Autumn Number 2019

Climate Emergency

Much Ado About Nothing

T Vijayendra

Ever since the publication of the IPCC's 'Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C' in October 2018, there has been a spurt of activities around the issue of global warming/climate emergency/crisis1. And, as if on cue, in its wake has come a torrent of 'climate fakery'.

Group after group and government after government started declaring a 'climate emergency'. On June 7th this year, the Portuguese parliament declared a climate emergency—and then made sure it meant nothing on the ground by voting against a recommendation that the government "would do everything in its reach to make the country carbon neutral by 2030". Further, in the same session, they also voted against "the closing down of coal power plants until 2023"2! Ten days later, liberal darling and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau did one better when he declared a national climate emergency, only to approve the Trans Mountain Expansion, a $4.5 billion twin pipeline designed to exploit the vast—and vastly polluting—tar sands of the Alberta province3.

Meanwhile, Trudeau's next door neighbour and the head of the world's most powerful government, US President Donald Trump, has no time for such hypocrisies. He and his deputies, along with their allies in other governments, are hard at work trying to dismantle the IPCC Report ahead of the next big climate meet to be held in Santiago, Chile, this November4. They want the interim report, with its alarming conclusions, to be completely taken off the agenda in Santiago; which is doubly ironic, considering that that report itself was decried as inadequate by critics5.

What is happening? A short answer is that the powers-that-be—the 90 corporations responsible for two-thirds of man-made carbon emissions6—are not prepared to lose their power. Instead they are actively furthering what they have dubbed 'the Fourth Industrial Revolution' (or 'sustainable capitalism')—that of Solar and Electric Vehicles, with no thought for where the resources needed for these would come from, and what environmental impact this would have7.

But what about people mobilising and acting on their own? It is happening, but they are essentially asking the UN and governments to act. And these bodies will act by merely making grand announcements—hence the term 'Climate Fakery'!

But why is there such lack of response when everyone knows the depth of the crisis? Again, the short answer is that it is because people and governments are being asked for 'Voluntary Simplicity', or to scale down things on their own.

While a few will do this, the vast majority are either unwilling or unable to do so, tied as they are to the system, a system run bythe '1%'.Another factor is that it is difficult, both psychologically and materially, to scale down voluntarily. As they say, only 'pain' or 'necessity' will get people to change.

Now, can global warming provide this kind of pain or necessity? Yes and no. 'Yes' for the most vulnerable communities, classes and countries; 'No' for the powerful ones. By the time the whole globe feels this level of pain or necessity, it will be too late. Most experts believe that if the present level of growth and consumption goes on, global temperature will rise to such dangerous levels in the period between 2050 or 2100 as to make the earth virtually uninhabitable—and not just for humans either. By this estimate, the window of opportunity to do something to avert this is merely 5-10 years.

But, as one saw in the beginning, there is little hope that anyone will act. For sustaining hope, what then should people look for, something that will give pain and create a necessity within 5 years? Is such a thing possible? Probably, yes. What is it? As Marx said,'If you look for it you will find it'.

Yugant means 'end of an era'. People are facing an end-of-era crisis. Two crises have come together that have endangered life on the planet (earth) and have spelt an end to the capitalist era. The first crisis is global warming and the second is resource depletion or peak oil. Global warming, since it threatens life on earth, demands, on moral grounds, that people reduce consumption of fossil fuels immediately. Peak oil and peaking of other non-renewable resourcesbrings down consumption of fossil fuels. Both will spell an end of the capitalist era. The world is facinga global emergency.

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) in England ushered in a new era of technological innovations and comforts for mankind. Initially only the rich and middle class enjoyed these comforts. However, after the Second World War, the working class in advanced capitalist countries also began to enjoy commodities and comforts like scooters, motor cycles, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, telephones, radio and television, cheap synthetic clothing, disposable plastic, etc. Of course, they got these benefits only after prolonged and difficult trade union movements and struggles. In India, the working class began to get these benefits from the 1970s onwards, also as a result of the many struggles in the years before. Since the 1990s, many more sections of the rural middle class also have been availing of these 'benefits',even while India faces an agrarian crisis and farmer suicides.

By the nineteenth century, many thinkers and scientists began to see the harm that the Industrial Revolution was capable of doing. William Blake wrote extensively about its ill effects. John Ruskin talked of its demoralising aspects. Several other philosophers and authors raised questions. However it was only after the Second World War that the full horror became apparent. One of the first books to appear was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. In 1971, The Club of Rome's report, 'Limits to Growth', was a pioneering and systematic critique of the ideology of development and growth,arguing that it is unsustainable and harmful to humankind and to nature.

In the 21st century, data about global warming, carbon dioxide (CO2) emission and its relation to global warming has become public knowledge. Also, the role of fossil fuels (petrol and coal) as the main cause for these emissions has been widely understood. Then came the meetings of the world governments, the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Declaration and more recently the Paris Agreement on limiting the damage. Simultaneously the United Nations brought together a group of world renowned scientists in the form of Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce regular scientific reports on the situation. At first the scientists were cautious and gave warnings in milder terms. But as the data began to grow alarming, and as extreme impacts began to hit people in many countries, last year the scientists gave a very serious warning. This has resulted in a movement for urgent climate action, and climate action groups in some countries have declared it as a Global Climate Emergency. Unsurprisingly, the movementbegan in England, the country where the Industrial Revolution started.But there are several other nations that are true pioneers—Costa Rica, Ecuador and Cuba, among others, have taken far deeper and wider actions, both specifically with respect to climate change and generally on the converging crises8.

The Global Emergency has several aspects : Global Warming, Resource Depletion, Ecological Degradation and Growing Inequality and Social Unrest.

This issue has received maximum attention in the media due to the recent IPCC report which has drawn attention to the gravity of the situation: 'If we are to stay below 1.5° C global warming, emissions have to peak no later than 2020.' That is less than 500 days from now. 'Emissions must also be cut by half by 2030, and to net zero by 2040. People need an immediate emergency response by policy-makers, businesses and civil society, aimed at an unprecedented transformation of all sectors of society. It's time to act!'

The levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the main driver of climate change, have hit a new record high, the UN said.'Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,' The report puts the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 405.5 parts per million (ppm) for 2017. That is up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. The safe levels are considered to be a maximum of 350, ideally less.

'The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.' And yet the emissions have continued to rise over the last two years!

Human society uses natural resources for its survival and reproduction. Other living beings depend mainly on plant resources, which are known as renewable resources because they get replenished. As for non-renewable resources used by humankind, like minerals and oil, their quantity is fixed and the more people uses the less there is left to use. For industrial societies petroleum and coal are the basic sources of energy and their depletion can spell the end of industrial society.

There is a law governing extraction of these non-renewable resources. It was first discovered in the case of oil by M King Hubbert and is called 'Peak Oil'. It says that when half the resources are extracted (taken out), then the production will start falling. That is, the peak of production occurs when half the oil is taken out. It applies to a particular well, to a region, to a country and to the whole world. Today, it has been found that it applies to all the minerals and scientists have calculated9 the peak year for almost all the important minerals. And, hold your breath, the overwhelming majority of them will peak before 2030, starting with oil! The data is almost accurate and might differ only by a few percentage points, but the fact remains that the days of industrial society are numbered and the end will come in a decade or a little more. The collapse of industrial society will be a 'never before' event because that will be the end of the ever-increasing prosperity that human society has seen overthe last few thousand years.

In the short term even the renewable resources cannot help the planet earth because human society has used them at a rate higher than their rate of natural replenishment. That is, we have cut more trees than the number of new ones that are growing, we have used more water than is being replenished naturally, and so on. It will take decades to get back the status of 'renewable' for these resources. In fact people have been mining them in the same way that we have mined the non-renewable resources.

Ecology means the relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment, and the balances between these relationships. In the last two hundred years, and more specifically in the last 50 years, humans have over-exploited the environment and poisoned the air, water and soil. Global warming is one of the more visible results. However, water scarcity is also a huge problem. Many species are endangered and some have become extinct. Sea levels are rising, forests vanishing, ice melting, water bodies drying up and land getting converted into deserts. The people are facing the very extinction of life on earth unless they take corrective measures right away.

As industrial society collapses and energy resources get depleted, one may very well be entering an era of utter chaos. Many parts of the world and our own country are facing these problems. Untimely rain or lack of it is causing havoc. Lack of drinking water is making villagers leave their homes and sometimes even their countries. In this crisis, the powerful are cornering as much wealth as they can before a total collapse occurs, thus worsening the problem. The number of billionaires has increased significantly in this decade. The governments are by and large on the side of the rich and the poor have nowhere to go. Chaos is prevailing in many parts of the world. Hunger, suicide and crimes have increased. In some places mass protests are taking place. The world is in turmoil.

When society collapses one has only two choices—chaos or planned transition to a different future. One scenario is that chaos prevails and large-scale destruction occurs from which it may take decades to recover. The other and more difficult choice is to plan a transition to the next phase of history. It is extremely difficult but many people in the world are trying.

One can hardly expect that when such crises occur, people will change voluntarily towards a simpler lifestyle. Change can happen only if people's movements urge climate action and work towards spreading awareness and forcing action in the intervening period. Movements like Transition Towns, Ecological Villages, the host of grass-roots alternatives documented by the Viklap Sangam Group in India, and similar such movements elsewhere, are examples. But if this does not happen, then there will be chaos and collapse.
Finally, one such a model to succeed? Only evidence is the experience of Cuba10. In Cuba all these conditions were satisfied in 1991 when the country succeeded in overcoming the challenge of resource crisis in a sustainable manner. So let us work towards preparing for such an eventuality. By 'us' I mean all the civil society groups and may be smaller vulnerable countries that are active on the climate crisis.

So what should concerned people be doing? Some possible activities have been outlind in a booklet, 'Global Emergency and Local Action'(11). In India there is a fairly vibrant organic farming movement. Many urban and rural groups are working on air pollution, on water issues, waste management, rain water harvesting, transport and bicycle movements, energy audits, reducing energy consumption, alternative local schools and healthcare, etc. We should support such activities and take part in them as much as possible. Probably the water crisis is already causing pain to a wider section of the society than just the poor and vulnerable. So, for immediate action local water security may be a focus. Then we may at least begin to prepare ourselves for the future and the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

Another world is (not) possible (on its own)—we have to make it happen!

1. Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments
2.      Portuguese parliament declared climate emergency—and made sure it meant nothing
3.      Trudeau Declares Climate Emergency... Then Approves Major Oil Pipeline
4.      Say Goodbye to IPCC Report : Countries are about to agree to have no science in the Paris Agreement
5.      The New IPCC Report Offers Climate Solutions That Depend on Magic—Richard Heinberg
6.      Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions
7.      Can we afford the energy demands of "the fourth Industrial Revolution"? Don't ask.
10.   Cuba—Road to a Fossil Fuel Free Society by T. Vijayendra. Booklet. Ecologise Hyderabad, 2019
11.   Global Emergency and Local Action by T. Vijayendra. Booklet. Ecologise Hyderabad, 2019


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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019