The burning question is politics

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Mon, 29/07/2013 - 09:40,

The climate movement has begun to revive and not before time. The age of extreme energy is upon us – with the rise of fracking and tar sands, along with increased demand for coal – and this will have dire consequences for climate change. Bill McKibben’s essay in Rolling Stone magazine last year was one of the harbingers of the revived climate politics. McKibben, who leads the 350 degrees organisation that helped organise the biggest climate demonstration so far in the US earlier this year. His highly effective essay, which subsequently went viral, argued for the powers that be to “do the math”.

First, the 2ËšC threshold, which has been widely touted as the limit before runaway climate change, is in danger of being breached. The figure means 2ËšC above the pre-industrial level of average global temperature. Over the last century, temperatures have risen by around 0.8ËšC. This has already led to significant impacts, such as the melting of Arctic sea ice, more extreme weather and rising sea levels. Given the current trajectory of the world economy and in the absence of a climate agreement, a 4ËšC rise by the end of the century looks more and more likely.

Second, McKibben points to the ever-shrinking “carbon budget” – that quantity of fossil fuels that can be burned to avoid breaching the 2˚C threshold. He quoted various studies that suggest humanity can burn roughly 565 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by mid-century and still have a reasonable hope of staying within two degrees. But in 2011 alone, nearly 32 gigatonnes were burned. At that rate, there is only 16 years before the carbon budget is ruptured.

The third figure is perhaps the most alarming. McKibben quotes Carbon Tracker research for the amount of carbon currently on the books of the major global fossil fuel corporations, both private and state-owned. The figure is 2,795 gigatonnes. It doesn’t include the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas. However one point stands: the fossil fuel reserves are five times the carbon budget for two degrees.

An edited version of McKibben’s essay forms the foreword to Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark’s, The Burning Question (2013). The book is an elaboration of McKibben’s basic maths – and as such it does a decent job. The authors explain the importance of energy in human development, crucial to the substitution of technology for living labour. Today, seven billion people on the planet consume more than five hundred billion billion joules of energy each year – comparable to a 100 full-time servants per head of “energy slaves” (p.10).

Berners-Lee and Clark point to the exponential growth of greenhouse gas emissions, which appear impervious to recent mitigation efforts. This correlates with 335 consecutive months – stretching back to 1985 – when global temperatures have been above the twentieth century average. They reinforce McKibben’s argument about the carbon budget. Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen has argued that to have a fifty percent chance of not exceeding two degrees, we can emit no more than one trillion tonnes of carbon, or 3,700 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (p.25). Since humanity has emitted half that amount already, there are around 1,600 billion tonnes left. For a 75% chance of avoiding the two degree threshold, Allen calculated a figure of 700 billion tonnes, or 80% for McKibben’s figure of 565 GtC.

Berners-Lee and Clark also estimate the reserves of fossil fuels available. Proven oil reserves have surged to 1,653 billion barrels, including tar sands from Canada and Venezuela. Globally, there may be over five trillion barrels of recoverable oil and 680 trillion cubic metres of recoverable natural gas. They underline the limits of peak oil: it only works when applied to conventional crude oil and natural gas liquids and is undone by increased supplies of unconventional oils made from tar sands, kerogen, coal and other sources.

One virtue of the book is the focus on ownership and control of the major fossil fuel corporations, as well as their political influence. The top two hundred coal, oil and gas businesses are currently “worth” $4bn on the world’s stock exchange (p.88-9). However listed companies have only around a quarter of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves; two-thirds of coal and 90% of oil and gas is controlled by state-owned corporations – mostly in countries with little democracy and weak or underground workers’ movements.

Fossil fuel corporations are incestuously linked to financial institutions through pension funds, insurance and other instruments – indicating the culpability of capital as a whole for climate change. The states with the largest fossil fuel reserves also tend to be the most intransigent at climate talks. Fossil fuel firms donate millions of dollars to political parties and pay for hundreds of lobbyists to intervene in the parliamentary process, including for climate denial. Many states continue to provide huge subsidies to fossil fuel firms. There are currently 1,200 coal-fired power stations being planned, while 80 million cars, vans and trucks were built worldwide in 2011 (p.105).

Berners-Lee and Clark may be good with the maths, but their book is seriously deficient when it comes to politics. Principally, they call for a mix of “harder global politics, passionate campaigning and smarter use of technology” (p.3), along with leadership. They focus on three areas short of that: “minimising the influence of the fossil fuel sector on politics and public opinion in carbon-rich countries; maximising the positive global influence of nations which are ready to do an ambitious deal; and stemming the flow of money into fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure (p.171).” This is all laudable, but politically naive.

Technologically, Berners-Lee and Clark strongly support carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as renewables and nuclear power. This makes sense, although some greens continue to oppose CCS and nuclear in a manner that would almost certainly prevent significant emissions reductions in the medium term. The authors are sceptical about the virtues of geoengineering, without ruling it out entirely.

Berners-Lee and Clark rightly do not make too much of consumption, preferring to emphasise preventing the production of emissions. They rightly reject arguments that rest on restricting population or going over to a steady-state economy. Instead they believe carbon intensity can be reduced, although there is little evidence of that to date. They acknowledge that not everyone can win in the transition to a low-carbon economy (p.141), but they endorse emissions trading schemes, which translate into higher prices for fossil fuels and food for workers.

These weak proposals stand in stark contrast to the risks set out earlier in the book. What is needed is a radical working class-based climate movement, because only the labour movement has the interest and capacity to tackle climate change against the power of capital and its states. Such a movement would be militant from the outset, supporting campaigners against fracking and tar sands, demanding public ownership of energy and transport infrastructure, and millions of unionised and public sector climate-related jobs. The maths in this book should sharpen our resolve to build such a movement. But what’s needed is not just better maths; working-class politics is the answer to the climate threat.

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