The latest IEA estimates that global greenhouse gas emissions reached an all-time record of 30.6 gigatonnes (Ggt) last year, despite most of the Western world still being stuck in near-recession, is alarming but scarcely surprising. Alarming because if the annual rise in world GG emissions this year is as large as last year (i.e. 1.6 Ggt), which is likely, it will exceed the 32 Ggt ceiling above which scientists believe global warming will become unmanageable and catastrophic. Hardly surprising given the previous relentless rise in global GG emissions, the international negotiating failures in Copenhagen and Cancun, and the listlessness of anti-climate change warnings across the world’s nations. But what it really reveals is the sheer overarching power of the economic dynamic that effectively wipes out the message about climate catastrophe.
The basic problem with combatting climate change is the remorseless and unchallenged power of unregulated free markets and the ruthlessly competitive model of global economic growth. Against the ceaseless pressure of this fundamental power within the currently overwhelmingly dominant economic model the message of restraint and change is like shouting into the wind. And unfortunately there are no stones in sight for this particular David with his sling-shot to slay the Goliath that confronts him.
Taking the biblical analogy further, today’s situation is uncomfortably like the story of the plagues of ancient Egypt. With each successive onslaught of the series of ten plagues Pharaoh, we are told, hardened his heart against any concession which would weaken his hold on the country’s power structure. In the same way now all the warning signs of long-term impending disaster, particularly the steadily intensifying frequency and ferocity of climate disasters, are swept on one side as being either of uncertain significance, too far ahead to bother about, too much disturbance to present gratification to be seriously considered, too much a threat to the contemporary wealth of corporations and individuals, too great a handicap or distraction in the ceaseless power struggles between nations, or simply a resigned inevitability which it’s too difficult to escape.
All these are wrong, but extremely potent nevertheless. Like Pharaoh, modern populations and their governments will not adjust in any fundamental sense until they are within sight of imminent destruction, at which point it is likely to be too late. Human beings are very clever, but not very wise. We are in our generation being revisited by the Malthusian dilemma – in the eighteenth century he predicted that that wars, palgues and famine would keep a check on the human race, though that dilemma was evaded half a century later by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This time round climate change looks like being the Grim Reaper. Any bets on a new technological deus ex machina? I wouldn’t bank on it.