The below is a summary of Naomi Klein’s points in the wake of the ‘historic’ climate agreement signed at COP21 in Paris over the weekend.
Naomi Klein is a leading author, journalist, and commentator on the climate crisis and the economic system which sustains it. This summary is based on her talk on the 14th December at UCL’s School of Slavonic & East European Studies at the conference: Socialism, Capitalism and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe. Direct quotes are annotated as such.
While the text speaks of taking action to limit global temperature warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels, with the ambition to keep it below 1.5C, there is no legal mechanism within the text to facilitate this.
The INDC’s, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, essentially the pledges each nation volunteered to the agreement as a base commitment, when aggregated lead to 3-4C of warming. And a business as usual path based on current trends will result in between 5-6C (Note: this prediction is based off steady observations of the effects on global temperature by carbon released into the atmosphere, and doesn’t account for ‘shock’ effects’, features of the climate system with dramatic and unpredictable outcomes, such as the runaway melting of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, or the release of methane in the Arctic permafrost which could result in warming on a scale far beyond these predictions).
When the deal was struck, this resulted in “the bizarre clapping of governments failing to meet their own goals.” Within the text itself there is acknowledgment of this fundamental paradox: that the legal structures within the text do not achieve the goals it has set itself, and as a way of mitigating this, the parties have agreed to meet every five years to reevaluate.
“Who knows, maybe Donald Trump will do more than Obama”.
Naomi made the analogy of a doctor explaining to their patient that the patient will die in a few years from high blood pressure if they don’t radically adopt a healthier lifestyle, and then that patient decides to exercise less and eat four hamburgers a week instead of five.
The inclusion of the 1.5C also has an interesting context. During the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, a draft text which set a goal of keeping global warming to under 2C that was being produced by the bloc of developed nations, was leaked to the conference floor. This spurred dramatic, emotional responses by delegates from Africa and low lying Pacific nations who were pushing for 1.5C, crying out that 2C of warming equaled climate genocide; Africa would burn, and island nations would be extirpated by rising sea levels. Naomi was present, and she described it as one of the most emotional moments she’s ever witnessed – it was protest in the face of the elite, who had essentially said sorry, you’re GDP is just not big enough to warrant saving. The 1.5C limit, and it’s ties to fundamental human rights, is very much a reason for it’s inclusion in this new agreement.
Not once in the text are the words ‘Fossil Fuels’ ‘Oil’, or ‘Coal’ stated.
The text sets the goal of ending anthropogenic emissions above what sinks take out of the atmosphere at some point in the second half of this century. Besides the wildly unspecific time frame, scientists are telling us this needs to occur before 2050.
The fossil fuel industry is quite literally at war with the Earth. The idea of a ‘climate budget’, allocating the known reserves of oil based on factors such as historical accountability and size of GDP, is not built into the agreement, despite the well known fact there is a fixed limit to the amount we can burn from oil reserves while staying below 1.5C. This means corporate interests are still able to exceed this limit under the current agreement, which makes all the rhetoric nothing more than hot air.
“If they can’t say fossil fuels, then they sure as hell cant regulate fossil fuels”
There is too much emphasis on technological ‘fixes’
The text pushes for investment in research and development of new technologies, particularly on carbon sinks. Dodgy fixes like geo-engineering, false solutions such as clean coal. People like Bill Gates and Richard Branson are looking at market solutions to this problem, when it’s the very nature of the market which is to blame. It’s easier to imagine extracting carbon from the air, than it is to change the economic system.
“The only way you can accept this deal, is if you’re a technological fantasist”
“Do we live within a system capable of saving itself?”
What is needed, is a push for massive investment in the public sphere to get 100% off fossil fuels. The change will pertain to a “strategic economy”, one that will grow some years, and in others will not. There will be high emissions initially to facilitate the change, as we build and develop the infrastructure for a clean economy.
“We’ve now waited so long, the climate struggle cannot be solved by the endless growth model of capitalism”
Naomi argues, as she does in her book This Changes Everything, that “Climate change is the best argument we’ve ever had against this type of Capitalism”. That rather than seeing the situation as a crisis, we should see it as an opportunity. The idea of ‘green’ jobs should be redefined to include anything carbon neutral. There are estimates that there are 10 times as many jobs in the green sector than in the fossil fuel industry. Germany, in the midst of the world’s most aggressive renewables transition, propelled by civil will, has seen about 400,000 new jobs in this sector, up from 160,000 10 years ago. In California, 4000 of its 10,000 firefighters, the front line against climate change accelerated devastation, are prison inmates, paid about $2 a day while saving the state hundreds of thousands in costs. Examples like these are untapped potential. In a re-organised economy, hopefully with the implementation of a basic income, the movement will be to take people off jobs which harm the planet while still experiencing economic growth.
In some cities, like Beijing, where the pollution epidemic is regulated on a local level out of necessity, the corporate elite are even worried to let their kids go outside. The very people whose wealth is built on a carbon heavy economy, are realising the world they’ve created is toxic for their children. It’s this sort of awaking that needs to happen throughout civil society; that our neo-liberal free market economy is directly opposed to an ability to live harmoniously on this planet.
The issue is an economic one, the environmental concerns are only byproducts. While the agreement in Paris is rightly hailed as a diplomatic success, it remains a disaster for humanity. Not on any fault of the negotiators, they are simply restricted by the omnipresent influence of the market. With this realisation, the push for change must come from us, civil society. Political will on it’s own has and is proving incapable.