Can we still stop environmental disaster?

The Copenhagen climate conference did nothing meaningful to stop climate change. Is it too late to prevent catastrophe?

At the end of last year, the world’s leaders met in Copenhagen for a UN-sponsored conference designed to take decisive steps to deal with the growing environmental crisis. Far from coming up with serious solutions, however, the summit only underlined the inability of capitalist politicians to deal with the crisis, even while admitting its magnitude.

True, an orchestrated and well-financed disinformation campaign, paid for by the oil and coal industries and by wealthy free-market fundamentalists, has attempted—sadly, with some success—to confuse the public about the reality of global warming and the role played by human activity in causing it. But despite this, the scientific consensus could hardly be clearer. Global warming is real, it is largely caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as the result of our use of fossil fuels, and there will be devastating consequences unless current trends can be reversed.

The past decade was the hottest since accurate records began to be kept in the mid-nineteenth century, and 2009 was the second hottest year on record. Average world temperature is today 0.8ºC (Celsius) higher than in pre-industrial times and is increasing at a rate of 0.2ºC per decade. Given the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, a further 0.6ºC rise is inevitable, and due to the loss of Arctic summer sea ice (which reflects some sunlight back into space) the additional rise is quite likely going to be 0.9ºC, for a total increase of 1.7ºC.

So even if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere did not get any higher than its current level, the expected temperature increase would get us very close to what many experts believe is the critical threshold of 2ºC. That’s the level at which the effects of global warming would cease to be linear, resulting in large-scale polar ice sheet disintegration and climate changes that would result in the extinction of up to 40 percent of plant and animal species.

According to some estimates, if average global temperature rises by 3ºC, the world’s oceans and rainforests will become net emitters of greenhouse gases, leading to an eventual 6ºC increase, which would raise sea levels by 25 meters, make most of the earth uninhabitable for humans, cause the extinction of 90 percent of all species, and reduce the human population by 80 percent.

Before the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide (the most significant of the greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere was about 275 parts per million (ppm). Today, it is 389 ppm and climbing. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body consisting of the world’s leading climate scientists, has called for carbon dioxide levels to be stabilized at 450 ppm, but James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been warning of the dangers of global warming for over twenty years, estimates that in order to keep temperature increases below 2ºC, the level has to be reduced to 350 ppm.

Neither before nor after the Copenhagen summit, however, were world leaders proposing measures that would come anywhere close to these reductions. Last September, the UN Environment Programme issued a report concluding that even if every government around the world enacted every climate policy they had so far proposed, the average global temperature would still rise by 3.5ºC by the end of the century—well past the disaster movie threshold.

The Copenhagen conference was supposed to deliver binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Instead, all it came up with was an accord—negotiated by the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa but not approved by the conference delegates—that called on countries to make non-binding pledges by the end of January to reduce their emissions.

The IPCC estimated that in order to stabilize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 ppm (which may already be too high), total emissions in 2020 would need to be 25-40 percent lower than 1990 levels. But when the pledges were in, the World Resources Institute calculated that they amounted to an overall reduction of only 12-18 percent, less than half of what is needed even in the unlikely event that these unenforceable promises are ever kept. Climate scientists at MIT calculated that the pledged reductions would still produce a temperature increase of 2.8-4.3ºC.

Malini Mehra, of the Centre for Social Markets (a mainstream group that attempts to promote sustainability and corporate sustainability) described the final accord as “an appeasement to major polluters that condemns the world to runaway climate change and declares war on our children.”

There are three reasons why world leaders have proved utterly incapable of dealing with the problem of climate change. First, global competition between the major powers leads each state to act in terms of its own short-term interests. Since emission cuts will be costly in the near-term, each country hopes that others will bear most of the costs while it shares in the long-term benefits. The net result is that nobody does enough.

Second, in order to get a deal that would include the developing world, the industrialized countries needed to provide countries in the third world with substantial subsidies to allow them to develop environmentally friendly energy resources. After all, it is the developed world that is largely responsible for the dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that has reaped the economic benefits of burning fossil fuels.

But from the start, the United States and other wealthy nations could not agree on how to finance a new agreement that would apply to developing countries as well as the industrialized world. As a spokesperson for the World Wide Fund for Nature put it: “This is a group that can throw money at collapsing banks but cannot find adequate figures for the far worse challenge to the global economy of a collapsing climate system.”

Third, and underlying the first two problems, all of the major governments are committed to defending the growth of their own economies and defending the major industries and corporations that are their backbone. That means that none of them have been prepared to stray very far from the status quo.

In the United States, for example, the Obama administration accepts the reality of climate change and has put forward an environmental agenda that calls for the creation of more than two million “green collar” jobs, cutting U.S. oil consumption and moving to renewable forms of energy. That sounds good on paper, but Obama is unwilling to use the federal government to directly create green jobs, and he wants an energy policy that protects the profits of the private sector. For that reason he’s been an explicit supporter of nuclear power and so-called “clean” coal technology. (As Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain has put it, “If Bush was in kindergarten [on environmental policy], Obama is in first grade.”)

Obama is also an enthusiast for ethanol, a biofuel derived from corn, which generates large profits for agribusiness companies. The agribusiness PR machine promotes ethanol as an environmentally friendly energy source, but the corn used to make it requires large quantities of environmentally unfriendly herbicides and nitrogen fertilizer, and the production process consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces. But as Obama admitted on the campaign trail, “I’ve been a strong ethanol supporter because Illinois…is a major corn producer.”

Obama’s commitment to better environmental policies was called into question early in his tenure as president. Last May, the Environmental Protection Agency approved 42 of 48 permits for mountaintop removal, a process that involves, in the words of Jeff Biggers, a noted author on Appalachia, mining coal by “blowing up our nation’s oldest and most diverse mountains, razing historic communities, poisoning watersheds, and causing massive erosion and flooding.”

All this means that even if the major economies were to agree to make much bigger cuts in their carbon emissions, they would be unlikely to deliver. Commitment to the market undermines attempts to deal with the environmental crisis. In the United States, for instance, a major part of the administration’s climate policy is an energy bill based on the so-called “cap and trade” model, which would place caps on the amount of carbon dioxide that individual producers can emit but permit them to buy credits from companies whose own emissions are below the limit.

James Hansen has compared this process to the selling of indulgences by the medieval Catholic Church, but even cap and trade is too much for Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress, and there is little likelihood of the legislation moving forward in the near future. Even if it did, it would represent nothing more than a fig leaf. A similar scheme has been in place for several years in Europe and has failed to reduce carbon emissions.

In fact, according to a report issued by Friends of the Earth at the end of last year, carbon trading has become “A Dangerous Obsession,” with the market in emission credits dominated by banks and speculators, who have packaged carbon credits (just like sub-prime mortgages before them) into derivatives and other complex investment products. In 2008, $126 billion of credits changed hands on the carbon-trading market, and the figure is expected to rise to more than $3 trillion over the next decade. As a consequence, according to Iain Thom of the Carbon Accountability Programme, “When you buy a carbon credit on the open market there is almost no way of knowing if any carbon has been reduced as a result.”

Yet despite the inaction of our political leaders, there is plenty that could be done to avoid ecological disaster. According to a recent Scientific American article, for instance, for an investment of $420 billion over the next forty years, the United States could obtain 69 percent of its electricity and 35 percent of its total energy from solar power plants by 2050. The amount of money is peanuts—a mere 60 percent of the Pentagon budget for a single year—but no serious steps in this direction are being taken because they are either not profitable now or they threaten the profits of existing industries.

The problem is not technical but social—a question of how society is organized. At root, capitalism is an unsustainable system based on relentless accumulation, the pursuit of short-term profits, and the externalization of environmental costs. As the Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster notes, “The air pollution caused by a factory is not treated as a cost of production internal to that factory. Rather it is viewed as an external cost to be borne by nature and society.”

Of course, environmental catastrophe is not in the long-term interest of even capitalists, and historically states have stepped in when necessary to protect those interests, but in an environment of fierce global competition, governments are proving incapable of addressing impending disaster in any serious way. It is, in any case, the already disadvantaged who will suffer the most. “Global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction,” points out historian Mike Davis. “Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.”

That is a depressing prospect, but Copenhagen also offered a glimpse of hope—not in the conference center or the backrooms where deals were being cut, but out on the streets, where thousands of environmental activists and grassroots organizations from around the globe gathered to protest the inaction of world leaders and to propose radical alternatives. These included visions of an “ecosocialist” future that would replace the anarchy of the profit system with rational planning and real democracy. Many of the same groups will gather again in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April to attend the Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights called by Bolivian President Evo Morales.

The changes that are desperately required to prevent environmental catastrophe will not be handed down from above by Barack Obama or other world leaders and can only come about on the basis of struggle from below. For that reason, while an enormous amount remains to be done, the revival of environmental activism on an international scale is an encouraging sign.

Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John