50 trillion in “green investments.” I trust the readers of this publication are quite familiar with the vampire squid and its touching interest in the betterment of humanity.

There are many other attacks on Planet of the Humans on the Internet, each claiming that the film is full of “errors” and “misinformation.” I decided to put that to the test by selecting at random two factual statements made by the film.

One was that solar (1.5%) and wind (3.1%) combined for only 4.6% of Germany’s energy consumption. In reviewing the latest figures, for 2018 as reported by the International Energy Agency, I found that the combined figure for solar and wind is slightly less than 5%. So this checks out. (Oil, natural gas and coal are by far the biggest energy sources in Germany despite its reputation as a renewable trendsetter.) The second was that solar and wind accounted for roughly one-quarter of global renewable energy; biomass accounted for nearly two-thirds. As of 2017, again the latest I could find, solar, wind and hydro accounted for 31% of world renewable energy — close to what the film reported. (The remaining 69% was biofuels and waste.) Mr. Gibbs seems to have done his homework.

The other consistent line of attack is that groups like the Sierra Club and advocates like Al Gore would never do anything questionable. The film both quotes from materials that the groups in question have published and from U.S. Securities and Exchange filings. Mr. McKibben personally and his 350.org organization recommended investing in the Green Century Funds. At the time of examination, the funds had 0.6 percent of its capital invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and far more in mining, oil and gas, McDonald’s, logging companies and BlackRock, a major investor in deforestation projects. The Sierra Club partnered with Aspiration, a so-called “green fund” that in fact invests in oil and gas companies, Monsanto and Halliburton.

Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?

Toward the end of the film, Mr. Gibbs says, “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” and concludes “We must take control of our environmental movement.” Once again, the filmmaker repeatedly gave space to rank-and-file members of the Sierra Club and 350.org who disagreed with their leaders’ approval of biomass and gave a platform to a series of grassroots activists fighting biomass and other destructive practices in their communities. So the over-the-top claims that the film was a broad attack on the environmental movement, and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry no less, is laughable. The target is the leadership of large organizations who are too cozy with corporate interests — that’s the critique that clearly hit home, as the intensity of the attacks demonstrate.

Or perhaps grassroots activists who don’t lead national organizations that prefer to “get along” with political insiders and corporate elites are not considered proper environmentalists?

To conclude, let’s briefly examine some of the issues surrounding renewable energy sources. (Readers wishing more detail can click on the links that will be supplied.) Even wind energy has environmental issues. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste.

How about sequestering carbon dioxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rests its belief that techno-fixes will save the day through “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS), the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. A Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”!

And electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity that powers them. If fossil fuels produce the electricity, then how green is it really? An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all the pollution a vehicle will ever produce comes before it hits the road.

Critics of Planet of the Humans do make one valid point — the film is too pessimistic about the likely improvements still to come in solar panels and other renewable sources. The film implies such technologies are hopeless. As a counter-argument, it is possible to get long-term energy from hydropower, a renewable not mentioned in the film. New York State gets 17 percent of its power from two hydroplants that have operated for 60 years and are maintained well enough by a state agency that they will supply energy for decades to come. So although these giant plants obviously used much energy to build, they are large ongoing net positives in terms of greenhouse gases.

Development of renewable energy sources is necessary to bring an end to fossil fuels. But only one part. Building solar panels and other renewable equipment to last much longer is another part. But there is no achieving sustainability without consuming less — or at least those of us in the advanced capitalist countries consuming less. That is the hard truth that must be faced. The liberal belief that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too, is a fantasy. There are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

COP25: Never have so many governments done so little for so many

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.

Casa de la Panaderia, Plaza Mayor, Madrid

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.

Fridays For Future demonstration in Madrid near the Congress of Deputies (photo by John Englart)

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.

Fridays For Future demonstration in Madrid (photo by John Englart)

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.

The realism and unrealism of the Green New Deals

A problem facing advocates of serious action to deter global warming is that the costs of not acting aren’t quantifiable and remain somewhat abstract. In contrast, calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels understandably leads to fears of job losses, especially since capitalism isn’t going to offer new employment for those displaced.

There will be costs with taking measures to do a portion of what needs to be done, never mind all that needs to be done. To deny this, as liberals frequently do, might backfire when it becomes apparent there won’t be a climatic free lunch. There are two counters to these future costs — first, the benefits, including new jobs, from the industries that will grow dramatically from a real effort to switch to renewable energy as part of a comprehensive tackling of global warming and, second, the massive costs that will come due from continuing business as usual. What will be the costs of a sea-level rise of, say, three meters, the disruption to agriculture and the associated mass migrations that would be triggered?

These costs would be catastrophic, totaling much more in the long run than the shorter-term costs of acting with seriousness.

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

With this context in mind, an analysis is in order of the so-called Green New Deal, both the Green Party’s original and the Democratic Party’s later watered-down version. First, this article will highlight some of the key points in both, then look at some of the critiques (including right-wing ones, since these get the lion’s share of coverage in the corporate media) and, finally, determine what conclusions might be drawn. Inevitably, discussion of economics — and the world economic system — can’t be avoided. Can there truly be a “green capitalism” whereby the same system that has brought humanity and the environment to an existential crisis will magically provide the solution? (I suppose the way that last question is framed previews the answer.)

In other words, can reforms within current parameters prove sufficient to be able to reverse the ongoing massive dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; reduce the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides; and enable a conversion to sustainable agricultural and environmental practices? Or is a new way of organizing the world’s economic activity an unavoidable necessity? To begin to answer these questions, we have to define what needs to be done.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal program

Regardless of our opinions of the Green Party of the United States, the party has produced an ambitious document, one worthy of serious discussion. (Full disclosure: I was once highly active in the party but withdrew because it became too frustrating to continually fight the party majority that had a liberal orientation little different from the Democratic Party; people active in it today tell me that party has since moved in a more socialist direction.) The party’s Green New Deal sets a goal of “a new, sustainable economy that is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible.”

In conjunction with the goal of sustainability is an “Economic Bill of Rights,” defined as the right to single-payer healthcare, a guaranteed job at a living wage, affordable housing and free college education. To achieve its goals, the Green New Deal calls for “a WWII-type mobilization to address the grave threat posed by climate change, transitioning our country to 100% clean energy by 2030.”

Given that humanity is inching closer to the point of no return — the atmosphere is more than halfway to the 2 degree C. global temperature rise from pre-industrial levels that is believed to be the limit before runaway change brings on catastrophic consequences and not far from the 1.5 degree mark that may be the more realistic limit — an accelerated timetable for a full shutdown of fossil-fuel consumption is unavoidably a part of any serious program to stop global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 percent of greenhouse gases derive from fossil fuels used for transportation and another 28 percent comes from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. (Apparently the Trump gang has not gotten around to censoring that report.)

“Bottle Buyology” at the Minnesota State Fair (photo by Tony Webster)

The authors of the Green New Deal certainly see massive benefits from their proposed program. For example, the party says it would “Create 20 million jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable (regenerative) agriculture, conservation and restoration of critical infrastructure, including ecosystems.” The party would “Ensure that any worker displaced by the shift away from fossil fuels will receive full income and benefits as they transition to alternative work.” That employment initiative would be conducted in the context of “energy democracy” — there would be “public, community and worker ownership of our energy system” with access to energy treated as a human right.

All fossil fuel production, and nuclear energy, would be phased out, a carbon tax imposed (but not defined) and a “greenhouse gas tax” would be imposed on polluters to compensate society for damage already caused.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal platform asserts that implementing the program would “revive the economy” and necessitate hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to military spending because there would be no longer a need to control foreign oil supplies and transportation. Moreover, “the Green New Deal largely pays for itself in healthcare savings from the prevention of fossil fuel-related diseases, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes and cancer.”

To help bring about these changes, the Green New Deal proposed to provide “grants and low-interest loans to grow green businesses and cooperatives, with an emphasis on small, locally based companies that keep the wealth created by local labor circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors.” Current subsidies for fossil fuels would be re-directed toward research efforts to further develop wind, solar and geothermal energy and sustainable environmental and agricultural practices. Natural gas, biomass and nuclear power are ruled out as not constituting clean energy.

Surely an ambitious plan. To the question of how realistic this program is we will return later in this article.

The Democratic Party’s Green New Deal program

For a comparison, let’s now turn to the Democratic Party’s version of a Green New Deal, specifically the plan introduced into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. This plan calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” and the creation of “millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.” This proposal also seeks to “promote justice and equity … and repair historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

To achieve these goals, the Democratic Green New Deal calls for “a 10-year national mobilization” that includes investing in community-defined projects to mitigate disasters related to global warming; rebuilding infrastructure; meeting 100 percent of U.S. energy needs through “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”; removing pollution from manufacturing “as much as is technically feasible”; overhauling agricultural and transportation practices; restoring natural ecosystems to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and restoring and protecting ecosystems through “locally appropriate and science-based projects.”

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

Rather than existing as a fully formed program with preconceived details, this Green New Deal would be “developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.” The investment that comes out of this program would be intended to ensure “the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital … technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”

The plan calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”; protecting the right of workers to organize; “strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors” and “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.” The plan also advocates for “high-quality health care,” affordable housing and “healthy and affordable food.”

This plan is laid out in the form of a resolution introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and into the Senate by Sen. Markey. Considering not only the extreme hostility to such ideas in the Republican Party, which continues to control the Senate, but also the Democratic Party leadership, the prospects for congressional adoption would appear to be nil. (In dismissing the Green New Deal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively said, “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”) Short-term politics aside, the same question as the original Green Party Green New Deal must be asked of the Democratic Party version: How realistic is it?

Koch brothers money helps fund opposition

Before we seriously tackle the contents of these plans, let’s take a quick survey of opposition to them, which naturally is fiercest from the Right and corporate interests with something to lose.

The Institute for Energy Research, for example, slams the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal as “misguided” because the original New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was intended to address the Great Depression, whereas today “we are not currently in the midst of an economic depression.” True enough that we not currently living through another Great Depression, but the economy — for working people — is bad enough. The author of the Institute’s “Flaws With a ‘Green New Deal’ ” diatribe attempts to back up its position by saying “Even textbook Keynesians” oppose running budget deficits at the present time. Evidently, the Institute considers “textbook Keynesians” the outermost fringe of what is imaginable.

The author goes on to claim that FDR’s New Deal actually made the economy worse, despite an accompanying table showing that unemployment fell from an inherited 25 percent to 9.9 percent in 1941. It is true that the New Deal didn’t bring an end to economic depression, but it did make a big difference, and not only for the social programs that were inaugurated. It was the mobilization to fight World War II that truly ended the Depression, but that effort required massive governmental spending and intervention in the economy — in other words, going well beyond the New Deal. The problem with the New Deal was that it didn’t go far enough or spend sufficiently. So the Institute’s right-wing folderol simply doesn’t withstand the most basic scrutiny.

The Institute disingenuously calls itself “impartial and unbiased” on its About web page, but also attributes to “free markets” all manner of progress. SourceWatch reveals that the Institute is founded by the Koch brothers, has a president who was formerly an executive with Enron and is tied to the Koch brothers’ infamous American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that literally writes extreme Right bills for state legislatures.

When you don’t have facts, make up your argument

Next up, we have similar extremist ideology masquerading as “science” from the Heritage Foundation. As with the Institute for Energy Research, this critique is aimed at the Democratic Party version. We get the flavor of the Heritage Foundation’s attack when it leads off with this statement: “[E]ach of these items is so wildly unrealistic that you have to wonder how familiar the authors are with life away from coastal urban centers.” Ah yes, only conservatives in the middle of the country can possibly possess good ideas.

Declaring that “a great deal of costly damage” would result were any of the ideas adopted, Heritage recoils in horror at the thought of more mass transit or electric motor vehicles. To buttress its ideologically driven point of view, Heritage first understates the mileage that can be driven by electric cars, then declares that an electric vehicle charging infrastructure “would necessitate having exponentially more charging stations than the current number of gas stations.”

Heritage claims that electric vehicles can only travel 90 to 125 miles, yet there are at least eight models that can travel at least 200 miles on a charge. Some of these models are very expensive and unaffordable for most people, but as technology improves, charge travel distances will lengthen and more models will become affordable. For those who do drive, how many gas stations do you pass before needing to fill the tank again? Dozens? Hundreds? Moreover, electric-vehicle recharging stations don’t need to have such a level of saturation because they are easily installed at homes and in business and apartment parking lots. Government agencies and public utilities are already executing plans and providing subsidies to encourage home and business-location chargers. So the idea that Heritage insinuates, that we’ll need a charging station on every other corner, doesn’t stand up to rational examination.

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)

Heritage also shrieks that the Green New Deal calls for an end to air travel, but the plan makes no such statement. In fact, as already noted, it is mostly a set of aspirations with little in the way of concrete proposals as to how to achieve its goals.

The Heritage Foundation of course is peddling far Right ideology. No surprise there, as its founders and funders are some of the most extreme billionaires, including Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife, and notorious operatives such as Paul Weyrich. Heritage strenuously opposes action to combat global warming, little surprise when some of Heritage’s funders, including the Koch brothers, have a vested interest in promoting fossil fuels. The foundation also takes tobacco-company money while opposing any legislation aimed at that industry.

The lack of specifics in the Democratic Green New Deal hasn’t prevented Republicans from issuing preposterous numbers for the supposed cost. Another propaganda mill, this one calling itself the American Action Forum, apparently using a random-number generator, alleged that the Green New Deal would cost between $53 trillion and $91 trillion from 2020 to 2029; Republicans have taken to parroting the uppermost figure as if it was real.

As one example of this legerdemain, the Forum insists that the Green New Deal’s call for high-quality health care to be provided to all United Statesians would cost $36 trillion for the decade of the 2020s. Never mind that lack of health care has a cost — such a concept is simply ignored — and that the U.S. healthcare system is by far the world’s most expensive. (My own calculations estimate that the U.S. spends an extra $1.4 trillion per year on health care than it would if it had universal coverage similar to peer countries.) It is precisely that the privatized U.S. health care system is designed to generate corporate profits rather than health care that it so expensive.

The American Action Forum is legally able to hide the identity of its donors due to tax-law loopholes, but spends millions of dollars to elect hard-line Republicans and is led by prominent Republican politicians and operatives. The Republican politicians citing this dubious source are in effect citing themselves — their mantra is “I say it’s true, so it must be true.”

Under capitalism, we’ll get more business as usual

One is tempted to call the Right-wing attacks comic relief, but unfortunately continuing business as usual, as the above organizations would like, is anything but funny given the seriousness of the challenge. And acknowledging that seriousness compels us to return to the question of feasibility within the current economic system. The Democratic Party version of the Green New Deal is aptly named because it doesn’t go beyond the reformism of the 1930s New Deal. The reforms the Democratic document calls for certainly would be welcome as vast improvements from what we have today. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that such a program could ever come close to being enacted by Democrats — most of the Democratic leadership is opposed to it, and the record of liberals folding as soon as a Republican attacks is too consistent.

A more fundamental problem is that the backers of the Democratic Green New Deal seem to assume that a program challenging corporate interests to such a serious degree can be fully implemented in the current U.S. political and economic system, and that corporate interests will simply sit back and allow such a program not only to be signed into law but to actually be implemented. A massive social movement, bringing together the widest possible array of organizations and resolute in using a multitude of tactics inside and outside the system, could bring about the proposed program, but there is not a word of public involvement in the Democratic program. It is all to be created by congressional action.

If there was a movement so massive and powerful that it forced the implementation of a Green New Deal, shouldn’t it bring about root-and-branch change? Why have such a movement be steered into propping up the capitalist system that brings so much misery to so many people? If it did simply reform capitalism, however welcome such reforms would be, inequality, imperialism, environmental destruction and all the rest of our present-day social ills would be back with us soon enough with the massive social energy that brought the reforms now dissipated.

The biggest problem with the Democratic version is the expectation that an ambitious program significantly expanding social programs, making huge changes to the economy and bringing the fossil fuel industry to heel can be accomplished without any political or economic system change. Other than a passing mention of “the public receiv[ing] appropriate ownership stakes,” there is an implied assumption that the goals will all be accomplished under capitalism and the current system of corporate rule. Capitalism will yet save us! Sorry, no. Not going to happen. Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future consequences of business as usual.

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its 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. An economy that must expand will do so. Introducing efficiencies can slow down the increase in energy consumption and resource depletion, but an ever expanding economy will ultimately use more energy, more resources. Switching to all renewable energy, although a necessity to reverse global warming, is insufficient by itself. Some forms of renewable energy are not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming, and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Bioenergy requires deforestation, removing carbon sinks, which is counterproductive to the goal of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and can be more polluting than fossil fuels. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. There is not a hint of any of this in the Democratic Green New Deal.

Business as usual will cost trillions of dollars

The Green Party’s Green New Deal at least acknowledges that system change is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. This platform also doesn’t offer ideas on how it might come to fruition, but at least there is an implicit nod to the need to transcend capitalism by calling for employment for all who are displaced by the phasing out of fossil fuels, by demanding energy production be put in public hands and by advocating for “a new, sustainable economy.” It also doesn’t shy away from the scale of what is needed, and directly connects the present energy policy with U.S. militarism.

What this program doesn’t do, however, is acknowledge the costs of a rapid transition from fossil fuels. In the mirror image of conservatives who see only costs, liberals and Greens see only benefits. Although not comparable to the cartoonishly absurd Right-wing claims of tens of trillions of dollars in costs, the idea of a cost-free transition strains credibility. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century has only encouraged the idea that “green capitalism” will somehow save the day. The Green version of the Green New Deal is considerably more ambitious than that of the newer Democratic version, and thus all the more out of reach within a capitalist framework.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal also rests on some not necessarily realistic assertions. The platform asserts that having no need to control oil means no more overseas military presence, but that is overly simplistic. Certainly securing oil is a driver of U.S. foreign policy, but hardly the only factor. The U.S. government seeks global dominance for its corporations, keeping the entire planet open for corporate plunder and smashing any and all attempts to escape the U.S. orbit or to challenge the domination of Global North corporations. It will take far more than reducing fossil fuel consumption to bring a halt to imperialism and the closing of 800 U.S. overseas military bases.

The platform then switches to a declaration that the savings from not having to treat diseases arising from fossil fuel use will alone pay for it. There are large savings to be had, but that this one item alone will somehow cover all the costs is unrealistic. In the long run, running an economy on the basis of human need rather than private profit and proving quality preventive health care to cut down on medical spending will be more rational and equitable then what now exists. But that such a transition will be without cost is offering platitudes that can’t be fulfilled. Better to be honest that there will be no cost-free utopia.

Again, none of this an argument against the most rapid possible transition to renewable energy nor that the massive economic changes needed shouldn’t be undertaken. Winning World War II required deficit spending well beyond anything previously seen, but what would the cost of a fascist victory been? Similarly, what would the cost of a rise of several meters in sea level, of massive disruption to weather patterns and agriculture, of hundreds of millions of forced migrations, of massive species extinctions?

Global warming already costs trillions of dollars

That the costs of business as usual can’t easily be quantified does not mean there are not attempts to do so. A 2018 paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change by four scientists led by climatologist Katharine Ricke of the University of California, San Diego, estimated that the social cost of carbon — the cumulative economic impact of global warming — amounts to a global total of more than $400 per ton. Based on 2017 carbon dioxide emissions, that is more than US$16 trillion!

The impact varies greatly on a country-by-country basis. Canada and Russia, as of last year, were gaining economic benefits of up to $10 per carbon dioxide ton, while India was already paying $86 per ton. (That is all the more unfair as India is estimated to be responsible for only a cumulative three percent of greenhouse-gas emissions since 1850.) This analysis is based on “a set of climate simulations, rather than a single model.” These costs are “ballpark figures” because of the uncertainty surrounding climate physics, emission trajectories and other factors, but there are additional factors, such as the impact of global warming on international trade and migration, that aren’t necessarily captured in this model.

The gross domestic product for the entire Earth was estimated at $80 trillion for 2017. Thus, if the above calculation is accurate, global warming is already costing humanity one-fifth of its productive output. And we’ve only begun to suffer the effects of the climate spiraling out of control. What will be the cost of, say, a three-meter rise in sea level? That would be more than sufficient to permanently place under water parts of many of the world’s biggest cities.

We are already paying high costs. The cost of ambient air pollution has been estimated at more than four millions deaths per year, and that might be a conservative estimate. An attempt by three economists associated with the International Monetary Fund calculated that worldwide subsidies for the fossil fuel industry is more than US$5 trillion per year when not only direct handouts and other visible monetary subsidies are accounted for, but also adding the environmental costs. Putting millions of people to work building renewable-energy infrastructure will boost the economy, as will ending the subsidies and reducing the health costs of fossil fuels. Those are real benefits. But shutting down entire industries and overhauling the world’s economic system will come at serious cost. It’s not realistic to pretend otherwise. Those of us in the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less, including using less energy. That, too, is inescapable and both Green New Deals fail to address that.

This is a debate that shouldn’t be reduced to a sterile “revolution or reform” opposition. We need all the reform we can achieve, right now. The balance, nonetheless, is clearly on the side of advocates who push for the fastest possible transition to a new economy, one not dependent on fossil fuels. An economy based on meeting human need and in harmony with the environment, not one made for private profit and that externalizes onto society environmental and other costs. The price of business as usual will be catastrophic environmental damage. Socialism or barbarism remain humanity’s future options.

World’s governments indulge in symbolism, not action, at COP24

The good news from the annual climate summit just concluded in Katowice, Poland, is that the world’s governments agreed on a “rulebook” intended to implement the Paris Accord, the 2015 agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the world is no closer to actually tackling global warming than before and the rulebook has little binding effect.

Because these annual meetings are more about symbolism than action, it is symbolic indeed that the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP 24, took place in Katowice, in Poland’s coal country. For added irony, the far-right Polish government announced the opening of a new coal mine days before COP24 opened, and Poland’s pavilion featured displays of everyday items such as walls and soap made out of coal.

Admittedly the bar is awfully low, but COP24 was an improvement over last year’s COP23 gathering in Bonn, Germany, when the world’s governments talked and concluded by announcing that they would talk some more. But there were some glowing press releases issued, in which participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk. The official COP23 web site declared that “we have done the job we came here to do, which is to advance the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement.” Evidently, talking about those guidelines was considered sufficient to “advance” the Paris Accord agreements.

3 maja street in Katowice (photo by Przykuta)

COP24’s contribution to advancing the Paris Accord was to agree to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. In other words, 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.

If you feel underwhelmed by all this, you shouldn’t feel bad.

It is understandable that participants would like to put a positive spin on the gathering, but COP24 president Michał Kurtyka was arguably crossing into the territory of unreality with his summation:

“[I]s impact on the world will be positive. Thanks to it, we have taken a big step towards achieving the ambitions set in the Paris Agreement. Ambitions thanks to which our children will look back at some point and consider that their parents made the right decisions in an important historical moment.”

A rise of 1.5 degrees is not as bad as 2, but still bad

More likely, our descendants will curse us for doing essentially nothing to combat global warming as they evacuate from flooded coastal cities and struggle to minimize large-scale agricultural disruptions. Each year that nothing concrete is done, the likelihood of catastrophic environmental damage increases. And there are not many years left before worst-case scenarios become inevitable. Just two months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the effects of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and that of 2 degrees warming. There is a significant difference between the expected results of 1.5 and 2 degrees, but the effects at 1.5 are nonetheless serious. The Earth has already warmed by 1 degree, and the IPCC report states that, if current patterns continue, 1.5-degree warming will be reached between 2030 and 2052.

Thus, catastrophic changes well beyond what we are already experiencing could begin to occur in as few as 12 years.

With a “high confidence,” the IPCC report states, “Some impacts may be long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems” if global warming is stabilized at 1.5 degrees in 2100. But the damage at 2 degrees will be significantly worse than if global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees. For example, “6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1°C, compared with 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C.” Further, global warming of 1.5 degrees is “expected to drive the loss of coastal resources and reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture” but such losses will be more severe at 2 degrees.

Mass species die-offs will be in our future, the report says:

“The level of ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 concentrations associated with global warming of 1.5°C is projected to amplify the adverse effects of warming, and even further at 2°C, impacting the growth, development, calcification, survival, and thus abundance of a broad range of species, for example, from algae to fish (high confidence).”

None of this is new; there have been ample studies of what runaway global warming will look like in coming decades. Reports in the past few years have found that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return and thus driving the planet “into a much less hospitable state”; that the contribution of melting ice sheets to global warming has been under-estimated, meaning that coastal flooding could happen sooner than expected; and that current and near-future global warming may be enough to cause a rise in sea levels of at least six meters.

As a reminder, the world’s governments agreed in Paris, at COP21, to set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees instead of the previously agreed 2 degrees. But 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 than 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.

Governments will have to report their emissions, eventually

So what was accomplished at COP24? All countries will be required to report their emissions — and progress in cutting them — every two years starting in 2024. The climate science web site CarbonBrief reported that the same benchmark (the latest IPCC emissions accounting guidance) “shall” be used by all governments when reporting progress toward meeting pledges, but the governments who negotiated this agreement left themselves a large loophole. Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change, told CarbonBrief:

“Under the Paris Agreement, emissions and proposed emissions reductions will be regularly compared, added up, and assessed in light of their adequacy for limiting warming well below 2C and 1.5C. This requires common rules for emissions reporting. But instead of requiring countries to adhere to scientifically robust methods, the final Katowice text now allows countries to use ‘nationally appropriate methodologies’, which, in all likelihood, will only be used to do some creative reporting and portray emissions of specific countries in a better light than they are. This is particularly an issue in the land-use sector.”

Regardless of future accuracy in reporting progress, an upgrading of the national commitments made at Paris was not forthcoming. As DeSmog noted, “In the final text agreed at Katowice, countries are not specifically asked to increase their ambitions but simply ‘invited’ to consider enhancing their pledges by 2020. The Paris Agreement will kick in that year, and countries are set to re-submit or update their climate pledges.”

National governments will be expected to boost their Paris Accord pledges in future years, but the first assessment of progress toward meeting those goals won’t be for another five years, reports Bob Henson of Weather Underground:

“Each country is being encouraged to ratchet up its Paris Agreement pledges every five years: in 2020, 2025, and beyond. Three years after each round of pledge revisions, starting in 2023, there will be a “global stocktake” session, where progress is juxtaposed against the latest science and the goal of achieving equity. This year’s meeting was a pre-stocktake of sorts, intended to hammer out the rules of how the pledges (or nationally determined contributions) will be verified and updated.”

There was at least some comic relief at COP24, predictably supplied by the Trump administration. Wells Griffith, Donald Trump’s adviser on energy and climate change, gave a presentation promoting increased use of fossil fuels, including coal, drawing animated protests and derisive laughter. Mr. Griffith quite literally ran, for a reported quarter-mile, from Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman as she attempted to question him, at one point claiming he was being “harassed” because he was being asked questions.

Such antics are not likely to be found amusing by our descendants should they have to live through the predicted scenarios. The changes that will be necessary to reverse global warming and stabilize the global climate will come at large expense, and require that those whose jobs depend on greenhouse-gas producing industries such as oil, gas and coal be provided with new jobs. Those in the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less, which could be accomplished in significant part through ending planned obsolescence and making products last two or three times longer. But business as usual is simply unsustainable.

As difficult as the cost that must be borne will be, the cost of doing nothing, as the world’s governments, beholden to corporate interests, are currently doing, is much greater.

If you incentivize pollution, you incentive death

The cost of pollution in human lives is often abstract due to the long-term nature of such deaths. The cost, however, is quite concrete: A new report estimates that 4.1 million people died as a result of ambient air pollution in 2016. And that’s a conservative estimate.

Globally, only five causes of death took a higher toll. (High blood pressure and smoking were the leading causes.)

That sobering report was issued this month by teams of researchers at the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Their report, State of Global Air 2018, sought to analyze worldwide air pollution exposures and health impacts; data for 2016 is used because that is the most recent data available. The report states:

“Worldwide exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections in 2016. PM2.5 was responsible for a substantially larger number of attributable deaths than other more well-known risk factors (such as alcohol use, physical inactivity, or high sodium intake) and for an equivalent number of attributable deaths as high cholesterol and high body mass index. Ozone, another important component of outdoor air pollution, whose levels are on the rise around the world, contributed to 234,000 [additional] deaths from chronic lung disease.”

“PM2.5” refers to particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. Because particle pollution can travel deep into the lungs and cause or aggravate heart and lung diseases, there are numerous health hazards associated with it, including reduced lung function, development of respiratory diseases in children, aggravation of existing lung diseases and premature death of people with lung diseases, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overview that the Trump administration appears to not have gotten around to censoring. Sources include incomplete combustion, automobile emissions, dust and industrial activity.

Smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (photo by Hafiz Noor Shams)

This pollution is a global problem — the State of Global Air 2018 report notes that 95 percent of the world’s population lives in areas exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air, and almost 60% live in areas that do not meet even the WHO’s least-stringent air quality target. That widespread pollution adds up. The report states that “In 2016, long-term exposure to ambient PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths and to a loss of 106 million [disability-adjusted life-years], making PM 2.5 exposure responsible for 7.5% of all global deaths and 4.4% of all global DALYs.” (The term “DALY” refers to losses of healthy life and are calculated as the sum of the years of life lost from a premature death and the years lived with disability.)

Different countries have different source characteristics. In China, for example, industrial coal, transportation and residential biomass burning are the major sources of deaths attributable to air pollution, accounting for more than 400,000 deaths. In India, residential biomass burning is by far the single biggest culprit, responsible for an estimated 268,000 deaths. China has recently begun to slowly reverse an earlier rise in air-pollution deaths, but these remain on the increase in India. The report estimates that India could avoid up to 1.2 million deaths in 2050 through instituting more aggressive measures rather than simply keeping current practices in place.

Further costs of pollution

The actual global total of 4.1 million might actually be an under-estimate. The report says its calculation does not include causes of death and disability for which evidence for a causal relationship with exposure to ambient PM2.5 is growing, such as the development of asthma in children, low birth weight and pre-term birth, type 2 diabetes and neurological disorders.

By no means does the State of Global Air 2018 report exhaust the literature of the toll of pollution. A United Nations study, Towards a Pollution-Free Planet (an advanced copy of which was posted in December 2017), cites the World Health Organization estimate that 12.6 million people died from environmental causes in 2012, or almost one-quarter of the world’s deaths that year. The cost of pollution is enormous, not only in lives shortened but in economic costs. The UN study says:

“In 2013, the global welfare costs associated with air pollution were estimated at some $5.11 trillion. The welfare costs from mortality relating to outdoor air pollution were estimated at $3 trillion; for indoor air pollution the figure was $2 trillion. … With regard to human health, the welfare cost of mortality from unsafe water is considerable in many developing countries. In 2004, losses stemming from inadequate water and sanitation services in developing countries were estimated at $260 billion per year – the equivalent of 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) for some poor countries.”

Although deaths from pollution are much higher in developing countries, the total is significant in the advanced capitalist countries. Earlier studies, for example, estimated 200,000 premature deaths in the United States annually and 29,000 per year in Britain.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

What is often missed in these sorts of reports is the externalization of costs. Industrial activity by large corporations is responsible for a significant amount of deadly pollution — but those corporate entities don’t bear the costs of that pollution. Rather, the costs are externalized onto society, leaving the profits to be grabbed by a handful of executives and speculators while the rest of the world must absorb the costs.

These economic costs are not insignificant. One corporate report, not intended for the public’s eyes, estimates that external costs total US$7.3 trillion per year, with greenhouse-gas emissions accounting for more than one-third of that total. The report, “Natural Capital at Risk–The Top 100 Externalities of Business,” finds that coal-fired power in East Asia and North America alone account for $770 billion per year in damage from the impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution. These social costs exceeded the value of these sectors’ production value. Those two were among the top three sources of damages, along with South American cattle ranching, estimated to cost $350 billion.

It’s awful for us but great for profits

Getting closer to assessing responsibility, a separate United Nations report found that the world’s 3,000 biggest corporations cause $2.2 trillion of environmental damage in 2008. That total represents one-third of those corporations’ profits. This report appears never to have been released, although The Guardian was able to report briefly on its contents in February 2010. The true environmental cost, however, might have been yet higher, The Guardian reported:

“The biggest single impact on the $2.2tn estimate, accounting for more than half of the total, was emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Other major ‘costs’ were local air pollution such as particulates, and the damage caused by the over-use and pollution of freshwater.”

All the more absurd then, that fossil fuels are subsidized to enormous extents — $5.6 trillion per year. That, unfortunately, is not a misprint. That total comes from calculating not only the huge direct government subsidies and tax breaks provided to fossil-fuel companies, but the cost of environmental damages borne by the public rather than the corporations themselves. The subsidized cost of air pollution and global warming combined account for two-thirds of the $5.6 trillion total, according to the researchers who prepared the working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?.”

Although some of these reports, by implication, hint at the corporate responsibility for these massive costs, none dare to address the system that encourages such waste, instead offering boilerplate advice that humanity pollute less. The State of Global Air 2018 report discussed above, for example, concludes with a recommendation that “decision-makers” should be engaged in “identifying and taking action to control the major sources that contribute to them” and see to it that less coal is burned. The United Nations report Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, also discussed above, suggests a “framework for action” that is “founded on strong science to ensure that burdens and negative effects are not simply shifted from one area to another.”

There is nothing wrong with such suggestions, but if the source of the problem is never mentioned, how is a solution to be found? The massive environmental problems the Earth faces are not some deus ex machina or a natural variable such as ocean tides. They have concrete sources, rooted in the global economic system. Capitalism requires constant growth for which all incentives are for planned obsolescence, more growth, more industry and more pollution. That pollution in turn is mostly the result of activity by large corporations that are unaccountable and thus able to foist the costs of their activities onto society.

Once again, it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. The current global rate of consumption is 1.7 Earths for the provision of resources and the absorption of waste. It is impossible to indefinitely consume more than can be replenished, nor can rational and sustainable consumption and resource-use patterns be maintained in a system in which prices, taxation and incentives are so badly out of alignment with the environment. Our future ability to prosper can only be based on a steady-state economy that provides for need rather that private wealth accumulation, an impossibility under a system based on relentless competition.

Climate summit’s solution to global warming: More talking

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.

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

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.”

Atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 800,000 years (graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego)

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.”

Average yearly global temperatures compared to the 20th century average (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental information)

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.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

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.

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.