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Global Warming: The Great Equaliser

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Message Adam W. Parsons

As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”.  These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change.[1]  Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change.  In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”,[2] whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.[3]

The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record,[4] as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”.[5]  This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts)[6] was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures - is “very unlikely” to be avoided.[7]

Common sense 

Common sense would presume that the resulting questions for policymakers, long since removed from a debate on mans culpability, must inevitably focus on how to achieve a wholesale reorganisation of society to drastically decrease fossil fuel use, curb excessive consumption, and reform the global economic framework to ensure that all countries can live sustainably within ecological limits.  The collective government response to date, however, makes it seem like the countless thousands of lives being destroyed by flash floods, famines and desertification are living in a parallel world to the business-as-usual dealings of multinational corporations.

The stalemate reached during the Vienna talks reiterates the ongoing blindness to climate change reality demonstrated by government leaders.  China, which continues to open up two coal-fired power plants a week, refuses to cut emissions if it means sacrificing economic growth, compared with the US senior climate negotiator who said that the E.U.’s goal of slashing emissions to half of 1990 levels by 2050 would “be a very tough target to meet”[8] – even though the IPCC determine that an 80 percent reduction in ‘global’ greenhouse-gas emissions is needed before 2050.

At the same time as Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Russia all argued that the level of emissions cuts required should “be kept open”,[9] a Worldwatch Institute report was released that showed more wood was removed from forests in 2005 than ever before, more steel and aluminium was produced in 2006 than in previous world records, and inconceivable billions of tonnes of fossil fuels and oil are increasingly being consumed.[10]  The more urgent and fundamental question, therefore, is what factors continue to drive this one way ticket towards ecological disaster, and what social measures really need to be taken if cataclysmic global warming is to be forestalled?

Limits to Growth 

The framing of this basic enquiry into environmental sustainability can be traced back to a report published in 1972 that forecast the imminent collapse of life on earth and resulted in an outrage amongst economic thinkers.  Limits to Growth, written by leading scientists from the then unknown Club of Rome, used crude mathematical models to project future resource depletion that have long since been discredited, even if it’s essential repudiation of the modern belief in economic growth as “a kind of law of nature” is more relevant today than when it was first published.[11]  The observational problem, outlined the report, is that the planet has limited resources and a finite carrying capacity, while the demands placed on it by a growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders are insatiable.  For this reason, the belief that free trade will lead “to a natural order of things” is catastrophically mistaken, it argued, as there are in fact “no laws of economic ordination” because economics “is not really a science but a set of theories,” and because the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market does not actually exist.[12] 

This challenge to orthodox thinking on development was further underlined by the respected economist E. F. Schumacher who penned the classic discourse, Small is Beautiful, a year later in 1973.  As the world economy began to reel from oil price shocks, Schumacher’s eloquent and prophetic writings scorned the materialist assumption that ‘growth is good’ and ‘bigger is better’, and instead argued that natural resources like fossil fuels should not be treated as expendable ‘income’ but rather as capital owing to their non-renewability and eventual depletion. 

Often called the ‘philosophy of enoughness’, Schumacher was one of the first economists to question if Gross National Product could sufficiently measure human well-being, concluding with the damning verdict that “modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.  If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place.”[13]  Upon his advice that governments must respect natures “tolerance margins” and first prioritise sustainable development, the only answer to solving “the problem of production”, he said, is to first “thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a life-style designed for permanence.”[14]

These questions of ‘green’ or ‘ecological economics’ may not be anything new, as furthered by other important studies contradicting the blind reliance on economic growth such as For the Common Good (1989) by Daly and Cobb, but the sheer simplicity and common sense of the sustainability conundrum demands constant repetition.  The established economic system steadfastly refuses to acknowledge planetary limits, flatly ignores the inevitability of an eventual end to the growth cycle, and fails to recognise that a system based on the amoral concerns of resource allocation has created a world of such unimaginable inequalities that millions of people over-consume to the point of obesity, whilst millions of others are left to die without access to adequate food.

Market Contradictions

Government leaders, far from contemplating the prognostic warnings of Limits to Growth, have charged in the opposite direction by unleashing a “veritable crusade of economic expansionism” with the prevailing neo-liberal policies followed since the 1980s.[15]  The result is a contradiction at the heart of the market economy that literally threatens human life; by maximising trade for its own sake, without questioning the greenhouse-gas emissions brought about by the phenomenal rise in transport that free trade demands, we are placed on a collision course with the limits of social and environmental tolerance.

As set out in a report by the New Economics Foundation during the early years of the Kyoto Protocol, the simple logic of growth and trade liberalisation conflicts with attempts to control climate change.[16]  At a time when leading scientists estimated that a 90 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions is required from the rich nations by 2030, international trade was forecasted to grow exponentially by 70 percent during the period of the Kyoto Protocol until 2012, yet the agreement failed to include any emissions from freight in its ‘right to pollute’ measures of cap-and-trade.[17]  According to recent studies, CO2 emissions from shipping – which are twice as much as airlines and not even covered by the Kyoto accord – are not only far higher than previously thought, but could rise by as much as 75 percent in the next 15 to 20 years if world trade continues to grow and no action is taken.[18]

This ‘blind spot’ about freight, argued the NEF report, has led to a double failure; firstly in appreciating the real environmental impacts of rising freight movements, and secondly in the failure to remotely introduce the necessary policies to shift freight onto a sustainable path.[19]  When the World Bank published a report in 2000 called The Quality of Growth, nowhere did they explain how ‘clean growth’ could be achieved globally while simultaneously reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by the drastic amount recommended by the IPCC.  It constitutes an underlying conflict of interest that has yet to be debated at the highest levels of government, let alone resolved; do we prioritise the relentless opening of a country’s borders to international competition and the unrestrained movement of goods and services, or do we cooperatively manage the global economy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions?

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Adam W. Parsons is the editor of Share the World's Resources (www.stwr.net), an NGO based in London campaigning for global economic and social justice based upon the principle of sharing. He can be contacted at (more...)

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