Real climate change mitigation is harder than you think

Published online 14 February 2016.


(natalielucier, Creative Commons)

— Introduction —

I’ve written a number of climate change diaries at Orange, here — but I didn’t write any of them recently.  But I was provoked by a diary which discussed Supreme Court review of some sort of proposed regulation of carbon emissions from  coal plants.

Since the Supreme Court’s earlier (2/9/2016) issuance of a stay, Justice Scalia has died, which has perhaps changed that situation.  The bigger problem with climate change, however, is that the overall discussion of climate change in America today is not yet appropriate to an understanding of the bare minimum necessary for real climate change mitigation.  Climate change mitigation has been made to seem easier than in fact it is.

This thesis derives from an earlier thesis, explained in an episode of “Democracy Now” late last year: climate change is more extreme than what we’ve been told:

So if they’ve been underestimating the problem it’s highly likely that the solution has been misrepresented too.

This diary hopes to remedy that problem of thinking about climate change mitigation by presenting what I see as the bare minimum necessary to get the job done.  Without this bare minimum, “climate change mitigation” will be a mere public relations effort, harmful to the capitalist economy, the working class, and the planet as a whole.

This issue is especially important in the primary campaign, in which the candidates will feel obliged to present “plans” to mitigate climate change.  I’ve been looking at the Sanders plan recently — but I don’t want to go over it here, and as for Clinton, I’m just not sure.  If we’re going to discuss climate change in the context of the Democratic Party primaries, let’s start by discussing how the candidates themselves have discussed climate change far more often than the moderators of the debates between them.  If anyone in this election is reluctant to discuss climate change, it’s the self-appointed election gatekeepers.

At any rate, readers should approach all candidate plans skeptically — it hardly makes sense to take a candidate’s plan at face value if the basis for climate change mitigation is poorly known.  In this regard, I’ve written these precepts without regard to what is “politically realistic” — rather, what’s important to me, here, is whether or not actual climate change mitigation can take place, as an alternative to the “climate change mitigation” we are likely to see, which will be merely a public relations gesture.

Here are some precepts to follow in understanding what will be required:

1) First we need to get away from selective “emissions regulation” talk.  Enacting climate change mitigation through selective “emissions regulation” is like playing whack-a-mole.  Push down the emissions in one place and they’ll pop up in another.  This phenomenon is a consequence of the global “free market” — if some people reduce their “emissions,” fossil fuel demand will be depressed, the price will be even cheaper than it is now, and others who view themselves as up-and-coming powers will be able to afford to consume more.  What’s needed is a phase-out for the producers of fossil fuels.  If the whole society is to stop consuming fossil fuels, production has to stop at some point.  “Keeping the grease in the ground” is an eventual solution — I will discuss why this is so below.

Climate change mitigation is greatly hindered by the elite obsession with carbon metrics.  A recently-published, brilliant, must-read piece in the journal Transformation, “Beyond Paris: avoiding the trap of carbon metrics,” illustrates the dilemma we’re in:

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a ‘silver bullet’ was found to tackle climate change: reducing CO2 emissions. Accordingly, the goal was to make cars and household appliances, power plants and entire industries more efficient. This ‘end of pipe’ approach (by which contaminants are removed at the end of a process) deflected political attention away from the causes of climate change and allowed policy makers to deal only with the symptoms in the form of emissions.

If we are to rediscover and remedy the causes of climate change, we’ll have to get away from carbon metrics and the selective emissions regulation they encourage.

2) Under capitalism, drastic changes in individual fossil fuel consumption are locked in by the constraints of infrastructure and the limitations of working class budgeting Do you want everyone to drive a solar-powered electric car?  Under capitalism, the government will have to buy solar-powered electric cars for most people, then, because we can’t all afford one out of our lunch money funds.

3) Carbon production must diminish rapidly at some point if any mitigation is to be effectiveRemember that future climate change will be a consequence of past carbon-burning — merely to say that “carbon emissions have flatlined” is to say that industrial capitalism is still making the problem worse, but not at an accelerating rate.   Future mitigation of climate change, then, must be a consequence of rapid diminution of carbon burning, and thus of carbon production.  The later we start, the worse it will be.  We want to avoid a point at which the governments of the world are too busy coping with climate change disaster to put a climate change mitigation plan into effect.

4) A large portion of the Earth’s carbon reserves which have not yet been produced must stay in the ground indefinitely.  In practical social terms this means going after the producers of carbon before said reserves are produced.  Bill McKibben made this clear in a 2012 piece in Rolling Stone magazine when he said:

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both.

Let’s be clear here.  “Saving the climate” means the eventual destruction of an entire industry.

4) Quite a bit of extra carbon-burning will be necessary today if future global carbon-burning is to diminish rapidly tomorrow.  Let’s say, for instance, that the government is going to buy solar panels for everyone who can’t afford them.  Are the solar panels going to be manufactured using 100% solar power?  No.  They’re going to be manufactured using fossil-fueled power.  The solar power industry will have to piggyback atop the fossil fuel industry to produce a world without a fossil-fuel industry.

In fact, as we tear down one industry (fossil fuels) we’ll be erecting another (alternative energy), and so this will create a number of difficulties in resource extraction and recycling.  Do we, for instance, have enough gallium arsenide at present to power the world-society on solar panels?  That’s just for starters.  Think also of what sort of resource extraction concerns will arise should world leaders choose nuclear power as a solution.  What will the state of thorium breeder reactors, or of uranium reserves, be if such a decision is made?  When I say “resource extraction concerns,” by the way, I don’t just mean the supply.  What sort of environmental damage will be done to get whatever stuff we need?  Who will benefit, and who will lose?

5) Carbon taxes will at best contribute minimally to any solution.  Radical social change is a prerequisite to any serious climate change mitigation; we need a society which will refuse to create markets for all the unnecessary cultural services around status and power (what socialist feminists call “the patriarchy”), and which will thus consume a lot less energy overall.  Part of the critique of carbon taxes in this regard can be found in an essay by John Bellamy Foster in the February 2013 issue of Monthly Review, titled “James Hansen and the Climate-Change Exit Strategy.”  Foster argues this about Hansen’s carbon tax plan:

Despite its progressive features it is mostly a top-down, elite-based strategy of implementing a carbon tax with the hope that this will spur the introduction of necessary technological changes by corporations.

The technological changes, moreover, are far more vast than those which will be stimulated by the sort of carbon tax which won’t wreck the global capitalist economy, and wrecking the global capitalist economy will be necessary to promote the vast reduction in “greenhouse gas emissions” necessary to mitigate climate change through a carbon tax.  Once again, we need to go after producers rather than restraining consumers in economically-regressive fashion.

6) This stage of capitalism makes all the problems harder.  Climate change mitigation is far more difficult when gatekeepers need to be paid off and huge industries need to be compensated for “value.”  Before the COP21 negotiations we saw this from Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia is trying to enlist other oil-producing countries to support a provocative idea: if wealthy countries reduce their oil consumption to combat global warming, they should pay compensation to oil producers.

Moreover, the logistical problem (as outlined above) of breaking the world-society’s dependency upon fossil fuels is greatly exacerbated by the universal obligation to participate in a “global free market” imposed upon humanity by neoliberal capitalism.  Only in a “global free market” is it necessary for the human race to extract 93 million barrels of oil from the ground every day.  Climate change mitigation would be made much easier if everyone were  working to meet human need rather than participating in a “global free market.”

The “global free market” poses some severe restrictions, as well, to possible efforts to “innovate” our way out of this mess through technology.  Here, again, I rely upon the Monthly Review — the Jevons’ Paradox means that technologically-driven increases in energy efficiency will merely stimulate the expansion of capitalism, resulting in overall increases in energy use.  Foster, Clark, and York: “At the macro level, the Jevons Paradox can be seen in the fact that, even though the United States has managed to double its energy efficiency since 1975, its energy consumption has risen dramatically.”

Keep in mind that (under capitalism) much of current fossil fuel extraction will have to be replaced with some sort of equal non-fossil-fuel energy-equivalent if a politically-popular mitigation program is not to deprive people of a “standard of living.”  Professions centered around money and property and security and military aggression, as opposed to professions which cater to human needs, need to be catering to reduced markets to reduce this fossil-fuel production/ consumption figure.

7) Geoengineering efforts are going to happen.  The situation with atmospheric carbon dioxide is extreme enough at this point, and political traction for climate change mitigation is so slow in coming, that we can expect some sort of technical quick fix, approved by elites, to cool the Earth before climate change gets completely out of hand.  My guess is that this is going to happen in two important ways”: a) reforestation — planting forests designed to grow quickly, and b) a big orbital “shadow” designed to block the sun when temperatures get too high.  Both of these things will require a ton of human effort, which under capitalism will require respected sources of money if everyone is to be paid.

— Conclusion —

Every once in a while in debates on Daily Kos I encounter these voices reminding me “we don’t have time to end capitalism — we need to mitigate climate change now.”  And then I read voices such as those of Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, and Naomi Klein, the author and activist, arguing (from opposite sides of the political spectrum) that we can’t beat climate change under capitalism.  I rather suspect that the possessors of the first set of voices have underestimated the extent of the problem and the difficulty of dealing with it in any effective manner.   Even Forbes Magazine is now willing to admit there’s a problem.

It seems fair, at this point, to predict that eventually world-society will notice that it is inappropriately organized for climate change mitigation, and that some sort of far-reaching social change will be attempted, either 1) from above, through elite diktat, or 2) from below, through a populist social movement.  I would prefer that option #2 be the order of the day.


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