Climate Crisis Requires Fundamental Social And Economic Changes
Above Photo: kunkun_pigbaby/Flickr
To end our fossil fuel addiction we need a fundamental technological change — but this cannot happen without changing our social and economic systems.
The bad news about climate change keeps coming: record heat levels in Australia in January, and in the UK in February; increasingly uncontrollable wild fires; shocking leaps in Arctic temperatures. The worst news of all is that the gulf between what scientists say needs to be done and what the international climate talks deliver keeps growing.
At the negotiations in December at Katowice, Poland — which, grotesquely, were sponsored by Europe’s biggest producer of coking coal, among others — the main outcome was agreement on proposals to monitor governments’ actions, albeit in a watered-down version. Delegates did not discuss, let alone improve on, voluntary targets for cutting emissions, agreed on in Paris in 2015; scientists reckon that these put the world economy on course for a potentially disastrous increase in global average temperature to three degrees above pre-industrial levels. The gathering even declined to welcome the latest diplomatically honed report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the insistence of the US, Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations.
Katowice was the latest round of talks that began at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where it was acknowledged that fossil fuel use is the main driver of global warming and needs to be reduced. Since then it has risen, globally, by more than 60 percent. Governments have signed agreements with one hand and poured tens of billions of dollars per year in subsidies into fossil fuel production and consumption with the other.
The first step to dealing with climate change is to reject the illusion that governments are dealing with the problem. Society as a whole must act.
How to put flesh on the bones of that generalization is not so simple. Should we protest? Try to force governments to invest in renewable energy projects? Take direct action against new power plants? Focus on community energy? All of the above?
HOW FOSSIL FUEL USE REACHED UNSUSTAINABLE LEVELS
In working out what to do about climate change, history is an invaluable tool. An understanding of the processes that made fossil fuels central to human economic activity will help us make the transition away from those fuels.
The concentrated physical force, motive power and heat that can be derived from burning coal was central to the industrial revolution of the late 18th century, and so to the consolidation of capitalism in the Global North. Harnessing energy from coal, and disciplining labor, went hand in hand. The technologies of the so-called second industrial revolution of the late 19th century — steam turbines, electricity networks and the internal combustion engine — multiplied coal use exponentially and produced demand for oil.
But it took a further sea change in the world economy, in the mid 20th century, to escalate the global warming danger to its present level. The increase in global fossil fuel use accelerated in the post-war boom, paused briefly after the oil price shocks of the 1970s and has hurtled upwards ever since. Earth systems scientists who study the impact of economic activity on the natural world — of which global warming is a key aspect — name the period since the mid 20th century “the great acceleration.”
Who or what, exactly, consumed all these fossil fuels? Mostly, fuels are used by and through large technological systems, such as car-based transport systems, electricity networks, urban building systems and industrial, agricultural and military systems.
Analyzing these technological systems — and the way they are embedded in social and economic systems — is the key to understanding the relentless rise in fossil fuel use, I argued in my book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.
Take cars, for example. For sure, technological change helped catapult them to prominence: the internal combustion engine was a cardinal innovation. But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport.
In the US in the 1920s, the car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines and turned the car from a luxury into a mass consumer product. They dreamed up planned obsolescence and other marketing techniques, and they used political muscle to sideline — and sometimes sabotage — competing forms of transport such as trolley buses and railways.
In the post-war boom, US car use ascended to a still-higher level, thanks to massive state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated: working people moved into single-family detached homes in unprecedented numbers, with US house-building rising from several hundred thousand a year in the 1930s to more than one million a year during and after the war. Home ownership via a life-time of mortgage debt was part of the deal; front and back gardens, and cars, were another. Other — but not all — rich countries embraced this urban development pattern.
By the 1980s, some cities outside the rich world began to get car-jammed. In the US, the manufacturers mounted largely effective resistance to sporadic state attempts to regulate fuel efficiency. Gas-guzzling SUVs arrived: rather than encourage drivers to use smaller, lighter models, the car makers popularized family vehicles that were classed as trucks and therefore allowed by law to do fewer miles per gallon. US sales of these peaked in 2000 at 17 million per year.
So those now working to create carbon-free cities are up against not just a clever piece of technology (the internal combustion engine), but the economic and social structures that have created urban transport systems based on cars, i.e. fuel-intensive mobile metal armchairs.
Car-based transport systems are wildly energy-inefficient ways to get people from place to place. For example, Atlanta, US, a spread-out city dominated by suburban housing and car transport, has 11 times the greenhouse gas emissions per head of Barcelona, Spain, which has a similar number of people, with similar income levels, but is more compact, with better public transport and a relatively car-free center.
In the same way, fuel-intensive industrial agriculture is an outrageously energy-inefficient way to feed people and most cities’ constructed environments are energy-inefficient ways to house people. Other areas of economic activity — such as military production and the advertising industry — are destructive for broader reasons, and fuel-inefficient too. Just as in the case of urban transport, these systems were shaped by relationships of power and wealth and persist as such.
Superb research by the Climate Accountability Institute has shown that nearly two thirds of carbon dioxide emitted since the 1750s can be traced to the outputs of the 90 largest fossil fuel and cement producers, most of which still operate today. The Institute’s most recent list includes, in the top ten, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom of Russia, the National Iranian Oil Company, ExxonMobil from the US, Pemex of Mexico, Royal Dutch Shell and China National Petroleum Corporation.
A list of the companies that control fossil fuel consumption — electricity producers, metals and engineering consortia, car makers, construction companies, petrochemicals and agriculture giants — is much longer and more complex, because fossil fuel consumption is so integral to all types of economic activity. But the power relations are the same.
IT IS NOT JUST ABOUT INDIVIDUAL CONSUMPTION
Because most fossil fuels are consumed by and through these large technological, social and economic systems, appeals to reduce individual consumption can only have a limited effect.
Take the car drivers in Atlanta. They live in the world’s richest country and drive some of the world’s most energy-inefficient cars. But they are trapped in an urban transport system that makes it almost impossible — especially for those with children — to perform basic functions, like the school run or buying groceries, without a car. Moreover, fuels are consumed not only on their individual journeys, but in car manufacturing, the construction of roads and parking spaces and so on.
Certainly, egregious consumption of fossil fuels and of consumer goods is a symptom of a sick society. Millions of people in the rich world work long hours and spend the money they earn on material goods in the belief that those goods can make them happy. But the ingrained alienation of which consumerism is part has to be challenged by striving for social change. Moral appeals are not enough.
The fate of the French government’s recent proposals to increase fuel taxes is a cautionary tale. The plans were presented as an environmental measure. But, despite claims by right-wing commentators to the contrary, people saw them for what they were — the latest of a long-standing series of measures to impose neoliberal austerity policies. That triggered the “yellow vests” revolt and the policy was reversed.
In the Global South, a focus on individual consumption makes even less sense. Most fossil fuel use is by industry, including energy-intensive processes (e.g. steel and cement manufacture) moved from the Global North in the 1980s and 1990s. It was China’s industrial boom, which centers on making goods to export to the Global North, that in the mid 2000s caused the country to overtake the US as the world’s largest consumer of commercially-supplied fuels.
Research in India highlighted the minimal role of the poorest people’s individual consumption. Of India’s incremental greenhouse gas emissions in the three decades from 1981 to 2011, just 3-4 percent was due to an electrification drive that brought 650 million people, mostly in the countryside, on to the network for the first time. Most of the rest came from industry and smaller urban populations.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT ELECTRICITY
Electricity networks are at the center of the fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. In 1950, their share of global fossil fuel use was about one tenth; now, it is more than one third.
Electricity systems, like cars, were a great innovation of the late 19th century. Their first phase of development, culminating in the post-war boom, depended on big centralized power stations, usually coal fired.
The stations are inherently inefficient. Roughly speaking, for each unit of energy they produce in the form of electricity, two units are lost in the production process, mostly as waste heat — which produces the steam clouds we all see rising from power stations’ cooling towers. Global average thermal power station efficiency (i.e. the proportion of the fuel’s energy that comes out as electricity) has been rising since the early 20th century, from around 25–30 percent to 34 percent for coal and 40 percent for gas, now. But it will never get much higher for physical reasons.
In the 1970s, when the realization dawned on political elites that fossil fuels were neither infinite nor cheap, environmentalists pointed to the energy losses in conversion processes as the key potential source of savings. Burning coal to produce electricity, which is transmitted to electric heaters in people’s homes, was like “cutting butter with a chainsaw,” the sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins argued in the US Congress.
He advocated “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables: homes designed and built to need the minimum of heat; solar panels and windmills; attention to energy flows through systems.
More than 40 years ago, Lovins described these as the “roads not taken” by governments who defended incumbent corporate interests rather than use energy technologies wisely. Despite the discovery of global warming in the meantime, these roads are often still bypassed. So are the energy-saving potentials of more recent technologies, most significantly, networked computers and the internet.
These products of the “third industrial revolution” have made it possible to supersede the old fossil-fuel-heavy centralized networks with integrated, decentralized systems reliant on multiple producers of energy. Improvements in renewables technologies (solar pumps, wind turbines, heat pumps and so) have helped.
But in the three decades since the global warming effect was discovered, “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied. For one thing, networks are operated by companies whose business model is to sell as much electricity as possible. Distributed generation systems — where the network collects electricity from many renewable sources and parcels it out efficiently — scare them. Community-based decentralized electricity ventures are forced to compete with the established corporations on unequal terms.
A briefing paper by engineering researchers at Imperial College, London, last year argued that, to move the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels, a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party” is required. The implication (which the researchers did not spell out) is that state agencies have to co-ordinate the transition. What other “single party” could? And such a strategy has been fiercely resisted by the UK’s “big six” energy companies and their friends in the Tory government. This is a good example of how corporate dominance and “competition” dogma are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.
There are no easy answers to the historical crisis produced by three decades of government inaction in the international climate negotiations. I will suggest three steps.
The first step is to reject the discourse produced by these negotiations, that the governments have the situation under control. They do not.
The talks process has produced and reproduced its own discourse, cut off from the world where 16 of the 17 hottest years ever recorded were in the last twenty years — and where school pupils, from Australia to Sweden to Belgium, go on strike about it. It is welcome, in my view, that school pupils are not only urging governments to declare a “climate emergency” — which seems like the very least they could do — but are also seeking ways to take matters into their own hands, by demanding to learn climate science.
Social movements, working people’s organizations and communities concerned about climate change could all adopt similar approaches: not only of demanding governments act, but also of acquiring the knowledge to guide collective action of our own; not only of urging legislative “green new deals,” but of blocking corporate fossil-fuel-intensive projects and developing our own post-fossil-fuel technologies. There is already a rich history of both types of actions — from protests against fracking or the Dakota Access pipeline, to community energy projects and workplace-based “just transition” initiatives — to be built on.
A second step is to reject spurious techno-fixes, which obscure the reality: that to move away from fossil fuels we need social and economic change; we need to live differently.
The current focus on electric and driver-less cars, is a great example of this. Electric car technology will probably not cut carbon emissions much, and may not cut them at all, unless the electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries such as Germany and Spain have taken the important first step of raising the proportion of renewable-generated electricity to a fifth or a quarter, the really hard part — creating mostly- or all-renewables systems — is still ahead.
A more attractive prospect is for cities to become places where people live with better, healthier transport systems not dependent on cars. Technologies such as trams and walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructure can help. Electric cars’ main social function, by contrast, is to preserve car manufacturers’ profits. Why help them?
Such changes to urban transport — superseding one technological system with another — means breaking the resistance of the centers of power and wealth (fossil fuel producers, car makers, road builders, and so on) who profit from them.
The same is true of other technological systems. To remake the relationship between town and countryside, to move urban built infrastructure away from the current energy-intensive model — which would end energy-intensive construction of wastefully heat-hungry housing — means breaking the resistance of property developers, building companies and their friends at all levels of government. To move towards fully-integrated, decentralized electricity networks means breaking the resistance of incumbent electricity companies.
Such shifts, combining technological, social and economic change, are the third step towards change.
These shifts, in turn, point towards deeper-going transformations of the social and economic systems the underpin the technological systems. We can envisage forms of social organization that replace corporate and state control of the economy, advance collective and community control, and, crucially, in which employed labor — a central plank of profit-centered capitalism — is superseded by more meaningful types of human activity.
Such a social transformation — a break with an economic system based on profit and a parallel break with politics based on the false premise that “economic growth” equates to human well-being — would provide the most solid basis for the sort of changes in technological systems that are needed to complete the move away from fossil fuels.
The fact that social and labor movements have aspired to such transformations for two centuries or more and have not yet achieved them suggests that there are no easy ways to do this. And I do not intend to offer trite formulae for success. But an understanding that technological change is interdependent with social and economic change, and that we should resist the temptation to think of it separately, is crucial.