Neil Faulkner reports on the failure of the global elite to halt climate change and the necessity for climate revolution to save the planet.
11 December 2019.
The first United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP1) took place in Berlin in 1995. Conferences have taken place every year since. They are attended by all the world’s 193 nation-states.
For a quarter of a century, COP conferences have been the principal attempt to agree an international response to the global climate crisis. They have resulted in major ‘agreements’ like the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015).
It is now clear that these conferences have failed. This is evident in the following:
Accelerating carbon emissions
Only two billion tonnes in 1900, annual carbon emissions reached 26 billion tonnes when COP met for the first time in 1995. They reached 34 billion tonnes in 2010, and hit an all-time high of 37 billion tonnes in 2018. Half of all carbon pollution since the industrial revolution has occurred in the last three decades.
Accelerating atmospheric concentrations
Below 285ppm (parts per million) in pre-industrial times, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide hit 330ppm in 1975, 350ppm in 1990, 375ppm in 2005, and now stand at 408.5ppm.
Accelerating temperature rises
Average global temperatures have risen by an estimated 1.2ºC since pre-industrial times. Three-quarters of that warming has occurred since 1975. Half has occurred since 1995. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 2002. The year 2019 is set to be the second or third hottest on record.
Accelerating polar-ice melt and sea-level rise
The average volume of Arctic sea-ice has roughly halved in the last 40 years. It is now declining at a rate of about 13% per decade. Comparable ice-melts are occurring in Antarctica and mountain regions like the Himalayas. For 2,000 years before 1900, global sea-levels were static. Between 1900 and 1990, they rose by 1.2mm to 1.7mm per year on average. By 2016, the rate had risen to 3.4mm per year.
Accelerating climate-change impacts
More frequent and more intense heat-waves are causing increases in wildfires, droughts, and desertification. Rising and warming seas are causing heavier rainfall, more serious flooding, more frequent mega-storms, and the inundation of coastal areas. These changes are driving the world’s sixth mass extinction, with species loss running at 1,000 times the normal rate. Climate change is destroying livelihoods, increasing disease, and displacing people.
Accelerating risks of hitting one or more irreversible tipping-points
Changes in the Earth’s ecosystem are characterised by both incremental shifts and sudden tipping-points. Among the tipping-points that may, sooner or later, be triggered by incremental global warming are: abrupt collapse of the West Antarctic ice-sheet; abrupt collapse of the East Antarctic ice-sheet; abrupt collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet; thawing of Arctic permafrost and release of methane gas; rapid deforestation of the Amazon; and failure of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Some scientists fear a ‘global cascade’ of interacting tipping-points.
Whatever measure is chosen, the evidence shows that the global political elite have failed to halt climate change. It also shows that far more radical action is now necessary. It would be political idiocy – on the evidence of the last 25 years – to assume that this will happen.
The failure of the global political elite is systemic. It is not that we do not know what to do. It is not that the wrong policies have been adopted. It is that the economic and geopolitical system – the current world order – cannot deliver the radical action necessary.
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), representing the world’s leading industrial economies, considers the current global growth rate of 3% to be too low. A 3% annual growth rate means a doubling in the size of the world economy every quarter century.
The fossil-fuel corporations plan to extract twice the amount of coal, oil, and gas between now and 2030 than can be burned if we are to restrict global temperature rise to the 1.5ºC ‘aim’ of the Paris Agreement.
This ‘aim’ is not ambitious enough: most climate scientists predict severe damage to the Earth’s eco-system with this level of warming. But even this ‘aim’ falls well below the ‘pledges’ of the participants, which, even if implemented, are expected to result in a disastrous 3ºC of global warming.
The needs of humanity and the planet are represented by climate science, by declarations of intent from above, and by the increasingly urgent demands of a growing mass movement from below. But these needs – best met by a zero-growth, stable-state, carbon-neutral economy – are incompatible with the world capitalist system. Here is why.
Capitalism is the self-expansion of value
Growth – ‘the self-expansion of value’ – is inherent in the capitalist mode of production. It is expressed in Marx’s formula M – C – M+, where M is the money originally invested, C is the plant, materials, and labour used in the production process, and M+ is the money originally invested recouped plus profit. This cycle endlessly repeats, making capitalism a dynamic system of perpetual growth. If the cycle fails – if there is no growth and therefore no profit – investment collapses and there is mass unemployment and mass impoverishment. Capitalism is incompatible with a zero-growth or stable-state economy.
The world is divided into warring states
Climate change is a global issue. It requires agreement and action on a global scale in the interests of the planet and humanity as a whole. But the world is divided into 193 separate nation-states, ranging from superpowers like the United States and China to countries of fewer than a million people like Luxembourg, Malta, and Tuvalu. Most of these countries invest heavily in armaments and engage in geopolitical competition with their rivals. The world’s nation-states have killed at least 10 million people in their wars since 1945. They currently spend $1.8 trillion on armaments each year and have 21 million personnel in their armed forces. There are a dozen major wars currently raging. An estimated 70 million people are refugees from conflict. A world divided into warring states cannot be expected to make rational international decisions on climate.
The world is divided by grotesque class inequalities
The world’s richest 26 people own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of humanity. The six richest billionaires in Britain own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 13 million Britons. These inequalities have been growing since the 1980s, and the wealth gap between the global rich and the mass of the world’s people is wider today than ever before in human history. Three billion people – nearly half the world population – live in poverty, and 1.3 billion of these live in extreme poverty. With a zero-growth or stable-state economy, satisfying the basic needs of the world’s poor would depend upon redistribution of wealth – from the corporate rich to the international working class – on a historically unprecedented scale. It will also require an end to the massive waste of energy by corporations, nation-states, and 'the consumer society'.
A wave of creeping fascism and climate nihilism
A wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism represented by authoritarian leaders and far-right parties is sweeping the world. The politics of the far right is a combination of ultra-neoliberal corporate power and nationalist-racist reaction. Climate change is either denied or ignored. The far right represents climate nihilism.
Short-term systems and a long-term crisis
Capital accumulation involves circuits of capital in which investments are expected to deliver returns within a year, five years, at the most ten years. Each corporation has an essentially short-term perspective; one, moreover, that does not include such ‘externalities’ as environmental pollution. Political systems also operate on relatively short cycles, typically those represented by the electoral calendar. Both capitalists and politicians are wedded to short-termism. The climate crisis, of course, is unfolding over decades.
This is the greatest crisis in human history. The survival of the existing planetary eco-system and the socio-economic lifeways based upon it are at stake.
Because solutions must be a) zero growth, b) radically redistributive, and c) internationally determined and applied, climate catastrophe can be averted only by global revolutionary action to halt the carbon economy, take over the corporations, dispossess the rich, and create a new political order based on mass participatory democracy and popular control over natural resources and human wealth.
In the interwar period, socialists argued that the world faced a choice between revolution and barbarism. They were right. The left was defeated, fascism triumphed, and the world experienced the barbarism of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima.
Today, the world faces a similar choice between revolution and extinction. Either the left builds a global mass movement for total system change – to create a new world based on democracy, equality, peace, and sustainability – or the capitalist system will destroy the planet.
Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World.
(The statistics used in this article have been drawn from a wide range of easily accessible online sources.)