Human civilisation is on course for a breakdown in the benign and stable climactic conditions that have been the condition for its development. This is a result of the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions generated by human agricultural and industrial activity, particularly since the industrial revolution, and especially in the last twenty years. The scale of this is greater than in any of the natural cycles of warming and cooling that have taken place throughout the holocene period (current interglacial). The last time there was a greater concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as there is today was before human evolution.
The trouble we have stored up for ourselves is becoming increasingly apparent in extreme weather events – hurricanes, floods, droughts, and their consequences, forest fires, unfarmable land, climate refugees, conflicts and wars resulting from the foregoing; alongside related issues like the accelerating loss of biodiversity and mass extinction.
Scenarios to avoid this written by academics are often premised on political conditions that we do not have – a presumption that the world has one political or economic system without significant variation – or a degree of universal understanding and political consensus that we don’t have either. There is no world government capable of re-wilding 50% of the planet or imposing a carbon ration: and if we had one, it would run into a lot of conflict if it tried to do it.
We nevertheless have to get from where we are now to where we need to be. And as quickly as we can.
The first point is that States Matter
In the absence of global governance, what different states do – and whose interests they represent – is of overwhelming importance. Protests are – in the last analysis – an attempt to get the state to do something, or to change a government, or transform it altogether if it does not. In the current state of international state relations, some states are part of the solution and are generally allies of the environmental movement – and some are not.
The Paris Agreement is both essential and inadequate. Countries will make targets and commit to reducing carbon emissions, then ratchet up those targets. If met, the projection is that the current targets would still leave us with 3C of heating by the end of the Century and, if not 4.3 – 4.8C; so the scale of the targets and the speed with which they are implemented need to be scaled up sharply if we are to cut off global heating at 1.5C, or even 2C.
The decisive crisis in this process is that the United States – currently the single wealthiest and most powerful country in the world – is pulling out of the Paris Agreement and pulling other countries – like Brazil – with it. Alongside it are countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, Australia and Russia, which remain in the Agreement for now, but act to slow it down and impede its progress.
This abdication of global leadership by the US, and its move to actively sabotage what needs to be done, is a stark expression of the decline of the Pax Americana; which can no longer claim to stand as an example for humanity as a whole. Faced with the rise of China (symbolised by Chinese technology companies edging ahead of US competition in 5G) the USA under Trump is projecting “America First” – breaking up and disrupting multilateral institutions which have hitherto bolstered its global predominance.
Trump and his supporters in the fossil fuel industries have been widely characterised as “climate change deniers”. This is not accurate. When Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser argued at the Katowice COP that “we” (we, here, meaning the US government) “strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability” he is recognising that the current ways of ensuring prosperity are not sustainable, but will carry on doing it anyway – projecting a future in which the system we have accelerates faster and faster and higher and higher until it runs out of road, crashes and burns and we all burn with it.
Steve Bannon put this more graphically, “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” These guys know what’s happening. The 2007 US think tank report The Age of Consequences – The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change projects the following “expected scenario” based on IPCC reports- “massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks”. Given that IPCC reports have tended to underplay the pace of developments – with levels of arctic ice melt already at levels not expected until mid century, its likely that the more severe scenario they sketch out is in their minds. In the event of environmental feed back loops getting out of control, instead of gradual degradation that we have time to adapt to, there is a sudden breakdown that overwhelms us, collapsing agricultural and economic systems and states. They state unblinkingly that “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage: deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” Just think about that for a moment and imagine it. Its quite clear who the half of the world that they expect to burn is. And not all of them are on the wrong side of Trump’s wall.
Some of the uber wealthy are seeking to escape the consequences are trying to find themselves bolt holes from this – buying estates in New Zealand, building underground bunker homes, or fantasising about living “off world”. Trump wants to build a wall, making the whole US a gated community. At least Wotan, at the end of Gotterdamerung, having condemned the world to die in flood and fire, has the good grace to sit in Valhalla with his broken spear, waiting patiently to be engulfed, so a new world can be born.
A change of President and change of course away from confrontation and towards a Green New Deal from 2020 is crucial both for the chances of the world meeting its targets and for the US transforming itself into a society with some chance of becoming sustainable. The version of the Green New Deal put forward by the US Green Party – to finance it by cutting US defence spending in half – thereby freeing up just under $350 billion a year- is something of a challenge for US democracy – but has the merit of pointing out that it is a strange version of “defence” to spend as much on armaments as the rest of the world put together, while deploying soldiers, aircraft and ships in “around 600” overseas bases (according to the Pentagon). Any other country doing that would be denounced as an aggressive predator and threat to democracy.
In the Trump trade war with China, which will continue for four more years if he is re-elected next year, the US is doubling down on fossil fuels and locking itself into an outmoded technology: with subsidised petrol (and the fracking and wars for oil that go with it) relaxed emissions standards, overuse of internal flights (no high speed rail) sprawling energy hungry suburbs and crumbling interstates – the American way of life. In so far as it has a vision of the future it is a peculiarly old fashioned one (the present, only more so) that – crucially – requires climate change denial.
The world view of neo-liberalism, which is not confined to Trump and his supporters – that the current form of human relations is natural and eternal, that “there is no alternative” that “business as usual” is “going forward” forever and ever world without end – is unable to take on board the reality of climate change. In its own discourse it reduces it to being an idea among other ideas that can be argued with or denied – not a reality we can see and feel around us and that we have to respond to. It has been pointed out that, while the Chinese government is composed for the most part of scientists and engineers *- people whose whole being is geared to solving real world problems – the highest levels of US government are filled with lawyers – people whose role is trying to cheat the facts and conjure up a deceptive self serving narrative if that’s what it takes to win a case; which works fine in court, but not if you are trying to argue with the laws of physics (which are starting to sit in terrible judgement).
The Chinese – on the other hand – get it . This is symbolised in a startling statistic. Of the 425 000 electric buses in the world, 5 000 of them are not in China. Just think about what that means for a moment. Here are some further contrasts.
- The US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation, which has brought down the costs of solar panels so far that India and Vietnam – previously committed to a big expansion of coal plants – are now going solar in a big way – and this is having a global effect even in wealthier countries too. China itself already has double the renewable energy capacity of the US and is still investing in it at a qualitatively greater rate (another £292 billion going in by next year).
- Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, presumably on the principle that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
- the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, abandoning targets that were already quite lenient, and stands against international co-operation; while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions, are set to achieve their 2030 Paris targets between 5 and 9 years early and will ratchet them up.
None of this implies that China has always got everything right, nor that improvements can’t be made. Its huge tree planting programme – which has significantly increased forest cover – has been widely criticised for lacking biodiversity; creating woods more like Forestry Commission plantations than restored ancient woodland; so projects using diverse native species are now being brought in to address this.
The overall conclusion however is clear. On the most decisive question facing humanity, China is part of the solution while the US is part of the problem; and the environmental movement in the West needs to be very clear about that. The result of this clash – and the fall out from it – will be decisive in determining how much of a future the world has.
Its important to stress this because the news we receive in the UK is heavily filtered through a world view in which the US’s own assessment of itself as a globally progressive guarantor of human rights – as compared with any competing power -is taken as good coin. To argue that China is doing more for humanity than the US has to fight its way past a wall of scepticism. But, just consider this. The US prison system holds seven times as many people per head of population as China does. It even locks up more people in absolute terms (2.1 million in the US to 1.6 million in China) with a population barely a quarter the size. So far, this year, the number of people shot and killed by the police in the US is 614 (Washington Post). In China, its 2 (Wikipedia).
These figures jolt because they invert comfortable settled presumptions about the US’s relative standing that might be expected in most of the media; but they are also the dominant view throughout society and even in some sections of the left and environment movements. This is despite experience to the contrary.
There is therefore a certain vulnerability on the part of these movements to campaigns waged indirectly by the US designed to use us for its own ends. These are usually run through the National Endowment for Democracy. This body is funded by the US Congress to organise “human rights” organisations in countries that the US wishes to destabilise; which usually run very noisy social media campaigns designed to go straight to people’s emotions. It is important to bear in mind that even where there are concerns that need to be addressed in either the policy or the practice of the states concerned, the aim of the US backed campaign will be directed at portraying everything about the country concerned through this lens, usually in a wildly exaggerated way, with an aim to bring down a regime that is unfavourable to its interests, partly by inoculating public opinion across the world against it. The extent to which “human rights” are a genuine concern can be gauged by the way the US has operated in Latin America almost from its foundation.
An exchange in Congress between Rep Ilhan Omar and Trump’s envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams is very revealing. Abrams stated that protecting human rights is “always the policy of the United States.” This is the same Elliott Abrams who was Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Inter American Affairs in the 1980s. In this role he oversaw support for Contra Terrorists in Nicaragua, Death Squads in El Salvador and an anti insurgency campaign in Guatemala that led to the President at the time being charged with genocide by a later government. Yet, the protection of human rights is “always the policy of the United States.”
The intervention of NED activists into the crisis of the Amazon rain forest fires is a warning. Keen to divert attention from the culpability of President Bolsonaro in Brazil – who is in favour of forest clearances in the Amazon to bolster soya production, dismantled the protections brought in by the previous Workers Party governments and even now is only imposing a moratorium on slash and burn fires for 60 days – they sought to divert attention to fires in Boliva – a tiny fraction of those in Brazil – and blame President Evo Morales – a thorn in the US side who is firmly committed to the Paris Agreement – and who is facing an election in November. Morales, declared a national state of emergency and suspended his re-election campaign to fight the fires, sending in 4 000 troops, firefighters and vets and contracting a Boeing 747 supertanker to help douse the flames; with the result that 85% of them were out within eight days. Buying and selling land in the affected areas has been banned to stop profiteers moving in, and his government has been praised by the United Nations for its swift and decisive action. By contrast Bolsonaro was more concerned to claim that NGO’s had deliberately started the fire to discredit him than to find any practical solutions. This was of no concern to the NED activists who focussed entirely on Bolivia and mentioned Bolsonaro not at all.
So, the environmental movement needs to be very clear about who its allies are at state level in the current global struggle. Recognising that Morales is part of the solution while Bolsonaro is a – big – part of the problem is part of this. Disagreement or criticism of an ally should take a different form from criticism of an enemy and we need to be clear who is who. This is not always easy. In the context of an increasingly delirious form of political discourse – in which exaggerated and unrestrained claims are made and images hyped for emotional impact – it behoves us all to keep a cool head and the overall picture in mind: so we are not stampeded off in a direction that is the opposite of the one we need to be heading.
End of part 1. Part 2 will look at strategy in the UK.