By Daniel Margrain
Academic research supports the hypothesis that environmental degradation is linked to economic growth. As economies grow the countries’ in which the growth rates occur pump out correspondingly higher rates of the gas responsible for the greatest single cause of human induced climate change into the earth’s atmosphere. The tendency among humans to consume more and more of the finite resources of our planet, is predicated on capitalism’s inherent drive for growth upon which the maximization of profits is dependent. This is what Naomi Klein talks about when she refers to the capitalist system as one in which the ruthless drive for expansion is kept going by “consumption for consumption’s sake”.
If one accepts this line of reasoning then it follows that in order to ameliorate the affects of climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s necessary to challenge the growth based profit seeking logic of capitalism that gives rise to it.
Here we are faced with a major contradiction. The economic growth that is generated by capitalism creates employment opportunities. But in so doing, it also creates an insurmountable environmental and ecological crisis which, taken to its logical conclusion, negates the need for economy and hence employment. It’s this fundamental contradiction that undermines the COP21 in Paris and all of the other UN Climate Summit’s that preceded it.
This rather depressing reality, is underscored by the fact that these summits are primarily concerned with satisfying the demands set by capitalist growth, as opposed to creating the necessary conditions for environmentally sustainable societies’. Although this truism is rarely openly and unambiguously stated, any cursory analysis of the situation reveals that job creation and the “need” to maximize economic growth, overrides environmental sustainability considerations.
The insatiable demands of investors on the one hand, and the urgent need to cut down on global carbon emissions, on the other, are necessarily incongruous concepts. The failure of successive summits, most notably, in Copenhagen, in addressing the incompatibility between economic growth – a factor intrinsic to capitalism – and environmental sustainability that limits it, is a recipe for disaster because it perpetuates the conditions in which further environmental degradation of the planet will occur.
It’s precisely this logic that explains why it is that one of the key players at the COP21 discussions in Paris, Saudi Arabia, attempted to undermine them, even though climate change forecasts suggest that the Gulf region will become uninhabitable as a consequence of the failure of the Arab state agreeing to a radical shift in its negotiating position at the summit.
The rationale for the world’s largest producer of oil in its derailing of negotiations, is based on narrow short-term economic self interest. Saudi Arabia are among the most powerful of the 195 nations who attended the conference in Paris who, alongside their powerful allies, are empowered to block any meaningful negotiations in terms of emissions through a process of informal consensus.
Conversely, the poorer nations, were effectively not in a position to wield sufficient enough power to be able to offset the decision-making processes of the most powerful – the negative impacts of which, as Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, noted – they will disproportionately be on the end of.
For example, the numerous islands that comprise the small Pacific states’ who are among most likely to be adversely impacted by the worst consequences of climate change, had emphasized the need to act on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, while their powerful counterparts adamantly arrived at a higher “consensual” non-binding figure reviewed once every five years.
All this, and the fact that Saudi Arabia introduced a set of unreasonable negotiating pre-conditions against the emerging economies, are the main factors that arguably, in part, prompted the former Nasa scientist, James Hansen, to comment that the discussions in Paris were “a…fraud… a fake,”. He added: “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises….”.
Meanwhile, the United States used the fact that it has not ratified any human rights statute internationally as a poison ‘divide and rule’ pill against the developing countries with the aim of picking off the most vulnerable as their justification for shifting blame for the crisis on to the smaller nations.
This underhand tactic serves a dual purpose in as much as the source of the problem – the rich elites’ pattern of consumption and their lifestyle – is conveniently admonished. That the ‘1 percent versus the 99 percent’ narrative remained a feature of Paris, is to my mind, the most depressing aspect of the summit. Kenyan political ecologist, Ruth Nyambura summed up the impasse well when she said: “We want to get out of this sinking ship, but countries like U.S. are holding the lifeboats.”
The reality is the settlement that emerged in Paris is an extremely weak one due largely to the negotiated consensual interplay between the most powerful players. This meant they were able to use each other to take things off the table they didn’t want. This interplay, to a great extent, is determined by the influence the oil, coal and gas companies had on proceedings as well as the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions who fund them.
The giant corporations garner an enormous amount of power in terms of their ability to be able to influence the decision making processes of the most powerful governments’. This often takes the form of the lobbying of leading politician’s of these governments by the giant corporations. Paris was no exception. The issues to do with conflicts of interest remain.
Thus, the potential for corruption is as strong as ever, aided ostensibly by credible figures who misrepresent consensus research. The misrepresentations in Paris included climate change professors who Greenpeace exposed as figures who were willing to produce pro-fossil fuel industry research by concealing the source of their funding.
The denialism also invariably extends to apparently skeptical mainstream journalists like Christopher Booker and James Delingpole whose roles are little more than conduits for the kinds of power they are supposed to hold to account. The reality is that the relationship between fossil fuel emissions and climate change is scientifically indisputable. To quote George Monbiot in his book ‘Heat’: “To doubt today, that manmade climate change is happening, you must abandon science and revert to some other means of understanding the world: alchemy perhaps, or magic.”
Nevertheless, the influence that journalists, powerful corporate lobbyists, former politicians and others within the denial industry are able to exert in order to deceive and mislead the public regarding the science can not be underestimated. One such figure is journalist, Peter Hitchens, who ought to know better.
The writer, who has many credible and sensible things to say about the decision of the UK government to go to war in Syria, apparently bases his authority to deny the reality of climate change on misleading glacier figures published online by the ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ (SEPP) run by a discredited environmental scientist called Dr S. Fred Singer.
The data has been reproduced by several other groups and had also found its way into The Washington Post. According to George Monbiot, the figures which were published by these groups, were subsequently used by Hitchens as well as other notable denialists like Melanie Phillips and David Bellamy to support their respective positions. However, the groups have one thing in common: they have all been funded by Exxon.
But this fact hasn’t initiated any retractions. On the contrary, it has resulted in the ‘digging in of heels’. The intention is to create confusion and the impression of uncertainty within the scientific community, when in reality none exists. The science is settled. Even Exxon’s own research conducted decades ago, that was until recently covered up, confirmed the role of fossil fuel in global warming.
Despite this, the damage has arguably already been done. Governments’ can only ameliorate the worst affects of runaway climate change. It’s too late to stop it in it’s tracks. As the consequences of climate change feedback begin to take their toll, we will soon be reaching the tipping point.
If in the year 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today then ecosystems will begin to release carbon dioxide as opposed to absorbing it. At this point climate change will not only be out of our hands, but it will accelerate without our help. If this does indeed come to pass, then the world will be taking to task the complicit role the denialism industry played in it.