The road to perdition has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal.
Could some of the most talked of solutions to climate chaos have the reverse effect and make things worse? Some critics think so, and they aren’t “deniers” who think climate change isn’t real. The concept of “net zero” carbon emissions, for example, might actually help industry pollute, because one of the commonest ways to reach for it is through “carbon offsets.” This means that if a corporation is responsible for a ton of carbon dioxide emissions – which is bad – but at the same time it funds a project which “captures” (or “sequesters”) a ton of carbon – which is good – then the “net emissions” come to zero, as one is subtracted from, or “offset” against, the other.
If the numbers could be accurately calculated (though that’s impossible and offsets invariably exaggerate the amount of greenhouse gases absorbed or reduced), then the corporation could pollute as much as it liked because it would be funding someone else to do the equivalent “anti-polluting,” and clean up its waste. It’s like leaving a trail of litter as you walk and paying someone to sweep up a street somewhere else, usually on the other side of the world. The reality is complicated, but the simple truth is that the schemes routinely fail: The sweeper may be just pretending to clean, or even trying, but failing to cope with the mess.
The only reliable way currently known to “capture” significant carbon at a reasonable cost is to plant trees. But many offset projects sow fast-growing tree crops like eucalyptus and acacia, to make money. This actually increases rather than reduces carbon: Existing vegetation has to be cleared and the new plantations are more liable to fires, which spew out vast amounts of pollution. Many such crops will take decades before they start absorbing much carbon. Equally damaging plantations, like oil palm and rubber which take over people’s lands and destroy biodiversity, are passed off as environmentally friendly because the UN also defines them as “forest.” Countries such as Madagascar and Indonesia claim to be increasing forest cover when they’re actually clearing existing vegetation to sow these new plantations. Claiming such destruction is good for the environment would be comic if it weren’t so tragic.
Another approach to offsetting is to get someone to agree not to cut timber which would otherwise be felled. This is supposed to avoid future emissions –though it’s important to note that it doesn’t actually reduce existing carbon at all. It’s known in the jargon as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and the “+” stands for the conservation of existing forests. Hundreds of such projects have been around for many years but with very scant results. One problem is that undertakings not to log are agreed by those who don’t have the power, or perhaps even the intention, to stop it, and trees not felled one year can still be cut the next. Trying to bind communities into contracts lasting for generations is effectively impossible.
Overall, there are many reasons why offsetting is rarely what it pretends, and critics disparagingly call it, “payment to pollute.” One study shows that almost all such projects – an astonishing 85% – simply fail. Nevertheless, in spite of the problems, offsetting remains a multibillion dollar industry, with lots of people capturing a lot of money for themselves rather than sequestering any significant atmospheric carbon.
Reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – the thing needed to slow global warming – is a very different thing from supposedly reducing “net” emissions, but it would be a much more drastic step. It would entail cutting energy consumption, curtailing industrial growth, decreasing military activity –one of the biggest polluters of all but rarely mentioned by climate activists – and even using the energy-hungry internet less. One “artificial intelligence” training session, for example, burns about the same energy as five cars during their whole lifetimes, and even emails waste millions of tons of carbon (spam alone uses about the same as the entire population of San Francisco flying to New York every two weeks). Genuinely reducing emissions would mean changing the overall direction of an industrialized society which has sought continual “growth” particularly over the last generation. It would also entail a massive erosion in the power of the oil industry which is so enmeshed with the world’s major governments, and goes to great lengths to ensure leaders hostile to it are kept from high office.
In spite of the criticisms around “net zero,” it remains the stated goal of most climate activism – perhaps because “real zero” emissions are seen as unrealistic, and there’s pressure to do something quickly. Calls for governments simply to “listen to scientists,” or to “the public” at large, do not suggest concrete solutions, probably intentionally.
“Net zero” through offsetting is the wrong path, but could the current enthusiasm about a “green new deal” be just as bad? It’s largely about job creation in new and supposedly “green” technologies, and it combines environmental concerns with the need to alleviate unemployment. The “green” part is largely focused on alternative, “clean” energy sources, such as solar and wind – the “renewables” – but there’s a problem with them too: Production of the batteries they currently need to store their energy uses up yet more fossil fuel and wreaks yet more environmental damage. (Fuels such as oil or coal don’t need batteries because the energy is already stored inside them.) Again, the thing which would guarantee to make a big and fast difference – a contraction of industry – forms no part of any proposed “deal.”
An important criticism is that the green new deal is actually being encouraged by industry as a way to get more money diverted into stock market investments. This apparent trick begins with the 2008 financial crash when governments gave away huge amounts of ordinary people’s money to inept and greedy banking corporations. The shock to stock markets prompted a tightening in financial regulations which resulted in more and more money being locked away inside the safest financial vehicles. This cash wasn’t able to flow as easily to companies through investment in stocks and shares. That’s bad for the elite because great wealth depends a lot now on stock market holdings and company buyouts. (As well as on ensuring minimal tax and on simply bending or breaking the law –and it’s true of course that the very rich have done increasingly well in spite of the new rules!)
Although the term, “green new deal,” was coined earlier, it first came to prominence in 2009, just a year after the crash, when the UN Environment Program produced a plan of the same name for a meeting in Pittsburgh of heads of state. It’s important to note that the paper was open about its primary aim of, “reviving the global economy” in “response to the financial… crisis.” It sought also to, “accelerate the fight against climate change,” but that was secondary.
Many corporations support a green new deal, and their critics point out that new, and much needed, regulations to protect ordinary people’s savings and pensions from high-risk speculation might now be weakened if a sense of an urgent “greater good” could be invoked, particularly if it were about an emergency threatening life on Earth. In times of war and other crises governments can easily legitimize revoking important safeguards. This becomes even easier when big conservation NGOs, which partner with the most polluting industries, are throwing their weight and money behind the idea.
Although this might be little understood, it’s not hidden. As one UN writer puts it, “With public finances under stress since (and as a result of) the 2008 financial crisis, a consensus has emerged that the required resources [for a green new deal] can only come from governments partnering with the financial institutions they helped salvaged from that crisis.” When thinking about this statement it’s important to keep in mind that all government help for particular industries can only come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
To put it simply, if Westerners think the world will soon be destroyed unless their money is given to supposedly “green” technologies and schemes like carbon offsets, then they won’t object when their money, now locked away in safer assets and pension funds, is given to those things. Climate activists who might not be versed in the deliberately opaque labyrinths of big money might welcome this, but if the schemes aren’t really so green, or if they make things worse, then there’s an obvious problem.
The only guaranteed way to cut greenhouse gases has to start with shrinking industrial output and consumption, especially by those who consume the most. The imbalance is shocking: The world’s wealthiest 10% are responsible for half of all harmful emissions, whereas the poorest half create just 10%. Climate chaos is being made by the same people who now seek to turn climate activism into yet more profits!
Contracting industry would be good for the climate but it would make many people poorer, and in a nasty paradox for progressives, that would include some who are already poor. This catch-22 exists because industrialized societies have long focused on stripping everyone they can of any self-sufficiency they or their forebears once had. They do this by appropriating communal areas, stealing land, and forcing the now landless population into labor for industry or big agriculture. This is how the industrial revolution was created, and it’s still going on.
The truth is that the corporate-government axis might indeed want to reduce climate chaos – why not? – but it isn’t prepared to cut consumption; quite the contrary, it’s desperate for growth. It wants to continue “business as usual” while appearing as green as it can, as an advertising gimmick and to stifle criticism. It tries to impose its one-size-fits-all model despite the fact that it is destructive, visibly failing, and is now threatening all life. We need a vigorous push back, to reclaim the earth from the crazed ideology of perpetual growth which brings so much lethal pollution and suffering.
To bring meaningful change to this dilemma, the first step must be to stop destroying those who now produce little or no pollution and who live largely self-sufficiently, by hunting, herding, or growing their own food. They are not only tribal and indigenous people, but many local farmers. We must stop governments and industries taking their land and forcing them into the dysfunctional mainstream. We must reverse this by actively encouraging their ways of life and by listening to the lessons they have learned from the Earth over thousands of years, lessons which have enabled them to survive and thrive, but which are deliberately suppressed by industrialization. These, largely self-sufficient, peoples are still the most adaptable on the planet, and they must be at the center of the change which will enable us all to continue living on it.
This is no call for a romantic and illusory past, it’s a recognition that
humankind has evolved and survived – so far – only because of our agile adaptability. We have created vast and precious human diversity which simply cannot be replicated in a few generations: Once it’s gone, it’s gone. If the keys to our survival lie anywhere, this is where we must start looking for them.
But even this idea has now started being used as advertising gimmickry, as “indigenous peoples” are tacked on as an afterthought in environmentalists’ thinking. Big conservation NGOs have started to highlight the positive role of indigenous peoples in their glossy reports while carrying on stealing their land and destroying them on the ground. Too much of what passes for “conservation” remains rooted in its undoubtedly racist and elitist origins. Many inside the industry claim these are long buried, but they emerge when the apparently progressive mask, constructed by a vast and self-congratulatory propaganda machine, slips aside. In many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, the racism has always been self-evident.
We need a real clamor for a shift in the balance of power, to give a controlling voice to indigenous peoples and take it away from the urban elites, and the corporations, media and NGOs which are run by them. Climate activism must wake up to the fact that it’s largely directed and designed by the same kind of people, and therein lies its own catch-22. If it’s eventually to succeed, it must change quickly to embrace real, not token, human diversity.
Just as it’s increasingly recognized that different genders can have different perspectives and that the world shouldn’t be directed only by white men (like me!), so it is that a true diversity of humankind must have a determining voice in how to save the planet. Getting there will require humility and adaptability. After all, existing power structures are designed more than ever to suppress diversity rather than enhance it, and access to the corridors of power is very narrow and culturally and economically restricted. Just during my lifetime we’ve grown less willing to learn from real cultural diversity than we’ve ever been.
We need a genuine openness to change and to work in a different way. It’s admittedly a big shift, but it’s no more complex than many cross-cultural alliances made by different peoples throughout history. In spite of all the conflict and oppression, different religions, “races,” nationalities, and language-speakers often lived and worked together for their mutual benefit. This was doubtless more in evidence before European imperialism, the rise of the nation state, and eugenics saw ideologies – and theologies – about conformity inflict such suffering and destruction around the world.
As activists are slowly being forced to acknowledge, climate chaos originates in the New York, Tokyo and London stock markets, but its front lines aren’t found in the financial districts: They lie far away in Africa, Amazonia, and the Pacific. Its real battleground is the desperate struggle between people fighting for their survival and the government-industrial complex grasping for yet more money and power. The outcome of this battle couldn’t be more important, but the huge steps now being made to popularize the issue, might – however unwittingly – be leading us away from real solutions. We must bring human diversity into the center of climate activism because those who live most differently to “us” are those who have some of the best answers about how to live at all.