The two faces of the newest UN warning about the ongoing climate disaster

To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
November 8, 2014
RE: the 5th IPCC assessment report on global warming

A new UN report on the danger of global warming was released a few days ago. Titled Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, it gives the results of the fifth assessment since 1988 by the IPCC, the UN's chief agency on the looming climate disaster.

This report underlines the fact that climate change has already begun, and it talks of the need for measures to adapt to the changed climate. It also calls for drastic elimination of most carbon emissions if much worse problems are to be avoided. It says that present government plans aren't sufficient to keep the temperature from going up by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the pre-industrial era. To have at least a 50% chance of keeping the increase below 2 degrees C, which is regarded as a critical level, it will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to between 70 and 95% of what they were in 2010. While if no more is done than is already being done, we may see average global temperatures increase by an incredible 7 degrees C (12.5 degrees F) by the end of the century, or by even more.

Moreover, the report cautions that most plans presently being considered would begin by allowing too much greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, so that they would depend on eventually using CDR (carbon dioxide removal) technology to go over to net negative carbon emissions. (The report doesn't, however, point out the questionable nature of CDR plans.) It says that if additional actions on cutting green house emission aren't well underway  by 2030, it will be extremely difficult to reach the needed goals for 2050.

What is the IPCC?

A report is no better than its source. So what exactly is the IPCC? It is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is an international body set up to assess the danger of global warming and report on what to do about it; it mobilizes scientists to make reports but is run by the various member governments. It was founded in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, and endorsed by the General Assembly of the UN. So it is perhaps the foremost example of establishment or bourgeois environmentalism, as it gives the consensus opinion of government agencies, expressed in the usual sugar-coated UN style of speaking. The scientists working on reports have complained about parts of their work being chopped down by the member governments to what is politically acceptable. As well, most of the scientists themselves, however dedicated, honest, and conscientious about their professional work, have a establishment point of work about economic and social matters.

The result is that there are two faces to the IPCC's work. On the one hand, it has carried out a major service in providing solid, irrefutable evidence of the reality and danger of global warming. It has produced careful and detailed scientific documentation. It tends to be very conservative in its scientific conclusions, only accepting the most definitely proven results. So if anything, the reality may be far worse than IPCC forecasts.

But it's different when it comes to ideas about what is to be done. As an intergovernmental body, it is a representative of the capitalist exploiting classes around the world. The rich and privileged of this world, the ruling classes, don't base their ideas on scientific and technological realities, but on their drive to privatize the world and make more money. So no matter how dire the danger painted by the IPCC's scientific work, its suggestions for change are based on market methods. It doesn't matter that these methods failed under the Kyoto Protocol; the IPCC will keep promoting them so long as the world bourgeoisie calls for them. This has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with protecting the huge profits flowing into the large corporations around the world.

How easy is it to cut carbon emissions?

As a result, the statements of the IPCC and its representatives have a schizophrenic nature. On one hand, the IPCC tries to convince the world that taking measures to cut carbon emissions is compatible with market fundamentalism and will hardly affect future capitalist activity. On the other hand, last month one of the vice-chairs of the IPCC, Prof. Jim Skea, denounced as inadequate the current plans of the European Union for a cut in carbon emissions of 40% by 2030; he said that this would likely result in failure to meet the minimum goals for 2050. ("Europe emission targets 'will fail to protect climate'", 20 October 2014, Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analysis, And yet the EU is the probably the most active section of the capitalist world with respect to global warming.

Indeed, the technology does exist to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but using this technology on a wide enough scale goes against the immediate plans of large corporations to rape the world for a higher rate of return. It also goes against the logic of market fundamentalism. Restricting carbon emissions, as most environmental cleanups of all types, requires compulsory regulation. The most successful environmental actions require banning harmful practices, not setting a price on them. Moreover, preserving ecosystems requires a large amount of overall environmental and economic planning: it's not simply a matter of a million unconnected actions, which might each be encouraged by a financial incentive, but of looking at the regional and even world effects of measures.

Blunders of bourgeois environmentalism

Establishment environmentalism denies this. As a result, it has repeatedly put forward solutions that not only aren't sufficient, but that often make matters worse. Let's look at a few examples:

Two types of climate denialism

The IPCC report ignores most of this history, assuming at most that the problems can be fixed with some tinkering or are the result of some temporary "market failures"; it recommends continuation of the failed methods of the past. As a result, its plans for how to cut greenhouse emissions are unrealistic.

There are two types of climate denialism today. One is the outright denial that global warming is a problem, or that the burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of it. This type of denial is fought by the IPCC, Al Gore, and the major environmental organizations.

The other type of climate denialism consists of promoting failed market methods of the past and denying the need for extensive environmental and economic planning and regulation. The IPCC, Al Gore, and the major establishment environmental groups promote this other type of denialism.

For a movement that looks the truth in the face

If we are to take seriously the warnings from the IPCC, we need to go against many of its recommendations. If we are to take seriously the experience of the recent past, such as the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, the fiasco of biofuel, and the accelerated destruction of the rain forests, we need a fundamental change in the environmental movement. We need to fight the bourgeois stranglehold over environmental recommendations.

There are many militant environmentalists who are blockading coal plants and pipelines, demonstrating against nuclear power, fighting against fracking, opposing offshore drilling, pressing to hold the oil companies responsible for oil spills and disasters, etc. This is a powerful wave of struggle that shows people around the world aren't sitting passively, but are seeking to preserve the environment.

But what hasn't been done yet is to develop a consistent opposition to market measures and the alliance of bourgeois environmentalism with the big energy corporations. This requires building a working-class section of the environmental movement, and it would strengthen the various protests. This doesn't just mean trying to get more workers and minorities into the big establishment organizations. Those groups will never change their spots. What Naomi Klein calls "Big Green" wouldn't be made into a working-class movement if more workers gave money or joined it. What is needed is a movement that looks the truth in the face, fights the capitalist interests that are ruining the environment, and puts forward a serious environmental program. Such a movement will bring the class struggle into the environmental movement.

Reference material

Warnings from the IPCC report

(*) Climate change is here, and it is already seen everywhere on the globe: all continents are affected and so are the oceans.

(*) It is already necessary to adapt to climate change as well as to try to limit future change.

(*) The ongoing climate change isn't simply a natural process: human influence is clear. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is greater than at any time for at least 800,000 years.

(*) The continued emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will result in more warming and long-lasting changes, and most likely major and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems.

(*) In the last few years fantastic geo-engineering schemes (a space parasol shielding the earth, seeding the ocean with this or that chemical, etc.) have been proposed as a way to let the capitalists continue business as usual, the greenhouse gas concentrations to keep rising, and yet hold down global warming. This is called Solar Radiation Management (SRM). The IPCC report justly refuses to consider the use of SRM in any scenario about how to deal with global warming, saying that SRM is untested and warning that SRM "would entail numerous uncertainties, side-effects, risks, shortcomings and has particular governance and ethical implications. SRM would not reduce ocean acidification." And, the IPCC points out, if SRM were relied on and temporarily achieved something, and then the particular SRM method were stopped, the results would be catastrophic. (See the Synthesis Report, section 3.4)

(*) There will more and longer heat waves in the future. The oceans will get warmed and warmer and become more acid.

(*) Climate change may well result in more and more species going extinct. Most plant species cannot shift where they grow fast enough to adapt to climate change.

(*) No one technology for reducing greenhouse emissions will succeed by itself, and there need to be "policies and measures across multiple scales: international, regional, national and sub-national" (Section 4.4). Measures in one sphere affect another. There needs to be consideration of "co-benefits and adverse side-effects" of various policies. Everything is to be considered, but never outside the framework of market fundamentalism.

Futile market solutions of the IPCC

(*) Public-private partnerships. The IPCC supports the continued privatization of government functions and looks to public-private partnerships, subsidies, and other methods of increasing the stranglehold of big money over government programs.

(*) The carbon price. The IPCC supports the idea that a higher carbon price will promote the automatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by market forces.

(*) Carbon taxes. The IPCC backs carbon taxes, which not only are ineffective but promise to make environmentalism unpopular with the broad masses of the population. While concerned to do nothing to irritate the bourgeoisie, the IPCC thinks nothing of irritating the people.

(*) The IPCC has its own form of the Obama administration's infamous "all of the above" policy, going along with nuclear energy, biofuels, natural gas, carbon dioxide capture and storage, etc. However, as mentioned above, it does denounce geo-engineering.

(*) Cutting down regulation. The report continues the neo-liberal plan of replacing regulation with market methods. It deals with targets for greenhouse gas emissions, but seeks to achieve them with market methods, subsidies, and public-private partnerships (privatization of government functions). The IPCC limits regulatory approaches to such things as energy efficiency standards,  programs for labeling things with their energy usage, and zoning regulations. (The general subject of regulatory approaches merits two whole sentences in Section 4.4 of the "Approved Summary for Policymakers".)  It does not call for the direct regulation and control of greenhouse gas emissions and the industrial processes which give off greenhouse emissions, or for the economic planning needed to support an environmental plan. It doesn't call for an end to the present control of government regulation by the corporations being regulated. And it certainly does not see the need for the working people to be involved in oversight of the regulation of industrial practices, or to have a say in the economic planning.

(*) The IPCC believes it can accurately predict what will happen to the capitalist economy as a result of climate change and environmental measures. This is a fraud; no one has been able to predict the zigzags and unexpected turns of capitalist economies. Did establishment economists predict the current economic crisis? No? But it doesn't seem to have dented their confidence in themselves.

(The Synthesis Report has appeared in two forms, the "Approved Summary for Policymakers" and a longer form. All the quotes above are from the "Approved Summary".)

--Joseph Green, editor, "Communist Voice"

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Posted on November 9, 2014.