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A historic event or a fraud? Critical thoughts on the Paris Climate Accord


Climate change is just the most glaring manifestation of real and deeper causes – the growing demands of a growing world population, while our natural resource base is dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is diminishing – in short, the lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.

Considering that so much depends on whether global warming can be arrested soon, it was no wonder that all thinking people had turned their attention to Paris, where on 13th December the COP21 “successfully” ended, with great jubilation. I too followed the process through the media.

Positive and Negative Reactions

A day after, I read the following comments: (1) “Today is a historic day: as tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Paris, politicians finalized a major new global climate agreement”. And (2) “It’s a fraud really, a fake,”… “It’s just bullshit…”1 The first was made by May Boeve, the US national organizer of350.org, a big NGO, that is playing a leading role in the climate justice movement, the second by James Hansen, a former NASA scientist, considered the father of climate change awareness. Which one can we regard as the correct assessment?

Given that nobody in my position has the time and energy to read all the reports and comments on the COP21, I hope that my readers would forgive me if I have overlooked some important point in the agreement or an important comment on it. But fairness demands that I also mention a middle position, for example that of Thomas Friedman, a liberal columnist of the New York Times. He wrote:”I had low expectations for the U.N. climate meeting, and it met all of them – beautifully. I say that without cynicism. Any global conference that includes so many countries can’t be expected to agree on much more than the lowest common denominator.”2

That is understandable. As far as I could follow, nobody had big expectations. But then I do not understand how May and other prominent people of big NGOs can be so enthusiastic about it. Bill McKibben wrote: “With the climate talks in Paris now over, the world has set itself a serious goal.” 3 I have doubts. Was the goal really set seriously? Friedman wrote: “But the fact that the lowest common denominator is now so high [he means the target 1.50 Celcius] – a willingness by 188 countries to offer plans to steadily and verifiably reduce their carbon emissions – means we still have a chance.” 2 Again I have doubts. I would very much like to agree with Boeve, McKibben, and Friedman. But at present at least, I cannot, for reasons I shall present below.

Why Call it a Fraud?

I too think, like Hansen, the accord was a fraud, but for reasons very different from those of his. I think it was only because they were afraid of being branded as the guilty in case the COP21 failed to reach an agreement that the major CO2emitter countries reluctantly decided to sign this very weak paper. But paper, as the Germans say, is patient. If you want evidence, then look at the position with which the government of India went to Paris. Only a few months before the COP21 began, the government of India had announced the policy decision to double India’s coal production in the next 5 years. Just a few days before he left for Paris, Mr. Javadekar, India’s environment minister, had said in an interview: “I’m asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space so that we can park our development.”4

Retorting to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s criticism of India’s decision to double its coal production, Javadekar had remarked it was “absolutely unfair and unacceptable,” especially since the CO2 reduction targets announced by the developed countries would fail to arrest the climate change crisis, which they had a historical responsibility of fixing after a century of pumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He also warned the Americans against “bullying” India.4

Or take the case of Norway, very rich in oil and gas. Just twelve days after they signed the Paris accord, the prime minister of the country said:”We believe that in a situation in which we shall have attained the goal of Paris, there will be demand for Norwegian oil and gas.”5 So they are continuing with all the plans and projects for extracting oil and gas from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. While claiming that they want to protect the Arctic from the effects of global warming, they are speculating on the melting of the arctic ice that will make more access to oil and gas possible. It seems they are saying (in German): Wasch mir den Pelz aber mach mich nicht nass, or (in English): We want to eat the cake and have it too.

These are actually irreconcilable positions. We can formulate them as two most fundamental controversial questions: (1) Should the underdeveloped countries be allowed to develop their economies to the level reached by the USA or Germany? (2) And must the economies of the developed countries be scaled down, in order to vacate the carbon space in favor of the former? In Paris, these questions were probably not put on the table in these stark terms. In the interview referred to above, Mr. Javedkar, while asserting India’s right – implicitly the right of all underdeveloped countries – to development, did not raise the second question. The Paris accord too recognizes all underdeveloped countries’ “right to development”. It “… aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, … ” (Article 2). But it does not mention the second question.

It appears that all participants in COP21, the big and small environment NGOs, publicists, and activists take it as a matter of course that the answer to the first question is Yes, and that to the second is No. The controversy was just papered over. It is simply taken for granted that a deus ex machina, namely technological development, would enable humankind to solve the problem of global warmingwithout causing any pain to anybody, and that it only needs some more time and large investments in renewable energies and efficiency-raising technologies. In the rich, developed countries, a large part of the hope of technology optimists is placed on the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, although not even its feasibility has yet been established. Bill Mckibben, founder and leader of 350.org, charts the strategy for the coming years.6 The state(s) must do the following:

“You’ve got to stop fracking right away … . You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace – and all over the world. The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and thehuge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it.”
And he lays down the task of the movement as follows:

“There can be no complacency after the Paris talks. Hitting even the 1.5C target will need drastic, rapid action. Think of the climate movement as personal trainers – for the next few years our job is to yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch.”

The most popular article of faith of environmental NGOs and activists (not of governments) is that – given the right policy decisions such as those laid down by McKibben in the above quote, and correspondingly large amounts of state subsidies – it would be possible in two to three decades to meet 100 percent of humanity’s energy needs by means of renewable energy technologies, so that burning fossil fuels would not be necessary at all; there would also be no need for the CCS technology.

Hansen calls the accord a fraud, mainly because he sees no concrete action plan in it, only promises that, moreover, the signatory states are required to implement gradually, beginning only in 2020. His idea was a tax or price or fee of $15 a tonne of CO2 to be paid by major emitters. He argued that only this measure could force down CO2 emissions quickly enough. But he found no support, not even among big environment groups, because, as he said, nobody wants to scare people off by talking off new taxes.1

I could have supported the tax proposal of Hansen if he had stopped there. But, like the others mentioned above, he too believes that ultimately it is only by replacing fossil fuel energies with clean energies that we can avert climate catastrophes. For he says in the same interview: “We need to have a rising fee on carbon in order to move to clean energy.”1

Unlike Hansen, I see the fraud taking place since long, and it is contained in the very conceptions of the proposed solutions – in all parts thereof and both in their short as well as long-term versions. Firstly, the whole COP process from the very beginning, i.e. since 1992 onwards, is swearing to promote sustainabledevelopment and eradicate poverty while at the same time protecting the environment and averting global warming. The COP21 did the same. Otherwise the developing countries would not have taken part in the process. But how do you, in the short term, eradicate poverty in developing countries, e.g. in India, South Africa or Colombia, if you make power much dearer by (a) imposing a tax of $15 a tonne of CO2 payable by major emitters (that includes India), (b) by ending all subsidies to fossil fuels, and (c) paying huge subsidies to renewable energies (where will the huge sums come from)?

Most persons, groups, parties etc. mentioned above simply assume that economic growth i.e. growth in prosperity can and will continue without any problem when the fossil fuel energies have been replaced with “clean” energies. As against that, I (and my political friends, e.g. Ted Trainer) believe since long that it is absolutely necessary that the major industrial countries, including China, India, Brazil etc. purposely bring about a contraction of their economies – in order not only to stop burning more and more fossil fuels but also to reduce the generallevel of environmental pollution. We do not think that economic growth would be possible if we really want to save the biosphere.

I can also cite evidence supporting this belief: In recent history, the only time CO2 emission and general environmental pollution went down in a large region were the 1990s, i.e. after the Eastern European economies, especially the then second biggest economy of the world, that of the Soviet Union, collapsed. But in the Paris accord there is no mention of this necessity. The whole de-growth movement has been totally ignored, also by the big environmental NGOs. They simply believe in miracles.

One may ask why I doubt that it would be possible, if not soon, then at least in the near future or in the long term to fully or at least largely replace fossil fuel energies (and other nonrenewable resources) with renewable ones. After all, technological progress is taking place all the time! Basing myself on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s differentiation between feasible and viable,7 I have been expressing this doubt for the last 25 years. It is not possible to repeat all my arguments here; interested people may read some of my writings recommended below.8

Here I only want to refer to two sets of facts that serve as indications that my doubt may be justified. (1) Already in 1994, Eurosolar and its friends and associate organizations claimed in a full-page advertisement in the German print media that solar energy based on the technology developed till then could compete with fossil fuel energies. But today, after twenty more years of research and development, we see that solar energy is still neither competitive nor viable without large subsidies. That is why even today new coal-fired power plants are being built? (2) India is very rich in sunshine and wind. Still its government wants to double coal production in order to supply energy to the masses. Why? And why do its politicians say, it is only coal that India has for energy? Are the Indian engineers stupid or ignorant? Or have they all sold away their conscience to the coal lobby?

Protagonists of green growth, i.e. growth based on 100% transition to renewables are all very intelligent people. Yet they are ignoring these facts and questions. If they are not intentionally bluffing, then they are, I believe, suffering from an illusion.

There are some more reasons why I criticize the big environmental NGOs. (1) They – unlike Hansen, who has called the whole agreement a fraud – have exonerated the political class (the authors of the Paris Deal) from all guilt, as if they are not always ready to fulfill the wishes of big corporations, as if they are actually good people who, like the NGOs, care for the interests of the masses, the only “villains” being the fossil fuel industries. Opposing these villains are, in their view, the good “ordinary people”, the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, as if they do not want to consume more and more energy and other products of fossil fuels. This is too naïve, if it is not a fraud too.

(2) They have isolated the climate crisis from all other crises involved in mankind’s present predicament, as if they are not interconnected. They simply ignore the totality of the crisis. (3) They do not seem to know that the $100 billion that the politicians of the rich countries have promised to pay to the victims of global warming will first have to be generated by producing more green house gases. (4) It appears, moreover, that they have not noticed that these are all only promises. Don’t they know that governments, especially in times of economic crisis, never deliver what they promise? The UNHCR, for example, recently reduced the food ration to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan etc. because they haven’t received all the money that was promised to them.

But the more basic problem I have with those who are euphoric about the Paris accord is that the signatory governments as well as the NGOs, green and left parties etc. do not even mention the real and deeper causes of the ecological, economic, political and social miseries of humankind, of which climate change and large-scale migration are just currently the most glaring manifestations. These real and deeper causes are the continuously growing demands, aspirations and ambitions of a continuously growing world population, while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing – in short, the lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.

Is the System Question Irrelevant?

What I, moreover, found very strange is that, all along, all people involved in the COP process assumed that the envisioned drastic changes in such a vital factor as the energy supply base of the modern industrial economies could be undertaken without requiring any changes in the current political-economic system.

Of course, one could not expect from the politicians who signed the deal that they would include in it a clause stating that the system they have built up and which has made them rich and powerful also needs to be changed. But how come also the rest of the involved people did not have the slightest doubt that the huge problem can be solved within the framework of capitalism and free market economy? Outside this circle, however, in the context of the problems at hand, the system question had already been posed several hundred times, in speeches and writings, before the COP21 began. In TV news broadcasts, I have even a few times seen pictures of radical leftist protesters carrying banners and placards with the slogan “System change, not climate change”.

Can’t one expect of honest and thinking NGO and media people that they also at least consider the possibility that the technological breakthroughs – 100% renewable energy, CCS etc., on which they are placing all their hopes – do not occur or do not occur in time? If they do not occur, shouldn’t one have a plan B for averting the catastrophes? In plain English, if humanity can no longer indulge in the growth compulsions inherent in capitalism with its principle of competition in a free market economy, shouldn’t the state(s) step in and order a stop in further economic growth? Shouldn’t the state(s) then tell the people that they have to accept a contracting economy and all the consequences thereof? Shouldn’t the state(s), from then on, plan an orderly withdrawal from the present mad economic system?9

Unfortunately, many people who do raise the system question – there are even some prominent people among them – often do that half-heartedly. They often question “capitalism as we know it or as it is today” or “globalized neo-liberalcapitalism”, as if a better form of capitalism is conceivable, as if it could be made ecological, social or humane, and compatible with economic contraction. I do not think such half-hearted critiques are of any use. Such people do not realize that as long as the motive of profit maximization and the principles of private ownership of means of production, selfishness, and competition remain – and these are the most essential elements of capitalism –, there would always be a compulsion to grow, whatever that may cost human society and nature. That will bring to nought all efforts to overcome the climate crisis and many other crises.

Conclusion. Can Anything be Done Before an Eco-Socialist Revolution?

A friend said to me: look, Saral, I am convinced what you are saying is correct. But your eco-socialist revolution may never happen or it may come too late. Can’t the powers that be do something short of your revolution, and soon? And can’t ordinary people, who are afraid of too radical a change, urge them to do something in this emergency situation.

I think that is possible. But a fraud on the people is not what I can advocate. A fraud cannot help even if we, as Mckibben urges us to do, “yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch.”

I can today imagine that an honest, well-meaning (think of PODEMOS and SYRIZA), and eco-sensitive social democratic party in near future comes to power through an election and gives itself, against the background of humanity’s serious multifaceted crisis, an immediate program that could be implemented within the framework of current kinds of democracy and capitalism.

The top priority of such a program should be to tell the voters the truth about limits to growth (and prosperity) and the necessity of respecting them, and then to take all feasible measures to gradually curtail economic growth, if not immediately and totally stop it. That should not be impossible. In fact, in Japan and the EU (with the exception of Germany), the economies are already stagnating – in Japan for the last 15 or 25 years and in the EU since 2008. Already now, people in the rich countries are getting used to stagnating economies or (as in China) falling growth rates. In Greece, Portugal and Spain people have experienced falling wages and cuts in salaries, pensions, and social benefits. We only have to make a virtue of this unwelcome development by openly and courageously saying that a recession is good for the environment including the climate. The government must only equitably distribute the burdens of protecting the environment in this way, and the burdens of the resulting unemployment by reducing by law the average weekly working hours.

In the broad environmental movements in the Western capitalist countries, we can find many concrete proposals and concrete examples for this policy: Governments can promote public transportation and discourage private motorization. Activists can start a system of borrowable cars and two-wheelers owned by groups. Governments can pass orders to the effect that individual private cars can be used only on alternate days etc. etc. Above all, governments must stop all previous policies of promoting growth. All such things work against the capitalist ideal of growth and lead us toward collectivism. In the past, capitalists have had to swallow them.

As far as I can observe, in the developed countries, among the masses, understanding for such policies is growing, although it is still far from becoming the majority view. Particularly political parties that want to get elected to parliaments are still not ready to adopt such a program. The Green Party of Germany has of course, long ago, betrayed its original program. But the latter was really an ecological social-democratic one.10 Here lies the great task of extra-parliamentary environmentalists and eco-socialist groups and individuals: to mobilize mass support for such a program.

Today, the chances that they would succeed are much greater than in the early 1980s.
In the underdeveloped countries, the two most important parts of such an immediate program should be to stop population growth and build up a modest social security and job guarantee system.11 Fortunately, both ideas are well accepted among the elites of many of such countries, although implementation is weak. To drive the illusions of catching-up economic development and growing prosperity out of their heads would become much easier once the elites of the developed countries have done their part of the work.

(This article was originally published on Saral Sarkar’s blog)

References
1. The first was communicated to me by my friend Kamran Nayeri. For the second see
Hansen, James (2015):http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/12/james-hansen-climate-change-paris-talks-fraud

2. Friedman, Thomas L. (2015):
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/paris-climate-accord-is-a-big-big-deal.html?_r=02

3. McKibben, Bill (2015)http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-talks-15c-marathon-negotiating-physics

4. Javadekar http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2015/11/21/prakash-javadekar-intervi_n_8617864.html

5. Bigalke, Silke (2015) “An der Eiskante” . In Süddeutache Zeitung, 28.12. 2015

6. Mckibben, Bill (2015)http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-talks-15c-marathon-negotiating-physics

7. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1978) “Technology Assessment: The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”, in Atlantic Economic Journal, December.

8. My detailed arguments on this issue are contained in
chapter 4 of my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? (see 9),
in http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2014/04/krugmans-illusion-we-becoming-richer.html
and in http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2015/09/root-causes-of-cleavages-in-ecological.html

9. I have thoroughly discussed these questions in my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s fundamental Choices. (1999. Zed Books, London).
In German translation: Die Nachhaltige Gesellschaft – Eine kritische Analyse der Systemalternativen. (2001. Rotpunkt Verlag, Zürich)

10. See: Saral Sarkar (1994) Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany – Vol.II: The Greens. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

11. For details of my argumentation see http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2012/08/polemics-is-useless-proposal-for-eco.html

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