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‘Growth imperative’ versus ‘climate imperative’

By Tarique Niazi

November 3, 2013 -- Climate and Capitalism -- Attempts to use capitalist markets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ignore the fact that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of the capitalist economy, and the strongest forces in the market are fossil fuel producers.

In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) turned in its fourth assessment of global climate change, a work that was recognised with a Nobel prize. In this assessment, the IPCC concluded with 90% certitude that the rising concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was human induced. This revelation jolted the world out of slumber to see its infinite footprint on a finite planet. The Nobel Committee in Stockholm echoed this awakening — of dangers ahead — with an award that befitted the work of the IPCC and its fellow honoree US vice-president Al Gore. Six years after, the same IPCC at the same UN spoke with ever higher certitude (of 95%) that carbon emissions are credibly sourced to humans. Yet the world just yawned and went about its business.

More importantly, the IPCC, for the first time, limited global emissions to 1 trillion tons to escape extreme climate change!! The allowable limit is one-third of more than 3 trillion tons of carbon that is still locked up in fossil fuels in the ground. The world has already emitted over half of the 1 trillion tons of carbon (560 billion tons) since the industrial revolution. It is estimated that it will have consumed the remaining carbon budget by 2040. At the current rate of 50 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the trillionth ton of carbon will have been burned much sooner than 2040. If the global mean warming is to be kept under 2 degrees Celsius, the world ought to remain within the carbon budget.

Industrial capitalism and industrial metabolism

Many argue, and persuasively so, that it is industrial capitalism’s binge on fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) that has created the crisis of climate. Since 1850, the industrial revolution has accelerated the rise of capitalism, and capitalism fuelled the industrial revolution. Their mutually reinforcing relationship was baptised in the fiery rivers of fossil fuels. Industrial capitalism has since used up much of the fossil fuels that took millions of years to form. Of these, oil has been a mainstay of the industrial machine. Its consumption has been the fastest of all fuels, which has brought it on the verge of virtual depletion.

If the worldwide consumption of oil is capped at its current use of 89.8 million barrels per day (bpd), it will take just 30 years before the last drop of the proven reserves of almost a trillion barrels of oil is dug out of the ground. The global oil consumption however is on the rise: 87.4 million bpd in 2010; 88.9 million bpd in 2011; and 89.8 million bpd in 2012. Yet global oil production is falling short of the global demand for oil. As a result, the world has already reached what came to be known as Hubbard Peak or peak oil – i.e., when the global demand for oil exceeds its availability. What makes peak oil more alarming is the dire prediction of climate breakdown that dictates the remaining fossil fuels, including oil, should be left in the ground unburned and unsued. These fossils possess, as the IPCC reported, 3 trillion tons of carbon.

Bill Mckibben, a US academic turned activist, has long been calling for keeping the fossils where they are: in the ground. He has founded an activist organisation named The number 350 refers to 350 ppm (parts per million) as the maximum level of atmospheric concentration of carbon. Exceeding this level, according to Mckibben, will be a tipping point for climate change.

The world’s leading climatologist James Hansen echoes these concerns and puts the level of atmospheric carbon even lower at 340 ppm. The sad fact however is that, as of May this year, carbon concentration has already exceeded 400 ppm – which means for every million tons of gases in the atmosphere, there are 400 tons of carbon. Each year, 2 ppm of carbon is being added to the already bloated atmosphere. The science of climate or the fifth assessment seems far from reversing the current or projected trends in soaring levels of greenhouse gas emissions as the world goes on feeding its addiction to fossil fuels.

Fossil capital: use it or lose it

The fossil fuel industry is so powerful and so profitable that any challenge to its entrenched interests is a challenge to the Goliath of modern times. If such a challenge has any chance of success, it has to come from the slingshot of a David. But the latter-day David is being searched in the free market economy, and its apparently tantalising offerings in pollution permits, cap and trade, carbon tax, carbon stock exchanges and so on.

In this search, what is being forgotten is the fact that markets are inherently meant to serve the ends of capitalism, and sates its appetite for materials and energy. Karl Marx, in his enduring and memorable expression, calls capitalism’s hunger for materials and energy its “ecological and social metabolism”, which today is at the heart of the climate crisis. Scholars of globalisation assert that capital’s ongoing battle is for the expansion of markets for materials and manufactures.

From the core and the periphery to the semi-periphery in between, capitalism has grown into what Immanuel Wallerstein famously called a “world system”, even a “world society”. States in the core, the periphery and the semi-periphery work as its agents to sustain its advance. As a result, the reach of capitalism has extended across the globe. It has become “globalisation”.

Its power can be gauged from the fact that the fossil fuel industry continues to be marinated in state subsidies, although it swims in the black quarter after quarter, year after year. According to Worldwatch Institute, the industry worldwide received, on higher end, more than $1 trillion in state subsidies in 2012. Over the years, these subsidies have been trending up. State largese and black gold are the lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry.

On the other hand, fossil fuels have been the engine of the global capitalist economy. Even the dawn of civilisation broke after the industrialised world discovered the secret of solar power stored in the plant life that took millions of year before it decayed into fossils. This co-dependence has thrown up a dilemma that sociologist John Urry aptly captured in his latest book, Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures, and which sociologist Ulrich Beck has fascinatingly blurbed: “We can neither live with oil nor without it.”

Climate treaty: Crafting Kyoto-II

If the world is to live with fossil fuels, it is all the more important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the global mean warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). In short planet Earth has to be administered urgent care to lessen its sufferings from human excesses. The care, however, has become embroiled in the knots of conflict that snarl any progress toward healing the globe.

The 2009 debacle on climate in Copenhagen is one of the many manifestations of widening divide around this issue. A glint of hope came from Doha, Qatar, in 2012 that helped breathe life into the Kyoto protocol that essentially aims at lowering emissions at or below the level of 1990. An agreement on Kyoto has to be reached by or before 2015 if it has any chance of future enforcement.

It is encouraging that the United Nations pledged to call a meeting of the heads of state in 2014 to push them toward a global pact on climate change. Any comprehensive treaty requires all countries to come to an agreement on global emissions.

But in the past this requirement has been treated to tired platitudes and even more tired lip service. What makes matters worse is the reality that the global North and the global South are light years apart on how and how much emissions are to cut to save the planet from overheating.

A false choice between the planet and the poor

The growing economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America are more concerned with reducing poverty than cutting emissions, as the latter is linked with social sustainability. Despite the songs of glory sung to capitalism, it has thus far served only 7% of the global population (500 million people), while 93% of the population is still waiting for its soaring tide to lift their boats (rather their burdens that bent their lives). Yet the global GDP (gross domestic product) was estimated at $71.8 trillion in 2012.

Those on the left are frequently mocked for their utopian ideas, but capitalist utopia is seldom held to account for its make-believe nirvana. With a 7% success rate in the past 150 years, capitalist utopia makes over into dystopia. This is evident from the fact that billions of people still wallow in misery, although governments around the globe tend to undercount the poor. These governments are confronted with a false choice between salvaging the planet and feeding its living, breathing inhabitants.

Yet the choice between cutting poverty and cutting emissions divides the world. This divide is not just limited to global North and global South. Within the global North, the capitalist class and its backers in the national elite smell an entrapment in any binding treaty on global climate change. Such a treaty, in their view, will lead to a massive cut in economic growth that is imperative for the forward march of capital and the end of poverty. The economically depressed classes also feed on such apprehensions that a binding climate treaty would eliminate their jobs. There is thus a cross-class support for “business as usual”.

This divide is further compounded by political polarisation – although this too runs along class lines – that puts light years between conservatives and liberals, liberals and progressives, Tories and Laborites in the UK, or Republicans and Democrats in the US. The general lurch toward religious and fiscal conservatism in the West has hardened over the decades into such political formations as the Tea Party in the United States, and ethnicisation of politics from Australia to Germany.

The neoliberal austerity agenda in a wide swath of Europe and North America has made it even harder for the leaders and the led to agree on any global pact that has the potential to restrain, let alone reverse, economic growth by de-carbonising it. This concern explains why such a global event as the IPCC’s fifth assessment went almost unnoticed on September 27, when it was made public.


In the past 150 years, industrial capitalism has used up more than half of the carbon budget, and it is likely to exhaust the remainder of it by or before 2040. Its romance with fossil fuels is driven by the underpricing of coal, oil and gas, whose environmental and social costs are externalised to the general mass of consumers and citizens.

The result is a planet divided and imperilled by deepening social inequalities and worsening global climate change.

Social inequalities are the byproduct of vertical accumulation that creates the world’s richest men such as Carlos Slim Helu whose financial worth in 2010 was more than the national economies of 72 countries! Also, these inequalities have the meek of the arth bear the brunt of climate change.

More importantly, the “growth imperative” (i.e., endless growth) of the capitalist economy puts it at odds with the “climate imperative” of a carbon-neutral economy. The growth imperative, however, cannot be powered by fossil fuels without the planet-wide risk of climate breakdown. Similarly, the climate imperative of a de-carbonised economy will remain an illusion without social sustainability through horizontal growth of wealth. Climate change is therefore not a question of climate science; it is rather a question of economic, environmental and social justice.

[Tarique Niazi is associate professor of environmental sociology at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. This article was first published in Down to Earth, and is posted at Climate and Capitalism with the author’s permission.]

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