Climate Talks in Madrid: What Will It Take to Prevent Climate Collapse?

Power station, Imperial Valley, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The two-week marathon of the annual UN climate conference is underway in Madrid, and the world’s expectations have perhaps never been lower. The Amazon is burning and unprecedented storms are raging worldwide, but the world’s climate diplomats are still mostly talking business-as-usual. Never mind that this year’s 25th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) almost didn’t happen, after it was disinvited by the fascistic Bolsonaro regime in Brazil and almost derailed again by the recent upheaval in the streets of Santiago, Chile, where it had been rescheduled to occur. And Trump’s effort to withdraw US participation is not the most serious problem.

The main obstacles have much more to do with how emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other climate-destabilizing gases are increasing again after appearing to plateau for a couple of years. A rising number of countries appear to be stepping back from the voluntary and entirely inadequate proposals they brought to the table in 2015 in Paris. And the myth of an informal “ratcheting mechanism” to encourage countries to steadily raise the ambition of their climate policy proposals shows few signs of reality, with only a year to go before countries are encouraged (not required) to release an “enhanced” emissions reduction plan. Of course the Paris Agreement has no real means of enforcement, only some language about an “expert-based” committee to address implementation and compliance that is mandated to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” And we shouldn’t forget that wealthy countries still support fossil fuels to the tune of $3-500 billion per year in direct subsidies and a whopping $5 trillion or more, according to the World Bank, if environmental and other indirect costs are included.

One promising sign is that some organizations involved in the climate negotiations are finally starting to raise the question, who is actually most responsible for climate-destabilizing emissions? The Washington-based World Resources Institute has an interactive platform that helps us visualize the vast inequities in emissions across various countries. Their charts reveal that the top ten emitting countries and regions (the EU is counted as a single entity) are responsible for nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of all global emissions, and that China, the US and EU contribute fourteen times the emissions of the hundred lowest-emitting countries (see Research over the past five years from Thomas Piketty’s group in Paris reveals that inequalities within countries matter as much as the differences among different countries, now accounting for half of the global distribution of greenhouse gas sources. Before addressing these issues in more detail, it is necessary to first review the latest emissions trends.

Every year, in the lead-up to the climate COP, various international agencies release their latest findings, and this year’s reports are sobering to say the least:

+ The UN Environment Program reports that global greenhouse gas emissions are now rising at a rate of 1.5 percent per year, after an apparent two-year plateau. Emissions are rising in the US, China, India and Russia, among the largest emitters, and have leveled off in the EU after a few years of apparent decline. The G20 most influential countries are responsible for 78 percent of current greenhouse gas pollution. To hold the future average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius would now require emissions reductions of 7.6 percent every year, exceeding those that accompanied the Great Recession of 2007-08 in the US and Japan.

+ The Stockholm Environment Institute’s projections of fossil fuel production find that, in the coming decade, countries are planning to produce more than double the amount that would be consistent with a 1.5 degree temperature rise, including almost 3 times as much coal as the 1.5 C. pathway would allow. Countries like Australia and China are still exporting coal and coal-dependent technologies throughout south and east Asia, even though solar and wind power are already cheaper than new coal-fired power plants, and will soon cost less than continuing to fuel existing coal plants. It appears that the continuing profitability of fossil fuels still matters far more than economic efficiency, much less environmental sanity.

+ An international team of scientists reported in Nature last week that the various climate tipping points scientists have been warning about are far more interconnected than most people realize, and that “cascading effects” appear increasingly likely. The loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets drives the slowing of atmospheric currents that drive the Gulf Stream and other weather-mediating features, which in turn affects the drying of global rainforests, weakening of the Asian monsoons, ocean heating, and ultimately even faster ice loss. Atmospheric CO2, they report, is already at levels last seen four million years ago, and is approaching levels associated with the Eocene epoch around 50 million years ago, when temperatures averaged 14 C. (25 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than our own preindustrial baseline, and only the smallest of mammals were apparently able to thrive.

People’s actual experiences of climate-related disasters, even at the current 1 C. above preindustrial times, portend horrific times to come if emissions cannot be curtailed and the climate eventually stabilized. And every climate-related disaster in the US and Europe is compounded manifold in the global South, from devastating floods and typhoons that affect millions of people in South Asia to waves of drought and hunger that have reached across vast stretches of East and South Africa, the Middle East and Central America. These in turn have contributed to civil wars and rising waves of refugees, as well as increasingly militarized borders here in the US and in parts of Europe. We also know that the actions the word undertakes, or fails to, today will not only determine the magnitude of future climate impacts, but also whether those impacts will persist for a few generations or literally for thousands of years.

So what do we know about who is most responsible for the carbon dioxide and other gases that are destabilizing the earth’s climate? Several organizations and research teams have sought to shed light on this question over the past decade or so:

+ In 2008 the World Bank published a chart tracking shares of world consumption – a figure that tracks closely to emissions levels – by individual wealth. They determined that the wealthiest ten percent of individuals worldwide were responsible for 59 percent of resource consumption and the poorest half of the world were then only responsible for about seven percent. This was first reported for non-insiders in a 2013 Monthly Review article by Fred Magdoff.

+ Researchers at Oxfam have demonstrated that the wealthiest ten percent of the global population was responsible, as of 2015, for 49 percent of individual greenhouse gas emissions – in turn almost two-thirds of global emissions, with infrastructure development and other public works representing the other third. In contrast, people in the poorest half of the world are only responsible for ten percent of all emissions, with the richest one percent emitting 175 times more per person than the poorest ten percent. South Africa and Brazil have the largest “emissions gaps” between the richest ten percent and the poorest half of the population.

+ A collaboration of the international investor services network CDP (originally the Carbon Disclosure Project) and the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute has probed historical records to document over 150 years of CO2 and methane emissions from 100 individual companies, plus eight that no longer exist, accounting for 71 percent of current industrial emissions and 62 percent of all greenhouse gases since the height of the Industrial Revolution. The top twenty emitters – including major oil corporations like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP, together with state-owned companies in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and other countries – are responsible for 29.5 percent of all historical emissions, and the ten largest private companies were responsible for nearly 16 percent. Today, partly due to the breakup of formerly centralized Russian and Chinese companies, fifty entities are responsible for half of all industrial emissions.

+ Researchers in China and in Europe have sought to document the discrepancies in emissions accounting due to international trade. A study from China’s macroeconomic planning agency was likely the first to quantify various countries’ “balance of emissions” by weighing the embodied emissions of their imports and exports. European researchers documented a four-fold increase in net emission transfers from developing to developed countries between 1990 and 2008. They found that over a quarter (26%) of global emissions by 2008 resulted from the production of traded goods and services. This allows countries like the UK, with high levels of per capita consumption, to report declining domestic emissions to the IPCC and UN agencies, even though consumption-related emissions continue to rise. Lucy Baker of the University of Sussex has summarized the logical conclusion of these studies: “wealthy countries have to a large extent exported or outsourced their climate and energy crisis to low and middle-income countries, deliberately or otherwise.”

Such findings affirm the resounding message of climate justice advocates around the world that deep, structural changes in the economic system are necessary to meaningfully address the expanding climate crisis. The persistent myth that we are all equally responsible does not stand up to scrutiny, and meaningful climate solutions need to challenge corporate power, economic inequality, racism and other social injustices, addressing the systemic roots of today’s fossil fuel dependence.

The most promising responses to the climate crisis are not being handed down by UN agencies or national governments, but rather emerge from the grassroots, popular efforts to resist continued fossil fuel development and other forms of accelerated resource extraction, and also to build local alternatives that can help inspire and facilitate like-minded efforts around the world. More than 2500 cities around the world have submitted plans to the UN to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, frequently in defiance of their national governments’ far more cautious proposals, and well over 9000 municipalities have joined a Global Covenant of Mayors to reinforce their commitments to climate action. As US cities and towns have defied the Trump administration by declaring themselves as sanctuaries for refugees and immigrants, many are also advancing the most meaningful climate responses.

We know that the landmark environmental laws of the early 1970s also were not simply handed down from on high. Rather they resulted from a wave of popular mobilizations that led to widespread state and local anti-pollution measures and lawsuits throughout the late 1960s; by the end of that decade, corporate interests voiced a clear preference for uniform national regulations over a patchwork of increasingly restrictive local measures. Perhaps that is our best way past the current obstacles to meaningful climate policies in the US. (A wide-ranging international dialogue from last summer on the potential for local responses to global problems is documented at Perhaps a heightened conflict between local environmental values and centralized power structures is the key to lasting change, as was proposed by Murray Bookchin in his foundational writings on social ecology and confederal municipalism during the 1980s and nineties. Local efforts to halt construction of pipelines and other new fossil fuel infrastructure are central to such a vision, as are new forms of municipal political organization, expanding structures of direct democracy in defiance of local power structures, and a host of experiments, large and small, that help people save energy, curtail wasteful practices and build community-controlled alternatives.

The outcome of the current Madrid talks are hard to predict in any detail, but most likely we will see a series of modest, incremental steps to implement various provisions of the already-inadequate Paris Agreement. With a new generation of activists in the streets demanding more serious climate action and clamoring for climate justice, we may be seeing the beginnings of a movement that can finally turn things around. The odds are uncertain, and every year of global-scale climate inaction diminishes those odds, but it is more necessary than ever to sustain a hope that humanity can unite to reject the false choices imposed by current political and economic institutions and embrace the potential for an enhanced quality of life beyond fossil-fueled capitalism. Perhaps we can even begin to realize the dream of a liberated and truly interdependent global community of communities. The future of life on earth may depend on our ability to do just that.

Brian Tokar is the co-editor (with Tamra Gilbertson) of Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions (Routledge 2020) and the author and editor of six previous books on environmental issues and movements, including Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (New Compass 2014). He is a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and a long-term faculty and board member of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology.