Banks fueling global warming is business as usual

The gap between what needs to be done to save the Earth from the environmental disaster of unchecked global warming and what is actually being done continues to widen. Yet another exemplar of this gap is the funding practices of the world’s biggest banks.

Capitalists not concerning themselves with small things like the future ability of the planet to remain livable is nothing new, or we wouldn’t be in our present predicament. But a new report from seven environmental organizations finds that 60 of the world’s biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Accord was signed in 2015.

Our descendants, should they be faced with a chaotic climate, massive agricultural disruptions, mass extinctions on land and in the sea, drowned coastal cities and desertification — as they will be should present-day business as usual continue — are not likely to believe that their ruined world will be a fair tradeoff for a handful of industrialists and financiers of the past getting obscenely rich.

Can curses be made retroactive? Perhaps not. But perhaps a worldwide environmental movement can grow sufficiently large and militant to force the necessary changes. There are many out there trying to organize and raise attention — particularly young people, because they will be around long enough to potentially see today’s dire predictions become tomorrow’s reality — but perhaps global warming remains an abstract in too many minds. Or perhaps the daunting challenge of transcending capitalism, without which it is essentially impossible to reverse global warming, is too difficult a challenge. Throwing up our hands in despair would be easier, but if we wish our descendants (or people already alive) to inherit a living world, activism on a world scale is essential.

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

What words should we use to describe an economic system under which it is profitable for a handful of powerful people to profit from the destruction of the environment, and this behavior is richly rewarded?

What words should we use to describe an economic system in which, despite overwhelming evidence of the suicidal course that system is leading humanity, is nonetheless heading straight for global calamity?

What words should we use to those who profit enormously from all this, and why do they have such enormous sums of money to be able to force a continuation of this suicidal course? None of you reading these words voted for this, and none of you can vote to put an end to this. Economic decisions are completely out of the hands of working people; current capitalist ideology has evolved to the point where it is supposed to be unthinkable that economic decisions could be subject to democratic processes. Yet more proof that without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. A lesson capitalism imposes daily.

Nice words for the environment, gigantic sums of money for fossil fuels

The aforementioned exemplar, a report titled “Banking on Climate Chaos: Financial Fuel Report 2022,” sponsored by Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network and four other organizations, “finds that even in a year where net-zero commitments were all the rage, the financial sector continued its business-as-usual driving of climate chaos.” Banks are investing in fossil fuels at levels even higher than in 2016, the year after the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, when the world’s governments agreed to the goal of holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial level. Of the $4.6 trillion invested by 60 of the world’s biggest banks since the Paris agreement, $742 billion was invested in the industry in 2021 alone.

These banks come from countries around the world, but four United States-based banks were the worst offenders, the report said. “Overall fossil fuel financing remains dominated by four U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America — who together account for one quarter of all fossil fuel financing identified over the last six years,” it said. “RBC is Canada’s worst banker of fossil fuels, with Barclays as the worst in Europe and MUFG as the worst in Japan.” Three Canadian banks — RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), Scotiabank and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) — are among the top dozen in the world for financing fossil fuels.

Even more alarmingly, Royal Bank of Canada and TD have been the “leaders” in a grotesque expansion of tar sands financing — $23 billion was invested in tar sands production in 2021, a 51 percent increase from 2020. Those two Canadian banks combined doubled their funding for tar sands in 2021 compared to 2016. Even more money was poured into fracking. Last year alone, $62 billion was poured into fracking. Wells Fargo more than doubled its fracking investments to $8 billion in 2021. Since the Paris Climate Accord was signed, four U.S. banks are far and away the biggest culprits in fracking — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.

Graphics via Banking on Climate Chaos report

Yes, the world’s governments are hypocritical in signing agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with no enforcement mechanisms and are far from meeting their announced goals. But that certainly is no reason to excuse the financial industry for its significant role in ensuring that more greenhouse gases than ever are thrown into the atmosphere. Or bank hypocrisy. Take London-based Barclays, Europe’s biggest banking contributor to fossil fuel production and the world’s fifth-largest investor in fracking, trailing only the four U.S. banks mentioned just above.

What are we to make of Barclay’s pronouncement, right on its website home page, proclaiming that “Barclays gives shareholders a ‘Say on Climate.’ ” The bank says it will give shareholders “an opportunity to vote on its climate strategy, targets and progress” at its 2022 annual general meeting. Barclays Chairman Nigel Higgins, in a slick pamphlet, claims the bank aims to be “net zero” by 2050. It would seem to be heading in the opposite direction, unless the intention is to pour billions of pounds into fossil fuels until 2049, then magically stop. If the situation weren’t so serious, we could laugh at the chairman’s assertion that “We believe that our original championing of net zero and Paris alignment has made a difference in banking.” If hot air could displace carbon dioxide, I suppose it would make a difference.

The slick pamphlet, 36 pages long, is full of aspirational goals and even goes so far as to proclaim itself a founding member of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, “part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.” How lovely. The result of last year’s Glasgow climate summit was to continue the tradition of “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” while making commitments that ensure global temperatures will soar past 2 degrees C. As for Barclay’s, a reader searches in vain for any mention of what shareholders will be asked to vote on. Those affected by fossil fuel production won’t be asked, of course.

If only hot air could be tapped as an energy source

The intent here isn’t to single out Barclays. Rather, this sort of corporate greenwashing is all too typical. The world’s biggest funder of fossil fuel projects, JPMorgan Chase, for example, claims that it has a “commitment to align key sectors of our financing portfolio with the goals of the Paris Agreement” and “we are measuring the emissions of our clients in key sectors of our financing portfolio.” It would seem there are plenty of greenhouse-gas emissions to measure. But are we supposed to be fooled by this folderol?

Similarly, Royal Bank of Canada, the largest non-U.S. funder of fossil fuels and world’s fifth largest overall funder, says with a straight face that is helping clients reach net-zero goals and is “Setting the standard for best-in-class governance, including through our Climate Strategy & Governance group.” We’d hate to see what a lower standard might look like given the $201 billion it invested in fossil fuels from 2016 to 2021, with 2021’s total double that of 2020.

Although paling in comparison to the US$4.6 trillion the biggest banks have ladled out to the fossil fuel industry over the past five years, including $742 billion in 2021, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have done their part. The World Bank, funded by the world’s governments, in particular those of the Global North, has provided tens of billions of dollars for fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, reports Urgewald, a non-profit environmental and human rights organization based in Germany. This money includes $12 billion in direct project finance in over 35 countries; as much as $20 billion annually given as government budget support, including for coal projects; and billions more for infrastructure projects that enabled new coal-fired plants that would not have been built otherwise.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), notorious for imposing extreme austerity on peoples around the world as the price for loans, sometimes imposes additional conditions mandating they “roll out the red carpet for the fossil fuel industry,” reports the U.S.-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth. An FOE report found that:

“Aside from the austerity measures it is so well known for, the IMF has been found to attach conditions in its lending to a number of countries that support new tax breaks for Big Oil. One recent study found that IMF loan programs supported new producer subsidies for coal and gas in Mozambique and Mongolia. The Fund also enabled new legislation in these countries to facilitate public finance of fossil fuel projects. As more countries turn to the IMF for help in coping with COVID-19, it is imperative the IMF does not further entrench fossil fuel dependency around the world. But a recent analysis has found that the IMF’s COVID-19 era loans failed to boost green recovery policies. Another study found that most Covid-19 era loans by the IMF call for austerity measures to be implemented once the pandemic crisis subsides, limiting the resources that countries will have to spend on a just and green recovery.”

Nor can the massive industry subsidies be forgotten. A paper prepared in 2015 by, ironically, four IMF economists, found that subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaled an astounding $5.6 trillion for 2014. This total included environmental damages, including air pollution, in addition to direct corporate subsidies, below-cost consumer pricing and foregone taxes. No, the IMF was not suddenly questioning capitalism, nor did this report, carefully noting that it did not represent the views of the IMF, devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such disastrous outcomes. A more recent IMF study found that fossil fuel subsidies have increased to $5.9 trillion, of which 92 percent arose from undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes.

Perhaps those responsible for IMF lending practices don’t read their own organization’s papers (or, if they do, ignore them when they contradict the IMF’s mission of enriching capitalists and immiserating working people). Government officials don’t pay attention to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports detailing the dire state of the climate. And oil and gas executives laugh at what they get away with and continue to fund “think tanks” that pump out a steady stream of global warming denial. Canada, during the Stephen Harper régime, went so far as to invent the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” equating such a stance with terrorism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police added to this criminalization of advocating for clean air and water by challenging the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. The basis on which a police force can make such a declaration is unclear.

Capitalism can’t be anything other than what it is

Capitalist governments, not only those countries like Canada and Australia that are dependent on energy and/or mining exports, are beholden to not only the industrialists and financiers who are the real rulers of the world but to the ever intensifying competitive pressures of capitalism, from which industrialists and financiers are not exempt. The controllers of corporations routinely threaten to move elsewhere if political office holders don’t do as corporate executives demand, and the decisions of those executives are not reviewable no matter the effect on the local area.

For corporate executives and the speculators whom they in turn must indulge, maintaining profits means cutting costs (in the first place, the cost of labor), taking bigger shares of existing markets, forcing open new markets and developing new ways of achieving these goals. An enterprise that doesn’t do these gets run out of business by enterprises that do. Larger enterprises, those big enough to be listed on stock markets, have to increase profits, not maintain them, piling on still more pressure — not only from the competition, but from the financial industry, which holds a whip over the producers and distributors of tangible goods and services. A company that merely has steady profits, no matter how high, will be punished by financial speculators because the stock price won’t rise. Stock prices are bets and claims on future profits, and finance capital is relentless in expecting higher stock prices. A corporate executive team that doesn’t deliver will be forced out and replaced by another team that will do as financiers demand.

A corporation can achieve the necessary profits by reducing wages, through either layoffs or moving production to low-wage locations with few regulations. Corporate globalization is due to precisely that. Corporations can also buy machinery so that they can employ less workers; they are doubly incentivized to do this because the machines can be depreciated, lowering their taxes. As more people are put out of work, faster overall economic growth is needed just to maintain existing employment; thus the long-term tendency of more unemployment and lower wages as more people compete for fewer jobs. As industries in national economies become consolidated in an oligarchy of the handful of giant corporations who survived national competition, the route to growth is to expand elsewhere. As the winners in other countries undergo the same process, the relentless competition, now on a planetary scale, winnows these national winners into a small number of global winners.

And when one competitor gives itself a boost to profits (including by finding the country with the lowest wages), the other competitors have to do the same to stay in business. Profits margins decline as the initial boost is eroded by competitors doing the same; and the next round of “innovation” — finding another country with yet lower wages, more layoffs, work speedups, exemptions from environmental rules, pressure on governments to reduce taxes and eliminate tariffs, and inducing governments to enact draconian “free trade” agreements elevating multinational capital above governments — touches off another round of cost cutting and doing whatever possible to boost profits. This is a cycle that has no end under capitalism.

As this mad, endless growth continues, more must be produced, more must be transported, new sources of energy and raw materials must be exploited and more pollution must be dumped into the environment with no cost to the corporate polluter. More carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases will be thrown into the atmosphere as a direct result of this growth and frenzied activity. Thanks to the massive capital accumulated by the winners of capitalist competition, industrialists and financiers can spend gigantic sums of money spreading propaganda through a network of institutions, bend school and university curricula to their interests, own and control the mass media and buy the political system.

Growth for growth’s sake, and without controls — capitalism is a cancer. A system that nobody controls nor can anybody control it. A system, however, that runs on its own momentum and can’t be anything other than what it is. That we can somehow get control of the machine and make it do good is worse than an illusion.

The future has no value in capitalist economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A May 2009 Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

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

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capitalists and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.”

Every incentive is for more

Lest we doubt that orthodox economists are moving down a down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value, recall the infamous memo of Lawrence Summers, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

That pathological institution is controlled by, and the wealth produced for, a tiny percentage of people. We can call them the one percent (using the language of Occupy Wall Street), the bourgeoisie (using classical terminology), or industrialists and financiers (using broad labels). Their towering piles of money, hidden away in tax havens and secret bank accounts, are directly built on the backs, the sweat and labor, of their employees. This would be the case even without the added bonus of corporate personhood. Yet no matter how successful today, corporations must expand and be ruthless in beating the competition on pain of going under tomorrow. Every incentive is for more growth, more production, more consumption. Nobody, not even the biggest or most powerful capitalist, has the ability to stop or control it. Even capitalists ride the tiger, although of course they have vastly better ability to manage the vicissitudes of capitalist competition than do working people.

Capitalism is a system that is built, and functions, to generate profit, not to meet needs. If you doubt that, then why are extraordinary amounts of money spent on advertising to get us to buy what we don’t need? If global warming is to be reversed, a rational economic system based on human need, not on private profit, is what is needed. Cooperation for the common good, not competition for the profit of a few at any cost. Is corporate profit really worth the destruction of Earth’s livability?

Another global warming worry: Parts of Earth could become uninhabitable

When we think of the coming disasters of global warming, rising sea levels, disruptions to agriculture and disappearing species come readily to mind. We don’t necessarily think of the livability of the Earth’s surface. But if global warming continues to worsen — and every indication is that will be so — there will be places on Earth that could become uninhabitable.

Uninhabitable in the literal meaning of human beings not being able to survive there.

Such places could come into existence during this century, and perhaps sooner than even climate scientists currently fear, given that lethal combinations of heat and humidity have started to occur for brief periods of time. We are not talking about thinly populated or uninhabited desert locations. We are talking here of cities where tens and hundreds of thousands of people currently live.

Yes, one more reason for humanity to tackle global warming.

To understand why survivability could become impossible in small geographic regions in the foreseeable future and, potentially, much larger regions in the more distant future should current trends in global warming continue, we need to turn to an obscure meteorological measurement known as the “wet-bulb temperature.” This is different from the common air temperature, nor is it the same as the various versions of a “heat index” that provide a “feel like” temperature.

Dawes Glacier at the head of Endicott Arm in Alaska (photo by Sean White)

The wet-bulb temperature is a representation of heat and humidity that measures the impact on the ability of human bodies to cool. A discussion of it by the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains it this way:

“It is so named because it is calculated by wrapping the bulb of a thermometer in a wet cloth. In low humidity, water will evaporate from the cloth, carrying away heat and cooling the thermometer in the same way sweat cools the human body. In these conditions, the wet-bulb temperature will be lower than the air temperature. In high humidity — when the air is more saturated with water vapor — the water cannot evaporate as easily so the cloth stays hot. If the wet cloth cannot cool below the air temperature, neither can human skin.”

Because human skin must be cooler than the body’s core in order for metabolic heat to be conducted to the skin, human skin temperature is strongly regulated at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus a wet-bulb temperature at that level, should it be sustained, represents the upper limit of what a healthy human being can endure without dying from overheating. It is generally believed that six hours in such conditions, even with steadily drinking fluids and sitting in shade, would be fatal for even the healthiest person, and a sustained wet-bulb temperature a couple of degrees lower would be fatal for many, perhaps most, people.

Simply put, at 35 C/95 F, sweat would not evaporate and our bodies would not be able to regulate our internal temperature.

“When wet-bulb temperatures are extremely high, there is so much moisture in the air that sweating becomes ineffective at removing the body’s excess heat, like what happens in a steam room,” said Colin Raymond, the lead author of a 2020 study on the future habitability of the climate, in an interview published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “At some point, perhaps after six or more hours, this will lead to organ failure and death in the absence of access to artificial cooling.”

It’s the heat and the humidity

Can a combination of heat and humidity become so intense that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees C (95 degrees F) — the point of effective universal lethality — be reached? Such levels have already been reached in a handful of places, albeit for only one or two hours. Wet-bulb temperatures approaching that lethal level are becoming more common — more than 250 occurrences of 33 degrees C (91 degrees F) have been recorded around the world since 1979.

But such high levels don’t have to be reached for death to occur. “Even at lower wet-bulb temperatures, like 79°F (26°C), those with pre-existing health conditions (like respiratory, cardiovascular, and renal disease), the elderly, as well as those performing strenuous outdoor labor and athletic activities, are at a high risk,” said Radley Horton, a co-author with Dr. Raymond of a 2020 academic study published in Science Advances that examined how high wet-bulb temperatures might get. The 2003 European heat wave caused more than 50,000 deaths at wet-bulb temperatures close to 26 degrees C.

The paper, authored by Dr. Raymond of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Horton of Columbia University and Tom Matthews of Loughborough University, found that “Climate models project the first 35°C [wet-bulb temperature] occurrences by the mid-21st century. However, a comprehensive evaluation of weather station data shows that some coastal subtropical locations have already reported a [wet-bulb temperature] of 35°C and that extreme humid heat overall has more than doubled in frequency since 1979.”

The three climate scientists believe that, under the “business-as-usual RCP8.5 emissions scenario” (a worst-case model in which fossil fuel use continues to increase in a world with ongoing high emissions), wet-bulb temperatures could regularly exceed 35 degrees C in parts of South Asia and the Middle East by the third quarter of the 21st century. They cite three other studies to back up this prediction. They write:

“Our findings indicate that reported occurrences of extreme [wet-bulb temperatures] have increased rapidly at weather stations and in reanalysis data over the last four decades and that parts of the subtropics are very close to the 35°C survivability limit, which has likely already been reached over both sea and land. These trends highlight the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the global warming to date. At the spatial scale of reanalysis, we project that [wet-bulb temperatures] will regularly exceed 35°C at land grid points with less than 2.5°C of [global] warming since preindustrial—a level that may be reached in the next several decades. According to our weather station analysis, emphasizing land grid points underplays the true risks of extreme [wet-bulb temperatures] along coastlines, which tends to occur when marine air masses are advected even slightly onshore. The southern Persian Gulf shoreline and northern South Asia are home to millions of people, situating them on the front lines of exposure to [wet-bulb temperatures] extremes at the edge of and outside the range of natural variability in which our physiology evolved.”

The limits to the human ability to withstand heat stress

A 2010 study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in 2010 by climate scientists Steven C. Sherwood and Matthew Huber warned that the areas that may someday be subject to wet-bulb temperatures are currently inhabited by billions of people, in a worst-case scenario. Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Huber were writing before the Paris Climate Accord, and although the Accord remains inadequate to constrain global warming to 2 degrees C, much less the pact’s 1.5 C goal, it renders the worst-case scenarios less likely. But not impossible, given that a global temperature rise of more than 2 C would set off a cascade of events and feedback loops that are not possible to reasonably forecast.

Even if now somewhat less of a possibility than at the time of their writing, the potential disaster sketched out by Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Huber is frightening. Noting that “heat stress imposes a robust upper limit to adaptation,” they wrote:

“[E]xcedence of 35 °C … would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11–12 °C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are possible from fossil fuel burning. One implication is that recent estimates of the costs of unmitigated climate change are too low unless the range of possible warming can somehow be narrowed. … If warmings of 10 °C were really to occur in the next three centuries, the area of land likely rendered uninhabitable by heat stress would dwarf that affected by rising sea level. Heat stress thus deserves more attention as a climate-change impact.”

Adding together the Paris Climate Accord goals, if fully implemented, and the efforts by institutions around the world to reduce carbon footprints, it might appear that humanity will avoid the worst-case scenarios. With further effort, those scenarios can be avoided. Nonetheless, it is far too early to breathe a sigh of relief. The emergence of large areas of Earth’s surface that become uninhabitable remains a possibility. The PNAS study said:

“Warming will not stop in 2100 if emissions continue. Each doubling of carbon dioxide is expected to produce 1.9–4.5 °C of warming at equilibrium, but this is poorly constrained on the high side and according to one new estimate has a 5% chance of exceeding 7.1 °C per doubling. Because combustion of all available fossil fuels could produce 2.75 doublings of CO2 by 2300, even a 4.5 °C sensitivity could eventually produce 12 °C of warming. Degassing of various natural stores of methane and/or CO2 in a warmer climate could increase warming further. Thus while central estimates of business-as-usual warming by 2100 are 3–4 °C, eventual warmings of 10 °C are quite feasible and even 20 °C is theoretically possible.”

Record heat around the world

The record heat reported around the world in recent months, even if not yet deadly in the absence of sufficiently high humidity, portends trouble. On January 13, the highest temperature ever recorded in the ocean-dominated Southern Hemisphere was reached in Onslow, Western Australia, at 50.7 degrees C (123.3 F). Three stations in Western Australia exceeded 50 degrees C that day; before that week, the entire nation of Australia had recorded only four 50 degree C days in recorded history, according to the Eye on the Storm blog. That same week, multiple stations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay neared or beat their all-time high temperatures.

The summer 2021 heat wave in British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon is said by some climate scientists to have been without precedent in meteorological records. The village of Lytton, British Columbia, set an all-time heat record for all of Canada three days in a row and then was destroyed by a wildfire on the fourth day. Portland set its all-time high temperature three days in a row. Seattle reached an all-time high on consecutive days and broke 100 degrees F (37.8 C) three days in a row; there had only been two 100-degree days in its history prior.

Lytton, British Columbia, before the wildfire (screen grab from Google maps)

In his research, Bob Henson, a meteorologist then writing for Weather Underground, reported that 14 examples of 35 degree C wet-bulb readings that have already occurred since 1987 in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Ten of these have occurred since 2000. Six of the 14 occurrences were in one city, Jacobabad, Pakistan; five of these since 2005. Separately, my own study of an interactive map provided by the Columbia University Climate School found six locations where a 35 C/95 F wet-bulb reading had been recorded on at least one occasion. These are Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces in Pakistan (specific cities not given, but Jacobabad is in Sindh); Hisar, India; Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Ras Al Khaimai, United Arab Emirates; and Yannarie, Western Australia.

There are locations in North America that have approached that level — Palm Springs, California, and multiple locations in Mexico along the Gulf of California have recorded wet-bulb readings of 33 C/91.4 F.

To give an idea of what conditions would achieve a 35 C/95 F wet bulb temperature, these combinations would be required:
• 105 F (40.6 C) & 67% humidity
• 110 F (43.3 C) & 56% humidity
• 115 F (46.1 C) & 46% humidity

Alarm bells continue to get louder, if we want to hear

Unfortunately, the possibility of future areas of uninhabitability isn’t an abstraction or alarmist. Even if all post-Paris promises made at the yearly global climate summits, including last November’s in Glasgow, were fulfilled, global warming would almost certainly go beyond 2 degrees C, and as we have been forced to repeatedly note, there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure these pledges are met. Following the Glasgow summit (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP26), Climate Action Tracker reported that full implementation of the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees by 2100. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees by 2100.

Not that any of this is somehow unknown. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summarizing the knowledge of the world’s climate scientists, issued last summer, states, “many of the changes observed since the 1950s are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Updated paleoclimate evidence strengthens this assessment; over the past several decades, key indicators of the climate system are increasingly at levels unseen in centuries to millennia and are changing at rates unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.”

The latest report from IPCC climate scientists, released to the public on February 27, said there is a “very high confidence” that global warming of 1.5 degrees C in the near term “would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.” For the mid to long term (2041 to 2100), there is “high confidence” that “climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems” and “the magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions.”

There are plenty of other warnings out there. For example, 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.

Lurking in the background, and not often something that many wish to notice, is the role our world economic system plays in all this. Economic incentives under capitalism are for producing and consuming more, and capitalism can’t function without growth. As has been said so many times, you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and even if taking resources from the rest of the solar system were to become financially viable — something unlikely to happen anytime soon no matter how much we might enjoy watching Star Trek — the solar system is finite as well. We can create a sustainable world economy and society, or nature will impose it on us. And the harshness of the latter will only be magnified by the vast number of refugees that runaway global warming will surely impose. We are part of nature, whether or not we wish to acknowledge that.

COP26: What you’d expect when oil companies are in and environmentalists are out

The annual get-together of the world’s governments, where in most years they express concern about global warming and announce they will continue to talk about it, was not quite the usual washout this year, as small progress was made, at least theoretically. But even if this year’s promises come to fruition, the new round of pledges fall well short of what is needed.

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP26, concluded its two weeks in Glasgow with congratulations all around for themselves by government participants, as is traditionally the case. If you were to judge by the participants’ pronouncement, you’d think the environment is on the verge of being saved.

For example, the official communiqué issued by the conference loftily declared, “COP26 has today concluded in Glasgow with nearly 200 countries agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement.” To be fair, there was more acknowledgment that more work needs to be done than is customary, as the communiqué also said, “The Glasgow Climate Pact, combined with increased ambition and action from countries, means that 1.5C remains in sight, but it will only be delivered with concerted and immediate global efforts.”

Glasgow at night (photo by Jcdro16)

But are those very much necessary “concerted and immediate global efforts” going to be undertaken? Ah, details. Another sentence in the communiqué declared, “All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in 2022. This will be combined with a yearly political roundtable to consider a global progress report and a Leaders summit in 2023.” We haven’t, alas, dispensed with the “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” folderol that has been traditionally offered in lieu of sufficient action.

Consider the most recent conference results. COP25, two years ago in Madrid, ended with a statement that the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” but limited its action to announcing two more years of roundtables; COP24, which featured the host Polish government promoting coal, ended in an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals that also have no enforcement mechanism; and COP23 in Bonn ended with a promise that people will get together and talk some more.

They’re “concerned” but not concerned enough to do much about it

It is only proper to acknowledge when progress, however meager, is made, although the bar set by recent conferences is woefully low. Congratulations don’t seem to be in order here. The one tangible accomplishment is that many of the governments representing the world’s biggest contributors to global warming did agree to strengthen their goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the new commitments remain well short of meeting stated goals. The worse news is that the commitments still have no enforcement mechanisms. Peer pressure appears to remain the preferred methodology, which thus far has not imbued the world’s environmentalists with confidence. For sound reasons.

For example, an effort to have the COP26 negotiators agree to a “phase out” of coal was watered down to a “phase down,” a vague formulation with no specific meaning, and financial transfers from industrialized countries to underdeveloped countries most at risk (which are often the least culpable) have been below what has been promised and well less than what would be sufficient to mitigate damages. Mary Robinson, the former United Nations commissioner for human rights, wrote, “This represents a failure of leadership and a failure of diplomacy. World leaders must be held accountable for the climate disaster playing out on their watch. It is time to call out those who have obstructed the negotiations in Glasgow, and those who continue to downplay the climate emergency.”

Marchers for climate justice in Tanzania.

That would be difficult to argue against, although moral arguments have had limited effect thus far. Unfortunately, the final text from COP26 is full of the “concerns” and “notes” that past conferences have featured. For example, the final text states that it “Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” Furthermore, the text “Urges Parties that have not yet communicated new or updated nationally determined contributions to do so as soon as possible” and “Acknowledges the importance of coherent action to respond to the scale of needs caused by the adverse impacts of climate change.”

That will show the atmosphere!

The context here is 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 Age average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although no corresponding pledges were made to reach either goal. Following COP25 two years ago (COP26 was postponed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), the pledges then in existence by the world’s governments, were they honored in full, would have allowed global warming to reach 3 degrees, a catastrophic result. This was the conference in which the world’s governments were to have committed themselves to reach the Paris Climate Summit goal.

Temperature goal remains on paper, not in real world

What was actually achieved with the latest round of promises? Climate Action Tracker reports that 123 countries and the European Union submitted new NDC (nationally determined contributions) targets, although a dozen did not strengthen their commitments, a list that includes Australia, Brazil and Russia, each among the world’s biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. An analysis by the Tracker, a collaboration between Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, has found that were there to be full implementation of submitted and binding long-term targets and 2030 targets, the world’s temperature would increase by 1.7 to 2.6 degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age average. That is well above the 1.5-degree goal.

Full implementation of just the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees. The report concludes, “It is clear there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90% of global emissions.” Furthermore:

“Under current policies, we estimate end-of-century warming to be 2.7°C. While this temperature estimate has fallen since our September 2020 assessment, major new policy developments are not the driving factor. We need to see a profound effort in all sectors, in this decade, to decarbonise the world to be in line with 1.5°C. Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

The climate science news site Carbon Brief is not more optimistic. Although dismissing critics who say nothing happened at COP26, Carbon Brief nonetheless said that “current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6C to 2.7C warming by 2100 (with an uncertainty range of 2C to 3.6C)” and if both conditional and NDCs are met for 2030, the projected warming by 2100 would be 2.4C (1.8C to 3.3C). In the best-case scenario if all long-term net-zero promises are kept, global warming would be held to around 1.8C (1.4C to 2.6C) by 2100, though temperatures would likely peak at close to 2 degrees in mid-21st century before declining.

The above estimates are not set in stone and could prove to be underestimates, Carbon Brief wrote:

“These warming numbers come with some important caveats. First, uncertainties — due to climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks — are quite large. For example, while current policies are expected to result in around 2.6C to 2.7C warming, the Earth could, in fact, end up with anywhere between 2C to 3.6C or so, depending on how the climate system responds to emissions. These uncertainties are cause for caution and increase the urgency of emissions reductions.”

Despite rhetoric, oil companies welcome but environmentalists aren’t

Corporate influence is never far away when governments attempt to reach policy decisions, and COP26 was no exception. A look at the list of corporate sponsors on the COP26 official website shows at least two natural gas companies and assorted other corporations that would not seem to be appropriate for an environmental summit. Oil companies were also well represented.

DeSmog reports that, although oil companies were not allowed formal roles at COP26, oil majors and state oil companies participated in large numbers as part of business and trade groups or national delegations. “The official participant list is full of executives and employees from the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP,” DeSmog reports. The investigative and research news site adds:

“The presence of oil interests does not stop at the employees and executives from national oil companies and government ministries. Even though the COP26 organizers banned oil companies from sending their own delegations, prominent publicly traded oil majors have found other ways to attend the climate negotiations as well. According to DeSmog’s tally, at least three dozen oil executives gained access to the talks thanks to business and trade associations — and those are only the ones who publicly listed their oil company affiliations. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell sent at least six employees under multiple designations.”

What DeSmog reports is only the tip of the iceberg. Corporate Europe Observatory’s Corporate Accountability campaign reports that more than 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 trade associations were represented at COP26, with so many attending that if the fossil fuel lobby were a country delegation, it would have been the largest. “At least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants, have been granted access to COP26, flooding the Glasgow conference with corporate influence,” Corporate Accountability reported. Corporate Europe Observatory researcher Pascoe Sabido said:

“COP26 is being sold as the place to raise ambition, but it’s crawling with fossil fuel lobbyists whose only ambition is to stay in business. The likes of Shell and BP are inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their production of fossil gas. If we’re serious about raising ambition, then fossil fuel lobbyists should be shut out of the talks and out of our national capitals.”

That access is in contrast to environmentalists, who had no such ability to influence negotiations. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, told Democracy Now!:

“It’s funny and ironic, actually, that on the COP26 website, they said they were aiming this to be the most inclusive COP ever, and I think this might have been the most exclusive one. Aside from having all those difficulties and obstacles to actually get to Glasgow, when we get there, COVID was used as an excuse to not let observers come into the important negotiations, yet the fossil fuel industry, the fossil fuel lobbyists, with over 500 delegates, which is more than any other country, was always welcome, was always given the platform, was always given space. And so you can really see that, once again, the U.N. climate summit just prioritized the voices of the privileged and not those that are most affected by the climate crisis.”

Net zero is net unrealism

What efforts that have been made by Global North governments have generally been expressed as goals toward achieving “net zero.” Net zero represents a stabilization in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; that is, the amount of greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount of greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere. The year 2050 is the most common date for countries to say they will achieve net zero, although some countries have pledged to reach that one or two decades later. Of the three largest contributors to greenhouse gases, the European Union and United States have 2050 pledges and China’s goal is “before 2060.”

Are these goals achievable, and, if so, will they be sufficient? This is an important question as the EU, the U.S. and China together account for 46 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions — more than 16 times the contributions of the 100 least-contributing countries. Climate Action Tracker rates EU and U.S. efforts as “insufficient” and China’s efforts as “highly insufficient.” This rating system “evaluates a broad spectrum of government targets and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement temperature limit.”

No country is rated as compatible with the Paris Agreement, and only eight countries are rated as “almost sufficient.” Britain is the lone industrial country to receive this designation; the others are Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria and The Gambia. (The worst category, “critically insufficient,” includes Iran, Russia and Turkey.)

Most of the world is far from achieving net zero. But would doing so truly avoid global catastrophe? Perhaps not. Net zero aspirations are based on the hope that forests and farmlands will pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to offset the remaining greenhouse-gas production that would still be occurring. Two environmental research scientists, Doreen Stabinsky at the College of the Atlantic and Kate Dooley of the University of Melbourne, throw cold water on this escape hatch. Simply put, too much is being asked of nature.

“Since the world does not yet have technologies capable of removing carbon dioxide from air at any climate-relevant scale, that means relying on nature for carbon dioxide removal,” the two write. The idea that machines will be able to pull huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air remains in the realm of fantasy. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years; CO2 must be removed through some means, natural or technological, to have any hope of achieving net zero. As to the potential for the natural world to remove 5 gigatons per year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as some optimistic forecasts hope for, Dr Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley write:

“Reaching the point at which nature can remove 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year would take time. And there’s another problem: High levels of removal might last for only a decade or so. When growing trees and restoring ecosystems, the storage potential develops to a peak over decades. While this continues, it reduces over time as ecosystems become saturated, meaning large-scale carbon dioxide removal by natural ecosystems is a one-off opportunity to restore lost carbon stocks. Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere — in forests and other ecosystems — doesn’t stay there forever, either. Trees and plants die, sometimes as a result of climate-related wildfires, droughts and warming, and fields are tilled and release carbon.”

If you can’t remove it, you shouldn’t produce it

The two scientists write that ecosystem restoration has the potential to reduce global average temperature by approximately 0.12 degrees C, but such a decline would not occur in time to offset the warming expected within the next two decades. Net zero strategies that rely on temporary removals to balance permanent emissions will fail. There is no alternative to drastically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The unreality of net zero pledges put forth by oil companies is laid bare by Dr. Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley:

“ActionAid reviewed the oil major Shell’s net-zero strategy and found that it includes offsetting 120 million tons of carbon dioxide per year through planting forests, estimated to require around 29.5 million acres (12 million hectares) of land. That’s roughly 45,000 square miles. Oxfam reviewed the net-zero pledges for Shell and three other oil and gas producers — BP, TotalEnergies and ENI — and concluded that ‘their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the U.K. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.’ These numbers provide insight into how these companies, and perhaps many others, view net-zero.”

Not realistic, to put it mildly, given that reforestation at such scales would require removal of a significant portion of the world’s farms. And on top of that, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes net zero. Governments can set their own metrics — yet another area of no real accountability — and we also have to think about methane, which although found in far lesser amounts in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is nonetheless a far more potent contributor to global warming on a molecule-to-molecule basis. Jeff Mackler, writing in CounterPunch, put this together:

“U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for a clearer definition of net zero. ‘There is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets,’ he said, ‘with different meanings and different metrics.’ Indeed, each polluting nation employs its own ‘metrics,’ including positive and hyped deductions for the ‘natural capacity’ of its land mass to absorb carbon dioxide while omitting from its calculations negative factors like deforestation, not to mention the myriad of escaping methane from appliances, fracking and always leaking supermarket refrigeration facilities around the world. Methane’s global warming intensity exceeds CO2 by a factor of 80! Biden’s methane reduction pledge flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. stands first in the world in natural gas fracking, the chief poisonous polluting [byproduct] of which is methane.”

The chimera of carbon trading to achieve an illusory net zero

Unfortunately, the above does not exhaust the list of issues with net zero. Some national net zero goals will be met, in part, through “carbon trading.” One of the agreements reached at COP26 was a deal that permits countries to buy offset credits representing emission cuts by others, which will then be used by the buyers to “achieve” climate targets.

A tax on such offsets, intended to fund climate adaptation in poorer nations and advocated by them, will not be included. According to a Reuters report, “The deal suggests developing nations capitulated to rich nations demands, including the United States, which had objected [to] the levy.” That the carbon trading scheme is being hailed by Brazil’s extreme Right, anti-environment government, is more than enough to question it. The Reuters report said, “The deal was ‘a Brazilian victory’ and the country is gearing up to become a ‘big exporter’ of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. … ‘It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,’ Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.”

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

The carbon trading deal, codifying Article 6 of the Paris Agreement after six years of negotiation, does have mechanisms to largely eliminate the double counting that countries like Brazil had previously wanted but does not appear to completely eliminate such practices. But even without double counting, using markets will make it less likely that net zero will be reached in reality rather than only on paper. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law notes, “[C]ountries that aim to meet a significant portion of their [2030 emissions targets] through such offsets — and about half of all countries that submitted [2030 emissions targets] by 2018 indicated an intent to participate in the markets — are less likely to pursue deep decarbonization swiftly than those that focus on domestic cuts. And those countries with a financial interest in exceeding their self-determined contributions, to sell ‘excess’ reductions, are less likely to set ambitious targets.”

To put it in stronger terms, Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center, said, “Net zero is a scam. It is used as a smokescreen to avoid actual transition away from fossil fuels and carry on business as usual by relying on unproven carbon capture technologies and offsets. … Article 6 creates a way for public and private investors to weaponize the Paris agreement for the sake of profits at the cost of local communities and indigenous people’s rights.”

So why are fossil fuels subsidized to astonishing amounts? These subsidies are not trivial: A 2015 paper by four economists published by, of all places, the International Monetary Fund estimated the amount of subsidies thrown at the fossil fuel industry as US$5.6 trillion per year. Trillions! That total includes environmental costs in addition to direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. Some — only some — of the damage from these massive subsidies are premature deaths through local air pollution; exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use; crowding out potentially productive public spending on health, education and infrastructure; discouraging needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure; and increasing the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.

Capitalism is not only cooking the planet to the point where portions of our planet will become uninhabitable and massive disruption to agriculture is certain, but the leading causes of the problem are lavishly subsidized. Who could dream up such a death-wish scenario? Yet here we are. As long as we live under capitalism, incentives will be for more growth, more energy usage, more waste, more accumulation, more inequality, and that inequality will make the struggle for environmental justice and to reverse global warming ever more strenuous. It is simply impossible to decouple the world economic system from the looming environmental catastrophe. The two go together.

Are we up to creating the massive global movement that is the only mechanism that can save the world? If not, our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.

Earth burns and the capitalist world talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well on our way to reaching temperature limit

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

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

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

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

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

More heat, more melting in future centuries

Wish for more bad news? How about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting a goal but doing little to achieve the goal

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

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

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

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

We can’t shop our way out of global warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make the future worthless so tomorrow doesn’t matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business as usual equals many extra deaths from global warming

Is it already too late to stop global warming? That question is not asked with thoughts of throwing up hands in despair and giving up. Rather, that question must be asked in the context of mitigating future damage to whatever degree might yet be possible.

The context here is that the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere don’t magically disappear but will have effects that will persist for centuries. A ton saved today is a ton saved tomorrow.

There are the mass disruptions that humanity will almost certainly see from dramatic rises in sea levels and the disruptions to agricultural patterns and sea life. Then there is the human health impact. In what its authors say is the most detailed attempt yet undertaken to quantify what the future cost of global warming will be in terms of mortality, a new scientific paper predicts the future will see significant increases in deaths.

Sixteen researchers, collaborating on a National Bureau of Economic Research paper titled “Valuing the Global Mortality Consequences of Climate Change Accounting for Adaptation Costs and Benefits,” estimate that under “business as usual” — that is, Earth’s current trend of steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions continues — there would be 85 extra deaths per 100,000 people annually by the end of the 21st century. To put that statistic in perspective, all the world’s cancers currently are responsible for 125 deaths per 100,000 people, according to World Health Organization data. Or to be put it another way, the 85 extra deaths represent a toll comparable to the global total of deaths from infectious diseases in 2018.

Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic (photo by Doc Searls)

As would be expected, the increased deaths will be disproportionally suffered in the Global South. Although the financial cost of mitigation is predicted to be higher in the advanced capitalist countries than elsewhere, the easing of cold weather in winter months might actually cause death rates to decline in high-latitude, high-income locations. The authors put that possibility in stark terms with this comparison:

“The costs of climate change induced mortality risks are distributed unevenly around the world. Despite the gains from adaptation … there are large increases in mortality risk in the global south. For example, in Accra, Ghana, climate change is predicted to cause damages equivalent to approximately 160 additional deaths per 100,000 annually under [the business as usual scenario] in 2100. In contrast, there are gains in many impact regions in the global north, including in Oslo, Norway, where we predict that the equivalent of approximately 230 lives per 100,000 are saved annually. These changes are equal to an 18% increase in Accra’s annual mortality rate and a 28% decline in Oslo’s.”

And thus their conclusion that “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change, as current incomes (as well as current average temperatures) are strongly correlated with future climate change impacts.” In other words, those least responsible for global warming will pay the highest price for it.

To make these predictions, the authors gathered mortality statistics from 41 countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s population, which they say enables them to have put together a more comprehensive analysis than previously attempted by earlier studies.

It won’t be pretty for our descendants

In a different scenario, under which greenhouse gases are stabilized in coming years, the expected number of excess deaths would be less, although still concentrated in the Global South. Under this scenario, the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent is presumed to stabilize at above 500 parts per million (ppm), and although that is far less than the “business as usual” scenario, it should be remembered that today’s carbon dioxide equivalent content is 407 ppm. And that is with the recent downward blip thanks to the pandemic. To use non-scientific terminology for what would happen in a 500 ppm world, our descendants will be screwed.

To have a hope of keeping the eventual total of global warming from the start of the Industrial Revolution to under 2 degrees Celsius, considered the outside limit before uncontrollable, catastrophic environmental disruptions are triggered, atmospheric greenhouse gases will have to be held to not much more than present-day levels and then brought down.

Without a drastic change, soon, in global output of greenhouse gases — and no such change is anywhere in sight — even the scenario of stabilizing greenhouse gases at 500 ppm seems out of reach. But even if we could suddenly convert to a carbon-neutral economy and cease adding net gains to atmospheric greenhouse gases, it may already be too late. More worrisome still, the effects of global warming are occurring faster than expected.

The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than Earth is overall. The resulting faster than expected loss of land ice contributes to a faster sea level rise and the loss of sea ice adds to global warming in a feedback loop. That’s because a dark ocean surface absorbs solar radiation up to 10 times more readily than the brighter sea ice surface. In a 2019 paper, “Radiative Heating of an Ice-Free Arctic Ocean,” published in Geophysical Research Letters, three oceanographers and atmospheric researchers calculate that if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free, the loss of the ice’s reflective power radiating solar energy back into space would be the equivalent to adding one trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That would be roughly equal to adding 25 years of additional global CO emissions.

Although an ice-free Arctic Ocean is still generally predicted to be well into the future, that future might arrive much sooner than expected. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey, publishing this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, believe it is possible for the Arctic to be ice-free as soon as 2035, a possibility based on study of Arctic sea ice during the last interglacial period, when Arctic land summer temperatures were 4 to 5 degrees C. higher than the pre-industrial baseline. By one measure, current temperatures above 60 degrees north latitude have already risen about 3 degrees C. since 1900.

There’s plenty of bad news to go around

As it is, predictions of what the world will look like are increasingly dire. For example, a 2015 paper by nine scientists led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science found that when global temperatures in the past were between 1 and 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial base temperature, sea levels rose six to nine meters. What that finding means is that humanity may have already committed itself to an eventual sea level rise of that magnitude.

Need more? A 2016 paper published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, authored by 19 climate scientists from the United States, France, Germany and China and led by James Hansen, predicts that the melted freshwater from melting glaciers will add to the other scenarios to create a feedback loop that could culminate in a sea level rise of “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Still another paper, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees C. by 2100. This 2016 paper states that Earth has tipped into a heat imbalance since 1970, and this excess heating has thus far been greatly ameliorated because the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the enhanced heating since the 1970s. This accumulated heat is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming. Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to this report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers.

There is plenty more, but perhaps the foregoing is sufficient. And so what is the world doing? Very little. The December 2019 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 25) in Madrid concluded with the world’s governments saying 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.” The time for “noting” there may be a problem would seem to be well past. A year earlier, at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, the world’s governments agreed to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. And at COP23 in Bonn, participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk and agreed they would talk some more.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say. We are fortunate that hot air from political leaders doesn’t add to global warming, however weighed down they are by the piles of corporate money that keep “solutions” at the level of talking rather than action. Our descendants are not likely to be amused.

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.