Repeated failure of climate summits portends a bleak future under unchecked capitalism

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UN climate talks failed to muster a consensus on real climate action last December. Image: World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)/Flickr

Delegates to the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid failed to muster a consensus on future action to curb global warming. Despite extending the meeting by an extra day, desperate efforts to reach an accord were stymied by delegates from two of the largest countries: the United States and Australia.

It's no coincidence that both U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian President Scott Morrison are climate change skeptics. Morrison actually took a vacation with his family in Hawaii while horrendous forest fires were scorching more than nine million acres of the country's forests. 

By mid-January, the enormous blazes had released an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with smoke spreading across much of the planet's southern hemisphere.

If there is anything positive to be gained from this appalling environmental disaster, some optimists have hailed the eye-opening effects it has had on the millions of people who had hitherto been indifferent to climate change. At last, the optimists exulted, irresistible public pressure will now compel our political leaders to take the urgently needed climate-protective action they have so far neglected.

Unfortunately, this hopeful expectation is ill-founded. The failure of the Madrid conference to reach a global accord on climate action, even while Australia burned, was just the latest in a long string of such ineffectual assemblies.  

Forty years ago, at the first such conference in Geneva, scientists from 50 nations warned that alarming climate change trends at that time made it imperative to act. Since then, similarly urgent calls for action by scientists have been raised at successive climate summits, all of which received only grudging token promises from most governments.

Last November, more than 11,000 scientists signed yet another desperate declaration. "Scientists have a moral obligation," they wrote, "to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to 'tell it like it is'." On the basis of this obligation, we declare, clearly and unequivocally, that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency that is accelerating faster than most scientists had anticipated. 

"Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points," the declaration continues. "They could lead to a catastrophic 'hothouse Earth' well beyond human control, causing climate change disruption of ecosystems, society and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable." 

Australia a dire portent 

Scientists see the infernos in Australia as a portent of what is going to happen all around the world if global temperatures are allowed to rise 3 C above pre-industrial levels. "We are seeing in Australia what will become normal conditions in a 3 C world," said Richard Betts, professor of geography at Exeter University in England.

Progressives have taken solace from the rapidly increasing number of activists -- especially young people -- who have thronged street demonstrations to demand swift and effective action to curb global warming. They have staged mass protests, waving signs and banners venting their outrage over the climate-change lethargy of so many governments.

Their wrath, however, has not been directed all that much on the perpetrators of global warming: the world's big multinational corporations. The planet is primarily being polluted by airborne and waterborne industrial waste, the detritus of a deranged global capitalist economic system. 

Protesters are on target in denouncing governments that permit corporations to despoil the environment, but they still lack an understanding of how and why this political indifference has developed. Let's make a few facts clear.

Corporate executives and investors are not stupid. They are well aware that Earth's non-renewable natural resources cannot be exploited indefinitely. They know that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible. They know that, unless their toxic desecration of the planet's atmosphere, seas and soil is not soon stopped, the looming threat of a mass extinction that scientists warn about could become a horrific reality. 

And yet, despite this grim awareness, corporate leaders remain obsessively committed to their pursuit of maximum economic growth and the accumulation of maximum profits. It might seem that they suffer from megalomania, but in fact they are trapped in an avaricious economic system that leaves them no choice.

Capitalism and clean climate incompatible

Legislation covering corporations in many countries, including Canada and the United States, stipulates that companies must give priority to the major shareholders, which obviously means to maximize their profits. Since this can only be done through cutthroat competition, CEOs or boards of directors who dare to adopt social or environmental policies that diminish profits don't fare well. (Even Henry Ford, when he lowered the price of his famous Model T car so low-income workers could afford them, was charged and fined in the U.S. courts because the company's profits were temporarily reduced.)  

Capitalism itself could not survive unless its practitioners continued to promote economic growth, no matter how environmentally destructive. A decline of such growth, though good for the environment, is bad for the big investment firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and CitiGroup, who now dominate the global stock markets. 

In a full-scale depression, such as occurred in the 1930s, or even a less serious meltdown like the one in 2006, the large financial companies are saved from catastrophe by billion-dollar bailouts from governments. Bailouts, incidentally, that mostly come from the taxes governments collect from working people.

As long as this pernicious economic system is permitted to flourish, so will the depletion of natural resources, deforestation, air and water contamination, wildlife extinction and lethal global warming. Eventually, of course, uncontrolled capitalism is doomed, anyway, maybe as soon as the 2030s, if it's left free to demolish the planet and destroy human civilization.

The ongoing unchecked damage to the environment by the 20 largest fossil-fuel companies alone is directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent article in The Guardian by Matthew Taylor and Jonathan Watts. 

"This cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threaten the future of humanity," they report. "These oil, gas and coal companies have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of their industries' devastating impact on the planet."

"The top companies on the list have contributed to 35 per cent of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1965."

Those identified range from eight investor-owned firms such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell, to 12 state-owned companies, including Saudi Aramco and Gazprom.

"The great tragedy of the climate crisis," said climatologist Michael Mann, "is that seven and a half billion people must pay the price -- in the form of a degraded planet -- so that a few dozen polluting companies can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen."

Governments collaborate with corporations

For the past 50 years, Mann and thousands of other scientists have been pleading the world's governments to curb the planet-ravaging atrocities of neoliberal capitalism. Their pleas have been ignored. Instead of restraining the corporate polluters, many governments -- including those in Canada -- are openly and actively collaborating with them, even cutting their taxes and flowering them with massive subsidies. 

Our federal and three largest provincial governments collectively shell out $20 billion a year to the largest corporations, including $2 billion annually to oil and gas companies. Federal business tax-rates have been cut from 28 per cent in 2000 to just 15 per cent today. The Trudeau government has spent $4.5 billion to purchase an uncompleted private pipeline and committed another $6.4 billion to construct the additional link. It has also provided subsidies exceeding $12 billion to SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier over the past four years.

Most of this vast amount of public money comes from the pockets and paycheques of Canadian families. They are being forced indirectly to further enrich the country's millionaires, bankers and brokers, many of whom derive their wealth from investing in the big corporations that are polluting the planet. 

This diversion of Canadian workers' tax payments into corporate coffers deprives the federal government of adequate funding for the improvement of health care and other social programs. Canada's social spending has declined to just 17.2 per cent of GDP, ranking it 24th on the OECD list, far behind France's 31.5 per cent, Finland's 31 per cent, Belgium's 29 per cent, Denmark's 28.7 per cent, and the 27 per cent spent by Sweden, Austria, Italy and Greece. 

These countries, and most others in Europe, do not subsidize corporations or undertax them. They don't allow corporations to dictate government policies and priorities, as they do in North America. And they certainly don't heap billion-dollar subsidies on them. To a degree, however, if not to the extent that prevails elsewhere in the world, they tolerate some industrial carbon emissions from the continent's mills and factories. 

So the global extent to which corporations continue to befoul the air, sea and soil remains at an increasingly perilous level. They will never voluntarily cease or even slacken this disastrous march to the abyss -- not only because it would entail the unthinkable abandonment of the capitalist economic system, but because the legislation on corporate operations forbids it.

Envisioning humanity's survival

There is still a faint hope of survival, but it would require the sincere and concerted collaboration of all the world's major governments, not the feeble pretence displayed at previous climate summits.

They would first cancel the legislation that forces corporations to put the interests of the rich and powerful ahead of all other stakeholders.

They would outlaw business lobbying, strip the corporations of all their power to set political priorities, and make them subject to government control. 

They would compel corporations to stop the production of junk food, plastics and other harmful or unnecessary concoctions; stop air and water pollution; install devices to stop carbon dioxide emissions; stop deforestation; and stop the depletion of unrenewable resources.

They would compel corporations to sharply restrict profits and executive salaries, and provide fair wages and benefits to employees.

I will undoubtedly be accused of envisioning an incredibly sublime dream world, and probably I am. But unless an economic global transformation such as I have imaged is made a reality -- and by 2030 at the latest -- the outlook for humanity's future will be bleak. 

And brief.     

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan. This post originally appeared on Ed's personal blog.

Image: World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)/Flickr

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