Climate change: The big picture

I’m convinced that global capitalism has such a grip on the system that top-down change through regulation is effectively impossible.

Two examples:

  • An Italian company makes solar panels. Ottawa launches a vast project for green investment and is looking for investors. The Italian company is interested; it conceives and designs a new machine tool to make its panels better and cheaper. But Ottawa imposes conditions: local labour and locally supplied parts and materials. No problem for the Italians. But then along come the Chinese and drag everyone up before the tribunal of the World Trade Organisation for shutting out foreign competition.

  • The new transatlantic trade agreement (TTIP), which is – rightly – encountering fierce opposition, includes provision for disputes between corporations and states to be resolved in an off-shore tribunal of corporate lawyers, with zero transparency and no right of appeal. This provision has been used in the past to protect investors from failed states where the legal system cannot be replied on. OK – but what the hell is it doing in a treaty between the USA and Europe? Obviously, Europe’s legal system cannot be relied on to rule in corporations’ favour. Investor-state dispute settlement has been and will be used to strike down attempts at sovereign state market regulation, up to and including “local” Supreme Court rulings, on the grounds that they threaten “anticipated future profits”.

If top-down regulated change is a non-starter, what hope is there for bottom-up, protest-inspired change? Effectively none, because top-down or bottom-up is all the same to corporations and their sacrosanct future profits.

For the same reason, it’s not even sure that governments would be able to impose a carbon tax or withdraw hidden subsidies such as special tax arrangements and deals on infrastructure costs. The oil industry is currently split on whether or not it would “accept” a carbon tax. What governments can do is to increase subsidies for renewable energies but of course they’ll say they can’t afford it.

There might be a clue to the future – to a better future – in the plight of the coal market. The stock market value of coal has dropped by 33% over the last year: no sudden drop – a steady decline. Why? Queensland, Australia might be a good example. On the one hand, Queensland has started a huge new strip-mining project (and “huge” is an understatement – it’s about the size of the UK), while, on the other, the state’s main generator recently had to offload unsaleable production to other generators at knock-down prices because more and more Queenslanders are turning to solar to cover their energy needs. Australia is hoping to sell all that coal to India, but there will be stiff competition from the USA (driving prices down further) because the Chinese market is dwindling rapidly. In addition, the IMF (or it might have been the World Bank) has announced it will no longer finance investment in the coal sector. As the price drops further and further there will surely come a point where the industry decides to cut its losses and close up shop. We need somehow (and soon) to trigger the same syndrome in the oil industry: i.e. pull the market out from under ’em.

Since it was created in 1988, the IPCC has done a great deal of useful work in ponderously, pedantically piecing together the evidence contained in a thousand or more scientific papers. It’s largely thanks to the IPCC – and especially its 4th and 5th reports – that we have an increasingly clear picture of the various complex dynamics in action within the biosphere. However, that is almost incidental: it was never the IPCC’s main purpose. To appreciate the IPCC’s main mission and the extent to which it has been successful in accomplishing it, we need to go back to the beginnings of modern climate change science. Contrary to popular belief, climate science didn’t start with the IPCC.

In February 1965, following publication of the Revelle report, President Johnson, in a special message to Congress, said: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

The Revelle report was confirmed by that of the “Jasons” in 1979, itself confirmed by the Charney report, also in 1979. Meanwhile, in 1978, the NOAA had gone on record with: “We now understand that industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society.”

All the scientists involved agreed on the central issue: injecting vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere was likely to lead to serious problems. But it was impossible to say what those problems might be on the basis of the data available at the time and they said further research was necessary. Nonetheless, it was obvious to them that the sensible thing to do was rein in CO2emissions.

The next report, that of Schelling in 1980, concentrated on the potential social, economic and political effects of a changing climate and made some very fuzzy, putative suggestions: “By the middle of the next century the climate could be as different from today’s as today’s is from that of the last major glaciation. On the other hand, it is also possible that by then the effects will turn out to be not necessarily unfavourable.” With that, the breach was opened.

Nierenberg, in 1983, swung the debate away from the science, into the realms of economics and national security. And that effectively put the kybosh on things for a further five years.

In 1988, James Hansen’s ground-breaking address before a Senate committee put climate change firmly back on the agenda. Hansen was director of the NASA’s Godard Institute for Space Studies. After early work attempting to understand the Venusian atmosphere, he later applied and refined his models to understand the Earth’s atmosphere, in particular the effects that aerosols and trace gases have on Earth’s climate. His work was at the cutting edge and climate change could no longer be swept under the carpet.

But it could be drawn out into an endless series of pedantically inconclusive reports. The IPCC had been called into existence a few months earlier and now it set to work. Its principal mission, as can now be seen, was to carry on wasting time; and unfortunately it succeeded brilliantly.

50 years ago, Keeling’s meticulous work on the Mauna Loa data enabled Revelle to spotlight the emerging significance of global CO2 emissions which were threatening the stability of a closed system that had been in place for at least 800,000 years if not 2.5 million. The threat was clear but at that point it was still only a threat. 50 years ago, there was optimism in the air: World War II was behind us, the economy was booming and people were looking more to the future than to the past. Bending that rising curve out of its exponential trajectory would have been a fine and feasible adventure for the second half of the 20th century.

Now, 50 years on, that stable system is definitively broken. From a pre-industrial average of 280ppm, atmospheric CO2 is currently at 400 and fast heading for 450, 500 and all stops to oblivion. For two millions years, the level of atmospheric CO2 was driven by temperature; over the last 50 years that relationship has been reversed and temperature is now – and will henceforth be – determined by atmospheric CO2. That, my friends, is change on a geological scale. We can’t switch it back. By definition, nothing will ever be the same again.


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