The Paris Climate Agreement: System Failure on a Global Scale

December 21, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


The world is up against a dangerous and intensifying environmental crisis, with climate change the cutting edge. 2014 was the warmest year in Earth’s recorded history, and 2015 shows every sign of breaking that record. The ice caps at the North and South Poles are melting, and sea levels are rising; carbon in the atmosphere is turning the oceans more acidic, posing great threats to marine life; scientists warn of increasing disruptions of ecosystems and the threat of mass extinction of species. (See “Some Basic Facts on Global Warming/Climate Change.”)

The last reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014 warned of the danger of “long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” The panel said that the greater the warming, the greater the danger of “abrupt and irreversible change.” (For further analysis, see the special Revolution/ issue “State of EMERGENCY! The Plunder of Our Planet, The Environmental Catastrophe & The Real Revolutionary Solution.”)

This crisis—driven by the relentless burning of oil, coal, and natural gas; destruction of forests; and harmful agricultural methods—set the background and context for the Paris climate agreement passed last week. The agreement was acclaimed by the world’s big powers. Obama said the agreement was “a turning point for the world”—that it met the test of our time and was bringing into being a situation in which “the planet will be in better shape for the next generation.” This is, as climate scientist James Hansen put it, “bullshit.”

As if to scream to the world just how much the agreement does not put these powers on a course to a solution to the environmental crisis, just a few days after U.S. representatives endorsed the Paris agreement, the U.S. Congress passed—and Obama signed—an appropriations bill that includes provisions to lift the ban on U.S. exports of crude oil. Estimates are that ending the export ban could increase U.S. oil production by more than three million barrels a day and cause the release of more than 500 million tons of additional carbon pollution per year. According to Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Biological Climate Law Institute, “Lifting the ban on crude oil exports would undercut all the other progress our nation may make in fighting climate change. It would increase planet-warming pollution and unleash more fracking and dangerous drilling in America’s vulnerable communities and precious wildlife habitat.”

For the U.S. to do this while they are still patting themselves on the back for supposedly finding the solution to global climate change is brazen and disgusting. But it does point to the truth that there is a relentless compulsion under this system to produce, refine, and transport fossil fuels, and to wield them as weapons in strategic contention with other powers. The Paris agreement did not in any way undercut THAT.

The crucial lesson to take from the Paris agreement—taking into account what the agreement was and what it was not—is not simply that it failed to do what it claims to do, but that this capitalist-imperialist system cannot solve the problem of the environmental crisis. The crisis is that deep, and environmental devastation is deeply bound up with all the other oppression and horror that this system produces around the planet.

This system not only ravages the planet and its people, it is fundamentally out of control of the imperialist rulers themselves. Even if the capitalist-imperialist leaders of the system sincerely wanted to pull it back from hurtling toward an environmental catastrophe, they could not.

What Is Actually Needed—and What the Powers Came Up With

To get into why this system cannot solve this crisis, let’s look at what it would take to even begin to really deal with global warming, which is just one part of the unfolding environmental crisis.

» Capitalist interests have many trillions of dollars invested in fossil fuel reserves and in technology, transport, and machines that burn fossil fuels—and they spend billions more every year to find new reserves. Yet what is needed is a very rapid transformation away from fossil fuel-dominated power production to overwhelming reliance on renewable power sources like solar, wind, and geothermal (heat energy from the Earth). The immense capital investments cannot determine the direction of energy production but instead would have to be effectively abandoned.

» Transportation in places like the U.S. and in cities all over the world would have to be completely reorganized and restructured; and the economically wasteful and environmentally disastrous system of individuals driving private cars would need to be radically and quickly transformed into safe, environmentally sound, and user-friendly public transportation systems.

» Agriculture and food production would need to be radically transformed away from today’s highly capital-intensive, energy-consuming, and chemical- and pesticide-dependent agriculture geared for profit for extremely concentrated global capital, which rests on the labor of exploited and oppressed labor in the U.S. and around the world. This system of agriculture not only hurts the climate, people, and animals, but also harms the land itself. A big percentage of the carbon emissions that drive global climate change now come from agriculture, the expansion of livestock production, and the destruction of forests.

» All of these changes—and this is only a part of what has to happen—have to take place on a global scale, with people working together across the globe, bringing together scientific knowledge, resources, and masses of people to do everything necessary to deal with this crisis.

These are again just some key, but essential, points of what would have to be done to stop the deadly injection of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere. Any serious evaluation of the agreement in Paris must start from what is actually needed to solve the crisis. An agreement that does not do this but instead proceeds from what is economically and politically in the interests of this or that group in power, or of all the groups now in power put together, fails the test of what really does have to be done to meet the challenges of what scientists are pointing out and have been pointing out for decades now.

Instead of any plan like this, the powers went into Paris with fundamentally different aims, plans, and objectives. Their aim was NOT to meet the challenges posed by scientists but instead to manage this crisis in a way that allows them to preserve their system (for now) and advance the immediate interests of the dominant powers. This comes through in everything about the Paris conference. Here is a glaring contradiction in the agreement: The stated goal of climate negotiations has been to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times. Large changes have already occurred from just the 1 degree C change that has already happened—and scientists say that a rise above 2 degrees C could be disastrous. But those dominating the process at Paris openly admitted before the conference that they were not even trying to make an agreement that would keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees C.

Blue ice from glacial meltwaterGlobal warming is leading to the accelerated melting of glaciers around the world. Above, meltwater from the Canada Glacier in Antarctica. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

All the goals for greenhouse gas emission cuts that came out of this conference are voluntary, with each country setting goals based on their own national interests, not the needs of the environment or humanity. And the cold truth is that even if every single country completely meets all of their pledges, which is to say at the least extremely unlikely, this would still lead to a catastrophic temperature rise of around 3 degrees C or more. This conference set no firm timeline on when fossil fuels need to be completely phased out—while most scientists say that to keep warming at 1.5 degrees C or less (which is what is needed), the complete phase-out must happen globally by 2050, and for rich countries by 2030. None of this was even on the table in Paris.

This is a climate agreement that at the most basic level accepts that the global temperature will continue to rise and proposes no actual plan to stop it. (The agreement does propose future climate meetings every five years, with countries promising to come up with better goals in the future—but how much better is never defined, and there really is no real plan to stop the climb in temperature.) The agreement is not a plan for responding to what is actually required to stop global warming—it is a plan that aims to manage a crisis that is only going to get worse under this system.

Further, there is no serious commitment or binding obligation of imperialists and richer countries to aid those countries without resources, which are hit the hardest by climate change. There is a non-binding goal of $100 billion, including both aid and forms of capital investment. The U.S. in particular acted very strongly to block any language in the treaty that might hint at “reparations” to be paid by the richer countries. In a situation in which the imperialist countries have robbed, plundered, and exploited the oppressed countries for centuries, in which the imperialist countries are overwhelmingly responsible for carbon in the atmosphere, and in which a basic criterion for real change is genuine global cooperation, as touched on above, the Paris agreement works to continue to enshrine the horrendous power relations that dominate the planet. In no way does it promote genuinely working together.

A big part of the supposed “plan” for “success” off of the Paris agreement, which was hailed in the press, is the claim that the agreement will unleash all kinds of capitalist investment in clean energy. First, this is a wish, based on a false understanding of how capitalism actually works. And more than that, it is NOT a plan to actually transform the world in the way we outlined above to actually deal with the crisis—it is a way to make profit. Just to get a sense of the realities of this: after decades of alarm around climate change, only 1.6 percent of world energy need is met by solar and wind now. And energy companies not only continue to extract fossil fuels and have huge amounts of assets still in the ground that they plan to extract, they continue to invest billions per year in finding more reserves. All this only goes up and down based on “market realities,” economic downturns, etc., NOT on the environmental needs of the planet.

The International Business Times predicts (and hails the prediction) that by 2040 renewable energy will have more money invested in it than in fossil fuels. But the reality here is that even if that were to happen, it means a great deal of fossil fuel would still be burned. The Business Times article itself says, “Climate change pollution will increase until 2029, and emissions will still be 13 percent above 2014 levels by 2040.” This, again, has nothing at all to do with any plan to actually meet the need for combating climate change. It is a plan to make profit and to attempt to mitigate the climate disaster a little bit along the way.

One stark exposure of just how far this agreement is from actually meeting the real needs posed by the reality of climate change: The Paris agreement does not even mention carbon emissions by airlines and shipping, which now constitute five percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions and which are expected to be an even bigger proportion in the future. That five percent is equal to the amount of carbon emitted by the lowest 164 emitting countries. What a stark exposure of how lopsided the imperialist global economy is—airline and shipping emissions, which overwhelmingly serve the imperialist countries, equal the emissions of 164 countries! And the Paris agreement does not even touch it! This is no plan for combating climate change—it is a plan for preserving the imperialist world order.

And finally, the emissions of the U.S. military—the largest institutional carbon polluter in the world—are not counted in the Paris calculations. It comes down to this: the U.S. imperialists are not going to use battery power for their jet fighters, they are going to use jet fuel. And they are NOT going to let the carbon pollution by their military be a point of discussion in any climate talks. For them, first things first. And that does NOT mean the needs of the planet—it means the needs of this system, including the ability to rain death and terror down from the sky in the interests of protecting and expanding their empire.

What It’s Going to Take for a Solution in the Interests of Humanity

To sum up the essential point: The Paris conference did not even try to do what is actually required to respond to the climate crisis. It produced an agreement that preserves the present rotten and oppressive imperialist global order and does not tackle in any way what is really required to respond to this crisis. This is because of the deep structure and dynamics of the capitalist-imperialist global order. THAT is the problem. And THAT is why only revolution can bring a real solution in the interests of humanity.

Only actual revolution can bring into being a socialist society that CAN solve the problems outlined here and much, much more. The kinds of transformations required—from fossil fuels to renewable power production; to transportation systems that meet the needs of society but do not flood the atmosphere with carbon and other pollution; to agriculture that can meet the needs of the people while preserving the planet—all of this can be done under socialism. And socialist countries must and can at the same time be base areas for spreading the world revolution and fighting for the greatest possible ecological transformations globally.

As we said in the polemic “Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ vs. Actually Confronting the Crisis”:

A socialist society can mobilize the people, scientific knowledge, and resources to drastically restrict and ultimately move beyond the use of fossil fuels, while solving the practical and economic problems that will come with such a transition to renewable energy. And do that as part of moving to a world in which human society has an economic foundation that takes care of the planet as one of its foundational principles.

And further:

Special Issue of Revolution on the Environmental Emergency

This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. In this issue we show:

  • the dimensions of the emergency...
  • the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
  • a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.

Read online....

Also available in brochure format (downloadable PDF)

Capitalist society screams at people “buy, buy, buy,” and ranks people by the money and “goodies” they own. With socialism, it will be possible not just to raise opposition to consumerism as a kind of moral principle, but to have an entire society in which profit no longer rules, and where it is no longer necessary for the functioning of the economy to sell more and more goods. In this society, the relations between people will not be based on buying and selling.

It will now be possible for people, increasingly and in a mass way, to see themselves not from within capitalism’s framework of a race for accumulation, “each against all,” but instead as emancipators of humanity and the planet. People will come to see nature not as objects to be hurled into production for profit or carelessly despoiled, but as a rich, living fabric of which humans are one part. They will learn how the natural world is billions of years in the making, and that each human generation has the responsibility to pass it to the next in an improved condition.

This is just a glimpse of what a revolutionary society and people can do. This world is possible. This is what the Revolutionary Communist Party is taking responsibility for—building a movement for an actual revolution with the party at its core to defeat and dismantle the state institutions of the old society, to create a new state power and socialist system, and to work urgently towards the full emancipation of humanity and protecting the planet for current and future generations.

A desire to stop what the imperialist system is doing to the planet has brought tens and at times hundreds of thousands into the streets, and people have waged powerful and courageous struggle against things like Arctic oil drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline. And people took to the streets of Paris during the Paris climate talks, at times going up against police-state measures. Hundreds of thousands came out in protests worldwide. Such struggles are both a crucial and urgent part of resisting environmental crisis now, and are a crucial part of the pathway to the revolution that is urgently needed to unshackle the potential of the people of the planet to respond to environmental devastation in the way that can take humanity and the planet to a radically different and better place.



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