Scenery of icebergs near China-built Zhongshan station in Antarctica, January 2018.Bai Guolong/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
A dramatic event occurred at the halfway point of COP24, the climate summit in the Polish city of Katowice on 4-14 December. Four influential states – the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – decided that the excoriating IPCC report on climate change, published in October, must be “noted”, which is diplomatic speak for ignored.
In light of the urgency of the report, this is a significant setback. The IPCC's work processed a huge amount of data to conclude that the global human community had just twelve years to make the necessary, radical changes that would limit temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5C. That comes against the background of a 1.0C rise hitherto, most of it happening in the last twenty-five years.
A 1.5C rise, if it goes that far, will carry a great risk of floods, droughts and heatwaves, in turn resulting in serious food shortages, increased poverty, and desperate migration pressures. And the findings of other recent studies are even bleaker. One, by the Global Carbon Project, predicts a 3C rise by 2100. That would have even more catastrophic outcomes, which there is only one way to avoid: rapid decarbonisation.
Several research programmes point to an acceleration in the rate of change. The authors of a new Nasa report, published in the middle of COP24, say they have "detected the first signs of significant melting in a swathe of glaciers in East Antarctica. The region has long been considered stable and unaffected by some of the more dramatic changes occurring elsewhere on the continent. But satellites have now shown that ice streams running into the ocean along one-eighth of the eastern coastline have thinned and sped up. If this trend continues, it has consequences for future sea levels. There is enough ice in the drainage basins in this sector of Antarctica to raise the height of the global oceans by [28 metres] if it were all to melt out.”
It is hard to underestimate the worldwide environmental effects of an oceanic rise of this scale. In fact, even were levels to increase by a tenth of that amount, it would be disastrous for the many hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities and deltas. This, moreover, is but one area where climate disruption is extremely concerning. In relation to the global challenges, the present rate of progress, at the level both of states and intergovernmental action, is appallingly low. The decision of those four states at COP24 is only one illustration.
Why should this be? It is bound to be difficult for nearly 200 states to arrive at any consensus, as the BBC's Matt McGrath says. The poorer countries (mainly in the global south) argue that existing problems are largely the result of carbon emissions from the “old” industrialised powers, which should therefore be the main funding source for helping them decarbonise. Change, if it is to happen, needs full transparency so that there is no backsliding when agreements are reached. More fundamentally, much of the political class together with the economically powerful classes simply do not accept how perilous the problem is.
To transform, integrate
All such points are convincing, but they should be taken further. For the current predicament also gathered pace following the transition, four decades ago, from a mixed economy to an ideology-led marketised one. In this sense the current environmental crisis is interwoven with modern neoliberal economics and politics.
Donella Meadows and her fellow systems analysts at MIT published the seminal Limits to Growth study in 1972. This was the first global analysis of its kind, anticipating a world half a century hence (that is, the 2020s) when the global ecosystem would face ever greater challenges to its handling of anthropogenic pressures. The study was systematically attacked by free-market economists who had a touching faith in the ability of market behaviour and technological change to respond to the problem. But forty years later, Limits to Growth had come to look all too prescient.
The fervour of the political-economic upheavals of the 1970s, not least the massive oil-price rises of 1973-74 and 1979-80 and the stagflation that resulted, created an exciting possibility: that Limits to Growth would be recognised as having proved the need for a transition to sustainable economies (see "A climate revolution", 10 August 2018). Instead, that is one of history's "might-have-been's". Instead the neoliberal system won through, led by Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and the Washington consensus. This transition was then hugely boosted by the collapse of the Soviet centrally-planned economies. That profound change reinforced the idea that neoliberalism was the one true way forward.
Almost three decades after that climactic event, the neoliberal dreams are dust. It is obvious enough from climate disruption, but a more complete picture emerges if the crisis of the neoliberal economic model is factored in (see "No way to run the world", 7 November 2018). Indeed, there is now copious evidence that neoliberalism is actually incompatible with action to prevent a chaotic global climate.
All the welcome changes that can be made by individuals, citizen groups, cities and regions need to expand and deepen. To really make a difference, a post-neoliberal transition to a more equitable and sustainable economics is essential. The process will have to overcome many hurdles placed by political and economic elites, their strategies varying from delay and diversion to outright resistance. At its core, the process needs to question the way that neoliberal economics and the control paradigm (or “liddism”) remains at the centre of security thinking on all major issues.
One factor brings real encouragement here. Many creative groups worldwide are already evolving and acting out a striking range of initiatives to combat and limit climate change. Although often invisible to those short-sighted elites, these alternatives are being reported by experts such as John Vidal with great insight and copious evidence (see “The seeds are sown to halt climate change”, Guardian, 11 December 2018).
Against the sheer scale of the problem of climate disruption, the prospects of systemic change look remote. But this is partly because people who are thinking, practising and campaigning in any one of the fields all too often feel isolated. This is why seeing the global predicament as an integrated issue rather than discrete silos is so necessary. Individual responses, if seen as connected, will together contribute to a rethinking of the paradigm. This may not be the whole answer. But it can provide a key element of low-key inspiration when it is sorely needed.