Facing the Facts about Climate Change

Either we bury capitalism or capitalism will bury us

Despite the spin about a last minute compromise, the UN Climate Conference in Bali last week was a dismal failure. Although the negotiations revolved around technical, arcane matters, the success of the negotiations hinged on the ability of delegates to set scientifically-based emission targets. Sadly, modern day politics always has to show some form of success, so a 'watered down' Bali agreement, also known as the Bali roadmap, was presented as such.

Those who take the issue of climate change seriously, however, were able to see through the hype. The most obvious shortcoming was that the agreement didn't contain specific numbers or targets. Still, many opted for the stoic position that a flimsy agreement is better than no agreement.

Nonetheless, the finger pointing soon began of who was to blame for the hollow success at Bali. Canada, the U.S., Japan, and Australia all opposed targets proposed by a coalition of European countries to reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, a target they said they could never meet. There were also lengthy discussions about China, India and other developing nations that are producing an increasing amount of emissions.

The United States initially did not agree to proposals which strongly required that rich nations help poorer countries access green technology to limit their emissions. The U.S. stance caused delegates to boo the American delegation at the conference. Ultimately the U.S. agreed to go forward with the Bali roadmap.

Within Europe, it has become too easy to blame the U.S. and others for failing to address the realities of climate change. In fact, European countries appear to take on a hypocritical and condescending role when it comes to environmental issues. Germany is a prime example. On the one hand, its environmental record is impressive: it is home to the first Green Party to ever govern in a national coalition of a G8 nation and it has also reduced its greenhouse gas emissions significantly in recent years. Germany also heavily sponsors renewable energy production and has invested in the refurbishment of ageing factories.

Yet even for Germany there are limits. For instance, recent measures proposed by the European Commission to reduce the C02 output of vehicles have come under criticism by the powerful German automobile lobby. As with the U.S. and other western countries, there are fears that the German economy could fail under stiff targets.

One way in which some European countries, such as Germany, are able to gloss over their tainted image is by politically pretending to be environmentally conscious. Lately, this has been done by publicly acclaiming that advanced industrial nations must play a role and lead the way in reducing greenhouse gases so as to set an example to emerging economies. The catch is that rich western countries hope to cash in on a booming market for green technologies. As the head of the Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Competitiveness unit at the Enterprise and Industry Directorate-General of the European Commission recently noted, "what we need to do is boost innovation in green technology which will soon be in very high demand."

Thus, while traditional manufacturing and industrial processes move east to India and China where labour is cheap and exploitable, the west is busy setting standards and cornering the market for green technologies. These technologies are then used, in turn, to partly redress a growing trade deficit with Asia. In some ways, this can be viewed as the green side of globalization.

As a result of this situation, efforts to tackle the problem of climate change are often misplaced and, in some cases, do more harm than good. Recent legislation in Europe and Canada to mandate the use of compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) is a case in point. Compact fluorescent lighting is one of the fastest and simplest ways to boost energy efficiency and cut CO2 emissions in the home, but even this technology uses only 15 % of its power for light (standard incandescent or filament light bulbs achieve only 5 %). Not only this, CFLs are not entirely environmentally friendly: they contain mercury, the disposal of which is a growing environmental concern. Moreover, CFL bulbs are only efficient when used for an extended period of time; they actually use more energy than standard bulbs if they are quickly switched on and off. Hence, CFL bulbs encourage people to leave their lights on needlessly, thereby reinforcing an attitude of wasteful consumption.

Combating climate change, therefore, is not simply about applying green technologies, such as changing from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Robert Weissman, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and director of Essential Action, points out that what is needed is a broad public understanding of how the present system of making, transporting, selling, buying, using and disposing of things is trashing the planet. "If we're going to save ourselves from global warming, we're going to have to do things differently," writes Weissman.

Perhaps the best example of misplaced efforts to tackle climate change is the use of bio-fuels. Despite recent questions over the feasibility of bio-fuels, leaders in Europe are of the opinion that research into future bio-fuel technologies must go ahead. Hence, EU Heads of State and Government earlier this year endorsed an ambitious EU Commission plan which set the goals of increasing bio-fuel use in the EU to 5.75% by 2010 and 10% by 2020.

Europe's bio-fuel plan is yet another example in where environmental issues are used as a cover to promote economic policy. In this case it's being used to boost Europe's lagging biotechnology sector which has suffered the past few years due to the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Thanks to climate change, however, the focus of GMO research has now shifted from Franken foods towards bio-fuels, a less contentious issue.

Already, it's quite clear that cultivating energy crops in Europe on set-aside and non-cultivated land won't be enough to meet the EU's bio-fuel targets. The solution, therefore, is seen in increasing output per hectare and boosting crop quality through plant science. Hence, as pundits argue, the EU must turn to biotechnology in order to combat climate change. This, in turn, will help to reinvigorate the European biotechnology sector and make it more competitive with the U.S. and Japan, a hitherto major concern for EU leaders.

The trouble with this is that rather than trying to solve a problem, it's creating more instead. A recent United Nations report warned that bio-fuels could cause serious damage to the environment and have an adverse impact on the lives of millions. One problem is that the crops needed to produce the fuel are competing with food crops for land and could therefore jeopardize the food supply. Indeed, throughout the EU this past year member states experienced a sharp rise in food prices as a result. In addition to this, bio-fuels could lead to land and water scarcity, as well as accentuate the loss of biodiversity and soil erosion. Growing bio-fuels crops has already led to large-scale deforestation in some areas of the world.

At present it takes 2 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bio-fuel, and the crops are often treated with insecticides and fertilizers which are known to damage the ozone layer. Thus, for those who try to ease their guilty conscience by using bio-fuels made of maize, sugar cane, or rapeseed instead of oil, more harm is potentially being done to the environment than good.

The likelihood that European leaders will see the fallacies in their environmental policies is slim. While environmentalists generally argue that the only real solution to the problem of climate change is to reduce emissions by reducing consumption, the European Commission regards such an idea as unthinkable. According to one official, "reducing emissions by simply reducing our economic activity, as advocated by some radicals, is not a realistic scenario."

This is because the prevailing ideology within the political and business elites of the world is that we need to improve energy efficiency so that we will be able to create the same products and services as we do now - only using less energy. The challenge, therefore, is to implement energy savings that would not lower our living standards and economic activity.

All this sounds fine, but the problem with such an idea is that it's not sustainable in the long run. In other words, do we keep improving energy efficiency until we reach the point where we create the same products and services using no energy at all? Or is this another problem for the future to solve, as we will all be dead and buried by then?

This wouldn't be such a problem if economic conditions were constant. Sadly, in this modern era of global capitalism, it's not. Modern-day capitalism requires constant growth, and lately this pace of growth has been accelerated. If growth stagnates or a contraction sets in, the consequences would be catastrophic. This why many experts fear the popping of the China economic bubble; it's not a question of if but when.

It may be a little ironic but the capitalists of today have much in common with the Marxists of yesterday. Both look upon the future as an endless period of inevitable growth. Likewise, both see the environment as an exploitable resource, and have an unwavering faith in the virtue of technological progress. Consequently, both are of the belief that nothing must stand in the way of this inevitable progress - including the environment.

History has since demonstrated the shortcomings of such an unwavering belief in inevitable progress, growth, and technology. Communism's environmental legacy is well known, and toward the end of the cold war when the environment was a key issue in most People's Democracies, lip service was paid to the need for environmental protection. Meanwhile, capitalism's attitude toward the environment has been more or less the same. If history is to teach us anything, it's now that communism is dead we must seriously consider burying capitalism.

This is because one of the underlying attributes of modern day capitalism is the unequal distribution of global wealth. In the time of Adam Smith, the proportion of differences in wealth between the large areas of civilisation on the planet ranged from 1 to less than 2. In 2000, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it reached a proportion of 1 to 74. Inequalities have thus escalated out of proportion.

In conjunction with this, so too has the exploitation of resources. The western world consumes by far more than its share of the world's resources. It's this exploitation coupled with a belief in inevitable growth and progress which has put the world on the road to ruin.

Many feel that this may be going a little too far. Without a doubt, there are a lot of problems with capitalism, but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not only this, the problems associated with climate change are myriad, especially considering the fact that C02 emissions can come from the most unexpected of places. For example, a cow is as almost damaging to the climate as a small family car. Both emit CO2, while the burping and flagellant cow also emits methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as destructive as carbon dioxide. What is more, the world's growing demand for dairy products and beef has led to more and more rainforests being cleared in order to create additional grazing space. Thus, with about a billion and a half cattle worldwide, cows at present make up more than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Along these lines, it appears that the only way to reduce emissions is to reduce consumption. This is no doubt the case for the short term, but the problem of too many cows or cars also underscores an enigma which was pointed out decades ago and which seems to have been relegated to the background since: that of unchecked population growth.

In the 1970s and 1980s the idea of 6 billion people on the planet was then already considered as unsustainable; we are now well past that mark and looking toward a world with almost 10 billion people in the near future. The irony is that the western, industrial world is now complaining of a population shortage because it is starting to feel the economic burden of maintaining a society geared toward constant growth but without the population to sustain it. In other words, western industrial society is slowly but surely becoming aware of its limits.

The problem of climate change is not simply a question of economics and social models, however. At the heart of the matter is the need for a change in social attitudes prevalent in the western, industrial world, one based on insularity and greed. An excellent reflection of this is "The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard" (StoryofStuff.Org), a short film which can be viewed on the Internet (about 20 minutes) that explains the "materials economy" and how it works. Produced by Free Range Studios, the Story of Stuff revolves around the themes of why the world is running up against resource limits, how corporate globalization is premised on externalizing costs (i.e., making someone other than the companies that make things pay for the environmental and human costs of production), how the corporate economy rests on the artificial creation of need ("the golden arrow of consumption") and, perhaps most importantly, that things can be different and must be made to be different.

Indubitably, western industrial civilisation is destroying itself because it's determined to disregard all limits in all areas. It has broken all the aesthetic rules in art, given birth to absolute totalitarianisms, and declared that there are no longer any physical or ethical limits. Likewise, there are no longer any limits on consumption or the exploitation of nature. Our obsession is that we must always have more. Modern society is, as it were, set on holding the position of the "almighty creator".

This attitude goes hand in hand with the Judeo-Christian view of the world which puts human beings in a privileged position above all else in the world. Indeed, extremists even go so far as to claim that it's our God-given right to exploit the earth for our own selfish purposes. As the far-right American pundit Ann Coulter once stated during a TV debate over environmentalism: "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the seas [...]. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'" Apparently, the punch line was that "raping the Earth" is preferable to "living like the Indians."

Ironically, the Judeo-Christian view of the world, which is prominent in all western, industrial nations, also contains a warning in the story pertaining to "the tree of knowledge". Contrary to the view of many who use this as an excuse to rationalise that ignorance is bliss, the problem with taking a bite of the forbidden fruit is not the acquisition of knowledge itself but its application. In other words, we are too immature to handle certain types of information.

This doesn't mean we need to adopt a Luddite view of the world. Rather, it should be used as a guide for adopting the precautionary principle more often. Unfortunately, we seem to be relying too much on technological progress as a panacea for our ills.

Technology is often regarded as cure with no side effects. Yet the 20th century is full of examples of how the double-sword of technology has led to more problems than solutions: radioactivity, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), DDT, asbestos, hydrocarbons, nuclear power, and the list goes on. As the Swiss philosopher Dominique Bourg points out, "all this goes to show that the technologies we use have provided an element of control but are limited in scope and have a time bomb potential that could result in catastrophic damage. The more powerful these technologies become, the greater the potential damage they can cause."

Despite this, rather than learning from our mistakes we are intent on repeating them. Nuclear power, for instance, is regarded by some as clean energy and the optimal solution to reducing CO2 emissions while still producing large amounts of much needed energy. But even if the safety of nuclear power plants can somehow be guaranteed, the disposal of nuclear waste remains a nagging enigma.

The dilemma for many is that our reliance on technology is such that we have become increasingly isolated from reality and the outside world. This can be clearly seen through the advent of the so-called "information society". Computer-mediated communications has become simply another technology in which the promises of a greener, brighter future have turned out to be superfluous. The Internet especially was supposed to deliver a "new economy". Moreover, the "paperless" medium of the Internet would help save trees while the tele-working would cut down on traffic congestion and emissions. It has since turned out to be the opposite: the economy is the same as it ever was, more paper is being used than ever before, and with so many people online computers now cause more emissions than civil aviation worldwide. It's not just about household computers: the Internet requires huge server and data storage facilities, and as the flow of data doubles every four months, electricity consumption grows with it.

Our reliance on technology to fix problems related to our egocentric view of the world is such that halting the irreversible effects of climate change when they become intolerable or catastrophic is regarded by some as a possible alternative. Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize winner (1995) and renowned atmospheric chemistry expert at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has suggested releasing aerosols into the upper atmosphere to chemically neutralise carbon dioxide. Although Crutzen believes that this solution should only be considered as a last resort if the climate machine were to spin out of control, it nevertheless betrays what Bourg views as "another head-long technological rush with potentially nasty surprises - all of which would be on a planetary scale." Accordingly, the danger of such an idea is that it provides a justification for inaction today on account of the fact that tomorrow action can be taken on a global scale.

In the end, regardless of the technology at our disposal, it's quite clear that the only way to combat climate change is a thorough and radical change in the way we live and consume resources. However, given the close relationship between our lifestyles and our personal values, such a fundamental change is only possible if we make alterations to basic ethics. For instance, we rarely take into account future generations or distant populations when making important decisions. Moreover, western societies are structured so as to enable each person to maximise their own interests. As a result, it's only to be expected that the ultimate objective of western, industrial society is to produce and consume more and more.

Environmental degradation and climate change has shown that this is clearly no longer sustainable. The free organisation of society is showing itself to be at odds with the management of shared environmental assets. There is now an urgent need to invent new methods of economic and political regulation. This includes branding certain aspects of our lifestyles as criminal.

Subsequently, we can no longer leave everything up to "the market". The practice of market-based emissions trading demonstrates both the misplaced attempts of EU environment policy and the erroneous notion that somehow we can always buy ourselves out of trouble. The role of the markets is to stimulate the economy, but pricing can't be used as the basis for new ethical values required by a global society. Hence, certain activities not only mustn?t be regulated by the market, they must be forbidden and severely punished by law.

Europe provides a perfect example of how difficult such a change can be for the individual. Europeans are acutely aware of climate change and do care about the environment, but the vast majority are still unwilling to make radical and perhaps even painful changes to their own habits and lifestyles. Hearing the truth strikes fear into the hearts of most; hence, western industrial society prefers to take refuge in a head-long technological rush for a solution.

Unless the fundamental economic, ethical, and even religious foundations upon which western industrial society are built are re-evaluated and revamped, then the changes proposed or enacted to combat climate change will be too little too late. Along these lines, roadmaps like the one worked out in Bali don?t chart a way forward, but simply lead to a dead end.

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