by Jack Gerson
The much-publicized commitments made at the recent United Nations Climate Conference (the “Paris Agreement”) are far short of what will be needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. The bourgeois politicians and their corporate masters are feeling the heat from the growing movement against climate change and the far broader awareness of a vast number of people around the world that global warming is real, climate change is here, it’s accelerating, it’s already wreaking havoc (extreme weather; rising seas; etc.), and it is getting worse a lot faster than had been projected. Voluntary targets, relying on the good faith of the world’s profit-driven corporate leaders, have little chance of doing the job. Nor should we wait for some billionaire-to-be entrepreneur to pull the world out of the fire with a technology fix. Climate change is first and foremost a social problem, rooted in what capitalist society values (profits) and prioritizes (profitability). The longer capitalism runs the world, the more intense climate change will be.
It was pretty clear by the late ‘80s, if not earlier, that major shifts to ‘green energy’ were needed asap, as James Hansen (then the government’s leading climate scientist) told Congress in 1988. The greenhouse effect was already clear, and it was evident that human activity was a major contributor. But we did not get those major shifts to green energy. Instead we got decades of gross fossil fuel consumption, enabled by wanton environmental destruction: increased offshore drilling, wholesale mountain top removal, strip mining, fracking, etc. The Paris conference was, if not an outright fraud (which is what James Hansen calls it), then far less than half-measures. They’re still intent on taking fossil fuels out of the ground. Hence the coal trains criss-crossing the country (ticking time bombs routed through major urban areas, like the Bay Area.) Hence while China is trying to cut down its domestic coal use, Chinese companies are increasing their export sales of coal mining equipment. Even Germany, which has an image as a green energy leader,has actually increased overall coal production and use — and it’s using the dirtiest, most polluting kind of coal (lignite). Why? Because it’s cheap. (See ).
Capitalists will do what costs least and enables the greatest profit.:
“The International Energy Agency’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2015’ pegs global fossil-fuel subsidies at $490 billion and those for renewables at $135 billion. The IMF, which includes in its calculation the failure to account for negative externalities of energy use (what it calls ‘post-tax subsidies’), pegs global energy subsidies at $5.3 trillion, most of it for fossil fuels.” Jessica Mathews, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, letter to The Economist (printed in December 19, 2015 issue, p. 20)
In Paris, the U.S. committed to reducing carbon emissions to 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. But in 1997, the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol, committing to reducing carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2020. Now, with 2020 less than five years away, U..S. carbon emissions have actually increased by more than 25%. The Paris agreement, then, shifts the target 30 years into the future, increases it from 1997’s Kyoto target, and has increased the target figure (because now it’s 80% of the 2005 levels, where previously it had been 80% of the significantly lower 1990 levels). Furthermore, the Paris Agreement is voluntary: its targets are not binding, and failing to meet them incurs no penalty. [This reminds me of the many “peace” conferences, each of which announces that this time for sure we’re winding down the [Afghan war; the Iraq war; the Syrian war; the …]
Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was signed, carbon emissions increased rather than decreased as fossil fuel exploration, extraction, and consumption went over the top. Tar sands; fracking; offshore drilling in the Arctic Slope and elsewhere along the fragile continental shelf —the fossil fuel party raged on and on, despite the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; despite multiple explosions of coal trains; despite well-known dangers associated with fracking.
Will the voluntary controls be implemented? Not likely, unless there’s a protracted global economic slump that sharply reduces energy consumption. It’s true that coal production has recently fallen significantly — an estimated two-thirds of the world’s coal production is now unprofitable. But coal has largely been replaced by natural gas, which may prove to be an even greater threat. Natural gas extraction is accompanied by leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas estimated to have 72 times the impact of carbon dioxide. And we know full well that for at least the near term future, oil production will continue and may even increase: for example, as oil prices dipped over the past year or two, Saudi Arabia maintained high levels of production. China, whose cities are choking in killer smog, is cutting back sharply on coal production — but Chinese coal equipment manufacturers have increased their exports of coal mining equipment.
And even should the U.S., China, and the EU somehow meet the targets set in Paris, all other countries would have to reduce their emissions by a far greater proportion — as much as 10 times more aggressively — in order to avoid global temperature increasing more than 2 degrees C by 2030. That is why the Paris Agreement was labeled “a fraud” by James Hansen. It’s why Hansen, Naomi Klein (author of “This Changes Everything”), and other climate activists say that even in the unlikely event that the industrial states meet those voluntary emissions targets, global temperatures are likely to increase by more than 3 degrees Celsius. That would be disastrous. And it’s not just environmentalist activists like who warn of this. Here’s commentary from The Economist, the renowned British financial magazine:
“It is vital, they [the world’s leaders] declared, that the world’s temperature does not climb much more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; and yet they simultaneously celebrated a new climate agreement that got nowhere close to preventing such a rise.
“The individual pledges that nations made going into the Paris talks — which they will now be expected, though not compelled, to honor — are estimated to put the world on course for something like 3 degrees Celsius of warming. In the non-linear universe of climate change, 3 degrees Celsius represents a lot more than twice as much risk and harm as 1.5 degrees Celsius.” (The Economist, 12/19/15, p. 16)
Examples of what would happen at 3 degrees Celsius: rising seas swallowing island nations, southern Florida (including Miami), much of the eastern seaboard of the U.S., Bengla Desh; increase in extreme weather: more droughts, more floods, more catastrophic storms (we’re seeing this already, and this is just the beginning).
The fact is that climate models have tended to underestimate the pace of climate change. For example, the Greenland glaciers have been melting more rapidly than had initially been projected. So what’s coming may be considerably worse than we’re expecting. Indeed, some climate scientists believe that we may be on the verge of truly catastrophic events if, as growing evidence suggests, global warming results in the Gulf Stream shutting down.
Things should never have gone this far. Decades ago — surely by the late 1980s — the world ought to have prioritized research and development that would have enabled a full transition to renewable energy. But that wasn’t a viable business opportunity: there were trillions to be made in fracking, tar sands, shale oil, offshore oil, coal. They appropriated the profits, we pay the price.
We’ve gone so far up the wrong path that now there may be only one viable way out: negative emissions. First, of course, reducing emissions from current levels, but going on to remove more carbon out of the atmosphere than we’re putting into it. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the organization established by the U.N. and the World Meteorological Organization to assess climate change) says that the only way global temperature increase can be held to under 2 degrees C is through achieving overall negative emissions.
Can this be done?
A small but growing number of engineers and scientists believe that it can be done by refining already existing techniques that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then using renewable energy sources to convert the carbon dioxide to low-carbon fuels. This is called direct air capture (or direct air carbon capture), and it’s being pursued by several technology startups (including one funded by Bill Gates, and another funded by Audi.) Three years ago, the American Physical Society (APS) declared that direct air carbon capture was prohibitively expensive and was therefore not viable, and that was the kiss of death as far as most of industry and government were concerned. However, the APS report apparently greatly overestimated the cost of direct air capture (see and ). But regardless of the cost, if removing carbon from the air is essential to prevent catastrophic climate change — and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among many others, insists that it is — then that path needs to be pursued, regardless of the price tag. A society that puts the interest of people and the planet before profit would do so. It is a sad commentary that such a course was even questioned, let alone rejected or at least delayed. As it becomes clear that extreme measures are needed, it may be a case of too little, too late.
Even if direct air capture can be developed by the tech startups, and even if the method is employed on a large enough scale, there are likely to be unforeseen consequences. This method should have been refined and tested decades ago, and after the bugs were shaken out and the side effects mitigated it could have been employed, together with the renewable energy that likewise should have been refined and tested and then employed on a mass scale years ago. But that’s not how capitalism operates.
What was really needed then, and is needed even more now, is to change the world’s priorities by taking power out of the hands of the corporate profiteers and their political mouthpieces. These decisions need to be made democratically, and collectively, by the vast majority, who have all the facts at their disposal and put the needs of the majority first.
Capitalist society’s priorities are all messed up. They’re upside down. The corporate forces and individuals who run this world base their decisions on profit, not on what human beings and the planet need to survive. So we may not get the needed investment in direct air carbon capture — or, if we do, it may be too little, too late. Or it may have negative consequences. These problems didn’t have to be, and certainly not at their current pace and scale. Those are a product of the way that this society is organized. We need to reorganize society along very different lines: what we need is socialism. That means wresting power from those who now control and run society, and are leading it (and us) to ruin.