The election of Donald Trump reflects the unraveling of the centre-left across the West, and with it a fragile consensus on climate change. For two decades parties of the centre-left have created narratives about climate change that they do not really believe. They have done this to try and convince their fragile coalition of supporters and to try to bring they’re political opponents on the right into the fold. These attempts have failed.
The centre-left long ago abandoned ‘typical' green messaging in the way it talks about climate change. You don’t hear Obama, Clinton or Justin Trudeau talking about polar bears, sinking Pacific Islands or even climate change as a human rights issue. The go-to arguments of the centre-left (and to some extent centre-right politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel) are these:
Climate change will create war, terrorism and migration—it’s a national security issue
The solutions to climate change could create millions of jobs in manufacturing and industry—in areas hit most by industrial decline
Tackling climate change is an opportunity for economic growth—there is money to be made by entrepreneurs
How did the centre-left end up making these arguments? And why does no one believe them?
Susan George is president of the board of the Trans National Institute, an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world. She spoke at the Seminar of the International Center for the promotion of Human Rights [CIPDH] and Unesco titled “Interreligious and inter cultural dialogue: consciences and climate change” in September in Buenos Aires. Find the video here.
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights has given me the honour of closing this seminar and I’m extremely grateful to the CIPDH for including me in this important event. We could compare this seminar to one part of the long road on a kind of modern pilgrimage; one stage of a difficult but infinitely rewarding journey. We’ve shared part of this road towards what we all hope will be a stable, sustainable world, fit for human habitation.
We hope this pilgrimage will lead to the success of the COP22 in Marrakech and then continue well beyond, until we reach that far-off goal of halting, then reversing climate change.
We know that the earth and all the myriad forms of life living on its land and under its seas are unlikely to withstand an increase in temperatures beyond 2 degrees. We have already reached more than one degree above the historical average and have been dangerously slow to take this road. Now it is crucial that we continue.
It strikes me that all religions have their pilgrimages, whether to Mecca, Saint Jacques de Compostelle, the place in India of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the holy Hindu cities of India or the sacred sites of Jerusalem. The people who set out on these pilgrimages of faith are usually seeking forgiveness or salvation, enlightenment, healing or perhaps the granting of a special wish.
Our common pilgrimage is of a different nature. We do not seek personal blessings but salvation and hope for all peoples and for our home, the earth. All are under tremendous threat. We have embarked on this journey because we recognise that humanity has never been in greater danger than at this moment.
I try not to speak of “saving the planet”. Whatever human beings may do, the planet will continue to rotate on its axis and to orbit the sun as it has done for some four and a half billion years. Planet earth, which we think of as “ours”, is not really “ours” at all. It could perfectly well continue, utterly changed, to move along its prescribed path without us. Indeed, one could easily argue, as the so-called “deep ecologists” do, that the planet would be far better off without us, since they stress that we humans are the most predatory, wasteful and destructive species ever to have lived on earth in those four and a half billion years.
I am not here to promote the deep ecology view. I am here rather to introduce and define what I see as a new phenomenon in the history of humankind. I call it Geocide. Geocide is the collective action of a single species among millions of other species which is changing planet Earth to the point that it can become unrecognisable and unfit for life. This species is committing geocide against all components of nature, whether microscopic organisms, plants, animals or against itself, homo sapiens, humankind.
Homo sapiens has only existed for roughly 200,000 years. The time we’ve spent one this planet compared to its total age is infinitesimally short, just the tiniest sliver of geological time. It amounts to a mere 0.00004 percent of earth’s existence. And although any given species of plant or animal–vertebrate or invertebrate– tends to last on average about ten million years, our species seems determined to cause its own extinction, along with the rest of creation, long before it allotted time.
The death of an entire species is, geologically speaking, a common occurrence. Some extinctions are spectacular—think of the dinosaurs—most are quiet disappearances that leave few traces. Several species will have disappeared forever between the time we arrived and the time we leave this seminar. Scientists tell us that the “background rate” of extinction is approximately a thousand times greater than average and some have begun to call our era the “sixth great extinction.” The previous one, the Permian extinction, occurred about 250 million years ago. Some 95 percent of all species then on earth were wiped out, probably because of volcanic activity and warming causing huge releases of methane from the oceans.
Species disappear massively because they cannot adapt fast enough to rapidly changing conditions. Some, humans included, can adapt to a broad set of environments and wide divergence of temperature, from Siberia or Greenland to Pakistan or the Sahel, but no species is infinitely adaptable and all have their limits.
Ours is the only species among millions that has been gifted with language, tool-making skills, and above all consciousness, the capacity for imagination, thought and spirituality. And yet, the end of our own existence seems beyond our collective comprehension: too terrible and too definitive to contemplate. Extinction can’t possibly happen to us—we humans are too technologically brilliant, we can find the solution to any problem, we are the lords of creation and we cannot fail, much less disappear.
No one except a few eccentrics now denies that humans are capable of committing genocide; we have witnessed horrible episodes of mass murder in our own lifetimes and, because we have recognised this horror, we are able to name it. All languages have been obliged to add this terrible word, genocide, to their vocabularies.
Are we even capable of imagining, much less recognising that we are also capable of committing geocide? In my mind, this term goes beyond “ecocide” which so far seems limited to specific environments or geographic locations such as the razing of a forest or the massive pollution of, say, the Gulf of Mexico. Geocide is alas more general: it is a massive assault against nature of which we are only a part, against all earthly life and against Creation as well as the complete denial of human rights; I submit that this ultimate act of destruction is underway and that we need a name for it. Without a name, we have no concept and without a concept we cannot combat it. This is why I searched for a new word.
The 22nd meeting of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakesh Morrocco concluded on November 18, having made dogged progress despite the looming spectre of President Donald Trump . (see “7 things you missed at COP22 while Trump hogged the headlines“). 150 trade union members from 50 countries comprised a delegation led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
The Paris Agreement required the 196 Parties to the UN Climate Convention to limit temperature increases to 2° or 1.5°C below preindustrial levels. While COP21 benefitted from a high degree of mobilization linked to the adoption of an international agreement, COP 22 on the other hand has received rather less attention.
Yet the stakes remain significant.
In its haste, COP 22, being called the “action COP” or the “agriculture COP”, is in danger of adopting various misguided solutions for agriculture. Last May at the Climate Convention HQ in Bonn, discussion on this sector was a source of tension between countries. They studiously avoided the key question of differentiating between agricultural models according to their impact on climate change and their ability to provide food sovereignty to people. At the same time, and outside official negotiating channels, voluntary initiatives, especially in the private sector, have expanded and may well become incorporated in countries’ future public policies.
Although 94% of countries mention agriculture in their strategies for combating climate change, the Paris Agreement fails to mention the word “agriculture” even once. You have to read between the lines to understand what is really at stake.
It is really the highly political subject of agriculture that hides behind the use of the expression “carbon sink”. It is true that the soil plays an important role in sequestering CO2 (carbon dioxide), turning it into a genuine “carbon sink”, like forests. Yet that is not soil’s only role, particularly if farming land that is central to food sovereignty is involved. Unfortunately its use (employing the expression “land use”) in combating climate change represents a huge opportunity currently for those promoting misguided solutions and serves as an excuse for public inaction.
In searching for a balance between emissions and absorption by greenhouse gas sinks, the Paris Agreement enshrined the principle of compensation in dealing with the climate crisis. This notion does not mean that emissions actually have to decrease but that emissions and absorption can cancel each other out. This approach has already begun with forests through the highly controversial REDD+ mechanism and, to an increasing degree, is now targeting farming land, the new carbon Eldorado.
We must remember that unlike avoided emissions, natural carbon sequestration is reversible and has a limited lifetime. So rather than attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically, agriculture is becoming a unit of accounting permitting emissions to continue or even increase. Consequently, though roundly condemned by civil society and social movements, various initiatives have arisen around climate discussions that appear to many to be misguided solutions. This is the case with climate-smart agriculture and its global alliance (GACSA) which, in the absence of clear criteria, does a balancing act between promoting agroecology and the use of GM seeds and their herbicides. Moreover, 60% of GACSA’s private sector members are companies in the pesticide and agricultural input sector.
This alliance and its concept are nothing more than an empty shell that agro-industrial multinationals can hide in to continue the industrialization of agriculture, to the detriment of smallholders.
Similarly, the 4 per 1000 initiative fails to make clear choices in promoting transition in farming systems. Its scattergun approach to the problem fails to take account of considerations beyond carbon sequestration such as the use of herbicides for example.
Unless there is a real re-examination of agro-industrial models that are highly dependent on chemical inputs and based on exports, such initiatives have absolutely no place in the list of solutions.
Quite apart from the question of the agricultural model there is also the danger of pressure on land and the financialization of natural resources. Therefore by putting a value, through compensation, on farming land as a tool in combating climate change, you increase the pressure on it. So the small scale farmers who were already the first victims of climate change become doubly threatened. If we are to encourage investment in agriculture to sequester more carbon, especially from private sources, much greater expanses of land will be needed with an increased risk of land grabbing. This danger would be multiplied if the race for land were accompanied by mechanisms linked to carbon finance. Numerous studies on similar mechanisms developed for forests (like REDD+) have already demonstrated the dangers of an approach that pays scant consideration to protecting human rights. This approach to combating climate change opens the door ever wider to endangering small scale farmers’ rights and their acquired knowledge, food sovereignty and ecosystem integrity.
Our organisations deprecate this rush towards compensation to tackle the climate crisis. Only immediate, drastic reduction of greenhouse gases will prevent a dramatic increase in the impact of this crisis even though it will still only limit it. Farming land cannot become an accounting tool for managing the climate crisis. It is fundamental to around a billion people in the world who are working towards food sovereignty, an inalienable right of people who have already been harmed enough. We support the continued existence of agriculture suited to meeting the agricultural challenges already magnified by the climate crisis. Such farming methods, based on peasant agroecology which, in addition to a store of good practice, imply socially- and ecologically-based farming rooted in its home territory and a rejection of the financialization of Nature.
(Original PDF) The times when climate action was raised as a job killer are behind us. Ambitious emissions reduction and adaptation policies are now recognised as vital to protect jobs, people and communities from the impacts of climate change, and investment is creating jobs in renewable energy, public transit, energy efficiency in buildings, sustainable agriculture, forestry, water and more.
We are living in a time of contradictions. A minority of corporate interests intends to benefit until the last minute from a socially unfair, environmentally-damaging and undemocratic system by obstructing change. Many governments bow to these interests while austerity policies, attacks on regulation and public services remain on the same governments’ tables, even when those policies have proven to be disastrous and their countries face climate aggravated crises.
For the past years, the international trade union movement has stood strong in calling for ambition from our political leaders on climate because we all know: “there are no jobs on a dead planet”.
In 2015 government leaders from all over the world signed the Paris Agreement, which will regulate international climate action from 2020 onwards. For unions, every step that contributes to global governance in favour of rights, justice and solidarity – every investment in climate action is a welcome one. However, we are conscious that the long-term objective governments have set for themselves and our societies of “staying well below 2°C in average temperature increase, and aiming at 1.5°C”, will only be reached if concrete measures are taken to dramatically change our production and consumption patterns and if national emissions reduction objectives, in particular in developed countries, are reviewed with greater ambition, before 2018.
Reaching the agreed goals will also require governments to deliver on their climate finance commitments and agree to provide more support so that everyone can contribute to the global effort. The Paris Agreement is one step in a long journey for protecting our climate.
This is not only a matter of principle – it is a matter of need: we need ambition to trigger sustainable investments and decent jobs at a time when we face historic levels of unemployment with half of the world’s workers either unemployed or in vulnerable employment, with two in five young people in this situation.
We know millions of workers and families still depend on a fossil-fuel-based economy for their jobs and livelihoods. They have generated the energy required for today’s prosperity. Governments and employers, with workers and their unions must sit together and commit to protect our future through a just transition strategy
– a plan which guarantees decent work for all. The inclusion of a just transition in the Paris Agreement is an important first step.
Corporations who refuse to diversify their energy base instead set out to frighten workers. But fear will not deliver for working families in communities dependent on fossil fuels. Fear will just increase the costs of action and make the prospects for organising the transition we need to build together more difficult. A difficult set of challenges confront us. The imperative to make our societies compatible with all forms of life and with the restrictions of limited planetary resources must be met with national and international plans that must deliver
on social justice and prosperity for all. The decisions by global leaders to meet the sustainable development goals by 2030 with the Paris agreement chart a course to a zero poverty, zero carbon world but this journey will only be realised when people act to make it happen.
Our planet’s climate crisis is intensifying, but many in industry, government and even the advocacy community have turned to market mechanisms to alleviate climate change instead of regulating the pollutants that cause it. These free-market approaches rely on putting a “price” on climate change-inducing emissions — such as imposing taxes on carbon — as an indirect method to reduce these pollutants.
Note: The new, updated 2016 edition of Jeremy Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, from which the following is drawn, can be now be downloaded for free at the author's website here.)
The Lilliputian defenders of the earth’s climate have been winning some unlikely battles lately. The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by nearly two hundred Native American tribes and a lot of other people around the globe, have put a halt, at least for now, to completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that threatens their sacred burial sites and the water supply for 17 million people—not to mention the world’s climate. Before that a seven-year struggle terminated the Keystone XL pipeline. Other fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning facilities have been halted by actions around the world.
But as Bill McKibben has said, "Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail." Is there a plausible strategy for escalating today’s campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to create an effective challenge to the escalating climate threat? How can we get the power we need to counter climate catastrophe? My book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (download) grapples with that question and proposes a possible strategy: a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Now that strategy is being tried – and may even be overcoming some of the obstacles that have foiled climate protection heretofore.