Why are global politics so dysfunctional that the UN climate meeting requires a 15-year-old Swedish grade school student to speak the truth? Why does a coalition of youth, outside the COP 24 climate meeting articulate a more comprehensive action plan than the delegates inside the meeting?

Greta Thunberg at COP24 in Poland © Greenpeace © Greenpeace
Greta Thunberg at COP24 in Poland © Greenpeace

The world’s youth have finally seen and heard enough from the deplorable political process, from compromised delegates, corrupted political appointees, and criminal corporations who sabotage these critical international discussions.

The truth of our ecological crisis is not difficult to see. Fragile ecosystems are unraveling all around us. We have been warned by scientists for two centuries: by the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study, William Catton’s 1980 book “Overshoot,” by reliable scientists, and by millions of ecology activists. We were warned by the 2009, Nature article, “Planetary Boundaries” showing that humanity has breached seven critical tipping points; and by the 2012, Nature article, “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” by 22 international scientists warning of an “irreversible” planetary-scale transition, “unknown in human experience.”

And yet, politicians and delegates travel around the world, stay in luxury hotels, and dither about our children’s future, as carbon emissions rise, species blink from existence, rivers run dry, and ancient forests burn. It is no wonder, and a welcome sight, that the world’s youth have seen enough and are not impressed.

COP 24 UN Climate Conference, Poland © from wikicommons from wikicommons
COP 24 UN Climate Conference, Poland © from wikicommons

Thirty years of pep talks

On 12, December 2018, at the COP 24 UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, Swedish student Greta Thunberg finally said what the politicized delegates have failed to say. Thunberg is a direct descendant of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who predicted global heating from carbon emissions in 1896.

During this year’s heat wave and wildfires in Sweden, Thunberg gained world attention by staging a school strike outside the Swedish Riksdag, holding a sign that read, “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate). She demanded that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions. Her actions inspired student strikes in over 270 cities around the world.

Speaking on behalf of Climate Justice Now, Thunberg chastised the delegates and member nations for failing to take action appropriate to the climate crisis: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.”

Thunberg pointed out that “if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself,” and she spoke directly to the errors and injustice of our economic system. “Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”

She exposed the errors of convenient but false solutions that have displaced the genuine solutions to climate change and ecological collapse. “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular,” she said. “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.”

“We’ve had thirty years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas,” she said in Stockholm prior to departing for Poland, “And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now — they haven’t.”

Meanwhile, outside the conference, 330 organizations from 129 countries presented six “People’s Demands for Climate Justice,” beginning with “Keep fossil fuels in the ground and end subsidies to fossil fuel industry”.

The youth leaders urged nations to “reject false solutions” — techno-fixes and offsetting schemes — in favour of “real solutions that are just, feasible, and essential.”  They particularly called out corporations and rich nations, who use the excuse of carbon sinks to seize indigenous land.

They called on the rich nations, whose historical carbon emissions have caused the climate crisis, to accept their fair share of climate reparation costs by honouring their Green Climate Fund obligations.

Finally, the coalition demanded that UN conferences end “corporate interference” and sabotage of the climate talks. Extraction corporations “have been getting massively wealthy,” said Sriram Madhusoodanan from Corporate Accountability. “They’re in these talks, blocking real solutions and advancing false solutions that will continue to propagate their business model.”

Why Thunberg is correct

Thunberg is correct about years, decades, of pep-talks and positive ideas that have failed to reduce carbon emissions. Scientists have known about the threat of global heating since Thunberg’s ancestor, Arrhenius calculated the impact in the nineteenth century. The modern world has been meeting about the crisis for almost forty years, since the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. Since then, human carbon emissions have doubled from about 5 gigatonnes of carbon per year (GtC/yr) to 2018’s record-breaking 10.88 GtC/yr. Meanwhile, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has grown by 22%, from 337 parts per million (ppm) in 1979 to over 412 ppm today. These results represent an enormous failure on the part of world governments.

Laser Projection on the COP24 Venue in Poland © Konrad Konstantynowicz / Greenpeace
Laser Projection on the COP24 Venue in Poland

She is also correct about the unfulfilled promise of “green growth,” a notion made popular in 2012, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, by the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, both dedicated to industrial growth.

However, recent studies show that “green” or “sustainable” growth are delusions. In 2018, anthropologist Jason Hickel reviewed recent data and wrote in Foreign Policy that “green growth .. is based more on wishful thinking than on evidence.” A 2012 study by German resource economist Monika Dittrich and colleagues showed that even under optimum conditions, decoupling economic growth from resource use has not occurred. The United Nations Environment Programme came to similar conclusions in 2016 and 2017 studies. They predicted  that by 2050, with continued growth, resource use would double to 180 billion metric tons per year (Gt/y). Ecological footprint data shows that a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 Gt/y, a limit breached in 2000.

Studies have consistently and rigidly linked economic growth to energy. In a 2012 paper, “No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change”, T. J. Garrett, at the University of Utah, performed the calculations and determined that every single dollar (US dollar, 1990) of global economic growth in recent decades required approximately 9.7 milliwatts of energy. “Global CO2 emission rates” wrote Garrett, “cannot be decoupled from wealth through efficiency gains.”

Wealthy nations, such as the UK and US, have claimed to “decouple” energy use from GDP, but only because they have exported energy-intensive industries and now import finished goods — cars, computers, trinkets — which represent massive embedded energy.

Based on recent data, Thunberg is entirely correct that “green growth” is a delusion.

Pull the Break

Finally, Thunberg is correct that the only paths out of our predicament require that we “change the system itself.” Global heating, biodiversity loss, environmental toxins, nutrient cycle disruption, and all other ecological challenges arise as symptoms of a single, larger biophysical reality. Humanity is in a state of ecological overshoot. There is no way to grow out of overshoot. All genuine solutions to overshoot require that the species contract, not grow. As Thunberg says, it is time to face these facts, to slow down, and to “pull the emergency brake” on economic growth.

NowWeHaveTo - Climate March in Helsinki © Jonne Sippola / Greenpeace © Jonne Sippola / Greenpeace
NowWeHaveTo – Climate March in Helsinki © Jonne Sippola / Greenpeace

This is the reality that the climate conference delegates are too scared to voice. Our status quo economic system — industrial capitalism — requires growth to survive. Without endless economic growth, the $250 trillion global debt to bankers and investors cannot be paid. As Thunberg says, “Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people .. can live in luxury.” The biosphere is being sacrificed so bankers can receive their interest payments, to keep stock prices up, and to avoid facing reality.

The current system is biased for the rich to get richer, as multitudes suffer, as the ecosystem collapses, and as other species disappear. Economist Jeremy Grantham concurs in “The Race for our Lives,” when he states that “capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems.”  Corporate sabotage of the climate talks is not new. In the 1920s and 30s, Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tires acquired and sabotaged public transportation throughout North America for the purpose of replacing efficient public transport with gas-guzzling cars. Today in Nigeria, Ecuador, Canada, in the Arctic, around the world, and at these UN conferences, oil companies are still sabotaging the public interest for profits.

It gives us some measure of hope that young leaders appear to be among the few who have the courage and insight to speak the truth. Greta Thunberg closed her short talk by announcing, “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care… We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Her speech stands as one of the most hopeful moments for ecological realism in recent years.

References and Links:

Greta Thunberg’s COP24 speech, 12, December 2018, Lifegate.

“Young Activists offer their climate demands at COP24,” Kate Wheeling, Pacific Standard, 5 Dec. 2018.

Johan Rockström, et. al., Planetary Boundaries, “A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature, 2009.

Anthony D. Barnosky, et. al., “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, v. 486, June 7, 2012.

“Why Growth Can’t Be Green,” Jason Hickel, Sept. 12, 2018, Foreign Policy

“Green economies around the World? Implications of resource use for development and the environment,” Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S., Polzin, C. ifeu, Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung, Heidelberg, 2012.

“Decoupling energy use and economic growth: Counter evidence from structural effects and embodied energy in trade,” Vincent Moreau, Applied Energy, 1 April 2018.

“Resource use expected to double by 2050,” UNEP, United Nations Environment Programme, 2017. 2012              ..   70 billion metric tons / year, 2050  .. 180 billion metric tons / year, sustainable level of resource use ..  ~ 50 b metric tons / yr, boundary breached in 2000.

“No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change,” T. J. Garrett, Earth Systems Dynamics, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Utah, 2012.

“Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity; Schandel, H., et al.; UNEP/IRP (2016).

“The Race for our Lives,” Jeremy Grantham, GMO Quarterly, 2013.

Earth Overshoot Day: “Humans have depleted the Earth’s natural resources with five months still to go in 2018”, Michael Coren, Global Footprint Network, August 1, 2018. Global Footprint Data: GFN data

“US Coal Forum Greeted With Jeers At COP 24 Conference,” Steve Hanley, Clean Technica 11 Dec. 2018