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,” possibly six to nine 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 17 percent in 2020, 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.

We may have already committed ourselves to 6-meter sea-level rise

Even if humanity were to stop throwing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere today, a catastrophic rise in sea levels of six meters may be inevitable. Two previous prehistoric interglacial periods, in which the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was believed to be about what it is today, resulted in dramatic rising of the oceans.

High-latitude ice sheets are melting, and given that global warming is most pronounced in the Arctic, it may already be too late stop a rise in sea levels that would flood out hundreds of millions around the world. Two new papers, the latest in a series of scientific studies, paint a picture considerably less rosy than conventional ideas that major damage can still be avoided.

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

One of these papers, a nine-scientist report led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science, found that modest rises in global temperatures in the past led to sea levels rising at least six meters. She summarized the findings this way to Climate Central:

“Even if we meet that 2°C target, in the past with those types of temperatures, we may be committing ourselves to this level of sea level rise in the long term. The decisions we make now about where we want to be in 2100 commit us on a pathway where we can’t go back. Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”

Professor Dutton was referencing the widely held belief that catastrophic damage can be avoided if global warming is held to no more than 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels. The “permissible” level may be less than that, however. More sophisticated “sea-level reconstructions” through interdisciplinary studies of geological evidence and better understanding of the behavior of ice sheets enabled the paper’s authors to infer that temperatures only slightly higher than what we are experiencing today upset the climatic balance. A summary of the paper concludes:

“[D]uring the last interglacial — a warm period between ice ages 125,000 years ago — the global average temperature was similar to the present and this was linked to a sea-level rise of 6-9 meters, caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. Around 400,000 years ago, when global average temperatures were estimated to be between 1 to 2°C higher than preindustrial levels, sea levels reached 6-13 meters [higher.]”

“Small” changes have big consequences

More alarming, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then was lower than it is today. Although geological forces pushing and pulling Earth’s surface can’t be precisely calculated, and thus introduce uncertainty in the actual level of the oceans in the geologic record, the greater uncertainty lies at the higher level of estimates. The paper’s summary said:

“Noticeably, during these two periods, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained around 280 parts per million (ppm). The scientists  also looked at sea level during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels reached around 400 ppm — similar to today’s levels. They hypothesized that sea level was at least 6 metres higher than today and potentially substantially higher. … While the global average temperature rises of 1 to 3°C seem small, they were, like today, linked with magnified temperature increases in the polar regions which sustained over many thousands of years.”

A second paper, State of the Climate in 2014, reports that Arctic sea-surface temperatures are rising faster than overall global temperatures, ice caps across the Northern Hemisphere continue to shrink, record high permafrost temperatures are being recorded in northern Alaska and melting of the Greenland ice cap is accelerating. The paper, a collaboration of 413 scientists from 58 countries, reports that, even if greenhouse gases were frozen at current levels, the oceans would continue to warm for centuries and thus lead to rising sea levels.

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time and warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere. This is already leading to warming oceans, State of the Climate reports:

“Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are preventing heat radiated from Earth’s surface from escaping into space as freely as it used to; most of the excess heat is being stored in the upper ocean. As a result, upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past two decades.”

The Science and State of the Climate papers back previous studies that conclude “there is no going back” — the excess heat stored in oceans will be released back into the atmosphere for centuries to come — and that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return.

Ice melts in front of our eyes

Two worrisome trends are that the eight lowest Arctic Ocean sea-ice extents have all occurred in the past eight years, and that the extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet during summer 2014 was faster than the 1981-to-2000 average 90 percent of the time. Antarctic ice is not yet showing accelerated melting, State of the Climate reports, but the paper does note that short-term extremes in temperatures have become more frequent on the continent.

Nor does that mean that all is well in Antarctica. Two scientific papers published in 2014 suggest the West Antarctic ice sheet has become dangerously weakened. One finds that a “large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet … has passed the point of no return” and the other finds that the ice sheet has become sufficiently unstable to possibly collapse in as few as 200 years. That is a long time by ordinary human standards, but very brief in geological terms, and would add greatly to rising sea levels.

So what would a six-meter increase in ocean levels mean? More than 440,000 square miles (1.14 million square kilometers), where 375 million people, would go under water, according to Climate Central.

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The current path humanity is walking is to throw more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Current plans by political leaders to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and completely by 2100 are woefully inadequate, but even those goals will be difficult to achieve. The metabolism of capitalism, and all its incentives, is for more growth and thus more anthropogenic warming. And although reversing global warming is impossible without reducing consumption, that, too, is impossible under capitalism because a typical advanced capitalist country 60 to 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by household spending.

Because of the growth imperative of capitalism — the need to grow or die forces enterprises into never-ending innovations to cut costs — economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer. Capitalism will not guarantee new jobs for those made unemployed by closing down polluting industries, adding incentives to maintain them. “Free trade” agreements accelerate global warming because supply lines are stretched around the world and production is moved to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulations. And as conventional sources of energy are depleted, more extreme measures are taken, including the exploitation of tar sands, adding still more greenhouse gases.

Our descendants are not likely to believe that short-term corporate profits and unsustainable consumption were a fair tradeoff for a world left much less habitable.

G7 leaders fiddle while Earth burns

The G7 governments saying they will phase out fossil fuels by 2100 isn’t closing the barn door after the horse has left. It is declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon. It is okay to be feel underwhelmed by this.

The Group of 7 summit held earlier this month in Germany, representing seven of the world’s largest economies, ended with a declaration that these governments would commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and a complete phaseout in 2100, and an invitation for “all countries to join us in this endeavor.” A communiqué issued after the summit declared:

“We commit to doing our part to achieve a low-carbon global economy in the long-term including developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050. … To this end we also commit to develop long-term national low-carbon strategies.” [page 17]

The G7 governments say they are acting under the impetus of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and in anticipation of next December’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the conception of the IPCC report, greenhouse-gas emissions should be 40 to 70 percent lower globally in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100 to achieve a goal of holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100. Even that level is a substantial increase above the current level of 404 parts per million, at which the Earth’s climate is already undergoing dramatic changes.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

The IPCC report, prepared by scientists from around the world but apparently watered down by the world’s governments, promises that mitigating global warming will be virtually cost-free and require no fundamental change to the world’s economic structure. Alas, there are no free lunches — the IPCC report’s insistence that techno-fixes will magically take care of carbon buildup, allowing humanity to continue the path it has been on since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously unrealistic.

So what do the G7 governments have in mind? Their communiqué says they will increase the number of people in developing countries who have access to insurance, increase developing countries’ access to renewable energy and raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” [pages 15-16] Try to contain your excitement when you read the G7 prescription for combating global warming:

“We will continue our efforts to provide and mobilize increased finance, from public and private sources. … We recognize the potential of multilateral development banks in delivering climate finance and helping countries transition to low carbon economies.” [page 15]

It may already be too late

Before we delve into the idea that the World Bank, funder of gigantic greenhouse-gas belching, polluting projects around the world, is the cure for global warming, and before we contemplate the idea that we can bind the policies of governments eight decades in the future, let us ask what actually needs to be done to prevent the climate from spiraling into a feedback loop that will accelerate species die-offs and dangerously disrupt agriculture and water supplies. The U.S. government’s climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a study in 2009 that flatly concluded “there’s no going back.” The study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, found:

“[C]hanges in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. … ‘It has long been known that some of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” Solomon said. “But the new study advances the understanding of how this affects the climate system.’ ”

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time, warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere, and we have yet to experience the full effect of greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. Global sea-level rises and major disruption to rain patterns will effect billions of people. The NOAA study said:

“If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.

The study notes that decreases in rainfall that last not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region. Such regional impacts include decreasing human water supplies, increased fire frequency, ecosystem change and expanded deserts. Dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in regions of rain-fed farming, such as Africa, would also be affected.”

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, lamenting the widespread conviction that global warming can be reversed quickly when and if it is decided to do so, notes such beliefs are in violation of basic physics. The paper’s abstract says:

“[W]ait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. … [Greenhouse-gas] emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects [of an MIT study] believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs—analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow—support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter.”

More heating even if we stopped today

A commentary published on RealClimate, a Web site published by working climate scientists, calculates that if greenhouse-gas concentrations were kept constant at today’s level, there would still be an increase in global temperatures of as much as 0.8 degrees Celsius — combined with the global warming already experienced, that is close to the 2-degree overall rise widely believed to be the outer limit to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. But to achieve even that equilibrium requires immediate, significant cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. The commentary says:

“[C]onstant concentrations of CO2 imply a change in emissions — specifically an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time.”

“Immediate” as in now, not decades in the future. The actual proposed cuts, in the near term, are far less than that range, and less than initially meets the eye. The baseline of measurement is being shifted, for example, so that the benchmark against which the reductions are measured are higher than previously set. Environmental Defence Canada calculates that the Harper government’s switch to using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline reduces the goal by more than half. In a report, the group writes:

“The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) both used 1990 as the reference or base year. Most countries still use 1990 as the base year but some have started using more recent base years. Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, Canada has been using 2005 as a base year. This makes comparison between targets more difficult. It also makes targets look stronger than they are since Canada’s carbon pollution increased significantly between 1990 and 2005. For example, the Canadian government’s pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030 is actually less than half as strong … when expressed using 1990 as the base year.” [page 3]

Emissions from the Alberta tar sands have increased almost 80 percent since 2005 and the Harper government has every intention of boosting tar sands production as much as possible, including plans for multiple pipelines, while equating environmentalists with terrorists. Environmental Defence Canada notes that the Harper government has no intention of regulating tar sands oil and flatly declares Canada’s post-2020 target “the weakest in the G7 to date.”

The potential global warming just from the Alberta tar sands is so large that the U.S. environmental scientist James Hansen believes it will be impossible to stop runaway global warming should that oil be burned.

Assigning contributions isn’t straightforward

The point here isn’t to single out Canada. But its cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is the ninth highest in the world, a ranking likely to rise if plans of current oil and gas companies come to fruition. So the argument sometimes made that Canada isn’t a significant contributor to global warming because of its small population isn’t true. The United States, not surprisingly, is easily the biggest culprit, having emitted 29 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gases, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute.

China ranks second, with nine percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions, and the top 10 countries account for 72 percent. (Italy is the only G7 country not among the top 10.) But even here, it could be argued that China’s ranking deserves an asterisk. Western multi-national corporations have eagerly transferred production to China, particularly U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple. So much of those Chinese greenhouses gases are the responsibility of U.S. corporations. A paper led by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo estimates that, in 2008 alone, the U.S. imported as much as 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in Chinese goods.

Regardless of source, global warming does not come without costs. The nonprofit organization DARA claims that global warming already causes 400,000 deaths per year, and that “the present carbon-intensive economy moreover is linked to 4.5 million deaths worldwide each year.”

Can the World Bank and International Monetary Fund realistically be part of the solution to global warming, as the G7 communiqué would have it? No! The World Bank has poured billions of dollars into dams, power plants and other projects that worsen global warming, and shows no sign of altering its indifference to environmental costs. The World Bank and IMF also promote neoliberalism and austerity programs around the world; immiserating people makes them more vulnerable, not less, to the stresses of global warming and pollution.

The amount of industrial carbon dioxide emissions thrown into the atmosphere from 1988 to 2014 is equal to all the emissions from 1751 to 1988, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. That continually rising rate of emissions is reflective of the ever more intensive pressures for growth capitalism imposes, and the continual movement of production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest environmental laws imposed by capitalist competition, stretching supply chains ever longer, is itself a contributor to global warming.

The G7 communiqué is nothing more than wishful thinking that no real change is necessary. There are no free lunches: The world has to drastically reduce its consumption. As this is an impossibility under capitalism, another world is not only possible, it is necessary in the long run for our descendants to even have a livable world.

Renewable energy isn’t a shortcut to reversing global warming

Denmark has distinguished itself as the country moving the fastest toward the eventual replacement of fossil fuels. Its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is laudable, but the assumption that this path will reverse global warming while otherwise continuing business as usual, is unrealistic.

At first glance, Denmark has made remarkable strides. The country’s intention to totally eliminate fossil fuels by the midpoint of the 21st century appears to be realistic. Already, Denmark is the world leader in wind energy and it intends to also exclude all use of nuclear power. At the start of 2015, the country’s energy agency, Energistyrelsen, said renewable energy sources account for 25 percent of Denmark’s total energy consumption, and more than 40 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources.

Danish countryside (photo by "Old Dane")

Danish countryside (photo by “Old Dane”)

The Danish government acknowledges that continuing consumption patterns based on “cheap and easy access to coal, oil and natural gas” is a “road [that] is not an option.” True enough. But the switch to renewable energy is promoted as cost-free. The Danish government says:

“Business … stands a great chance to move into the heavy league of successful super green companies. For instance, the energy efficiency measures a company makes are often paid back within [a] few years. Onwards, the savings on the energy bill can be unleashed to strengthen the core business of the company. Likewise, there is an enormous global market for green technology, services and systems. This market is only going to grow once more governments follow in the carbon-light footsteps of Denmark.

But of course such a strategy would come at a great cost to Danish society? The answer is a resounding no. … [T]he transition is relatively cheap, and business competitiveness not harmed. The government’s estimates are a price tag of approximately 10 euro pr. household pr. month at the highest (2020), a price tag that will only slowly increase to this level. In the opinion of the Danish government this is a reasonable insurance policy against unexpected increases in fossil fuel costs and a solid investment in Denmark’s future energy security.”

Enthusiasm for renewable commitment

An expected rising efficiency of renewable energy sources will ultimately lead to lower costs, more than offsetting the investments in renewable-energy infrastructure and reversing the present-day higher costs, the government says. So no change in consumption patterns after all. This enthusiasm is shared by environmental institutions that have become large nongovernmental organizations. Greenpeace, for example, issued a brief paper in October 2014 that reads like a press release. In this paper, “Denmark’s commitment to 100% renewable energy,” Greenpeace agreed that no changes in consumption will be required. It wrote:

“Denmark’s emissions reductions have not affected the economy negatively. The decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption is partially due to Danish companies being subsidised for using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency, which in turn increases their creativity and prompts energy savings. Job creation is an explicit objective of the Danish Climate Plan, and because Denmark has invested heavily in research and promotion of renewable energy, energy-efficient technologies and renewable heat supply systems, the climate and energy system has already created thousands of jobs. The full transition to 100 per cent renewable energy is expected to generate at least 30[,000] to 40,000 new jobs in a country of 5.5 million people.”

Moreover, this will come easy, Greenpeace says:

“Although Denmark’s roadmap to fossil fuel independence and 100 per cent renewable energy is specific to the Danish context, many of the recommendations are relevant and applicable to other nations around the world. One finding may be of particular interest: The costs of phasing out fossil fuels are expected to be almost equivalent to or only marginally more expensive than a ‘business as usual’ scenario.”

Too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes. That global warming and the accelerating damage to the global environment can be reversed without cost — and without any alteration to the high-impact consumerism of the global North’s advanced capitalist countries — echoes the unrealistic conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year. The IPCC concluded the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Nothing more than a statistical blip!

In actuality, the IPCC assertion that we can remain on the path of endless growth is a fantasy argument that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Bioenergy not necessarily a savings on greenhouse gases

When we look past the cheerleading for a bright renewable future, two problems immediately pop up: Renewable energy is 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.

Denmark’s phaseout of oil, gas and coal is dependent on wind power and biomass, and to a lesser degree on solar energy. But just because energy from biomass is classified as renewable, that doesn’t make it sustainable or environmentally friendly. Denmark is the biggest per capita user of bioenergy, with Germany and Britain significant users as well. But the primary source of bioenergy is wood, and much of this wood must be imported. British plans for expanding bioenergy, if brought to fruition, could consume nine times more wood than can be supplied internally. Denmark is already a heavy importer of wood pellets.

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

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

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study published in April 2014 found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

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

Even the wind (energy) has toxicity

Wind energy has its environmental issues as well. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country.

Most rare earths are mined in China because the mines are so environmentally destructive they had been shut down elsewhere. Production has been re-started in other countries, lessening demand on Chinese exports, but increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. Renee Cho, a blogger for Columbia University’s Earth Institute, provides a sobering picture of this:

“All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can contaminate air, water, soil and groundwater. Metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium may be released during mining into the air or water, and can be toxic to human health. Moreover, the refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids and results in polluted wastewater that must be properly disposed of. The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue.”

Just because it’s renewable, doesn’t mean its environmentally friendly. As Almuth Ernsting, a founder of Biofuelwatch, summarized in a Truthout article:

“Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as ‘renewable’ helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as ‘renewable,’ boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.”

Increased efficiency in energy usage hasn’t resulted in decreases in greenhouse-gas emissions. A study by 10 scientists led by Josep G. Canadell found that the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing. The growth rate in anthropogenic carbon dioxide was higher in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Not only has economic growth contributed to this rate increase, but the carbon intensity of gross world product began to increase during the decade of the 2000s. Adding to this sobering picture, the efficiency of natural carbon sinks (such as forests and oceans that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) is declining.

The study said a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce unprecedented increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Beyond renewables, fundamental change is necessary

The conclusion necessary to be drawn isn’t that we shouldn’t switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as quickly as reasonably possible. Of course that should be done. But it is a delusion to believe that doing so in itself is a magic wand to wish away the growing crises of global warming, environmental degradation and resource depletion. There is no alternative to drastically reducing consumption of energy and material goods, an impossibility under capitalism, and bringing into existence a sustainable economic system.

All incentives in capitalism are for endless growth; it can’t function without it. Because of this expansionary imperative, that production is for private profit rather than human need and that enterprises are able to externalize environmental costs, decreases in energy prices are an incentive to increase energy usage, which is what has been happening. 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.

A former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer, says that economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease. In addition, energy usage due to transportation is increased from the movement of production to countries around the globe. Raw materials and component parts are shipped from all over the world to an assembly point, then the finished products are transported back.

This enormous contribution to global warming is another product of capitalism, specifically the dynamic of relentless competition that induces corporations to move production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulation, and to stretch supply lines around the world. These competitive “innovations” must be copied by competitors, thus increasing this tendency. (And are a catalyst for “free trade” agreements that incentivize the expansion of trans-national rootlessness.) As the depletion of natural resources accelerates, an inevitable byproduct of competitive pressures and the never-ending scramble for bigger profits, more energy and capital will be required to extract resources more difficult to exploit.

Carrying on with business as usual, with changes to the mix of energy production, is an illusion that “green capitalism” will save the world. Liberals and social democrats, in their own way, can be as unrealistic as conservatives. Conservatives correctly see that measures to combat global warming will come with a cost, so they screech that global warming doesn’t exist, despite the enormity of the evidence all around us. Liberals and social democrats readily acknowledge the real danger of global warming but, no more willing to tamper with the machinery of capitalism than conservatives, promise that the changes will be cost-free.

The changes won’t be. But the cost of doing nothing, of letting a runaway global warming take hold — the very path humanity is treading — will be much higher. The limits of the planet, of nature, will assert themselves. Yielding to natural limits now will come with much disruption, but having limits imposed on us in the future will surely be much worse.

Corporate green-washing on Earth Day

Earth Day was celebrated three days early in New York City, with a pop-up shopping mall in a park. Green-washing in all its glory: We’ll shop our way to a clean environment and a re-stabilized climate! Adding a touch of bitter irony, this corporate green-washing took place in Union Square, traditionally a site for organized protest.

Although not really expecting anything different, going only to hand out fliers against the pending Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic “free trade” agreements and the threat these agreements pose to knowing what is in the food you buy, it was nonetheless a depressing spectacle. There were large displays there for Toyota and Honda — the automobile industry can not realistically be described as “green.” Citibank was there, too, as were a collection of food companies who brand themselves as environmentally sensitive but are owned by multi-national behemoths who don’t believe you have a right to know what is in the food you eat.

The two automobile companies were hyping electric vehicles. A bit less fossil fuel exhausts adding to the atmospheres’s carbon dioxide is good, yes, but building and driving an electric-powered automobile hardly qualifies as a stroke for a cleaner world. An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all all the pollution they will ever produce comes before the vehicle hits the road.

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)

Then there is the matter of where the electricity comes from; the electricity used to power the vehicle is only as clean as its source. A full two-thirds of electricity produced in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels. Coal is the biggest source of U.S. electricity, accounting for 39 percent in 2014; natural gas, also a huge contributor to global warming, is the second biggest source at 27 percent. About half of European electricity comes from coal or natural gas.

So increasing electricity usage, if it means an increase in coal or other global-warming and polluting sources, isn’t “green.” Then we would need to consider the battery for an electric vehicle, which is not without greenhouse-gas emissions and which contains nickel as a major input. Nickel exposure can cause damage to blood, lung, noses, kidneys, reproductive systems and skin. Mining it causes not only pollution but contributes to global warming. So, again, not really “green.”

And Citibank as a “green” enterprise? A 2011 report by a coalition of environmental groups, “Bankrolling Climate Change,” found that Citibank provided more than €4 billion in financing for coal mining in the previous five years, the third highest total of any bank in the world, and is also one of the top three financiers of mountain-top removal coal operations.

“Organic” brands that promote GMO foods

Two of the sponsors of New York City’s Earth Day fair were Morningstar Farms and Honest Tea. Both had prominent displays. But these are not mom-and-pop operations; both are part of multi-national conglomerates. Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg Company and Honest Tea by Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola contributed $1.2 million and Kellogg more than $600,000 to the corporate effort that narrowly defeated California ballot measure Proposition 37 in 2012, which would have required labels on genetically engineered foods and banned the industry practice of marketing GMO-tainted foods as “natural.”

Most natural foods brands have been swallowed by multi-national corporate behemoths, which gladly use consumers’ money for purposes anathema to organic consumers’ interests. The Cornucopia Institute notes that:

“[M]any iconic organic brands are owned by the titans of junk food, processed food and sugary beverages—the same corporations that spent millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington. General Mills (which owns Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, and LaraBar), Coca-Cola (Honest Tea, Odwalla), J.M. Smucker (R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic), and many other corporate owners of organic brands contributed big bucks to deny citizens’ right to know what is in their food.”

The Cornucopia Institute also reports that Morningstar Farms’ veggie burgers (along with several other brands) are produced using hexane, an air pollutant and neurotoxin. The institute writes:

“In order to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers, manufacturers of soy-based fake meat like to make their products have as little fat as possible. The cheapest way to do this is by submerging soybeans in a bath of hexane to separate the oil from the protein. Says Cornucopia Institute senior researcher Charlotte Vallaeys, ‘If a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein, you can be pretty sure it was made using soy beans that were made with hexane.’ … Troubling, then, that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in foods.”

At least two New York City food coops refuse to carry Morningstar Farms products. Yet there it prominently was at the Earth Day fair, with passers-by lining up to be green-washed.

And then we have Honest Tea, or more accurately, Coca-Cola, its owner. The worldwide string of human rights abuses that Coca-Cola is so frequently implicated in speaks for itself. The activist group Killer Coke has compiled a country-by-country list of outrages in various countries, including thousands of children, as young as eight-years-old, used as labor on El Salvador sugar-cane farms that supply the company; multiple kidnappings and murders of union officials at a bottling plant in Guatemala; and, in the Philippines, the use of outsourced labor to avoid paying benefits and accusations of “smuggling” sugar into the country to avoid taxes and undercut local sugar producers.

Shopping is not participation in your world

The organizers of Earth Day New York, said to be organized by an unspecified “broad coalition of environmental groups,” have this to say about it:

“Earth Day is more than a one-day event or annual environmental wake-up call. It is a catalyst for ongoing education, action, and change. It simultaneously broadens the base of support and rekindles old commitments through highly participatory strategies.”

So there we have it: Consumption of corporate products falsely branded as “green” or “environmentally friendly” is participatory! Undoubtedly, many, perhaps most, of the people passing through Union Square that day wish to be have a lighter footprint on the Earth and have would like to diminish their contribution to global warming. But to do that requires less consumption, not a re-arrangement of unsustainable consumption patterns.

Above all, it will require a complete overhaul of the world’s economy. Most of the ideas floated to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions reaching a critical point feature untested technologies, reliance on biofuels that are no less polluting than fossil-fuel energy or various other techno-fixes. The cost of all these too good to be true “solutions” to global warming will be virtually nothing, according to, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year.

Alas, cost-free “green capitalism” is an illusion. The economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are highly dependent on consumerism; household spending accounts for 60 percent or more of gross domestic products across the global North. Wasteful practices such as planned obsolescence exist to continually induce us to buy more and more products. And nor is it simply a matter of wishing away polluting industries — capitalism has no mechanism to provide jobs for the untold millions of people who would be thrown out of work if just the most polluting industries were shut down.

Production in the capitalist system is done for private profit, not for human need; environmental costs are externalized. Thus a capitalist corporation, faced with the need to expand because of the rigors of competition and forced to focus on “maximizing shareholder value” over all other values by market forces, has to expand and dump as much of the costs of its production, including pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, on society as possible. It also means that popular demands for “green” products are nothing more than a marketing opportunity to exploit.

Producing products that consume less energy and resources is certainly good, but if more of these are being produced, then there is no real savings. All the incentives in capitalism are for more production, more consumption.

There is no alternative to drastically reducing what is consumed and building a new economy based on human need, incentivized to protect the environment and possessing the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated. This would require a socialized economy that would have no need to grow. We can’t shop or grow our way out of environmental crisis. No amount of corporate green-washing can render “green capitalism” anything other than an illusion nor can shopping replace organized activism.