There was a good deal of optimism doing the media rounds after the Paris climate talks last month ended in a new global agreement, and no wonder. It's almost the first time all or nearly all the countries of the world have managed to agree on anything, even if only in principle and even if they are not bound by it.
Make no mistake, this is a breakthrough. Despite the best efforts of climate change deniers and corporations to offer up spurious arguments to baffle the public, obscure the issues and obfuscate the debate, the politicians of nearly 200 countries have gone with the scientific consensus. This was by no means a done deal. Far-right parties across Europe, worryingly successful at the polls recently in the UK and in France, may differ on other points of policy but are universally located in the climate sceptics camp. In Britain, UKIP has made this scepticism abundantly plain (or you might call it canting ignorance), while Marine Le Pen has done the same in France and Donald Trump, the man causing a Republican meltdown in the US, is unsurprisingly of a similar view. Clearly there is something in the right-wing political agenda that is anti-science, and presumably the supporters of these parties are anti-science climate sceptics too, or at least not uncomfortable with the outlook.
The politicians in Paris were therefore, knowingly, going against a large tranche of public opinion. We don't often have cause to praise any capitalist politician in these pages, but to see them make common cause for once, and at the risk of votes, is something to be acknowledged.
Not to be underestimated too were the obstacles to a settlement, even given a universal will to agree. The COP21 talks did not, as one might suppose, involve just the foreign ministers of each country, but something over 38,000 delegates representing NGOs, charities, universities and corporations too. The weighted delegation selection procedure meant that some tiny countries were disproportionately represented, so that Tuvalu had one delegate for every 253 islanders while India had one delegate for every seven million people. Morocco sent 439 participants while France, the host, made do with just 395, China scraped along with a paltry 326 and the UK sent a laughable 96 (carbonbrief.org). In addition, countries arranged themselves in blocs according to their perceived common interest. The opportunities for disagreement between, say, AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), or LLDC (Landlocked Developing Countries) and CfRN (Coalition for Rainforest Nations) must have been as hard to resist as they were legion. To get something they all wanted, everyone had to come away without something they wanted.
But still, the media hoopla says more about the global background mood of gloom and pessimism than it does about any genuine progress at Paris. People who are accustomed to expecting nothing are easily pleased by anything. This is how it was after Kyoto too. Back then, in 1997, it was only a few rich countries, not all of them. They did not offer to do much, and what they did offer to do they subsequently mostly failed to do, or pulled out of the agreement like Canada and the US, or refused like China to sign up in the first place. But you'd never have got that impression from the way the news media was bigging up the story. As they told it, Kyoto was a historic event, a watershed moment, a landmark agreement. A few politicians had got together and nodded in the right places over pious statements none of them needed, or intended, to stick to, and the media went crazy with delight.
So anyone tempted to criticise Paris as a box of empty promises needs to put it in context. It's better than Rio or Kyoto. It's definitely better than the Copenhagen disaster. At least it shows willing. But, let's face it, that's still not much. The agreed aim to keep global warming below 2°C is already too late and the additional aspiration to try to keep it below 1.5°C looks positively fanciful, requiring in the words of one climate scientist 'a true world revolution' to stand any chance of success (New Scientist, 12 December). There has been zero progress on adopting a universal carbon tax, widely seen as the only way of bringing environmental 'externalities' into the balance sheet or, in plain words, forcing polluters to cough up the cost of polluting. No targets are specified, because concrete imposed targets are thought to be what sank the Copenhagen talks. Instead countries declare their own targets, called individual nationally determined contributions (INDCs). However none of this legally binding (how could it be?) and there are no penalties for failing to keep to the INDCs.
Worldwide, fossil fuels still produce around 80 percent of the energy, while renewables account for around 1 percent. The problem is not just weaning the world off the one and onto the other, which partly depends on better energy storage technology and economy of scale, it's also about the practical obligation of managing to maintain trading equilibrium in a volatile market within the existing fossil fuel economy.
Thus, when oil and gas prices crashed last year, countries including the UK found themselves subsidising the fossil fuel industries to the tune of around £500 billion, around six times their investments in renewables, while simultaneously cutting back even further on those renewable investments. Even as the world's delegates were heading for Paris, many of their governments were in full flight in the opposite direction. Turkey, for example, is building more coal power stations than any other OECD country and could double its carbon emissions in the next 15 years (Guardian, 12 November).
Logic of capitalism
Insane? No, it's logical, at least within the circular logic of capitalism. And that's just the trouble. People don't really understand how capitalism works. A New Scientist article recently cited as an example of unrealistic optimism a statement by biologist David Attenborough, to the effect that 'One thing would halt climate change – if clean energy became cheaper than coal, gas or oil' (1 December). Quite correctly, New Scientist pointed out that there is such a thing as being too cheap, and that if renewables follow their present path of becoming rapidly cheaper (since 2009 wind energy costs have dropped by 60 percent and solar by 80 percent), they may no longer yield a profit and therefore start to haemorrhage investment. Meanwhile if fossil fuel demand falls, prices will fall too, leading paradoxically to a surge in both. We're seeing something like this at the moment, where we are supposedly running out of easily-extractable oil yet the price of oil has collapsed.
Anti-fracking advocates are similarly deluded into thinking their campaign is succeeding in the UK while the truth is that cheap oil is keeping investment away from alternative technologies.
It's enough to give anyone a headache, but this is the weirdly unpredictable rollercoaster of capitalist supply and demand, against which no government or policy statement has any defence. And this headache should surely give David Attenborough and others pause to consider that the market really doesn't work, at least not for the purposes of our collective human benefit, and that any proposed solution which involves the market is ultimately going to be fatally undermined by the operations of that same market.
What is being played out at the moment is a global Tragedy of the Commons, and Paris was the moment where all countries officially recognised it. But this Tragedy is not being caused by people commonly owning the planet and commonly ruining it, but by private wealth owners acting in their own interest and against all other competing interests, the very principle upon which capitalism is built and which it can never overcome.
As the COP21 talks were taking place in Paris, huge crowds assembled in the streets to focus the attention of the delegates on the task at hand. Some of their placards read 'System change, not climate change'.
They are more right than they know.