By Bill Hopwood, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in Canada)
The deadly, and frightening, impacts of mounting climate change are clear for all to see. At the same time, the oil companies are making record profits and releases of carbon dioxide (CO2) are setting new records. This is the reality at the start of the latest annual gathering of the world’s politicians and business leaders to discuss climate change — COP27.
There are clear answers to climate change, a rapid transition away from fossil fuels to existing alternatives of renewable energy. The barrier is not technical, the barrier is capitalism, a system that puts profits before human well-being or the health of the planet. It is capitalism that produced climate change, it is illogical to expect capitalism to tackle it.
The reality of climate changes
Everywhere there are new climate disasters. Disastrous floods in Pakistan, over 1,700 people dead and over 33 million people affected; in Nigeria with 700,000 people were displaced and at least 400 dead; and in South Africa, over 400 dead. Alongside floods are record-breaking droughts: Europe had its worst drought in 500 years; the central prairies of North America and the US west are in the midst of the worst drought in 1,200 years, and south China had the worst drought for over 100 years. Alongside the droughts came excessive heat, reaching over 40OC in Shanghai and other parts of Southern China; Britain saw a new record of over 40 OC as did Japan; before the floods, Pakistan had temperatures up to 49.5 OC and India 49.2 OC; a city in Argentina reached 45 OC; and Onslow, Australia, 50.7 OC. With the heat and drought come raging fires, 2022 was another year of fire.
The increased heat also makes tropical storms more powerful with stronger winds and carrying more water. Hurricane Fiona, the strongest hurricane ever to hit eastern Canada killed 31 in its path across the Caribbean and Canada. Less than a month later Ian hit Cuba, Florida and North Carolina killing 146 people. In the Philippines, Tropical storm Megi killed 214, Typhoon Noru killed 38 and Nalgae killed 48.
The floods drought and heat waves are devastating crops and livestock. The Horn of Africa is suffering the worst drought in decades and now over 20 million people face acute food insecurity, some 9 million animals have died and over 16 million people are short of water. The long drought in the western US is impacting food production.
These are some current impacts. The CO2 already in the atmosphere will mean even more profound changes. Ice in glaciers’ and at the poles is melting. The glaciers of the Alps, Himalayas and Rockies fed major rivers that are vital to food production and life in Asia, Europe and North America.
Melting ice will raise ocean levels flooding cities around the globe. The oceans are warming and absorbing CO2, which makes the water more acidic, damaging coral and much other marine life. Species of life are becoming rarer and going extinct at an alarming rate. Environmental conflicts and refugees are on the rise.
Capitalism’s lack of response
Faced with this reality, the sane response is to change course. However, the ruling classes of the world are not sane. After a drop in CO2 released in 2020, due to the COVID-triggered recession, 2022 is set to have the highest release on record. The CO2 in the atmosphere set a new record high in 2021: 414.72 parts per million. In 1995, the year of the first COP, it was 360.23 parts per million. After 26 COP meetings things are getting worse for humanity.
But the world is looking great for oil companies’ bosses and shareholders. So far in 2022, the five biggest privately owned oil companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, TotalEnergies, Chevron and BP made $149 billion. The world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, had profits of $42 billion in just three months. Other smaller oil companies have also raked in the money. There is plenty of money to deal with climate change, however it is in the hands of companies that are increasing climate change.
These record profits are not enough for these climate-destroying corporations. They demand and get huge subsidies from taxpayers. The International Energy Agency (IEA) stated last year that all new fossil fuel projects should stop to meet the needs of tackling climate change. Yet a study by the IEA and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that subsidies for oil and gas production reached a record level of $64bn in 2021. Wider subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to $697 billion, also a record high.
The war in Ukraine has boosted the burning of coal in Europe. The war demonstrates the skewed priorities of the major capitalist governments, with $92 billion in support to Ukraine, up to the beginning of October. Somehow there always seems to be money for war.
Most of the pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow to reduce CO2 are not being met, and even if totally achieved they were inadequate. Many of the promises are empty smoke and mirrors. Canada has pledged to be net zero by 2050. Net zero does not mean the end of releasing CO2. It claims to be offsetting or capturing the CO2 produced. Carbon capture is a dream, but so far it has not worked and is very expensive.
Canada’s plan is even more hypocritical — production of oil and gas is targeted to increase, with production aiming for net zero. However, most of the CO2 is released in burning not in production. But the plan is to export the oil and gas so the Canadian government can pretend to be tackling climate change. The reality is it does not matter where the fossil fuel is burnt, the world is a global system so the CO2 is still released.
Climate changes do not happen in a straight line. There is an accumulation of CO2 and other factors until, at some point, the weather system and other natural cycles shift. Scientists describe these shifts as tipping points.
The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the global average. As it warms the sea ice melts earlier and is less extensive. Ice reflects sunlight, water absorbs sunlight. The melting ice accelerates the warming of the Arctic. Around the pole is a large band of permanently frozen ground, permafrost. Locked into this are huge quantities of organic matter. As the region warms the permafrost is melting and is releasing more CO2 and methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas.
As the Arctic warms, the Greenland icecap will start to irreversibly collapse. It is not clear if that point has been crossed, but scientists warn it is getting close and once crossed it is too late to stop.
At least half of the rain in the Amazon rainforest comes from evaporation within the forest. As the logged area of the forest increase, there is less rainfall and so less evaporation. This self-reinforcing cycle risks turning the forest into a grassland savannah.
COP27: Meeting in prison house
This year’s annual meeting on climate, COP27, is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, an isolated resort in Egypt, which is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. The world’s business and political leaders do not want to be disturbed, as they fiddle and feast, while the planet burns by the annoying inconvenience of protesters demanding a future for themselves, the future generations, and their homes.
The Egyptian regime has placed extreme restrictions on any ability to protest or demonstrate at COP27, with only a small, controlled zone for all activists, environmentalists, Indigenous people etc. The politicians will be safely isolated from reality
Egypt’s dictatorship is using COP27 to present a false narrative to the world that Egypt is taking action on climate change. COP27 is providing a vital lifeline to the regime as it faces the risk of defaulting on its mountain of debt. COP27 has opened the door to international funds that will pro up this brutal regime.
There are around 60,000 political prisoners jailed in Egypt, and torture is carried out on an “assembly line.” One imprisoned activist highlighted internationally is Alaa Abd El-Fattah who was part of the 2011 revolution. Too many environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, are looking away and going along with the greenwashing of the Sisi regime.
There would be no action on climate change without decades of activists protesting, alongside scientific research. For over 40 years, corporations and governments conspired to deny, confuse and otherwise obscure the reality of climate change. There can be no climate justice without human rights and social justice.
The floods in Pakistan highlight the injustice that two-thirds of all the CO2 released since 1751 came from the US, the EU, Russia, Japan, Canada and Australia. Pakistan has released 0.3% of all the CO2. On the agenda at COP27 will be discussions about support for the most vulnerable countries that contribute the least to climate change — mostly in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands and Asia. However, like every other COP plan, this will be more words and fewer deeds. In 2009 richer countries (note not the polluting and profit-rich corporations) committed to providing $100 billion a year, by 2025 the International Institute for Environment and Development expects only $21.8 billion a year.
Clarity needed: Capitalism will not solve
It is increasingly clear that on current trends the annual COP events are resulting in too little action and far too late. It is true that the use of renewables to produce electricity is on the rise, but not enough to stop CO2 from increasing as electricity generation is only a part of total CO2 sources. Renewables have not replaced fossil fuels in the production of cement or most steel, in most long-distance movement of freight, and much of industry and the heating of buildings.
More fundamentally, most of the actions are attempts to make greener what are environmentally damaging tools and technologies. Electric cars are widely touted as a solution to climate change. However, there are deep questions about how much greener electric cars really are when the total ecological costs of producing batteries are included. Cars, however powered, are an extremely wasteful form of transport. Most Teslas weigh about 2,000 kilograms and occupy as much road space as any other car. All this space and weight to move, usually, one person. Public transit is a much more efficient in terms of road space, the energy consumed and materials used per person moved.
More profoundly, cars and trucks have dominated the urban landscape for the last 100 years. Around 30 to 50 percent of urban land is given over to cars, in roads, and parking. If this share was significantly reduced it would allow more space for housing, parks, trees and growing food. Such a shift would be better for mental health, safety, social relations and help to deal with climate change.
A common feature of most cities are tall buildings made of concrete and clad in glass. This a favoured construction of profit-seeking developers. The production of cement that goes into concrete produces 3 percent all greenhouse gases. These buildings are often socially isolating and require extensive summer cooling as the walls of glass act like a greenhouse. Buildings can be designed to deal passively with climate change and at the same time be socially beneficial.
Corporations to boost profits create deliberate waste of built-in obsolesce and non-repairable goods. The earth is treated as a source of resources to be ripped from the ground and then waste is dumped back into the earth, water and the air. Somehow capitalism sees despoiling the world and turning it into a garbage dump as viable long-term. Capitalism has a delusion that humanity can be apart from nature. Marx wrote how capital had severed humanity from nature in what he called a “metabolic rift.” Engels, in contrast to capitalism’s outlook, wrote that “at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.”
What to do?
As Greta Thunberg said about COP26 it was “Blah, blah, blah.” A recent spate of international reports warned that time is running out as the world’s leaders take humanity close to the cliff. Professor Johan Rockström in October 2022 said the world was coming “very, very close to irreversible changes … time is really running out very, very fast.”
There has been a growing wave of individual actions by groups such as Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Letzte Generation (Last Generation) using tactics such as protests at art galleries and blocking roads. The strategy seems to be to use high-profile actions to gain publicity that will convince politicians to change course. However, well-meaning, we need to be clear that the politicians are wedded to capitalism and that capitalism, almost since its birth, has been wedded to fossil fuels, and wider despoiling and robbery of nature.
Rather than look to the world’s elite, the environment movement should look to ordinary people who are already suffering from climate change and do not earn super-profits from the climate’s destruction. Workers have the power to stop the wheels of industry and commerce. Many workers have jobs that are soul-destroying, poorly paid and unrewarding. The world’s banks are driving the economy to a new, possibly deep, recession.
A program that combines good jobs that are rewarding, interesting and well paid with actions to tackle the growing ecological disasters, provides good public services and tackles oppression would win wide support. The money to do this exists today by taking into democratic public the wealth of the oil companies, banks, auto industry and other mega-corporations alongside expropriating the ill-gotten gains of the billionaires.
Then humanity could use existing technology and develop new ones that work with nature to restore ecological harmony with the earth and meet the needs of the world’s people, today and into the future. That is a goal worth organizing and struggling for — the future of humanity and the earth.