Today, government ministers from around the world meet in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), amid massive security after the terrorist attacks, to discuss what to do about climate change and global warming. Having banned all protests by climate campaigners and put some protest leaders under house arrests, Cop21 had better come up with something agreed and effective. But the chances of that are very slim.
Now I know there are some out there who think that climate change and global warming is one big lie and conspiracy. Some on the pro-capitalist wing reckon that global warming is a myth developed by scientists who want make a career for themselves and live off government funding. Taxpayers are simply funding a lie. This idea is very strong among US Republican congress members and also among some Conservatives in the UK (many of whom are funded by fossil fuel energy companies). But there are also left-wingers who dispute the science and reckon actions to control global warming will just keep poor countries poor by reducing their energy production, thus retarding the development of the poor for the rich.
Now I am not a climate scientist (and if you reckon that economics is not science, then I am no scientist at all!). But it seems that over 95% of scientists who specialise in this field are convinced that: 1) the world is warming up at an unprecedented pace to record levels; 2) this warming is caused by increases in carbon emissions and other ‘greenhouse gases’ from fossil fuel burning and 3); this is all man-made: a product of increased industrialisation, cities, transport and environmental pollution.
John Cook et al. examined 11 944 abstracts of peer-reviewed scientific literature published between 1991–2011 on the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Among abstracts expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming – a rare level of agreement in the world of science!
Now sometimes the consensus can be wrong and the history of science is littered with examples where the consensus has been proved so – indeed, it could be argued that overturning or refuting the consensus view with a new and better analysis is the very nature of the scientific method. But this is not quite the same. There is a mountain of evidence that confirms that the world is getting decidedly warmer and this is caused by the rapacious industrialisation of the globe, the destruction of natural habitats and pollution of the environment as capitalism expands its tentacles across the globe.
This year, 2015, is going down as the warmest year ever recorded according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). And the WMO reckons the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 was also the warmest on record. Global temperatures are now approximately 1 degree C above the 1880-1899 period. And in spring 2015, the three-month global average concentration of CO2 crossed the 400 parts per million barrier for the first time. “The fingerprint of a warming planet is becoming clearer in nearly every corner of the world,” said Dr Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading. Moreover, 2015 is not a one-off, as indicated by the last five years’ average also being the warmest on record. The WMO said the waters have been absorbing more than 90% of the energy that has accumulated in the climate system from human emissions of greenhouse gases. The temperature of the tropical Pacific was more than 1C above average, consistent with a strong El Nino. The WMO said this weather phenomenon has been a factor in pushing this year past previous records. El Nino has gained in strength over the past few months and has been rated as one of the three strongest since 1950.
The record temperatures of 2015 were being felt in many different parts of the world. China recorded its warmest ever January to October period. For Africa, this year has been the second warmest on record. Heat waves affected many parts of the world, with India seeing average maximum temperatures over 45C in some areas. There were also extremely hot periods in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. The WMO also argued that many of the extreme weather events in the past five years, especially those relating to higher temperatures, have had their probabilities substantially increased as a result of human-induced climate change. And of course, with flooding, drought and other disasters in poor countries, mass emigration to safe climes will follow.
The world is already experiencing extreme weather. In the United States, California’s drought in 2014 was the worst in 100 years while the East Coast faced a massive snowstorm with freezing temperatures. On the other side of the world, Australia deals with intense summer heat and droughts, causing major bush fires. There has been severe winter flooding in the United Kingdom and Europe, extreme cold and snow in the Eastern United States and Japan, and so on.
COP21 is supposed to deliver a new universal climate agreement that is applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping the rise in global average temperatures below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels. In order to keep global average temperatures below this threshold, considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the global warming limit to avoid serious consequences such as extreme climate events. Pierre Friedlingstein, a climatologist at Exeter University, calculates that if temperature rises are to be kept below 2°C, the world can probably emit about 3,200 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in total. The tally so far is 2,000 gigatonnes. If annual emissions remain at present levels, the budget will be exhausted in just 30 years’ time.
Climate experts estimate that by 2050, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be reduced by 40-70% compared to 2010, and carbon neutrality (zero emissions) needs to be reached by the end of the century. In Paris, for the first time, more than 170 countries (representing more than 90% of global emissions) already made pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by formally submitting their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These documents detail what post-2020 climate action countries intend to take under a new international agreement, both in terms of adaptation and mitigation. These INDCs represent the foundation of COP21. In 2015 China is on the way to surpass the entire OECD’s emissions, which now represent about a third of global emissions.
However, the current INDCs are still not sufficient to put the world on the 2°C pathway. In fact, the UNFCCC estimates that the INDCs imply an increase of temperature by 2.7°C and 3.5°C by the end of the century. The International Energy Agency estimates that 13.5 trillion USD will have to be invested between 2015 and 2030 in low-carbon energy technologies. “It’s nice for people to talk about two degrees,” says Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and Microsoft founder. “But we don’t even have the commitments that are going to keep us below four degrees of warming.”
The wind turbines and solar panels that are spreading across Europe, America and China are barely restraining carbon-dioxide emissions. Since the turn of the century, global energy has become more, not less, carbon intensive. Coal now supplies 41% of the world’s electricity and 29% of the world’s energy—a bigger share than at any time in at least four decades. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is 40% higher than it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Hydro-electric power, which has fallen from favour in the West because of its often ruinous effect on river ecosystems, was the world’s second most important source of renewable energy. Nuclear power, which is green but not renewable, supplied 5% of energy needs, and falling. Wind turbines, solar farms, tidal barriers, geothermal power stations and the like produced just 1.3% between them.
A broad commitment quickly to raise and diversify R&D spending on energy technologies would be more welcome than more or less anything else Paris could offer. But it ain’t happening. Energy companies see investment in radical new technologies as a poor prospect and governments have been feeble in taking up the slack. Profit rules.
The environmental and ecological impact of the capitalist mode of production was highlighted by Marx and Engels way back in the early part of industrialization in Europe. As Engels put it, capitalism is production for profit and not human need, and so takes no account of the impact on wider society of accumulation for profit.[i] This drive for profit leads to ecological catastrophe.[ii]
Marx summed up the impact of capitalist production on nature: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress toward ruining the lasting sources of that fertility . . . Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer.”[iii]
The evidence is overwhelming that unless the capitalist system is replaced in the next fifty years, the planet will be suffering from such damage to its natural development that economic growth will slow, natural disasters will become common, and the cost of restoration and prevention will become too much for a profit-making mode of production to handle.
[i] “As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.” F. Engels, The Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976).
[ii] “What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!” Engels, The Dialectics of Nature.
[iii] Karl Marx, Das Kapital, The Skeptical Reader Series (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2009), p. 209.