This Perfect Shitstorm Crystallises the Climate Crisis We Face

By Brian Kahn on at

On Wednesday, Chile announced it would no longer host an international climate conference despite it being a little more than a month out. The move comes as protests over inequality roil the country. The only reason the conference was scheduled in Chile in the first place is that Brazil backed out of holding it after Jair Bolsonaro became president last year.

Honestly, there’s no more suitable encapsulation of this moment in climate politics and the intertwined crises gripping the world.

Negotiators were all set to head to Santiago in early December to begin final preparation for the Paris Agreement, which officially goes into force in 2020. That’s the world’s main climate agreement, which is wholly inadequate and which the US – the world’s largest historical emitter of carbon dioxide – is slated to pull out of next year thanks to Donald Trump.

Now there are lots of criticisms you can levy at international climate talks. This is the 25th iteration of them, and you know what’s happened to address climate change as a result? Just about nothing. Emissions have risen dramatically around the world despite increasingly dire warnings. Various countries from the US to the Gulf oil states have stalled action. Fossil fuel companies have co-opted talks and even bragged about getting the Paris Agreement watered down.

But it is truly disheartening to see what has happened to this year’s talks. Every year, they’re held in a different location, and the host country holds the presidency for that year. Last year’s talks were held in Poland, and the country set the agenda by unveiling voluminous piles of coal, as you do. The talks were initially set to be held in Brazil, which was all well and good until Bolsonaro was elected last year.

Bolsonaro ran a campaign announcing he would pull out of the Paris Agreement and pillage the Amazon for timber, oil, and metal. Though he backed off the Paris Agreement after being elected, one of his first announcements as president-elect was to back out of hosting the climate talks. That left the United Nations scrambling to find another host in Latin America before landing on Chile. All seemed to be going fine until the government announced a metro fare hike, sparking a wave of protests about rising inequality. With widespread unrest, the Chilean government pulled out of hosting the talks.

The dysfunction gripping these countries is intimately linked with the larger forces surrounding the climate crisis. That, my friends, is unfettered capitalism. Bolsonaro’s cash grab in the Amazon is the stuff of late-stage capitalist legend. The Amazon is one of the prime backstops against climate catastrophe as its trees take up a huge chunk of the world’s excess carbon emissions. Yet Bolsonaro has let it be sold off to large businesses and burned over by criminal gangs so intact rainforest can be turned into fragmented farmlands under the purview of big agriculture while dispossessing indigenous groups – often the Amazon’s best stewards – of their land. Eventually, the fragmentation could push the rainforest to a breaking point, tipping it into open grassland that doesn’t take up nearly as much carbon. Losing a major carbon sink would seriously screw humanity, putting us on a much harder path to slow catastrophic climate change.

The rise in inequality both in Chile and globally also neatly mirrors the climate crisis. And according to Stanford research published earlier this year, the two are connected. Rising temperatures have depressed development in poorer tropical countries by lowering crop output and productivity. (In another paper published last year, researchers found workers lost 153 billion hours in productivity due to extreme heat in 2017 alone.) In many richer countries – which almost exclusively sit outside the tropics – warming has helped raise GDP per capita.

While the study found that Chile is one of the countries that has benefited from rising temperatures economically, per capita GDP only tells a partial story. The richest 1 per cent take home 33 per cent of the country’s wealth, which ranks it as the most unequal among OECD countries. Meanwhile, most workers make around $550 (£425) per month, according to a recent working paper. Even if Chile has “benefited” from rising temperatures as a whole, it’s clear those benefits have accrued disproportionately at the top of the income ladder.

These forces that have put this year’s climate talks into chaos are both symptoms and causes of climate change. And they’ll only get worse if the world doesn’t act together to solve it. Even if Bolsonaro’s rise wasn’t fuelled by climate change, his burn-it-down approach to the Amazon and democracy (he’s pined for the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship) will almost certainly make the climate worse and the rise of fascism more likely. A destabilised climate will create space for fascists like Bolsonaro to flourish, and could open the door to ecofascism, a draconian set of beliefs aimed at protecting increasingly limited resources for a select few. The beliefs have already led to violent extremism in the US and are becoming organising principles for the growing crescendo of far-right parties in Europe.

The climate crisis will also continue to widen the chasm between rich and poor. Increasingly frequent and intense weather disasters will knock the poor down harder and rising temperatures will continue negatively affecting economic wellbeing, health, and crop productivity in the Global South. Sea level rise will consume entire small island nations, creating a wave of climate refugees.

The world’s leading scientists have put out reports warning that countries need to come together to decouple the economy from fossil fuel extraction and carbon pollution or risk a climate and extinction crisis unprecedented in human history. They’ve also laid out a roadmap to get there, including an important milepost around 2030. World politics move slowly, as evidenced by the last 25 years of inaction, but this is a pivotal moment.

Instead, the world has kicked the can on climate action and what should have been a pivotal climate negotiation. Soon the road will end, and the can will fall off a cliff.

Featured image: Getty