Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy. 

The Green New Deal as a step towards Emergency Internationalism

It’s likely, given the ongoing political insanity, that you’ve missed a key internationalist turn in the US Green New Deal debate.  It was Bernie Sanders’ team that made that turn, though we’re hoping that others (activists as well as politicians) will soon follow along. To that end, it is the sole topic of this occasional mailing. 

The details are below, but here are the two key takeaways:

  • The national emissions reductions targets that most climate emergency groups have been advocating (e.g. 100% net zero by 2030, or even 2025 in the case of the British Extinction Rebellion folks) are effectively impossible if they are conceived in purely domestic terms.  They are also insufficient.  But Sanders has embraced a justice-based global framework that allows him to advocate for a properly scaled US reduction target, in this case 161% by 2030, and to do so coherently. 
  • Sanders’ internationalism is important because it extends the (usually all-domestic) Green New Deal vision to include the US fair share of an international emergency climate mobilization. In so doing, it points a path forward that animates the Paris Agreement (and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanism) and holds out hope for an effective planetary mobilization. This is a critical move, because only a global Green New Deal can succeed.

For a bit more detail, see below.

***

Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan leverages a key idea—that a true emergency climate mobilization requires nations to do their fair share in the global effort, rather than just acting within their own borders.  And it makes a very concrete proposal for how to put this idea into play.

Sanders based his proposal, and his specific estimate of the US’s fair share, directly on ideas that EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute have developed in their joint Climate Equity Reference Project, and that the Civil Society Equity Review coalition has been promoting for years.  

I recently had a prominent piece in The Nation which tells this story.  It’s called Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet, and it argues that a fair shares approach to international cooperation is essential to any even plausibly successful global climate transition.  Specifically, it proposes that a global Green New Deal can best be kickstarted through a proliferation of national green new deals that are structured to support international cooperation as well as domestic transformation.  The side effect, a very welcome one, would be the animation of the Paris Agreement and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanisms. 

Sanders’ plan calls for:

“Meeting and exceeding our fair share of global emissions reductions. The United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.  We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.”

These are big numbers, and they underlie another big number in Sanders’ proposal: the offer of $200 billion in support to help developing countries reduce emissions.  The Sanders team derived this figure by looking at the projects in the Green Climate Fund portfolio to estimate what it would cost to achieve that 36% reduction in developing countries.

This is a big ask, particularly given today’s political situation, but it would be more likely to help trigger global cooperation than the almost-purely-domestic “net zero 2030” target that is so prominent within the climate emergency movement, a target that suggests that wealthy countries need only reduce their emissions within their own borders.  As if by de-carbonizing their domestic economies they would have done their fair part in the planetary mobilization.

The Climate Equity Reference Project has long argued that such a view is both ethically and politically nonviable.  But Sanders’ proposal marks the first time a major American political figure has taken anything like a coherent global fair shares position, and it is particularly notable for being embedding within a visionary domestic Green New Deal, in which the effort of financing a viable global climate transition would absolutely not be freighted upon the poor people of the wealthy world.  His fair shares vision is intimately linked to other agendas for progressive taxation, reduced military spending, taxes on fossil energy, and so forth.   

It’s important that climate activists—street activists and policy activists both—engage with the core ideas here.  We need a real debate about global climate justice, and that debate has to happen no matter who becomes the next US President.  For, just as radical decarbonization won’t happen in the US without a Just Transition, it won’t happen in poorer countries without a globally fair system of both mitigation and adaptation support.

Take a look at Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet.  It’s not long, and its written to help start a conversation about the emergency internationalism that we’ll need if we’re to stabilize the climate system in time. 

After the Catastrophe

Climate justice as the post-Trump slingshot

Tom Athanasiou (toma@ecoequity.org) Jan 18, 2017

Download as PDF here.

Trump’s election was a catastrophe. Coming on top of everything else, it more than justifies pessimism. But at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me add that our new position is not without its possibilities.

We would not have chosen this path. But if we’re both smart and lucky we may be able to slingshot out of it, and into a mobilization that would not otherwise have been possible.

But we’re going to have to be brave enough to take justice seriously. Among much else, we’re going to have to work out what the pretty phrase “climate justice” actually means.

Among much else.

Before Trump there was Paris, and its celebrated goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C,” while pursuing efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” So here’s a question: When Dave Roberts, one of America’s premier climate bloggers, published a post-election reaction piece called “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees,” was he right?

I don’t think so. But I’ll grant that, if he’s wrong, he’s wrong in a complicated way. For one thing, the hope we had before Trump’s election was not itself entirely serious.

Here’s how Roberts described it:

“The truth is, hitting the 2-degree target (much less 1.5 degrees) was always a long shot. It would require all the world’s countries to effectively turn on a dime and send their emissions plunging at never-before-seen rates.

It was implausible, but at least there was a story to tell. That story began with strong U.S. leadership, which brought China to the table, which in turn cleared the way for Paris. The election of Hillary Clinton would have signaled to the world a determination to meet or exceed the targets the U.S. promised in Paris, along with four years of efforts to create bilateral or multilateral partnerships that pushed progress faster.

With steady leadership, the U.S. and China would exceed their short-term goals. Other countries would have their willpower fortified and steadily ratchet up their commitments. All this coordinated action would result in a wave of clean energy innovation, which would push prices down lower, which would accelerate the transition.”

Is this an accurate telling? I think it is, more or less, but it’s also radically incomplete. For one thing, “U.S. leadership” has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the phrase. More pressing, the “wave of clean energy innovation” that this story depends on was never going to be enough. On this front, see the bit where countries “steadily ratchet up their commitments.” This is a reference to the push for (jargon alert) an “ambition ratchet” or “ambition mechanism.” The two terms are almost interchangeable but the idea is critical, because both the Paris pledges of national action and the post-Paris pledges of international transition support are far too weak to actually achieve Paris’ “well below 2°C” temperature target.

This view – that the Paris pledges are too weak to achieve the Paris targets – is entirely mainstream. All the key studies agree. However, when you push a little farther and ask which countries are most at blame – which countries are doing their “fair share” and which are not – you find that only the reports of the Civil Society Equity Review coalition (full disclosure: I’m one of its authors) even attempts to broach the question.[1] The coalition’s most recent report, Setting the Path towards 1.5°C, offers this simple summary statement:

“even if all the commitments in the current NDCs [national pledges of action] are met — an uncertain prospect, given the lack of financial and technological resources from wealthier countries — they would lead to a warming of about 3°C.”

The baseline truth here is that ambition is a function of equity. Unless we establish cooperative international systems by which the wealthy support the poor with the finance and technology they need to act well and decisively, ambition will remain in short supply. Which is why we’re talking about a possible warming of 3°C, though in truth 3.5°C – an extremely dangerous level of warming – might wind up being closer to the mark.[2]

Still, the Paris pledges were widely accepted as a first installment. Their weakness, as the story went, was OK, because we’d be able to strengthen them – and properly support “stretch” pledges by countries that can’t deliver on them without help – in time to meet the Paris targets. If, after Trump’s election, this doesn’t happen, or, more precisely, if this was going to happen but now doesn’t, then Roberts has called this all correctly; we won’t make 1.5°C, or even 2°C, and we’ll have this election, and all it’s infamies, to blame.

Continue reading “After the Catastrophe”