Not Climate Agreement, But Climate Revolt

“The withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes. But not for the reasons we might think.”

Environmental and political analysis, from Rhyd Wildermuth

“Philosophers of freedom were mainly, and understandably, concerned with how humans would escape the injustice, oppression, inequality, or even uniformity foisted on them by other humans or human-made systems. Geological time and the chronology of human histories remained unrelated. This distance between the two calendars, as we have seen, is what climate scientists now claim has collapsed….

The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History

The world awoke to the news on Thursday that President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the COP 21/Paris Climate Accords.

Environmentalists and the environmentally-conscious everywhere are reacting with horror and panic, as are politicians and leaders of many of the largest industrialized nations. The governors of several states within the US announced they will still voluntarily partake in the accord, the mayors of Montreal, Paris, Mexico City and many other massive metropolitan areas ordered official buildings to be lit green in defiance:

Climate change is a catastrophic problem. Already thousands of species go extinct each year, islands flood, entire ecosystems die off, and disruptions of long-term weather patterns are causing famine, resource wars, and death. Many saw the agreements reached during the Paris COP 21 summit as the last best hope humanity had of slowing and finally stopping the damage. So the withdrawal by the United States, the nation with the second highest carbon output in the world (behind China, whose per-capita emissions are less than half those of the US), seems deeply catastrophic.

It is catastrophic, yes.

But not for the reasons we might think.

 Waste Management

Climate change occurs through human activity. “Greenhouse gas emissions” (primarily CO2 and methane) are the product of burning fossil fuels like oil and coal through automobiles (and other transport), industrial production (everything from toilet paper to ‘smartphones,’), and all the activities which go into sustaining modern civilization (including the data servers hosting this essay).

To put this as plainly as possible, all our economic activity produces carbon in the same way that everything we eat produces shit. The more we eat, the more we defecate, and all that left-over needs to go somewhere. Those emissions go into the air.

Emissions are the primary problem, but other activity speeds up the process. Deforestation, for instance, decreases the ability of nature to ‘sink’ carbon: each tree, each plant, and each of us is composed of carbon, and our very existence locks carbon out of the atmosphere until we decompose and release it again. Plants, trees, and plankton are much better at this than animal life: when we replace plant-life with asphalt and forests with agricultural land, we speed the carbon output cycle while reducing the ability of the earth to ‘fix’ carbon out of the air.

Likewise, pollution, soil erosion, development, and the damming of rivers decreases the ability of the earth both to absorb carbon output as well as magnifying the effects of climate change. In Florida and Louisiana, for instance, much swampland has been drained to make way for new housing developments and industry. Swamps hold intense rainfall better than any other bio-region, so with the increasing hurricanes caused by climate change, flood-damage, pollution run-off, and erosion are amplified, weakening other linked ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico as well.

To pick up the fecal metaphor again, it’s like all septic tanks are full and overflowing, the sewage treatment plants over-capacity, and the overflow is leaking everywhere, polluting everything else.

This process of cascading damage is repeated in  every bio-region in the industrialised world. Not just industrialised regions, either: some of the countries with the least damaging economic activity, who have contributed only a tiny fraction to the carbon output of the world, suffer the most damage.  Nauru, and other tiny Pacific island nations, are sinking under the rising ocean levels caused by the melting ice-caps. Caribbean islands such as Haiti (per-capita yearly income $800 US, rank 123/141 in per capita carbon emissions) see relentless death from stronger and stronger hurricanes.

Industrialised nations tend to be more resilient against these changes, precisely because they are richer. But there’s a paradox here: the wealth they have that helps them recover from and accommodate to climate change was gained from the very activity which caused climate change in the first place.

With all this in mind, the goals of the COP 21/Paris agreement seem both sound and charitable:

“The deal requires any country that ratifies it to act to stem its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming century, with the goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” and continuing the reductions as the century progresses. Countries will aim to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 with an ideal target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C (2.7°F).

The deal will also encourage trillions of dollars of capital to be spent adapting to the effects of climate change—including infrastructure like sea walls and programs to deal with poor soil— and developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. The text of the agreement includes a provision requiring developed countries to send $100 billion annually to their developing counterparts beginning in 2020. That figure will be a “floor” that is expected to increase with time.

The agreement gives countries considerable leeway in determining how to cut their emissions but mandates that they report transparently on those efforts. Every five years nations will be required to assess their progress towards meeting their climate commitments and submit new plans to strengthen them.” [Source]

Investing $100 billion dollars annually to undeveloped nations (such as Haiti and Nauru) to help them accommodate to climate change seemed to be a significant start, especially since it would represent the beginnings of a transfer of wealth from the countries most responsible for the damage to those least responsible. Without such aid, many people may die.

We can also read that provision as: “sorry we are making money by dumping our shit in your water supply. Have some of the money to help clean it up.”

This humanitarian element of the agreement is the part which seemed most ‘radical,’  a proof that the wealthy nations of the world were serious about being sorry for what they’d done.  Thus the United States’ decision to no longer participate seems particularly malevolent.

“As Soon As Possible”

Read the above summary of the agreement again. Did you happen to catch the words in quotes? (If not, they’re in this subheading.)

One of the two greatest problems with the Paris accords is that no specific timeline is outlined for the reduction of carbon output, or even the ‘peaking’ of greenhouse gas emissions. That is, there’s no regulatory or binding aspect to the agreement and no promises made as to when the industrialized countries in the world will stop increasing their output, let alone reducing it.

Instead, signatories agreed to stop increasing carbon pollution ‘as soon as possible,’ which is about as meaningful as an abuser telling you he’ll stop hitting you “when I’m done.”

The other targets (keeping global warming below 2°C/3.6°F and ideally below 1.5°C/2.7°F) are just as nebulous, and set to a future date so far away that it is guaranteed not a single person who negotiated the agreement will be alive to answer to their failure: the year 2100.

Climate agreements often suffer from an overdose of Realpolitik, the idea that while certain ideals are worth striving for, we must be pragmatic. Make the agreements too ambitious and (the reasoning goes) no countries will sign to them. Make them binding, with economic penalties for those who cheat, and no leader who agreed would ever get re-elected.

That pragmatism, however, conceals something more insidious, what is rarely spoken of by liberals (who often spearhead such agreements) or even leftists: climate change is not merely some global problem to be managed by the governments of the world, but the very result of the global economic systems by which those governments exist in the first place.

The High Cost of Living

Capitalist expansion, Liberal Democracy, and the increasing availability of technology to help humanity live longer, communicate over vast distances, and have access to the products of far-flung lands at any time of the year have come with the mass extinction of species, deforestation, melting ice-caps, polluted water supplies, and all the other cascading cycles of damage we call “Climate Change.”

We have smartphones and the internet, personal automobiles and life-saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and global travel, social media and strawberries in winter. We also have flooding islands, eroded top soils, resource wars and super-storms. These are not separate aspects of modern existence; they come by means of the very same thing, and the former produces the latter.

Again with the toilet metaphor: the ‘progress’ which we embrace is the food we eat; the climate destruction the Paris Accords promised to address is the shit that comes after.

That is, the agreement which Trump endangered by withdrawing the United States from its provisions was a sham in the first place, a dazzling illusion meant to assure the billions of humans upon the planet that we could continue on our present course of “progress” and not die from rising temperatures and oceans.

Thus we should not see the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords as a blow to the planet. Rather, it is a crippling wound to Liberal Democratic global capitalism. COP 21 represented the last hope for those who wanted to eat their cake and not see the shit too, but it was no hope at all. The United States pulling out is the final blow to the Liberal Democratic promise that both Capitalism and humanity can continue together.

And anyway: voluntary reductions ‘as soon as possible’ with nebulous targets negotiated by people who will be long dead by the time anyone could judge their failure or success? That was not a plan, it was a hoax.

We know what causes climate change. We know the connection between our economic system and the CO2 it shits out into the atmosphere. We know that our entire ‘way of life,’ our religious faith in progress, and endless capitalist expansion is killing us, and it will kill the poorest people of the world first. And more than anything, we know that the only way to stop it is to pull the emergency brake on the capitalist train hurtling us into destruction.

It’s time to pull that brake. We cannot rely on governments and corporations to do the right thing, nor can we afford to delude ourselves that there is another way to stop the destruction of the natural world.

It’s time we stop putting our hope in climate agreements, and become the climate revolt.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram

Like this essay? You’ll probably really like Dr. Bones’ new book. Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World is now available for pre sale.

10 thoughts on “Not Climate Agreement, But Climate Revolt

  1. I think you do see things like the Paris Accords for the farce that they really are. I find my self agreeing with almost everything you say, which is pretty good considering we have the same values but different world views.

    My only criticism is the use of per capita carbon emissions. Per Capita looks terrible and is a misleading number. Total emissions is one way to look at it. China produces 10,641,789 Kilotons of CO2 emissions, the US slightly less than half that (5,172,338 Kilotons). China and India are allowed to keep increasing carbon emissions; China has a coal plant over-capacity and is still building. Basically two out of every seven people on the planet are getting a pass.

    Another way to look at it, particularly for an anti-capitalist site is in terms of economic output – i.e. how bad is our capitalism hurting the environment compared to others? Our CO2 output is 0.28 Kilotons per $1 million of GDP – we’re not even in the top 10 (China is 0.95, India 1.09 and Russia 1.37). Currently Russia, India and China have pledged nothing toward a solution, yet their contribution to the problem in terms of the wealth they are creating is substantially higher than in the U.S. In terms of capitalist output, those three need to contribute more toward a solution, wouldn’t you think? (All numbers are from Wiki, or calculations based on Wiki numbers.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your figures and reasoning are correct, and even more importantly you bring up something I did not get to touch on in this essay, the “economic disarmament” issue.

      No economic power in their right minds would reduce their economic activity or growth (thus reducing carbon) without an assurance that their economic rivals/enemies are doing the same.

      Just like nuclear weapons, the US will never reduce their contribution to global warming unless Russia, China, etc do it too.

      On the matter of GDP/output, if I am remembering correctly (and I may not be…), the problem occurs where tiny petro nations jump up to absurdly high levels which reflect their production but not their consumption (similar to the problem with per capita, as well). So a country like Venezuela or Nigeria suddenly appears to be full of carbon polluters, yet few in those places actually do the polluting.


      1. The problem I immediately see with the carbon to GDP argument is that we are essentially punishing those who aren’t making as much profit off of their carbon emissions. If China mines coal and burns it raw for cheap they’ll make as much carbon as if they extracted the bitumin out of that coal and made a higher grade fuel out of it, with the difference being the money made off of the carbon emission. Raw petroleum can be exploited for mounds of cash, but only if the right machinery is available to extract and refine it, otherwise it just gets sold or burned for a lot less profit. Thus less developed and poorer nations typically have much higher emission to GDP ratios than nations who can afford to exploit their carbon emissions more thoroughly.

        Personally I find all the ‘disarmament’ question issues come down to political cowardice. In the nuclear case, a nation only needs just enough nukes to obliterate the planet, but nuclear powers refuse to get rid of their nukes to not ‘look weak’, despite the fact that the first to disarm appears the strongest because they imply they don’t need their nukes. Similarly they won’t push to revolutionise their energy production because they think someone else will edge them out economically. It’s pathetic. Do they not realise the first nation to not rely heavily on petroleum, gas, and coal, will have a huge economic advantage? That exporting cheap-to-produce clean energy will allow for flooding the market and making a huge profit off of higher energy costs elsewhere? The idiocy of capitalists truly boggles the mind.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Your insight into the GDP problem reminds me of a report I heard on a public radio program around a decade ago in which concerned liberals were arguing how best to reduce the carbon output of cooking fires used in African villages (!!!).


      3. You are correct, but only Iran would exceed Russia, China and India in terms of CO2 output/$1million GDP. Saudi Arabia and Indonesia rank below China, India and Russia, but above the US. That’s is why I used just the three more industrialized nations.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. @Rat – the key is not just cheap to produce clean energy. That energy also has to be cheap to transport, or the scenario you see won’t work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How about chatting about meaningful change instead. 3D printed new homes can create more energy during peak demand than they use, and these “Energy Positive” homes have no heat or electric bills, little water bill because of atomizers on faucets and showers, grow food in a solarium using Aquaponics, and charge an electric car for FREE parked in the garage. How about we decide to devote a sliver of funding to putting up these prototypes, and let the market drive the change for the better. 5-minute video on the project:


  4. Posted link to my Facebook page with this note:

    A more radical view of Politics and Economics that cause climate change. Regardless of your politics, this is worth reading just to shake up how you think about the problem
    . Nothing is separate, everything is connected, whether we want to realize it, or not.

    Liked by 1 person

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