With receding ice, runaway wildfires and devastating hurricanes ever present, climate change is here. We are experiencing it now and the public is beginning to comprehend the danger. This is the conclusion from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report that points to a rapidly diminishing time horizon for action with little to no margin of error. Even senior economists at JP Morgan reportedly concede that climate change is an irreversible existential threat noting that IPCC scenarios under-estimate the coming social damage and economic costs. “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive,” they write.
Still, Earth is not yet lost. There is scope to act. But a comprehensive democratic solution requires knowing how we got here and why exactly adequate and specific intervention necessitates altering our political-economic systems.
As a brief history, in the 1960s environmentalists and labor were major checks on the power of capitalism. For example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Murray Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment show a willingness to readily take on issues like racial injustice and imperial wars and to connect them with environmental activism. However, the neo-liberal revanche in the 1970s consolidated power to thwart democratization of the economy.
Partisanship in US politics also explains a considerable portion of global inaction on climate change. Yet one of the unspoken tenets in American politics is that most politicians take marching orders from extraction companies and their plutocratic owners. These donors have disproportionate sway which undercuts democratic deliberation about the present ecological crisis. SuperPACs et al make it very hard not to see the state as an instrument of the ruling class.
Co-currently climate deniers are not random eccentrics—they comprise part of an organized cadre whose ideology is matched by funding from industrialists who themselves seek to maximize profit from carbon extraction. These propagandists’ chief goal is to cause ‘uncertainty’ about the severity and causes of climate change through distortion and misinformation. As Alyssa Battistoni explains, this was done for the rich to pursue renewed growth in turn allowing US delegates to sabotage international agreements on emissions reductions. As such, the IPCC report speaks to the enduring impact of industrialists’ decisions over the course of modernity.
Climate change reveals the limits of incremental, technocratic liberalism. And it would be a great mistake to pray for technological salvation. This simply seeks to substitute technology for politics further mystifying how a core problem of climate change is that capital accumulation comes through externalizing costs onto vulnerable population and the environment. So if you care about environmental justice, logically you need to be committed to election finance reform as well as more stringent regulations of corporate petitioning. Robinson Meyer makes this explicit. “If climate change worries you,” he writes, “think about not only how you vote, but also how you spend your civic attention and how you communicate your concern to policy-makers.”
These are all necessary interventions. Nevertheless, the problems presented by climate change are so great that it requires revolutionary action as Jodi Dean notes in her criticism of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This to not say that we should give up on electoral politics. Given the severity of the crisis, it would be foolish of climate change activists to abscond from using all the resources at their disposal to pursue deep, substantive democratization as a countervailing force to corporate power.
The Paris Agreement targets concede a +1.5-degree increase. But even while the talks have put, admittedly insufficient, commitments and cutback cycles, they are not binding in any real sense. There are no sanctions or force to compel states to comply. So several international agencies consider 2.5 degrees a practical target. But a 2.5 degree increase in temperature turns most coastal cities into Venice. Keep in mind the upper bounds of these estimates put the change at 6 degrees by 2100, at which point oceans become too warm for plankton to produce oxygen.
Staying below +2.0 degree means a dramatic expansion of renewable energy. This also means that the US and China must stop subsidizing and financing fossil-fuel-fired power plants domestically and abroad. At the same time, most progress in the West about reducing emissions is an illusion because these countries import products made from outsourced manufacturing to South and East Asia. For these reasons it is best to view the Paris Agreement as a continuation and extension of current regulatory regimes, rather than a genuine attempt to democratize climate actions. If we cannot correctly appraise the character of the problem, remedies are just going to be partial, superficial rather than systemic.
The aim should be to foreground the role played by global capitalism in creating climate change. For example, in 2019 there were 1730 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. These reserves could last about 50 years at the current rate of consumption. Still extracting this energy would more than deplete the 565-gigaton carbon budget required to have a chance of only having a 2 degree increase in temperature. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, ‘we have to keep it in the ground.’ Yet currently, the IMF estimates that carbon extraction receives $5.3 trillion in subsidies per year, making it 6.5% of global GDP. It should thus be of extreme worry to know in the years since the Paris Agreement, major banks have provided at least $1’900 billion in financing to the fossil-fuel sector.
There was no ideal time to wean off carbon. It is difficult—particularly when economies run on cheap fossil fuels and social services are funded by the revenues these energy sources provide. Nevertheless, a necessary part of the solution is a hard pivot to renewables, a task made more feasible due to the falling costs of building wind and solar grids. For example, a third of Germany’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Part of the reason for this success is that the average consumption by German households is 3 times less than US households, with 3’500 kWh versus 10’766 kWh per annum. Yet that average hides that each member of the US’s 1% emits 15 times more emissions than the average American, and 50 times more than the average person worldwide. So issues of privilege and the aspirations to the American way of life need to be addressed.
To date economic growth has not been decoupled from emissions. If all countries continue to pursue this developmental path, we are going to develop ourselves into ecological collapse. Speaking about climate change without talking about modernity in general and capitalism specifically is incomplete, intellectually negligent, and politically ignorant.
Accordingly, we need to rethink our ways of life and basic values to find better ways of conceptualizing post-growth flourishing. The Caribbean can drive that conversation. Elsewhere, even if there is no international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, Trinidad and Tobago—where I was recently based—can greatly cut their emissions and decarbonize the economy, perhaps even attempting to exceed their part of the Paris targets. Visionary moral leadership of this sort pioneers the future. It would be wise for the local decolonization movement to incorporate de-carbonization imperatives. For what use is political emancipation if organized human life ceases to exist by the end of this century. There are workable alternatives to meet the Caribbean’s energy needs. Trinidad and Tobago has the manufacturing base and labor expertise to build and fabricate renewables. Oil is avoidable.
Sadly, Trinidad and Tobago’s Government has doubled down on its traditional oil and gas investments, to the detriment of the health of its citizens and environment. Already pollution accounts for 9 million deaths annually worldwide. In South Africa violent crimes increase by 50% on hot days. Elsewhere, climate change brings more insects which will reduce yields of rice, maize and wheat by 47 million metric tons each year. Finally, if research from Nigeria is any indication, that country’s oil wealth has created more billionaires in the United States than addressing poverty locally. In other words, climate change means most of us will be sick, aggressive, and hungry only to have made the already rich even wealthier.
Micro adjustments are insufficient. Without the willingness by governments and financial authorities to impose severe global carbon tax and other complementary programs like criminalizing investment in the oil and gas sector. This willingness can only come from broad based democratic mandates and demands. Still, I think such mandates are possible. “Climate is our great story,” Meyer writes.
No other narrative envelopes all of humanity in quite the same way, forcing answers about the ethics of food, of oil, of technology, of economic security, of democratic republics and command capitalism, of colonialism and indigenous peoples, of who in the world is rich and who in the world is poor.
I very much endorse his view. To me it well underscores the vital necessity of grand narratives for people to understand their predicaments and mobilize accordingly. This is already happening. Carbon disinvestment campaigns have had a degree of success thereby showing that capitalism, while formidable, is not immutable.
Social inequality and climate change are entangled problems. Accordingly saving Earth requires macro reforms that restructure electrical, traffic, and agriculture systems. This means that we need a politics that explicitly links egalitarianism and environmental sustainability to meet the moment.
Scott Timcke is a comparative historical political sociologist interested in the study of class, race, and social inequality. You can contact him on Twitter, @scotttimcke.
Image Credit: Caroni Swamp, a protected mangrove on the west coast of Trinidad, home to several hundred species of birds but increasing subject to oil spills. (Photo, Author’s collection)