We need a climate revolution

IssueApril 2009
Feature by Milan Rai

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), remarked of US president Barack Obama on 11 March: “He is not going to say by 2020 I’m going to reduce emissions by 30%. He’ll have a revolution on his hands. He has to do it step by step.”

Within the mainstream, the kind of protest and turmoil that might be thrown up by a strict climate policy amounts to a “revolution”.

Frankly, we do need that kind of revolution. We need to force political leaders to develop political courage, and to take on the major corporations that are blocking a rational response to the climate crisis.

What we are facing is a clash between rocky political realities and hard science. What the science says is that without rapid, deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we run a serious risk of climate chaos. In order to comply with this advice, we are going to need rapid, deep changes in our political and economic systems.

Hansen’s warning

In January, one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, James Hansen of NASA, warned: “We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration.”

Hansen has said bluntly, for example at a special service in Coventry Cathedral on 19 March (see picture above): “We cannot burn fossil fuels without creating for our children, grandchildren and the unborn a far more desolate planet than the one we inherited.”

On 18 March, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash…. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”

For Hansen: “The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes”: “We can no longer allow politicians and business to twist and ignore science,” says Hansen.

Dramatic change

Unfortunately, dramatic policy change is not on offer at the moment. What is being proposed for the much-touted Copenhagen climate conference in December is “cap and trade with offsets and escape hatches”, a package that is “guaranteed to fail” in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions, according to Hansen, speaking on 18 March.

Time is short. Enormous political pressure is going to be required in a very short space of time in order for the climate to “talk louder than money”, and to get politicians and corporations to abide by scientific advice.

Time is short. The state and capitalism are not going to wither away or collapse in the next four years, however much damage the international financial system has sustained in the last year. That means we are going to have to achieve climate stabilisation by any means necessary. The corporations and the state have got us into this mess, and we are going to have to force them to get us out of this mess.

It was argued eloquently in the last issue of PN, by a leading environmental activist, that: “We have to reject the idea that the state can help us out of the problems we face. If it could have solved it, it would have – look at all the resources it has.”

True, the state has no benign intentions, but, on the other hand, it is just not true that the state can never be forced into necessary and beneficial actions and policies.

Positive action

Apart from protecting the ozone layer, the 1987 Montreal Protocol which banned CFCs “helped prevent significant regional climate change”, according to research published in Geophysical Research Letters last September.

It is said that the climate benefits from the Montreal Protocol have already exceeded those expected from the Kyoto Treaty for 2008-2012, by perhaps 500%.

Non-reformist reform

As James Hansen says: “We can no longer allow politicians and business to twist and ignore science.” Unfortunately, grassroots movements for peace and justice are a long way from being able to replace our current political and economic systems with something more humane.

For now, we must focus on twisting “politicians and business” into a more sustainable shape. What we need in the short- to medium-term is major reform: containing corporate greed and destructiveness, democratising energy, environmental and industrial policy-making and so on.

For many of us, these reforms are steps on the way to deeper and more far-reaching changes, not the end point of human civilisation. They are non-reformist reforms. We cannot afford either the luxury of despair or the kind of political purity that means we do not use every mechanism that we possibly can to prevent climate chaos.

Right now we need political changes that amount to a “revolution” in mainstream terms: forcing big business to comply with strict regulation, and decarbonising society.