Yves here. I know that Medea Benjamin and Nicholas Davies and the various climate change activists they recognize in the post below mean well. So I hate to make an unflattering but accurate comparison: their grasp on the magnitude of change needed to prevent the worst climate outcomes is as least as poor as Pete Buttigieg’s of what is required to get the West Coast ports unjammed.
Most people now accept that planetary warming is largely if not entirely the result of industrial activity. But even if there is now more tacit acceptance, that is a hell of a long way from devising and implementing the necessary and massive reworking of how society provisions itself.
In mere high school debate, the affirmative side, which advocates for change, must establish either a significant need for change or provide a significant benefit. But that is not sufficient for the affirmative side to win a debate. It must also set forth an action plan that is sufficiently developed and substantiated that it will survive attack by the “negative” or status quo supporter.
Regular readers may also recall that we were critical of both advocates of a Greek exit from the EU and Brexit. For both, we stressed that for them to succeed, it would take war level planning and mobilization. For Greece, the government was so diminished due to years of austerity that it couldn’t even field a proper negotiating team to square off with the EU, let alone devise and implement a massive economic restructuring. For the UK, we were dumbfounded by the Tories having no interest in even understanding the magnitude of the undertaking, let alone doing very little to prepare. And we had also assumed the British civil service was much more able than it proved itself to be.
Managing an economy-wide transition to clean energy sources, which is what most climate change activists call for, is at least two orders of magnitude more difficult. A substantial portion of economic activity is international, including some elements that are crucial for anything within hailing distance of life as we now know it. For starters, ~80% of US active drug ingredients come from China, with a big portion of the remainder from India. Nearly 90% of US chips come from abroad. And I suspect that a lot of those chips don’t come to the US as naked chips but as subassemblies or other higher-valued-added components. Shipping is a particularly high carbon activity yet undergrids a huge portion of how goods come to market. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I’ve heard crickets on this topic. And even countries that are resource-rich enough to become near autarkies like the US would have to undergo massive restructuring, with a lot of upfront investment (financial and carbon costs, along with the result of more expensive products) to get there.
To put it another way: Covid has exposed how fragile and failure-prone our supply chains are. Transitioning to renewable energy sources means in many cases building new infrastructure in parallel to what we have now and then moving activity over to it. That sounds all well and good until you appreciate that some of these new networks need to be very fully built out before anyone will use them. This is why Federal Express is unique as a precocial startup, with the planes and the Memphis hub and the software and the offices all set up and ready the day the business went live. Yet some hoped-for future systems require precocial development, as in the buildout of an entire system before anyone will adopt it. Fully autonomous cars fall in this category (the climate advantage of fully autonomous cars is they could be operated like public transit, hence more efficiently from an energy and materials perspective). But to get to fully autonomous vehicles, you need all cars to be fully autonomous (I will spare readers the full argument but the very short version is you need to change the infrastructure to suit the cars).
Similarly, I haven’t heard great ideas from climate chance activists about what to do about detached single family homes, which are inefficient to heat and cool due to their outer walls and costly to provision. Solar panels are not a magic bullet.
Thus I am bothered by the climate change activists wanting to build a new boat and step into it while we are currently in a leaky boat on a rough river.
A second issue not acknowledged enough is endowment effect. People like what they have and don’t want to give it up because they have it. Seriously. As Investopedia put it, “Studies have repeatedly shown that people will value something that they already own more than a similar item they do not own.” Asking people to give up elements of their current lifestyle will trigger endowment effect reactions. They’ll be more attached to them than they are actually “worth” in concrete terms.
These considerations argue for radical energy conservation as the most important step we can take now. First, it offers the best chance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions now. Waiting to build out new green energy sources means more use now of dirty old sources.
Second, it demands least of leaders who appear unable to manage even something comparatively simple, like election campaigns, and can’t really be trusted to handle highly complex multi-year projects and their political fallout.
Third, radical conservation could be made to seem chic. Just put Marie Kondo on it. To add to her minimalist philosophy you would need to add doing things more slowly. The supply chain crisis is already undermining shopping as instant gratification.
To put these objections more simply: neoliberalism/capitalism is not the biggest problem climate change activists face, even though it is the one they have to neutralize first and is a daunting challenge.
But even if capitalism were abolished tomorrow, we would still face the even bigger and harder problem of dealing with existing conditions, as in the location and nature of the means of production. Neoliberalism, as powerful as it seems, is merely ideology and legal arrangements. As the failures of our supposed elites are revealing, managing complex, interconnected and not terribly long-lived equipment, operations and infrastructure is harder. Large-scale startups are hardest of all.
By Medea Benjamin, cofounder ofCODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Nicolas J. S. Davies, an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq
COP26! That is how many times the UN has assembled world leaders to try to tackle the climate crisis. But the United States is producing more oil and natural gas than ever; the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and global temperatures are both still rising; and we are already experiencing the extreme weather and climate chaos that scientists have warned us about for forty years, and which will only get worse and worse without serious climate action.
And yet, the planet has so far only warmed 1.2° Celsius (2.2° F) since pre-industrial times. We already have the technology we need to convert our energy systems to clean, renewable energy, and doing so would create millions of good jobs for people all over the world. So, in practical terms, the steps we must take are clear, achievable and urgent.
The greatest obstacle to action that we face is our dysfunctional,neoliberal political and economic system and its control by plutocratic and corporate interests, who are determined to keep profiting from fossil fuels even at the cost of destroying the Earth’s uniquely livable climate. The climate crisis has exposed this system’s structural inability to act in the real interests of humanity, even when our very future hangs in the balance.
So what is the answer? Can COP26 in Glasgow be different? What could make the difference between more slick political PR and decisive action? Counting on the same politicians and fossil fuel interests (yes, they are there, too) to do something different this time seems suicidal, but what is the alternative?
Since Obama’s Pied Piper leadership in Copenhagen and Paris produced a system in which individual countries set their own targets and decided how to meet them, most countries have made little progress toward the targets they set in Paris in 2015.
Now they have come to Glasgow with predetermined and inadequate pledges that, even if fulfilled, would still lead to a much hotter world by 2100. Asuccessionof UN and civil society reports in the lead-up to COP26 have been sounding the alarm with what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called a “thundering wake-up call” and a “code red for humanity.” In Guterres’ opening speech at COP26 on November 1st, he said that “we are digging our own graves” by failing to solve this crisis.
Yet governments are still focusing on long-term goals like reaching “Net Zero” by 2050, 2060 or even 2070, so far in the future that they can keep postponing the radical steps needed to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius. Even if they somehow stopped pumping greenhouse gases into the air, the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere by 2050 would keep heating up the planet for generations. The more we load up the atmosphere with GHGs, the longer their effect will last and the hotter the Earth will keep growing.
The United States has set as horter-term target of reducing its emissions by 50% from their peak 2005 level by 2030. But its present policies would only lead to a 17%-25% reduction by then.
The Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP), which was part of the Build Back Better Act, could make up a lot of that gap by paying electric utilities to increase reliance on renewables by 4% year over year and penalizing utilities that don’t. But on the eve of COP 26, Biden dropped the CEPP from the bill under pressure from Senators Manchin and Sinema and their fossil fuel puppet-masters.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military, the largest institutional emitter of GHGs on Earth, was exempted from any constraints whatsoever under the Paris Agreement. Peace activists in Glasgow are demanding that COP26 must fix this hugeblack holein global climate policy by including the U.S. war machine’s GHG emissions, and those of other militaries, in national emissions reporting and reductions.
At the same time, every penny that governments around the world have spent to address the climate crisis amounts to a small fraction of what the United States alone has spent on its nation-destroying war machine during the same period.
China now officially emits more CO2 than the United States. But a large part of China’s emissions are driven by the rest of the world’s consumption of Chinese products, and its largest customer is the United States. An MIT studyin 2014 estimated that exports account for 22% of China’s carbon emissions. On a per capita consumption basis, Americans still account for three time the GHG emissions of our Chinese neighbors and double the emissions of Europeans.
Wealthy countries have also fallen shorton the commitment they made in Copenhagen in 2009 to help poorer countries tackle climate change by providing financial aid that would grow to $100 billion per year by 2020. They have provided increasing amounts, reaching $79 billion in 2019, but the failure to deliver the full amount that was promised has eroded trust between rich and poor countries. A committee headed by Canada and Germany at COP26 is charged with resolving the shortfall and restoring trust.
When the world’s political leaders are failing so badly that they are destroying the natural world and the livable climate that sustains human civilization, it is urgent for people everywhere to get much more active, vocal and creative.
The appropriate public response to governments that are ready to squander the lives of millions of people, whether by war or by ecological mass suicide, is rebellion and revolution – and non-violent forms of revolution have generally proven more effective and beneficial than violent ones.
People are rising up against this corrupt neoliberal political and economic system in countries all over the world, as its savage impacts affect their lives in different ways. But the climate crisis is a universal danger to all of humanity that requires a universal, global response.
One inspiring civil society group on the streets in Glasgow during COP 26 is Extinction Rebellion, which proclaims, “We accuse world leaders of failure, and with a daring vision of hope, we demand the impossible…We will sing and dance and lock arms against despair and remind the world there is so much worth rebelling for.”
Extinction Rebellion and other climate groups at COP26 are calling for Net Zero by 2025, not 2050, as the only way to meet the 1.5° goal agreed to in Paris.
Greenpeaceis calling for an immediate global moratorium on new fossil fuel projects and a quick phase-out of coal-burning power plants. Even the new coalition government in Germany, which includes the Green Party and has more ambitious goals than other large wealthy countries, has only moved up the final deadline on Germany’s coal phaseout from 2038 to 2030.
The Indigenous Environmental Network is bringing indigenous peoplefrom the Global South to Glasgow to tell their stories at the conference. They are calling on the Northern industrialized countries to declare a climate emergency, to keep fossil fuels in the ground and end subsidies of fossil fuels globally.
Friends of the Earth (FOE) has published a new reporttitled Nature-Based Solutions: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothingas a focus for its work at COP26. It exposes a new trend in corporate greenwashing involving industrial-scale tree plantations in poor countries, which corporations plan to claim as “offsets” for continued fossil fuel production.
The U.K. government that is hosting the conference in Glasgow has endorsed these schemes as part of the program at COP26. FOE is highlighting the effect of these massive land-grabs on local and indigenous communities and calls them “a dangerous deception and distraction from the real solutions to the climate crisis.” If this is what governments mean by “Net Zero,” it would just be one more step in the financialization of the Earth and all its resources, not a real solution.
Because it is hard for activists from around the world to get to Glasgow for COP26 during a pandemic, activist groups are simultaneously organizing around the world to put pressure on governments in their own countries. Hundreds of climate activists and indigenous people have been arrestedin protests at the White House in Washington, and five young Sunrise Movement activists began a hunger strikethere on October 19th.
U.S. climate groups also support the “Green New Deal” bill, H.Res. 332, that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has introduced in Congress, which specifically calls for policies to keep global warming below 1.5° Celsius, and currently has 103 cosponsors. The bill sets ambitious targets for 2030, but only calls for Net Zero by 2050.
The environmental and climate groups converging on Glasgow agree that we need a real global program of energy conversion now, as a practical matter, not as the aspirational goal of an endlessly ineffective, hopelessly corrupt political process.
At COP25 in Madrid in 2019, Extinction Rebellion dumped a pile of horse manure outside the conference hall with the message, “The horse-shit stops here.” Of course that didn’t stop it, but it made the point that empty talk must rapidly be eclipsed by real action. Greta Thunberg has hit the nail on the head, slamming world leaders for covering up their failures with “blah, blah, blah,” instead of taking real action.
Like Greta’s School Strike for the Climate, the climate movement in the streets of Glasgowis informedby the recognition that the science is clear and the solutions to the climate crisis are readily available. It is only political will that is lacking. This must be supplied by ordinary people, from all walks of life, through creative, dramatic action and mass mobilization, to demand the political and economic transformation we so desperately need.
The usually mild-mannered UN Secretary General Guterres made it clear that “street heat” will be key to saving humanity. “The climate action army – led by young people – is unstoppable,” he told world leaders in Glasgow. “They are larger. They are louder. And, I assure you, they are not going away.”