John Scales Avery

Corporations won’t touch climate change until we make them

Only immediate climate action can save the future. But, alongside future-proofing our climate, we need to do the same to our economy. Only then will we move.

 

 

Here is a recent statement by Jakob von Uexküll, founder of the World Future Council:

Today we are heading for unprecedented dangers and conflicts, up to and including the end of a habitable planet in the foreseeable future, depriving all future generations of their right to life and the lives of preceding generations of meaning and purpose.

This apocalyptic reality is the elephant in the room. Current policies threaten temperature increases triggering permafrost melting and the release of ocean methane hydrates which would make our earth unliveable, according to research presented by the British Government Met Office at the Paris Climate Conference.

The myth that climate change is a conspiracy to reduce freedom is spread by a powerful and greedy elite which has largely captured governments to preserve their privileges in an increasingly unequal world.

Similarly, 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, described our present situation in the following words:

When I was about 8 years old, I first heard about something called “climate change” or “global warming”. Apparently, that was something humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turn off the lights to save energy and to recycle paper to save resources. I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the Earth’s climate. Because, if we were, and if it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turn on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers: you would never read or hear about anything else. As if there was a world war going on, but no one ever talked about it. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal?

Why do we not respond to the crisis?

 

 

At the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland (COP24), Sir David Attenborough said, “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. The world’s people have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.”

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said climate change was already “a matter of life and death” for many countries. He added that the world is “nowhere near where it needs to be” on the transition to a low-carbon economy.

 

In general, corporations represent a strong force resisting change. By law, the directors of corporations are obliged to put the profits of stockholders above every other consideration.

 

Our collective failure to respond adequately to the current crisis is very largely due to institutional inertia. Our financial system is deeply embedded and resistant to change. Our entire industrial infrastructure is based on fossil fuels, but if the future is to be saved, the use of fossil fuels must stop. International relations are still based on the concept of absolutely sovereign nation-states, even though this concept has become a dangerous anachronism in an era of instantaneous global communication and economic interdependence. Within nations, systems of law and education change very slowly, although present dangers demand rapid revolutions in outlook and lifestyle.

The failure of the recent climate conferences to produce strong final documents can be attributed to the fact that the nations attending the conferences felt themselves to be in competition with each other, when in fact they ought to have cooperated in response to a common danger. The heavy hand of the fossil fuel industry also made itself felt at the conferences.

In general, corporations represent a strong force resisting change. By law, the directors of corporations are obliged to put the profits of stockholders above every other consideration. No room whatever is left for an ecological or social conscience. Increasingly, corporations have taken control of our mass media and our political system. They intervene in such a way as to make themselves richer, and thus to increase their control of the system.

Each day, the conventions of polite conversation contribute to our sense that everything is as it always was. Politeness requires that we do not talk about issues that might be contrary to another person’s beliefs. Thus polite conversation is dominated by trivia, entertainment, sports, the weather, gossip, food and so on. Worries about the distant future, the danger of nuclear war, the danger of uncontrollable climate change, or the danger of widespread famine seldom appear in conversations at the dinner table, over coffee or at the pub.

The situation is exactly the same in the mass media. The programs and articles are dominated by trivia and entertainment. Serious discussions of the sudden crisis which civilisation now faces are almost entirely absent, because the focus is on popularity, ratings and the sale of advertising. As Neil Postman remarked, we are entertaining ourselves to death.

We have to face the fact that endless economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, and that we have reached or passed the sustainable limits to growth.

In today’s world, we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth’s carrying capacity, and further growth carries with it the danger of future collapse. In the long run, neither the growth of industry nor that of the population is sustainable, and we have now reached or exceeded the sustainable limits.

The size of the human economy is, of course, the product of two factors: the total number of humans, and the consumption per capita. Let us first consider the problem of reducing per-capita consumption in industrialised countries. The whole structure of western society seems designed to push its citizens in the opposite direction, towards ever-increasing levels of consumption. The mass media hold before us continually the idea of a personal utopia, filled with material goods.

 

In today’s world, we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth’s carrying capacity, and further growth carries with it the danger of future collapse.

 

When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demand has no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the human ego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good if unlimited industrial growth were desirable but today, when further industrial growth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find new values to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement, and our admiration of excessive consumption.

If you turn on your television set, the vast majority of the programs that you will be offered give no hint at all of the true state of the world or of the dangers which we will face in the future. Part of the reason for this wilful blindness is that no one wants to damage consumer confidence. No one wants to bring on a recession. 

All of the technology needed for the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is already in place. Although renewable sources supplied only 9% of the world’s total energy requirements in 2015, they supplied 23% of electrical generation energy in 2016, and they are growing rapidly. Because of the remarkable properties of exponential growth, this will mean that renewables will soon become a major supplier of the world’s energy requirements, despite bitter opposition from the fossil fuel industry.

Both wind and solar energy can now compete economically with fossil fuels, and this situation will become even more pronounced if more countries put a tax on carbon emissions, as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and Ireland already have done.

Much research and thought have also been devoted to the concept of a steady-state economy.

The only thing that is lacking is political will. It is up to the people of the world to make it collectively felt.

 

 

 

John Scales Avery

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988-1997).

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