Scientists and climate activists have been saying it for years, but a new UN report shows conclusively that the 2015 Paris Agreement has largely been a failure and that there is little chance of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5°C.
Long considered the baseline for avoiding climate catastrophe, passing this threshold — reaching temperature increases of 2-3 degrees or higher — will lead to global disruptions on a massive scale and significant, unavoidable, and irreversible damage to the ecosphere. According to the New York Times, at just 2°C 400 million more people will be subject to severe drought, 37% of the world’s population will face life-threatening heat waves at least once every five years, ice free arctic summers will be more than ten times as likely, and coral reefs will be all but extinct. Add to this increasing instances of billion dollar disasters, rising conflicts over resources, and mass migration, and it’s clear that the world we are heading toward will be full of challenges unlike any we have faced as a species. Whether or not we will be able to manage these changes, however, and whether or not we will be able to build a better world out of this chaos, will largely depend upon our ability to radically alter the way we structure our society and economy.
Climate Catastrophe on the Horizon
According to the 2019 Emissions Gap Report published in late November, the gap between the amount of global greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions necessary to remain below 1.5°C, and the actual amount of global GHG reductions, has continued to widen. In fact, GHG emissions have risen at a rate of about 1.5% per year almost every year since the UN began tracking the gap between target and real emissions ten years ago. Most of this has, not surprisingly, been from energy use and industrial production sources, which have been increasing at a rate even higher than the global average. And much of this increase is the product of just a small handful of profit-driven fossil-fuel companies. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project just “100 active fossil fuel producers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom are linked to 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.” This failure to reduce emissions and transition away from the use of fossil fuels means that every year the chances of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5°C becomes that much harder. While previous reports have tried to maintain an optimistic tone, (the UN has been notoriously Pollyannaish about the prospects for solving the climate crisis under capitalism) this report all but admits that it will be impossible to reach the 1.5-2 degrees goal of the Paris Summit, and that it is very likely that we are heading for at least a 2 degree increase by 2100 if not much sooner. In order to remain below the proposed threshold of the Paris Summit, the report explains that:
By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively.
In other words, global emissions would have to be reduced by almost 7% every year for the next ten years in order to avoid climate catastrophe. Considering that there has been zero reduction in emissions since the Paris Agreement four years ago, a decrease of 55 percent of GHG emissions would require a level of global cooperation, investment, and planning far surpassing the mobilizations of the Second World War.
While the report lauds the countries that have committed to lowering their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) of greenhouse gasses, very few of the G20 nations (that is, the largest industrial nations of the world) have committed to reducing their NDCs. Even worse, 15 G20 countries, including the United States (which is set to withdraw officially from the treaty in November of this year) have failed to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal long seen as absolutely necessary for avoiding global temperature increases above the catastrophic threshold. This means that nearly all of the major developed countries in the world, nearly all of those that produce the most GHG emissions per capita, have simply refused to comply with the Paris Agreement and seem to have no plans for reaching zero emissions within the century.
The Paris Treaty and the Failure of the Market
The reasons for this failure are many, but one of the most important is that the Paris Treaty, like previous climate treaties, has always been aspirational, and has no mechanisms whatsoever for compelling states to reduce their GHG emissions beyond shame and moral suasion. Because countries are allowed to set their own emission limits, and face few consequences when they fail to meet them, the Paris Agreement has in fact had a detrimental effect on our ability to solve the climate problem. By presenting an Oz-like facade of action, behind which there is nothing but promises and talk, the Paris Treaty has allowed governments and the corporations that control them to pretend to do something about climate change even as the world continues to burn. Further, the methods that the Paris Treaty promotes in order to stop climate change are almost entirely market-based and thus have only reinforced the fallacy that global capitalism can solve the climate dilemma by, among other things, creating an increasingly expensive market for carbon.
Originally proposed in the Kyoto Protocol of 1992, the idea that the global community can rein in emissions by simply making them more expensive has not worked out very well. The main mechanism for controlling carbon emissions agreed to in both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Treaty is what is generally known as carbon trading, sometimes called cap and trade. Under this mechanism, countries agree to a fixed cap on carbon emissions (in almost all cases, these caps are far too modest) but are allowed to buy and sell “credits” as they like. Companies and corporations that exceed available carbon limits can be fined for such violations, but in many cases it’s cheaper for companies to accept fines rather than transition to more carbon neutral forms of production. Worse, governments and corporations can easily get around such limits by offsetting their carbon emissions through the financing of green or renewable energy projects in developing countries. These projects, which often cost much less than purchasing carbon credits, allow governments and corporations to continue to emit deadly and costly GHGs into the atmosphere for even less than if they were to purchase credits, even as the measures they pursue rarely result in real carbon offsets. Meanwhile, funding for the most expensive projects in the developed world necessary for addressing climate change, such as smart electrical grids or massive solar and wind farms, are further postponed.
By allowing capitalism to effectively continue with business as usual, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Treaty have cost humanity several decades of progress toward any serious elimination of carbon emissions. And those lost decades have only contributed to the mess we’re in today. Three decades of socially-planned production and massive investments in renewable energy would have left us in a situation where we could still hold emissions below 1.5°C without major disruptions to global standards of living. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Keeping temperatures from going well beyond the catastrophic threshold (and dealing with the challenges posed by a warming world) will require a swift and unprecedented reorganization of society.
Planning for Catastrophe
Climate catastrophe may be imminent, but the levels of global disruption and chaos and the effect they will have on human beings and the ecosphere will depend entirely upon what we do in the next ten or twenty years. Although the UN has admitted that there is little chance of meeting the Paris Treaty targets, the actual amount of warming — barring drastic action to limit emissions — is unfortunately much higher than 2°C. Indeed, the latest IPCC report suggests that a business-as-usual model — and that is precisely what we have had for the last 30 years — would mean temperature increases of at least 4°C and likely much higher by the beginning of the next century. Such an increase would lead to unfathomably catastrophic events on a scale that would dwarf the problems we face today.
In other words, the world we are entering is one that, in terms of climate and climate catastrophe, is going to be very different than the one we are leaving behind. The calamitous hurricane season of 2017 may have been an exception (albeit an exception exacerbated by climate change) but such intense hurricane seasons are likely to become the norm in a world of 3-4°C. These disasters would also be accompanied by the vast desertification of entire agricultural regions and the abandonment of metropolitan centers due to sea level rise: At 4°C, for instance, Shanghai, Bangkok, and most of Southern Florida (including all of Miami) would be under water by 2100. The social and economic consequences of such events will be enormous. Mass migrations from the Middle East and Africa to Europe will intensify, while developed countries across the world will face ever increasing levels of austerity, inequality, class conflict, and racial and ethnic cleavages exacerbated by inequality and migration. While such circumstances are a recipe for human suffering, they present two other very specific problems.
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On the one hand, under a capitalist economy, the material and social instability caused by climate change will likely mean a significant decrease in global standards of living for all but the wealthy as production and distribution become more expensive and subject to regular interruption. Indeed, we have already seen how even comparatively small economic disruptions can have this effect. Since the great recession of 2008, for instance, standards of living have fallen across the developed world, including the United States and the United Kingdom. And as climate catastrophes and the political and social crises they create increase in frequency and intensity things will only get worse. According to Stanford Professor of Earth System Sciences, Marshall Burke, climate disruptions could wipe out as much as 23% of global GDP by the end of the century, an amount 8% greater than that experienced during the first three years of the Great Depression.
Such periods of economic stagnation and instability, however, have radical social and political consequences as well. The wave of global uprisings and the general strikes in France and India show that such moments of instability can lead working people to revolutionary conclusions, but the ongoing failure of capitalism has also opened up space for the formation of Right forces. Just as the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany was fueled by the dual capitalist crises of war and global depression, climate catastrophe and a lack of political alternatives beyond the capitalist market could very well bolster already latent fascist and authoritarian tendencies around the globe. We have already seen this trend unfolding. From Brazil to Turkey, India, and Europe, far-right, authoritarian forces have made significant gains since the great recession. In India, far right thugs supporting the Hindu Nationalist BJP have attacked university students; migrants are regularly turned away and drowned off the coasts of Greece; while indigenous people are faced with oppression and threats of extermination in Brazil and Bolivia.
In short, climate change is about much more than the weather. Every year of continued inaction and every degree of warming only brings us that much closer to the options posed by Rosa Luxembourg in the aftermath of the First World War: “socialism or barbarism.” We either build a world in which working people control the means of production for the greater good and are able to utilize the full potential of their labor, or we face a future of economic chaos, authoritarianism, and social disruption. The failure of the Paris Treaty shows that the leaders of global capitalism (the G20 in particular) are incapable of mitigating the causes of climate change, and there is little reason to believe we will ever manage to reach zero emissions under our current economic system. Worse, capitalism has no solutions for how to live with or adapt to our already rapidly changing climate. Indeed, capitalism will only exacerbate the problem. As a system based on profit, competition, and exploitation, capitalism is inherently incapable of building the cooperation necessary to tackle climate change or the forms of production and democratic planning needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
This is why any movement that seeks to fight against the destruction of the environment must also be a movement for socialism and the revolutionary elimination of capitalist exploitation and the environmental degradation it entails. It is not enough to call on world leaders or the captains of industry to take action — they had their chance and they have failed. Avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require a radical program that confronts capitalism head on. Those who stand to suffer the most, must build a movement for the total and complete expropriation and democratic control of all energy production in order to move toward one hundred percent renewable energy. Further, those of us in the developed world in particular, must demand the nationalization without compensation of all transport companies, including the big automotive companies, to achieve a massive reduction in automobile production and private transport, while developing public transport at all levels.
Such changes would go a long way to limiting the rate of warming,which is paramount, but addressing the social consequences of environmental catastrophe will require nothing less than a fully-planned economy under the democratic control of working people. Such an economy would be able to provide for the essential needs, well being, and happiness of all, while also directly addressing the challenges of mass migration, sea level rise, desertification, and ecological destruction necessary for humanity to thrive in the new world we are so quickly approaching.