The Coming Crisis: planetary instability

27 April 2016

Peter Dauvergne - Professor of International Relations at the University of British Columbia

To solve the escalating environmental crisis the unsustainability of global wealth creation must be confronted, argues Peter Dauvergne in our new ‘coming crisis’ blog.

Last year was the hottest ever recorded. And for the first time average global temperatures reached 1°C above pre-industrial times.

This was but one sign in 2015 of an escalating global environmental crisis. Rivers of plastic made their way into vast, swirling eddies of garbage in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  Mountains of electronic waste grew even higher across the world. Smog blackened the cities of India and China.  Fresh water grew scarcer across Africa.  And biodiversity loss intensified in Latin America and Southeast Asia.  In Indonesia alone, fires to clear land for palm oil plantations scorched more than 2 million of hectares of rainforests and peatlands, releasing as much greenhouse gases as the entire Brazilian economy.

The earth is spinning faster and faster toward an ecological crisis big enough to cause a mass extinction of species by the end of this century. Homo sapiens will certainly survive; if anything, the global population will likely rise by another 4 billion or so, exceeding 11 billion in total.  But life for billions of people would be perilous in a world of mass extinction, as instability in the basic functions of the earth’s ecology would severely disrupt – and in some cases destroy – the capacity of socioeconomic and political systems to provide food and shelter, protect human rights, and promote community wellbeing.

Last year, however, didn’t end in dismay over the future of the earth, but in euphoria as world leaders hailed the Paris Agreement on climate change as a breakthrough in global environmental governance.

The Paris Agreement is ‘a huge step forward in helping to secure the future of our planet’, pronounced UK Prime Minister David Cameron. An ‘historic agreement’ and ‘a tribute to American leadership’, chimed in US President Barack Obama.  There were ‘no winners or losers. Climate justice has won and we are all working towards a greener future’, tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The agreement is ‘fair and just, comprehensive and balanced, highly ambitious, enduring and effective,’ said the leader of China’s negotiating team.

Journalists and pundits tripped over themselves to praise negotiators. The Paris Agreement is ‘the world’s greatest diplomatic success’, proclaimed Fiona Harvey of the Guardian.  ‘The future is bright’, Lord Nicholas Stern told the Guardian.  ‘If we get this right, it will be more powerful than the industrial revolution. A green race is going on’.


The Paris Agreement, which opened for signatures on Earth Day last week, does have commendable aspects. It aspires to limit global warming to 1.5°C, rather than 2°C. It unites the developed and developing worlds on the need for climate action, and importantly brings aboard China, India, Europe, and the United States.  It lays out reporting and ratcheting up processes to encourage states to become more ambitious over time.  And it promises by 2020 to provide poorer countries with at least US$100 billion a year in private and public funds to develop new energy technologies, reform land management, and adapt to climate change.

Yet the Paris Agreement relies on bottom up, largely voluntary mechanisms to mitigate climate change. Reviews and reporting procedures are mandatory.  But little else.  The clauses for financing, emission targets, and timetables are all nonbinding under international law. There are no penalties for failing to meet commitments.  Loss and liability claims are excluded.  And much of the text is imprecise and open to interpretation.  Moral suasion could generate reasonable rates of compliance: all international law is soft, after all. But at this point no one knows.  The agreement could well be a colossal failure, doing far more to legitimize the crisis of capitalism than avert the crisis of climate change.

What we know for sure is that the Paris Agreement contains the same flaw as just about every government-led environmental solution: it’s designed to enable the world’s wealthiest individuals and states to become even richer. The agreement relies on markets, money, business, and technology to produce solutions.  Nothing in the agreement confronts the staggering inequality, greed, opulence, and exploitation underlying climate change.  In the backroom politics leading up to Paris negotiators even decided to excise any reference to international air travel

The Paris Agreement is typical of what governments now call ‘sustainable development’. The underlying priority is not planetary stability, but more production efficiency, corporate profits, economic growth, and investment in technology.  No one in power wants to discuss how efficiency gains can rebound into even greater environmental destruction.  Most of what developed and emerging economies are calling sustainable development relies on importing unsustainable amounts of natural resources from the world’s poorest and most vulnerable regions.  And almost always billionaires, multinational corporations, and powerful states benefit disproportionately.

Of course, the Paris Agreement is just one of more than a thousand international environmental agreements now in place. To be fair, at least to some extent these are helping to improve global environmental management.  So are government policies, corporate codes of conduct, certification schemes, eco-markets, and eco-consumerism.

Yet, adding everything up, the gains are not coming close to keeping pace with – let alone reducing – the rising environmental costs of the global political economy. At the same time global environmental governance, as we see with the Paris Agreement, has increasingly come to reflect the short-term interests and concerns of those with the greatest wealth and power – a trend with deep consequences for the nature and effectiveness of the global environmental movement more generally, as I demonstrate in my forthcoming book, Environmentalism of the Rich.

The rich may well think it’s possible to solve every crisis by becoming even richer. Perhaps this explains the standing ovation for the Paris negotiators.  Yet the unsustainability of global wealth creation is the underlying reason for the coming crisis of planetary instability.  Unless this is confronted, by the end of this century we’ll be lucky to stop global warming at 4°C, and we could well be on our way to an earth-shattering 6°C.

The Coming Crisis SPERI blog series: Next week: Matt Bishop looks at China and the contemporary challenges facing the world’s second largest economy.

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