International climate negotiations have failed to curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions since the first UN treaty on emission reductions was adopted in 1992. Consumer-focused solutions to climate change such as eating less meat or reducing food mileage, though important, simply won’t be enough to address the systemic nature of the crisis. So what needs to be done to halt global warming? Truthout spoke to Simon Pirani about his newest book, Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, and the prospects for transitioning to a post-fossil fuel world.
Anton Woronczuk: Burning Up situates the last few decades of accelerating fossil fuel consumption alongside the social and economic history of energy production and policy. How does this context help us understand what is driving, and what has driven, the growth of greenhouse gas emissions through today?
Simon Pirani: When people think about the threat of dangerous climate change, and decide they want to do something about it, it is not easy to work out what to do. It is clear we have to move away from fossil fuels, but not clear how. Governments claim they have solutions, which people instinctively (and rightly) disbelieve, and newspapers report simple, bullet-point proposals – such as “stop eating meat” – the effect of which is unclear. Moving away from fossil fuels is difficult because they are so deeply embedded in economic activity, in the way that we live. In Burning Up I hoped to make clearer how that has happened through recent history.
Take the example of cars and urban infrastructure based on them. There are technological drivers. Using an internal combustion engine for motor transport was a truly remarkable innovation. But it took place in an economic and social context: the rise of American capitalism. The USA had oil resources. It had aggressive entrepreneurs who not only pioneered the use of production lines to build cars – and to help discipline and control the workers who made them – but also dreamt up sales techniques to turn the car into a marketable commodity and an object of consumerism.
By the late 20th century, the motor manufacturers had become a fearsome political lobby. They had undermined alternative forms of transport, remade American cities to serve cars, and frustrated fuel efficiency regulation. The American example was followed by cities across the rich world during the post war boom, and beyond it from the 1980s onwards. It was not inevitable that motor technology would come to be used so inefficiently, or that urban transport systems would become subservient to it. That was conditioned by the way capitalism expanded.
We need to account for technological, social, economic and political elements, to understand how fossil fuel consumption has become unsustainable. We also need to specify what we mean by “unsustainable.” The human price paid for fossil fuels has always been high – coal miners killed down pits, urban residents’ lives cut short by air pollution. Global warming, the nature of which only became clear to scientists about thirty years ago, has made it unsustainable in a whole new way.
You repeatedly emphasize throughout your book that energy technologies must be understood as inseparable from the social and economic systems in which they function. What is the significance of this idea, especially when many institutions promote technological fixes, like geo-engineering or carbon capture, to the climate crisis?
The story of fossil fuel consumption growth is a story of technologies used, misused and moulded by the corporations that control them; of capitalist expansion, particularly after the second world war; and of government complicity.
Even today, most fossil fuels are used by technologies of the late 19th-century “second industrial revolution,” and their more-or-less direct successors: cars with internal combustion engines, power stations and electricity networks, urban built infrastructure, energy-intensive manufacturing, fertilizer-heavy industrial agriculture. The technologies of the so-called “third industrial revolution” – computers and communication networks that appeared from the 1980s – have not only not helped make the economy less fuel-intensive, they have made things worse. The internet now uses more electricity than India uses for everything – not because it could not function more efficiently, but because it has developed as a commercial rather than a collective network, loaded with commercial content. By contrast, networked technology’s tremendous potential to make urban energy systems more efficient – to make them integrated, using multiple decentralized renewable energy sources such as wind and solar – has hardly been tapped.
Ideologies of “economic growth” and productivism have played a huge part in frustrating efforts to deal with global warming in the most effective way – by cutting fossil fuel consumption. Enthusiasm for geoengineering is the ultimate and most extreme manifestation of such ideologies. Carbon capture and storage will probably never work at a large scale. Other geoengineering techniques are outside my area of expertise, but I know that climate scientists view politicians’ enthusiasm for these techniques with huge concern. I recently went to a seminar with researchers who worked on the IPCC report on ways of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. With reference to schemes to reflect sunlight back into space, one participant reported political pressure on scientists not to use the phrase “solar radiation management,” but rather to talk about “solar radiation modification.” Someone wants to make it sound less like the giant, Promethean intervention in natural processes that it actually is! Moving away from fossil fuels will mean completely changing these technological systems, and the social and economic systems in which they are embedded. Some people point to technological fixes to avoid talking about such deep-going change.
Common solutions promoted by some environmentalists are often framed in terms of changing individual consumption or those of populations, especially of the rich world. Some of these include eating less (or no) meat, buying more local produce, using more public transportation, etc. What do these solutions obscure in terms of how fossil fuels are consumed in and through societies (unequally) across the world?
For a start, focusing on rich-world hamburger eaters ignores the whole supply chain that produces such fuel-intensive, unhealthy products. Appealing to rich-world drivers to get the bus only makes sense as part of a challenge to the whole urban transport system they depend on, that favors cars. I try to minimize my own hamburger consumption and car use, but I don’t treat consumption as a moral issue. And it is not primarily an individual phenomenon: fuels are consumed by and through technological and economic systems.
Second, working people in the rich world spend their lives fending off the effects of elites’ encroachments on their living standards. Under the present economic and political conditions, reducing consumption would often make their lives harder. It needn’t do, but that’s how things stand now.
The French government wrapped up its latest attempt at austerity as a climate policy, and came unstuck. Too bad for them. In reality, averting global warming, working out ways to live better lives, and countering social injustice are all part of the same approach to life. We need to work out how to express that politically. Look at the reaction in France to the proposed fuel tax increase. It ignited a general revolt against neoliberal encroachments on working people’s living standards. The government has retreated, and not only abandoned the planned tax increase, but also promised to increase the minimum wage. Right-wing commentators have falsely claimed that the protest movement was against climate policies. I saw no evidence of that. While the movement is politically heterogeneous, an overarching theme is that working people are sick of being asked to pay for everything.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), established in 1992, was heralded by many as a major accomplishment in international efforts to address global warming; but you argue that Rio, and subsequent UN conferences, ensured that ecological imperatives were subordinate to economic interests. Can you explain what this entailed and how it persisted through the Paris agreement?
Climate science has a history too. The world’s ruling elites have long known that coal mines kill mineworkers, and cared little. But they did not know that fossil fuels were feeding into the global warming threat until the 1980s. Only then did scientists clarify how warming happens, and the role played by greenhouse gases and fossil fuels. But once the ruling elites had the science in front of them, they fought desperately to limit the actions taken to those that reinforced, or at least did not threaten, their economic dominance.
The political expression of this was the refusal by the US and other governments to countenance the idea of binding emissions reduction targets. This was consistent in the international climate negotiations from 1992 onwards. Another theme was that market mechanisms should be used to reduce fossil fuel consumption. This was the basis of the Kyoto protocol of 1997 and the disastrously unsuccessful emissions trading schemes it provided for.
A huge amount of political energy is expended to convince us that the international climate talks are dealing with the global warming problem. They simply are not. Since 1992 the annual level of greenhouse gases emissions from fossil fuel use has risen by more than half. That is a failure. If we don’t characterize the talks in that way, we cannot deal with the political consequences.
The 2015 Paris agreement marked the final collapse of attempts to adopt binding emissions targets. I do not want to say the voluntary targets adopted are worthless, or that the policies adopted in some countries to achieve them are not helpful, or that serious efforts – most obviously, the substantial investment in renewable energy for electricity generation – are not being made to move away from some uses of fossil fuels. But we need to assess progress soberly and not confuse hopes with reality.
A widely celebrated proposal for a “Green New Deal” has been touted by many center-left politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis, as a solution to the multiple crises we face today. What is your evaluation of it?
The “green new deal” appears to have several meanings. It has been used by mainstream neoliberal politicians to describe an investment program, operated completely through markets, that would shift the economy away from fossil fuels. The left-wing politicians you mention see the “green new deal” as a program of state infrastructure investment, a mobilization of resources on the scale of a war effort.
Whether such a war-type mobilization would ever be implemented in any significant capitalist country remains to be seen. The political scientists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright suggest in their book Climate Leviathan that there could be an international agreement between the US, China and others that would undertake such spending, but very much in the strongest countries’ neo-imperial interests, and with a big dose of geoengineering. Obviously the left politicians’ perspectives are quite different.
In Burning Up I argued that not just a social-democratic spending program, but a much deeper-going shift to post-capitalist social relations, could provide the context for the fundamental changes in social, economic and technological systems that will be necessary to break the economy’s many-sided dependence on fossil fuels. That’s how I see the future.
By saying that, I don’t deny the need for immediate responses. But the most noticeable immediate responses will come from governments. If anyone tells me they are up to the job of dealing with climate change, I would point to the fact that annual global fossil fuel consumption has risen by more than 60 percent since the Rio convention was signed. That’s the result of governments’ response. Australian school pupils understand that simple arithmetic better than they understand politicians’ promises, which is why they went on strike in protest at inaction on climate change. They will not be the last ones of their generation to do so.