Representatives of world governments will meet on November 30th for a UN Climate Summit in Paris. These summits have never produced adequate action before and there is no reason to expect this one will be any different.
The climate is changing because the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that result in global warming. Rising average temperatures lead to sea-level rise, shifting climate zones, and more severe weather such as heatwaves and tropical storms. These changes will damage agriculture, lead to natural disasters and create climate refugees.
Climate scientists have warned that a global average temperature 2°C higher than 1990 temperatures will lead to drastic climate change. Despite this, politicians use a target of 2°C of warming as a benchmark for global agreements.
Governments have met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Bali in 2007, Copenhagen in 2009, Doha in 2012, and countless other times. Various pledges have been made to reduce total national greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these pledges have actually allowed nations to increase their emissions! None have been adequate to keep global warming below 2°C.
The current agreements are set to expire in 2020, which has prompted the latest trip to Paris for ministers from almost 200 governments.
At the summit, the Australian government will pledge to reduce annual emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, equivalent to a cut of 8% from 1990 levels. As The Socialist has previously pointed out, there are no domestic polices on the table that come close to achieving these targets, as inadequate as they are.
So what action should environmentalists demand be taken to seriously address global climate change?
The last serious attempt by the environment movement to influence government policy saw mainstream NGOs and other organisations promote the introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS). An ETS policy has been supported in the past by Malcolm Turnbull, although he has stated it is now off the table since becoming prime minister.
Many in the environment movement are quick to complain about the big business and media propaganda that turned public opinion away from supporting an ETS. But there are many good reasons why people are sceptical of emissions trading and carbon taxing.
Instead of investing in renewable energy directly, an ETS attempts to create a market for greenhouse gas emissions. These schemes are sensitive to volatile speculative markets and to deceptive accounting, and have performed poorly overseas. They do not allow for a co-ordinated large-scale changeover to renewable energy, instead hoping for a market-led death for fossil fuel industries that would devastate many local economies.
Socialists warned the carbon pricing and ETS promoted by Labor and the Greens, and backed by the mainstream of the environment movement, would be a false start. Not only did these policies divert attention away from much needed public investment in renewable energy, they saw the handing over of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to big polluters with no reduction in emissions!
At best, these policies create the impression that something is being done while the problem continues to get worse.
Private investors are not interested in focusing on large scale, long-term investment for the public good. Trying to force them to act in the public interest through incentives, like carbon credits, only prolongs the problem and keeps decision making in the hands of the major polluters.
We need economic planning and international co-ordination. This requires bringing the energy industry into public ownership, and for international governments to cooperate. However, this is the exact opposite of how capitalism functions. Global capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system where only those who extract the greatest profit out of the production process survive. It is only the most merciless corporations that become dominant, then going on to buy their influence in government.
Climate summits like the one planned in Paris will never adequately solve the issue of the climate change. Representatives from pro-capitalist governments are more committed to protecting capitalist markets and advocating on behalf of their big business backers than the needs of ordinary people and the environment.
This is why socialists point out that the only way to seriously address climate change is to challenge the system of capitalism. The dual crises of climate change and global austerity have proven in the minds of millions that this system does not work in the interests of ordinary people. Yet many are not clear about what type of system can replace capitalism and resolve the world’s problems.
If socialists and environmentalists dedicate our energy to campaigning for mass public investment in renewable energy and public transport, immediately reducing emissions while creating thousands of sustainable jobs, we could build a stronger environment movement than we’ve ever had before. This would mean winning mass support for genuine solutions to address climate change, as well as challenging the structural basis of greed, inequality and environmental destruction that is inherent in capitalism.
By David Elliott