The first scientific warnings of the danger of global warming date back more than 50 years. Finally they were taken seriously enough in 1998 for the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
From initial warnings to absolute urgency
The IPCC is a body of a particular type: its assessments are written by scientists, but the “summaries for policy makers” are negotiated with the representatives of the member states. Since its creation, it has released five bulky reports. All have valid initial hypotheses: the average surface temperature of the Earth is increasing; this increase is due almost entirely to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (“anthropogenic” emissions are those caused by human beings). The most important of these is carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
The IPCC has said it for more than 25 years: in the absence of a big reduction in emissions, global warming will lead to:
- an increase in sea levels
- a multiplication of extreme weather events,
- a decline in agricultural productivity,
- a reduction of drinking water available,
- a marked decline in biodiversity.
It will also have health consequences. Global warming is not the only environmental problem, but it is without doubt the central and most urgent problem. With the time that has gone by since the creation of the IPCC, the projections can be compared to reality and the conclusion is worrying: reality is worse than the models predicted.
Fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) provide for 80% of the energy needs of the planet. The energy issue is therefore at the centre of the challenge. As Naomi Klein notes in her latest book, if policymakers had quickly taken the bull by the horns, they might have been able to steer a relatively gentle transition towards a system based exclusively on efficient use of renewable resources. But they have not done so. So today we are faced with a situation of absolute urgency, where the threat can only be dealt with by extremely drastic measures precisely what the policy makers wanted to avoid!
Growth or climate, we must choose
The cause of this appalling situation does not lie in the technical impossibility of emerging from reliance on fossil fuels, or in demographic pressure. It lies in the very nature of the capitalist economic system. “A capitalism without growth is a contradiction in terms”, said Schumpeter. Today, nobody can deny that this is the heart of the question.
In effect, saving the climate involves emission reductions so drastic that they are not feasible without a significant decrease in energy consumption. And such a decrease in its turn is not possible without significantly diminishing the processing and transport of materials. In other words, it is not possible without renouncing growth.
The progress of energy efficiency does not allow us to escape this physical constraint. Indeed, in addition to the fact that it has physical limits, this progress is more than offset by the “rebound effects” (the energy saved is used to produce something else, or the same thing in greater quantities). This is inevitable as long as productivist logic, entrepreneurial freedom and competition for markets remain the rule.
Technologies are not a solution
On this point, the last report of the IPCC gives a false picture of the reality. According to this report, in the conditions studied (i.e. with maintenance of growth), it is only possible to remain below an average temperature increase of 2°C if the emissions of the global energy system become negative from 2070 (in other words, if the system captures more CO2 than it emits).
To achieve this result, the scenarios used all involve the massive use of “Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage” (BECCS). BECCS is a technology which produces negative carbon dioxide emissions by combining two things:
- the use of energy from plants (bioenergy),
- storage of carbon emissions underground so they don’t get into the atmosphere (geologic carbon capture and storage).
But the work compiled by Working Group 3 of the IPCC is problematic in three ways:
- It does not provide evidence that this technology is safe.
- It provides no guarantees about its social and environmental consequences, which are potentially very substantial.
- It introduces competition between energy crops and food crops, and it will have an impact on biodiversity.
There are many scenarios which claim to reconcile growth with the transition toward a zero carbon system, by respecting the limit of 2°C. But they are all biased because they all fail to take into account one or other of these problems. And the mother of all these problems has a name: capitalism. But “capitalism” and “growth” are taboo words, which the researchers of the IPCC refrain from using.
There are no commitments to reduce emissions
Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques - COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)
Pablo Solon, the former UN ambassador for Bolivia, analyses the text which serves as a basis for the Paris negotiations. He draws attention to another crucial point, which reaches the same anti- capitalist conclusions from another, more specific, direction: while the reduction commitments for the deadline of 2030 are decisive for staying under 2°C, in fact they don’t exist. Quite rightly, Solon, attributes this fact to the “pot luck” method in which each country decides on its own voluntary reductions. But the underlying question arises: why this silence in particular on the 2030 deadline?
The ANSWER to this question has three components:
- Capitalized fossil reserves: the oil, gas and coal companies need to stop operating 80% of the fossil reserves which they own. These form part of their assets which determine their listing on the Stock Exchange.
- Depreciation of the energy system: the majority of the global energy system – almost 20% of global GDP – needs to be scrapped before depreciation.
- The intertwining of these two levels of financial capital which run the world: this destruction of capital would result in a huge financial crisis; the bursting of a huge bubble.
The ANSWER explains the substantial funds provided to climate change deniers.
Systemic crisis and the social project
COP 21 will be a summit of falsehood, of business and of climate crime. It will be a provisional summit, unfortunately. If it does not encounter resistance, the system will go much further in social and environmental destruction. Language such as “ecological crisis” and “anthropogenic climate change” are misleading. Overall, this is a systemic crisis, a historic impasse of capitalism. And it is in this context that strategies must be invented. The anti-capitalist left faces a challenge to promote the project of a non-productivist society and to develop practices, demands and forms of organization that allow it to be implemented.
A very broad mobilization is in progress which should culminate firstly in Paris, during COP 21, and then continue beyond that. The organizers want to bring together movements of all the exploited and oppressed. Peasant unions and indigenous peoples are in the front line of a battle based on destruction of common land, where women play a major role. Broad layers of youth are already involved in the struggles against major infrastructural projects in the service of fossil fuels. But the labour movement is lagging behind.
The unions are involved in the mobilization, certainly. But it is not only about that. It is about bringing the masses of workers to consider this fight as theirs, so that they contribute daily with their own actions. It is a decisive challenge but a difficult one. It can be met only by a twofold movement to develop union democracy and a radical, anti-capitalist program and practices. Without this, the “just transition” demanded by the International Confederation of Trade Unions risks being only an accompaniment to the capitalist strategy and its consequences.
The bringing together of movements underlines the need for a non-capitalist social project, adapted to the demands of our time: an ecosocialist project, which seeks to satisfy real human needs, which are democratically determined, while respecting prudent ecological constraints. Although still imprecise, this self- managed project, which will be decentralized, feminist and internationalist, renounces the fantasy of “domination over nature” and the obsession of “always more”. It already lives in the struggles for emancipation. There is no more urgent task than to make it grow.
Tanuro is a certified agriculturalist and ecosocialist environmentalist.