By Saral Sarkar
Positive and Negative Reactions
Why Call it a Fraud?
I too think, like Hansen, the accord was a fraud, but for reasons very different from those of his. I think it was only because they were afraid of being branded as the guilty in case the COP21 failed to reach an agreement that the major CO2 emitter countries reluctantly decided to sign this very weak paper. But paper, as the Germans say, is patient. If you want evidence, then look at the position with which the government of India went to Paris. Only a few months before the COP21 began, the government of India had announced the policy decision to double India's coal production in the next 5 years. Just a few days before he left for Paris, Mr. Javadekar, India's environment minister, had said in an interview: "I'm asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space so that we can park our development."4
Hansen calls the accord a fraud, mainly because he sees no concrete action plan in it, only promises that, moreover, the signatory states are required to implement gradually, beginning only in 2020. His idea was a tax or price or fee of $15 a tonne of CO2 to be paid by major emitters. He argued that only this measure could force down CO2 emissions quickly enough. But he found no support, not even among big environment groups, because, as he said, nobody wants to scare people off by talking of new taxes.1
I could have supported the tax proposal of Hansen if he had stopped there. But, like the others mentioned above, he too believes that ultimately it is only by replacing fossil fuel energies with clean energies that we can avert climate catastrophes. For he says in the same interview: "We need to have a rising fee on carbon in order to move to clean energy."1
Unlike Hansen, I see the fraud taking place since long, and it is contained in the very conceptions of the proposed solutions – in all parts thereof and both in their short as well as long-term versions. Firstly, the whole COP process from the very beginning, i.e. since 1992 onwards, is swearing to promote sustainable development and eradicate poverty while at the same time protecting the environment and averting global warming. The COP21 did the same. Otherwise the developing countries would not have taken part in the process. But how do you, in the short term, eradicate poverty in developing countries, e.g. in India, South Africa or Colombia, if you make power much dearer by (a) imposing a tax of $15 a tonne of CO2 payable by major emitters (that includes India), (b) by ending all subsidies to fossil fuels, and (c) paying huge subsidies to renewable energies (where will the huge sums come from)?
Most persons, groups, parties etc. mentioned above simply assume that economic growth i.e. growth in prosperity can and will continue without any problem when the fossil fuel energies have been replaced with "clean" energies. As against that, I (and my political friends, e.g. Ted Trainer) believe since long that it is absolutely necessary that the major industrial countries, including China, India, Brazil etc. purposely bring about a contraction of their economies – in order not only to stop burning more and more fossil fuels but also to reduce the general level of environmental pollution. We do not think that economic growth would be possible if we really want to save the biosphere.
I can also cite evidence supporting this belief: In recent history, the only time CO2 emission and general environmental pollution went down in a large region were the 1990s, i.e. after the Eastern European economies, especially the then second biggest economy of the world, that of the Soviet Union, collapsed. But in the Paris accord there is no mention of this necessity. The whole de-growth movement has been totally ignored, also by the big environmental NGOs. They simply believe in miracles.
One may ask why I doubt that it would be possible, if not soon, then at least in the near future or in the long term to fully or at least largely replace fossil fuel energies (and other nonrenewable resources) with renewable ones. After all, technological progress is taking place all the time! Basing myself on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's differentiation between feasible and viable,7 I have been expressing this doubt for the last 25 years. It is not possible to repeat all my arguments here; interested people may read some of my writings recommended below.8 Here I only want to refer to two sets of facts that serve as indications that my doubt may be justified.
(1) Already in 1994, Eurosolar and its friends and associate organizations claimed in a full-page advertisement in the German print media that solar energy based on the technology developed till then could compete with fossil fuel energies. But today, after twenty more years of research and development, we see that solar energy is still neither competitive nor viable without large subsidies. That is why even today new coal-fired power plants are being built?
(2) India is very rich in sunshine and wind. Still its government wants to double coal production in order to supply energy to the masses. Why? And why do its politicians say, it is only coal that India has for energy? Are the Indian engineers stupid or ignorant? Or have they all sold away their conscience to the coal lobby?
Protagonists of green growth, i.e. growth based on 100% transition to renewables are all very intelligent people. Yet they are ignoring these facts and questions. If they are not intentionally bluffing, then they are, I believe, suffering from an illusion. There are some more reasons why I criticize the big environmental NGOs. (1) They – unlike Hansen, who has called the whole agreement a fraud – have exonerated the political class (the authors of the Paris Deal) from all guilt, as if they are not always ready to fulfill the wishes of big corporations, as if they are actually good people who, like the NGOs, care for the interests of the masses, the only "villains" being the fossil fuel industries. Opposing these villains are, in their view, the good "ordinary people", the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, as if they do not want to consume more and more energy and other products of fossil fuels. This is too naïve, if it is not a fraud too. (2)
They have isolated the climate crisis from all other crises involved in mankind's present predicament, as if they are not interconnected. They simply ignore the totality of the crisis. (3) They do not seem to know that the $100 billion that the politicians of the rich countries have promised to pay to the victims of global warming will first have to be generated by producing more green house gases. (4) It appears, moreover, that they have not noticed that these are all only promises. Don't they know that governments, especially in times of economic crisis, never deliver what they promise? The UNHCR, for example, recently reduced the food ration to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan etc. because they haven't received all the money that was promised to them.
But the more basic problem I have with those who are euphoric about the Paris accord is that the signatory governments as well as the NGOs, green and left parties etc. do not even mention the real and deeper causes of the ecological, economic, political and social miseries of humankind, of which climate change and large-scale migration are just currently the most glaring manifestations. These real and deeper causes are the continuously growing demands, aspirations and ambitions of a continuously growing world population, while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing – in short, the lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.
Is the System Question Irrelevant?
What I, moreover, found very strange is that, all along, all people involved in the COP process assumed that the envisioned drastic changes in such a vital factor as the energy supply base of the modern industrial economies could be undertaken without requiring any changes in the current political-economic system.
Of course, one could not expect from the politicians who signed the deal that they would include in it a clause stating that the system they have built up and which has made them rich and powerful also needs to be changed. But how come also the rest of the involved people did not have the slightest doubt that the huge problem can be solved within the framework of capitalism and free market economy? Outside this circle, however, in the context of the problems at hand, the system question had already been posed several hundred times, in speeches and writings, before the COP21 began. In TV news broadcasts, I have even a few times seen pictures of radical leftist protesters carrying banners and placards with the slogan "System change, not climate change".
Can't one expect of honest and thinking NGO and media people that they also at least consider the possibility that the technological breakthroughs – 100% renewable energy, CCS etc., on which they are placing all their hopes – do not occur or do not occur in time? If they do not occur, shouldn't one have a plan B for averting the catastrophes? In plain English, if humanity can no longer indulge in the growth compulsions inherent in capitalism with its principle of competition in a free market economy, shouldn't the state(s) step in and order a stop in further economic growth? Shouldn't the state(s) then tell the people that they have to accept a contracting economy and all the consequences thereof? Shouldn't the state(s), from then on, plan an orderly withdrawal from the present mad economic system?9
Unfortunately, many people who do raise the system question – there are even some prominent people among them – often do that half-heartedly. They often question "capitalism as we know it or as it is today" or "globalized neo-liberal capitalism", as if a better form of capitalism is conceivable, as if it could be made ecological, social or humane, and compatible with economic contraction. I do not think such half-hearted critiques are of any use. Such people do not realize that as long as the motive of profit maximization and the principles of private ownership of means of production, selfishness, and competition remain – and these are the most essential elements of capitalism –, there would always be a compulsion to grow, whatever that may cost human society and nature. That will bring to nought all efforts to overcome the climate crisis and many other crises.
Conclusion. Can Anything be Done Before an Eco-Socialist Revolution?
A friend said to me: look, Saral, I am convinced what you are saying is correct. But your eco-socialist revolution may never happen or it may come too late. Can't the powers that be do something short of your revolution, and soon? And can't ordinary people, who are afraid of too radical a change, urge them to do something in this emergency situation.
I think that is possible. But a fraud on the people is not what I can advocate. A fraud cannot help even if we, as Mckibben urges us to do, "yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch."
I can today imagine that an honest, well-meaning (think of PODEMOS and SYRIZA), and eco-sensitive social democratic party in near future comes to power through an election and gives itself, against the background of humanity's serious multifaceted crisis, an immediate program that could be implemented within the framework of current kinds of democracy and capitalism.
The top priority of such a program should be to tell the voters the truth about limits to growth (and prosperity) and the necessity of respecting them, and then to take all feasible measures to gradually curtail economic growth, if not immediately and totally stop it. That should not be impossible. In fact, in Japan and the EU (with the exception of Germany), the economies are already stagnating – in Japan for the last 15 or 25 years and in the EU since 2008. Already now, people in the rich countries are getting used to stagnating economies or (as in China) falling growth rates. In Greece, Portugal and Spain people have experienced falling wages and cuts in salaries, pensions, and social benefits.
We only have to make a virtue of this unwelcome development by openly and courageously saying that a recession is good for the environment including the climate. The government must only equitably distribute the burdens of protecting the environment in this way, and the burdens of the resulting unemployment by reducing by law the average weekly working hours.
In the broad environmental movements in the Western capitalist countries, we can find many concrete proposals and concrete examples for this policy: Governments can promote public transportation and discourage private motorization. Activists can start a system of borrowable cars and two-wheelers owned by groups. Governments can pass orders to the effect that individual private cars can be used only on alternate days etc. etc. Above all, governments must stop all previous policies of promoting growth. All such things work against the capitalist ideal of growth and lead us toward collectivism. In the past, capitalists have had to swallow them.
As far as I can observe, in the developed countries, among the masses, understanding for such policies is growing, although it is still far from becoming the majority view. Particularly political parties that want to get elected to parliaments are still not ready to adopt such a program. The Green Party of Germany has of course, long ago, betrayed its original program. But the latter was really an ecological social-democratic one.10 Here lies the great task of extra-parliamentary environmentalists and eco-socialist groups and individuals: to mobilize mass support for such a program. Today, the chances that they would succeed are much greater than in the early 1980s.
In the underdeveloped countries, the two most important parts of such an immediate program should be to stop population growth and build up a modest social security and job guarantee system.11 Fortunately, both ideas are well accepted among the elites of many of such countries, although implementation is weak. To drive the illusions of catching-up economic development and growing prosperity out of their heads would become much easier once the elites of the developed countries have done their part of the work.
Saral Sarkar is an ecosocialist writer who blogs here
2. Friedman, Thomas L. (2015): http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/paris-climate-accord-is-a-big-big-deal.html?_r=02
chapter 4 of my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? (see 9),
and in http://eco-socialist.blogspot.de/2015/09/root-causes-of-cleavages-in-ecological.html
In German translation: Die Nachhaltige Gesellschaft – Eine kritische Analyse der Systemalternativen. (2001. Rotpunkt Verlag, Zürich)