“Severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
The fifth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes for a sobering read ahead of the COP21 climate conference in Paris.
There, world leaders will discuss the best way to achieve major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, enough to keep global warming from increasing by more than two degrees and unleashing catastrophic and irreversible climate change. Idealists hope a substantial, global deal on carbon reduction will emerge from the UN conference.
But the IPCC report acknowledges the enormity of the challenge – that the cooperation necessary to scale back potential climate change impacts poses “substantial technological, economic, social and institutional challenges.”
It’s little wonder that few are optimistic that COP21 will produce a deal with any measurable impact. Especially considering that major players like the US and EU can’t even agree on whether the agreed targets should be legally-binding – the EU is in favour, the US is not.
While global leaders fumble for solutions, there’s an urgent need for immediate action. Even with adaptation the IPCC warns that warming by the end of the 21st century could still cause irreversible damage to the planet. So what could happen if we fail to act?
“The question is whether anyone will survive at all,” says Ross Jackson, chairman of Gaia Trust in the glass annex to his farmhouse in Birkerød, outside Copenhagen.
Originally from Canada, Jackson moved to Denmark in 1964 and speaks Danish with a charming mid-Atlantic lilt. The 77-year-old earned his millions through software development and management consultancy and supports sustainable living projects such as the Eco Village movement.
His 2012 book Occupy World Street argues that a sustainable future can only be achieved if we fundamentally transform our economic system. It caught the eye of MP Uffe Elbæk when forming green-oriented political party The Alternative (Alternativet) in 2013. Jackson was invited to join the party’s inner circle and donated a considerable sum to subsidise its successful election campaign during the parliamentary election last June.
For Ross, climate change is bigger than an engineering issue. Because while humanity can design its way out of fossil fuel consumption – with geo-engineering, renewable energy, nuclear technology – actually weaning our economies off cheap commodities demands the kind of global cooperation never before seen on the planet.
“Until now the major issue has been an inability for nation states to get together and agree on a strategy for tackling the problem,” he says.
“Instead we have nationalistic and egotistical thinking. As long as the US and China see each other as economic opponents, it will be hard to get them to agree on anything.”
Jackson believes the lack of collaboration is deeply routed in the human mentality, which assumes that the planet will continue to sustain us.
“We’ve always had space to expand into and new territories to discover. We still have this frontier attitude and think that endless growth is still possible. But we need to change the paradigm to ‘spaceship Earth’.”
Our economic system is a major factor holding us back from adopting more sustainable practices and changing the future of the planet, says Jackson.
Neoliberal and laissez-faire free markets generate enormous wealth for a tiny elite, who then use their power to influence politics. It’s a particularly acute problem in the US, where lax campaign financing laws mean that corporate bodies can funnel vast sums of money towards candidates who defend their interests.
“There’s a network of large companies and shareholders that control multinational organisations and Congress. They in turn restrict what the President can do, which affects organisations such as the World Bank, which are in principle democratic, but ultimately controlled by the US.”
But it’s not just the US where the neoliberal power plays are stalling climate action. In the EU, the same kind of thinking suppresses welfare and environmental regulation in order to keep up with the US and Chinese markets.
“Every time there’s a conflict between economic growth and the environment, the EU always goes for economic growth. In practice, little is happening to improve the environment.”
Yet, despite urgent calls for action and enormous investment in green technology, Jackson points out that CO2 emissions have continued to rise over the past 20 years.
“It’s as if politicians haven’t got it into their heads that what they’re doing is having no effect,” Jackson says, adding that we need a radical solution to counter climate change.
“Let’s remember Einstein, who said if you keep doing the same thing and getting the same results you’re insane. You have to change to get different results.”
One answer might be to stop looking to self-interested global superpowers to save us. Smaller nations, which are less driven by neoliberalism, should band together and start a grassroots movement, suggests Jackson.
He points to the Maldives, where former president Mohamed Nasheed made an enormous impact during the 2009 COP15 conference in Copenhagen. In a discussion dominated by economic push-and-pull talk, the leader humanised the issue by pointing out that his country would cease to exist if sea levels continued to rise.
“These countries could start a new organisation, which moves beyond neoliberal policies, and offers a sustainable political and economic system, putting the environment first. It would regard economics as a subset of the ecological system.”
It might start small, but Jackson believes this kind of movement has the potential to shatter the current status quo.
“If the cultural creative class got together, went to the street and demanded a vote, you could circumvent the established system and the corrupt politicians working for them. The politicians couldn’t ignore that, we could paralyse the whole society.”
But while big problems call for big solutions, it’s unlikely that COP21 will launch a new economic order in favour of the environment. The best possible solution the current system can come up with is an absolute cap on carbon emissions. The IPCC estimates that to keep warming below a two-degree increase, we can only emit 1000 gigatons of CO2 – ever.
“If we auctioned off CO2, it would force businesses that couldn’t afford to buy CO2 to innovate better greener technologis. It would also create a tremendous income for whoever is responsible for selling the emissions rights that could be invested in developing this technology.”
A ‘cap and trade’ market already exists in the EU, the ETS. But so far it’s failed to leave any noticeable impact on emissions reduction. The main issue was an oversupply of emissions permits, which then drive down their price, the opposite of what is needed if the system actually wanted to scale back emissions.
Jackson argues that a global market is imperative. His proposed Carbon Board would sell emissions rights solely to companies that directly introduce carbon into the atmosphere, such as refineries and coal processors. The revenue would then be distributed equally to all citizens of the world, to reflect that the atmosphere is a common good. It also means transferring wealth from richer to poorer countries.
“It would be necessary to get China and developing countries on board, because if they can’t afford to buy the carbon then they would at least still get compensated.”
The human flaw
Jackson’s isn’t naïve, he understands that his radical ideas aren’t likely to be adopted. But without action, climate change threatens to irreversibly transform the planet, and under the current system the outlook is bleak. Big ideas and high levels of cooperation are needed if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change. So what’s stopping us?
“Perhaps our inability to cooperate is a flaw in our DNA – we are simply unable to think that long term,” Jackson wonders aloud, adding that this mindset means COP21 will probably fail much like COP15 did.
“The general attitude among heads of delegation is that non-binding agreements will not secure a solution. The only thing they agree will work is cap and trade, but they also say that’s politically impossible. That is the paradox. It’s politically impossible for Obama to accept any kind of dictates on emissions coming from outside the US. As long as that’s the case we are probably going to end up with runaway global warming.”
He says that if nations continue to frame climate talks within their narrow political visions, the future of humanity is at stake:
“That’s the logical conclusion of that attitude – it may be politically impossible to save the human race.” M