Peter Sainsbury. Does anyone really believe we’re going to avert a climate catastrophe?

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1 December 2020.

An energy transition is under way, but it is too slow to avert a climate catastrophe, and it ignores many other environmental and social challenges which need tackling now. Capitalism has put us in this mess, but doesn’t have the tools to take us out of it. Perhaps ecosocialism and Extinction Rebellion provide some answers.

It might be easy, even for someone who follows the scientific evidence about climate change, to think that we are on track to avert a climate disaster. The world’s nations agreed in 2015 to limit global warming to well under 2oC, didn’t they? Sources of renewable energy (wind, solar, batteries) are increasingly efficient, cheaper than fossil fuels, and being rolled out across the world. Coal is dying. Electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and more popular than ever. The fossil fuel divestment movement is growing daily. The public, businesses, and investors increasingly want climate action. There can be no denying that an energy transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy is under way.

Is the transition occurring quickly enough, however? Is there a danger that people will infer from all this ‘good’ news that we are on track to avert an environmental disaster? Will it generate false expectations and hope? And is focusing on the energy transition diverting attention away from other environmental and social problems just as serious and needing simultaneous urgent attention? Let’s do a reality check.

Is the good news good enough?

Despite the tripling of wind and solar capacity over the previous decade, they still contributed in 2018 only 2% of the world’s total energy supply; coal, oil, and gas contributed 82%. Looking only at the world’s electricity generation in 2018, wind and solar contributed about 10%, and coal and gas about 60%. Between 2013 and 2018, ‘wind-and-solar’ and ‘coal-and-gas’ increased their electricity generation by the same amount, about 2,000 terawatt hours. Over the next decade, eight major oil and gas companies are planning production increases that will lift by 13% the CO2 emissions of the fuels they produce.

There is no wonder that global CO2 emissions and levels in the atmosphere are still rising, as is global warming. To have just a two in three chance of keeping global warming under 1.5oC (2oC is far from safe) the world needs to reduce its emissions at over 7% per year, if we start today. If we don’t cut peak emissions until 2025, the required reduction jumps to 15% per year. If we haven’t halved emissions by 2030, it will be impossible to keep warming to anything like a safe level for the environment, or for humans. The next ten years will be critical.

And all this ignores positive feedback and tipping points in Earth Systems likely to lead to runaway global warming and an uninhabitable ‘Hothouse Earth’. Nor does it consider other very serious environmental challenges, particularly loss of biodiversity, captured in the nine Planetary Boundaries, or the need to tackle simultaneously the many social inequalities and social injustices abounding intra- and inter-nationally, particularly the North-South divide. And don’t get me started on the incompetents, crooks, cronies, and lickspittles who run the governments and companies we hope will plan and navigate a way through this mess.

In a nutshell, I don’t think the world will make the environmental, social, and democratic changes necessary in the next ten years to head off an environmental catastrophe later in the century. A catastrophe that will lead to societal collapse, and a dramatic fall in world population perhaps to one billion people. I don’t think the governments of the world have the will to make the necessary changes, and even if they had, I don’t think they know how to make and enforce the decisions needed to make it happen quickly, equitably, and peacefully across the globe.

What is holding us back from confronting the crisis?

Thermo-solar power plant Morocco. World Bank photo. flickr cc.

How did we come to this parlous condition? Capitalism. The essential feature of capitalism is the investment of personal wealth (capital) in the expectation that the company you invest in will make a profit, and that you will receive more than you invested – your capital will grow. Some businesses fail, and some investments are lost, of course (that’s innovation and competition, and also sometimes monopoly control and corruption), but, across the whole economy, capital grows. Profits are made by the exploitation of workers and the environment, with the result that wealth and power accumulate in a few hands and social inequalities increase. Simultaneously, the environment becomes depleted (in the case of natural resources such as fresh water, fertile soil, fish stocks, forests, minerals) and polluted (for example, greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals, plastics).

If capitalism created this mess, does it have the economic tools to extract us from it? Can a free market economy, unlimited economic growth, exploitation of workers, and treating the environment both as our pantry and as our toilet deliver environmental sustainability, social justice, a redistribution of power and wealth, life with dignity for all, democracy, and demilitarised peace?

Economists such as Ross Gittins, Nicholas Stern, Ross Garnaut, and Joseph Stiglitz, and organisations like the World Bank and the governments of the G20 think that ‘progressive capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a human face’, and ‘green capitalism’ can do the job. They think that continuous economic growth (perhaps driven by the provision of services, rather than by the production and consumption of things) is not just possible, but also absolutely necessary for us to achieve such goals. They think it can be achieved with a carbon price, 100% renewable energy, a circular economy, stopping deforestation, sustainable agriculture, reducing meat consumption, etc.

Some people look at the fact that humans are already consuming the resources of 1.5 ‘sustainable’ Earths, as well as at the need and right for people in the global South to enjoy the same living standards as those in the affluent North, and say ‘degrowth’ is essential. Maybe we need to go back to the sorts of consumption patterns people in the West had in the 1960s and 70s.

Others are agnostic about growth, believing that, if we make human wellbeing and environmental sustainability our principal goals, maybe economic growth will occur, maybe it won’t. Kate Raworth is in this camp, with her idea of Doughnut Economics.

And then there are the ecosocialists, people who consider that the only way the goals outlined above can be achieved is if environmental sustainability is combined with socialism. Not the socialism of twentieth century USSR and its satellites, but a truly democratic socialism, with social justice, a life of dignity for all, collective ownership of the means of production, full employment, and an end to exploitation of workers and profit and wealth accumulation.

I’m in the ecosocialist camp, but I don’t know if or how we can make the transition, certainly not in the very short time we have left to avert the climate catastrophe. I’m not ready to give up yet, though. If nothing else, we can try to limit the impacts of the catastrophe by tackling the causes with no-regret actions (e.g. many of the policies for which the progressive capitalism promoters advocate); we can start preparing individuals and societies for the inevitable impacts of the catastrophe; we can focus on the most disadvantaged and oppressed people; and we can start building democracy and social justice. Crucially, our attention must be on what we, individually and collectively, must do over the next ten years. Put the focus on 2030, not 2050 or 2100.

So, I’m not sure about the destination, and I certainly don’t have a roadmap. But I do know we have to do a lot more than is currently being done by governments, international agencies, and businesses. The system needs a severe shakeup. The most promising development in recent years is Extinction Rebellion: mass peaceful disruption of the normal functioning of society and government, but on a far grander, more widespread scale than has been seen so far. Capitalism has dangerously disrupted the Earth’s environment and systems. Environmental activists must disrupt capitalism.

This article was originally published on the website of the Public Health Association of Australia and is based on a talk given at the Australian Public Health Conference 2020 in October. It was republished in John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations of 29 October 2020.

Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

Photo Extinction Rebellion. John Englart. flickr cc.

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