Paris climate talks produce hot air

By CARL SACK

After 10 days of talks at the COP 21 climate conference in Paris, negotiators from 195 countries celebrated the adoption of an agreement that calls for a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5o Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

On one hand, the agreement goes farther than any previous accord to acknowledge the need for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Its preamble includes the “principle of equity” that rich countries must do more than poor countries. It even pays lip service to indigenous rights, gender equality, and a “just transition of the workforce.” It calls for holding the global average temperature “well below 2o C above pre-industrial levels”—the suicidal temperature ceiling advocated by the U.S. and European countries—and aspires to limit the temperature rise to 1.5o C. Many poorer nations pushed for the 1.5o target.

On the other hand, despite the enlightened preamble, the document is utterly empty of any concrete measures to curb planet-destroying carbon emissions. It relies on countries to set their own “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, which are to be updated every five years. The language used is revealing; INDCs are voluntary pledges that are non-binding and therefore have no real impact.

The agreement does not lay out any roadmaps for how individual countries will achieve their pledges. It fails to even mention reducing the consumption of fossil fuels beyond a vague reference to “domestic mitigation measures.” Even if all countries were to follow through on all of the pledges made just prior to the Paris conference, scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research peg the result as a disastrous 2.7o C warming by the year 2100—just 0.9 degrees below the “business-as-usual” scenario.

Worse, like its predecessors, the Paris agreement endorses counterproductive market-based carbon-trading schemes. Carbon markets introduced under the Kyoto Protocol (called the “Clean Development Mechanism”) have attracted rampant corruption, promoted big development projects like hydropower dams that displaced sustainable communities, and ultimately collapsed due to a lack of demand for carbon offsets. Forest protection credits, sold as carbon offsets under the UN REDD program, have accelerated corporate land grabs in developing countries and hastened the conversion of natural forests into private monoculture tree plantations.

Provisions of the agreement could also be interpreted as promoting speculative carbon-capture technologies and risky geo-engineering schemes.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen called the agreement “a fraud” and “a fake.” “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises,” Hansen said in an interview with The Guardian. Hansen supports a carbon tax with public redistribution of the proceeds as a means of curbing fossil fuel use.

Perhaps proving Hansen’s point, the Paris talks do not seem to have spurred any immediate action to curb emissions by the world’s worst polluters. In fact, just before the Paris talks, President Barack Obama signed a transportation bill including a provision that fast-tracks environmental review of new oil and gas pipelines and strictly limits lawsuits aimed at stopping such projects. Just after the talks, he signed a spending bill that ended the 40-year-old oil export ban, allowing U.S. fossil fuel corporations to ship crude oil overseas.

India has said it still plans to double its use of coal-fired electricity. Japan is currently building 43 new coal-fired power plants, and China is adding a new 600-megawatt coal plant every 10 days for the next decade. Both countries are adding renewable energy sources as well, but not enough to offset their growth in energy demand. Much of that growth is due to increased manufacturing of goods exported to the U.S. and Europe.

In 2009, the U.S. pledged to spearhead a $100 billion per year “Green Climate Fund” to finance renewable energy development in poorer countries. But to date, the fund has only received a fraction of that in actual contributions, and wealthy countries have sought to dedicate the money that has been pledged to promoting “public-private partnerships” resulting in private, for-profit energy infrastructures.

Meanwhile, climate change is causing unprecedented weather conditions globally; 2015 was again the hottest year on record—surpassing 2014, the hottest year before that. In late December, 43 people died from unseasonable megastorms across much of the U.S. The storms spawned tornadoes in 10 states and dumped enough rain on the Upper Midwest to cause the worst floods on the Mississippi since at least 1993. Record rains also caused flooding in South America and Europe. The North Pole saw temperatures rise above freezing in what should have been deep winter.

Why, in the face of oncoming catastrophe, don’t capitalist leaders do more than make high-minded pronouncements while the planet burns? As Institute for Social Ecology director Brian Tokar notes in his analysis of the Paris climate talks, “The world the diplomats inhabit couldn’t be farther removed from the places where the impacts of continuing climate chaos are felt the most.” It is the frontline communities facing droughts, wildfires, unprecedented storms, and inundation by rising seas—not the global capitalist class—that can bring about the system change necessary to avert the worst devastation.

The fact that the Paris agreement pays lip service to the goals of the global climate justice movement is a testament to the growing power of that movement and the ability of mass action to shift the conversation. In the lead-up to the conference, 785,000 people took to the streets at over 2300 events in 175 countries.

Protests around the Paris summit were large and colorful despite the French government’s attempts to squelch them. The administration of François Hollande used the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris as a pretext to outlaw all street protests during the climate summit. The government even placed 24 environmental activists under preemptive house arrest before the talks.

International protest organizers bowed to the ban and officially canceled a march scheduled for Nov. 29. But up to 10,000 protesters took to the streets of central Paris anyway. They were met by riot cops firing tear gas and stun grenades. Media images of heavily armed cops trampling a memorial to victims of the Nov. 13 attacks in order to arrest 200 peaceful protesters were broadcast worldwide.

The New Anti-capitalist Party, which includes Socialist Action’s co-thinkers in France, participated in the protest and pointed out: “EDF (the formerly state-owned electricity company), BNP Paribas (one of the country’s biggest banks), Air France (the formerly state-owned airline), GDF Suez (the formerly state-owned gas company), all of them sponsors of the COP 21, are among the biggest polluters worldwide. Dictators from around the globe are welcomed with honors by Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius and President François Hollande, but the people who want to protest for a better world are being repressed.”

Left-wing Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, who is renowned for her writing on capitalism’s failure to address climate change, also called for activists to defy the protest ban. On the last day of the Paris talks, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, carrying banners representing “red lines” that climate negotiators crossed in their final agreement. The French government permitted the protest at the last minute, perhaps fearing a repeat of the Nov. 29 debacle.

The crackdown on civil liberties itself hints at the effectiveness of mass protest. If world powers had nothing to fear from mass mobilization, why would they insist on a “state of emergency” to curtail it while football matches and public markets go on as usual? Indeed, the only way to challenge capitalism’s march toward the abyss is by mobilizing for system change. The modern capitalist economy simply cannot exist without climate-changing fossil fuels, and global leaders are willing to go to any lengths to continue extracting them—even if it means planetary destruction.

An investigation by InsideClimate News revealed that virtually every fossil-fuel company has known that burning fossil fuels causes climate change since the 1970s. The American Petroleum Institute ran a task force on CO2 between 1979 and 1983, but then campaigned against the Kyoto Protocol and spread lies about the uncertainty of climate change.

That revelation followed an exposé of documents showing that oil company Exxon conducted top-notch research into global warming starting in 1977. The company went so far as to outfit its largest supertanker with instruments to measure the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide and developed its own in-house climate models that accurately predicted future atmospheric CO2 levels and warned of global temperature changes. But by 1989, the company had switched to funding climate-change deniers and lobbying to block any political action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

These investigations merely confirm what was already known: fossil fuel companies are criminally liable for the deaths of millions from climate change-related disasters. So why do $775 billion in direct government subsidies still flow to fossil-fuel corporations, rather than to transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources?

It’s not that such a transition is technically impossible. In fact, a recent study conducted by a group of engineers at Stanford University not only confirms that it would be possible to convert all 50 U.S. states to 100% wind, solar, and mostly existing hydroelectric power by 2050 using current technology, but details exactly how each state could do so. The study considers not just the electric grid, but transportation, heating and cooling, and industry as well. The researchers have published their peer-reviewed findings in an interactive website, http://www.thesolutionsproject.org.

But such a transition requires immediate, massive, sustained investment in new renewable energy sources; so far, only a few U.S. states have taken some half-measures toward meeting these goals. Further, it would only work if all of the new energy from renewables were to replace existing fossil fuel sources, rather than just increasing the energy supply. Currently, this is not the case. Fossil fuels are more in demand than ever.

Capitalism requires constant expansion and replacement of human labor with machinery (what Marx termed “constant capital”). Machinery—including not just factory belts and motors, but labor-saving devices like computers and farm tractors—requires energy to run. As an energy source, fossil fuels are extremely energy-dense and relatively easy to extract, store, transport, and sell. They can be used wherever and whenever a capitalist needs them, in any quantity the capitalist can afford.

By contrast, wind and solar energy are less concentrated, requiring more capital investment and a slower return on that investment. Fossil fuels are a form of solar energy, but ones that have been concentrated by the work of nature over millions of years; collecting energy directly from the sun requires an investment of human labor to replace this use value of nature. The availability of both wind and sun are also impacted by local weather conditions. From an ecological perspective, it makes sense to reorganize the economy around clean, renewable energy sources, producing goods when energy is available and relaxing when it isn’t. From a capitalist perspective, it only makes sense to consider the bottom line: fossil fuels enable unlimited mechanization and profit.

In the short term, we need to continue building mass mobilizations to demand an immediate transition to clean renewables—water, wind, and solar. There are many immediate demands that can be made, such as ending fossil fuel subsidies, banning fracking, tar sands, and mountaintop removal coal mining, stopping new oil and gas pipelines, caps on power plant emissions, new government investment into mass transit systems, and forcing utilities to replace fossil fuel generators with renewables. All of this should be done with an eye toward providing transition jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers at union wages.

But ultimately, the transition that is needed will require workers and the oppressed—including the frontline victims of climate changes—to unite in revolution against the capitalist class. Another world is both possible and necessary for human survival.

Photo: Demonstration for climate justice near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Dec. 12. David Sassoon / Inside Climate News

 

California gas leak: The worst environmental disaster since BP Deepwater Horizon

By CARL SACK

A methane leak at a natural gas storage facility in southern California that began in October continues to spew the toxic, highly potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Experts are calling the leak the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Aliso Canyon leak has caused health symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and vomiting among residents of the upscale Porter Ranch community in suburban Los Angeles, where the underground storage facility is located. In addition to methane, the leaking gas contains benzene, a carcinogen. Two local schools have closed, and more than 4500 families have left following a voluntary evacuation order.

But the leak has global implications. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time span, and 84 times more powerful over a 20-year time span, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The leak is releasing about 1200 tons of methane a day, causing an impact roughly equivalent to the daily emissions produced by 2.4 million cars.

The leak was first reported by gas company employees on Oct. 23. But Southern California Gas, the corporation that operates the storage facility, publicly denied that there was a leak for five days. The source of the leak is 470 feet underground in one of 115 aging wells drilled into a depleted oil reservoir, now used to store natural gas. A safety valve about 8500 feet down the well could have shut the leak down immediately—except that the valve wore out in the 1970s, and the company decided to simply remove it rather than replace it.

Initial attempts to stop the leak by pouring heavy liquids down the well failed because the gas is shooting out at high pressure. While the methane is invisible to the naked eye, infrared video shows the gas spewing out in a dark plume that reaches far up into the atmosphere. The gas company now expects the leak to continue until at least March. That’s when they will finish drilling a relief well to intercept the leaking well 8000 feet down.

Most of the natural gas produced in the United States now comes from hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which has poisoned the air and water of thousands. Injection of fracking wastewater into deep wells has caused hundreds of earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states.

While the scale of the Aliso Canyon leak is unprecedented, small leaks at storage facilities and other natural gas infrastructure are common. Studies using on-the-ground measurements and satellite imagery have indicated that 9-10% of the methane produced by U.S. natural gas extraction leaks directly into the atmosphere. Computer models indicate that this rate of leakage outweighs the climate benefit of switching power plants from coal to natural gas, which produces less carbon dioxide when burned.