The IPCC warns that capitalism is unsustainable

Juan Bordera / Fernando Valladares / Antonio Turiel / Ferran Puig Vilar / Fernando Prieto / Tim Hewlett

ctxt | August 22, 2021

North Iceland glacier. 

The second draft of Group III of the IPCC, the one in charge of mitigation proposals, affirms that it is necessary to move away from current capitalism in order not to cross planetary limits. It also confirms what was already advanced  in the article published in CTXT on August 7: “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must reach a ceiling in at most four years.” The document also recognizes that there is very little chance for further growth. 

The signatory scientists and journalists have analyzed a new part of the Sixth Report, filtered by the same source: the scientific collective Scientist Rebellion and Extinction Rebellion Spain. In this section you can clearly see the differences existing in the scientific community with respect to the necessary measures to carry out an effective and just transition. Fortunately, among the usual more timid positions, demands are beginning to appear that not long ago would have been unthinkable for them to appear.

Before getting into the analysis, a bit of context is needed: in 1990, the IPCC First Report still stated that “the observed increase [in temperature] could be largely due to natural variability.” That debate was closing in the following reports. But if any doubts remained, the analysis of Group I of the Sixth Report – now official – has cleared up any uncertainty. In this way, it eliminates any possibility of a reply by climate denialism, widely showered with money by those who had the most to lose: the fossil fuel lobbies. The first question to solve a mystery is usually the classic Cui Bono (Who benefits?).

The underlying question now is related: how do we make the inevitable transition perceived as a benefit and not as a resignation? There is no other possibility than to give up indefinite growth, and the leaked report mentions it. The transition must take into account the cultural and historical differences in emissions between countries, the differences between the rural and urban world so as not to benefit one over the other, and above all the tremendous and growing economic inequalities between the increasingly poor and the increasingly obscenely rich. Either these three dichotomies are stopped, or the transition will have more enemies than supports and will sabotage itself. Textually the draft says: “Lessons from experimental economics show that people may not accept measures that are considered unfair even if the cost of not accepting them is higher.”

Even managing to change course, scientists warn: “Transitions are not usually smooth and gradual. They can be sudden and disturbing. ” They also point out that “the pace of the transition may be hampered by the blockade exerted by capital, institutions and existing social norms,” ​​emphasizing the importance of inertia. And on them they add: “The centrality of fossil energy in the economic development of the last two hundred years raises obvious questions about the possibility of decarbonisation.”

Policies favorable to fossil fuel companies have taken the common wealth – our air, forests, land … – and put it in the hands of a small minority. Therefore, green policies must necessarily be redistributive at a time when inequality is skyrocketing. One of the measures proposed to reduce the regressiveness of carbon prices is the redistribution of tax revenues to favor low and middle incomes. But, as anthropologist Jason Hickel recalls: Anything other than a cap on fossil fuel extraction, with decreasing annual targets that reduce the industry to zero, will be just hand washing.

And we come to one of the defining paragraphs of the report: “Some scientists emphasize that climate change is caused by industrial development, and more specifically, by the character of social and economic development produced by the nature of capitalist society, which, for therefore, they consider unsustainable in the last resort ”. Although many have said it before , we do not believe we have ever read anything so clarifying in the most important climate report in the world, which adds: “Current emissions are incompatible with the Paris Agreement so it is absolutely mandatory to reduce them immediately and overwhelming”.

Different emission reduction scenarios.

These goals, which imply a drastic decrease in emissions and, therefore, in the short term also in energy production and the use of materials, are impossible to achieve with the current model. In addition, Group III links the reduction of emissions with the fulfillment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed in 2015 by the member countries of the United Nations for their fulfillment in 2030. Despite the contradictions between the 17 SDGs, between They find unquestionable objectives such as the reduction of inequality and the protection of biodiversity, interspersed with a more controversial one, within the report itself: promoting sustainable economic growth.

In the IPCC it is customary not to hide the scientific debate, and if in 1990 it still revolved around the causes of climate change, after 30 unsuccessful years, we can see that the discussion now oscillates between those positions that still believe that it can continue to grow and reduce emissions at the necessary rate, and those of us who see this as another type of denial, more subtle, but that basically benefits and is defended by those who once questioned the origin of global warming.

The IPCC report assumes that “mitigation and development goals cannot be achieved through incremental changes.” Stubborn in growth requires massive development of technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but those CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) technologies are not materializing as anticipated. 

With the carbon sinks of the ecosystems in clear decline and the climatic feedbacks that are being unleashed – which leads the Earth to exceed several points of no return, as recognized by a vast majority , and from there to a warmer state and unstable – the only known way to avoid climate collapse is to move away from the perpetual growth model.

The report highlights that in international cooperation an “organized hypocrisy” has been identified in which agreements and statements do not match actions, which is one of the most important barriers to mitigation.

The IPCC also appeals not to forget the lessons not put into practice from COVID-19. Lessons that should serve to avoid making the same mistakes with climate change, since the analogies are clear and direct. The costs of prevention and preparatory actions are minimal compared to the costs of the impacts caused. Delaying the measures will have increasing costs that are very difficult to bear.

Failure to act soon challenges will increase non-linearly and with unforeseen consequences.

Given the increasingly evident contradictions of the concept of sustainable development, talking about any form of development will only be possible if GDP is left aside as a measure of wealth, and changes to an economic model not so based on competition. The only sustainable development is horizontal, not vertical. In other words, reduce inequality.

It is clear that either there is a perception that a large majority ‘benefit’, or there will be no solution. Therefore, the enormous magnitude of the problem must be well explained so that the measures can be understood and certain resignations can be understood as benefits, if we take into account that the alternative is to change climate stability forever and aggravate conflicts over resources. 

The competition helped develop the evolution of the species, but, as the brilliant microbiologist Lynn Margulis demonstrated, it is cooperation that explains the great evolutionary leaps . Now we are faced with a precipice drawn by the intersection of the ecological and energy crises. We can have good lives with less energy available (and at the same time we will have less workload), but capitalism will not be able to sustain itself with less energy without finalizing its mutation to a kind of techno – feudalism . Only if we cooperate, if we understand that we share so many things –among them an atmosphere that doesn’t know what this is about borders– we will be able to react and jump enough to avoid the fall. 

Juan Bordera is a journalist, scriptwriter and activist at Extinction Rebellion Spain and in València en Transició.

Fernando Valladares has a doctorate in Biological Sciences, a research professor at the CSIC and a Jaume I Prize for Environmental Protection.

Antonio Turiel has a doctorate in Theoretical Physics, a degree in Mathematics, a scientific researcher at the CSIC and an expert in energy. He is the author of the recent essay Petrocalipsis .

Ferran Puig Vilar is a Senior Telecommunications Engineer, has worked 30 years as a journalist and specializes in the climate crisis.

Fernando Prieto is a doctor in Ecology and director of the Sustainability Observatory.

Tim Hewlett is a Doctor of Astrophysics and a member of the Scientist Rebellion collective.



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