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Global warming: the great equaliser

Adam Parsons
01 September 2007

The neglected policy debate on ecological limits is unable to call out the elephant of unsustainable lifestyles without challenging the very premise of our economic system, writes Adam Parsons. 

As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”.  These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change.[1]  Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change.  In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”,[2] whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.[3]

The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record,[4] as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”.[5]  This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts)[6] was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures - is “very unlikely” to be avoided.[7]

Common sense 

Common sense would presume that the resulting questions for policymakers, long since removed from a debate on mans culpability, must inevitably focus on how to achieve a wholesale reorganisation of society to drastically decrease fossil fuel use, curb excessive consumption, and reform the global economic framework to ensure that all countries can live sustainably within ecological limits.  The collective government response to date, however, makes it seem like the countless thousands of lives being destroyed by flash floods, famines and desertification are living in a parallel world to the business-as-usual dealings of multinational corporations.

The stalemate reached during the Vienna talks reiterates the ongoing blindness to climate change reality demonstrated by government leaders.  China, which continues to open up two coal-fired power plants a week, refuses to cut emissions if it means sacrificing economic growth, compared with the US senior climate negotiator who said that the E.U.’s goal of slashing emissions to half of 1990 levels by 2050 would “be a very tough target to meet”[8] – even though the IPCC determine that an 80 percent reduction in ‘global’ greenhouse-gas emissions is needed before 2050.

At the same time as Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Russia all argued that the level of emissions cuts required should “be kept open”,[9] a Worldwatch Institute report was released that showed more wood was removed from forests in 2005 than ever before, more steel and aluminium was produced in 2006 than in previous world records, and inconceivable billions of tonnes of fossil fuels and oil are increasingly being consumed.[10]  The more urgent and fundamental question, therefore, is what factors continue to drive this one way ticket towards ecological disaster, and what social measures really need to be taken if cataclysmic global warming is to be forestalled?

Limits to Growth 

The framing of this basic enquiry into environmental sustainability can be traced back to a report published in 1972 that forecast the imminent collapse of life on earth and resulted in an outrage amongst economic thinkers.  Limits to Growth, written by leading scientists from the then unknown Club of Rome, used crude mathematical models to project future resource depletion that have long since been discredited, even if it’s essential repudiation of the modern belief in economic growth as “a kind of law of nature” is more relevant today than when it was first published.[11]  The observational problem, outlined the report, is that the planet has limited resources and a finite carrying capacity, while the demands placed on it by a growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders are insatiable.  For this reason, the belief that free trade will lead “to a natural order of things” is catastrophically mistaken, it argued, as there are in fact “no laws of economic ordination” because economics “is not really a science but a set of theories,” and because the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market does not actually exist.[12] 

This challenge to orthodox thinking on development was further underlined by the respected economist E. F. Schumacher who penned the classic discourse, Small is Beautiful, a year later in 1973.  As the world economy began to reel from oil price shocks, Schumacher’s eloquent and prophetic writings scorned the materialist assumption that ‘growth is good’ and ‘bigger is better’, and instead argued that natural resources like fossil fuels should not be treated as expendable ‘income’ but rather as capital owing to their non-renewability and eventual depletion. 

Often called the ‘philosophy of enoughness’, Schumacher was one of the first economists to question if Gross National Product could sufficiently measure human well-being, concluding with the damning verdict that “modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.  If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place.”[13]  Upon his advice that governments must respect natures “tolerance margins” and first prioritise sustainable development, the only answer to solving “the problem of production”, he said, is to first “thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a life-style designed for permanence.”[14]

These questions of ‘green’ or ‘ecological economics’ may not be anything new, as furthered by other important studies contradicting the blind reliance on economic growth such as For the Common Good(1989) by Daly and Cobb, but the sheer simplicity and common sense of the sustainability conundrum demands constant repetition.  The established economic system steadfastly refuses to acknowledge planetary limits, flatly ignores the inevitability of an eventual end to the growth cycle, and fails to recognise that a system based on the amoral concerns of resource allocation has created a world of such unimaginable inequalities that millions of people over-consume to the point of obesity, whilst millions of others are left to die without access to adequate food.

Market Contradictions

Government leaders, far from contemplating the prognostic warnings of Limits to Growth, have charged in the opposite direction by unleashing a “veritable crusade of economic expansionism” with the prevailing neo-liberal policies followed since the 1980s.[15]  The result is a contradiction at the heart of the market economy that literally threatens human life; by maximising trade for its own sake, without questioning the greenhouse-gas emissions brought about by the phenomenal rise in transport that free trade demands, we are placed on a collision course with the limits of social and environmental tolerance.

As set out in a report by the New Economics Foundation during the early years of the Kyoto Protocol, the simple logic of growth and trade liberalisation conflicts with attempts to control climate change.[16]  At a time when leading scientists estimated that a 90 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions is required from the rich nations by 2030, international trade was forecasted to grow exponentially by 70 percent during the period of the Kyoto Protocol until 2012, yet the agreement failed to include any emissions from freight in its ‘right to pollute’ measures of cap-and-trade.[17]  According to recent studies, CO2 emissions from shipping – which are twice as much as airlines and not even covered by the Kyoto accord – are not only far higher than previously thought, but could rise by as much as 75 percent in the next 15 to 20 years if world trade continues to grow and no action is taken.[18]

This ‘blind spot’ about freight, argued the NEF report, has led to a double failure; firstly in appreciating the real environmental impacts of rising freight movements, and secondly in the failure to remotely introduce the necessary policies to shift freight onto a sustainable path.[19]  When the World Bank published a report in 2000 called The Quality of Growth, nowhere did they explain how ‘clean growth’ could be achieved globally while simultaneously reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by the drastic amount recommended by the IPCC.  It constitutes an underlying conflict of interest that has yet to be debated at the highest levels of government, let alone resolved; do we prioritise the relentless opening of a country’s borders to international competition and the unrestrained movement of goods and services, or do we cooperatively manage the global economy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions?

'Ships Passing in the Night' 

According to the logic of neo-liberal economics, it is perfectly acceptable for thousands of lorries and ships to be ‘passing in the night’, carrying almost identical goods or with produce that could be produced locally, without consideration of the environmental impact of needlessly burning fuel.  The UK, to give a small example, exports one-and-a-half thousand tonnes of fresh potatoes to Germany each year, and imports practically the same amount from the same country,[20] a practice of ecologically wasteful trade that is not only repeated with every material product made, but is endlessly encouraged by the values of a purely capitalistic financial system.

Similar pernicious examples could be repeated ad infinitum, as in recent studies that show how deforestation – which added 5,000 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere between 1989 and 1995 without even mentioning the profoundly deleterious effect on essential oxygen production from trees – is perversely encouraged by the values of economic globalisation and now threatens to annihilate some 60 percent of all species.[21]  As succinctly concluded by the NEF; “To build the global economy on the foundations of fuel-intensive international trade and consumption is to build a castle on shifting and treacherous sand.”[22]

The predominant market-based approaches to tackling climate change, not least the carbon cap-and-trade schemes endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol, are equally a part of the central problem owing to their implicit approval of unlimited economic expansion.  As argued extensively by alternative and green economists, it is markets that “got us into this crisis in the first place”[23] and now it is markets, somewhat sardonically, that are touted as the only solution, as reflected in the conclusion of the Stern Review that climate change is the “greatest market failure the world has seen”. 

Free-market proposals like carbon-trading, advocated by a growing list of prominent economists, high-profile politicians and ‘green NGOs’ (including Sir Nicholas Stern, World Bank chief economist Larry Summers, Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Richardson, Eliot Spitzer, and not least Bill Clinton and Al Gore who both quipped that “the invisible hand has a green thumb”)[24] are not only deficient measures that give the illusion that suitable action is being taken, but are also prolonging the environmental crisis by creating new market opportunities for corporate profits and by delaying investment into renewable energies.

Commodification and overconsumption

“The act of commodification at the heart of offset schemes assigns a financial value to the impetus that someone may feel to take climate action,” reports the Carbon Trade Watch, “and neatly transforms this potential to bring about change into another market transaction.  There is then no urgent need for people to question the underlying assumptions about the nature of the social and economic structures that brought about climate change in the first place.”[25]  By turning nature into a ‘market’, in other words, attention is temporarily diverted from the reality that “today’s ecological problems are related to a system of global inequality that demands ecological destruction as a necessary condition of its existence.”[26]

The clearly sane response to the emergency of global warming is for all developed nations to considerably reduce their levels of consumption, but this platitude will remain a fantasy until the inherent inequities of the world economy are first addressed.  Only then, coupled with an international acceptance of the need to drastically limit the quantity of fossil fuels being extracted and burnt from the earth, can a workable framework for climate change mitigation be meaningfully discussed.

The evidence so far, judged in the context of a continuing “great global coal rush”, is that such an admittance is still critically ignored; China, who remains reluctant to cut any CO2 emissions if it means sacrificing economic growth, has doubled its annual coal production in six years; India will construct more than 100 coal-fired plants over the next decade; US power corporations are frantically pushing ahead with plans to construct around 150 new coal-fired stations; and the UK Labour government is quietly resurrecting two deep coal mines in Wales with furtive plans to reopen several more.[27]  “Unaware of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully detached from their likely termination,” says the eco-activist George Monbiot, “we drift into catastrophe.”[28]

It is possible to feel an acute sense of foreboding when comparing the basic threats of global warming with government inertia and denial, but climate change as the “moral question of the 21st century” also holds the potential to initiate global justice on a scale never seen throughout history.[29]  This is best illustrated through a key concept promoted by many environmental campaigners as a guide for agreeing a solution to CO2 emissions: carbon debt.  If the wealthiest countries first acknowledge that their unequal use of the global commons has run up an enormous and unpaid ecological ‘debt’ to the world, runs the argument, then the stage is set for a new kind of dialogue between rich and poor countries.  Any future negotiations on emissions reductions or the sharing of reductions, therefore, must also focus on just recompense for the damage already done to the atmosphere. 

Carbon debt 

A plethora of reports and articles constantly reveal how developing countries, who have done comparatively little to contribute to global warming, have become the world’s ‘climate change canaries’ and will pay the highest price in years to come through increasing droughts, storms and vector diseases, therefore requiring a moral ‘pay back’ of the carbon debt accrued by industrialised nations.  The impoverished living standards of the billions of people living on less than two-dollars-a-day, in this respect, is the immoral safeguard preventing the planet from even worse disaster.  It would not be alarmist to conjecture that if everyone shared the same lifestyle as the average American, the “holocaust predicted for the distant future would have already visited us.”[30]

A consensus of environmentalists now propose that the only acceptable solution to redressing CO2 emissions must be equity-based, thereby conceding “each individual’s logical claim to the atmosphere”.[31]  The proposed mechanism of ‘contraction and convergence’, as formulated by the Global Commons Institute, incorporates these principles by first establishing how much carbon dioxide can be produced each year within a safe limit, then basically dividing that sum between each individual in the world.  On a set date, all nations would ‘converge’ to an agreed level of emissions.

This straightforward concept, which is already approved by the European Parliament and key government spokesman in Africa, India and China, embodies more than just equal rights to the atmosphere for every citizen.  The implementation of contraction and convergence, based upon an international acceptance of ecological limits, would necessitate a sustainable world economy, an enforced reduction in consumption levels by the wealthiest nations, and hence a vast redistribution of resource usage between nations.

If contraction and convergence can be imagined as a potential model for future world development as a whole, it could also lead to a greater emphasis on sharing through a reformed economic system that prioritises sustainability and basic human needs.  The large-scale implications for global justice would be immense and all-encompassing, reflected in a necessary reorientation of the values and driving forces behind the economy.  Rather than the blind pursuit of maximum instant gratification and profit, the underlying priorities governing social development would need to focus on the collective desire for human survival, an end to poverty and gross inequality between countries, and the beginning of an international culture defined by cooperation and the shared purpose of averting mass catastrophe.

Man's Ingenuity 

In the present political climate such a vision might seem like abstract idealism, but if the alarming forecasts of the IPCC come anywhere near to fruition with the exposure of hundreds of millions to drought, hunger and flooding, then “the biggest economic and geo-political realignment of recent history” will soon be unavoidable.[32]  Two optimistic examples can be cited of how capable man is at change and adaption, firstly in a study of the Second World War economy in which England radically simplified its lifestyles and reduced its consumption of resources,[33] and in which America turned around its economy “on a dime” upon entering the war in 1941.[34] 

Another example of man's ingenuity and responsiveness to potential calamity is seen in the cyclical response by governments to financial emergencies, as witnessed recently with the respective bailouts enacted by the Fed and the Bank of England.[35]  What is clearly missing when these examples are applied to the environmental emergency is the same sense of a shared crisis, the necessary statesmanship and vision distinct from the short-term concerns for economic hegemony and profit, and the combined leadership of governments who recognise the critical need to reverse the escalating “problem of production.”

More than three decades after E. F. Schumacher penned his famous treatise, the global obsession with economic growth has stretched the limits of natural resources to the point of imminent exhaustion, an empirical conclusion that requires no further study or mathematical modelling to confirm.  The neglected policy debate on ecological limits, increasingly obfuscated by the complex arguments over CO2 emissions, is unable to call out the elephant of unsustainable lifestyles without challenging the very premise of an economic system built upon endless consumption and competition over scarce resources.  The only enduring cause for hope, despite the continued antipathy of the international community in questioning the systemic causes of global warming, is for climate change to become the world’s greatest equaliser by forcing an admission of the failure of globalised market forces.


1  William J. Kole. “Climate-proofing economic growth” (Associated Press, 28th August 2007)

2  Jeremy Lovell. “Global warming impact like ‘nuclear war’” (Reuters, 12th September 2007)

3  Ian Sample. “Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile land” (The Guardian, 31st August 2007)

4  Agence France Presse. “World hit by record extreme weather events in 2007: WMO” (August 7th 2007)

5  Matthew Green, Fiona Harvey and Barney Jopson. “Global warming concerns after Africa deluge” (Financial Times, London, 19th September 2007)

6  David Adam. “Loss of arctic ice leaves experts stunned” (The Guardian, London, 4th September 2007)

7  Cahal Milmo. “‘Too late to avoid global warming,’ say scientists” (The Independent, London, 19th September 2007)

8  John Ward. “U.N. climate talks end in cloud of discord” (Washington Post, September 1st 2007)

9  Agence France-Presse. “Climate change: row mars Vienna talks on future emissions cuts” (August 31st 2007)

10  Worldwatch Institute. “Window to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change Closing; EU Should Press for Immediate U.S. Action” (September 13th 2007)

11  Wouter Van Dieren. Taking nature into account: A report to the Club of Rome – Introduction (Springer-Verlag New York Inc., June 1995) p. 3.

12  Ibid.

13  E. F. Schumacher. Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered (Blond & Briggs, Great Britain, 1973) p. 246.

14  Ibid. p. 16.

15  Quote from Wouter Van Dieren, ibid.

16  Andrew Simms. “Collision course: free trade’s free ride on the global climate” (New Economics Foundation, November 2000)

17  Ibid, p. 2.

18  John Vidal. “CO2 output from shipping twice as much as airlines” (The Guardian, March 3rd 2007)

19  Ibid, p. 9.

20  Andrew Simms, Dan Moran and Peter Chowla. “The UK Interdependence Report: How the world sustains the nation's lifestyles and the price it pays” (New Economics Foundation, April 2006)

21  Julio Godoy. ‘Incentives Offered to Destroy Forests’ (Inter Press Service, September 20th 2007)

22  Andrew Simms. “Collision course: free trade’s free ride on the global climate” (New Economics Foundation, November 2000) p. 5.

23  See, for example, John Cavanagh, John Feffer, Daphne Wysham. Just Climate Policy (Foreign Policy in Focus, June 28th 2007)

24  See Mitchel Cohen. “Listen Gore: Some Inconvenient Truths About the Politics of Environmental Crisis” (Counterpunch.org, February 2nd 2007)

25  Kevin Smith. “The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins” (Transnational Institute report, February 20th 2007)

26  John Bellamy Foster. “A New War on the Planet?” (MRZine, June 8th 2007)

27  John Harris. “The great global coal rush puts us on the fast track to irreversible disaster” (The Guardian, London, August 30th 2007)

28  George Monbiot. “A sudden change of state” (The Guardian, July 3rd 2007)

29  Quote from George Monbiot. “Drastic action on climate change is needed now – and here’s the plan” (The Guardian, 31st October 2006)

30  C.E. Karunakaran. Dangerous Denial (Frontline Magazine, February 2007, Vol:24 Iss:04)

31  Andrew Simms. An environmental war economy: The lessons of ecological debt and global warming (New Economics Foundation, July 2001) p. 2.

32  Ibid.

33  Ibid, p. 26-33

34  See George Monbiot interview by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. "If We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death" (Democracy Now! Interview, May 18th 2007)

35  See Andrew Dobson. A climate of crisis: Towards the eco-state (OpenDemocracy.org, September 19th 2007)

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