Ian Angus: How the Paris talks failed the planet

Issue 
Ian Angus.

Ian Angus is a Canadian ecosocialist activist and author. The editor of Climateandcapitalism.com, Angus is also the co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis with former Green Left Weekly editor Simon Butler (Haymarket, 2011).

Angus is also a featured guest at the “Socialism for the 21st Century” conference in Sydney on May 13-15 as well as speaking at public forums around the country ahead of the conference. Melbourne-based community radio 3CR spoke with Angus ahead of his Australian tour. The first part of his interview is abridged below.

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What are your opinions about the fallout from the Paris conference?

The Paris talks were pretty much what I expected them to be; that is, basically a pretty substantial show without really very much content. You know the old story about what's amazing about a dog that walks on hind legs is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all.

And similarly, people seem to get excited about the Paris conference simply because there was an agreement, but the agreement wasn't very good. In fact the agreement is just plain awful.

I mean it does have all the appropriate words in it; it says things like we should reduce average temperature by 2 degrees, and 1.5 degrees if possible, and it says things like that. But it actually contains no concrete measures whatsoever, no method of actually achieving that. It doesn't even mention fossil fuels which is the key to all this — they have to be cut.

And it all depends on the parties to the agreement voluntarily setting their own targets and their own procedures.

We have had voluntary targets set for 20 years and nothing ever happens. What we have is like an agreement to agree to agree one day.

And it turns out that there are only two countries in the whole world that have a plan that could actually achieve the goals that need to be achieved within their country — Cuba and Tuvalu. Those are important countries, but they are very small.

And when you look at the United States, China, Australia or Canada, what you have is at best what they like to call aspirational goals. That means they have no idea how they're going to achieve them, and actually have no intention of achieving them.

I mean here in Canada we have the thing of our new prime minister, who changed the politics because our previous prime minister was against doing anything on climate change. Our new prime minister is in favour of talking about doing something about climate change.

But after he goes to Paris and makes all these heroic speeches and so on, he comes back here and one of the first things he's trying to get through in the political arena here is a new pipeline to carry tar sands oil to the east coast.

In essence, they're proposing to do things that will raise emissions substantially and they have no proposal for actually cutting them. So the Paris agreement — the interesting part of it — is that the world's politicians now feel they can no longer completely refuse to act, as they did say in Copenhagen [in 2009]. They have to look as though they're doing something, but they're still not doing anything.

And that's the sad part, and that's the politics of the situation, isn't it? That's a slash and burn policy continuing unabated. That is what is significant about this Paris talk — it has done nothing to stop burning the earth type policy that is being implemented by just about every country in the world. And I think that the small countries are very worried because they know they are going to drown — Tuvalu for example, as you mentioned.

I think that it is very hard now to believe that we will avoid radical ocean level rises in this century. Even if somebody invents the magic technology, and that's really what the politicians and the capitalist corporations sort of depend on — the heat is going to be such that the ice caps are likely to melt and Antarctica is likely to melt.

Barring very rapid action, many of the small countries and the island countries are going to face really intensely serious problems, certainly within a generation.

At the moment we are dealing with refugees from the wars that the capitalists have created. This climate change issue is going to now throw up another huge refugee problem once it hits the deck because they are going to have to escape those islands. But you have written a new a book. Let's move onto that maybe. Tell us what it is about.

It's called Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System and it'll be officially published this in coming months by Monthly Review Press in the United States. But because there's a socialist conference in Sydney in May, I persuaded them to pull out the stops and we're going to introduce the book to the world at that conference.

That will be the first place anybody can see it. The focus here is that the term Anthropocene, which is one of those words that probably five years ago nobody ever heard, and now it seems you just can't open a magazine without seeing it.

The Anthropocene is a scientific concept that says what we are facing is not simply climate change, but a whole realm of changes to the fundamentals of the way the earth system works, so that we are moving into a new epoch of earth history.

Basically the Anthropocene is the proposed name for this new epoch. This includes not only the problem of climate change, but, for example, the loss of biodiversity and the fact that we are now in the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, the acidification of the oceans, the extraordinary rise in the amount of nitrogen that we are pumping into nature.

There is a whole series of these things that say that just as 12,000 years ago the ice ages ended and the Holocene — that's the epoch we're in — started this period that's been quite calm has ended and we are now moving into a new period of intense chaos in climate.

There are significant questions, as quite a number of scientists have said, the Holocene conditions are the only ones we know for sure complex societies can exist. Basically it was the Holocene that made agriculture possible, and if those conditions go away, human societies are going to face some really serious challenges. That's what my book's about.

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