As President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement deals another blow to global efforts to tackle climate change, Janaya Pickett looks at why humanity seems so determined to wreak further damage on our fragile planet
Climate change is a concept that the vast majority of us are now aware of. We are at a point in history where 97% of the world’s climate research scientists agree that the Earth is warming due to human activity. The burning of fossil fuels is altering the atmosphere, at such a speed as to dramatically alter the place we inhabit within the next 50 years. When – not ‘if’ – the last Arctic ice melts and seas rise to predicted levels, coastal cities across the globe (housing some tens, possibly hundreds of millions of people) will be submerged in water. Due to the acidification and temperature increases of the oceans, up to half of the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef, has been killed by bleaching in the last two years. Large parts of the planet will be rendered uninhabitable, and it has been predicted that by the end of the century anywhere from 25-50% of all species will be extinct.
As depressing as it is, this is not surprising information. The fundamental facts of climate change and the severe threat it poses have been public knowledge for around 30 years. I was born in the early 1980s, and I vaguely recall the media beginning to highlight that the way we live damages our planet. For the average person who does not follow scientific publications, information about the climate (and most things for that matter) comes from various media outlets – and how those outlets have reported climate change can tell us much about how we have so far reacted.
1988 is seen as a landmark year in the climate movement, as it was the year the first official conference on climate change was held, in Toronto, Canada, and the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed. In Toronto, hundreds of scientists, policymakers and representatives from multinational organisations came together to discuss the evidence that, by our pollution, we are conducting what chair Stephen Lewis called “an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment”.
During the late 1980s it’s interesting to note that the existence of climate change was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Nowadays we can see clear links between conservative opinion more generally and climate change denial. Yet Margaret Thatcher is often cited as one of the first world leaders to speak publicly on the threat of global warming. George Bush Snr. also showed concern and pledged to fight the greenhouse effect with the ‘White House effect’. Granted, both used climate change to push their own interests, but what this shows is that climate change did not yet represent a threat to capitalist ideology.
What scientists quickly agreed at the 1988 Toronto Conference, however, was that fuel emissions needed to be curbed on a global scale, and quickly, to avoid catastrophe. It was agreed that a 20% decrease in CO2 emissions by 2005 would go some way to achieving this. Yet in 2013 we hit 60% more emissions than 1990 levels. In 2007 it was recommended by climate scientist James Hanson that 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere was the maximum level allowable to keep the situation manageable. In 2013, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that we’d surpassed 400ppm – and, as of June 2017 there is, on average, 408.84 ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere. The story of our planet’s metamorphosis through human activity is arguably the biggest story there is, ever has been or ever will be.
This gargantuan living organism floating through space is all we have, and our place on it is fragile. Then how has the issue been so pathetically managed in the 30 years since we’ve understood its severity? Why isn’t it on the front page of every publication, every day of the week? Why are we not only not doing anything but making it worse?
In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein attempts to explain this shocking lack of action around climate change. In a nutshell, Klein puts forward the argument that not only is free market capitalism responsible for the Earth’s crisis, but its players (business moguls and politicians) have actively fought against attempts to solve it. The fossil fuel industry is the wealthiest in the world, she points out, and the one most threatened by the need to shift to renewable energy. Further to that, “…we live in an economy created by, and fully dependent on, the burning of fossil fuels.” It touches everything we do and everything we consume.
Klein paints global warming as the biggest market failure seen under neoliberal capitalism, but welcomes this as an opportunity to affect social change. It’s inevitable that we are facing unprecedented change, but tackling the crisis would involve increased taxation and regulation on polluting businesses, a redistribution of wealth, increased government spending on public infrastructures, the localisation of economies, sustainable housing and energy… the list goes on. These long-term changes sound ideal to the many but certainly not the few. “I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”
In their 2010 book, Merchants Of Doubt, science historian Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik Conway examine the nature of thinktanks (funded by the fossil fuel industry and conservative foundations) that were set up in the 1990s to peddle doubt about climate change. Climate deniers such as Fred Singer, Fred Feltz and Bill Nierenberg in particular were involved in such groups and had previously been employed in similar roles by the tobacco industry. The aim of the book is to highlight how influential these shadowy figures have been in clouding the focus around climate change. These are men that have the ears of US senators, congressmen, generals and media organisations and have (on behalf of interested parties) succeeded in delaying policy on climate change and influencing public opinion.
Climate change in the past has been presented to us as a scientific problem. This Changes Everything and Merchants Of Doubt show us that climate change is also a socio-political issue that can be understood with science that highlights the reality of the world we live in today: a reality in which the powers that be are willing to sacrifice our collective safety to keep their wealth. Klein sees this as further proof that a new economic model is not only desirable but inevitable. The market logic we adhere to now, “the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich[,] is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy.”
Real life logic dictates that, if you understand something is causing damage and you avoid that something, you will avoid damage. We learned 30 years ago that burning fossil fuels and increasing consumption are disrupting the biological conditions we need as a species to survive, yet we continue. Governments have, throughout this time, met and agreed (over and over again) that the time for change is now, yet they leave these conferences having done nothing more than promise to try to change and do their best to meet emissions targets. Until 2008, for example, there was no legal obligation for the UK to lower emissions and, although the Climate Change Act was pioneering, with other countries following suit, the 2015 Infrastructure Act legally binds the government to maximise their offshore drilling potential. On the one hand, ministers pledge to cut emissions, but on the other they have enacted legislation to extract more fuel as quickly as possible. They present these issues without the slightest recognition that if you’re planning on extracting fuel, at some point that fuel will get burned.
In 2016, celebrity businessman Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States of America. Part of Trump’s campaign involved promises to dismantle the US Environmental Protection Agency and withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement of 2015, the first attempt at a united attack on climate change, involving 195 nations. Trump’s election is a devastating blow for the climate movement and he brings in a powerful cabinet with track records of climate denial, conservatism and ties to ‘big oil’.
What has become clear, however, is that Trump is already the most unpopular US president in history, whose own emphasis on climate change denial has brought much attention from the press and as a consequence more pressure on the issue. What has also emerged as a positive contrast to the attitude of Trump and his cronies is the number of individual towns and cities across the US taking it upon themselves to act, despite the national government’s position.
On 1st June this year, the United States Climate Alliance was set up in response to Trump’s announcement that the USA would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. As of 7th June there are 13 members, including New York, Washington and California, who have voiced their concern and pledged to stick to the 2015 agreement.
The post-democratic system that we live under has meant that the planning and managing of our societies is left largely to an unpredictable market. You don’t have to dig deep to get a sense of the influence the fuel industry has over our political institutions, and to excuse the actions of that industry and the people involved a myriad of media wizardry is enacted to distract or confuse us. So many times we are told that there is nothing we can do to change our situation, so most of us do not. But Naomi Klein’s political framing of the crisis simplifies the issue. It provides us with an opportunity for change that we didn’t know we had. There are clear goodies and baddies and, as in all good moral stories, good has the power to overcome evil, it just needs to mobilise. What this version of the story underestimates, however, is the philosophical question around climate change.
Environmental activist and writer George Monbiot has argued that the issue of climate change is bigger than capitalism. Yes, the neoliberal revolution has damaged democracy but, regardless of the economic model used, it is still the fossil fuels themselves that are doing the damage. This is evident in the fact that socialist economies are also inclined to pollute and that those in power on the left have been similarly as useless as those on the right when it comes to climate action. Fossil fuels have benefited our society immeasurably in the past 250 years, but they have also increased our capacity to do long-term damage to the planet and ultimately to ourselves. The changes we face are not only the responsibility of industries or governmental bodies but of us all.
Climate change challenges philosophical ideologies, stories that we have told ourselves about ourselves for thousands of years: man has inherited the Earth which is his (or hers) to pillage; as a species we will continue to evolve and grow and be dominant of our environment. These stories are entrenched in religious, cultural, scientific and political doctrine and are the basis for our collective identity.
In thinking about climate change there is the emerging realisation that how we view the world does not reconcile with nature and, in the wake of this, a newfound respect has emerged for indigenous cultures that offer a different outlook. Indigenous communities are now playing a vital role within the climate movement and taking a legal stand against extraction on scared lands (such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in response to the Keystone XL Pipeline). Unlike in Western culture, Native American cultures centre around a deep respect and mutual relationship with the Earth. Man is no more, or less, important than any other species. Indeed, we all play equally important parts that make the whole.
In 2017 it feels like those of us in the ‘developed’ world are ever more disconnected, stuck on a seemingly never-ending wheel of consumption and waste. And the scale of the damage we cause in relation to what we are causing that damage for is really very astonishing. In its beginnings, the burning of fuel brought us transport, powered medical advancements and increased our capacity to feed populations. It still does all these things but in our mad ambition to have a constantly growing economy we need more reasons to burn more fuel. Nowadays, we burn fuel also to make throwaway goods: fashion, novelty gifts and accessories, things designed to be used once or twice and then thrown away. These are not essentials or comparable to the physical labour we put in to having the money to pay for said items, but we buy into them anyway.
It is generally known that, although money and objects can cushion existence, you cannot buy happiness. What climate change demands of us is a re-evaluation of what it means to live a fulfilling life and the steps needed in order to overcome the crisis will be beneficial in that sense. Preparing for the change predicted would involve largescale co-operation and mobilisation, comparable to that in the run up to WWII, according to advocacy group The Climate Mobilisation. The fight for our climate is also the fight for economic, racial and sexual equality and the potential power of the climate movement spans many spheres.
It’s impossible to solve a problem unless you engage with it and that engagement becomes much easier when you have something to look forward to. At the moment we tell ourselves that there is little we can do stop climate change so we should carry on as normal. What we need to do is engage with it and figure out what we will do when it does happen – because the time to do this was yesterday. In the wake of Brexit, opinion emerged in the press and on social media that the ‘baby boomer’ generation is responsible for society’s current ills, having taken part in the credit bubble that resulted in the 2008 crash and allowing austerity to creep in. The irony here is that most of us are in contact with younger generations: children who may be ours, our brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, etc. And it is they who will bear the brunt of our current actions or lack thereof. How they will feel about us depends on what type of world we leave for them: that will be our legacy, and something potentially more fulfilling than any product money could buy.