The real barrier to effective climate action

Amy Robertson

Negotiators in Paris reached an agreement last night on global climate target reductions – to keep global temperatures below 2C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, as well as provide $US100b annually to countries most affected by climate change, to guide them in sustainable development. All efforts to curb emissions are voluntary. The agreement does not mandate specific measures or targets, nor is it legally binding.

As the world celebrates the recent deal, policy makers have once again failed to discuss the real barrier to effective climate action.

The problem is that climate change is not a market failure but a market system failure; some slight tweaking of that system – by the way of emissions targets, emissions trading systems or carbon offsetting – will not suffice in the quest to control climate change. World leaders are reluctant to scrutinise fully the economic and trade systems that got us into this position, and policy makers rationalise we can adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change under the same economic system that caused it.

Data confirms the link between economic growth under neoliberal policies and rising CO2 emissions. Before neoliberalism, global emissions had fallen – from an annual 4.5 percent increase in the 1960’s to just 1 percent in the 1990’s. Between 2000 and 2008 that rate reached 3.4 percent. After a slight decrease in emissions in 2009 due to the financial crisis, emissions reached a historic 5.9 percent annual increase in 2010 (Klein 2014, p. 80). The pursuit of economic growth in Australia and other developed countries has had a profound effect upon our environment (UN News Centre 2007). Under neoliberalism, the world is using an unprecedented amount of fossil fuels.

Naomi Klein in her most recent book ‘This Changes Everything’ argues that serious climate action – the kind required to keep warming within 2C, as recommended by climate scientists – is incompatible with our current political and economic system, that of capitalism and market fundamentalism.

“We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.

  • Naomi Klein, author and activist, 2014

Neoliberal values – deregulation, low taxes, privatization of the public sphere, and a de-emphasis on collective action – are in direct opposition with what needs to be done to avoid the most serious effects of climate change, and are effectively blocking genuine climate action. Neoliberal policies encourage an emphasis on wealth creation, and this annihilates concerns for anything seen to interfere with that, such as environmental issues (Flannery 2005, pp. 3-4).

Clive Hamilton in ‘Requiem for a Species’ argues that environmentalism is economically threatening for economies and big business. It challenges the values that underpin capitalist societies. It threatens the assumption that “growth is good” and the free market philosophy of ‘growth for growth’s sake’, which ignores concerns such as the environment, social well-being, health and equity; these issues are seen as mere hindrances to economic growth and progress (Hamilton 2010, pp. 100-101).

Critics of global capitalism claim it promotes a ‘race to the bottom’ between nations in environmental standards and regulations, as countries focused on investment and corporate activities, who are in competition with one another, want to sell the cheapest goods to keep up with competition, and typically the cheapest methods are the most unsustainable (ed. Healey 2004, p. 30-31). Hence developing countries’ reluctance to curb growing emissions.

Economic systems reflect the values, priorities and goals of a particular culture. Capitalism is growth-orientated and carbon-intensive. Effective climate action requires an economic system that prioritises human life and well-being and environmental concerns over accumulative economic growth.

“Aggressive growth is impossible ecologically and implausible economically. We need economic strategies at the local, state and national levels that prioritize community benefit over corporate gain, and which presume a need for local resiliency instead of depending on uncontrolled growth.”

  • Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy, 2014

Endless growth and material wealth puts us at odds with our environment. In failing to address the main driver of climate change, and the principal barrier to effective climate change action, policy makers, particularly the political right, are literally jeopardizing the continuation of human existence on earth.

Will politicians, in solving climate change, support “business as usual”? Or will they shift their goals – from growth and trade to environmental, economic and human well-being? Individuals, governments and organisations must be primed to adjust their values, beliefs and political stance when necessary, even if this requires a transformation of one’s theoretical and conceptual framework; climate change and the survival of human civilization is too serious an issue to be filtered through the lens of ideology.

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