Air pollution is likely to be a “game changer” for India and China in bringing awareness and action on climate change, according to Naomi Klein, Canadian writer and activist on inequality and climate change. (In Beijing the government issued a >red alert when pollution levels touched 237 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) the recommended limit is 2.5µg/m3). In New Delhi the level was above 500µg/m3 in parts of the city.) Till recently, air pollution resulting from the production and use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas was largely confined to the localities of their production. Now it poses the same danger in cities, where elites face the distress of seeing their children go to school with pollution masks, Ms. Klein said, adding that “domestic pressure” will build up on the need for governments to take action.
Ms. Klein was speaking, along with Thomas Piketty, economist and author of the popular book Capital in the 21st Century , at the Centenary Conference on Socialism, Capitalism, and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe held by the School for Slavonic and East European Studies’ at the University College, London.
Describing the outcome of the recent Climate Change Conference in Paris as “politically ambitious but scientifically catastrophic,” Ms. Klein argued that while the positives in the deal included “putting some bold goals in writing”, the language of the agreement “includes wriggle room and techno-fixes like ocean fertilization.” She said the targets set in the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) — the very heart of the Paris agreement — adds up to a 3-4°C increase in global warming, a far cry from the 1.5°C cap that scientists warn should not be crossed. Thus “the target and goals have nothing to do with each other, and countries have said they will meet every five years to discuss this,” she observed.
Ms. Klein traced the climate crisis the world faces today to the “coup that the big powers of the world pulled off at the Climate Change Conference in 2009 when they defined as ‘dangerous’ any warming above 2°C.” This target was set in defiance of science, she argued, which had clearly set the target at 1.5°C. Describing this as “genocidal” she recalled how at the time representatives of sub-Saharan nations had protested that a 2°C increase would cause their countries to “burn.” Their pleas were ignored and the 2°C target was enshrined in the 2009 agreement.
Today the climate crisis that is upon the world can only be resolved by “massive investments in public services and in the public sphere,” Ms. Klein argued. The crisis has “landed on our lap when the global ideological project is to wage war on the idea of government and the collective,” she said, and where solutions are “locked in by trade agreements and austerity measures”. She drew attention to the irony of Germany, which now derives 30 per cent of its energy from renewable sources because it reversed privatization and created new collective ownership structures. Yet the same country is pushing for energy privatization in Southern Europe, where indebted nations are slashing state supports and subsidies in the energy sector.
At a time when “capitalism is failing on its own terms, with massive poverty and debt that austerity measures have failed to address,” climate injustice and economic inequality must be fought together, Ms. Klein urged. Social and political movements must shed the notion of “growth at all costs”, just as the environmental movement should free itself of the illusion that it can solve the problems of the environment in isolation from improving peoples’ economic wellbeing.
Ms. Klein’s argument was supported by Prof. Piketty whose data showed the wide divergence in fossil fuel consumption of the richest 1 per cent of the global population as against the bottom 50 per cent.