Let the Facts Speak for Themselves
(Their Green Shift, and Ours)
By Sean Sweeney
With the Paris Accord, our collective understanding of the task in front of us is clear. The Accord acknowledges the need for global warming to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and states that efforts should be made to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) that lie at the heart of the agreement—even if they are fully achieved—will set the world on a pathway towards 2.7-3.5 degrees Celsius of warming (and that assumes a comparable level of ambition after 2030). The 1.5 degree Celsius threshold will therefore be breached long before the Agreement’s 2030 expiration date. Thus the Agreement acknowledges the scientific reality, and then institutionalizes “contributions” that are not even close to being consistent with that reality.
These simple facts have revolutionary implications. They should be enough to build a movement on their own, a movement to ensure that human economic activity stays within planetary limits, and that the shift is transformative, democratic and just.
Capital’s green shift never happened
But there are other facts about which we also need to be clear. It has been exactly a decade since former US Vice President Al Gore released his documentary on climate change titled An Inconvenient Truth. The same year, 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern (now Lord Stern) released a landmark study on the economics of climate change known as The Stern Review.
Both of these landmark statements—and countless others of lesser importance—expressed confidence in the idea that green entrepreneurship and the private sector would lead us to a greener and more ‘sustainable’ capitalism. A global price on carbon would drive innovation and a gradual but irreversible shift toward a low-carbon economy. Growth would not be interrupted; in fact, a new era of, in Stern’s words, ‘better growth, better climate’ would commence.
And now, some facts. During the past decade, coal use has risen dramatically (and doubled since 1990) and oil and gas use has also increased steadily. More fossil fuels are being burned today than at any point in human history. In 2014, 89 million new cars and trucks were manufactured—up 16% since 2011—of which around only 700,000 were electric vehicles. An effective carbon price exists nowhere in the world. Emissions have risen 48% (2002-2012) and certain gases, like methane, have been underreported and their ‘global warming potential’ seriously underestimated. In 2013, CO2 levels reached 400 ppm; the highest level in millions of years.
Today many large corporations openly acknowledge that they cannot lead on climate change. They are held prisoner to the DNA of the system: defined by competition, the need to “make a return on investment” (profit), and to keep levels of consumption expanding. They have called on governments to create economic incentives, to ‘send signals’ to the investor community, to ‘establish a policy framework,’ to impose an ‘effective price on carbon’ in order to drive innovation.
Beware of the Official Optimism
Nevertheless, few representatives of capital are prepared to admit defeat—because this would amount to an ideological surrender. Instead, they create and sustain a wave of optimism that is not supported by the facts.
Desperate to assure everyone they have things under control, they point to the leveling off of CO2 emissions in 2014 and 2015 (during a period of economic growth). Falling coal consumption—2.7% globally in 2015—has made headlines; as has the sharp rise in renewable energy. This, alongside the slowing of energy demand, and improving energy efficiency (lower energy intensity), prompted Al Gore to say recently, “The momentum has shifted. We are winning.”
So, more facts: At the present annual rate—36 billion tons emissions per year—the world’s ‘carbon budget’ will be expended by 2036. Therefore, slowing or even halting the rise of emissions is simply not good enough. As for the renewable energy ‘revolution’ at the end of 2015, wind and solar PV combined generated just 4.6% of global electrical power. The percentage of electricity generated by fossil fuels—66% according to the IEA in 2015—has barely changed since 1990, while at the same time the volume of electricity generated has almost doubled.
Our Green Shift
Despite everything, we are in a good place. Facts like the ones cited above are not disempowering; they have helped launch a new movement, one that is connecting ecological and social challenges in one compelling narrative. Illusions in ‘the market’ still exist, but these illusions today stand on, appropriately, very thin ice.
Today some unions and social movements are thinking about how, together, we can reclaim economy as we build political power. As a medium-term goal, it will be necessary to clearly commit to a qualitative shift toward public and social ownership of key economic sectors, particularly electrical power generation, major transportation services, energy conservation, and food production, distribution, and retail. Local reclaiming is also important, including electricity transmission and distribution systems in order to advance energy conservation and renewable energy at the levels required.
Trade unions and workers’ organizations have an important role to play—as do new and reclaimed political parties (observe Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK.) This approach needs to be grounded in the historical traditions of economic democracy, worker cooperatives, credit unions, etc. and it is these traditions that can now be deployed in the effort to reclaim the economy and protect human civilization from a barbaric future.
From the facts, we can create both a vision, a strategy, and plans for reclaiming and reorganizing economy at the community level to the global level, sweeping aside undemocratic trade and investment agreements and providing platforms of cooperation between countries and regions.