Our entire economy is driven by the greatest cause of global warming: the fossil fuel industry. Any diplomatic attempt or economic reform to date that has sought to significantly cut back on the use of fossil energy sources has sooner or later failed. Even today, coal and oil are the two key fuels for humankind. Therefore, it is important to handle climate change as not just a scientific issue. Understanding the connection between the use of fossil energy and changes in social conditions is the only way to bring a real difference in climate action.
Please also read: Achieving a Global Deal for Nature?
How does fossil capital shape our planet?
The climate catastrophe is happening before our eyes. Yet, we often see it as something distant, something that is hard to imagine will have a radical impact for our lives. Although is threateningly approaching, in the form of warm and cold weather records, extreme droughts, floods and storms, it is still an exaggeration to say that we treat it as we should: a global threat. We receive many news on scientific studies about the emerging impact of climate change. On the other hand, we hear much less about the true roots, effects and economic foundations. In fact, the strengthening and unregulated nature of the fossil fuel industry is closely related to many global social and political developments.
In 2016, Andreas Malm published a book called Fossil capital. He connects capitalism and the emergence of the fossil industry to climate change today. According to the book, the roots of climate change go back to the adoption of steam power during the British industrial revolution. Water power was cheaper than steam engines and it was plentiful. Nevertheless, from the 1830s onwards steam took over as the main source of factory power. The reason for this was that compared to water power, steam was less dependent on weather conditions and connected working times. Therefore, it increased the factory owner’s control of his employees. In this way, the steam engine could be a tool to increase production.
Malm also explains how the oil and gas industries played a role in controlling the working class. Coal miners were able to fight for better rights. In an oil-based industry however, it is possible to outsource production to countries were labor is cheaper. Moreover, in comparison to coal, bringing oil to the surface requires more technological advancement, but much less manpower, therefore, less room for resistance.
Not everyone is equally responsible
It is no coincidence that global warming cannot be decoupled from capitalist production, since the great amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is the byproduct of this system. Within a profit-oriented society driven by the endless accumulation of capital and continuous growth, production cannot be easily reduced or stopped.
It is false to claim that human nature, humanity as a whole is responsible for climate change. Reality is, not all people are equally responsible for the effects of climate change. The CDP Carbon Majors Database points out, that it is 100 fossil fuel companies that are responsible for some 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we want to find those responsible, we shall shift our gaze to those who hold the majority of the power, property and wealth of the world in their hands.
The failures of past agreements and hopes for the future
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first international climate agreement signed by more than 190 countries. This Protocol was the first to shed light on the biggest challenge of the 21st century. It also publicly stated that developed countries were responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the previous decades. Nevertheless, finally, only 56 countries ratified the Protocol. In 2010, 13 years after the Kyoto Protocol, global CO2 emissions increased by 55%. Acting on climate change requires speed, cooperation and sacrifice from everyone. Therefore, instead of letting market processes to take control, it is now time for countries to intervene directly.
The question is now, can the Green New Deal and European Green Deal save us? To tackle climate change and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, both the US and the EU developed a set of policy initiatives. These include reforming the energy sector and revising the Emissions Trading System, supporting and assisting green energy programs, cooperatives, ecological and organic agriculture and small-scale farming.
According to the current estimates however, if we do not take urgent action, we can expect not only a 2°C, but rather a 3-4°C increase in temperature. By 2100 the temperature may moreover rise up to 4.5°C. To put it into perspective, the last time the temperature was 4°C higher, people did not exist on the planet and there were palm trees in the Arctic Circle.
All climate change is governed by uncertainty, mostly the uncertainty of human action—what action will be taken, and when, to avert or forestall the dramatic transformation of life on the planet that will unfold in the absence of dramatic intervention.
Boiling frog syndrome
It was David Wallace-Wells, author of the book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ who painted a terrifyingly realistic picture of how life will look like after the point of no return. In various chapters, Wallace describes famines, floods, droughts, large-scale migrations, war conflicts, acidifying ocean, and, ultimately, the now well-known pandemics will hit humanity.
No matter how hard we try putting air conditioners into all public spaces, developing designer reusable bottles, luxury holiday resorts with solar panels, introducing electric cars in the Dakar rally in Africa, accumulating an unmanageable amount of selective waste, if we go any further, our civilisation will sooner or later collapse. Did you know that a frog immersed in gradually heating water will fail to notice the creeping change in its circumstances, even as it’s literally being boiled alive? We are in fact suffering from the boiling frog syndrome, in this pot called Earth.
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