Climate Change and Capitalism: Challenges of the COP21 Paris and Climate Movements

The debate is over. Now no one can deny that the world is growing warmer and that it is due to capitalist industrial activity. Or they could deny it, but without any supporting evidence in their favor.

Even Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Laudato Si0 recognizes that “there is a very consistent scientific consensus that indicates that we find ourselves facing a worrisome warming of the climate system.” And “numerous scientific studies indicate that most global warming of recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (GEI) emitted above all by human activity.

Announced on June 18, the papal message defines climate as “a common good, from all and for all. At the global level, it is a complex system related to many essential conditions for human life,” so the climate should not be an object for profit nor a target for depredation and avarice.

In the document, which has been called “The Magna Carta of Ecology”, the Pope criticizes the desire for wealth inherent in the dominant economic model that has converted the world into a mountain of garbage,” and redefines the significance of the commandment “thou shall not kill” by emphasizing that “some twenty percent of the world population consumes resources in such a way that it robs poor nations and future generations who will need it to survive.”

This present level of consumption by the affluent nations and the richest sectors of societies, “where the habit of spending and throwing away have reached unheard of levels” is unsustainable, affirmed Pope Francis. He noted that the planet is exhausted and the problem of poverty has not been resolved.

The Pope emphasized the need to transform lifestyles, and forms of production and consumption to resolve the climate crisis. The Encyclical is an urgent call to clean up our common house—humanity’s only home— to protect it from greenhouse gases and from structural causes that condemn most of the human race to horrible conditions of life.

The scientific consensus concludes that we live with almost a centigrade degree more of global temperature owing to the increase of greenhouse gases (GEI) in the atmosphere, a result of the burning of carbon, petroleum, and natural gas since the beginning of the industrial era. The natural greenhouse effect that made possible a climate favorable for the development of life on the planet has been altered by the incorporation of enormous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, a consequence of the combustion of hydrocarbons extracted from the subsoil that has provoked an imbalance in the carbon cycle. Air contains more carbon dioxide (CO2) and is warmer than in the eighteenth century and warmer than in any of the last 800,000 years.

In fact, this past year was the warmest in the history of recorded temperature1. The average temperature on the surface of the earth was 0.69 grades above the average of the 20th century, four one-hundredths of a degree more than the peak observed before in 2010. The temperature has risen 0.8 degrees since 1880 when historical recording began. Most of the warming has happened in the last thirty years and nine of those ten years were warmer than the history of what had happened previously.

Although 8/10 of a degree in the mercury column might not seem like much, its consequences are devastating. More destructive hurricanes, excessive rains in some places and extreme drought in others, a proliferation of fires, glacial melting at the poles and in the mountains, acidification of the oceans and a rising sea level are some of the phenomena that are already affecting the lives of millions of people, principally in the poorest communities in countries throughout the world.

While the debate is over, the same cannot be said for the campaigns of denial and disinformation driven by people on the right, the media and other defenders of the system, including scientists at the service of petroleum companies. As in the case of the campaigns against the theory of evolution where the right in the US tries to suppress scholarly textbooks, a similar effort exists to suppress the science of climate change.2 The state of South Carolina has approved a law like this. In Kentucky and West Virginia there were similar efforts, but popular protest blocked them.

Reactionary positions have gone from denying the reality of global warming to recognizing it, but arguing that it is only the result of natural causes—nothing to do with industrial petroleum. They have argued that the change in the climate is due to solar cycles, for example.

Today we know that the sun is not the problem, but one of the solutions. And it’s possible to prove that the climate crisis has been caused by the single-minded quest for wealth in the capitalist economy and its characteristics, such as extraction of natural resources, the dominance of the market, and the conception of nature as a coming together of goods susceptible to being converted into merchandise.

Global warming will continue throughout the present century in all the foreseeable scenarios. Many of the consequences of climate change will last for centuries, even if at this very moment contaminating emissions were stopped completely. In 2009 in Copenhagen, the governments of the participating countries agreed to limit emissions to avoid global warming over two degrees by the middle of the century. The breach of agreements and the lack of commitments by the governments of the nations that contaminate the most has converted this goal into an impossible one.

If the two-degree line is crossed by 2050, hurricanes and other extreme events will be more intense and frequent. Katrina will be no more than a kiddy show. The heat wave of 2003 that caused tens of thousands of deaths in Europe will be what we get every day. The oceans will continue to warm, to become more acid, and to rise. Communities, cities and cultures will be washed into the sea. Many species will become extinct, and maize, wheat and rice production will fall in tropical and temperate zones, creating hunger in whole populations.

Both rural and urban areas will face greater conflicts over the water supply, and forced displacement of people will increase. The worst scenario would be a warming of six degrees by the end of the century. It would imply not only disasters and atypical climate events, but also would completely transform the way the climate functions on earth. In the past, a temperature lowering of six degrees brought the Ice Age. Six degrees higher would provoke dramatic changes that would make the earth unrecognizable compared to what it has been for the last 15,000 years.

Today our possibilities are limited to avoiding the most extreme disasters and keeping things from spinning out of control. That is the goal for the Conference of the Parts (COP) of the Convention Framework of the United Nations on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to take place in Paris, the twenty-first such meeting, starting Nov. 30, 2015. In this conference, for the first time they will try to come up with a universal and obligatory accord that effectively combats the climate crisis and compels a transition to societies not dependent on fossil fuels. A global accord for a fair transition. But twenty years of successive failures at the climate summits leave little room for optimism.

Although a closer look reveals that 2014, although it beat the record temperature, also held some hopeful signs. Between March and November, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalized its fifth Evaluation Report, divided into three parts: Physical Bases, submitted in September 2013; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and Mitigation of Climate Change. The report’s contributions are the first with findings sustained by scientific consensus. In September, the Summit on Climate took place at UN headquarters–an emergency meeting called by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. At the same time, more than 400,000 people demonstrated in New York City as many more marched throughout the world demanding that governments and corporations find real solutions in the face of the climate crisis.

Also in September, the book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein rapidly climbed the bestseller lists. In March, the series Cosmos, an odyssey in space-time was simultaneously shown on ten channels in 45 languages and in 181 countries. In three of its twelve chapters, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson set forth magisterially the scientific evidence for the natural climate change experienced by the planet in the past, and the present anthropogenic global warming that has us on the brink of the greatest environmental and social catastrophe ever.

And in December, the authors Gerardo Honty and Eduardo Gudynas presented their book Climate Change and transitions to Living Well, Alternatives to Development for a Secure Climate in the framework of the Summit of Peoples Facing Climate Change, an alternative to the COP20 in Lima. Honty and Gudynas emphasized the physical limits of resources that makes the general aspiration for “development” impossible, and they propose options based on the cosmovision of the Andean peoples.

Science’s Warning

The IPCC is a group of climate experts formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Program on Climate Change. Its function is to evaluate scientific, technical, social and economic information, its consequences and possible solutions. Its reports are based on peer-reviewed scientific literature and presented to the Convention Framework of the United Nations on Climate Change that meets annually. In 1997, one of these meetings produced the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord to reduce the emissions of GEI which came into force in 2005 and ratified it for a second period starting in 2013 and continuing through 2020, but it is now weaker and further from its objectives.

Developed by around 1,000 scientists from more than eighty countries, the Fifth Report3 maintains that the human influence on the earth’s climate is irrevocable. Climate change threatens irreversible and catastrophic effects for life and nations, but it is possible to limit its impacts if acted upon promptly, rapidly and on a grand scale. The report is the result of the review of more than 30,000 scientific documents, which makes it by far the most comprehensive assessment on the subject at this date.

Here are some of its assertions:

* The influence of humans on the climate is evident starting from the increase in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It has been detected in the warming of the air and the ocean, in alterations in the water cycle, in reductions in the quantities of snow and ice, in the elevation of the average of the level of the ocean and in the intensity of some extreme climatic phenomena. The evidence of human influence is growing measurably.

* Many of the changes in the climate observed since 1950 have no precedents in millennia past. The principal contribution to warming comes from the increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that began to be produced in 1750.

* The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide has increased to levels never before seen in the past 800,000 years. CO2 has increased forty percent since the preindustrial area owing principally to the burning of fossil fuels and second, to the change in land use and deforestation. The oceans have absorbed around thirty percent of the carbon dioxide emitted, causing their acidification with noxious consequences in the food chain.

* The continuing and accumulated emissions of CO2 will cause major warming during the twenty first century and after. The majority of the impacts of climate change will last for centuries—even if they are contained—due to past and present emissions of CO2.

* To contain climate change in a place where it permits adaptation, it will be necessary to radically reduce in a sustained way the greenhouse gases that cause warming. There’s no other way.

* But far from decreasing, the emissions of GEI are accelerating, growing twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the three previous decades. The governments of the world are spending much more money to subsidize fossil fuels than to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

* World emissions would have to be reduced from 40 to 70% between 2010 and 2015 to maintain global warming lower than two degrees. In the scenario of global warming of between one and two degrees centigrade, the risks of total impacts on biodiversity and the economy are moderate. The risk of losing much biodiversity with the destruction of ecosystem goods and services is high in a scenario with warming of three degrees centigrade.

* Approximately eighty percent of the known reserves of fossil fuels have to be left in the subsoil to avoid passing the threshold of rise in temperature of two degrees centigrade.

* To mitigate warming, it is necessary to invest 147 billion dollars a year in clean energy until the year 2030. And the investments in fossil fuels would have to be reduced to $30 billion a year.

* The greatest growth in emissions of GEI occurs in developing countries, but the great part comes from the production of goods consumed in the United States and Europe.

* During this century, climate change will slow economic growth, spreading poverty and diminished food production, creating critical new zones of malnutrition and hunger. It is predicted that the incidence of harm to health especially in poor populations will increase. The probability of injury, sickness and death owing to heat waves and more intense fires will increase worker disability and work productivity from the vulnerable population will fall. And there will be greater risks of disease caused by food and transmitted by vectors.

Adaptation to disaster?

The most effective efforts to resist the effects of the climate crisis are programs that improve basic public health, like provision of potable water and sewage systems, vaccination and infant health services, a greater capacity to anticipate and a resulting response in the face of disasters, and combating poverty.

Adaptation has begun to be considered in some planning processes. Answers responding to adaptation needs habitually employ engineering and technology alternatives and frequently are part of the programs for facing risks of disaster, such as in the management of water. Already many communities at risk or affected are working on adaptation out of necessity, with efforts frequently directed by women. There is an increasing recognition of the value of measures from the grassroots, from institutions and based on ecosystems. Options of adaptation are along the lines of progressive adjustments, and they are beginning to focus on flexibility and learning.

Mitigation is human intervention to reduce the sources or to enable the capture of GEI. Climate change is a global problem and the actions to reduce its impacts must also be global. Since most greenhouse gases accumulate, are combined and distributed in the atmosphere, the emissions from any business, corporation or country affect everyone. There won’t be successful mitigation if the contaminating agents put their own interests first.

The options of adaptation and mitigation selected in the short term will affect the risks of climate change during this century and beyond. To assure the full exercise of human rights and the equality of all the people who live in vulnerable communities and zones it is essential to face the effects of climate change.

The UN report’s importance lies in the exhaustive extent of the investigation and the practically unanimous scientific agreement about the causes and dimensions of the problem. In addition, it repeats and confirms many of the ideas and confirmations argued by the anti-climate crisis movements in the past decade.

. . .

The largest mobilization of people in favor of solving the climate crisis took place on Sept. 21, 2014 in the financial heart of the empire.4 In New York City, more than 400,000 people took over the streets, and in various cities of the world hundreds of thousands more added their voices to the protest. The objective was to convince the leaders of the nations of the UN General Assembly to tackle climate change and to listen to the voices of the people.

The impact of the march was formidable, not only due to its size, which exceeded expectations, but for its diversity. It reflected “the level of awareness that was being given to climate change, which already had attracted not only environmentalists: there were workers, nurses, the unemployed, blacks, Latinos, Asians: a consciousness much more representative and broad was being created around the issue,” an organizer of the giant mobilization told ALAI5 weeks later.

She added that the agreement between the U.S. and China to reduce their greenhouse gas was definitely a political move in response to the massive demonstrations.

The movements against the climate crisis around the world apparently are at the point of achieving the critical mass needed to overcome the power of the fossil fuel industries. They have become a global wave that acts locally by putting groups and organizations in contact that are willing to join together. At each summit of the governments, the movements establish forums for deliberation, organization and mobilization for the people.

The most outstanding event of the government summit realized two days after the historic march was Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech.6 Recently appointed as a Messenger of Peace of the United Nations for matters of climate change, the actor referred to the climate crisis as a question that was not rhetorical nor a product of hysteria, but a fact. The scientists know it. The corporations know it. The governments know it, and the Pentagon knows it.

DiCaprio was surprisingly direct. He stated that it doesn’t have to do only with telling people to change their incandescent light bulbs for bulbs that supposedly save electricity or buy a hybrid car. The causes of, like the solutions to the disaster go beyond the personal environment. Industries and governments around the world must undertake decisive action on a large scale.

Facing the auditorium filled with representatives and heads of state, he relaunched the controversial idea of charging for carbon emissions, but even more, of eliminating government subsidies for companies that use petroleum, gas and carbon. The actor’s ideas about liberty, the public interest, natural resources and human rights were remarkable, especially since they came from a sphere usually associated with frivolity.

“The freedom of polluting industries must be stopped without the excuse that it favors a free market economy.” Businesses that contaminate “don’t deserve our tax dollars, they deserve our control or the economy itself will die if our ecosystems collapse.” He noted that clean air and a livable climate are inalienable human rights. Life depends on them. Resolving this crisis is a matter of survival.

Finally, he called the leaders of the nations to make history or history will destroy them. “Now is your turn,” he said. The people gave their opinion Sunday across the world (in the mobilization that the actor also took part in), and the momentum cannot be stopped.”

. . .

The climate crisis is of such magnitude that it will change everything about our form of life, whether we let it continue as is, or begin to combat it at its roots. And the primary motor of climate change is not carbon dioxide, but capitalism. This is why the right denies the crisis exists, and grassroots movements are beginning to understand that climate change represents the chance to end a savagely unjust and destructive economic system.

The paragraph could be a good synthesis of the new book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.7 Rebutting Al Gore, the book sets out, stating on the cover that the true inconvenience is that climate change is not so much a matter of carbon, but of capitalism. It is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. It is a war waged by a predatory economic model against life on earth.

“The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.” That is to say, the conception of climate change as a powerful catalyst of a massive global movement that would protect people from the social havoc of capitalism as well as the devastation caused by climate change.

Klein observes that governments have never treated climate change as a crisis, in spite of the risk of loss of lives on a scale much greater than what occurred in the banking collapse in 2008 or the collapse of the Twin Towers in the attacks of September 11.

Scientists agree that cutting emissions is urgent and necessary to reduce the risk of a catastrophe, but in practice this is regarded as merely a suggestion or actions that can be postponed. Until now the politicians, lackeys of the transnational corporations, have insisted on market-based false solutions, in clear contrast with the radical measures that the reality demands.

But, according to the author, the politicians are not the only ones who have the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements can also declare one. Slavery was not a crisis for the British and U.S. elite until the abolition movement made it one. Discrimination based on sex was not a crisis until feminism showed it to be one. Apartheid was not a crisis until Nelson Mandela and his movement declared it one.

“In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.”

Naomi Klein confesses that, like so many others, she denied climate change for longer than she would like to admit. “I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers” for whom the repeated arrival of winter showed that it was a hoax or a conspiracy theory. But a moment arrived when “I stopped avoiding the articles and scientific studies (on climate change) and read everything I could find. I also stopped outsourcing the problem to the environmentalists, stopped telling myself this was somebody else’s issue, somebody else’s job. And through conversations with others in the growing climate justice movement, I began to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalyzing force for positive change.”

For example, to reconstruct and stimulate local economies; the rescue of democracies from the corrosive influence of corporations and, in short, to reverse the actions, programs, treaties and legal reforms that have privatized and pulverized public and social property in transportation, energy, agriculture, homes, education, basic services and health. The crisis can also be a catalyst to recover the social and human rights and individual guaranties beaten down under the fist of the free market.

Klein argues that the core of the problem is found in the fact that “the domination of the logic of the market over public life politically prohibits the most direct and obvious answers to the problem. To begin with, how would society be able to invest massively in low-carbon public services and infrastructure at the same time as the public sphere is being auctioned off and dismantled? How would governments be able to regulate, rate and penalize fossil fuel companies fuel when these measures are dismissed as relics of communist-style “planning and control”? How to really protect and support the renewable energy sector to replace fossil fuel energy when protectionism prohibits it? These questions place the author face to face with the main question: Is it possible to effectively face the climate crisis within the framework of the capitalist system?

Or put another way: Is there any private business that is willing to sacrifice its business or cease to expand its market and profits in the interests of saving the planet? In your dreams. So whatever energy source can serve for a short-term transition must be managed by the public sector at the service of the general interest, with earnings are reinvested in clean energies that take polluting energy sources out of circulation.

The complete opposite of what’s happening now. Klein warns:

“In order for the value of these companies to remain stable or grow, oil and gas companies must always be able to prove to their shareholders that they have fresh carbon reserves to exploit after they exhaust those currently in production. This process is as crucial for extractive companies as it is for a company that sells cars or clothing to show their shareholders that they have preorders for their future products. At minimum, an energy company is expected to have as much oil and gas in its proven reserves as it does in current production, which would give it a “reserve-replacement ratio” of 100 percent.”

“Which is why investors tend to get quite alarmed when the ratio drops below that level. For instance, in 2009, on the same day that Shell announced that’s its reserve-replacement ratio for the previous year had ominously dipped to 95 percent, the company scrambled to reassure the market that it was not in trouble. It did this, tellingly, by declaring that it would cease new investments in wind and solar energy. At the same time, it doubled down on a strategy of adding new reserves from shale gas.”

“From the perspective of a fossil fuel company, going after these high-risk carbon deposits is not a matter of choice—it is its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, who insist on earning the same kinds of mega-profits next year as they did this year and last year. And yet fulfilling that fiduciary responsibility virtually guarantees that the planet will cook.”

Capitalism presents populations with false dichotomies, in which the people always come out on the losing end. Austerity or extractionism, unemployment or poisoning, hunger or genetically modified crops. People’s dynamics of living together are lost and profits are privatized; the brakes are removed from consumerism. Concentrations of income, energy waste and addiction to fossil fuels have put humanity in front of a crisis on a grand scale.

But there is a prodigious popular history of great victories for social justice in the middle of severe crises. Klein reminds us of the New Deal policies after the great depression of 1929 and of various social programs following the Second World War. The essential element was, and continues to be, building mass movements capable of confronting the defenders of the status quo, powerful movements that demand a fair piece of the economic pie. There still remain, although under attack, various legacies of those historic periods in various countries, like Social Security, pensions for old age, access to decent housing, public support of the arts and free education.

“I am convinced—she says—that climate change represents an historic opportunity on an even greater scale.”

Since we have to reduce our emissions to the levels that the scientific consensus demands, why not take advantage of the opportunity to establish policies that improve levels of life, that reduce the offensive breach between rich and poor, that create enough decent jobs for everyone who needs them, that rebuild the democracy from the bottom up?

Instead of becoming another instance of “the shock doctrine”, where crises are converted into capitalist restructuring against the people, climate change can be the shock from the people, like a blow from below for sharing power with many hands, and radically increasing the common and public goods while rescuing those that have already been auctioned off.

“And where right-wing shock doctors exploit emergencies (both real and manufactured) in order to push through policies that makes us even more crisis prone, the kind of transformations discussed in this pages would do the exact opposite: they would get to the root of why we are facing serial crisis in the first place and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now.”

But before any of these changes can succeed—before we can believe that climate change can change us, as Klein assures us it will—first we have to participate, inform ourselves and organize. There are movements in process and new and ancestral knowledge for confronting the crisis, so that this one will not be the last – and failed—challenge of contemporary civilization.

. . .

What is the expectation of the life of a civilization? What do we know about civilizations that self-destruct? Neil DeGrasse Tyson asked this in Cosmos, a space/time odyssey inspired by the celebrated series of the 1970s, a personal voyage of the scientist and teacher Carl Sagan, with his partner, Ann Druyan.

Capitalism was developed when the planet and its air, its rivers, its oceans and continents, its resources, appeared infinite. It was consolidated before we saw the earth as the limited organism that it is, with its delicate equilibrium that sustain life. The economic systems that we know, market economies or state economies, were in agreement on one fundamental point: making money, so they focused on short-term gains. The prevalent economic systems, whatever their ideologies, lacked integrated mechanisms to protect the interests of present and future generations and their right to a healthy environment.

At the scene of the crime of global warming, Cosmos finds the footprints of capitalist civilization all over.

DeGrasse Tyson relates that in 1960, Sagan’s doctoral thesis included the first calculation of a dramatic greenhouse effect on Venus as part of his interest in the atmosphere of the planets, including ours. About the earth, he stated back then that when we free vast quantities of carbon dioxide, we increase the greenhouse effect Perhaps not much is necessary to cause climate disequilibrium, to convert this paradise–our only home in the cosmos–into a kind of inferno. Perhaps we are at the point of no return or just a step from it.

“Venus and Earth began with similar quantities of carbon but they were driven along radically different paths. In Venus one finds almost all of it in the form of gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The greatest part of the carbon on Earth has remained stored for a billion years in solid vaults of limestone-carbonate rock. Less than one three hundredth of one percent is in the atmosphere. Less than three molecules of every ten thousand. But this makes the difference between a sterile earth and a garden of life. Without carbon dioxide, Earth would be frozen, and with double the quantity, it would be come uncomfortably hot and although there would not be as much heat as on Venus, it would cause us grave problems.”

Especially because of its approach to climate change before a wide audience, the new series Cosmos put the American right and those who emulate it throughout the world in a bad mood.

Cosmos appeals to a superior intelligence that is the distinctive feature of our species and affirms that we ought to use it as other beings use their evolutionary advantages, to guarantee that descendants prosper and that their legacy is transmitted and that the material of nature that sustains us is protected.

“Human intelligence is imperfect, of course, and it is recent. The ease with which it can be dissuaded, burdened, or disrupted by other innate tendencies, at times disguised as the light of reason, is worrisome. But if our intelligence is our unique advantage, we ought to learn to use it better, to sharpen it, to understand its limits and deficiencies.”

Our intelligence has enabled us to learn the reasons for global warming and its consequences and it has led us to find solutions by means of models and proposals of solutions possible to the crisis of the climate.

. . .

The modest print run of the book by Gerardo Honty and Eduardo Gudynas, Climate Change and Transitions to Living Well8, is in inverse proportion to the relevance of its content. The work contains the most complete proposal for moving with fairness from economies whose energy matrix depends on petroleum to societies that move toward radically eliminating carbon emissions through the use of clean and renewable energy sources. This alternative differs from the strategies of neoliberal development and expresses a transformation that transcends the frameworks of capitalism and socialism that we know now.

The Uruguayan authors are outspoken in emphasizing the necessity of overcoming a “certain hypocrisy” on the part of Latin American countries that blame—rightly—the industrialized nations for their high emissions in the negotiations over climate change, but forget that these frequently come from the petroleum imported from less developed countries. To be congruent, the countries of Latin America that have oil should suspend their exports to the global economy.

Honty argues that the poor countries defend their right to develop. In the negotiations, they contend that the Latin Americans can’t do much to reduce emissions because they have to travel the path of development, and for this the rich countries have to transfer resources. It is the ecological debt of the rich countries to the poor, impossible to deny. But what a real transition demands is a new policy from Latin America directed toward “el buen vivir”—good living, abandoning the present style of development that is confronting the region and the world with problems like climate change.

“There exist objective and globally accepted data that affirm that if we want to maintain a habitable planet for human beings, we can’t consume more than a third of the reserves of known fossil fuels,” Honty writes.

He adds, “In the world there is exploration and development of new resources of fossil fuels called non-conventional: shale gas, tracking and lutites—impressive reserves that lie underneath the Arctic, etc. All these reserves are not counted in the numbers mentioned.”

“Our countries have embarked on a frenetic expansion of the oil and gas-bearing frontier, carrying out new exploration, incorporating new reserves, when it is already known that today we should not consume these reserves.”

It is a supremely unfair but unavoidable situation: we have to leave most of the reserves of hydrocarbons in the ground because rich countries have exhausted the limit of emissions. The concept of climate justice alludes to this: the rich countries owe financial support to the poor ones to transition from combustibles to clean energy. This will be one of the principal matters in dispute at the end of the year in the Paris summit.

Honty considers that the Latin American countries would be perfectly able to support their own “good living” with existing reserves without having to consume all of them. But they have a different logic.

“In the book, we point out a list of the investments our countries are planning to make in these five years (from 2013 to 2017) in oil and gas exploration, and to increase supplies of fossil fuels. These figures are very important in dollars that could be directed to other sources and another type of development of energy resources.”

Gudynas, for his part, describes the proposal for transition, the central theme of the book, simply:

“It’s like taking a patient through the door of the emergency room in a hospital. This patient is the present state of our societies and their strategies for development. This global patient needs emergency measures to avoid additional social and environmental deterioration and to leave the planet Earth in better condition so it can begin recovery from the present situation imposed by contemporary development practices. Thus the transitions are –and hence the name– successive democratic changes, consensual ones that serve by example to advance major modifications with the development of an orientation towards good living.”

The emphasis is on getting off the current path of development. The planet’s resources are not enough for all countries to arrive at “development”, if that’s understood to mean the style of living of industrialized countries.

Honty and Gudynas propose a process of transitions in which ecology directs the economy and not the reverse, as has been the case up to now. It is based on two lines. The first is to reduce their own emissions with a simple focus—in the area of demand, energy consumption must be cut, and in supply, there must be a shift to renewable sources. The second, to reduce co-participation in the global economy and global commerce—to stop feeding the emissions that other countries produce with the hydrocarbons and other raw materials they export.

This distinction is key. The authors are convinced that the UN negotiations have arrived at a point of successive stalemates and that the planet cannot continue hoping that the European Union, the United States and the rest of the industrialized countries will begin a process of transition unless Latin America begins it immediately.

“The region must take the lead in the transitions, and in place of basing their discourse on requests for assistance or denunciations, make it into a leadership position supported by their own innovative actions in the vanguard on climate change. The arguments in forums like the United Nations can no longer be to invoke a planetary Mother Earth, but rather must provide concrete examples of how to protect the Pachamama within every country.”

And they explain how to do it:

Transition policies are applied in four areas: energy supply, energy demand, the agricultural sector and the international scene. The first must include a moratorium on new sources of hydrocarbons, that is to say the suspension of new explorations. It doesn’t make sense to increase reserves of something that can’t be used. It’s essential to have a new regulatory framework that prohibits projects or undertakings with a large social and environmental impact. There must also be standards of evaluation for extraction of hydrocarbons in operation and the reorientation of their use and commerce. The destiny of hydrocarbons will be distinct from what is done at present and it will be based on global exports. The priority will be on national necessities.

Policies addressing demand must consider prioritizing collective transportation, gradually abandoning the use of the private automobile and maintaining only vehicles for legitimate and indispensable use like firemen, ambulances, tractors and cargo transport.

Important changes are necessary in the industrial sector in relation to the norms of obsolescence or the useful life of products, a defining factor in the consumption of energy and materials. Programmed obsolescence must be stopped, that is to say, the trap of industry to induce the periodic sale based on the deliberate reduction of the useful life of its products.

A system of promotion, punishment or limitation of products as a function of the use of recycled and renewable resources should be developed. In the construction sector, there must be architectural design codes to guarantee the energy efficiency of homes and buildings of all types.

In the agriculture section, we must stop deforestation and progressively eliminate dependence on oil-based inputs, such as agrochemicals. The most important measures for confronting climate change on agricultural land consist in reorienting production for national and local markets, reducing the cycle that pushes the grazing cattle into the forests and producing food under agro ecological conditions of low-carbon emission.

For Honty and Gudynas, the changes they propose—briefly described here—are not just political in the sense that they apply uniquely to governments, but rather imply deep cultural transformations. They transform forms of consumption and preconceived ideas about the quality of life. For this reason, the transitions must be profoundly democratic while responding directly to the challenges of the climate crisis.

. . .

The principal challenge of the COP21 in Paris is to construct effective paths to find a way out of the climate crisis through a globally binding accord. The accord must break with the long train of dubious advances and obvious failures that the PR has dressed up as great successes, like the Kyoto Protocol (1997), The Bali Route (2007), the Cancun Accords (2010) and the Durban Platform (2011).

The US government has sent a harsh message to Paris and to the planet by approving on May 11 Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic, where twenty percent of the undiscovered hydrocarbons in the world lie. Meanwhile, the FAO, the World Bank and the corporations that have sequestered the UN summits, are increasing their pressure to promote the REDD program, geoengineering and so-called “climate-smart agriculture” may be included in the next international accord.

Climate-smart agriculture (for dim-witted farmers) and REDD are not designed to solve the loss of forests and climate change, but rather to prepare the ground for agribusinesses to privatize land and to enable wealthy countries to get carbon credits to continue, unconcerned, burning hydrocarbons. All at the same time as they try to make us believe that the scheme contributes to reducing emissions.

At the June 7 meeting of the G7, member nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions forty to seventy percent by 2050 and maintain the goal of two degrees centigrade as the maximum global temperature increase. The clique of the seven richest countries announced their commitment to establish a zero-carbon economy by the end of the century. The problem is that they did not announce a binding calendar or list any quantitative goals for members. Eleven days later, Pope Frances published his encyclical “Laudato Si”, an urgent call for honest dialogue to stop the slide of the planet into the abyss.

Soon it will be seen if the COP21 stands up to the terrible mathematics of climate change.9 The three numbers that summarize the imminent tragedy are 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or the line above which we’ll find ourselves in a global warming that would cause drastic and irreversible changes–enough to turn Earth into an uninhabitable planet.

565 gigatons (gt=1×10 raised to the ninth power) is the limit of the quantity of C02 (pourable) in the atmosphere that would keep warming at below 2 degrees centigrade.

And the number perhaps most terrible: 2795 gigatons of CO2–the equivalent of the world’s reserves of petroleum, gas and carbon–that represents a volume of emissions five times greater than the maximum acceptable.

 Alfredo Acedo is a contributor to the Americas Program on food sovereignty and climate changes issues, and Director of Social Communication and adviser to the National Union of Regional Organizations of Autonomous Small Farmers of Mexico