New Internationalist 357 June 2003
THIS MONTH'S THEME
It was easy. Glued to our screens we saw how easy it was. As the 'liberators' looked on - or looked away, or chose to be elsewhere - looters took lifesaving medical equipment from hospitals. Computers, incubators, heart-monitors.
According to some reports, sick and wounded patients were turfed out of their beds so that these could be taken too.
Building after official building received similar treatment in Baghdad's postinvasion chaos. Centuries of human history, the beginnings of civilization as we know it, lay trashed in Iraq's National Museum.
Nothing was safe. Well, almost nothing. US marines did guard two official buildings. One was the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. The other - the Ministry of Oil.
The choice was eloquent. No further explication of Allied priorities needed here.
The events of the past few months should leave us in no doubt about the violence, turmoil and insecurity that accompanies our addiction to fossil fuels.
As the 'great powers' scramble for the spoils - each ostensibly wanting to 'help' the Iraqis rebuild their economy, of course - it looks like more trouble ahead.
The battle for control over the world's energy reserves is on. And with the knowledge that they are not infinite - oil production is scheduled to peak round about 2015 with significant shortfalls by 2020 as reserves begin to run out - the scramble is likely to get bloodier.1
Unless the world wakes up to the fact that we shouldn't be fighting over oil. In fact we probably shouldn't be doing anything over oil apart from leaving the damn stuff where it is. Under the sand or water or rainforest. Along with other fossil fuels like coal and gas.
A nice, but unrealistic, idea, surely? A massive four-fifths of the energy the world uses comes from carbon-based fossil fuels. They form the basis of our industrial economy.
But if climate scientists are right, being realistic is going to involve breaking that carbon lock. We will have to make the big switch to renewable energy and embrace sustainability - and fast.
The writing is on the wall - and the people pointing to it are not just eco-alarmists or sandwichboard prophets delighting in Cassandrine predictions of doom. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) draws contributions from more than 2,000 scientists from around 100 countries. In their Third Assessment Report (2001) they confirmed that global warming is happening faster than they'd thought, upping their estimates from a rise of 0.45°C to 0.60°C during the 20th century.5 Early this year, Canadian researcher Nathan Gillet introduced another dimension. He reported that greenhouse gases were not only increasing the earth's temperature, they were also affecting air pressure.6 This controls the atmosphere's circulation and can alter rainfall, temperature, winds and storminess. It fits with what we have been seeing.
The consensus of the IPCC scientists is that in order to prevent devastating climate shifts, worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) - the main greenhouse gas - must drop by 60 to 80 per cent below their 1990 level within the next few decades.7
That then, at its simplest, is the solution. How we get there is the tricky bit.
Most climate scientists are agreed that the massive 30-per-cent rise in global CO2 since 1750 is mainly due to the human activity of burning fossil fuels. The implications for our carbon-based industrial economy are colossal.
Take the US, the greatest CO2 producer in the world. About a third comes from transport, a third from industrial heating and cooling and a third from generating electricity in fossil-fuel power plants. So changing one sector can't do the job of producing a 60-to-80-per-cent reduction. Change has to be across the board.
At this point it's tempting to exclaim 'It'll never happen!' - and disengage.
But stay the course. Because change is possible. We know it is because it's happening already.
Today, 10 times more electricity is being generated by wind-power than there was a decade ago; seven times more by solar power. Sun and wind power alone have the potential to meet the world's energy needs several times over - not to mention hydrogen, wave power, tidal power, biomass, micro-hydro and others in a growing host of 'green' renewables.
Millions of people around the world are already tapping that potential and becoming part of the energy revolution. As the rest of this magazine shows, communities and individuals are busy making the future. And making it work - whether they are Californians road-testing new zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell cars or Solomon Islanders wiring up electricity in their villages for the first time, thanks to solar power.
Efforts on the international stage are, admittedly, more ambiguous. In 1997, under the auspices of the UN, the world got together to try to agree a mechanism for reducing global CO2 emissions. The result: the Kyoto Protocol, ratified last year by 178 countries. The Protocol obliges industrial nations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 5.2 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2012.
But the Protocol is resisted by the oil lobby and right-wingers who see it as an interference. It's accepted yet despised by many environmentalists who see it as too weak and full of loopholes to do the job of getting anything like the cuts needed. When the US - responsible for a whopping 25 per cent of CO2 emissions - decided the Protocol would harm the American economy and withdrew from it, many wondered if there were any point in continuing.
The decision of another big polluter, Australia, to copy-cat did not help. But other countries did not let the Bush Administration and its oil-company backers kill Kyoto. A favourite argument of the anti-Kyoto lobby was that 'global warming' is uncertain and not scientifically proven. It's true that climate science is complex and its predictions full of variables. No-one can say for sure what will happen in the future - and scientists as a species are perhaps least inclined to do so. With climate science it's especially hard to predict exactly when something is going to happen.
One of the most confusing - and worrying - factors is what scientists call 'positive feedback'. This isn't as nice as it sounds. It refers to factors that accelerate climate change and raise the possibility of a chain reaction in the climate system that could effectively put the problem beyond human control. For example warming decreases soil moisture and this increases the frequency of natural fires which then pump (or 'feed back') even more CO2 into the atmosphere.
So things can quite suddenly get very much worse with little or no warning. 'We are working without a clock - and no-one knows how much time we have left' is how environmental writer Alexander Evans puts it.8
But uncertainty is no reason for doing nothing. You could think a) it may never happen b) it's too late so there's no point in doing anything now. But just how tempting inertia and denial are may depend on where you live in the world and how rich or poor you are.
Climate change ultimately affects us all. But our capacity to withstand its consequences can come down to economics. If you are poor you are far more likely to live in an ecologically vulnerable region. This is true of both rural and city folk. Poor people tend to have less solid houses which are more likely to be destroyed or submerged by storms or mudslides. And they are unlikely to be insured. If global warming brings drought and crop failure, poor communities may have nothing to fall back on. The situation looks most precarious for Pacific islanders living a nearsubsistence existence and now appealing, with limited success, for refuge in New Zealand/Aotearoa and Australia.
This puts a spotlight on the most shameful aspect of climate inequity.
Australia - which seems determined to refuse refugee status to its Pacific neighbours - is a major exporter of fossil fuel in the region. Its CO2 emissions per capita are roughly 34 times greater than those of Pacific islanders who risk losing their homelands to rising tides.9
So while rich, industrialized nations pump obscene quantities of CO2 into the world's atmosphere, the poor reap the consequences. Just to get a sense of scale - as they sit down to their evening meal on 2 January a US family will already have used, per person, the equivalent fossil fuels that a family in Tanzania will depend on for the whole year.8
Even rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, Brazil and Mexico are committing a fraction of the damage done by the richest. No wonder Indian environmentalists get incensed when tut-tutting Europeans tell them they really should be watching their emissions or when North Americans wax worried about all those Chinese getting cars.
That the rich world is indebted to the poor world for abusing the earth's atmosphere is without question.
But exactly how much do we owe? Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation has been adding up. He finds that disasters caused by climate change have risen fivefold in just two decades. In the 1990s such disasters cost the world three times as much as it was owed by the most Heavily Indebted Poor Countries. The case for dropping Third World debt is already strong. Add in the costs of climate damage caused by the rich and it becomes morally irresistible.10
But the big question remains: how do we tackle climate change in a way that is both fair and feasible?
Many different proposals are being worked upon. One which is gaining wide support comes from the London-based Global Commons Institute and goes by the somewhat cumbersome title of 'Contraction and Convergence'; this is described in Mark Lynas's article on page 26. The model is based on equal rights per person. It allows for an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere that would peak at 450 parts per million in 2025 (compared with today's 370 ppm) and stabilize at an ecologically safe level by 2100.1
While some are trying to find solutions for the mess we are in, others are doing their best to deepen it. The principal culprits are governments without vision - and corporations with dollar signs in their sights. Sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart.
ExxonMobil (Esso) is not a subtle beast. The world's biggest oil company recorded profits of $15 billion and put $8 billion into further oil exploration in 2001.11 Its investment in renewable energy is - zero. It cannot even match the modest gestures made by BP, Shell or Texaco in that direction (see page 19).
What it did put a lot of money into was the US presidential campaign. Of the $1.3 million Exxon donated to political parties in the 2000 election cycle, 89 per cent went to the Republicans. The company also put money into think tanks and lobby groups that deny global warming is happening (see page 13).
Exxon gets a big bang for their buck. The US President did his best to derail the Kyoto Protocol and a secret memo shows that Exxon was behind Bush's successful push to get climate scientist Robert Watson ousted from the chair of the IPCC.11
But most significant of all, ExxonMobil benefits from federal subsidies of about $25 billion a year on fossil fuels - shooting up to $40 billion if you add the defence costs of protecting oil supplies from the Middle East. This is 43 times more public money than has been pledged to clean, renewable technologies.12
Exxon is extreme but not alone. The US, too, is extreme but not alone. The pattern is replicated in many parts of the world. The British Government gave $10 billion in public money to the nuclear industry last year. This year, when Tony Blair finally began to honour his election promise to back the green renewable-energy revolution it was with a grant of less than one per cent of that figure and a warning that the industry would have just five years to prove itself or it would be abandoned in favour of... nuclear energy.13
How about doing it the other way round? One, polluting industries have to pay a tax for their emissions. Two, subsidies are shifted from the old polluters to renewables. Three, some of the subsidies that have been going to the old polluters get redirected to retraining oil, coal, gas and nuclear workers for more secure and long-term jobs in the new renewable-energy industries.
There is so much governments could be doing to combat global warming. The technology is there. The economics work - or could easily be made to.
But we can't wait for governments to get real - and luckily many people aren't. In the US several states are ignoring Bush and setting their own targets for cutting CO2 emissions. In Thailand the people have challenged their government's energy plans and are demanding wind and solar power instead (see page 22). Around the world, in ways practical and political, people are resisting the folly of their leaders.
We have a window of opportunity both to halt global warming and to make the world a fairer place. It may not be open very long. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to make the best of it.
Or else we leave the world to those who would go to war for oil, again and again. To the lethal junkies at the helm of industry and government who can't kick their fossil habit - and will do their damnedest to make sure that nobody else is given a chance to do so either.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This article is from
the June 2003 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism