Climate summit’s solution to global warming: More talking

The world’s governments got together in Germany over the past two weeks to discuss global warming, and as a result, they, well, talked. And issued some nice press releases.

Discussing an existential threat to the environment, and all who are dependent on it, certainly is better than not discussing it. Agreeing to do something about it is also good, as is reiterating that something will be done.

None of the above, however, should be confused with implementing, and mandating, measures that would reverse global warming and begin to deal concretely with the wrenching changes necessary to avoid flooded cities, a climate going out of control, mass species die-offs and the other rather serious problems that have only begun to manifest themselves in an already warming world.

The 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP23, wrapped up on November 17 in Bonn. Fiji was actually the presiding country, but the conference was held in Bonn because Fiji was not seen as able to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend. The formal hosting by Fiji, as a small Pacific island country, was symbolic of a wish to highlight the problems of low-lying countries, but that this was merely symbolic was perhaps most fitting of all.

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

These conferences have been held yearly since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Two years ago, at COP21 in Paris, the world’s governments negotiated the Paris Accord, committing to specific targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Although capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (as measured from the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took off around the world) has been considered the outer limit of “safe” warming, a goal of halting global warming at 1.5 degrees was adopted at Paris. The catch here is that the goals adopted are far from the strength necessary to achieve the 2-degree goals, much less 1.5 degrees.

Before we explore that contradiction, let’s take a brief look at the self-congratulatory statements issued at the Bonn conference’s conclusion.

Agreement that summit participants like to talk

The official COP23/Fiji web site exalts:

“In Bonn, the support for climate action from countries, regions, cities, civil society, the private sector and ordinary men and women was clearly on display. Together, we have done the job we came here to do, which is to advance the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement and prepare for more ambitious action in the Talanoa Dialogue of 2018.”

The German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety provided this message:

“One key outcome of the conference is the Talanoa Dialogue. Talanoa is a Fiji term for a conversation in which the people involved share ideas and resolve problems. As the sum total of the current climate targets under the Paris Agreement is not yet sufficient for limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, agreement was reached in Paris that the international community would have to raise the level of ambition over time. The Talanoa Dialogue is the trial run for this ambition mechanism.”

And the United Nations itself, on its UNFCCC web site dedicated to COP23, had this to say:

“The ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, inspired by the Pacific concept of constructive discussion, debate and story-telling, will set the stage in Poland in 2018 for the revising upwards of national climate action plans needed to put the world on track to meet pre-2020 ambition and the long-term goals of the two-year old Paris Agreement. … With so many climate action pledges and initiatives, a further strong message from all sides at COP23 was the growing need to coordinate efforts across policy, planning and investment to ensure that every cent invested and every minute of work contributed results in a much greater impact and boosts ambition under the national climate plans.”

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

Again, discussion is better than no discussion, and at least no country other than the United States came to Bonn to push coal, isolating the Trump administration further as the U.S. is now the only country that intends to stay outside the Paris Accords. And let us acknowledge that a baby step forward is far better than a giant leap backward, as the Trump gang wishes to attempt.

The main takeaway of COP23 is that people will get together and talk some more. The “2018 Talanoa Dialogue” is said by the United Nations to be “an inclusive and participatory process that allows countries, as well as non-state actors, to share stories and showcase best practices in order to urgently raise ambition — including pre-2020 action — in nationally determined contributions.” Beyond that, there was a bit of money committed — the German government pledged €110 million to an insurance fund, an adoption fund was replenished with US$93 million of new pledges, and the World Health Organisation said it would commence a “special initiative” to help island countries that has a goal to “triple the levels of international financial support to climate and health in Small Island Developing States.”

It you feel less than overwhelmed by the above, it would seem a reasonable reaction.

The world’s biggest advertising conclave?

A commentator for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle certainly was less than overwhelmed, referring to the event as a “massive advertising offensive.” The commentary published by Deutsche Welle, a most sober mainstream news organization not known for flamboyance, summarized the COP23 outcome this way:

“The negotiations in Bonn sound more like agenda points run through by a working group of midlevel importance than the work of the largest multination conference ever held in Germany. Two years after the international climate accord was signed in Paris, the task at hand in Bonn was to establish just who was required to do what in the fight against climate change and how their contributions could be measured. Binding agreements were not on the agenda. … It would also be in poor taste to ask about the carbon footprint left by the conference — especially as most of the electricity used to run Bonn’s charging stations is derived from the region’s lignite coal power plants. Such a query would only upset the mood of those inhabiting this taxpayer-funded parallel universe.”

Ouch! At least the host Germans, and most others in attendance, wanted to do the right thing even if words and actions are yet to synchronize. The public-policy magazine Pacific Standard pulled no punches in reporting the embarrassing antics of the United States delegation in Bonn. The article opened with this passage:

“The United States delegation held a side event at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn on Monday, an affair run by fossil-fuel and nuclear-industry boosters that reprised the same tune heard at the G7 and G20 summits this summer: According to the U.S., using clean coal and nuclear energy is the only way to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.”

The Pacific Standard report went on to say:

“At the U.S. panel, Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, claimed that clean coal is needed to reach many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including universal access to energy, zero hunger, and zero poverty. … Worthington also drew on the Trump administration’s demagogic notion of an ongoing ‘war on coal,’ charging that international development banks have an ‘anti-fossil bias’ that blocks investments for financing coal plants in poor countries, potentially at the expense of public safety. The U.S. side event also included pitches for liquid natural gas exports from the U.S. to developing countries as a bridge fuel to help power the shift to renewable energy, as well as for small-scale modular nuclear reactors that can serve a similar purpose.”

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

Clean coal and safe nuclear energy? Still oxymorons. Although fairness compels an acknowledgement that the concepts of “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” were championed by the Obama administration, which in fact was nearly as enthusiastic as the Bush II/Cheney administration in throwing bottomless sums of money at nuclear power companies.

At least the Obama administration was willing to promote renewable energy as part of its ill-advised “all of the above” energy program and did believe that breathable air and drinkable water are good ideas, even if not willing to disrupt corporate business as usual to achieve those ideas, or so much as hint that resource consumption far beyond the Earth’s capacity might necessitate consuming less. The Trump gang can’t be bothered to do even that. Searches for any statement on COP23 on the official White House web site turns up not a word. One can find statements about favorable editorials in Murdoch newspapers but nothing on the climate summit.

Do you get half credit if the bridge collapses when walkers are halfway across?

This about brings us to the point where the latest dire reports of catastrophe that would result from a failure to tackle climate warming is appropriate. We’ll get to that momentarily, but first it would be useful to reiterate just what was committed two years ago, none of which have been updated or improved upon despite cheery press releases.

National global-warming commitments made in time for the 2015 Paris Climate Summit included these goals:

  • The United States pledged at the time to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels; instituted new national regulations on power-plant emissions; and announced a state-level cap-and-trade system whereby states, rather than enterprises, will trade pollution permits.
  • China intended to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; intended to inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledged to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
  • The European Union’s goal was a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of EU efforts is a failed cap-and-trade system that will not be reformed until 2021.
  • Brazil said it would cut emissions by 37 percent in 2025, relative to 2005, and intended to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil said it would generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledged to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
  • Canada committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and failed to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
  • Japan intended to reduce emissions by 26 percent in 2030, relative to 2013 (the equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), reductions that would include international “offsets” and “credits” for forest management.
  • India pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, and to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by that year. This goal, however, is a commitment to only slow the rate of emissions rather than cut them.
  • Australia committed to a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions, relative to 2005, reductions to be achieved in part through land-use changes and forestation. But the coalition government in power then and now repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.

Of the above countries and regions, only India is rated by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of three research organizations, as compatible with a goal of capping global warming at 2 degrees. Every other one has been found to be insufficient, with the United States joining Chile, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine as “critically insufficient,” the worst category.

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

Should all the pledges made at the Paris Summit actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. In other words, global warming would advance at a slower pace that it would have otherwise should all commitments be fulfilled. But there are no enforcement mechanisms to force compliance with these goals; peer pressure is expected to be sufficient.

This is reminiscent of a Group of 7 Summit a few months earlier, in June 2015, when the G7 governments said they would phase out fossil fuels by 2100, a case not of closing the barn door after the horse has left but rather declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon.

In case you needed still more evidence …

OK, we’ve reached the point where we should summarize the latest scientific reports. In just the past few weeks:

  • A report published in Lancet reported that the health of millions of people across the world is already being significantly harmed by climate change, thanks in part to increased risk of infections diseases. This risk, the Lancet report declared, qualifies as “the major threat of the 21st century.”
  • As carbon dioxide increases, accelerating global warming, scientists fear that Arctic melting will trigger a massive release of methane, a gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in ability to causing atmospheric warming.
  • It is a virtual certainty that human activity is responsible for all global warming since 1950, according to the Climate Science Special Report, a report prepared by hundreds of U.S. scientists. Humans are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of Earth’s net global warming, the report said, meaning that Earth might have cooled slightly in the period absent human activity.
  • Hundreds of millions of people would face displacement due to their their home cities becoming flooded as a result of rising sea levels triggered by global warming of 3 degrees, which would be reached if current trends continue. Alexandria, Miami, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai are among the many cities to be drastically affected.
  • Extreme rains of at least 20 inches from a single storm are six times more likely than they were in the 1990s, and will become another three times more likely by 2090.

Those represent just some of the most recent research. Earlier studies have found that humanity may have already committed itself to a sea level rise of at least six meters from the greenhouse gases already thrown into the atmosphere and that several more decades of global warming would occur even if all greenhouse-gas production ceased today because the oceans will release much of the heat they have absorbed from the atmosphere.

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet

The bottom line is that business can’t continue as usual. That means wrenching changes to the economy in a system, capitalism, that offers no alternative employment to those whose jobs would be eliminated. Conservatives see that seriously tackling global warming would trigger significant disruption, so their solution is to deny global warming, policies unfortunately being carried out by the Trump administration. Liberals acknowledge the severity of the problem, but advocate renewable energy and techno-fixes requiring technologies that unfortunately are yet to exist in order to claim that any dip in the economy would be no more than a statistical blip. That’s not realistic, either.

Already, the demand for resources to support present-day consumption is equal to 1.7 Earths. That indeed is not sustainable. And although renewable energy obviously should be developed, with fossil fuels phased out as soon as practical, those changes will only get us part of the way, before mentioning that manufacturing the parts for wind and solar energy have their own environmental concerns. Renewable energy is not a shortcut to reversing global warming. Alas, there is no alternative but for the global North to consume much less.

Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us must be abandoned. Capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society. Thus every incentive is for more production. Maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby holds back ecological reform — this is reflected in the “maximization of shareholder value” that is elevated to a holy cause and even a legal requirement.

Consumerism and over-consumption are not products of a particular culture nor the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into a system that can’t function without growth. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

There can’t be infinite growth on a finite planet, and even if humanity begins to strip-mine the Moon and the asteroid belt, that would merely postpone the reckoning because the solar system is finite, too (assuming that off-world industrialism could be made financial viable). What the planet needs is action, not only words, and the later that action is put off the more painful will be any attempted cure. Environmental crisis can no longer be disentangled from economic crisis.

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A climatic baby step forward beats a leap backward

The world surely is approaching a danger point when the abrogation of an inadequate agreement is cursed as a disaster. The Paris Climate Summit goals can’t be characterized as anything significantly better than feel-good window dressing, but the argument that the world has to start somewhere is difficult to challenge. Better to take a baby step forward than a leap backward.

As always, we must ask: Who profits? The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord is due to factors beyond Donald Trump’s astounding ignorance and his contempt for science or reality. There is a long history of energy company denial of global warming, a well-funded campaign.

Never mind that a widely cited 2015 study by the Stockholm Resilience Center, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable. Or that two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown into the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. Or that the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers — heat accumulated in them is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

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

So strongly has public opinion swung on global warming that even Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell joined a vast array of multi-national corporations decrying the Trump withdrawal, leaving the United States as one of only three countries outside the Paris Accord. Exxon Mobil claims to support the agreement and is “well positioned to compete” under its terms. A measure of skepticism over this recent conversion is forgivable. Exxon has spent more than $33 million on denying global warming from 1997 to 2015, according to DeSmog, a total believed to be an underestimate. DeSmog summarized these findings this way:

“Despite its advanced knowledge of the climate disruption fueled in large part by oil, gas and coal pollution, ExxonMobil turned its back on crafting responsible solutions and instead funded a sophisticated campaign to sow doubt and delay action to curb carbon emissions — honing the tobacco industry’s playbook with even more advanced public relations, advertising and lobbying muscle.”

A separate DeSmog report says that Exxon corporate documents from the late 1970s unequivocally declare “there is no doubt” that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels was a growing problem well understood within the company. Inside Climate News reports that Exxon confirmed the science on global warming by the early 1980s while publicly mocking those models for decades beyond.

Tobacco is good for you and so is a warming planet

Such denialism is alive and well. A leading global warming denialist lobbying outfit, the Heartland Institute, had this to say about the withdrawal from the Paris Accord: “Angela Merkel and what is left of the E.U. are not happy (itself a victory), but fake science and globalism would take a big hit with this move.” So childish it could have been written by Donald Trump himself! Lavishly funded by Exxon, the Heartland Institute originally was a propaganda outfit for the tobacco industry, going so far as to deny the health effects of second-hand smoke.

Then there is NERA Consulting, which the Trump administration cited in its announcement of the Paris withdrawal. The White House statement claimed that “meeting the Obama Administration’s requirements in the Paris Accord would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades” and has already cost six million industrial jobs. Among other problems with this phantasmagoria is that none of the commitments of the Paris Accord have actually been implemented. Thus it is difficult to determine how the accord caused those jobs to disappear.

What is NERA Consulting? It describes itself as “firm of experts” that provides economic analysis to corporate clients. DeSmog reports that NERA has repeatedly, sometimes anonymously, issued reports on behalf of coal, liquified natural gas and other energy corporations that claim wildly inflated job and/or economic costs. Media Matters for America reports that a NERA report attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standards “has been thoroughly debunked by multiple experts” on multiple grounds, including failure to acknowledge any economic benefits. The NERA report was explicitly prepared for several energy-industry lobbying groups.

Earlier, NERA was involved in lobbying for the tobacco industry; a vice president said the tobacco industry should aim to explain the health “benefits” of smoking.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are also active funders of global warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. The Koch brothers own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Kochs stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

Polar warming outpaces warming elsewhere

It is not a long distance from the Alberta tar sands to the Arctic, where global warming is particularly pronounced. Consistent with predictions that the polar regions would experience the sharpest rise in temperatures, the Arctic is 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century with the region’s sea surface temperatures up to 5 degrees higher than the 1982 to 2010 average. Much worse could be on the way, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns in its 2016 Arctic Report Card:

“Warming air temperatures in the Arctic are causing normally frozen ground (permafrost) to thaw. The permafrost is carbon rich and, when it thaws, is a source of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Northern permafrost zone soils contain 1330-1580 billion tons [of] organic carbon, about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere. Tundra ecosystems are taking up increasingly more carbon during the growing season over the past several decades, but this has been offset by increasing carbon loss during the winter. Overall, tundra appears to be releasing net carbon to the atmosphere.”

Long before the release of such quantities of carbon throw the climate out of control, permafrost melting has begun to alter the Canadian Arctic’s environment in worrisome ways. In an article for Inside Climate News, Bob Berwyn writes:

“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama. According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.”

At the other end of the Earth, Antarctic temperatures are up to 3 degrees C. higher since the 1950s and they could increase an additional 5 degrees by the end of the century.

So what happens if the increase in greenhouse gases continues indefinitely? Possibly, global warming unprecedented for more than 400 million years. A study by researchers at Britain’s University of Southampton and University of Bristol, and Wesleyan University in the U.S., reports that if all readily available fossil fuel is burned, by the mid-23rd century atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would be around 2,000 parts per million — levels not seen since 200 million years ago. Lead author Gavin Foster said:

“However, because the Sun was dimmer back then, the net climate forcing 200 million years ago was lower than we would experience in such a high CO2 future. So not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”

If all the Earth’s ices melted (which they would at such levels of warming and carbon dioxide release), sea level would rise more than 60 meters (more than 200 feet).

Paris commitments well short of Paris goals

At the conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, the world’s governments say they agreed to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in actuality committed to nearly double that. Nor is there any enforcement mechanism; all goals are voluntary. The summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, anticipates peer pressure will encourage signatories “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and then “undertake rapid reductions thereafter.”

The Paris goals are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in 2014, which foresees a rise in greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come, to above 450 parts per million, before falling to 450 ppm by 2100, which the report says is necessary to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the IPCC report relies on several technological breakthroughs, including capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which are not yet close to being feasible.

The now discarded U.S. goal had been to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels. The European Union, Brazil, Canada, Japan, India and Australia have committed to cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by anywhere from 26 percent (Japan) to 40 percent (EU) by 2030. China didn’t commit to a specific cut but said it would reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The EU goals have an additional barrier, however — the British government under Theresa May has been working hard to significantly weaken draft EU climate and energy rules, including efficiency standards, even though the rules wouldn’t take effect until after Brexit.

A critical weakness of the assumptions underlying these goals is that the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, less than 0.1 percent annually during the course of the 21st century. No more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. There need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth.

The Earth, alas, does not possess infinite resources. Certainly there should be a continued push toward the use of renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels. But the idea that “green capitalism” will magically solve the problems of capitalism is a chimera. There is no way around the need to consume less and align production to human need rather than private profit. Capitalism won’t offer people displaced from dirty industries new jobs, and if the only option someone has to feed their family is take a job in the oil sands or in a coal mine, it is pointless to blame those workers. Then there is the “grow or die” dynamic imposed on capitalists through relentless competitive pressures. As Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

There are no free lunches. Doing what is necessary to keep the climate from going out of control, with catastrophic consequences, will require more economic disruption than the IPCC acknowledges. But the price of continuing business as usual will be much higher. Our descendants are not likely to see short-term corporate profits a fair exchange for a less livable world.

The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

Frequently lost in the arguments over financial costs and benefits when it comes to pollution is the cost to human health. Not only illness and respiratory problems but premature death. To put it bluntly: How many human lives should we exchange for corporate profit?

Two new studies by the World Health Organization should force us to confront these issues head on. This is no small matter — the two WHO studies estimate that polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year.

Spent shale from a Shale oil extraction process (photo by U.S. Argonne National Laboratory)

Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene all contribute to these 1.7 million annual deaths, accounting for more than one-quarter of all deaths of children age five or younger globally. A summary notes:

“[W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

One of the two reports, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, notes that most of humanity lives in environmentally stressed areas:

“92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies. Air pollution accounts for over 50% of the overall disease burden of pneumonia which is among the leading causes of global child mortality. Growing evidence suggests that air pollution adversely affects cognitive development in children and early exposures might induce development of chronic disease in adulthood.” [page 3]

These types of calculations on health and mortality are absent from debates on environmental regulations. And not only is the human toll missing from cost/benefit analyses, but this pollution is actually subsidized.

Trump administration’s assault on the environment

These World Health Organization reports were published in the same month that the Trump administration mounted a full-scale assault on the U.S. environment. Not only has the Trump administration proposed draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and signaled its intention to rescind air-pollution rules for motor vehicles scheduled to come into force between 2022 and 2025, it has issued an executive order requiring a “review [of] existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”

One of the targets of this order is the Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 2030, compared to 2005 emission rates. The standard, implemented by the Obama administration, was already seen as inadequate. The increased danger raised by President Donald Trump’s order was succinctly summed up by this headline on a Weather Underground article written by Jeff Masters: “Trump’s Executive Order Threatens to Wreck Earth as a Livable Planet for Humans.”

Threats don’t get much graver than that, do they?

Given the gigantic size of the United States economy and the pollution thrown into the atmosphere, this is of serious concern to the entire world. The World Resources Institute estimates that the U.S. accounts for almost 15 percent of Earth’s current greenhouse-gas emissions, second only to China’s 20 percent. Russia and the U.S. emit more than twice the global average on a per capita basis, as does Canada, which, due to its heavy reliance on fossil fuel extraction, has the world’s largest per-person greenhouse-gas footprint.

When greenhouse-gas emissions are calculated on a cumulative basis, then the responsibility of the global North comes into sharper focus: The United States has accounted for 27 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1850, and the countries of the European Union contributed another 25 percent.

Carbon dioxide is the biggest single contributor to global warming — which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had sought to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant — but methane is also a significant contributor. The EPA in 2016 issued an order requiring that owners and operators of oil and gas facilities provide data needed to help it determine how to best reduce methane and other harmful emissions. But the Trump administration has withdrawn the order to provide data.

Not everything can be reversed at the stroke a pen, however. The larger attack on the Clean Power Plan will likely take years to carry out, Dr. Masters wrote:

“The Clean Power Plan will be difficult to undo quickly. The plan was finalized by EPA in 2015, and is currently being reviewed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Under the new executive order, the Department of Justice will ask the court to suspend the case until the EPA can review and write a new version of the rule. (Before that happens, the court may still rule on the Plan as written, which will influence how the EPA can rewrite the rule.) Once the case is removed from the court, the EPA will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to take its place, a process that could take years, as the new rule will have to be justified in court, and would likely be challenged in court by environmental groups.”

Hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance

Nonetheless, a fightback is essential. Lives are literally at stake, in large numbers, if regulations safeguarding air quality are reversed. The EPA estimates that 160,000 premature deaths were prevented in 2010 by the Clean Air Act, and estimates that 230,000 lives will be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the act is left intact. The EPA said the benefits of the act “exceeds costs by a factor of more than 30 to one.” This study, at least for the moment, hasn’t been expunged from the Internet by the Trump administration.

A separate study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the United States alone. The two biggest contributors to that death toll, the MIT report found, are emissions from road transportation and power generation, which together account for just more than half the total. One of the study’s authors, MIT professor Steven Barrett, said a person who dies from an air pollution-related cause typically dies about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have.

The Canadian government estimates that a 10 percent reduction in particulate-matter and ozone levels would result in a net social welfare benefit for Canadians of more than $4 billion. A separate study estimates that the cost to Canadian health care from air pollution will total $250 billion by 2031 without significant reductions.

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

This exercise can be repeated around the world. A 2015 World Health Organization study estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution costs European economies as much as €1.2 trillion annually in deaths and diseases. This includes £54 billion and 29,000 deaths per year in Britain. For Australia, the cost from air pollution was estimated at $5.8 billion in 2010, a doubling in only five years.

Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

Only a drastic reduction in emissions can reverse these costs in human health and the mounting dangers of global warming.

We’ll have to go well beyond current plans

Cap-and-trade schemes, promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats, simply don’t work. The European Union system, for example, issued so many free certificates that the price of pollution is a small fraction of the target price, and attempts by environmentalists to reduce the number of certifications are consistently rebuffed. Moreover, cap-and-trade plans often allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level, allowing polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions elsewhere for real reductions locally.

Nor are renewable energy sources, as vital as they are to any rational future, a substitute for reducing energy usage. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming. Wind power and biomass, for example, have their own problems. The primary source of bioenergy is wood, which portends an increase in logging, counter to winning a struggle against global warming. Denmark and Britain are among the biggest users of biomass but must import wood to sustain that. 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. Production of rare earths are environmentally destructive; increasing their extraction means more pollution and toxic waste.

The argument here certainly isn’t that a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as practical isn’t necessary; of course such a switch needs to be made. But if reversing pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions is the goal, then renewables are at most a partial measure.

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)

The Paris Climate Summit ended with a surprise decision by the world’s governments to limit the rise of the global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution average instead of the previously intended limit of 2 degrees. The difficulty here, however, is that even if every national goal were met, the Earth’s temperature would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees by 2100 with more to come, and the Paris summit contains no mechanism to enforce these goals.

Adding to the difficulty of reducing fossil fuel usage sufficiently to meet the Paris summit’s goals (and which would also reduce the damage to human health) is the astounding total of subsidies for them. A 2015 study that attempted to quantify the size of these subsidies on a global basis estimated them at US$5.6 trillion! That includes not only direct government subsidies through tax breaks and other programs, but damage to the environment — these are not inconsequential as the costs of air pollution and global warming transferred to society account for nearly two-thirds of that total.

“Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) of rock to blast out natural gas alone accounts for billions of dollars of damages through contaminated water, health problems from the chemicals used in the process, air pollution, methane that contributes to global warming, disruption to agriculture and damage to roads from trucks. That the cost of those is transferred to society is another mammoth subsidy to the energy industry.

Overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity

The most recent estimate of planetary consumption is that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths per year. By 2030, at present rates of increase, we’ll be consuming two Earths — that is, twice the capacity of our planet to sustain.

Then there is the matter of global warming. Two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

What is the price of making Earth uninhabitable? No amount of strip-mining the Moon or the asteroid belt will reverse mass die-offs on Earth.

Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us really must be abandoned. Beyond that capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society, every incentive is for more production. Adding to that, 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.”

As for the present day, capitalist enterprises aren’t going to guarantee jobs to workers displaced from energy-extraction industries, and if those workers don’t have any viable alternatives, it can’t be expected they will do anything other than join their bosses in fighting for their industry. Thus any rational plan to drastically shrink fossil fuel extraction has to be able to provide alternative jobs. Nor do the costs in human lives discussed above factor into capitalist economic calculations.

The drastic changes that are necessary to reverse the human and environmental tolls of pollution will come with a hefty price tag. But the cost of continuing business as usual is much higher — a price our descendants will pay if we don’t move to an economic system that values life rather than only profits.

Global warming will accelerate as oceans reach limits of remediation

If humanity stopped all production of greenhouse gases today, Earth would experience several decades more of additional global warming. That is not simply because the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere by human activity won’t disappear in a day, but because the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers.

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.

The latest in a series of scientific reports detailing the disastrous course of global warming, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. In addition to the increasingly unstable weather, more potent tropical cyclones, displacements of aquatic life and boost to atmospheric temperatures that such a rise would cause, massive amounts of frozen methane hydrate in the depth of the seas could be thawed, adding a potent new source of greenhouse gases.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to the report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers. The report builds on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in turn was the basis for the Paris climate summit in late 2015. That summit was noteworthy in setting a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of a 2-degree rise, often cited as the outer limit before uncontrollable changes are inevitable.

But even if all the national pledges of the Paris climate summit were achieved, global temperatures would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. by 2100, and the likelihood of all those pledges actually being met are minuscule as there are no enforcement mechanisms. A list of major countries’ pledges reveal a failure to make adequate progress, with many pledges dependent on “cap and trade” scenarios that often amount to subsidies for polluters.

Paris climate summit pledges inadequate

The “Explaining Ocean Warming” report does not sugar-coat that, stating in the conclusion that a fulfillment of the Paris pledges would not result in a return to hospitable conditions. The report says:

“[T]hey actually represent a ‘minimum ambition’ to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Achieving the ‘minimum ambition’ will already bring major changes in the functioning and resources of the ocean as we know them. Exacerbating an already concerning situation is the fact that the absorptive role of the ocean is also predicted to decline in the 21st Century, suggesting that the physics and chemistry of the ocean will be significantly different by 2100. As atmospheric CO2 continues to increase as a result of our activities, the solutions (i.e. mitigate, protect, repair, adapt) become fewer and less effective, thus decreasing the long-term ability of humankind to cope with the changes in the ocean that are now being observed.”

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The report explains that, volume to volume, sea water is 4,000 more times efficient at retaining heat than is air, providing thus far a buffer to further global warming. But how long can the oceans do this? And at what cost? Coral reefs are dying, sea life patterns are changing, fisheries are in danger of collapsing and oceans are becoming more acidic. Further changes are locked in for decades ahead already, and humanity is ill prepared for this as the stresses on the seas through this excess warming are barely understood. The report says:

“[T]he consequences of increasing human activities have indeed injected vast quantities of heat into the ocean, shielding humanity on land, in so doing, from the worst effects of climate change. This regulating function, however, happens at the cost of profound alterations to the ocean’s physics and chemistry that lead especially to ocean warming and acidification, and consequently sea-level rise. … The problem is that we know ocean warming is driving change in the ocean — this is well documented — but the consequences of these changes decades down the line are far from clear.”

The 13 warmest years for sea surface temperatures have all occurred since 1997, with 2015 the highest yet and eclipsing the previous record of 2014. Parallel to that, August 2016 was the 16th consecutive month that overall global temperatures were the highest on record.

How high and fast will the seas rise?

The continuing building up of heat portends a potentially catastrophic rise in sea level. Two papers published last year calculate that, because of the greenhouse gases already emitted, humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level, and a paper published earlier this year predicts that seas could rise “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A still more pessimistic National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist, Margaret Davidson (giving her personal opinion, a NOAA publicist stresses), says that sea level could rise by as much as three meters by 2050 to 2060, a faster rise than current projections. She cites studies being done on the West Antarctic ice sheet. It is important to remember that the scientific controversy centers on the speed of global warming, not its existence — 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming, according to a NOAA study that also found the highest levels of agreement correlate with higher levels of expertise.

A major problem is that global warming, as with the associated environmental problems, can’t be solved within the capitalism that has caused, and is accelerating, the problem. All incentives under capitalism are for more growth and thus more greenhouse-gas emissions, and there is no provision to provide new jobs for the many people who would be displaced should the heavily polluting industries in which they work were to be shut down in the interest of the environment. The private capital that profits from environmental devastation is allowed to externalize the costs onto society, an inequality built into the system. The concept of “green capitalism” is a dangerous chimera.

There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. That means significant reductions in energy consumption, an impossibility within a system that requires constant, unending growth. The rosy predictions of magical technology that will allow business as usual while scrubbing the atmosphere of new greenhouse gases, relied upon in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was in turn the basis for the Paris climate summit pledges, are not realistic, environmentalists say, and thus an illusion. Earth’s environment is crossing multiple points of no return — business as usual is impossible.

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. That is necessary for economic and political reasons, but the environmental crisis adds another dimension. Otherwise, we “will sleepwalk ourselves into a nightmare, where no level of conservation action in the future will be enough,” in the concluding words of the “Explaining Ocean Warming” report. The task is enormous, but the consequences are even bigger.

No planet for optimists: Coastal flooding may come sooner than we fear

When it comes to global warming, what else don’t we know? What science does know, and what it can infer from studying archeological records, already makes anybody who thinks the long-term habitability of Earth is more important than short-term profits very worried.

One detail that may have been under-appreciated is meltwater. Melting ice sheets, especially in Greenland and Antarctica, is well understood to raise the sea level. But the effects might not be simply the additional water added to the oceans. In this scenario, the melted freshwater will additionally increase warming, thereby creating a feedback loop that will accelerate the loss of polar ice sheets, thus accelerating the rate of sea-level rise. How fast? Fast enough that the sea level could rise “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

This sobering prediction of what might happen without a drastic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions is the conclusion of 19 climate scientists from the United States, France, Germany and China who studied the effect of growing ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica through the use of climate simulations, paleoclimate data and modern observations. The paper, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and led by James Hansen, concludes that swift action is necessary in the face of a “global emergency.”

Icebergs breaking off glaciers at Cape York, Greenland (photo by BrockenInaGlory)

Icebergs breaking off glaciers at Cape York, Greenland (photo by BrockenInaGlory)

Predictions of a future catastrophic rise in the oceans, threatening to drown many of the world’s biggest cities, are by now far from novel. Two other recent papers conclude that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level because of the greenhouse gases already thrown into the atmosphere and the retention and later slow release of much of those gases by the world’s oceans. A study in the journal Science estimates that more than 444,000 square miles of land, where more than 375 million people live today, would be inundated by such a rise.

Compare that to the complacency of the world’s governments at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015. Despite a thunder of plaudits from the corporate media, the governments committed themselves to goals that, even if achieved, would lead to a global temperature rise of nearly 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, with further increases beyond that. That is far beyond the goal of 1.5 degrees set at the summit. But even the summit’s actual modest goals are not necessarily attainable because peer pressure is the primary mechanism to induce compliance; there are no binding legal agreements.

Feedback loops accelerate ice-sheet melting

The Atmospheric Chemistry paper says that sea level was at times six to nine meters higher than today approximately 115,000 years ago when the average global temperature “probably was only a few tenths of a degree warmer than today.” Ice-sheet stability may be a key to understanding rapid sea-level rise, the authors write.

The injection of added freshwater into the oceans from faster ice-sheet melting reduces the mixing of ocean waters, causing warmer water to remain at lower depths and thus making warmer water more available to melt the remaining ice shelves. This additional impact of meltwater on the global climate and its feedbacks had not been appreciated before, the authors write. They summarize this as follows:

“Our principal finding concerns the effect of meltwater on stratification of the high-latitude ocean and resulting ocean heat sequestration that leads to melting of ice shelves and catastrophic ice sheet collapse. Stratification contrasts with homogenization. Winter conditions on parts of the North Atlantic Ocean and around the edges of Antarctica normally produce cold, salty water that is dense enough to sink to the deep ocean, thus stirring and tending to homogenize the water column. Injection of fresh meltwater reduces the density of the upper ocean wind-stirred mixed layer, thus reducing the rate at which cold surface water sinks in winter at high latitudes.”

Existing models, including the authors’ own, underplays this mixing effect, the paper states, and thus anthropogenic warming “may be even more imminent than in our model.” Regardless of the exact timing, a tipping point will be reached:

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large-scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable.”

What might happen if the global temperature rises 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels? The possibilities are:

“Continued high fossil fuel emissions this century are predicted to yield (1) cooling of the Southern Ocean, especially in the Western Hemisphere; (2) slowing of the Southern Ocean overturning circulation, warming of the ice shelves, and growing ice sheet mass loss; (3) slowdown and eventual shutdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation with cooling of the North Atlantic region; (4) increasingly powerful storms; and (5) non-linearly growing sea level rise, reaching several meters over a timescale of 50–150 years. These predictions, especially the cooling in the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic with markedly reduced warming or even cooling in Europe, differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments.”

A cold and arid Europe

The authors cite evidence that at the end of the interglacial period in which sea level was believed to be six to nine meters higher than today, there was a dramatic cooling in northern Europe, estimated at 3 degrees C. in summer and 5 to 10 degrees in winter in southern Germany, accompanied by four centuries of arid weather and a decline in trees. During the period of sea-level rise, the North Atlantic is also believed to have suffered from more severe storms, with archeological evidence from Bermuda and the Bahamas used as evidence.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

As a consensus for global warming emerges, there is less certainty that capping global temperature increase at 2 degrees would be “safe”; thus the Paris Climate Summit’s surprise conclusion to set a goal of a 1.5-degree limit. To achieve such a goal, however, would, as noted above, require cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions far beyond anything pledged. The studies indicating that humanity has already committed itself to a six- to nine-meter sea-level rise imply that temperatures will rise past 1.5 degrees as greenhouse gas-generated heat trapped by the oceans is slowly released into the atmosphere over many decades, if not centuries.

There is no alternative to a massive change to industrial activity — no amount of re-forestation can come close to canceling out the effect of industrial activity.

The Atmospheric Chemistry paper concludes with this sober assessment:

“There is a possibility, a real danger, that we will hand young people and future generations a climate system that is practically out of their control. We conclude that the message our climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.”

Unfortunately, we live in an economic system that requires constant growth and offers no alternative work for those whose jobs would be eliminated were we to shut down the most polluting industries. In one of his novels, Arthur C. Clarke wrote of a 23rd century world that was finally eliminating the clutter and pollution of the 20th century. Sad to say, the late science fiction master was overly optimistic.

Business as usual at Paris summit won’t stop global warming

The bottom line of the Paris Climate Summit is this: The world’s governments say they agreed to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in actuality committed to nearly double that. A potential runaway global warming still looms in the future.

The surprise of the summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, was the decision to set a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of 2 degrees. This was done at the behest of Pacific Island countries that might be submerged with a 2-degree rise, and the new, more ambitious target, if achieved, would provide a greater margin of error as a 2-degree rise is widely believed to be the limit at which catastrophic damage can be avoided.

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)

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)

How is the new goal to be achieved? Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, reached on December 12, states:

“In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal [of 1.5 degrees], Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. …

Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution. … Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

What mechanisms will be created to ensure that the “Parties” (national governments) to carry out these plans? They “shall” report their progress, “shall undergo a technical expert review” (article 13) and discuss their progress five years from now (article 14). Governments will develop technology (article 10) and will “build mutual trust” through “transparency” (article 13).

In other words, peer pressure is the mechanism. There are no binding legal agreements requiring any country to achieve the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions pledged for the Paris Climate Summit.

Pledges equate to a tweak, not a reversal

A further problem is that should all the pledges actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group, comprised of four research organizations that produce independent scientific analyses, calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. Although Climate Action Tracker notes that this potential rise is less drastic than the nearly 4-degree rise that the world had been on course for prior to the Paris commitments, what has been accomplished is merely to slow the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The world’s governments have set various goals for reducing emissions by 2025 or 2030, with the European Union’s pledge of a 40 percent cut by 2030 the most ambitious among the biggest greenhouse-gas contributors. But the later that greenhouse-gas emissions are brought under control, the more difficult it will be to cap global warming at 1.5 or 2 degrees. A Climate Action Tracker analysis says:

“The need to fill in the gap between the projected [pledged] emissions levels in 2025 and the levels necessary to limit global warming to below 2°C means significantly more rapid, and costly, action would be needed compared to a situation where more ambitious targets for 2025 were adopted and where governments took immediate action now to achieve them. … Annual decarbonisation rates of 3-4%, which would be needed to catch up from 2025 [pledge] levels, are feasible, but the available modeling results indicate that such a reduction would result in much higher costs, more disruption, and more challenges than if action starts now and continues in a smooth way.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued last year foresees a rise in greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come, to above 450 parts per million, before falling to 450 ppm by 2100, which the report says is necessary to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the IPCC report relies on several technological breakthroughs, including capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which is not yet close to being feasible.

In an analysis of the summit, Ian Angus and Phil Gasper explain this leap of faith:

“Almost all of the scenarios that show an increase of less than two degrees by 2100 require, first, much greater emissions reductions than anyone is proposing in the next 30 years. And then, after 2050, they require ‘negative emissions.’ That is, there would have to be some technology invented that takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and no such technology exists. And if it is invented, no one can say how it would function on a global scale, or whether it will be safe. It’s pure fantasy, and we can’t depend on fantasy.”

Worse, not all countries have necessarily even pledged to reduce their emissions. Writing in Climate & Capitalism, Jonathan Neale calculates that several countries, including China, India and Russia, have merely pledged to slow the rate of their increases in greenhouse-gas emissions, and other governments, such as the United States, European Union, Canada and Australia, have agreed to cut their emissions by one percent per year. He writes:

“[C]ountries like India and China promise to cut emissions in terms of carbon intensity. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon in fossil fuels that is needed to produce the same amount of work. Carbon intensity has been going down in the United States for a hundred years. It is going down all over the world. This is because we learn to use coal, oil and gas more efficiently, just like we learn to use everything else in industry more productively. So a promise to cut carbon intensity is a promise to increase emissions.”

Pollution as a market commodity

Short-term profits are still given priority over the long-term health of the environment. One manifestation of this is that governments continue to rely on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity. Too many credits are provided for free, and as a result the prices for them have fallen drastically; and politically influential industries are often exempted, even if they are among the most polluting.

All the incentives in capitalism are for more growth, and the accumulation of power that accrues to corporations that grow the most enable large industry to bend laws and regulations to their liking. Stagnation in a capitalist economy causes persistent unemployment and other problems, as the past several years amply demonstrate. And that is before we get to the problem that nobody will be offering displaced workers new jobs should the polluting industries they work in be shut down or curtailed. Industry can say that any new restrictions on it will cost jobs, and rally working people behind them on that basis.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Professors Angus and Gasper, in their analysis of the Paris Climate Summit, stress the necessity of environmentalists working with labor:

“The fact is that workers don’t want to lose their jobs. Here in Canada, we have the phenomenon of people from some of the poorest parts of the country going to work in the Alberta Tar Sands. After six months or a year, they can go home, to a place where there are no jobs, and buy a house or a car, or pay off their debts. Telling those people ‘Don’t do that because you’re causing greenhouse gas emissions’ is just absurd. It’s a guaranteed way to turn working people against the environmental movement.

Now again, unfortunately, we see a lot of that. I’ve heard greens argue that we shouldn’t even try to reach oil sands workers because they’re just part of the colonial-settler assault on First Nations territory. Which is true–so we have to win them away from doing that, not force them into a firmer alliance with their bosses. We need to find ways to work with the labor movement around the whole concept of a ‘just transition.’ That concept has come out of the international labor movement–that we realize the change in the economy is going to result in lost jobs, and nobody should suffer as a result. There should be jobs or full pay, free retraining and so on.”

A worthy goal indeed. But could such a program be accomplished under capitalism? It does not seem so. Professors Angus and Gasper note that such a goal won’t be won without a strong movement. But as capitalism is a system designed for private profit, achieved through the exploitation of working people, a strong movement would have to push beyond it, to a more humane, rational economic system.

Another factor to contend with is that the goals of the Paris Climate Summit, inadequate as they may be, will be null and void should the Trans-Pacific Partnership and/or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership be approved. These multi-national “free trade” agreements would enable corporations to sue to overturn laws that protect the environment, and provide further incentives for production to be moved around the world with an accompanying increase in fossil fuels used for transporting components and finished goods across longer supply chains. TPP rules codifying benefits for multi-national corporations are written in firm language, but there is no such language for environmental or health protections. The TTIP’s language will likely be no better. The TPP does not mention global warming once in its text.

The Paris Climate Summit has been an exercise in feeling good, with the world’s corporate-media reporters at risk of sore arms from all the back pats they are giving. A future world of uncontrollable climate change, with agricultural patterns disrupted and species dying at accelerating rates, won’t feel good, however. Business as usual won’t save the future; only mass mobilization on a global scale can.

Earning a profit from global warming

As evidence mounts that a warming world is hurtling toward the point of no return, the plan of the world’s governments is to make adjustments to the ability of corporations to profit from polluting. Short-term profits continue to be elevated above the long-term health of the environment.

There does seem to be a new sense of governmental urgency ahead of the Paris climate summit scheduled for December, with several governments announcing new proposed reductions in future greenhouse-gas emissions. But is it already too late? Two scientific studies issued this year suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The Paris climate summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, has set itself the goal of “achiev[ing] a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” Representatives of the world’s governments will meet with an intention of setting goals for combatting global warming.

Thus far, however, the world’s governments have done little, relying on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity, setting goals for far in the future, and raising false hopes that “green capitalism” will magically save the day with shiny techno-fixes that will allow business as usual to continue. Worse yet, the same governments that claim to be taking steps toward reigning in pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions are negotiating destructive “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that will allow corporations to eliminate laws that protection the environment.

There are no free lunches, however, and definitely no free planets.

“Free trade” is not free for the environment

Already, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, laws protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals have been overturned. NAFTA is the starting point for The Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar secret deals, which will have still more draconian rules.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians notes that measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are no less susceptible to attack:

“Lawsuits totalling hundreds of billions of dollars have challenged environmental protection measures such as solar power programs, neurotoxin and additive bans, and the rejection of proposed mines. Canada, the most-sued state under NAFTA, is facing $2.6 billion in corporate challenges against legislation that restricts or bans carcinogenic additives in gasoline, lawn pesticides and fracking. Around the world, corporations have challenged governments over 600 times. With no way around these provisions, countries have been unable or unwilling to advance climate change legislation.”

“Free trade” agreements also contribute directly to global warming because they facilitate the transfer of production to the countries with the lowest wages and weakest regulation. Products are assembled from parts produced in multiple countries then shipped across oceans, greatly adding the environmental costs of transportation. This is not some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, but rather are products of the competitive dynamics of capitalism.

Not wanting to upset this dynamic, or their benefactors, political leaders instead fiddle while the Earth burns, as the G7 leaders did when declaring their intention to commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 and a complete phaseout in 2100. No government can bind a successor 80 years in the future, but it surely is easier to announce such a goal than to impose one scheduled to take effect when you might still be in office.

Those long-term targets mirror those of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which set them with an eye toward holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100, and even there envisions a temporary rise above 450 ppm before falling late in the 21st century.

The Paris climate summit, scheduled to take place November 30 to December 11, is being billed as the last chance for the world’s governments to set interim goals that could prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, a level widely believed (perhaps optimistically so) to be the limit before runaway global warming results. Yet the Earth is already experiencing climatic changes of a speed never before seen in the geological record, with atmospheric carbon dioxide at 400 ppm.

Sure we’ll cut emissions — eventually

National global-warming commitments include these goals:

  • The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels; instituted new national regulations on power-plant emissions; and announced a state-level cap-and-trade system whereby states, rather than enterprises, will trade pollution permits.
  • China intends to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; will inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledges to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
  • The European Union’s goal is a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of E.U. efforts is a failed cap-and-trade system that will not be reformed until 2021.
  • Brazil said it would cut emissions by 37 percent in 2025, relative to 2005, and intends to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil intends to generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledges to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
  • Canada has committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and fails to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
  • Japan intends to reduce emissions by 26 percent in 2030, relative to 2013 (the equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), reductions that would include international “offsets” and “credits” for forest management.
  • India has pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, and to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by that year. This goal, however, is a commitment to only slow the rate of emissions rather than cut them.
  • Australia has committed a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions, relative to 2005, reductions to be achieved in part through land-use changes and forestation. But the current coalition government has repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.

None, however, are judged by environmentalists to be making adequate progress toward these goals.

Cap-and-trade a subsidy for polluters

There has been a flurry of approval over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 25 announcement that China would institute a cap-and-trade program. Such schemes are often promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats. But these do virtually nothing to reduce greenhouse gases while allowing corporations to profit from pollution.

The European Union cap-and-trade program, 10 years old and the world’s biggest, has been a complete failure. Europe’s emissions trading system mandates that an enterprise that emits carbon dioxide must hold certificates equal to their emissions, and can buy or sell them from other corporations. But 43 percent of these certificates are issued for free, a subsidy for carbon emitters.

The targeted carbon trading price was €30 per metric ton, but because far too many certificates were issued, they trade at between €6 and €8. The E.U. proposes to reduce the number of free certificates, but not until 2021. Moreover, although the number of industries eligible for free carbon certificates will be reduced to 50 from 177, wine makers and tomato growers will no longer be eligible for the freebies, but cement factories, aluminum plants and others in heavy industry will still get them, according to Deutsche Welle.

The watchdog group Carbon Market Watch issued this caustic summation:

“[T]he EU Emissions Trading System review proposes to increase pollution subsidies to industry to at least €160 billion after 2020. … After more than a decade, the EU’s main climate instrument still lacks the teeth to make the polluter pay and drive emission reductions. Today’s proposal serves the interests of Europe’s largest polluters at the expense of the climate and taxpayers’ money.”

Carbon Market Watch reports that industries representing about 95 percent of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions will continue to receive free pollution permits after 2020. Despite the current excessive number of tradable credits — the reason for the plunge in pricing — there will be no cancelations of any of them despite calls by environmental activists for the number of credits to be diminished. Threats by industrialists to move out of Europe helped shape the “reforms.”

Industry had already shaped the cap-and-trade plan from the beginning. Richard Smith, in his paper Green capitalism: the god that failed, recounts the experience of former German environment minister Jürgen Tritten, a Green Party official:

“Mr. Tritten recalled a five-hour ‘showdown’ with [Social Democrat] Wolfgang Clement, then economy minister, in which he lost a battle to lower the overall limit. Clement reproached the Greens saying that ‘at the end of their policy there is the de-industrialization of Germany.’ Similarly, in confrontation with the Federation of German Electricity Companies, ‘good sense triumphed in the end’ and industry won: whereas under EU commitments, German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed – a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.”

Offsets don’t necessarily offset emissions

A French plan to go beyond cap-and-trade schemes with a tax on carbon was ultimately declared unconstitutional because, among other problems, it would have exempted more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters, Professor Smith said.

An additional weakness of cap-and-trade schemes is that some allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level. But the offset is not necessarily real, and often is counted twice, by the enterprise buying the credit and by the entity providing the offset. Food & Water Watch explained this slight of hand:

“Through offsets, a company can pay to theoretically prevent emissions outside of the cap, instead of reducing emissions at the source. For example, a power plant in California could pay for a section of forest to not be cut down in Oregon. This would count toward the polluter’s required reductions even though emissions are not reduced in California but are in theory prevented in Oregon. … The supposed benefits that offsets are intended to provide often fail to materialize. … [I]n reality, [offsets] allow polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions for real reductions.”

Business as usual isn’t possible: The atmospheric content of carbon dioxide continues to rise. Less reliance on fossil fuels and more reliance on renewable fuels is certainly a strong step in the right direction, but because many renewables also produce considerable greenhouse gases, they are incapable of reversing global warming by themselves.

There is no escaping that humanity must consume much less, an impossibility under a system, capitalism, that demands continual growth, whose incentives are for more consumption, and that enforces a competitive race to the bottom that includes the ongoing corporate globalization that systematically moves production to low-wage havens.

To stave off further global warming, and avoid the massive disruptions it promises, requires nothing less than an entirely new economic system, one that provides for human need under community control rather than private profit under the control of industrialists and financiers. Let us not sugar-coat this: Such wrenching changes will come with considerable costs. But the costs of business as usual will be immeasurably greater from rising sea levels, mass extinctions, droughts and chaotic weather. 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.