Several recent scientific reports on climate change have warned we are headed for disaster, giving frightening evidence of just how bad things could get. It’s just as frightening how little world governments intend to do about it.
But it’s maddening to think how easy it would be to take serious action on climate, and staggering to add up the benefits of doing so.
Take the example given by US ecologist Lester Brown in a speech in 2008. He said burning coal makes up 40% of world carbon emissions from energy. To replace that coal with wind power, Brown said we’d need to build about 1.5 million wind turbines worldwide — and we should aim to do it in 10 years.
That might seem like too huge a task: 1.5 million wind turbines would be close to an 800% rise on today’s level.
But Brown pointed out that about 65 million cars had been made in the past year. If just one industry can produce that many cars in a single year, there is no question we could build 1.5 million wind turbines in 10 years, if society’s resources were mobilised to that end.
The car industry, such a big polluter, is still not building as many cars as it wants to. In their 2012 book The Endless Crisis, US Marxists John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney said the car industry, even before the 2008 crash, “was faced with huge amounts of excess capacity — equal to approximately one-third of its total capacity”.
They quoted a 2008 BusinessWeek article, which said: “Having indulged in a global orgy of factory-building in recent years, the industry has the capacity to make an astounding 94 million vehicles each year. That’s about 34 million too many based on current sales.”
Business groups tell us that the profit motive and markets allocate resources rationally and efficiently. But in practice, it’s so irrational and inefficient that the idle manufacturing capacity in the car industry alone could build Brown’s 1.5 million wind turbines.
It is not just with the car industry that the “efficient markets hypothesis” falls flat. On an economy-wide scale, Foster and McChesney present data showing idle manufacturing capacity across the US rose from 15% in 1970 to 22% in 2010. That’s an immense store of potential jobs and climate solutions that is idle because its private owners haven’t worked out a way to profit from using it.
In his book Plan B 4.0: Mobilising the Planet to Save Civilisation, Brown came up with a “Plan B Budget”, which added up the costs of restoring the Earth’s ecosystems. His budget included social goals, such as universal education and health care, and natural restoration projects, such as tree planting, soil renewal and water security.
Brown said this budget to “restore the Earth” required $187 billion a year: equal to just one eighth of global military spending. It’s questionable that Brown’s budget includes all the right goals or enough goals. But even if he has underestimated the cost by 200%, the world’s military budget could finance the job several times over.
Then consider the $32 trillion the Tax Justice Network estimates the tax-dodging super-rich could have hidden in offshore tax havens. That’s equal to almost half of global GDP. Imagine what could be achieved if that ill-gotten wealth was not locked up by banks and other financial parasites.
Last year, environmental consultants Ecofys released a report that said the world could switch to 100% renewable energy in 40 years. It said the task would cost about 3% of world GDP a year, with the money spent on renewables, energy infrastructure and energy efficiency.
The report also said that this big upfront clean energy investment would pay big social dividends, lowering energy costs by about $5.7 trillion a year by 2050. Along with the climate benefits, spending big on a rollout of renewable energy would save money that otherwise will go into the hands of fossil fuel companies.
That is also why every oil, coal and gas company’s business plan is to make sure that never happens.
It is sometimes said that the big corporate polluters and bankers are guilty of ignoring the climate crisis. Some are, but the big money is paying very close attention — looking for ways to profit from whatever happens.
A much warmer world will bring more dangerous storms, droughts, floods and bushfires — but it will also present new opportunities to profit from the disasters. In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein showed how corporations and Western governments have become experts in taking advantage of crisis and human misery.
She said this tendency has grown worse, with an “intensely violent brand of disaster capitalism” — defined by the West’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — dominating “since September 11”.
Because fossil fuel use is so central to the capitalist economy, and because the system must ceaselessly grow in wasteful ways or risk collapse, “disaster capitalism” is the only capitalism we will ever get.
Humanity won’t be able to shape a new, sustainable relationship with nature as long as mining CEOs, media barons and army generals still make all the big decisions. The steps we need to take on climate change are affordable and relatively straightforward, but we won’t get close to dealing with climate change without fundamental social change as well.
The People’s Agreement adopted by the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, made the point this way: “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.
“It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings. And for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.”