As climate change accelerates, will Paris talks make a difference?

The Pope, Obama, and the Chinese premier have all recently talked up the necessity of global action to curb CO2 emissions. The EU has trumpeted its commitment to a 40% reduction in emissions. This suggests the ruling elite are now aware of the devastating consequences of climate change?

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As climate change accelerates, will Paris talks make a difference?

The Pope, Obama, and the Chinese premier have all recently talked up the necessity of global action to curb CO2 emissions. The EU has trumpeted its commitment to a 40% reduction in emissions. This suggests the ruling elite are now aware of the devastating consequences of climate change?

As the latest round of UN talks at Paris in December looms, climate activists and various NGOs are talking up the historic nature of the conference as the last chance to save the planet from runaway warming and limit temperature rises to under 2 degrees C. The failure of previous talks in 2009 in Copenhagen produced a widespread sense of dismay among many NGO activists; this time many are reading the statements from various world leaders as a hopeful sign that a binding treaty that commits nations to serious plans to cut emissions from fossil fuels will be agreed.

Uncharted waters

The recent moves are an acknowledgement that humanity is in uncharted waters and continued rises in CO2 levels will unleash catastrophic climate swings across the planet. The scientific debate on what is happening ended decades ago and has only continued to the extent that fossil fuel corporations and  neoliberal think tanks have funded dubious ‘academics’  to produce poorly researched and completely unscientific “contrary” opinions.

Climate records around the globe are now broken every month and year. Record droughts in the US are matched by record rainfalls elsewhere while global land and sea temperatures edge up year on year in a pattern predicted by numerous computer climate models.

Much of the earth’s population are now subject to wildly oscillating and extreme weather events with terrible consequences especially for the poorest sections of society. Heat waves, intense storms, floods, and melting ice caps  are now occurring at a rate that even our rulers find hard to ignore.

Paris not enough 

Even if some form of a binding treaty is secured at Paris it won’t stop climate change or arrest the devastation that the poorest across the globe will suffer. Any agreement to limit emissions will rest upon market mechanisms of various kinds such as Obama’s Clean Coal plan which is based on a cap and trade system similar to Europe’s carbon trading system. This has failed spectacularly to halt the rise in emissions from Europe, with widespread fraud and scams in the carbon market.

Claims that such market tools can work ignore a number of facts. Declines in the rate of increase in some European countries have nothing to do with carbon trading but other factors such as the decimation of Britain’s coal mining industry by Thatcher or other nations’ large scale switch to nuclear power.

Ireland’s claim to have reached its Kyoto targets has nothing to do with a planned reduction but is simply the consequence of the recession. Emissions are rising again as the Government seek derogations from any binding targets for their friends in industry and the beef barons. Small measures such as forcing builders to build houses with better insulation to reduce energy usage are dropped lest they annoy industry.

The wider problem with market based solutions is that they rest on a falsehood; that we can reduce carbon emissions while leaving the logic of capitalism unchanged. Estimates of our global carbon budget suggest that at present or even reduced usage of fossil fuels, we will reach a tipping point within decades where limiting temperatures to a two degree increase will be impossible.

Even if Paris commits nations to a binding target, and even if Obama’s and China’s targets are delivered, this carbon budget will still be exceeded in decades. Capitalism insists that everything must be both commodified and priced. Hence the specious hope that pricing carbon will allow the market to adjust and incentives its reduced usage while increasing the use of carbon free renewables.

However capitalism also rests on never ending expansion. Accumulation for accumulation’s sake as Marx said. The use of fossil fuels had been central to that expansion. Any saving or increased efficiency in one sector will lead to the expansion of that sector as investment pours into potentially profitable areas. There can be no solution to climate chaos within the capitalist economic system, regardless of innovations or technological advances.

The store of proven reserves that oil and gas corporations have and intend to drill and mine means any attempt to stop climate chaos has to start with a challenge to these corporations’ power and profits. Getting emissions down to the levels needed requires leaving these reserves in the ground and aiming for zero or carbon neutral rates within decades. Capitalism as a system based on growth and profit simply cannot accommodate these measures. As Naomi Klein puts in her latest book, “climate change means changing everything about our profit driven economic system”. Paris will not alter that.

Many activist are gearing up to what promises to be the biggest climate change protest yet around the Paris conference in December, with parallel protests across many cities around the world. The aim is to have a “Seattle for climate”- a reference to the protest against the WTO in Seattle in 1999 that sparked the international campaign against neoliberal globalisation. It is in the protests on the streets of Paris and other cities that real hope lies and in the ability of activists to bring the climate issue into the workers’ movement globally.

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