How to properly contest a climate change plan

Introduction

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?

What's the problem then?

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Comments

PriceRip's picture

We have already gone past peak oil. This is the reality, but producers get to say it is a lie because they can show an increase in productivity ...

By redefining "accessible" producers can say, "See, those nay-sayers, got it wrong. We can provide clean fuel for the foreseeable future!"

We don't have to eliminate capitalism we have to eliminate unfettered capitalism to be able to do what needs to be done. This first step is anathema to the very core of republicans and democrats alike. So as long as this is a political issue we are "in irons", and can tack neither larboard nor starboard.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.

Cassiodorus's picture

@PriceRip In order to mitigate climate change, society will have to assume a certain shape. And that shape will be such that there will have to be no compromises for the sake of "we want capitalism instead."

You could already see this dynamic at work with the pandemic. Restaurants, for instance, had to either offer take-out or outdoor dining during pandemic surges. So there was a choice: keep the restaurants open for indoor dining, and let them be vectors for COVID-19, or close them up, and risk their going out of business.

The third choice, of course, was to subsidize the restaurants until they could adapt to the pandemic. In other words, at least a temporary not-capitalism. I am suggesting that there will be a point at which there will be no capitalism, everyone will be on subsidy, and we will simply adapt to another way of doing things. Mitigating climate change will require a lot more strenuous stuff than masking and social distancing.

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"Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” -- Rosa Luxemburg

PriceRip's picture

@Cassiodorus

developing systemic solutions to social problems worked for me.

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"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
Robert J. McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman. From a press briefing during the Vietnam war.

Cassiodorus's picture

@PriceRip -- the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens, had 199,500 years of success at surviving on planet Earth.

Now we get to wonder if the subsequent 500 years of capitalism will endanger all that.

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"Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” -- Rosa Luxemburg

studentofearth's picture

included CO2 emission goals any climate change plan is smoke and mirrors.

Not convinced Biden administration is concerned about world climate or world domination.

Among other things Biden ordered a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the threat that climate change poses for US national security. He made climate officially the priority focus of US foreign policy.

One has the distinct impression that the Biden Administration intends to use the climate crisis as an occasion for reasserting the primacy of US power in international affairs. Far beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, Biden has made clear that the United States will act as global enforcer of CO2 reduction measures – and he intends to focus especially on China. One has the distinct impression that the Biden Administration intends to use the climate crisis as an occasion for reasserting the primacy of US power in international affairs. Far beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, Biden has made clear that the United States will act as global enforcer of CO2 reduction measures – and he intends to focus especially on China.
...
One should also keep an open mind in respect to any new administration, which carries contradictory interests and impulses with it into office and may adjust its course as it confronts reality.

But there are reasons to take Biden’s declarations very seriously.

Firstly, to all appearances Biden and his close advisors truly believe that the world is headed toward an unprecedented catastrophe through global warming, that the clock is ticking and that urgent action is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions world wide. Not only the US but other nations as well must do so, especially the largest CO2 emitters, with China in first place.

Countries that refuse to reduce their emissions by the necessary amounts voluntarily must be forced to do so. The logic is inescapable.

Secondly, as Biden has emphasized for the United States, replacing the world’s entire fossil fuel infrastructure with “clean technology” over the next 30-40 years creates a new market of colossal dimensions – assuming that the nations and populations are able to pay for it.

Thirdly, immense amounts of financial capital have already been committed to the expectation of radical climate policies. CO2 emissions are being monetized and a vast financial machinery created, tying asset valuations to parameters such as “carbon intensity” and “sustainability indices.”

Climate projections are being built into long-term risk strategies and the premium structures of insurance companies. The volume of carbon trade is growing exponentially and, with it, the market for climate-linked financial instruments such as green bonds (already at $500 billion) and other so-called green assets.

Thereby, climate policy becomes a powerful instrument for shaping global investment patterns and financial flows. In his 2020 “Open Letter to CEOs” Larry Fink, the Chairman of the world’s largest asset management company, BlackRock, declared: “I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”

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Still yourself, deep water can absorb many disturbances with minimal reaction.
--When the opening appears release yourself.

Cassiodorus's picture

@studentofearth -- among the neoliberals Biden has appointed -- that the attempt to re-establish US hegemony can be reconciled with capitalism and climate change mitigation. It of course won't work. But it reads well among the social climbers who think the path to power involves the restoration of some old version of normalcy.

That's why in this diary I'm going after the whole notion of "pledges." They're meaningless. They're an attempt to wish the problem away.

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"Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” -- Rosa Luxemburg

studentofearth's picture

@Cassiodorus a method of control and propaganda. Any climate pledges will be used to apply financial and political pressure on foreign governments to maintain US financial dominance. Similar to the use of Human Rights and Trade Agreements. Enforcement will be inconsistent based on if a foreign government is considered an ally. I really don't think the concern is preventing a worldwide catastrophe due to climate changes or maintaining capitalism the primary economic model. Only need to provide quality life for a small percentage. Monopolies extracting wealth to the top works fine.

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Still yourself, deep water can absorb many disturbances with minimal reaction.
--When the opening appears release yourself.

earthling1's picture

Oligarch families of the Earth, the easiest, most effective, cheapest, enduring answer to climate change is massive de-population of the planet.
It would cure all their problems, the Earths problems, and restore Mother Nature.
But I digress.

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After six years, still getting robo-calls from Marriot Hotels.
They're like herpes.

Granma's picture

@earthling1 They use a lot more carbon than the rest of us, so a good beginning.

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Not even 100% reduction as long India and China are exempt and continue burning coal.

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I've seen lots of changes. What doesn't change is people. Same old hairless apes.

Cassiodorus's picture

Rich People Are Fueling Climate Catastrophe — But Not Mostly Because of Their Consumption

Good luck "regulating" the rich folks while they control the economy and without changing their collective motivation to screw the planet.

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"Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” -- Rosa Luxemburg

There is no solution without tackling multiple issues at once. I will admit, capitalism does make it very difficult to tackle climate change. However, I don't think it's impossible--the capitalism just needs to be focused and have heavy regulation. (Not that I'm saying capitalism is great or anything . . .)

I've laid out my proposal here and elsewhere for years, and most folks just roll their eyes at me it seems. In today's environment, in order to tackle climate change, you need money. Tons and tons of money. There was one study out there that proposed that the United States would need to spend --at least-- $11 trillion to bring our single-country's carbon footprint to zero, and I actually thought that was optimistic.

Where do you get that money? There's only two places--cutting the military or annually having covid-relief type of spending bills (essentially making money out of thin air). So, that's where you need to focus. There is no other option. (If you disagree, let me know with details as I'd be very thankful to have another option!)

The military can never be cut because it provides too many jobs in every state of this country. Too much money for states to lose, so our congress critters always give in to military spending and even heap more money than the Pentagon asks for into the budget often enough. They also want to look good on defense--be the strong person, not the weak peacenik.

The emergency is so great and so stark that you need to have the government run a program to tackle it. Free market certainly won't work (or, at least not in time!). So, you need a huge, coordinated governmental program--in defense of the country--to tackle climate change.

My proposal was always to switch a large percentage of the military budget to a civilian agency to tackle climate change. Get up to $400 billion per year from the military eventually--starting smaller than that and increasing over time until you've hit $400 billion in annual funding. (For example, maybe transition $50 billion out of the military the first couple years, $100 billion the couple years after that, etc.) Have military personnel form the basis of the new civilian agency--lure them away with higher paying jobs than they have in the military currently, point out it is for defense of the country (for those patriotic types), and give them training to use in future civilian work. Hire in non-military people as needed.

The new civilian agency would transition us to fully renewable power sources, implement a new national-level power grid that would be able to transition power around any small or large disasters (terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.), research and implement power storage technologies, and put research into more efficient ways of making renewable power. The agency would also solve climate change problems like making sure everyone in the country has enough water for the next 100 years taking into account likely climate change drought scenarios, build sea berms to slow the effects of sea-level rise, plan movement of people and homes out of areas where sea level rise is imminent, and plan a transition of our farmlands to produce new food to feed the country for the next 100 years taking into account climate change effects on our food production.

Use covid-type spending packages to supplement the efforts as needed.

Make sure the new agency is required to pay people well (above average), and contract with local workers who do things like install solar panels, etc. Also require the new agency to utilize 50% of raw materials from US suppliers--even if it costs more. In these ways, we rebuild our manufacturing capabilities, rebuild the working and middle classes, and save our economy.

Make sure all states have tons of jobs tied into these programs. Make it become not able to be cancelled because congress critters don't want to lose money for their states.

Make sure this program lasts 50 or more years, because this will be an ongoing issue. Temperatures will rise, and for the next 100 years we will be feeling the effects even with a program like this. However, utilize the crises to 1) rebuild our economy and manufacturing infrastructure; 2) shift us out of our imperialistic military rut; 3) actually combat climate change; 4) set up a monetarily-competitive agency that can fight the military-industrial-complex and an agency that is actually more useful for our future; and 5) set up a path for the US to continue its economic competitiveness for the next couple generations.

Instead of fighting other countries, challenge them to do better--start cooperation with them to become less carbon outputting. Congratulate those that do better than us, celebrate them, and learn from them.

However unrealistic that seems to you . . . well, I hate to say it . . . but something along those lines is the ONLY way to alter the climate change disaster we are about to face. The earlier we do something on this scale, the better it will be for us in the long run. The later we begin, the worse it'll be for us in the future.

Otherwise, all we are really doing is just chipping around the edges, and not really solving any of our problems.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@apenultimate

There is no other option.

It is, by the way, easy to imagine a complete reorganization of society around principles of sustainability. The existing system is on life support, and any Establishment organization within the boundaries of this existing system needs to rethink its notions of "planning" periodically, when the government that insures that system is periodically called-upon to barf up great reserves of invented money to cover the bets of its owning rich elites in the "investor" casino economies that control its accumulated capital. Add to that climate change, which will undermine the total "value" of the system faster than anyone thinks.

The derivatives economy is worth $1.2 quadrillion dollars. In a crisis severe enough, it will be made to seem real, unless people decide it isn't.

And then there's what they do out of fear that the whole thing will collapse, and you can see that in entities like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation -- the folks who think the "solution" to the casino economy is to cut the social services budgets. During the early years of the last decade Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker at their Fiscal Summits.

Check out the book "Life Without Money"... and if you think your solution is interesting enough, write a novel about it. If you don't write novels perhaps a collaborator would help? Your novel can be patterned after Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future perhaps.

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"Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” -- Rosa Luxemburg