THE recent energy crunch in Europe and power shortages in China prompted expressions of glee in certain quarters. It was a ‘we told you so’ opportunity for the fossil fuel lobbyists, whose strategy has lately shifted from defending coal as indispensable to arguing it will remain essential as a source of electricity for decades because renewable sources of energy remain unreliable.
Such fatuous arguments tend to gloss over the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions. Even if every country were to meet the emissions reduction targets it voluntarily committed to at the Paris climate conference six years ago, global emissions would still increase by 2030, and the planet would be on course for a 2.7 degrees Celsius temperature spike by the end of the century.
And given the recent trends in climate change, that is probably a highly optimistic projection. Climate-related catastrophes in the recent past have been overshadowed by Covid-19, but they portend a fairly horrific future in the short term, even as nations struggle to come to terms with the idea of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Net zero does not mean the end of fossil fuel emissions, but merely their mitigation, invariably through proposed measures that may not add up to very much — such as planting trees or halting land clearing, which count as positive but ultimately inadequate initiatives at this stage — or on the basis of technologies that either remain largely untested or are yet to be invented.
Will Glasgow offer anything more than ‘blah blah blah’?
For instance, Australia, a leading coal producer and exporter, has struggled with a net zero commitment, coming up with an unconvincing one only on the eve of next week’s COP26 summit in Glasgow. Resistance to even minimalist climate action has served as a trigger for toppling governments. The present prime minister, in his capacity as treasurer a few years ago, infamously carried a lump of coal into parliament to demonstrate his fondness for that particular fossil fuel.
He somewhat reluctantly succumbed, though, to the pressure from the US, once it switched from the Trump to the Biden administration, to at least pay lip service to the idea of net zero. The shift has nevertheless been supplemented by the bright idea that, hey, there’s no need to do anything right away, because technologies will emerge closer to 2050 that will make it much easier to curb carbon emissions. Meanwhile, there are elections to win.
This is precisely the variety of nonsense that relentless young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has lately called out as “blah blah blah”. And Australia’s Scott Morrison may aspire to greater heights of idiocy than some of his counterparts, but he is by no means the only culprit.
Among his closest allies, Britain’s Boris Johnson blathers about turning Britain into the “Saudi Arabia of wind” or the “Qatar of hydrogen”, but it’s hardly a secret that windbaggery is his forte. Joe Biden’s rhetoric is decidedly different from that of his immediate predecessor, but whether it amounts to very much in practice remains to be seen. He has so far been struggling to win congressional approval even for the inadequate green measures in his stimulus package, which are likely to be rendered pretty much meaningless by the time they become law. If it ever comes to that.
The visible roadblocks consist of Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, but in the background there’s arguably the world’s heaviest-hitting fossil fuel lobby. The industry’s profitability guarantees there are untold millions of dollars to throw at legislators, enough of whom find the temptation irresistible. Biden himself steered clear of endorsing the potentially transformative New Green Deal that a bunch of more far-sighted Democrats came up with, only to progressively retreat even from the milder alternative before heading for Europe.
And this is despite US intelligence agencies painting a dire picture of the potential geopolitical consequences of climate change, including conflicts and mass migration within nation states as well as internationally.
The trouble for those who are determined to uphold the global status quo, particularly in terms of the enduring supremacy of markets and the profit motive that undergirds capitalism, is that this very status quo is unsustainable. The evidence for that is all around us. Yet the political will to tackle the challenge — which would inevitably entail a global redistribution of resources from what are historically the largest emitters of greenhouse gases to impoverished parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change — remains elusive.
Over the centuries, capitalism has proved considerably more resilient than its invariably well-intentioned adversaries assumed, not least because of its mutability. But whether it can transcend neoliberalism — the delta variant of virulent greed — is open to question. But Glasgow is an unlikely venue for that debate. More blather and blah is a far likelier prospect.
Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2021