Let’s stop feeling guilty and confront those in power

By Jon Crooks, published on The News Hub on 13 March 2015.
We need to rise up and demand real change if we want a better world. Big business can’t be trusted to save us from a crisis created by capitalism

My wife will tell you, I’m a tortured soul. If you know me you’ll know that I can’t help wrestling with large-scale social and environmental dilemmas like inequality, the degradation of the natural world and climate change. I feel profound guilt over what humans are doing to each other and to the planet. And I know I’m not alone. As individuals, the primary way people like me deal with this guilt is as consumers – buying organic, locally-produced seasonal food or signing up to Green Energy. But, in the end, whilst these are important choices to make as individuals, for our own peace of mind, a minority of us making ethical consumer choices won’t change anything. What we really need to change is the system.

We need to target the architects and governors of the current system. We already do this quite well, but in my opinion too much of this is focussed on the private sector; we focus too much on the big corporations in particular. We’ve made the oil companies enemy number one in the war on climate change and big food producers, agribusiness, logging companies, big fishing corporations etc. the focus of our attentions.

Don’t get me wrong, they are the culprits and we must continue to pressure them and shame them, but in the same way that consumer choices won’t bring about real change, neither will pressuring big business alone be enough to stop all their harmful practices. We can’t expect a multimillion pound fossil fuel industry to simply wake up one day and decide “hey, all those trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels on our balance sheet that we keep being told can’t be burned…why don’t we just leave them in the ground and go and do something else”. Clearly that’s not going to happen.

This is because there are obvious limitations to targeting the big corporations. In simple terms, these companies exist to make a profit for their shareholders. Indeed, to maximise profits through continued growth. Whilst they engage in corporate sustainability programmes (some more than others), this is not usually through a desire to do good, or do the right thing, even if this is one of the companies stated values. Corporate social responsibility mostly exists in order to project an image or a suggestion that they are doing the right thing, in order to be able to continue to attract customers, deflect government regulation, and in order to continue to make money.

The idea that capitalism can save the world from a crises created by capitalism is a ridiculous notion. The change required from private corporations won’t happen on a voluntary basis. Even those who work in the fossil fuel industry acknowledge this.

Our governments are the problem. They act like they are powerless to act; almost bystanders. And that’s exactly what they are most of the time. Calls for action on climate change for example are growing among societies around the world, but government actions are still restricted to those that will not hamper existing business or potentially act as a drag on the growth-obsessed economic system.

The alternative ‘green’ approach is still considered too progressive, too left-wing. A green future is equated with returning to living in caves. It’s a very entrenched mentality and a huge challenge to promoting change. But is it true? Of course not. All the green movement are saying is let’s stop the obsession with growth and GDP and think about how we can develop a new green economy in a sustainable way and stop working in individual silos as nation states and start thinking more cooperatively. We need a narrative of positive change, in which our adaptation to climate changes does not just protect what’s already here, but also creates a more just and equitable world.

The time has come to demand real change.

 

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Keep it in the ground

By Jon Crooks

We are approaching the problem of climate change from completely the wrong end. Laurence and Alison Matthews have explained the problem like this:

“Suppose you had a garden hose connected to a sprinkler. If you wanted to save water, would you try to block up holes in the sprinkler? Of course you wouldn’t; you’d simply turn off the tap a bit. By controlling the fossil fuels coming into the system (the tap), we can automatically control the emissions created further down the line (the sprinkler). This would be simpler, cheaper and would focus attention on the root cause of emissions: the extraction of fossil fuels.”

Earlier this year, Nature published the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. As George Monbiot pointed out in his article at the time, to deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2° of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel ‘reserves’ in the ground. ‘Reserves’ of course are just a small fraction of the total ‘resources’ (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The ‘reserve’ is just the proportion already discovered, quantified and ready to go.

The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. Two degrees is dangerous enough, but at present we’re on course for around five degrees by the end of the century.

The only sensible response is a global agreement to leave these fossil fuels in the ground. Monbiot suggests that companies could buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a result, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as renewables, much better investments. The energy companies would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirty fossil fuels and into clean technologies. The money from the auctioned permits could be used either to compensate poorer nations or help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2° – will inevitably occur.

But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted. Researching Don’t Even Think About It, one of the most important books published on climate change in the past few years, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or paper on limiting fossil fuel extraction put forward during international climate negotiations.

Most people unthinkingly accept the viewpoint that sees the world as a collection of countries. Attention immediately focuses on national statistics, national commitments and negotiations between nations. Global policy is more like inter-national policy.

But what about a single, worldwide solution for the planet as a whole? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to ditch the national posturing in favour of a unified, transparent system that put an immediate embargo on any new exploration of fossil fuels and a cap and quota system in place for extracting what remaining fossil fuels we can afford to burn?

Almost every country around the world is pursuing the same policy: maximising the extraction of fossil fuels whilst attempting to minimise emissions. There’s no attempt to resolve this contradiction or even to acknowledge it. And let’s be clear, if the stuff keeps coming out of the ground, it will be burned, without regard to the policies seeking to limit its consumption. National governments will resist global solutions, since each government wants to control what happens in its own country, but global emergencies need global action. 

The world’s governments need to regulate the source of the problem and abandon the approach of allowing each and every country to voluntarily set its own target of reducing emissions and we must stop companies exploring new sources of fossil fuels in vulnerable places like the arctic, the Virunga National Park in the Congo, where around a quarter of the last remaining gorillas live, or the Galilee Basin in Queensland, Australia where a massive new coal mine with a life of 35 years has been approved; or by fracking the hell out of our own green and pleasant land!

This should be the focus of our campaigns. Through groups like 350.org, Avaaz, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, we must drag our governments out of the clutches of the fossil fuel industry.

 

First posted on http://www.thebeardyguy.com on 4 March 2015