The growing climate crisis

Why are governments refusing to take action?

IN NOVEMBER, a few days before the next round of United Nations (UN) sponsored climate talks were due to begin in Doha, the World Bank issued a report prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research warning of dire consequences if international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not met or, in fact, surpassed.

Climate scientists have long warned that if average global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the environmental consequences will be severe. But the new report concluded that even if all the countries which have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were to meet their current targets, the global temperature would likely rise by 3.5 to 4 degrees by the end of the century, with some areas experiencing rises of up to 10 degrees.

The World Bank report notes that if the 4-degree mark is reached, this will in all likelihood “trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate large numbers of people from land inundated by rising seas.” Other consequences would include increased water scarcity, more high-intensity tropical cyclones, and permanent loss of biodiversity.

A few days later another report, this time from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), brought more bad news. The UNEP study revealed that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is 20 percent higher today than in 2000 and 14 percent higher than the goal for 2020, making targets set in 1997 by the Kyoto Protocol completely inadequate.

Global temperatures have already risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, and the cost to the world economy has been estimated at $1.2 trillion every year, including crop losses due to droughts and storm damage.

“Action on climate change needs to be scaled-up and accelerated without delay if the world is to have a running chance of keeping a global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius this century,” according to a UN press release summarizing the report. But UNEP’s executive director, Achim Steiner, noted “a transition to a low-carbon, inclusive green economy is happening far too slowly.”

The only thing that seems to be accelerating, however, is the continued use of fossil fuels. Last year the World Resources Institute compiled a list of twelve hundred new coal plants—the power stations that create the most pollution—currently being constructed around the world. The combined output of these new plants will be equivalent to the total greenhouse gas emissions of China, currently the largest emitter in the world.

While most of the new coal plants are being built in China and India, much of the funding comes from the West.  Since 2006, for instance, J.P. Morgan Chase has invested $16.5 billion in new coal plant construction. During the same period, Citibank has poured in $13.8 billion.

Nor is it just the private banks. Governments, with the United States in the lead, provide fossil fuel companies with annual subsidies of around $600 billion. And despite the urgent warnings in its recent report, even the World Bank continues to spend billions on new coal plants and other fossil fuel projects. In September 2010, the charity Christian Aid reported: “World Bank funding for coal power stations has soared 40-fold over the last five years to hit a record [annual] high of $4.4 billion.”

The massive funding for fossil fuel development comes at a time when the World Bank has been appointed interim trustee of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, created to provide funding for sustainable energy projects in the developing world. The contradiction was not lost on Christian Aid’s Dr. Alison Doig, who noted:

At the same time as it is seeking to gain control of the billions which will be channeled to developing countries to help them cope with global warming, the Bank is still lending staggeringly large and growing sums to finance coal-fired power. Yet we know that coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels—the one which most exacerbates the climate crisis which is having devastating effects on the lives of people living in poverty. We also know that by financing the building of coal power stations, the Bank is locking countries in to coal use for the next 40 to 50 years.

Even financial analysts have pointed out the problem with all this, albeit in their own narrow terms. If the rise in average global temperature is to be limited to 2-degrees Celsius, then the largest fossil fuel companies can only use 20 percent of their known reserves. A January 2012 open letter to the governor of the Bank of England from a group described by Britain’s Guardian newspaper as “a high-profile coalition of investors, politicians and scientists,” warned that as a result of this fact investments in these companies are “sub-prime” assets that have created “a systemic risk to economic stability.” As one of the letter’s signatories put it:

Investors continue to pour cash into unsustainable assets without understanding the risks associated with these investments, such as climate change, local pollution, fossil fuel price volatility, political risk and catastrophes such as Deepwater Horizon [the BP oil rig that exploded off the coast of Louisiana].

So, in other words, if concern for the environment alone doesn’t move you, perhaps worries about the stability of the economy and the long-term prospects for your investment portfolio will convince you of the need for action.


Yet what is most striking is that faced with what could fairly be described as the biggest threat in human history, major governments around the world have done almost nothing. It has been widely noted that in the US presidential election climate change was ignored not only in the debates (for the first time since 1984), but also barely mentioned by either candidate on the campaign trail.

In case anyone thought that Obama was simply biding his time, in his post-election press conference he announced, “If the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go for that. I won’t go for that.” One blogger at the Washington Post called Obama’s approach “free-lunch environmentalism,” a “flying unicorn policy” in which global warming is an afterthought that will only be addressed if it does not involve diverting resources from other areas or, we should add, threatening the profits of the fossil fuel industry.

The failure to act was most evident at the Doha climate talks in Qatar, held shortly after the US election. At similar talks in Copenhagen in 2009, all that the world’s leading governments could agree to were nonbinding goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would hold the global temperature increase to the 2-degree Celsius target. It was obvious at follow-up meetings at Cancún (2010) and Durban (2011) that the leading emitters are not on a trajectory to meet even these goals, but nothing more was agreed to, and at Doha the can was once again simply kicked down the road.

According to environmental activist Samantha Smith who was in Doha as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, the talks resulted in “an incredibly weak deal” that “will do nothing to make sure that emissions go down and not up. It will do nothing to bring finance over the long term to poor countries that are suffering from climate change. And it will do nothing to pave the way for the global deal that we have all been promised in 2015.”

Given that the stakes are so high, that climate change is already exacting a high cost in environmental and economic terms, and that if nothing is done then not too far down the road we will be facing an irreversible calamity, what accounts for this total failure to deal with the problem? One factor, the most obvious, has already been alluded to—the power of the fossil fuel industry, which for years has buried its head in the sand with respect to the science of climate change and which has used its enormous financial resources to shape government policy in many countries.

One report on the climate talks was headlined: “Fossil Fuel Lobby in the Driver’s Seat at Doha.” According to Michiel Schaeffer, a scientist with Climate Analytics, “There are many in the fossil fuel industry who think they have everything to lose in the needed transformation of the energy sector.” One result of the industry’s lobbying has been the huge subsidies it receives from national governments, which in the developed world are on average five times greater than the amounts the same governments have pledged to poor countries to assist with the impact of climate change.


But government inaction can’t be explained simply in terms of the fossil fuel lobby. Underlying their inability to come up with a significant agreement is the bitter imperial competition for economic and political dominance that goes on between the major powers—particularly the United States and China—in the context of global capitalism. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, is unwilling to make any concessions that it believes will give China an advantage in their mutual struggle to extend their spheres of influence as far as possible. Conversely, China is unwilling to alter its energy policy in ways that would impact its economic growth. The result is a deadly game of imperialist chicken, in which the country that blinks first loses, and if no one blinks the environmental crisis spirals out of control. The Marxist political theorist Walden Bello has called this confrontation “Mutually Assured Inaction.”

Underlying these conflicts is the competitive logic of capitalism itself. At root, capitalism is a system of endless growth based on competition between rival capitals and the states that back them. When growth slows down or ceases, capitalism goes into crisis, and the crisis is only resolved when some of the competitors lose out or are destroyed. This is bad enough in the narrow sphere of economics, where capitalist economies are characterized by an endless sequence of frenetic booms and devastating slumps. But the underlying dynamic cannot be confined to economics and also gives rise to military competition and war. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the dynamic of endless growth comes into conflict with the natural environment, eventually undermining the physical conditions necessary for the reproduction of human society from one generation to the next.

The bottom line is that capitalism itself is incompatible with an environmentally sustainable economy, and there can be no solution to the environmental crisis that does not challenge our current economic system at its roots. Instead of an economy based on competition and exploitation, we need one based on cooperation, solidarity, and democracy.

It is easy to despair in the face of doomsday predictions about environmental and ecological collapse, so it is worth pointing out that the steps necessary to limit the effects of climate change to manageable levels are still very much possible. In order to replace the electricity currently generated by coal by the use of wind power, for instance, it has been estimated we would need 1.5 million new wind turbines. That seems like a daunting figure, but less so if we remember that the global auto industry is capable of producing 65 million cars each year. The obstacles preventing us from dealing effectively with the threat of global warming are not fundamentally technological in nature, but are political and social. Whether or not they can be removed depends on how effectively we can build movements for radical political and social change. So the fight to avoid ecological disaster can’t be separated from the struggle to transform society as a whole. Environmental activists need to be socialists.


Issue #100

Spring 2016

100 Issues of the ISR

Issue contents

Top story