In various speeches on climate and climate change, we find a large number of commonplace ideas, repeated a thousand times in all tones, which constitute wrong ideas. These lead, voluntarily or not, to ignoring the real issues, or to belief in pseudo-solutions. I am not referring here to negationist or denialist speeches, but to those that claim to be ‘green’ and ‘sustainable.’ These are assertions of a very diverse nature: some are real manipulations, fake news, lies, mystifications; others are half-truths, or a quarter of the truth. Many of them are full of good will and good intentions—the road to hell, as we know, is paved with them.
This is the road we are on: if we continue with business as usual—even if painted green—in a few decades we will find ourselves in a situation much worse than most of the circles of hell described by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy.
The following eleven examples are just a few of the common mistakes to avoid.
1. We must save the planet
We see it everywhere: on billboards, in the press, in magazines, and in statements by political leaders. In fact, it is nonsense: the planet Earth is not at all in danger! Whatever the climate, it will continue to revolve around the sun for the next many millions of years. What is threatened by global warming are the many forms of life on this planet, including our own: the species Homo Sapiens.
“Saving the planet” gives the false impression that it is something that is external to us, that is somewhere else, and that does not concern us, directly. People are not asked to worry about their lives, or their children’s lives, but about a vague abstraction, ‘the planet.’ No wonder that the least politicized people react by saying: I am too busy with my own problems to worry about ‘the planet.’
2. Do something to save the planet
This common mistake, infinitely repeated, is a variant of the previous formula.
It contains a half-truth: it is necessary that each one personally contributes to avoid the catastrophe. But it conveys the illusion that it is enough to accumulate ‘small gestures’—turning off the lights, closing the tap—to avoid the worst. We thus evacuate—consciously or not—the necessity of deep structural changes in the current mode of production and consumption; changes that question the very foundations of the capitalist system, based on a single criterion: the maximization of profit.
3. The polar bear is in danger
It’s a picture that is everywhere, repeated over and over again: a poor polar bear trying to survive in the middle of drifting ice blocks. Certainly, the life of the polar bear—and of many other species in the polar regions—is threatened. This image may arouse the compassion of a few generous souls, but for most of the population it is a matter that does not concern them.
But the melting of the polar ice is a threat not only to the brave polar bear, but in the long run to half, if not more, of humanity living in large cities by the sea. The melting of the immense glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica can raise the sea level by a few dozen meters. However, it only takes a few meters for cities like Venice, Amsterdam, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Hong Kong to be submerged. Of course, this will not happen next year, but scientists can only observe that the melting of these glaciers is accelerating. It is impossible to predict how fast it will happen; many factors are difficult to calculate for the moment.
By putting forward only the poor polar bear, we hide that it is a terrifying affair which concerns us all.
4. The Global South is at risk of suffering a lot with climate change
It is a half-truth, full of good will: global warming will affect mainly the poor countries of the South, which are the least responsible for carbon emissions. It is true that these countries will be the most affected by climate disasters, hurricanes, drought, reduction of water sources, and so on. But it is not true that the countries of the North will not be affected, to a very large extent, by these same dangers: haven’t we seen terrible forest fires in the USA, in Canada, in Australia? Haven’t heat waves caused many victims in Europe? We could multiply the examples.
If we maintain the impression that these threats only concern the peoples of the South, we will only be able to mobilize a minority of convinced internationalists. However, sooner or later it is the whole of humanity that will be confronted with unprecedented catastrophes. It is necessary to explain to the populations of the North that this threat weighs on them too, very directly.
5. By the year 2100, temperature may rise to 3.5 degrees (above pre-industrial period)
This is a statement that is, unfortunately, found in many serious documents. This seems to me a double error. From a scientific point of view, we know that climate change is not a linear process; it can have sudden ‘jumps’ and accelerations. Many dimensions of global warming have feedbacks, whose consequences are unpredictable. For example: forest fires emit huge amounts of CO2, which contribute to warming, thus intensifying forest fires. It is therefore very difficult to predict what will happen in four or five years. How can we pretend to predict a century away?
From a political point of view: at the end of the century, we will all be dead, as well as our children and grandchildren. How can we mobilize people’s attention and commitment for a future that does not concern them, neither from near nor from far? So we should worry about the generations to come? Noble thought, argued at length by the philosopher Hans Jonas: our moral duty toward those not yet born. A small minority of very respectable people could be touched by this argument. For most ordinary people, what will happen in 2100 is not a matter that interests them much.
6. By 2050 we will be carbon neutral
This promise of the European Union and of various governments in Europe and elsewhere is not a half-truth, nor is it naïve goodwill. There are two reasons why it is pure and simple mystification.
Instead of committing now, immediately, to the urgent changes demanded by the scientific community (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for the next three to four years, our governments promise wonders for 2050. This is obviously much too late. Besides, as governments change every four or five years, what guarantee is there for these fictitious commitments in 30 years? It is a grotesque way to justify present inaction with a vague promise in the distant future.
Moreover, ‘carbon neutrality’ does not mean a drastic reduction of emissions, quite the contrary! It is a misleading calculation based on offsets, ‘compensation mechanisms’; company X continues to emit CO2, but plants a forest in Indonesia, supposed to absorb the equivalent of this CO2—if it does not catch fire. The ecological NGOs have already denounced the farce of offsets enough, I won’t cover the same ground here. But this shows the perfect mystification contained in the promise of ‘carbon neutrality.’
7. Banks finance renewable energies and thus participate in the ecological transition
This common method of green-washing is also deception and manipulation. Of course, banks and multinationals also invest in renewable energies, but precise studies by ATTAC and other NGOs have shown that this is a small—sometimes tiny—part of their financial operations: the bulk continues to go to oil, coal, gas. It is a simple question of profitability and competition for market shares.
All ‘reasonable’ governments—unlike Trump, Bolsonaro and co.—also swear, in every tone, that they are committed to the ecological transition and renewable energies. But as soon as there is a problem with the supply of a fossil energy—gas recently, because of the aggressive Russian policy—they take refuge in coal, reactivating lignite power plants, or they implore the (bloody) royal family of Saudi Arabia to increase oil production.
The fine speeches about the ‘ecological transition’ hide an unpleasant truth: it is not enough to develop renewable energies. First of all, renewable energies are intermittent: the Sun does not always shine in Northern Europe… Of course, technical advances exist in this field, but they cannot solve everything. And above all, renewables require mining resources that are likely to be exhausted. If the wind and the Sun are unlimited, it is not at all the case of the materials necessary to use them (lithium, rare earth metals). It will therefore be necessary to consider a reduction in the global consumption of energy, and a selective decrease: unimaginable measures within the framework of capitalism.
8. Thanks to carbon capture and sequestration technology, we will avoid the climate catastrophe
This is an argument that is increasingly used by governments, and it can even be found in some serious documents. It is the illusion of a technological miracle solution, which would save the climate, without the need to change anything in our (capitalist) mode of production and in our way of life.
Alas, the sad truth is that these miraculous techniques of capture and sequestration of atmospheric carbon are far from being a reality. Certainly, a few attempts have been made, a few projects are underway here and there, but for the moment we cannot say that this technology is effective and operational. It has not yet solved the difficulties of either capture or sequestration (in underground regions impervious to leakage). And there is no guarantee that in the future it will be able to do it.
9. Thanks to the electric car, we will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions
This is another example of a half-truth: it is true that electric cars are less polluting than thermal cars (gasoline or diesel), and therefore less damaging to the health of urban residents. However, from the point of view of climate change, their record is much more mixed. They emit less CO2, but contribute to a disastrous ‘all-electricity’ situation. And yet, in most countries, electricity is produced with… fossil fuels (coal or oil). The reduced emissions of electric cars are ‘compensated’ by the increased emissions resulting from the higher consumption of electricity. In France, electricity is produced by nuclear energy, another dead end. In Brazil, it is the mega-dams that destroy forests and are therefore responsible for a poor carbon balance.
If we want to drastically reduce emissions, we cannot avoid a significant reduction of private car traffic, thanks to the promotion of alternative means of transport: free public transport, pedestrian zones, cycle lanes. The electric car maintains the illusion that we can continue as before, by changing the technology.
10. It is through market mechanisms that we will succeed in reducing CO2 emissions
Among sincere environmentalists, this is an illusion; in the mouths of governments, it is still a mystification. Market mechanisms have proven their inefficiency in reducing greenhouse gases. Not only are they anti-social measures that make the working classes pay the price of the ‘ecological transition,’ but above all they are incapable of making a substantial contribution to limiting emissions. The spectacular failure of the ‘carbon markets’ instituted by the Kyoto agreements are the best demonstration of this.
It is not by ‘indirect’ or ‘incentive’ measures, based on the logic of the capitalist market, that we will be able to put a brake on the omnipotence of fossil fuels, which have kept the system going for two centuries. To begin with, it will be necessary to expropriate the capitalist energy monopolies, to create a public energy service, which will have as its objective the drastic reduction of the exploitation of fossil fuels.
11. Climate change is inevitable, we can only adapt
This kind of fatalistic assertion can be found in the mainstream media and among political ‘leaders.’ For example, Mr. Christophe Bechu, Minister of Ecological Transition in the new Macron government in France, recently declared:
Since we will not be able to prevent global warming, no matter how hard we try, we must manage to limit its effects while adapting to it.
This is an excellent recipe to justify inaction, immobility, and the abandonment of any ‘effort’ to try to avoid the worst. However, the IPCC scientists have clearly explained that if warming has indeed already started, it is still possible to avoid exceeding the 1.5 degree red line—provided that we start immediately to reduce CO2 emissions in a very significant way.
Of course, we must try to adapt. But if climate change becomes uncontrollable and accelerates, ‘adaptation’ is only a decoy. How can we ‘adapt’ to temperatures above 50°C?
We could multiply the examples. All of them lead to the conclusion that if we want to avoid climate change, we must change the system and replace it by another form of production and consumption. This is what we call ecosocialism. But this is the subject of another text.
Michael Löwy, a philosopher and sociologist of Brazilian origin, is a member of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and of the Fourth International. He is the author of many books, including The Marxism of Che Guevara, Marxism and Liberation Theology, Fatherland or Mother Earth? and The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. He is joint author (with Joel Kovel) of the International Ecosocialist Manifesto.
This article originally appeared on the Global Ecosocialist Network website.