How to properly contest a climate change plan
Rishika Pardikar's piece on the Joe Biden climate change plan, available on Jacobin but also on Daily Poster, is no doubt going to appear in various publications as one more manifestation of the phenomenon discussed in Susan Watkins' piece in the New Left Review, which is to say: "Joe Biden is moving left, but not far enough."
Pardikar's piece, however, is about climate change, which should lead inquisitive readers to ask: "what sort of climate change plan would work?" It's totally fine for Pardikar to criticize Joe Biden -- but the question we ought to be asking is: would moving two degrees to the left of Joe Biden really accomplish anything?
Let's start with the initial criticism:
A key goal of the summit was “to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.” A 2018 special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by 50 percent by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
But Biden’s emissions pledge will not do enough to reach this goal, according to an analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a scientific organization that measures governmental climate action.
That's nice. Did anyone think it would?
How about this emissions pledge: 100% reduction in emissions, starting tomorrow? Yeah, that'll work. Is there a point at which the folks who play this pledge game recognize that there's always going to be a difference between what they say and what actually happens? That the pledge game bears no relation to reality?
The problem, of course, is capitalism. There simply isn't a point at which any emissions pledge is going to matter at all as long as we stick with capitalism. Dancing around this truth, suggesting that the solution is "emissions reduction" when documented "emissions reduction" is accomplished by (rich) countries offshoring "emissions" to other (less rich) countries, isn't going to mitigate climate change.
The Pardikar essay, coming as it does from India, deals with the offshoring problem in salutary detail. The problem, Pardikar asserts, is that emissions are unequal because of the economic differences between "developed" countries, which is to say countries of capital accumulation, and "developing" countries, which is to say countries which serve as resource bases and extraction sites for the "developed" countries. Pardikar relies upon the analysis of Jason Hickel, as follows:
A 2020 paper by Hickel explored the concept of “carbon budget,” the idea that the atmosphere is part of the global commons and all countries should only emit their fair share of carbon dioxide. According to the paper, the United States has already overshot its share of the carbon budget by 40 percent. Overall, the Global North has overshot its carbon budget by 92 percent, with the European Union being responsible for 29 percent of that total.
Biden’s new emissions pledge means that “the U.S. will continue to colonize the atmospheric commons, gobbling up the fair shares of poorer nations, causing enormous destruction in the process,” said Hickel. “Why should anyone in the Global South accept this? It is morally and politically untenable.”
Hickel noted that the United States should instead “commit to reach zero emissions by 2030, and to pay reparations for climate damage to countries in the Global South.” Such effort would include helping to facilitate emission reduction efforts in poorer nations that have yet to consume their fair share of the global carbon budget.
Sure, the US government could indeed pledge such a thing. Think it'll happen?
More fundamentally, "carbon metrics" isn't going to work. Everyone here should by now have read Camila Moreno's essay "Beyond Paris: Avoiding the Trap of Carbon Metrics". Back in 1992 the governments met in a compound invented for them in Rio de Janeiro, sealed off from Rio's endemic poverty and oppression, to decide that they were going to "solve" the climate change problem by "emissions reduction," meaning that everyone could do as they normally do as long as some sort of "emissions reduction" statistics were generated in the process. Should we be surprised if it didn't, and doesn't, work? One of Moreno's arguments points up another important flaw in the plan:
The obsession with carbon metrics helps to promote nuclear energy, natural gas extraction (including fracking), biofuels and other risky and harmful technologies, so long as they can claim to emit less carbon than was expected to be emitted without them. But none of this will bring us any closer to the transformational changes in self and society that are required to deal with climate change, and that depend on the preservation and utilization of diverse, non-linear ideas and approaches.
Ah yeah, nuclear power is totally sustainable you know.
By the way, production statistics show that oil production, the most "essential" fossil fuel production, doesn't really go down -- it flatlines at best -- with one year-to-year exception. The exception was last year, the year of the pandemic. Is that our solution? We're just going to keep having pandemics, each one worse than the last, and in that way we'll really get those emission statistics down?
I didn't think so.
Let me suggest a lesson to be learned from all of this dismantling of what should ordinarily be a salutary criticism of Joe Biden. Any time we hear this panicky message about "omigod we've got to mitigate climate change! It's gonna be so bad!," we ought to ask: "Whoa! Back up a second! Do we have a global society capable of mitigating climate change?" We might continue along this line of questioning: "what would it take for us to have a global society capable of mitigating climate change?" This, to my mind, would be a much more productive approach than pretending it's going to happen with "pledges."
Footnote: Once again, those who haven't looked at it should look at "Climate Change Mitigation in Fantasy and Reality." The password is AddletonAP2009 to open the PDF.