Growth for the sake of growth

US withdrawal from the Paris agreement demonstrates a contempt for the future of the planet. However, Eddie Ford argues that only socialism, not capitalist techno fixes, can prevent ecological degradation

Pittsburgh Trump rally

As promised, Donald Trump has broken ranks with other world powers by announcing on June 1 that the USA is pulling out of the Paris accord on climate change. Indeed, this might be one of the few election pledges that he will actually uphold. Nobody seriously believes, including most of those who voted for him, that he will build a vast and impenetrable wall along the border with Mexico - let alone get that country to pay for it. Anyone remember Trump’s demand that Saudi Arabia and other countries supply the US with “free oil for the next 10 years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s”?1

The only other countries not signed up to the United Nations-brokered Paris agreement - passed in December 2015 and formally ratified by the United States and China the following September - are Syria and Nicaragua. The former for obvious reasons, as the overriding priority is just to stay alive, while the latter opposes the accord not because it is a climate change denier, but because it does not go anyway near far enough, since it is based on voluntary targets and action. In November 2015, Nicaragua’s lead envoy to the Paris negotiations, Paul Oquist, said his country would not be “an accomplice to taking the world to 3 to 4 degrees and the death and destruction that represents”. The notion of “universal responsibility” - that “everyone is responsible” - is a “spin on historical responsibility because everyone didn’t create this problem”. Nicaragua’s share of global emissions (0.03%) pales beside that of China (20.09%) or the US (17.89%), yet it is fourth on a list of countries most affected by climate change between 1996 and 2015.

Of course, much of the left, including the CPGB, made exactly the same point as Paul Oquist. The agreement, now signed by 196 countries and ratified by 146, came to a woolly consensus about “holding the increase” in the global average temperature to “well below” 2°C - compared to pre-industrial levels - and to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5° (rather than the 2° agreed six years ago at Copenhagen).2 There is a general scientific consensus, regardless of what Donald Trump might think, that 1.5° and above marks the “tipping point”, whereby there is a serious danger of runaway global warming - disrupting existing agriculture, changing weather patters and perhaps triggering mass extinction. But for this goal to have any sort of realistic chance of being achieved there would have to be “net zero emissions” by the second half of this century - with a UN climate science panel arguing that this must happen by 2070 at the very latest to avoid ecological disaster. As things stand now, unfortunately, this looks like pie in the sky - especially if the US has turned rogue.

As well as being non-legally binding, the solemn promises made at Paris to cut carbon emissions (intended nationally defined contributions, or INDCs) are totally insufficient - despite article 3 of the agreement, which requires them to be “ambitious”, “represent a progression over time” and set “with the view to achieving the purpose of this agreement”. In fact, according to several analyses, even if the plans were kept to they would still lead to a 2.7°-3° rise in temperature - which would be potentially catastrophic.3 The European Union, for instance, has an INDC of cutting emissions by 40% by 2030 on 1990 levels, and the US - before it pulled out - by up to 28% by 2025 compared with 2005: obviously inadequate. Hardly inspiring confidence, there will also be a “review mechanism” every five years, kicking off with a “facilitative dialogue” next year and the first full “evaluation” or “stock take” in 2023 - at which, in theory, new NDCs could be made or revised. Naturally, the US insisted upon a clause guaranteeing that it would not face claims for “any liability or compensation” with regards to the financial losses of particularly vulnerable countries hit by climate impacts (like extreme weather).

Indeed, this points to a key difference between the ‘bottom-up’ consensual structure of the Paris agreement and the ‘top-down’ approach of its predecessor, the Kyoto protocol - which aimed to produce targets that had legal force and far more scope generally. The protocol differentiated between developed and developing countries, recognising that there had to be quite separate and discrete tasks, goals and aims. By contrast, the Paris deal deliberately blurs this distinction - whilst acknowledging the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, it does not provide a specific division of obligations between developed and developing states. The poorer countries have the same responsibility as the richer and more powerful.

Rather pathetically, the final text of the Paris agreement aims only to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” - no detailed timetable or country-specific goals for emissions are laid out. Far too little, far too late - and now made virtually useless by the US’s withdrawal from the process.

Nationalism

According to Donald Trump, the US is out “as of today”. Instead he wants to “renegotiate” a fairer deal for the US that would not “disadvantage” US businesses and the US economy. The president went on to remark that he was making “making America great again” and was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” - a nationalist pitch that was reinforced by swipes at India and China. He complained that India makes its participation in the Paris deal “contingent on billions and billions of foreign aid” and lamented about how China “can double” coal production, “but we have to reduce ours”. Apparently the Paris agreement has won “praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense”. Here we have Donald Trump’s own version of victimology, in which an innocent US is preyed upon by a perfidious coalition of other states.

During the presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that the Paris accord would cost the US economy “trillions” of dollars and 2.7 million jobs by 2025 - of course, he did not mention that the renewable energy industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years. According to the US department of energy, in 2015 renewables to the tune of $350 billion supplied nearly 64% of all new electricity generating capacity constructed in the country. Trump’s prediction of millions of job losses thanks to Paris is equally specious, not taking into account ‘normal’ job rate loss and creation, jobs shifting towards more ‘green’ sectors, and the tangible benefits of cleaner air and water, and less risk of natural disasters along US coastlines. But this is Donald Trump we are talking about, who would have us believe that climate change is a “Chinese hoax”.

In reality, it is very unlikely that the US is freed from its Paris obligations - such as they are - “as of today”, as the agreement’s built-in time delay means it cannot happen until the next presidential election year in 2020. Trump’s reneging of the agreement is reminiscent of earlier Republican attempts to stymie a climate deal, like in 2005, when George W Bush’s administration adopted a ‘twin-track’ approach, allowing it to appear concerned, whilst blocking every possible move towards a deal. This caused a frustrated Papua New Guinea delegate at Bali in 2007 to bellow at a procrastinating American representative: “If you’re not willing to lead, get out of the way!” Well, in a certain sense, the US has now done that.

Needless to say, Germany, France and Italy issued a stern statement declaring the Paris deal to be “not renegotiable”. Quite laughably, the EU and China are now posing as a “green alliance” to save the planet from ecological destruction. According to a statement prepared before the June 1-2 EU-China summit in Brussels, the new alliance is determined to “lead the energy transition” toward a low-carbon economy. The joint declaration also called on all parties “to uphold the Paris agreement” and signal their “highest political commitment” - describing the climate change pact as a “historic achievement” and “irreversible”. China is clearly determined to take ruthless advantage of Trump’s ‘isolationist’ turn on the question of climate change, though its reinvention as a ‘green’ power is pure hypocrisy - its reckless dash for growth at any cost has produced an environmental and ecological nightmare. Look at the appalling levels of ‘killer air’ in Beijing.

Exactly which way the US goes at this point is hard to tell, but it might not be all plain sailing for the Trump administration. California, with its population of nearly 40 million, has said it will defy the US president and stick by the Paris agreement. Jerry Brown, the state’s governor, has said he will sign his own “international” agreement on climate change with China if necessary. He is flying out to Beijing to discuss merging China’s and California’s carbon trading markets. This is essentially a scheme in which large sources of carbon are given a cap on emissions, beyond which they cannot go unless they buy an allowance - and the allowances are then sold by companies that reduce emissions below their cap, creating a double incentive to make cuts. In a form of environmental UDI, Brown has even suggested that California might launch its own satellites to monitor climate change. New York state has been making rebellious noises too.

Disaster

What seems to be going on is that the US under Trump is retreating not from its global hegemonic position - as if - but rather from the way it has exercised its hegemony since the end of World War II, when it put in place the United Nations, international law and institutions such as Nato, and made the strategic decision to turn the Soviet Union and its satellites into enemy number one. This was done, fairly obviously, in order to cohere not just allies, but former enemies too, and generally subordinate them to the interests of US imperialism. But this post-war architecture is being unpicked and remoulded, though whether that will ultimately succeed or not is an open question.

Whatever the exact case, however, it represents a total ecological disaster for the planet - which is running out of time fast. July last year was the warmest month since 1880, when records began, and this year might break that unwanted record. Indeed, 15 of the 16 warmest years have occurred in the 21st century and each of the past 14 months has broken the global monthly temperature record. Some scientists calculate that a US regression to “business as usual” emissions could result in up to three billion tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in the air a year or a further 0.3° by 2100 - enough to cause punishing heat waves, a rise in the sea level, displacement of millions of people and the loss of ecosystems such as coral reefs.

A recent report on global climate by the National Centers for Environmental Information scarily tells us that the combined global average temperature over the land and ocean surfaces for April 2017 was 0.9° above the 20th century average of 13.7° - the second highest April temperature we have ever seen.4 April 2017 also marks the 388th consecutive month that the globally-averaged temperature was above the 20th century average. Meanwhile, the global land and ocean surface temperatures for the first four months of the year were 0.95° above the 20th century average of 12.6° - representing the second highest such period since 1880.

In other words, the trend is perfectly clear - the planet is frying and weather is becoming more extreme. India has been hammered by cycles of drought and flood, as withering heat parches the soil and melts glaciers in the Himalayas, while coral reefs around the world are bleaching and dying. Meanwhile, rainforests are retreating even further and deserts are spreading. Recent Nasa research shows that sea levels worldwide have risen an average of nearly eight centimetres since 1992 due to warming waters and melting ice - a report published in January by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested a global mean sea level rise ranging from 0.3 to 2.5 metres during the 21st century. Unless drastic action is immediately taken, cities like London, New York and Tokyo could eventually disappear beneath the waves.

As the CPGB has consistently argued, capitalism is a system uniquely unfit to cope with the ecological crisis that is so obviously gripping the planet. Given its very nature, predicated on production for production’s sake - not on the basis of satisfying rational human need - it is constantly throwing more fuel on the fire. Due to this inescapable inner logic, capitalism can never be trusted to preserve the environment - the best it can come up with is ‘green’ technological fixes. No, it is a system pre-programmed to inflict ecological degradation. No matter how incredible the scientific advances under capitalism, we will still see the same monstrous waste of resources - the same assault on planet Earth and despoliation of nature.

Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist manifesto that the need to constantly expand “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe” - a frenzied need that sends it drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico for oil, when that very same substance is virtually oozing out of the ground in countries like Saudi Arabia. But a profit can be made, so damn the consequences, whether environmental or human. Irrationality reigns. Marxism, on the other hand, is supremely ecological in its world outlook - hence we must fight for the sustainable use of nature’s resources because it is necessary for the common survival of all life on this planet, human and non-human. For communists, the struggle to protect the environment and the struggle for human emancipation (communism) are indivisible.

Notes

1. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/509881954326835200?lang=en.

2. www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/12/paris-climate-deal-key-points.

3. http://climateactiontracker.org/news/253/Climate-pledges-will-bring-2.7C-of-warming-potential-for-more-action.html.

4. www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201704#temp.