Eleven red herrings about the climate

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Challenging clichés that make it difficult to fight climate change

We find a large number of commonplaces in the various discourses on climate, repeated a thousand times in all shades, which constitute false tracks, which lead, voluntarily or not, to ignore the real issues, or to believe in pseudo solutions. I am not referring here to denialist discourses, but to those that call themselves “green” or “sustainable”. These are statements of a very different nature: some are true manipulations, fake news, lies, mystifications; others are half-truths, or a quarter of the truth. Many are full of goodwill and good intentions – and, as we know, hell is paved with them. This is the path we are on: if we continue with the business as usual – even if painted green – in a few decades, we will find ourselves in a much worse situation than most of the circles of hell described by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. The following eleven examples are just a few of those commonplaces to avoid.

 

The planet has to be saved

This is everywhere: on posters, in the press, in magazines, in statements by political leaders, etc. It's actually nonsense: Planet Earth is not in danger! Whatever the weather, it will continue to revolve smoothly around the sun for millions of years to come. What is threatened by global warming are the multiple forms of life on this planet, including ours: the species Homo Sapiens.

“Saving the planet” gives the false impression that it is something external to us, that it is somewhere, and that it does not concern us directly. We don't ask people to worry about their lives, or the lives of their children, but with a vague abstraction, "the planet". It's no surprise that less politicized people react by saying: I'm too busy with my own problems to worry about "the planet".

 

Let's do something to save the planet

This endlessly saturated commonplace is a variant of the previous formula. It contains a half-truth: everyone must personally contribute to averting catastrophe. But it conveys the illusion that it is enough to accumulate “small gestures” – turning off the lights, turning off the faucet, etc. – to avoid the worst. Thus, consciously or not, we discard the need for profound structural changes in the current mode of production and consumption; changes that call into question the very foundations of the capitalist system, which is based on a single criterion: profit maximization.

 

The polar bear is in danger

It is an image that is everywhere, repeated ad infinitum: a poor polar bear trying to survive in the midst of icebergs to drift. Certainly, the life of the polar bear – and that of many other species in the polar regions – is threatened. This image may arouse the compassion of some generous souls, but for the majority of the population, it is a matter that does not concern them.

Well, melting polar ice caps are a threat not just to the brave polar bear, but in the long run to half, if not more, of humanity living in large seaside cities. The melting of huge glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica could raise sea levels by a few tens of meters. But it only takes a few meters for cities like Venice, Amsterdam, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Hong Kong to be submerged. Of course, this won't happen next year, but scientists can see that the melting of these glaciers is accelerating... It's impossible to predict how fast this will happen, as many factors are difficult to calculate at this point.

By focusing solely on the poor polar bear, we hide the fact that this is a terrifying case that concerns us all...

 

Bangladesh is at risk of suffering a lot from climate change

It is a half-truth, full of good will: global warming will affect mainly the poor countries of the South, which are the least responsible for CO emissions.2. It is true that these countries will be hardest hit by climate catastrophes, hurricanes, drought, reduction of water sources, etc. But it is false that the countries of the North will not be affected, to a great extent, by these same dangers: are we not witnessing terrible forest fires in the USA, Canada, Australia? Didn't the heat waves cause numerous victims in Europe? We could multiply the examples.

If we maintain the impression that these threats concern only the peoples of the South, we will succeed in mobilizing only a minority of convinced internationalists. However, sooner or later, it is humanity as a whole that will be confronted with unprecedented catastrophes. It is necessary to explain to the peoples of the North that this threat also weighs on them, quite directly.

 

By the year 2100 the temperature could rise by up to 3,5 degrees (above the pre-industrial period)

This is a statement which is regrettably found in many serious documents. This seems to me to be a double error.

From a scientific point of view, we know that climate change is not a linear process: it can undergo “jumps” and sudden accelerations. Many dimensions of warming feed back, and the consequences of this are unpredictable. For example: forest fires emit huge amounts of CO2, which contribute to warming, thus intensifying forest fires. So it's very difficult to predict what will happen four or five years from now, so how is it possible to predict what will happen a century from now?

From a political point of view: by the end of the century, we will all be dead, as will our children and grandchildren. How can we mobilize people's attention and engagement for a future that doesn't concern them, neither close nor far? So should we be concerned about future generations? A noble thought, defended at length by the philosopher Hans Jonas: our moral duty towards those who are not yet born. A small minority of very respectable people might be moved by this argument. For ordinary mortals, what will happen in 2100 is not a matter of great interest.

 

By 2050 we will achieve carbon neutrality

This promise by the European Union and various governments in Europe and elsewhere is not a half-truth or naive goodwill: it is pure and simple mystification. For two reasons.

Instead of committing now, immediately, to the urgent changes demanded by the scientific community (the IPCC) for the next 3 to 4 years, our leaders promise wonders for 2050. This is obviously too late. Also, since governments change every 4 or 5 years, what guarantee is there for these fictitious commitments in 30 years? It is a grotesque way of justifying present inaction with a vague promise from afar.

Furthermore, “carbon neutrality” does not mean a drastic reduction in emissions, quite the contrary! It is a misleading calculation based on offset, under “compensation mechanisms”: company XY continues to emit CO2, but plants a forest in Indonesia, which is supposed to absorb the equivalent of this CO2 – if it doesn't catch fire. Environmentalist NGOs have already sufficiently denounced the farce of offset, I will not insist. But this shows the perfect mystification contained in the promise of “carbon neutrality”.

 

Our bank (or oil company, etc.) finances renewable energies and thus participates in the ecological transition

This commonplace of green washing [green makeup] is also part of deception and manipulation. Of course, banks and multinationals also invest in renewable energies, but accurate studies by ATTAC and other NGOs have shown that this is a small – sometimes minuscule – part of their financial operations: the bulk continues to go to oil, coal , gas… It's a simple question of profitability and competition for market shares.

All “reasonable” governments – unlike Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and co. – also swear, in all stripes, that they are committed to the ecological transition and renewable energies. But as soon as there is a problem with the supply of a fossil fuel – recently gas – due to aggressive Russian policy – ​​they take refuge in coal, reactivating coal-fired power stations, or beg the (bloody) Saudi Arabian royal family to increase oil production.

All the fine talk about the “ecological transition” hides an unpleasant truth: it is not enough to develop renewable energies. First of all, renewable energies are intermittent: the sun does not always shine in Northern Europe… It is true that technical progress has been made in this area, but they cannot solve everything. And, above all, renewable energies require mineral resources that run the risk of running out. If wind and sun are unlimited, this is by no means the case for the materials necessary for their use (lithium, rare earths, etc.). It will therefore be necessary to consider a reduction in global energy consumption, and a selective reduction: measures that are unimaginable within the framework of capitalism.

 

Thanks to carbon capture and sequestration techniques, we will avoid climate catastrophe

This is an argument increasingly used by governments, and we even find it in some serious documents (for example, from the IPCC). It is the illusion of a miraculous technological solution, which would save the climate, without the need to change anything in our mode of production (capitalist) and in our way of life.

Sadly, the sad truth is that these miraculous techniques for capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon are far from being a reality. It is true that some attempts have been made, and that some projects are underway here and there, but at the moment it cannot be said that this technology is effective and operational. It has not yet resolved the difficulties of capture or kidnapping (in underground regions impervious to escape). And there is no guarantee that you will be able to do so in the future.

 

Thanks to the electric car, we will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions

This is another example of a half-truth: it is true that electric cars are less polluting than combustion cars (gasoline or diesel), and therefore less harmful to the health of the urban population. However, from the point of view of climate change, its balance is much more mitigated. They emit less CO2, but contribute to a disastrous “all electricity” situation. However, in most countries, electricity is produced using… fossil fuels (coal or oil). The reduction in emissions from electric cars is “offset” by the increase in emissions resulting from increased electricity consumption. In France, electricity is produced by nuclear energy, another impasse. In Brazil, it is the mega-dams that destroy forests and, therefore, are responsible for a less than shining carbon balance.

If we want to drastically reduce emissions, we cannot avoid a significant reduction in the circulation of private cars, through the promotion of alternative means of transport: free public transport, pedestrian areas, cycle paths. The electric car maintains the illusion that we can continue as before, changing technology.

 

It is through market mechanisms, such as carbon taxes or emission rights markets, or even by increasing the price of fossil fuels, that we will be able to reduce CO emissions.2.

For sincere ecologists, this is an illusion; in the mouths of the rulers, it is still a mystification. Market mechanisms have everywhere demonstrated their complete inefficiency in reducing greenhouse gases. Not only are antisocial measures, which seek to make the popular classes pay the price of the “ecological transition”, they are incapable, above all, of contributing substantially to limiting emissions. The spectacular failure of the “carbon markets” established by the Kyoto agreements is the best demonstration of this.

It is not with “indirect”, “encouraging” measures, based on the logic of the capitalist market, that we will be able to put a brake on the absolute power of fossil fuels, which have kept the system working for two centuries. To begin with, it will be necessary to expropriate the capitalist energy monopolies, create a public energy service, which will have as its objective the drastic reduction in the exploitation of fossil fuels.

 

Climate change is inevitable, we can only adapt

This kind of fatalistic statement can be found in the media and among “responsible” politicians. For example, Christophe Bechu, Minister for Ecological Transition in the new Macron government, recently declared: “Since we cannot prevent global warming, whatever our efforts, we have to be able to limit its effects while adapting to it.”

This is an excellent recipe to justify inaction, immobility and the abandonment of any “effort” to try to avoid the worst. However, the IPCC scientists explained well that, although warming has indeed started, it is still possible to avoid crossing the 1,5 degree red line – as long as we immediately start to significantly reduce COXNUMX emissions.2.

Of course, we have to try to adapt. But if climate change becomes uncontrollable and accelerates, “adaptation” is just a sham. How to “adapt” to temperatures of 50°C?

We could multiply the examples. They all lead to the conclusion that, if we want to avoid climate change, we must change the system, namely capitalism, and replace it with another form of production and consumption. This is what we call “ecosocialism”.

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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