Global warming shows system must be changed

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff.

In his excellent discussion piece in the lead up to the recent Climate Action Summit in Sydney, climate activist David Spratt concluded: “The problem is now so big, and the scale and urgency of the solutions required so great, that it is impossible to talk about them within the current public policy frame.

“The business and political spheres have horizons too narrow and too limited in time to be able to deal with the challenges and complexities of global warming.”

How we frame global warming is important. Is it simply a market failure that can then be fixed by the market — through carbon taxes and emission trading schemes? Quite clearly, no. The evidence indicates that global warming is one of a suite of interconnected problems created and driven in large part by a particular political and economic system and which has resulted in a “crisis of civilisation”.

Within a short space of time we are facing not only the very real possibility of irreversible global warming tipping points being passed, but a range of indicators predicting that the Earth’s biosphere is being irretrievably degraded to a point where it will no longer be capable of supporting human and other species’ life.

For example, in relation to crises facing the biosphere, in 2010 scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified nine planetary boundaries that, if transgressed, may be devastating for human survival.

The factors involved are climate change, stratospheric ozone levels, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into the biosphere and oceans, aerosols in the atmosphere and chemical pollution.

The centre said that the factors are interconnected and for three of them — climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere — the boundaries have already been crossed, thus threatening the ability of the other indicators to stay within their boundaries.

In other words, within a short space of time we are facing not only the very real possibility of irreversible global warming tipping points being passed, but a range of indicators predicting that the Earth’s biosphere is being irretrievably degraded to a point where it will no longer be capable of supporting human and other species’ life.

Further evidence comes from the Global Footprint Network’s Living Planet Report in 2010, which said humanity’s ecological footprint has more than doubled since 1966.

In 2001, humanity used the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support its activities. By 2030, it projects that humanity will require the capacity of two Earths to absorb carbon dioxide wastes and keep up with natural resource consumption.

As John Bellamy Foster wrote in 2009: “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century.”

Parallel to, and compounding the crises of the biosphere, are the social and economic crises, such as those in Europe, which have repercussions around the world. These include poverty, inequality, food and water insecurity, war, the peaking of world oil production, and many other big social problems such as unemployment, the explosion of populations in urban slums and projected increases in the number of refugees due to wars but also, increasingly, as a result of global warming.

The conjunction of these factors is happening at a time when global population is projected to reach between 8 and 11 billion by 2050.

How we frame these issues is important. There is a commonality in that all arise from a particular dominant global political economy and it is the structure of that political economy that we need to address if we are to solve these problems.

To stem global warming in the short term we urgently need to adopt energy efficiency, zero carbon emissions, clean energy, energy-efficient transport and housing and leave the “coal in the hole” and the “oil in the soil”. These measures need to be carried out urgently with huge government investment and regulation.

However, such responses alone will not solve global warming. Some may even exacerbate the problem through growing the economy. At best, they can address only a part of the problem.

This is not a good-news story — it is not one that says that we can transition to renewables, grow the economy and live increasingly prosperous lives.

Renewables can at best buy us a little time — but they can not dematerialise the consequences of growth economies. Such political-speak about renewables is positive, attractive and wins votes, but it won’t save the planet and it risks delaying action on the real problem: finding an alternative to the capitalist system and its imperative for growth.

Our only real hope is that people have a critically informed appreciation of the risks we are running by following the “business as usual” trajectory of growth and more economic growth leading to ever more consumption of resources and the production of wastes including carbon dioxide.

While this is clearly a global problem, it is a particular political and economic systemic problem that has benefited some and, like global warming, extracts the heaviest price from others — the poor in poor countries.

It is as a result of our excessive production and consumption and our exploitation historically (from the days of the slave trade, the plunder of gold and silver from the Americas, and the colonial era) continuing through to today through unfair trade, resource extraction by the North from the South, the flow of unregulated capital from the South to the North, the stealing of doctors from the South and so on.

It is a very cruel irony that it is the poor South, those who have contributed least to the problem, who already suffer and will continue to suffer first and worst from global warming.

The rich industrialised countries owe a massive historical and ecological debt, which is now in the interests of the whole planet to repay to the South as part of the strategy to tackle global warming. The UN’s Green Climate Fund is one very small first step toward what is required.

We cannot address climate change without addressing our political and economic structure. The dominant global economic system today is capitalism, a system that is hegemonic and weighted in favour of the interests of the global economic and power elite.

In recent years it has become almost unacceptable to mention that we live in a capitalist system, as if society has somehow been whitewashed and depoliticised as though the system “just is”. But the choice of an economic system is highly political.

Most market economists believe ideology plays no role in their thinking. Yet their work is framed by a system of production and social reproduction that is unsustainable, hugely inequitable and destructive of the biosphere.

It is a system that we have to work to replace with another that is not dependent on growth and is restorative rather than exploitative. A new system that serves people and the broad ecology. A system that depends on and fosters diversity in economies, cultures and species. A system that is democratic, equitable, stable and resilient.

That is the real challenge we face in tackling global warming. How we make this transition is the discussion we must now have.

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