CO2 Emissions Are Still Rising. How Can We Reverse Course Before It’s Too Late?

The COP23 climate meetings in Bonn two weeks ago provided a welcome opportunity for climate change to make it into public discussion. But the meetings themselves could not accomplish much. The value of the international framework–the Paris accord–was never in the text of the agreements themselves, which did not come close to getting the international community to commit to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, let alone 1.5 degrees C, which was mentioned as the better objective. The value of the Paris agreement was the international consensus–now partially broken by the Trump administration–about the pressing need to take big steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades.

Still, it is an opportune moment to pose questions concerning what it would really take to drastically reduce CO2 emissions as well as the release of other greenhouse gases. In a post two weeks ago, I discussed a new academic report and an open letter signed by some 18,000 scientists, each of which stresses the urgency of taking much more aggressive action. What exactly can and should be done? Three articles in the past week provide some ideas.

In an interview with Kevin Anderson (“Could a Marshall Plan for the Planet Tackle the Climate Crisis?”), an academic who splits his time between Sweden and the UK, Kate Aronoff begins by observing that “decarbonizing the world economy by mid-century…may well prove the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever faced.” And, for there to be any chance of that happening, national leaderships will have to rethink “long-held beliefs about how economies should measure success, and what the role of the state should be in shaping economic activity.”

Anderson states that 1.5 degrees C is essentially impossible at this point and 2 degrees C has only a 5 percent chance of success. He is very conflicted about international conferences such as the series of COPs.

“I am not very uplifted when I come to events like this. We say we’re all moving nicely in the right direction. But when you look at it in more detail, it’s not quite like that.”

The discussion then moves to the idea of a Marshall Plan for the planet, following the example of the US Marshall plan for Western Europe after World War II, because that is the scale of effort required. As Anderson emphasizes, it is not just about making renewables cheaper and fossil fuels more expensive. Instead, the global community needs to “go in and close down” fossil fuel use, while building up renewable infrastructure, which means a large reconfiguration of the global economy and the way societies are organized. This, in turn, means that we have to rethink how we evaluate economic progress, putting much less emphasis on standard, market-based indicators such as GNP and GDP.

Aronoff asks him if such a large economic transformation in the global system is compatible with capitalism. Anderson states that: “The form of capitalism that dominates the discourse at the moment is clearly not compatible with dealing with climate change. I’m absolutely categorical in my view on that.” Hence, “we will need some root and branch changes to what we might call capitalism if it’s ever going to deal with climate change. And even then whether you can say it looks and sounds like capitalism I don’t know.”

In an article in In These Times, Carla Skandier of the Next System Project gets into more detail about what needs to be done with the fossil fuels sector to bring about the system change that would keep fossil fuels in the ground and replace them with renewable energy.

Given that, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground in order to have a chance of minimizing massive climate change-caused disruptions, the best solution is for the US government to “change the rules of the game” and take over fossil fuel reserves from the coal, oil, and gas industry.

Could such a step ever be possible within the framework of the US political system? Skandier argues there are some precedents. These include the Marshall Plan after World War II and the more recent example of the massive Bush and Obama administrations’ interventions during the 2007-08 financial crisis. These measures included nationalizing major financial institutions and parts of the US automobile industry. So, yes, it’s not impossible, provided there is a widely-recognized crisis.

The daunting challenge of global climate change definitely meets the standard definition of crisis, given the need for massive action to reverse the upward trend of carbon emissions immediately.  (see Eric Holthaus’s article “Ice Apocalypse” for a good overview of a potential worst case scenario if such action is not taken). But much of the US public does not perceive an imminent threat and, of course, the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to ignore the climate reality.

There are other avenues to follow as well.  Former NASA scientist and long-time activist James Hansen calls for a campaign of lawsuits and political mobilization (“We should be on the offensive”) to force the major corporations in the carbon economy to pay for the damage they are largely responsible for. Although the courts have not favored climate activists historically, there has been a new phase in litigation and activists believe that some courts are now more open to the arguments of climate advocates as the evidence of climate change mounts.

Part of the explanation for this evolution in the courts may be the position of the Trump administration. Whereas previous administrations could argue with at least some credibility that they were responsible for and were taking care of the environment, under Trump this is clearly not the case. Courts may be coming to the realization that the executive branch cannot be relied upon to protect the environment and that there are legal norms relating to health and the common good that must be protected. How far they may go remains to be seen.

There is nothing particularly new in any of these arguments. But there is value in fully describing the dangers human society faces and talking about the difficult steps that need to be taken to prevent extreme harm. Ultimately, public opinion is not going to be swayed much by the COP process. The statements and measures coming out of the COP meetings are only a metric indicating how far countries are willing to go to de-carbonize the global economy and so far it’s clear the answer is not very far.  Left to their own devices, international leaders and scientists acting within the UN framework will not get us anywhere close to where we need to be. To move much further, there will have to be major changes in public opinion.

The good news is that with the pipeline protests, demonstrations, and legal challenges to the fossil fuel majors, there is activity bubbling up from the bottom that may have the potential to transform public opinion. That potential is still very much an open question, however. And time is quickly running out.

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