Skip to Content

Material World: The Future of Climate Talks

Material World

At 5am on 27 September, after days of discussion at a plenary meeting in Stockholm culminating in an all-night session, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalized its Fifth Assessment Report. Each successive report – the earlier reports appeared in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007 – has contained stronger predictions than the one before. Thus, the new report envisions sea level rise of up to one meter by 2100, as compared to an upper limit of 60 cm in the fourth report.

However, climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, points to ‘a credible body of scientific work’ suggesting that ‘business as usual’ emissions are likely to produce a sea level rise of two meters by 2100, submerging large coastal areas around the world. Professor Mann accuses the IPCC of ‘conservatism and reticence’ – failings he attributes partly to the caution inherent in the culture of science and partly to political pressures (even the IPCC’s report admits that sea level rise may reach two or three meters by a later date).

The magnitude of sea level rise depends in large measure on the fate of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS). The fourth report predicted that a rise in mean global temperature of 2°c above the pre-industrial level could trigger loss of the GIS. This was one of the reasons why a rise of over 2°c was defined as ‘dangerous’ and preventing such a rise set as a policy goal. Now, with the ice sheet starting to collapse before our eyes, the IPCC has acknowledged that a rise of even 1°c above the pre-industrial level may be enough to melt the GIS. But we are already 0.8°c above the pre-industrial level!

So preventing ‘dangerous’ climate change is no longer a plausible policy goal. Dangerous climate change is already upon us – a rather inconvenient fact for ‘moderate’ politicians who seek to reassure public opinion. Should they join the obscurantists who deny the science? Or should they espouse a more modest policy goal? But what exactly?

Implications of the ‘carbon budget’

Despite its vulnerability to political pressure, the IPCC has adopted a new concept with quite radical policy implications. The fifth report for the first time lays out a global cumulative carbon budget, drastically limiting how much more carbon – in the opinion of the IPCC – can be released into the atmosphere.

Diplomats are reported to be ‘concerned that discussions around a carbon budget could derail the already fragile process of negotiations on climate’ (Fiona Harvey, The Guardian Weekly, 4  October). Indeed, were governments officially to adopt this approach, they would be openly acknowledging that most known reserves of fossil fuels must be left in the ground. And, of course, they would also be acknowledging that it makes no sense to continue prospecting for new deposits.

This would mean a deep change in perception – oil, gas and coal would be seen no longer as precious wealth to be coveted, exploited and fought over, but rather as repulsive ‘filth’ threatening the health and life of humanity and the biosphere.

George Monbiot complains that for some reason governments just do not seem able to make this switch:

‘Press any minister on this matter in private and, in one way or another, they will concede the point. Yet no government will act on it… Governments everywhere are still seeking to squeeze every drop out of their own reserves, while trying to secure access to other people’s’ (The Guardian Weekly, 4  October).

To this one could add that for quite a few governments the exploitation of new hydrocarbon deposits remains the centrepiece of long-term national economic strategy. The Russian government, with its extensive territorial claims in the Arctic, is an especially striking example. They evidently fail to appreciate the irony in the fact that it is global heating itself that is making many of these deposits accessible.

Why so obtuse?

Why then are governments so obtuse? Is the logic underlying the carbon budget really so difficult for them to grasp?

As Monbiot discovered, government ministers as private individuals may understand the situation well enough. But the governments in which they hold office are not free agents.

The government of a country exists primarily to ensure optimal conditions for the accumulation of national capital – the wealth (value) owned by that country’s corporate and state capitalists – in competition with other national capitals. The process of capital accumulation is endless and serves no purpose outside itself.

A government that defies the imperative of capital accumulation in any significant way immediately comes under pressure so intense that it is forced either to change course or to resign. This is probably what would happen to any government that demanded fossil fuels be left in the ground, however profitable extracting and selling them might be to the companies concerned. Only extremely strong and persistent popular counter-pressure might give a government some room for manoeuvre.

The international climate negotiations may fail, but is that in itself cause for regret? So far these negotiations have achieved little of substance, apart from raising false hopes and creating new financial instruments for speculative profiteering. If talks break down because governments cannot accept measures that their own scientific experts tell them are necessary, that will starkly demonstrate that it has become impossible to reconcile the imperative of capital accumulation with the requirements of human survival.

A choice has to be made. It is no longer a matter of ‘socialism or capitalism’ or even ‘socialism or barbarism’. The choice now is between world socialism and global catastrophe.