As northern WA reels from the aftermath of our worst floods ever, the south of our State is bone-dry and highly prone to major bushfires. The era of unnatural disasters is upon us.
In my 40 years in the emergency services, I’ve never seen anything like the extent and scale of damage that the flooding in northern WA has caused to communities, business, and infrastructure. Experts are saying that rebuilding could take years, and the cost of the disasters will continue to mount.
The science is clear: climate change, fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels, is driving a frightening increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather disasters. With an atmosphere that is warmer, wetter and packing more energy, tropical cyclones such as Ellie can become more intense and destructive, dumping more rainfall. It has been heartening to see our elected politicians acknowledging the facts too.
Climate change also exacerbates the hot, dry conditions that lead to longer and more dangerous bushfire seasons — a bleak reality for towns in the south-west, which have been battling bushfires for months now.
The extraordinary tally of official disaster declarations for the country already this summer — 29 of those in our State alone — is eye-watering.
I worry about the increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events we face due to climate change, but what really keeps me up at night is the fact that our emergency services and communities are being overwhelmed.
This is partly because the scale and intensity of disasters is much worse than the relatively tamer environment emergency services were set up to deal with many decades ago. We’re still tackling these monsters as if it is the 1990s, not 2023. On top of that, our communities and legacy infrastructures are in the firing line and face difficulty dealing with the new reality.
That’s why we’ve seen, with increasing frequency, external agencies such as the Australian Defence Force and even the Surf Lifesavers brought in to help relief efforts.
The second reason I worry for the safety of Australians in this changing climate is that we’re increasingly seeing extreme weather disasters occur in quick succession, or even simultaneously, like the recent flooding and bushfires at either end of our State.
The south’s bushfire season is nowhere near over, nor is the wet season up north and risk of further extreme downpours this year. On any given day, emergency responses are challenging due to the huge distances in WA, and the remoteness of many communities. As weather extremes intensify, I don’t envy the tough decisions emergency services have to make about where to deploy limited personnel and resources.
I am part of a group of almost 40 former high ranking emergency chiefs who have been advocating to bring Australia’s disaster response into the 21st century. The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action recommend an immediate overhaul of our climate risk assessment models, more funding for emergency services, land use planning reforms, and building more disaster-proof infrastructure.
Redoubling our mitigation efforts through, for example, well planned and executed bushfire hazard reduction burns, are also critical to help keep our communities out of harm’s way.
But if we could choose just one thing, the single most important thing, to confront this mammoth challenge ahead of us, it’s strong, rapid action on climate change. It’s a no-brainer — just as you have to turn off the stove to stop a pot from boiling over, we absolutely must stop emissions and temperatures from rising to prevent disasters from getting worse.
This means urgently adopting renewable energy sources, phasing out fossil fuels, and working to decarbonise other sectors such as transport and the built environment.
When firies and their emergency services colleagues hear an alarm, they immediately leap into action to attend to the emergency, whatever it is. Now, we are sounding the alarm and calling for climate action — it’s time for business and politicians to respond with the urgency we need to avoid far more harm to our communities.
Mal Cronstedt is the former deputy commissioner of WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services and is a member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.
There is nothing that Davos loves more than a good buzzword, and in 2023 that buzzword was “polycrisis.”
The folks at this year’s World Economic Forum adopted the term after historian Adam Tooze popularized it in his inaugural Financial Times columnlast year. At its annual meeting last week, the WEF released its “Global Risks Report 2023,” warning that “eroding geopolitical cooperation will have ripple effects across the global risks landscape over the medium term, including contributing to a potential polycrisis of interrelated environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks relating to the supply of and demand for natural resources.”
This warning generated a lot of hand-wringing on the narrow streets of Davos. Little wonder — a “polycrisis” sounds pretty bad! But it also sounds to some like a confusing and redundant neologism. In the opening Davos panel, historian Niall Ferguson rejected the term, explaining it as “just history happening.” In a bit of hot FT-on-FT action, columnist Gideon Rachman characterized polycrisis as one of his least favorite terms, asking, “Does it actually mean anything?”
As someone who has written a book about zombie apocalypses and taught a course about the end of the world, I have a smidgen more sympathy for the polycrisis concept. I think its proponents are trying to get at something more than just history happening. They are putting a name to the belief that a more interconnected, complex world is vulnerable to an interconnected, complex global catastrophe.
Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century. Doughnut Economics
That is a legitimate concern. Just because the concept of a polycrisis is real, however, does not mean that the logic behind a polycrisis is ironclad. Some of it echoes 1970s concerns about resource depletion combined with an increasing population — in other words, neo-Malthusianism gussied up to sound fancy. A lot more of it can be reduced to concerns about climate change, which are real but not poly-anything. Those warnings about a polycrisis might be well-intentioned, but they also assume the existence of powerful negative feedback effects that may not actually exist.
The future will not be crisis-free by any stretch of the imagination — but the notion of a polycrisis might do more harm than good in attempting to get a grip on the systemic risks that threaten humanity.
The history of the idea of the polycrisis
As with many buzzwords foretelling despair, the origins of polycrisis can be blamed on the French.
In their 1999 book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium,French complexity theorist Edgar Morin and his co-author Anne Brigitte Kern warned of the “complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet.” Other academics began using the term in a similar way. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker adopted the term to characterize the cluster of negative shocks triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
So far, so redundant — none of these initial references really seem to mean much beyond “A Big, Bad Catastrophe.” Tooze’s initial column and Substack post, however, referenced the work of political scientists Michael Lawrence, Scott Janzwood, and Thomas Homer-Dixon. They work at the Cascade Institute, a Canadian research center focusing on emergent and systemic risks. In a 2022 working paper, they provide the fullest etymology of “polycrisis” and what they mean by it.
So what the hell is a polycrisis? The quick-and-dirty answer is that it’s the concatenation of shocks that generate crises that trigger crises in other systems that, in turn, worsen the initial crises, making the combined effect far, far worse than the sum of its parts.
The longer answer requires some familiarity with how complex systems work. Complex systems can range from a nuclear power plant to Earth’s ecosystem. In tightly wound and complex systems, not even experts can be entirely sure how the inner workings of the system will respond to stresses and shocks. Those who study systemic and catastrophic risks have long been aware that crises in these systems are often endogenous — i.e., they often bubble up from within the system’s inscrutable internal workings.
For example, when Lehman Brothers declared Chapter 11 in September 2008, few observers understood that Lehman’s bankruptcy would cause panic in money market funds. That was a relatively risk-free asset class seemingly far removed from the subprime mortgage debt that felled Lehman.
Except the Reserve Primary Fund, the oldest money market fund in the country, had invested some of its assets at Lehman, which had enabled it to offer a slightly higher rate of return. With those investments frozen by Lehman’s bankruptcy, the Reserve Primary Fund had to “break the buck” and price its fund below a dollar — hitherto unthinkable for a fund that was seen as pretty secure. That caused credit markets everywhere to seize up, and the Great Recession unfolded. The crisis cascaded so quickly that it was impossible for regulators and central banks to get out in front of the disaster wave.
The folks who warn about a polycrisis argue that it is not just components within a single system that are tightly interconnected. It is the systems themselves — health, geopolitics, the environment — that are increasingly interacting and tightly coupled. Therefore, if one system malfunctions, the crisis might trigger other systems to fail, leading to catastrophic negative feedback effects across multiple systems and affecting the entire world. Or, as Lawrence, Janzwood, and Homer-Dixon put it in their paper:
The core concern of the concept is that a crisis in one global system has knock-on effects that cascade (or spill over) into other global systems, creating or worsening crises there. Global crises happen less and less in isolation; they interact with one another so that one crisis makes a second more likely and deepens their overall harms. The polycrisis concept thus highlights the causal interaction of crises across global systems.
Think of rising commodity prices triggering the Arab Spring in 2010. Or think of the vicissitudes of the Covid-19 pandemic helping to trigger both the stresses in global supply chains and social dysfunction. These are examples of one systemic crisis generating another systemic crisis. Imagine all the myriad crises that climate change can trigger — from food scarcity to new pandemics to a surge in migration. The Cascade Institute paper defines a polycrisis as when three or more systems wind up being in crisis at the same time.
Given all the interconnections in the current moment, a polycrisis is not hard to conceive. To contemplate it is to be overwhelmed by catastrophic possibilities. Here, look at Tooze’s chart:
Or, if you prefer sci-fi narratives as a means to better comprehension, watch this clip from Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral, which talks about a cluster of events called “The Jackpot” in a way that sounds awfully similar to a polycrisis.
On the sociopolitical side of the ledger, it is noteworthy that as societies emerge from the pandemic, indicators of social dysfunction might start to subside. Political populism has actually been trending downward for the past year or so. Even skeptics of democracy have noticed that autocracies have been facing greater challenges as of late than democracies.
Malthusian arguments rest on producers being unable to keep pace with growing demand, and modern history suggests that the Malthusian logic has been proven wrong time and again. Homer-Dixon in particular has been a strong proponent of neo-Malthusian arguments, positing for decades that resource scarcity would lead to greater international violence. So far, the scholarly research testing his claim has found littleempiricalsupport for the hypothesis.
Predicting the unpredictable
The deeper flaw in the polycrisis logic is the presumption that one systemic crisis will inexorably lead to negative feedback effects that cause other systems to tip into crisis.
If this assumption does not hold, then the whole logic of a single polycrisis falls apart. To their credit, the Cascade Institute authors acknowledge that this might not happen, but they posit: “it seems more likely that causal interactions between systemic crises will worsen, rather than diminish, the overall emergent impacts.”
At first glance, this seems like a plausible assumption to make. Remember, however, that the proponents of a polycrisis also assert that the systems under stress are highly complex, leading to unpredictable cause-and-effect relationships. If that is true, then presuming that one systemic crisis would automatically exacerbate stresses in other systems seems premature at best and skewed at worst.
Indeed, over the last year there have been at least two examples of one systemic crisis actually lessening stress on another system.
China’s increasingly centralized autocracy generated a socioeconomic disaster in the form of “zero Covid” lockdowns. Xi Jinping kept that policy in place long after it made any sense, accidentally throttling China’s economy. The timing of China’s lockdown was fortuitous, however, as stagnant Chinese demand helped prevent an inflationary spiral from getting any worse. China’s exit from zero-Covid will likely also be countercyclical, jump-starting economic growth at a time when other regions tip into recession.
Another weird, fortuitous interaction has been the one between climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Europe aided Ukraine and resisted Russia’s blatant, illegal actions, Russia retaliated by cutting off energy exports. Many were concerned that Russia’s counter-sanctions would make this winter extremely hard and expensive for Europe.
Climate change may have provided a weird geopolitical assist to Europe, however. The warming climate is likely connected to Europe’s extremely temperate fall and winter. That, in turn, has required less electricity for heating, leaving the continent with plenty of energy reserves to last the winter. Russia’s ability to wreak havoc on the European economy has been circumscribed.
None of this is to say that systemic crises cannot exacerbate each other. Just because a polycrisis has not happened yet does not mean one is not on the horizon. Just as one buys insurance to guard against low-probability, high-impact outcomes, policymakers and elements of civil society need to guard against worst-case scenarios.
As a term of art, however, “polycrisis” distracts more than it adds. It mostly seems like a device to make people care about the Really Bad Things that climate change can do, without turning people off by warning them yet again about the hazards of climate change.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School and is the author of Drezner’s World.
Although United States President Joe Biden vowed on the campaign trail to phase out federal leasing for fossil fuel extraction, his administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years than the previous Donald Trump administration did in 2017 and 2018
According to the Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis of federal data released on January 25, the Biden White House greenlit 6430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in 2021 and 2022 — a 4.2% increase over Trump’s administration, which rubber-stamped 6172 drilling permits in its first two years.
“Two years of runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership by President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires phasing out fossil fuel extraction, but instead we’re still racing in the opposite direction.”
Of the drilling authorised so far by the Biden administration, nearly 4000 permits have been approved for public lands in New Mexico, followed by 1223 in Wyoming and several hundred each in Utah, Colorado, California, Montana, and North Dakota.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, these “Biden-approved drilling permits will result in more than 800 million US tons of estimated equivalent greenhouse gas pollution, or the annual climate pollution from about 217 coal-fired power plants.”
Just last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the elites gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival”.
Reams of scientific evidence show that pollution from the world’s existing fossil fuel developments is enough to push temperature rise well beyond 1.5°C above the preindustrial baseline. Averting calamitous levels of global heating necessitates ending investment in new oil and gas projects and phasing out extraction to keep 40% of the fossil fuel reserves at currently operational sites underground.
As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to ban new oil and gas lease sales on public lands and waters and to require federal permitting decisions to weigh the social costs of additional planet-heating pollution. Although Biden issued an executive order suspending new fossil fuel leasing during his first week in office, his administration’s actions since then have run roughshod over earlier promises, worsening the deadly climate crisis that the White House claims to be serious about mitigating.
“The president and interior secretary have the power to avoid a climate catastrophe, but they need to change course rapidly.”
The US Department of Interior (DOI) argued on August 24, 2021 that it was required to resume lease auctions because of a preliminary injunction issuedby US Judge Terry A. Doughty, a Trump appointee who ruled in favor of a group of Big Oil-funded Republican attorneys general that sued Biden over his moratorium. In a memorandum of opposition filed on the same day, however, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted that while Doughty’s decision prevented the Biden administration from implementing its pause, it did not compel the DOI to hold new lease sales, “let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs’ contempt motion.”
Just days after Biden called global warming “an existential threat to human existence” and declared Washington’s ostensible commitment to decarbonisation at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the DOI ignored the DOJ’s legal advice and proceeded with Lease Sale 257. The nation’s largest-ever offshore auction, which saw more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas giants, was blockedin January 2022 by a federal judge who wrote that the Biden administration violated environmental laws by not adequately accounting for the likely consequences of resulting emissions.
Despite Biden’s pledge to cut US greenhouse gas pollution in half by the end of this decade, the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management held lease sales in several Western states in 2022, opening up tens of thousands of acres of public land to fossil fuel production. The DOI has so far announced plans for three new onshore oil and gas lease sales in 2023. The first will offer more than 261,200 acres of public land in Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming to the highest-bidding drillers. The second and third will put a total of 95,411 acres of public land in Nevada and Utah on the auction block.
In addition, the Biden administration published a draft proposal last summer that, if implemented, would permit up to 11 new oil and gas lease sales for drilling off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico over a five-year period.
The president’s 2021 freeze on new lease auctions was meant to give the DOI time to analyse the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.” Nevertheless, the agency’s long-awaited review of the federal leasing program effectively ignored the climate crisis, instead proposing adjustments to royalties, bids, and bonding in what environmental justice campaigners described as a “shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters.”
The US Geological Survey has estimated that roughly 25% of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions and 7% of its overall methane emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. According to peer-reviewed research, a nationwide prohibition on federal oil and gas leasing would slash carbon dioxide emissions by 280 million US tons per year.
The Biden administration “has not enacted any policies to significantly limit drilling permits or manage a decline of production to avoid 1.5°C degrees of warming”, the Center for Biological Diversity lamented. The White House even supported the demands of right-wing Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (West Virginia) — Congress’ leading recipient of fossil fuel industry cash and a long-time coal profiteer — to “add provisions to the Inflation Reduction Actthat will lock in fossil fuel leasing.
On numerous occasions, including earlier this month, progressive lawmakersand advocacy groups have implored the Biden administration to use its executive authority to phase out oil and gas production on public lands and in offshore waters. A petition submitted last year came equipped with a regulatory framework to wind down oil and gas production by 98% by 2035. According to the coalition that drafted it, the White House can achieve this goal by using long-dormant provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.
“The president and interior secretary have the power to avoid a climate catastrophe, but they need to change course rapidly,” McKinnon said Wednesday. “Strong executive action can meet the climate emergency with the urgency it demands, starting with phasing out fossil fuel production on public lands and waters.”
A spate of articles have argued protection of the environment is incompatible with population and economic growth. But they do not address how to stop this growth and its public acceptability, nor how more determined efforts to protect the environment can succeed.
Over the last few weeks Pearls and Irritations has posted several articles asserting that continuing economic and population growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability on the planet. According to Mark Diessendorf if this growth continues it is likely to lead to the “collapse of civilisation within a few decades”.
The one dissident voice has been Roger Beale, a former Secretary of the Australian Government Environment Department. Beale argues that where governments take action to protect and improve the environment, that of itself encourages innovation that limits further environmental damage. As examples, Beale cites action to replace ozone depleting substances, and the drop in the cost of renewable energy so that it will replace carbon pollution.
I too agree with Beale but repeating Beale’s arguments will probably not be any more successful in satisfying the critics. On the other hand, my problem with the critics, is that while I agree with them about the importance of protecting the environment, they offer no realistic alternative set of policies that could limit population growth and/or economic growth. I will demonstrate that conclusion by considering first, future population growth, and second, the implications of the widespread human desire for further improvement in material living standards.
Future population growth
It is next to impossible for governments to control population growth. A partial exception has been China. It brutally enforced a ‘one child’ policy, but it eventually realised it risked growing old before it became rich. Now that individual families are allowed to make their own decisions about how many children they have China’s women have disappointed the government by failing to lift the birth rate, and its population has now started to decline.
Most importantly, the key to voluntarily reducing birth rates, besides access to birth control, is women’s education and empowerment, and a welfare safety net to look after people in their old age. All are highly correlated with economic growth. Consequently, almost all developed economies birth rates are now well below the net reproduction rate necessary just to stabilise their populations. That in turn means that most of their populations can be expected to decline too.
That low birth rate is also true of Australia, but our population will continue to increase so long as immigration continues around its present level. However, Australian immigration represents a redistribution of the global population and does not add to that total.
In sum, to the extent population growth is a source of environmental pressures, it is likely that this problem will largely resolve itself over time in response to economic growth –in the developed countries first, and then others as their living standards rise.
Material living standards
As Beale said, “We are simply never going to be able to convince humans that they should not strive for better material living conditions.” It is all very well for other commentators, who are comfortably off in the top quarter of the income distribution, and own their home, to say no further increase in living standards is necessary. But such views are very much a minority.
Living standards are always a key election issue even in a high-income country like Australia, with ‘struggling families’ demanding more. And of course, at least half the world’s population has living standards well below what is acceptable in the developed economies.
Most of the other articles in this series did not address how governments could reconcile the demands for improved material living standards with their demand for zero economic growth. In fairness, Diessendorf did however address this key issue, asserting that instead of trying to convince humans to forego their aspirations for higher living standards through economic growth, “some redistribution of wealth and income, both between and within countries, … could allow better living standards for the vast majority of people.”
I agree, in principle, redistribution could meet peoples’ aspirations for improved living standards. But surely it is incumbent upon those who make this argument to then consider the scale of redistribution necessary and how practically it could be achieved. Otherwise proclaiming that the environment can be saved by redistribution is a diversion and not a solution.
But when we look at some facts, in Australia the highest quintile (the top 20%) in the distribution of equivalised disposable household income has an income 5.05 times the income of the lowest quintile. Whilst internationally, Australian GDP per capita is 289% of the world average.
That means that if redistribution in Australia was to give the two bottom quintiles of households the same average disposable income as the middle third quintile, then the disposable incomes of the top two quintiles would need to be cut by another quarter, over and above the redistribution that the top two quintiles are already paying for through the existing tax system. And even after that redistribution, the top 20% would still have an average household disposable income that was almost twice that of the bottom 60%.
While, a major redistribution of this order might produce a fairer and more cohesive society, how do we achieve it in a world where we cannot even stop stage 3 of the tax cuts?
Similarly, if the alternative to continuing economic growth is redistribution to produce international income equality, then Australia’s contribution could reduce the value of the GDP Australia retained to not much more than a third of its present value per person. Again, that would represent a massive loss of living standards for each and every Australian.
In other words, it is extremely doubtful that any government, let alone governments collectively, could achieve or would want to achieve the scale of redistribution necessary to satisfy the material aspirations of all populations.
But if redistribution is not the realistic alternative to more economic growth to satisfy peoples’ aspirations for higher living standards then there is no alternative to further government regulation to protect the environment along the lines that the Albanese Government is proposing.
I appreciate the argument against that approach is that insufficient progress towards environmental protection has been achieved so far. But that is an argument for trying harder and taking more difficult decisions to stop particularly harmful activities, rather than stopping all further population and economic growth.
Furthermore, we are making progress. An outstanding Australian example is the take-up of renewable energy, where for the first time in the last December quarter renewable energy accounted for more of the East Coast electricity generation than black coal.
Globally progress in limiting carbon emissions is also being made. Back in 2013 only 20 jurisdictions had a price on carbon of just US$0.67 per tonne, covering just 8% of global emissions. By the end of 2022, the number of jurisdictions had risen to 58, accounting for 22.5% of global emissions, and the price was around US$7.77 per tonne – almost 8 times higher than 2013.
But this is also an example of where more can and should be done. For carbon pricing to wean us off fossil fuels, the IMF has calculated that the carbon price needs to be around US$75 by the end of this decade, while at the end of last year the world’s average price was only around US$5.29.
The main problem is that (i) too many countries (including Australia) still do not have a mandated carbon price, and (ii) most of the world’s emissions – from land clearing, cars, and industry – are pumped into the atmosphere without any cost to the polluter.
So, we all need to do more. But pricing carbon and replacing it with other non-polluting forms of energy is manageable, and certainly much more readily accomplished than massive redistribution of incomes, both within and between countries.
To the extent that initiatives to protect the environment come at a cost to economic activity, and that is not always the case (cf the lower costs of renewable energy), that extra cost will lower material living standards, but by nowhere near as much as trying to stop all economic growth. Reforms should therefore focus on that relatively small extra cost that we should be prepared to pay to protect the environment.
In short: where there is the necessary will, there is a way to protect the environment without resorting to measures that will never gain public acceptance and are unnecessary.
Michael Keating is a former Secretary of the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and Employment, and Industrial Relations. He is presently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
We’ve all heard about the global push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which scientists agree is critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But this goal alone is not enough to safeguard humanity from the harmful consequences of a warming climate, diminishing biodiversity and increasingly degraded ecosystems. To ensure those most vulnerable do not take the brunt of these impacts, climate plans must also include environmental justice targets, according to seminal research on the topic.
The Earth Commission, an international team of natural and social scientists and five working groups of additional experts, was formed in 2019 in an effort to create “the first holistic attempt to scientifically define and quantify a safe and just corridor for people and planet,” according to the organization.
Last week at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, the Commission announced the upcoming launch of its first piece of research, which it describes as the first quantitative, science-based attempt to factor justice into the way we understand the environment and act to protect it.
The research, which will be published in the coming months, defines what the Commission calls “safe and just Earth System Boundaries.” Researchers liken these boundaries to the 1.5-degree cap for climate, but for a much broader set of environmental factors that underpin the stability of societies, economies and human well-being.
“By centering justice at its heart, this new science represents a quantum leap in our ability to understand Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and the role we humans play as guardians of our only home and each other,” Johan Rockström and Joyeeta Gupta, two of the three co-chairs of the Commission and lead authors of the research, wrote in a blog last week.
The world is on a collision course with 1.5 degrees Celsius
To say we as a global community have our work cut out for us is an understatement. Even as researchers with the Earth Commission challenge countries, localities and companies to think more broadly with their environmental plans, we’re already falling short of the primary target we all agreed upon: the push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius under the globally ratified Paris Agreement on climate change.
According to some estimates, a strong El Niño pattern could push the world past the 1.5-degree threshold as soon as next year. Researchers warn the results could be catastrophic.
“If the world breaches 1.5C, we are likely to trigger at least five tipping points, including the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and loss of the world’s tropical coral reef systems,” Rockström and Gupta wrote in their blog. “This will be devastating for future generations. It will literally change the world, and yet every month we use 1 percent of the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C.”
Environmental justice targets are needed — not only for the most vulnerable, but for everyone
It’s factors like these that drove the formation of the Earth Commission and the push from researchers in favor of environmental justice targets. “Planetary stability is not possible without a justice approach,” Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, told the Guardian.
The so-called Earth System Boundaries defined in the research seek to maintain a stable environment while setting minimum levels of access to resources like food, water and energy that ensure a “dignified life” for all.
“The initial papers are expected to launch a debate about the fairest as well as the safest way to use the planet’s remaining space for development,” observed Jonathan Watts, global environment editor of the Guardian. “Or in the cases where boundaries have already been crossed, to minimize impacts.”
The researchers underscore that establishing environmental justice targets is not a form of charity from rich to poor. Rather, environmental justice targets are critical to protect people all over the world — and future generations.
“This breakthrough science, which moves beyond climate, can be operationalized by everyone,” Rockström and Gupta wrote. “If we do nothing, or the bare minimum at this pivotal moment, we and our children — even if they are wealthy — will live in a danger zone.”
“I think we have to see that something is dying,” Michelle Furrer, the manager of a Swiss guesthouse, told The New York Times, looking out at the rain as it washed away what little snow had accumulated in the alpine ski resort of Sattel-Hochstuckli. “We have to accept that, and then we can try to build — to find something else.”
BY MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS
The innkeeper’s comments were not that different from what needed to be said down the road at the World Economic Forum in Davos. There, too, the recognition is dawning that the war in Ukraine and other geopolitical worries, post-pandemic economic disruptions and the ongoing threat of climate change were all exposing something fundamentally wrong about the world economy and how it is structured. The question is how many decision-makers will actually accept that fact, and then “try to build — to find something else.” The economic ministers may prove to be less serious than the innkeeper.”
The annual meeting brings finance ministers and major players in the world economy to the glitzy, insanely expensive Swiss resort. There, as titans are wont to do, they strategize about how to manage the future.
“In its most promising light, Davos can be a place to build consensus on solutions for global challenges like poverty, inequality and climate change,” says Eric LeCompte, executive director of JubileeUSA, a religious advocacy group that seeks to address the structural causes of poverty and inequality. “The dark side of the World Economic Forum is that it is self-selecting and largely represents the voices of the super-rich. Many people who attend are not elected and come from extremes on the right and the left. The actual voices of the most affected by poverty, inequality and climate change are largely absent.”
There was some movement on climate change. A coalition of trade ministers at the meeting announced some agreements on aligning trade policy with sustainable development goals. “As trade ministers, we need to deliver both economic results and sustainable results … we should have done this years ago, but this is the time for action, and it’s time to start these sorts of coalitions,” Julio José Prado, Ecuador’s production minister, told The Washington Post. He called the effort “way overdue.”
Others worried that not enough is being done. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres denounced fossil fuel companies in fierce terms, saying the corporations are “racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.”
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was even more emphatic than Guterres, saying, “We are right now in Davos where basically the people who are mostly fueling the destruction of the planet, the people who are at the very core of the climate crisis, the people who are investing in fossil fuels etcetera, etcetera and yet somehow these are the people that we seem to rely on solving our problems.”
LeCompte also thinks more attention needs to be paid to implementing the global minimum corporate tax. “Currently the developing world loses about a trillion dollars a year because of corruption and tax evasion and tax avoidance. Curbing global tax avoidance and evasion is critical for getting countries the revenues they need to build infrastructure, end poverty and address climate change,” he told me. “We’ve made strides on moving Congress to pass legislation that can help stop global tax evasion and corruption. We moved the G20 to agree on global corporate minimum tax. While the G20 global minimum corporate tax agreement is really critical, we need to increase the tax rate and we need to move forward implementation.”
Not all the news from Davos was grim. It appears the crypto bubble has burst. “Last May, the dressed-up shop fronts that line both sides of the Promenade street running through the Swiss ski resort were dominated by crypto firms, rolling in bitcoin,” reported Reuters. “Now there are just a handful and the executives who have made it to Davos have swapped their hoodies for blazers, despite sub-zero temperatures outside”
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said, “Bitcoin is a hyped-up fraud, it’s a pet rock.”
The problem with Davos is that we need a global response to the issues we face, but the kinds of perspectives one gets from finance ministers and financial tsars are narrow, crimped, too deeply vested in particular interests and ideologies to think imaginatively about how to move forward. They are not wrong, and their perspectives contain important expertise, but they lose the forest for the trees. The deeper need is to reimagine how we assess the economy in terms of the well-being it confers on those who participate in it, especially the poor, that is beyond their grasp. The “Commonhealth,” as my philosophy professor Paul Weiss used to call it, can’t emerge from the neoliberal paradigm that still holds sway.
Pope Francis is clear that we need global solutions — he called, after all, for “one world with a common plan in Laudato Si’,” Anthony Annett, author of Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy, said in an interview. “But he’s also deeply suspicious of globalization — in Fratelli Tutti, he noted that: ‘ “Opening up to the world” is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector.’ It seems unlikely that the corporate titans gathering at Davos are making this distinction.”
“I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence cometh my help?” asks the psalmist. Davos may be in the mountains, but there does not appear to be much help coming from there.
HBO’s latest drama The Last of Us portrays a future plagued by fungi that turn humans into zombies. The Frontlineexplores the actual fungi that threaten public health.
Zombie enthusiasts have been glued to their televisions for the past two Sundays to watch HBO’s latest series The Last of Us. The show, an adaptation of the bestselling namesake video game, takes place in an apocalyptic world where climate change has fueled a global fungal infection that has turned most humans into flesh-eating zombies. The survivors are left navigating a highly militarized society where monsters and war run rampant.
Nowadays, we don’t have to look far to imagine a deadly infectious disease. Look at COVID-19, the virus that brought the world to a standstill in 2020 and continues to kill hundreds (if not thousands) a day. The total death toll looms over 6 million, yet here we are, carrying on with business as usual as if lives aren’t being ravaged every day by a virus our governments could’ve stabilized years ago.
Could climate change facilitate the creation of something worse: a parasitic fungal disease that turns us into zombies like The Last of Us? The seven scientists interviewed for this story all said no, that’s highly unlikely. The climate crisis is, however, already increasing the threat humans face from other sorts of fungal infections, the researchers clarified. What makes this threat all the more dangerous is that it isn’t operating alone.
What’s coming is a polycrisis—a monster worse than the fictitious zombies we obsess over because, this time, it’s real. The wave of crises won’t stop just because we’re already in one. In our world of fossil fuel pollution and corporate greed, crisis breeds more crises. With respect to public health, world leaders need to prepare for future outbreaks that will be embedded in this web of disasters, especially if they are going to protect society’s most vulnerable.
In The Last of Us, a strange fungus appears, driving humans to cannibalistic and violent behaviors. This is how it eventually spreads: the infected attacking the living.
In the video game, the fungus originates in South America where it infects crops before spreading elsewhere via spores, the microscopic particles fungus release to reproduce. The latest episode on Sunday seemed to confirm a popular theory on how the fungus first spreads in the game: that people are exposed through flour originating in Jakarta, Indonesia, before they infect one another.
Viewers get a glimpse of what the initial infection looks like in the show’s premiere where an old lady (the first zombie we see) has writhing branches protruding from her mouth, the mycelium threads from the fungus that has taken over her body. As the most recent episode depicted, these branches can grow larger and more elaborate in later zombie stages, eventually exploding from a person’s face. These zombies are called clickers, and the stages of infection only grow more gruesome from there.
Though the idea of human zombies is entirely science fiction, The Last of Us is inspired by a real-world phenomenon: zombie ants. In the game, the disease is called Cordyceps Brain Infection, or CBI. Ophiocordyceps (more popularly known as Cordyceps) is a genus of fungi that includes many species, many of which are parasitic. Biologists have described about 300 species in the genus, 35 of which can manipulate host behavior, said João Araujo, a curator in mycology at the New York Botanical Garden. They estimate that some 600 species may actually have the power to function as zombie fungi.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a tropical species that targets ants. After an ant has contact with a spore, the fungus begins to move through its insides and eventually takes over its brain. At that point, the fungus is in control, so the zombified ant travels to higher treetops in the forest canopy before exploding with spores, sprinkling the fungus below.
“Eventually, a passing-by ant will get in contact with these spores and become infected, restarting the life cycle,” Araujo said in an email.
This can happen to other bugs, too—like fruit flies, an area studied by Dr. Carolyn Elya, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. It dies similarly to the ants with the fungus, Entomophthora muscae, growing out of the fly’s exoskeleton, releasing spores into the environment.
The video game doesn’t mention climate change, but HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Usstarts with a televised interview in 1968 where a scientist declares, “There are some fungi who seek not to kill, but to control,” speaking of the zombie ant. When the scientist sitting next to him challenges whether this can happen to humans whose bodies are too warm for these species of fungi, he responds: “Currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to be able to withstand higher temperatures, but what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?”
Well, we live in a warmer world now. Does that mean humans are next?
“This is pure fantasy (but so cool, right?),” Araujo said. “The fungus would require millions of years of genetic changes and adaptations in order to infect such a completely different group of organisms from what they are currently adapted to infect.”
Still, scientists still have a lot to uncover about these specific sorts of fungi, Elya at Harvard said in an email: “There is a ton that we don’t know about how these fungi alter host behavior. What’s great about shows like The Last of Us is that, in addition to entertaining folks, it can drive more awareness about the real natural phenomenon that inspired this story.”
“Mycology is one of the most neglected disciplines in biology and harbors one of the largest reservoirs for new discoveries.”
Our stories are not working. Whether they be the kind we tell in fiction, or the larger canvas of culture twittering away across the global village, our present reality – the seismic planetary shifts, the pandemical turmoil – evades our collective narrative comprehension. We are clearly at a critical moment in history, the consequences of which will ripple through time in unimaginable ways. In preparation for what is to come, we urgently need to view the frightening present with clarity. Only then, by extrapolating the likely future of our planet, might we begin to imagine a better world. There may not be a more qualified living writer to do this than Kim Stanley Robinson.
The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling … we’ve been overdue for such a shift. In our feelings, we’ve been lagging behind the times in which we live … the age of climate change … wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants’ ability to repair. (New Yorker, 1 May 2020)
Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, attempts to articulate the societal transformations, the collective shifts in thought, that will be necessary in order to confront and therefore change the shared future of the earth and all life therein. This is by no means a novel departure for the Californian, who from as early as his Nebula and Hugo Award-winning Mars trilogy (1992–96) has contended with and, as much as a novelist might, fought against our Anthropocene moment, the trajectory of which we continue along today ‘despite the 2020 dip’ in emissions referred to early in the novel. But while much of his earlier work this century – Science in the Capital Trilogy (2004–7), 2312 (2012), Aurora (2015), and New York 2140 (2017) – deals with similar climatic and existential fears, none is as ferocious or clear-sighted as The Ministry for the Future.
Set just a few years from now and spanning multiple decades, The Ministry for the Future recounts the rise of the eponymous ministry, established in Zurich in 2025 to work with the IPCC, the United Nations, and all governments signatory to the Paris Agreement. Headed by Mary Murphy, a no-nonsense Irishwoman appointed to the unenviable task of guiding her team of experts from across a range of disciplines, the ministry’s singular purpose is ‘to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens … all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves’. Of course, Mary’s team soon discovers the present impossibility of its mission, the mere symbolism of its formation against the intractability of international policy and of the very systems through which our current world order is organised. To be blunt, neoliberalism is the primary problem. Robinson is unwavering here, the sweeping sequence of events by which the ministry attempts to trigger immense societal transformations as clear a critique of present-day capitalism as you will find in fiction.
Although the ministry – along with Frank May, the sole survivor of the novel’s opening climate horror – provides the novel with its recurring core of radical ideas, this only scratches the surface of Robinson’s remarkable achievement, a work sufficiently radical in form to convey both the immensity and the complexity of anthropogenic climate change, a world ‘trembling on the brink’. Told almost entirely through eyewitness accounts, dozens upon dozens of interlinked characters and events, the novel’s scale is exceptionally expansive, cycling kaleidoscopically through entire worlds: Mary’s ministry, Frank’s climate-induced PTSD, ecological destruction, climate catastrophes, eco-terrorism, clandestine government operations, geo-engineering and carbon drawdown projects, riddles told from the points of view of inanimate objects and matter, climate change refugees, the reconfiguration of the world’s banks and rewilding movements, to mention just a few.
Constructing a novel, a towering future history, from more than one hundred short story-like vignettes might be disorienting, even distressing, given the subject; but in so doing Robinson appears to have arrived finally at an ideal hybrid of forms. Short-form fiction tends to occlude the long-term processes of climate change, focusing rather on what Robinson, in discussion with Gerry Canavan in 2014, referred to as ‘moments of dramatic breakdown’ precisely because these ‘are narratisable’. This might explain why post-catastrophic fatalism features so strongly in short climate fiction. But, as Robinson himself elaborated, ‘if we do that we’re no longer imagining the peculiar kinds of ordinary life that will precede and follow’ those moments. The novel form, he concluded, is generally better suited to the grander narrative demands of anthropogenic climate change because ‘the novel proper has the flexibility and capaciousness to depict any human situation … That’s what the modern novel was created to do, and that capacity never leaves it.’ By subsuming shorter, more dramatic forms of storytelling into a larger, meaningful narrative architecture, Robinson leaves little chance for soothing denialisms and the various narrative closures that pervade climate fiction more generally.
It makes for painful reading. As much as The Ministry for the Future could be seen as a work of future realism, laced with traces of disaster dystopia, it is ultimately a utopian novel. What is particularly distressing is that the meticulous, encyclopedic steps by which Robinson’s ministry ushers in a greener and more equitable – though still far from perfect – post-capitalist age feel distinctly possible, and yet just out of reach.
J.R. Burgmann isa researcher at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. He is the co-author of Science Fiction and Climate Change: A sociological approach (Liverpool University Press, 2020). His debut novel Children of Tomorrow was highly commended in the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and will be published in 2023 by Upswell. He is currently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre, where he is working on his second novel Abominable.
Green Left’sSusan Price spoke to Canadian ecosocialist Marc Bonhommeabout the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which took place in Montreal from December 7‒19.
COP15 in Montreal received far less media attention than COP27 in Egypt. Why is this?
This COP was much less publicised than the one on climate, although the current catastrophe it is supposed to fight, the sixth great extinction, is of the same magnitude.
A lot of people certainly notice and deplore the disappearance of insects, especially honeybees, or the extinction of some large mammals, especially in Africa, or the destruction of habitats, especially the destruction of the Amazon forest and forests in Indonesia due to palm oil plantations, but do not think that their impacts are as dramatic as various climate extremes that make headlines every day.
Heads of state were not even invited to COP15. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is not legally binding, not to mention the all-purpose term “sustainable” appearing 15 times, though a voluntary Paris-like follow-up mechanism was agreed on.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the equivalent of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, produced a powerful report on the subject. Out of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species on earth (including 5.5 million species of insects), the current rate of species extinction in the world is higher than the average of the last 10 million years by tens and even hundreds of times and this rate is accelerating.
Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within the next few decades. According to a report by The Guardian on COP15, “the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010 to slow the loss of the natural world”. Carbon Brief reported that “analysis published in February  found that governments around the world spend at least $1.8 trillion each year on subsidies that exacerbate biodiversity loss and climate change. This figure is equivalent to 2% of global GDP”. The GBF agreed to suppress and/or redirect — for what purpose and to where, we don’t know — a bit more than a quarter of this amount ($500 billion).
What do you make of the refusals of rich nations to commit the necessary funds to preserve biodiversity?
The main objective of the Montreal COP was to reach an agreement on preserving 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030 (known as “30×30”) — an aim backed mainly by the wealthy old imperialist countries — rather than try to reach an agreement on how this objective should be funded — which was the main preoccupation of the dependent countries (of the global “South”).
The strategic habitats, the tropical forests and mangroves, are in the South but the money is in the “North”, which is the main culprit because of its mode of consumption. The South demanded that US$100 billion be put into a designated fund — a fraction of what is needed to implement the framework. Neither aim was achieved.
The climate mitigation fund in favour of dependent countries agreed upon by the climate COPs has not yet reached the level of US$100 billion per year from 2020. The new fund for loss and damage decided by the COP27 has yet to be filled, and the one for biodiversity seems out of the race from the starting line.
It is not the anti-diplomatic blow of the abrupt departure from the meeting room of some 60 delegations from countries of the South that changed the situation. In addition, the countries of the old imperialism sowed discord within the countries of the South by distinguishing, not without reason, the emerging countries from the other countries of the South. They say that China, Brazil and other large economies, which have grown substantially in the last 30 years since the UN’s environmental treaties were agreed upon, should be contributing a lot more.
Under a halo of victory to save the biodiversity of the planet, the countries of the old imperialism, in collusion with the emerging countries — an alliance symbolised by the China-Canada co-presidency temporarily reconciled for the circumstances — succeeded in imposing a consensus on the countries from the non-emerging South, in particular African countries. Three African nations explicitly and strongly rejected the so-called “consensus” on the GBF.
The frustration of the non-emerging countries of the South is understandable. Under the final agreement — supposed to be the equivalent of the Paris Agreement for the climate — the rich countries will put in the kitty only a ridiculous $US20 billion by 2025, which will rise to US$30 billion by 2030.
While the US$200 billion needed yearly “to implement national biodiversity strategies” will come from “public and private resources”, the small North-South subsidy will “includ[e] official development assistance”. That is not all. The private sector will also benefit from the US$500 billion in redirected yearly subsidies.
As an ecosocialist, why is preserving biodiversity so critical? What is its relationship to tackling climate change?
Given the intimate relationship between the climate crisis and that of biodiversity, hence the double priority of the Earth Summit in 1992, it is alarming that the second is so marginalised when more than 50% of the CO2 of human origin is annually absorbed by nature.
“Humans emit about 37bn tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, as well as other greenhouse gases [GHG]. By absorbing carbon, plants sequester 11bn tonnes annually, while releasing oxygen. Another 10bn tonnes of carbon dissolves into the oceans (The Economist).”
Science does not guarantee that this absorption can go on as deforestation, more forest fires, acidification and warming of oceans proceed.
On the emissions side, “the food system is currently responsible for about a third of total GHG emissions […] The largest contribution stems from agricultural production (7.1 GtCO2e [gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent], 39%) including the production of inputs such as fertilizers, followed by changes in land use (5.7 GtCO2e, 32%),” according to the UN Emissions Gap Report, 2022.
As the Guardian points out: “One of the biggest issues surrounding the 30×30 target is what it means for the rights of Indigenous peoples, who are the stewards of about 80% of the world’s biodiversity – but just 20% of its land. Historically, conservation has forced Indigenous peoples from their lands and caused countless human-rights violations. The current text of the framework recognises the rights of Indigenous peoples and the critical role that they play in conservation, but questions remain over how that part of the target will be implemented.”
At COP15, Indigenous presence was everywhere, except in decision-making bodies. The word “Indigenous” is mentioned 20 times in the GBF. Their knowledge of nature and its “services” combined with their material and political deprivation make them — in the eyes of the banks — easy and useful prey for the enhancement and protection of “natural capital” which, according to a former vice-president of Friends of the Earth, is supposed to provide “benefits worth an estimated $125 trillion to $140 trillion per year, equivalent to more than 1.5 times global GDP,” according to Le Devoir, Montréal.
Were there any positive outcomes from the summit? I read that there was no reference to stopping deep sea mining in the final agreement, for example. Did fossil fuel and mining interests dominate?
Deep sea mining — like a target for plastics reduction — is nowhere to be seen in the GBF, though some 30 deep sea mining exploration permits, covering several hundred thousand square kilometres, have already been granted worldwide by the International Seabed Authority, a UN organisation.
The overall risk from pesticides, not pesticides directly, is to be reduced by half, not three-quarters. The same with food waste. But the meat diet remains unmentioned, even though it is a key cause in the destruction of habitats which, after climate change, mainly explain biodiversity loss.
All the same, the issue of 30×30 remains central but it is far from having satisfied everybody. According to the Guardian, considering that the IPCC said that safeguarding biodiversity requires 30‒50% of Earth’s land and sea, some environmentalists think that countries should be aiming for the top-range figure of 50%, which would be equivalent to the Paris agreement’s highest ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C, compared to 30% which feels like 2⁰C.
For other environmentalists, the objective should be to protect nature everywhere: “We need 100%, we have already lost too much nature.”
It is not the stingy neoliberal states that will support the management of “protected areas” by Indigenous peoples except for an initial payment. Already, the carbon offset market is expected to grow to upwards of $50 billion by 2030, according to consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, reports the Toronto Star.
Recently, the World Bank lent Brazil $500m to meet its climate goals by “strengthen[ing] the private sector’s capacity to access carbon credit markets,” reports Carbon Brief – Reuters. We can be sure that this “protection” will tolerate exceptions for at least open-cut mining and hydropower, benefiting the all-electric new economy of “green capitalism”.
Of course, we cannot forget the resilience and the combativeness of Indigenous peoples, but they can win only if the “white” peoples overcome their racism to ally with them in the street and support them at the ballot box. The small demonstrations at COP15 do not bode well. Are we waiting to be up against the wall to mobilise?
There’s no way to sugarcoat this. The world’s largest banks are providing the money fossil fuel companies need so they can continue degrading the environment to the point where the humans may no longer be able to survive on our little blue planet at the far edge of a minor galaxy. Banks loan money. That’s what they do. When they loan money, they make a profit because of the interest borrowers pay. Without banks, the global economy would come to a screeching halt.
Morality has nothing to do with banking. The objective is to make the biggest profits you can because — to those in the business — what else is there? These people would loan money to arsonists to buy gasoline if there’s a profit to be made. A report from Banking On Climate Chaos claims the world’s banking industry has loaned $4.6 trillion to the fossil fuel industry in the 6 years since the Paris Climate Accords were agreed to in Paris in 2015.
In 2021, the UK hosted the annual COP meeting, where former Bank of England governor Mark Carney introduced the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) initiative. At that time, the UK boasted that 450 organizations in 45 countries with assets of more than $130 trillion had agreed to align their investments with the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels.
But despite all the happy talk, the glad-handing, and smiling for the cameras, banks have pretty much continued to do what they have always done — invest heavily in fossil fuel. Do they care? Apparently not. The shameless pursuit of profits from activities that pollute the environment and endanger the lives of all 8 billion human inhabitants of the planet Earth continues, according to data compiled by Reclaim Finance. “Non-state actors cannot claim to be net zero while continuingvto build or invest in new fossil fuel supply,” says Catherine McKenna, chair of the UN’s Expert Group on Net Zero.
Fossil Fuel Forever?
Paddy McCully, senior analyst at Reclaim Finance, tells The Guardian, “GFANZ members are acting as climate arsonists. They’ve pledged to achieve net zero but are continuing to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into fossil fuel developers. GFANZ and its member alliances will only be credible once they up their game and insist that their members help bring a rapid end to the era of coal, oil and fossil gas expansion.”
GFANZ companies are also failing to divest from fossil fuels. In the net zero asset managers grouping — another part of GFANZ — at least $847 billion in assets in more than 200 fossil fuel companies were held by the 58 largest members as of last September, according to the report published this month. It also found that few of the GFANZ members had put investment polices in place that would stop them from financing new fossil fuel projects, even though all of them are supposed to be shifting their portfolios to be in line with the 1.5º C goal confirmed at COP 26 in Glasgow.
Lucie Pinson, executive director and founder of Reclaim Finance, accused the alliance of greenwashing. “It is business as usual for most banks and investors [involved in GFANZ], who continue to support fossil fuel developers without any restrictions, despite their high-profile commitments to carbon neutrality,” she said. “Their greenwashing is all the more damaging as it casts doubt on the sincerity of all net zero commitments and undermines the efforts of those who are truly acting for the climate.”
One of the biggest banks involved in GFANZ is HSBC, which announced restrictions on oil and gas financing last month. But it has approved 58 transactions worth $12 billion in lending to fossil fuel developers since joining a GFANZ grouping in April 2021, according to the Reclaim Finance report.
A spokesperson for HSBC told The Guardian: “HSBC’s aim is to reduce emissions in line with a 1.5º C pathway, promote energy security, and ensure energy affordability and access, as part of our commitment to a net zero future. In line with our 1.5º C-aligned 2030 financed emissions targets and updated energy policy, we will no longer provide new finance or advisory for the specific purposes of new oil and gas fields or related infrastructure or for the most carbon-intensive oil assets. To accelerate an orderly transition to net zero, we continue to support clients who are playing an active role in the energy transition, including through regular engagement on their transition plans.”
The spokesperson added that fossil fuels were still likely to be necessary for a transition period. “The International Energy Agency’s seminal Net Zero 2050 report outlines that an orderly transition requires continued financing and investment in existing oil and gas fields to maintain the necessary output and security of supply — with 2020 financing levels maintained through 2030 and declining to half thereafter.”
However, Reclaim Finance pointed out that the IEA has also made clear that no new fossil fuels development can take place if the world is to remain within the limit of 1.5º C of heating. It has identified the fossil fuel developers in the report as those engaged in expansion of their assets, such as new drilling and new mining. Nevertheless, HSBC’s approach had won praise from climate advocate Bill McKibben.
A spokesperson for GFANZ told The Guardian, “This report focuses on an important aspect of the energy transition. It’s clear a lot of work needs to be done to ensure the world is deploying capital consistent with a 1.5º C pathway, which is exactly why GFANZ was created. Based on research GFANZ commissioned last year, we know that investment in renewables needs to be four times the levels going into fossil fuels by 2030 to restrict climate change consistent with the aims of the Paris agreement.
“GFANZ members will detail how they are financing the transition of the energy sector when they publish their interim targets and transition plans. This will allow government, investors and civil society organisations to track progress. We call on financial institutions not in GFANZ to join the alliances that comprise GFANZ to provide transparency and become part of the solution.”
António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations says, “The first duty of leadership is to protect people from clear and present dangers. Now nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion.” But the economic systems humans have chosen take no account of such dangers. Until they do, the only factor that will decrease the level of investment in fossil fuels is a decline in profits. That will happen, eventually, but by then it may be too late to keep the Earth from becoming uninhabitable by humans and many other species. We need a better economic system if we are to survive.