Writing On The Wall

Climate Change, Peak Oil, Inequality

Sagar Dhara

The op-ed season for climate change articles happens twice a year, once before the inter-governmental Conference of Parties (COP) annual meeting every year-end and the other before its mid-year review meeting. Climate policy negotiators, scholars, scientists and activists write op-eds advising the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) annual inter-governmental COP meetings and their national governments on what they need to do to tackle climate change.

For example, in just one national daily, The Hindu, in 2021 writers gave the UNFCCC and the Indian Government the following advice: “India must reject any attempt to restrict its options and be into a low-development trap” (The Hindu, 8 Apr 2021), “India may even consider to committing to submit plausible pathways and timelines to achieving net-zero emissions as part of its future pledges” (The Hindu, 21 Apr 2021), “India would do well to propose alternate formulations that establish equity” (The Hindu, 14 Apr 2021), ‘‘Even if India were to enhance its short-term Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement in some fashion, unnecessary as of now, it should do while staking a claim to its share of the global commons” (The Hindu, 27 Oct 2021).

Are op-eds heeded by governments? More importantly, can UNFCCC and national governments stop warming in time, and in a just manner? On both counts the op-eds are optimistic. But does history bear them out?

Climate change is one of the three tipping points that human society faces today, each of which can independently regress or even collapse human society. The other two are the rapid depletion of 80 significant non-renewable mineral reserves due to over-extraction, better known as the peak oil phenomenon, and growing inequality due to uneven distribution of wealth.

To produce goods and services, humans draw raw materials and energy from the environment (acting as a source), before the production subsystem, and dump wastes back into the environment, (acting as a sink), after the production subsystem.

Inequality–a social tipping point
Inequality results from the unequal distribution of the proceeds from the production and distribution of goods and services made from nature.

Private ownership of natural resources, means of production and capital legitimises the generation, appropriation and concentration of surplus created in production by private entities and the state. This leads to material and economic inequality, which in turn results in social and political inequalities. Inequality generates conflict between those at opposite ends of the inequality spectrum—classes, castes, countries, regions, occupations, genders, races, etc.

The four leading global people’s movements against inequality in the last century were anti-colonial revolts, anti-capitalist revolutions, civil rights movements and gender equality movements. Other sections of society too have fought for their rights—indigenous and minority populations, the disabled, etc., but their battles never grew to the size and intensity of the four leading people’s movements.

These four leading movements were led by people. Governments opposed these movements and even suppressed them, often violently. Ultimately, the people’s movements won concessions, though often they came in stages.

Anti-colonial movements
In the 18th and 19th centuries, West European countries projected their power outside Europe using post-industrial revolution technologies to colonise much of Asia and Africa. They went as traders but subsequently plundered the vast natural resources of these continents and developed new markets for their goods, and finally colonised vast areas on these two continents.

Incipient revolts against colonial governments started in a few Asian countries in the late 19th century. They intensified into a wave of full-fledged people’s movements on both continents in the early 20th century. A few colonies gained independence between the two world wars, but empires remained dominant till World War II ended, after which Asian and African countries rid themselves of their erstwhile masters in a short span of 3 decades.

The Indian independence movement is a good example of the twists and turns that the global anti-colonial movements took. It started in the mid-18th century as a series of skirmishes in South India and Jharkhand between small chieftains and the British. This was followed by the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny due to discontent among Indian sepoys over their treatment and triggered by rumours that tallow (cow fat) and lard (pig fat) were used in rifle cartridges, which was anathema for Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the East India Company.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 caused a groundswell of resentment in that state. In response, the Swadeshi movement that called for a boycott of British goods, particularly textiles, became popular throughout India. The radicals in the Indian National Congress (INC), which now led the anti-colonial movement, advocated direct action to overthrow British rule. Pressured by the movement, the British legislated the Government of India Act, 1919 which allowed elected Indian legislators and British officials to share power in British-governed provinces.

Protest against the arrest of two prominent leaders in Amritsar under the draconian Rowlatt Act resulted in the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 in which a large gathering of unarmed Indians was fired upon killing at least 379 persons (Indian estimates range up to 1,499). By using non-violent hartals, boycotts, and fasts, Gandhi succeeded in having the Rowlatt Act and 23 other acts repealed in 1922.

In 1920 the INC called for a Satyagraha urging people to boycott British goods, educational institutions and law courts, resign from government employment, refuse to pay taxes, and forsake British titles and honours. In August 1942 the INC called for a non-violent Quit India movement and backed it with massive public civil disobedience. The British resorted to mass arrests, public flogging and firing at demonstrators. With all of INC’s leaders behind bars, the movement became leaderless and resorted to violence in a few places. India had become ungovernable and won independence in 1947 soon after World War II ended.

Civil unrest pressured imperial powers after World War 1 in their Asian and African colonies. In response, the British promised greater autonomy to its dominions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. The French Government promised citizenship to Senegalese for military services, and reforms in Algeria. Arab nationalism which began as mass uprisings in Iraq, Palestine and Syria was suppressed.

In North Africa, an uprising in Morrocco was repressed by France and Spain in the 1920s, and in the 1930s mass protests for independence took root in Algeria and Tunisia. By the end of World War II, unrest took root in sub-Saharan Africa, West and South Africa. These movements often were rainbow coalitions that included businessmen, religious reformers, women’s organisations, trade unions, and small farmers.

In some countries, e.g., Rhodesia and Angola, guerilla wars were fought against imperial powers. In others—Indochina, Algeria, Malaya, and Kenya, where armed conflicts were fought, rural populations were drawn into the anti-colonial movements.

Noting the winds of change, Britain granted adult franchise in some countries, e.g., Ceylon, and Jamaica in the 1930s despite a low mass mobilisation till they gained independence after World War II. Portugal transformed its colonies into provinces in the 1950s, and the Netherlands granted internal autonomy to Surinam and Antilles.

Just before World War II began, about 650 million people, i.e., 30% of the then world’s population, lived in colonised countries. The sun never set over the British Empire. Today only 17 “non-self-governing territories” with a population of 2 million, i.e., 0.025% of the global population, exist. Such a massive transformation could have never been achieved without the anti-colonial people’s movements of the last century.

Anti-capitalist movements
Capitalism is based on the private ownership of nature and the means of production for generating, appropriating, accumulating and concentrating profit in private hands. Merchant Capitalism appeared first in England in the 16th century and subsequently spread to Europe and the world. In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution made capitalism the dominant mode of production and divided society into a class of capital owners and working people.

The contradiction between these two classes is inherent in their social relationship. The capitalist class is interested in maximising profits and working people struggle to retain their employment or work and improve their living standards and working conditions. No country has escaped conflict between these classes over issues such as wages or employment. Yet, in the last century, in only a few instances have working people acted to transition from capitalism to a more egalitarian society, either through the ballot box or outside it.

After the French were defeated in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussion War, disgruntled French soldiers and workers seized Paris for 2 months in the summer of 1871 and set up a revolutionary government in what is known as the Paris Commune. Schools that did selective admissions were opened to all, and child labour was abolished. Housing rent was cancelled, pawnshops were closed, night shifts were abolished, factories of owners who had fled were seized and run by workers, and self-policing was introduced. The state and church were separated. The French army quelled the rebellion after two months.

At the turn of the 19th century, Imperial Russia was an emerging industrial nation vying to catch up with Western Europe. It was also deeply cleaved along class lines. These fault lines surfaced in 1905 and culminated in the overthrow of capitalism in 1917.

The precursor to the 1917 Russian Revolution, a wave of mass political and social unrest--labour strikes, peasant unrest, military mutinies, and the formation of soviets (people’s assembly), spread through Russia in 1905 because of public frustration due to economic stagnation, agrarian crisis, political repression, and Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The immediate trigger was the events of “Bloody Sunday”, in which troops fired on a mass demonstration, killing hundreds. The rebellion converted Russia from an autocracy into a constitutional monarchy and established a Duma (elected legislative), a multi-party-political system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.

The 1917 revolution began in February of that year with widespread public protests in Petrograd due to food shortages and worker strikes for better wages. Within days the protest spread to become a general strike, with some units of the beleaguered army siding with the protesters. The workers formed the Petrograd Soviet and took charge of the food supply and defended Petrograd against possible moves the autocracy may make. The Duma, after hesitating initially, formed a provisional government but was dependent on the Soviets’ nod for major decisions. The Tsar was forced to abdicate.

The Bolsheviks used the slogan “peace, bread and land” to gain popularity among workers, peasants and soldiers, and won a majority in the Soviets. In the next chaotic six months, the Provisional Government gradually lost credibility to the Soviets, and finally, the Soviets took over power in November 1917 after Lenin gave the slogan “All power to the Soviets”.

Political uncertainty reigned in China after the Qing dynasty withered away in the first decade of the 20th century. During that period the Boxer rebellion spearheaded by a shadowy militia against foreigners, further weakened the Quing government. Mutiny by a section of the army based in Wuchang in 1911 paved the way for the abdication of the Qing. By 1916 China had disintegrated into several fiefdoms ruled by warlords. It was another 10 years before China was reunified as a republic by the Guomindang in alliance with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Soon after the Guomindang turned against the CCP. The CCP mobilised the peasantry and won a 20-year civil war in 1949 against the Guomindang government. Notwithstanding a brief and fragile alliance between them to fight against the Japanese invaders during World War II.

Capitalism was overthrown in a few other countries, e.g., Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. Socialist governments have been elected to power in several countries, e.g., Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil.

While serious attempts were initially made in all these countries to reduce inequality, these efforts were not sustained. Many of these countries have seen inequality rise again. There have been numerous anti-capitalist movements at the local and national levels. While some of them succeeded in reducing inequality, global inequality continues to remain high. Barring Cuba, there was no attempt to make these societies sustainable.

Civil rights movements
Civil rights movements ask for equality before the law regardless of race, class, caste, gender, colour, religion, or other identities, e.g., the indigenous population. The movement against racial segregation (apartheid), particularly in the USA and Africa, caught the world’s imagination in the last century.

Black slavery was deeply entrenched in the southern US before its independence in 1776. Slavery provided cheap labour to the farmlands in the Southern states. In the 19th century, a global move against slavery influenced the North to abolish slavery. The southern states seceded from the American Union resulting in the American Civil War (1861-65), which the northern states won. This signalled the abolishing of slavery, and an amendment to the US Constitution that freed all bonded persons, granted citizenship to all US-born persons, and gave all men voting rights.

To circumvent the Supreme Court amendments, the Southern states passed the “Jim Crow” laws that discriminated against Blacks--they couldn’t use the same public facilities as the Whites, live in the same neighbourhoods, go to the same schools, marry interracially, and were denied the vote if they failed literacy tests. Though the North did not pass such laws, Blacks there faced discrimination at work and school, and in house purchases.

In 1886 the Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow laws which required racial segregation. In the early 20th century, the lynching of Blacks rose to its highest levels. In the early 1940s, war-related work boomed, but Blacks did not benefit from it. After thousands of Blacks threatened to march on Washington for equal employment rights, defence and other government jobs were opened to all Americans in 1941, and in 1948 the armed forces were desegregated.

The civil rights movement peaked in the two decades after World War II ended. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling held that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1955, a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. His mother took the brave decision to give him a public open-casket burial. The sight of his badly mutilated body sparked revulsion and anger.

In 1955 Rosa Parks, returning from work, complied with segregated bus seating in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White. The ensuing outrage reignited the movement against segregation all over the US and triggered a one-year boycott of buses by blacks in Montgomery until the city repealed bus segregation. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional.

The civil rights movement was impelled forward again in 1957 when 9 black students were jeered and blocked from joining the newly de-segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As a consequence of the movement, the Civil Rights Act passed in 1957, attracted federal prosecution if anyone was prevented from voting. In 1960, when four black college students were refused service at the Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, hundreds joined them in sit-ins and boycotted lunch counters until owners of lunch counters caved in.

In 1961, black and white activists, later named the Freedom Riders, boarded an intercity bus in Washington DC to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in interstate transportation facilities. White mobs burnt the bus in Anniston, Alabama and beat up the Freedom Riders badly. When they resumed their journey they were incarcerated for trespassing into a “white-only” facility in Jackson, Mississippi despite being met by hundreds of supporters. The Supreme Court reversed the sentence. Hundreds more joined the freedom rides until finally, the Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited segregation in interstate bus terminals in 1961.

The 1963 Birmingham, Alabama the civil rights movement sought to desegregate businesses by doing non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations. Scores of protestors were water hosed and arrested. In the ensuing months, protests spread to more than 100 American cities and public opinion swayed in favour of desegregation and extensions of civil rights to all Americans. Military force was used to desegregate the University of Alabama.

The best-known event of that period was the March on Washington, in which 200,000 persons of all races congregated on 28 August 1963 to demand comprehensive civil rights legislation and equal job opportunities. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech made headlines and propelled the civil rights movement to centre stage in US politics. Malcolm X argued for Black Nationalism.

The murder of one black and two white activists by the KKK, including police officers, in June 1964 shocked the USA. A month later, the Civil Rights Act, of 1964 was passed to outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation, and in the workplace and hiring practices, limited the use of voter literacy tests, in schools, and guaranteed equal employment. The Fair Housing Act which became law in 1968 prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion.

The South African civil rights movement, like that of the US, fought for the equality of races. The racial segregation that existed during the colonial periods before South Africa’s independence in 1931 was formalised by ruling National Party in 1948 creating a lawful divide, called apartheid, between white European settlers (20% of the population), Asians, coloureds and blacks. Apartheid rationalises white superiority and thrusts it on other races, giving whites a gigantic advantage in status and opportunity, including where they could live, work, and go to school. Non-whites had no voting rights, and could not marry whites. Apartheid laws concentrated resources and wealth with whites while severely punishing non-whites for transgressing apartheid laws. Blacks had to carry identity cards, called passbooks, at all times and could not enter White areas without written permission.

In 1952 the African National Congress (ANC), a political party whose ideology was imbedded in equality of races, called for a Defiance Campaign that aimed to break apartheid laws. Blacks were arrested in the thousands for entering white areas, buses, and toilets. A Freedom Charter, adopted in Soweto in 1955 by the ANC and its allies, demanded equal rights for everyone, nationalisation of the country’s national wealth, and land reforms.

A year later 1956 persons were charged with treason but were not convicted for lack of evidence. Women set fire to a beer hall in Durban in 1959 protesting against not being allowed to do home brewing. In 1960, a protest against the carrying of passbooks turned violent in the Black town of Sharpville. The ensuing police firing left nearly 70 dead and 162 wounded. A state of emergency was declared and the ANC was outlawed. This forced the movement to go underground. In 1962 Nelson Mandela and seven others were convicted for endangering state security and were given life imprisonment.

In 1976 violence broke out in Soweto over government orders giving English and Afrikaans equal status in Black schools. Afrikaans was seen as the language of the whites. The riots left more than 100 dead and 1,000 injured. In 1977 another activist, Steve Biko died in police custody. His funeral, attended by 20,000 people, turned into one of the biggest political rallies of that time.

South Africa now faced international censure and boycott and by the mid-1980s, apartheid started losing its grip. In 1990, Mandela was released and four years later elections were held based on adult franchise for South Africa embarked on its journey to becoming a multi-racial democracy.

Racial discrimination was practised in Europe and many other parts of the world. It has weakened in the 21st century but still persists. The civil rights movements in the USA and South Africa succeeded in getting blacks a degree of justice primarily because of people’s movements and some support from the international opinion that turned against racial discrimination.

Gender equality movements
Women have been the second sex throughout recorded history. Their status—socially, economically and politically—barring in a few societies, was inferior to men. And they were subject to discrimination and violence.

While there were slave revolts in the early civilisations, and serf revolts and movements against the caste system in India in the Middle Ages, it is surprising that no significant women’s movement emerged until well after the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century.

Women’s liberation was a fight against patriarchy and how it operated through the state, religious institutions, society and the family.

The first wave of the women’s movement that began in the 19th century asked for women’s suffrage, right to property and education. Interestingly, women’s suffrage was granted in many European countries after it was granted in the newly independent countries in the mid-20th century.

The second wave started after World War II. Activists fought for better job opportunities, equal pay, changes in divorce and custody laws, reproductive rights, and an end to sexual harassment and violence against women. The movement’s priorities in developed and developing countries were somewhat different. For example, in many African countries, the outlawing of genital mutilation was seen as an urgent issue, whereas women in the developed world saw the outlawing of marital rape as being immediately important. In Saudi Arabia, women fought for the right to drive a vehicle, though not as overtly as the battles fought in other countries. Second-wave feminism achieved more equality and rights for women.

The third wave of the movement that emerged in the 1990s worked on issues of the second wave and also addressed issues of expressing individualism and diversity. While earlier the movement drew the more privileged women into its fold, the third wave sought to be more inclusive.

The first decade of the 21st century saw the emergence of the MeToo movement which has focused attention on the patriarchal system that allows for misconduct and relegates women to a secondary position. Whether this can be called a fourth wave is moot.

The newer lesbians gays bisexuals, transgenders and queers (LGBTQ) movement is fighting for dignity and and equal rights. Recorded history and mythology indicate that Oriental and African societies were more tolerant of gays than Europe. Gay sex depictions abound in the Khajuraho temples. Several Mughal noblemen were known to be gay. Zheng He, a eunuch, became a Chinese admiral in the 15th century and brought his fleet to India’s east coast to trade.

Homosexuality was considered a sin by Christian theologists and was punished with castration or even death in Medieval Europe. Till the mid-20th century, gays were hounded and persecuted in Europe. Oscar Wilde, the well-known 19th-century Irish poet and playwright and Alan Turing, mathematician, cryptographer and the father of computer science who played a lead role in cracking German encrypted messages in World War II, were convicted of homosexuality. Both died at a young age; Wilde died of meningitis in prison and Turing was subject to chemical castration and committed suicide. Nazi Germany jailed thousands of gay men for their “deviant” behaviour. Many thousands died in confinement.

The gay liberation movement that started around the 1970s changed Europe and North America’s attitude towards “deviant” behaviour. But Europe’s exported its medieval outlook towards gays to its colonies, and Asia and Africa are taking longer to make LGBTQs equal citizens. The consequence often is privation and even loss of life. Dr Sreenivas Silas, a Aligarh Muslim University professor was sacked by the university and committed suicide after a secretly filmed video showing him having sex with a rickshaw puller started circulating, despite a Allahabad High Court order reinstating him in his job.

The late 20th-century gay liberation movement got an impetus from the gay pride marches that started all over the world in the 1970s. Massive marches in Washington in 1987 and 1993 were a million strong. Media attention to gay rights gained space in the 1990s.

With the decriminalisation of sodomy in many countries at the turn of the 21st century, gays and lesbians could finally come out. This was quickly followed by gay marriages being legalised first in the Netherlands, and soon after in Belgium, Spain, and Canada. Yet, homosexuality is illegal in about 75 countries, and in as many as 10 countries-- Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen, it is punishable by death.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court passed an order reading down India’s sodomy law, Article 377, and held that sexual minorities were equal citizens of India. However, the Supreme Court overturned this ruling in 2013. This rallied gay rights activists to challenge the Supreme Court ruling in and outside courts. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that sexual relations between consenting adults is not an offence, in effect decriminalised homosexuality.

Gender equality movements still have a long way to go for women and sexual minorities to become liberated, but the fight has begun.

Growth, its drivers and environmental tipping points
Material growth is the cause of the other two tipping points—peak oil and climate change. As the global economy grows, material and energy throughputs increase, larger quantities of raw materials are extracted and more air, water and solid wastes are emitted.

The growth of energy use, mineral extraction, population and GDP was around 0.1% pa between 1 CE and 1800 CE. Since 1800, their growth rates have jumped more than tenfold. The world uses 15.3 Gtoe of energy and 100 Gt of minerals today; and their growth rates over the last 3 decades have been 1.7% per annum (pa) and 2.7% pa, respectively.

Two factors locomote material growth—the impetus to generate increasing amounts of surplus to accumulate and concentrate in private hands, which capitalism does best, and a sense of primary entitlement over nature at the expense of other species, i.e., anthropocentrism.

Humans are the only species that use technology, i.e., knowledge of energy conversion, to create a surplus. Energy, e.g., animate energy, is required to harvest an energy source, e.g., coal, from nature. An investment of one energy unit fetches an energy return that is many times more. The difference between the energy return and investment is surplus.

Surplus is extracted in the process of energy production. The energy invested by humans is to explore, extract, refine and transport the energy source, whereas the energy invested to make the energy source is done by nature, and that is not costed.

If the invested energy is owned by an entity such as an individual, organisation or the state, the energy return is then considered to be a return on the investment to the investor. By re-investing some of the surplus increases the accumulation and concentration of surplus in private hands. This is capitalism, or if the state is the investor and beneficiary, it is state capitalism.

There are two other ways of accumulating and concentrating surplus. The first is by conquest or colonialism, where the surplus created by a nation is appropriated by another nation. This is war booty or colonialism. The second is through unequal exchange between sectors of the economy, regions or nations. This is neo-colonialism.

Unequal distribution of surplus powered by private ownership of nature and means of production is the cause of inequality between people, and its derivatives—poverty and deprivation.

The other driver of material growth is anthropocentrism. This worldview centre-stages human beings and side-stages everything else and believes that plants, animals, insects, rocks, water, etc. exist only for human conquest and legitimises their use or destruction for human benefit.

To bolster growth humans have warred against nature. Energy equal to that in 20,000 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs has been used each year for the last 8,000 years to destroy 1/3rd the original 60 million km2 of forests that existed then and all that existed in them. The energy expenditure for this grand naturecide exceeds the energy used in all wars fought to date.

Earth has finite quantities of raw material. It took 300 million years to create the known fossil fuel reserves, and in just 300 years people have used about 40% of the original reserve of 1,183 Gtoe of fossil fuels, excluding shales (if shales are included, 30% of original reserves are exhausted). We will run out of oil and gas in about 50 years and coal in less than a century. A techno-economically viable alternative energy source is not yet visible on the horizon. About 80 critical non-renewable minerals, including iron ore and bauxite, will be in short supply in about 50 years. An impending energy and mineral shortage will spell doom for the world and disaster for the developing world as the global economy will stare at a possible collapse.

The Earth has a finite capacity to absorb waste. The 2,500 GtCO2 that has been emitted to date has caused a 1.1oC warming over pre-industrial times. If one wishes to remain below 1.5oC warming considered as the upper limit to avoid a climate catastrophe, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must decrease by about 8% pa for the next 30 years. But global emissions are rising by 1.2% pa today. If we continue along the business-as-usual road, warming by 2100 will be around 3oC above pre-industrial times, sufficient to fry the world.

Environmental movements
Both the roles of the environment as a source of raw materials and a sink for waste are under pressure. To tackle these twin challenges at the national level, the Global North has attempted to secure supply chains for high-risk raw materials such as fossil fuels, rare earths, etc., tightening environmental laws, and outsourcing high polluting production lines. The Global South lagged in protecting itself from a lack of financial and management resources.

UNFCCC’s track record in tackling climate change is dismal. The global economy is addicted to growth and increasing surplus and therefore larger amounts of energy. A switch over to renewable energies has not happened. Instead, renew-ables have added to fossil fuels—a Jevons Paradox. The demand-side management mechanisms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—Clean Development Mechanism, Joint Implementation, and carbon markets, have failed miserably.

Biogeochemical cycles, e.g., the carbon cycle, are global cycles. They do not recognise national boundaries. They have been disturbed by human overuse of nature. Fixing them requires a unified global action that seems to be out of reach in a world divided into nations with differing objectives and priorities.

The Global North, with 16% of today’s global population, is responsible for emitting 69% of the cumulative emissions since fossil fuel use began 300 years ago. Yet, the North nations are unwilling to take legal or moral responsibility for their emissions despite the knowledge of its warming impacts being known for over 100 years. To preserve their high living standards, the Global North is keen to keep warming below 1.5oC using technology.

Fast-growing emerging economies of the Global South, e.g., China and India, aspire to join the Global North by burning readily available fossil fuels. They justify their action to be climate justice.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 55 highly climate-vulnerable Global South countries, wants both the Global North and the emerging economies of the Global South to reduce emissions as these will bear the brunt of the climate impacts regardless of who emits GHGs.

The probability of remaining below the 1.5oC warming redline is so small that nobody but charlatans mentions it anymore. Governments and the UNFCCC will not be able to deliver the 1.5oC target.

The only other that could take a crack at tackling climate change are environmental movements. At the local level, they have had mixed success in fighting for cleaner air and water and reduction in solid wastes, and risk from hazardous storages, conserving the environment by advocating against deforestation and promoting non-chemical farming.

But to tackle climate change, environmental movements have a truly daunting task and are handicapped as the movement is barely four decades old and is still at an incipient stage. They are divided into silos tackling a myriad of issues—forests, wildlife, oceans, farming, plastics, pollution, hazardous storage, etc., and their coordination is tenuous.

The four global movements of the 20th century—anti-colonial, civil rights, anti-capitalist and gender equality were led by people and not governments. All four of them fought for equality in law. In addition to this, two of them—anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements, asked for fundamental changes in how governments are chosen. Additionally, the anti-capitalist movement asked for a change in the nature of the state—from capitalist to socialist.

To usher in a truly sustainable society, environmental movements must raise the issue of degrowth, climate change, peak oil and inequality, i.e., they have to battle capitalism and anthropocentrism. That is a much bigger agenda than the one that the 20th-century equality movements had.

The 20th-century equality movements took 100 years to mature. If it wishes to meet the 1.5oC warming redline, the environmental movements have to grow up very fast as they do not have the luxury of time that the previous movements had.

Yet, environmental movements are the only hope people have for avoiding an environmental disaster in the decades to come. And if that happens it could well lead to a civilisational collapse. It is time for op-ed writers to recognise the writing on the wall and start working with the environmental movements and advising them.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023