ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Politics of Global Warming

Politics of Global warming Nagraj Adve anti-war and other mass movements, about climate politics in the 1990s, the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent negotiations, the resistance of corporations and other powerful elites to change, and the The earth

BOOK REVIEW

Politics of Global Warming

Nagraj Adve

anti-war and other mass movements, about climate politics in the 1990s, the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent negotiations, the resistance of corporations and other powerful elites to change, and the

T
he earth’s oceans, forests, grasslands and other landmass can currently absorb roughly 14-16 billion tonnes (gigatonnes, Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), an amount that is slowly declining each year. About 36-37Gt were emitted into the atmosphere in 2006, the last year for which reliable worldwide data is available. Of this, according to the official United States (US) Energy Information Administration, 29 Gt was emitted by the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Another 7-8 Gt was added due to deforestation and land use changes. Hence about 20 billion excess tonnes of carbon dioxide remains unabsorbed each year, adding to the CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere, which currently stands at 387 parts per million (ppm). These higher concentration levels of CO2, and also of methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases have warmed the earth by an average of 0.8 degrees celsius since the Industrial Revolution. And because there is a lag between CO2 emissions and warming, a further 0.6 degrees of warming is assured.

That would take us, over time, to 1.4 degree above pre-industrial levels. Warming triggers feedbacks in the earth’s ecosystems, which contribute to further warming. Already observed feedbacks include reduced Arctic ice, release of methane from melting permafrost, decline in oceanic algae, emissions from warmer soils, and reduced absorption of CO2 in the southern oceans. It is widely accepted that were the earth’s average temperature to cross roughly two degrees above pre-industrial levels, it is likely to trigger these feedbacks, simultaneously, to a scale that would undermine human capacity to control the process.

Whether one can avoid reaching these dangerous levels of warming is one of the key questions that Jonathan Neale addresses in his book. The best estimates, he says, suggest that the two degrees celsius increase will become unavoidable if CO2 levels reach 400-450 ppm. Neale talks not so much of the dangerous levels of warming

Stop Global Warming: Change the World by Jonathan Neale (Bookmarks Publications), 2008; pp 287, £11.99 .

as much as “abrupt climate change”, which others including James Hansen, the world’s foremost climatologist, have warned about (Hansen et al 2007; Hansen 2007). To avoid this climate catastrophe, Neale suggests that sharp cuts are needed in per capita emissions in the industrialised world, by roughly 80% to “between 1.7-1.3 tonnes per person”, and urgently, in 10-30 years (pp 24, 30, 159).

I think the numbers are even more dire than Neale suggests; for one, he makes a mistake many do in omitting carbon emissions from deforestation in his calculations: they have been over 4 Gt a year averaged over 1990-2005 (UNDP 2007), and even more in recent years. That would make the target cuts he sets even more diffi cult to reach. What is more, recent writings by Hansen and others suggest that even 400 ppm may be too high, and to be really safe we should revert CO2 levels to 350 ppm, “but likely less than that” (Hansen et al 2008), i e, reduce it from current levels. There is a small but growing campaign demanding this.

But this is not a book about the science of global warming. For an overview of the science, there have been few better than Fred Pearce’s The Last Generation. Another superb, sometimes technical but generally accessible source is realclimate.org. Nor is this book about the impacts of global warming. For that you would profit by visiting the web site of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to read the massive second volume of its 2007 report though it is conservative in some aspects, or United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report 2007-08.

‘Politics’ of Global Warming

Neale’s book is essentially about the “politics” of global warming – about the climate justice movement, its links with the linkages between all of them. One of his main arguments is that using existing technologies the drastic cuts needed urgently to avoid abrupt climate change are feasible. Focusing on individual consumption, though useful to generate debate, is simply not worthwhile and would prove inadequate. We need huge public works, and massive government intervention and regulation, globally. However, since there are powerful vested interests, preventing the kind of intervention necessary (of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2007, six were oil companies and three car companies), a vibrant mass movement is needed to push these changes through, either by forcing current elites to act or replacing them by those who will.

The book is divided into five sections. Following a brief presentation of relevant aspects of the science, the sections that follow discuss technological solutions and policy measures that could work now (and some that will not); why the rich and powerful will not act; climate politics in the 1990s and after 2001; and alternative futures, a penultimate chapter that discusses the horrors of global warming impacts in New Orleans and in the Sahel, a world of “refugees, famine, war and suffering [that] awaits us if we do not act”, and a final chapter that brings the various threads of his argument together urging the necessity of a radical climate justice movement to overcome the many hurdles facing it. It is all too possible, he says at the end, that elites stall long enough and abrupt climate change will overwhelm us. It is also possible that ordinary people will take control of their societies and economies in a revolutionary overturning of corporate power. It is not the most likely outcome but it is possible and “it would save the planet” (pp 255-56).

A short review can scarcely do justice to the numerous themes and ideas this book touches upon. It is striking how varied the issues Neale discusses are, and with a remarkable lucidity borne of his engaging publicly with these issues for years and also of his being an activist in many movements

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

since the 1960s. I would urge his book be read not just by those involved with the climate justice movement in India, but also by activists in other movements, and readers at large.

Workable Solutions

A crucial section of the book – given the urgency and scale of the problem at hand

– is the one that deals with “Solutions That Could Work Now”. It discusses cutting emissions via the transformation of electricity generation by massive deployment of wind power, concentrated solar power and photovoltaic (PV) cells. Britain, he argues, could have 5 million solar roofs in five years. Other, sunnier places including India could deploy concentrated solar power, and transport the electricity generated through long-range high voltage DC cables, such as the 1,700 km long DC cable in operation in Africa. Separate chapters then deal with cutting energy use in buildings, transportation and industry. Reading these portions reminds one of George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop a Planet Burning, which also presents various technological solutions in a largely First World context. In discussing emissions from cement, oil refineries and steel industries, Neale’s frame is wider than Monbiot’s, and its politics considerably wider. But neither of them discuss emissions from the “defence” industry worldwide, one huge source of direct and indirect emissions, possibly due to the lack of reliable data.

There are a number of issues about technological solutions that Neale does not address adequately. One is the Jevons paradox, which shows that increased efficiency in using a resource results not in its reduced demand over time, but paradoxically in increased demand or an overall increase in energy consumption (Foster 2003:94-95). Two, as John Bellamy Foster has repeatedly argued, “under capitalism, it is those energy sources that generate the most profit for capital…that are promoted, not those that are beneficial to humanity and the Earth” (Foster 2003a:100). Witness the alacrity with which Shell and other fossil fuel companies rushed in to mine the ecologically disastrous tar sands in Canada, and are currently withdrawing now that the price of oil has fallen to a third of its peak of $ 147 a barrel a year ago.

Three, one was uncomfortable with his assertion, repeatedly made, that “climate change does not have to mean sacrifice for ordinary people”. Even if one assumes that technological advancement prevents dangerous climate change, what of the other ecological and livelihood crises thrust inordinately upon the poor and non-human species because of direct and embodied consumption by elites everywhere – the loss of community and livelihood from mining, soil degradation, the increasing lack of access to safe water, the loss of species which some call the sixth mass extinction in history, the oceanic crisis and food security, the generation and export of toxic wastes, etc? And which ordinary people is he referring to? If one were to measure consumption, or indeed carbon emissions, on a world scale, the “ordinary people” of the First World Neale refers to would be placed easily at the higher end of the scale.

Four, what matters if we are to avoid dangerous levels of warming is not merely technological change but the rate of change. Do we have the raw materials or indeed the capacity to carry out that massive task worldwide in the short time at hand? Drastically reducing the carbon intensity of the world’s energy systems necessitates a rapid transformation of its economic infrastructure. It is moot whether decarbonisation can proceed “faster than the rate of depreciation of long- lasting fixed assets” (Li 2008). In short, what would one do with the coal powered stations that China has been building at a staggering rate, even as it galloped past the US as the chief emitter in the world?

In fact, the rapid rise of China’s CO2 emissions as manufacturing expanded – from 3,050 million tonnes (mt) in 2001 to 5,322 mt in 2005 (EIA 2007), and over 6 Gt in 2006 – illustrates how centrally global warming is connected with the growth and spread of capitalism, precisely because of capitalism’s deep-seated logic of opting for cheaper inputs, of energy (coal) and labour power. A more thorough discussion of the systemic nature of the problem would have resulted in a more realistic picture of the hurdles we face.

Organising Mass Action

Which brings us to another major theme Neale stresses in his book – the importance of a mass movement, to enable not just the deployment of more benign techno logies but also the growth of societies based on people’s needs, not on profit (p 259). The job cannot be done by environmentalists alone; a “mass climate movement has to include and mobilise large numbers of working class people”. I could not agree more. Such a movement would need to “persuade unions and workers that the fight against global warming is not about sacrifice but about jobs and a better world”.

There is no doubt that global warming (along with myriad ecological crises generated by capitalism) has brought to the front-burner questions of equity, enriched the sustainable development debate, exposed the limitations of an anthropocentric worldview, and has the capacity to link movements against displacement, mining, dams, war, and for equitable access to the commons. Global warming simply cannot be resolved under capitalism, and makes the struggle for socialism an even more pressing one. But if one key question is, can we avoid two degrees of warming, then we really need to ask ourselves whether the climate justice movement, can, arm in arm with other people’s movements, grow in scale and then ensure the wide introduction of benign technologies, and enforce public policy changes that Neale talks about, along with the accompanying transformation in economic and social relations.

I doubt it. True, the movement against global warming has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years in the west. Increasingly, visible impacts of climate change in India, such as on agriculture (a good discussion of which can be found in P K Aggarwal’s “Global Climate Change and Indian Agriculture”), will build the momentum of the fledgling movement here. There are also vibrant struggles against forced displacement from industrial projects, special economic zones and dams, etc, which directly or indirectly relate to global warming. But let us face the fact that global warming as yet cuts no ice with most political parties and industrial unions in India, and, anecdotal evidence suggests, in China. Despite its impacts on agriculture for years – 15 years in his region, an activist and agriculturalist

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

BOOK REVIEW

told me recently – it has barely begun to register on the radar of large social forces. This may be because of the many other serious systemic crises facing the Indian underclass, and also because there exists a fragmented view of development, industrialisation and employment. A more nuanced analysis by Neale of the constraints movements face would have been useful. The book’s frequent references to past successes such as for the welfare state, public drainage in the 19th century, etc, underestimate the scale of the problem (“somewhere between the French Revolution and the fight for the welfare state”), and the complexity of equity, which is at the heart of the matter.

In fact, an increasing number of climate change scientists feel the earth may have already tipped over the edge (Adam 2009). There is also the view that “since there are already threshold changes in ecosystems and ocean acidification…dangerous change is likely to appear before 2 degrees celsius” (Lovejoy 2009). The Real Climate

--

-

---

group recently wrote that given the extent of current impacts “after only 0.8 degrees of warming, calling 2 degrees C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier”. But there is very little discussion in most Left writing about what the poor would face if and when we cross dangerous levels of warming. Public discussion on possible impacts beyond – which Mark Lynas discusses in his grim book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet – would underline the urgency of global warming and perhaps help prepare for the crises. Doing too little too late would be a matter of life and death for millions of the world’s poor, and for innumerable other species on this planet.

Email: naga@bol.net.in

References

Adam, David (2009): “World Will Not Meet 2 C Warming Target, Climate Change Experts Agree”, Guardian, 14 April.

Aggarwal, P K (2008): “Global Climate Change and Indian Agriculture”, The Indian Journal of Agricultural Sciences, November, pp 911-19.

-

---

-

-

Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2007): “World Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels, 1980-2005”, available at United States EIA web site.

Foster, John Bellamy (2003): Ecology against Capitalism (Kharagpur, India: Cornerstone Publications).

– (2003a): “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis: Is Technology the Answer?” in Foster, Ecology against Capitalism (Kharagpur, India: Cornerstone Publications).

Hansen, James et al (2007): “Climate Change and Trace Gases”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, Vol 365, (1856): 1925-54.

Hansen, James (2007): “Climate Catastrophe”, New Scientist, 28 July, p 33.

Hansen, James Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha et al, (2008): “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Available at, http:// www.bentham-open.org/pages/content.php?T OASCJ/2008/00000002/00000001/217TOASC J.SGM

Li, Minqi (2008): “Climate Change, Limits to Growth and the Imperative for Socialism”, Monthly Review, July-August, pp 49-64.

Lovejoy, Thomas (2009): “Climate Change’s Pressure on Biodiversity” in State of the World 2009, Worldwatch Institute, pp 67-70.

Lynas, Mark (2007): Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourth Estate (HarperCollins). Pearce, Fred (2007): Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change

(Transworld: Eden Books).

RealClimate (2009): “Hit the Brakes Hard”, 29 April. Available at www.realclimate.org.

UNDP (2007): Human Development Report 2007-08: Fighting Climate Change (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), p 69.

-

-

-

--

-

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top