In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in the U.K. in November — the 26th session of the talks that were launched in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 — the governments of the world’s richest countries are making ever-louder claims that they are effectively confronting global warming. Nothing could be more dangerous than for social, labor and environmental movements to take this rhetoric at face value and assume that political leaders have the situation under control.
There are three huge falsehoods running through these leaders’ narratives: that rich nations are supporting their poorer counterparts; that “net zero” targets will do what is needed; and that technology-focused “green growth” is the way to decarbonize.
First, wealthier countries claim to be supporting poorer nations — which are contributing least to global warming, and suffering most from its effects — to make the transition away from fossil fuels.
But at the G7 summit in June, the rich countries again failed to keep their own promise, made more than a decade ago, to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries. Of the $60 billion per year they have actually come up with, more than half is bogus: analysis by Oxfam has shown that it is mostly loans and non-concessional finance, and that the amounts are often overstated.
Compare this degrading treatment of the Global South with the mobilization of many hundreds of billions for the post-pandemic recovery. Of $657 billion (public money alone) pledged by G20 nations to energy-producing or energy-consuming projects, $296 billion supports fossil fuels, nearly a third greater than the amount supporting clean energy ($228 billion).
Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change are magnified by poverty. This year’s floods, wildfires and record temperatures in Europe and North America have been frightful enough. The same phenomena cause far greater devastation outside the Global North.
In 2020, “very extensive” flooding caused deaths, significant displacement of populations and further impacts from disease in 16 African countries, the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO’s) annual climate report recorded. India, China and parts of Southeast Asia suffered from record-breaking rainfall and flooding, too.
Climate and weather events had “major and diverse impacts on population movements, and on the vulnerability of people on the move,” the WMO reported. Cyclone Amphan displaced 2.5 million people in India and Bangladesh last May. Many could return soon, but 2.8 million homes were damaged, leading to prolonged displacement. Severe storms in Mozambique piled on dangers for tens of thousands of people displaced by the previous year’s floods and who had not been able to return home.
The political leaders’ second fiction is their pledge to attain “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (the U.S., U.K. and Europe) or 2060 (China).
“Net zero” signifies a point at which the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount being withdrawn. Once, it may have been a useful way of taking into account the way that forests, in particular, soak up carbon dioxide. But three decades of capitulation to fossil fuel companies, since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, have turned it into a monster of deceit.
Thanks to corporate capture and government complicity, many of the greenhouse gas emissions projections in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report factor in huge levels of carbon removal by dubious technologies that do not, and may never, work at scale (e.g., carbon dioxide removal, carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage). Governments have drawn up “net zero” targets reliant on these myths.
On top of this, the 2015 Paris agreement left rich nations to decide what share of global emissions they would take responsibility for. So the U.K. government, which laughably describes itself as “leading the world” on climate, uses targets for emissions cuts at half the level that scientists say is necessary.
The politicians’ third and more complex deception is in the technology-centered “decarbonization” measures they embrace in the name of “green growth.” These rely on tweaking, rather than transforming, the big technological systems through which most fossil fuels are consumed — transport networks, electricity grids, urban infrastructure, and industrial, agricultural and military systems.
An example is electric vehicles, promoted as the principal means to reduce transport sector emissions. Governments ignore the carbon footprint of the vehicles’ manufacture and electricity use (unless and until the grids are 100 percent green), and the roads and parking spaces that the vehicles use.
Alternative approaches focus on expanding public transport, shifting to non-motorized modes (walking, cycles, electric scooters), and reducing the total number of journeys, especially in cities. In a climate emergency, they ask, shouldn’t we stretch our imaginations beyond lives made miserable sitting in rush-hour traffic?
But governments avoid or oppose such solutions, because they would involve confronting the corporate power of oil companies, car manufacturers and property developers, in whose interests it is to perpetuate car culture.
A second example of governments’ corporate-based technology approach involves home heating and cooling. Small-scale technologies that can slash the energy throughput needed — proper insulation, electric heat pumps instead of gas, small-scale renewables generation — are eschewed. Instead, political leaders advocate incremental change to large systems, at a pace that suits the companies that control them.
In the U.K., architects protest as the government loosens building regulations, when it should be tightening them to ensure that new houses are near-zero-carbon. Trades unions in Leeds campaign for insulation and heat pumps — the right solution for the city’s housing stock — instead of a scheme to swap the gas network for hydrogen, that is little more than a survival strategy for the companies producing oil and gas on the North Sea.
In the U.S., community groups advocate zero-carbon energy systems as part of an integrated approach to a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.
Governments resist because the corporations resist. Energy corporations fear decentralized electricity generation outside of their control; property developers despise regulation that compels them to use zero-carbon building techniques; gas distributors hate electric heat pumps. Just as oil companies and car manufacturers dread radical decarbonization of transport, petrochemical giants fear plastic-free supply chains, big agribusiness is terrified by low-carbon food systems, and so on.
Climate researchers have shown that absolute zero (not “net zero”) emissions is entirely achievable, by reducing energy throughput and living differently. The path is blocked not by technological factors, but by political ones: by the dynamics of wealth and power that constitute capitalism — the same dynamics that force the burden of climate change on the Global South.
Tackling climate change involves overcoming those dynamics. It is not so much about replacing bad government with good government, as it is about subverting, confronting, confounding and defeating corporate power. It is about developing a vision of our collective future that goes beyond capitalism.
We see glimpses of the social forces that could achieve this. Resistance to neocolonial resource extraction, which is at the heart of the fossil-fuelled economy, rages across the Global South. In the Global North, there are acts of great heroism — by the saboteurs of the Dakota Access pipeline, for example — and new waves of direct action, by Extinction Rebellion and others, and school strikes in response to climate change.
Climate change protesters often accuse governments of “inaction.” Let’s look at it from a different angle: Governments are acting, but they are acting in accordance with capital’s economic imperatives.
They are allowing global average temperature to rise far more than 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level, and pushing the resulting suffering on to hundreds of millions of people outside the rich world. They are empowering fossil fuel producers and corporations in fossil-intensive industrial sectors to dabble with dangerous techno fixes and false “solutions” in the name of economic “growth.” They are protecting their system.
The most powerful response to looming climate catastrophe will come not from within the COP26 process, but from outside it, in the actions of grassroots organizers, communities, social and labor movements, and of society as a whole.