With deaths attributed to climate change now nearing an estimated 350,000 a year and with the annual COP17 UN climate talks just over, SchNEWS looks at the events of the last few years and assesses where we are heading.
It was only two years ago that the promise of a deal to "save the world" at the COP15 talks in Copenhagen foundered on the rocks of "green capitalism". The majority of the world's countries refused to sign up to a US inspired plan whose main focus seemed to be preserving the global economic status quo rather than tackling carbon emissions.
While many of the activists who faced tear gas, mass arrests and police batons outside the Bella Centre, expressed cynicism regarding the outcome of the talks at the time, Copenhagen still clearly casts a long shadow over the climate activist movement. Whatever people were hoping for from COP15, either some sort of deal or the de-legitimisation of the UN process or even the birth of a grassroots global alternative, they were bitterly disappointed.
With economic crisis grabbing the headlines climate activism of all kinds has faltered. From the collapse in numbers attending the mainstream national climate march each year to the implosion of Climate Camp and the mysterious departure of Plane Stupid, energy for action based on somehow influencing governments to address climate issues (whether through direct action or otherwise) has evaporated.The "decision" that was made in Durban, to definitely, definitely (scouts honour) do "something" by 2020, is not likely to inspire any revival. The bulk of the more radical elements of the movement seem to have gone AWOL since Copenhagen. It has been ironic that this year has seen the release of a film, 'Just Do It', documenting climate activism from the inside in the run up to the COP15, just as, in the most optimistic reading, climate activism has reached its lowest ebb.
Meanwhile in the real world things getting more dire by the minute. Despite a global recession carbon emissions have risen to their highest level ever, as has the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The world is presently on course to tread the path of the worst case scenarios climate simulators have imagined. However even these models do not include poorly understood potential feedback processes such as methane release from Arctic permafrost or the drying out of the Amazon rainforest – any of these could make this planet even more hostile to our species than the worst model predictions. From methane bubbling out of the Arctic ocean in ever increasing quantities to growing numbers of weather related disasters across the globe, the portents do not look good.
On the flip side of the coin, the thirst for hydrocarbons is straining systems of resource extraction to their limits. Oil prices spiked to record levels in 2009, after several years of flat production. The pressure this placed on the pyramid scheme that is the world financial system soon tipped large parts of the world into recession. Oil prices crashed as demand fell in the recession but twoyears later prices have risen again and the financial system is back on the brink. We now face a situation where just to maintain the present plateau of fossil fuel extraction requires an ever increasing portion of the world economy to be diverted into these extraction processes. This diversion of more and more resources means cutting other parts of the economy, as it becomes ever harder to extract the worlds remaining fossil fuels.
Welcome to the world of extreme energy. While the tar sands of Alberta, Canada have long been the poster child for how far the system will go to feed its addiction, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas is bringing these extreme extraction processes to the doorsteps of much greater numbers of people. The destruction of the sparsely inhabited forests of Canada may have only evoked token outrage but the sacrifice of areas much closer to major population centres is now being demanded. The desperate thirst for fossil fuels is driving the frenzy that is threatening the countryside and environments of some of the most affluent areas on the planet.
Unfortunately shale gas is but the tip of the extreme energy iceberg (probably a melting iceberg. Coal bed methane, which is in many respects worse than shale gas, is well advanced in the UK. A new generation of much more powerful and dangerous nuclear power stations is now on the cards. An expansion in open cast coal mining has been underway for some time and looks set to metastasise into full blown mountain top removal.
However, these extreme energy methods pale into insignificance compared to underground coal gasification (UCG), the most extremely ludicrous extreme energy method that has been seriously considered to date. This involves setting fire to coal seams underground and piping the partially burned gases (mostly carbon monoxide) to the surface for combustion. Due to the wide range of toxic chemicals that are produced by the partial burning of the coal and the heat produced which drives convection in the water in the rocks above, UCG tests have usually resulted massive contamination of ground water. A test that lasted 5 days by Cougar Energy in Australia resulted in benzene and toluene being found in the fat of animals grazing nearby, as well as in ground water. Also, the case of the accidental fire in underground coal workings under Centralia, Pennsylvania which has been burning out of control for almost 50 years and forced the abandonment of the town by the end of the 1980's should give people pause for thought.
While the local environmental impacts are horrific, the global consequences of UCG are even worse. Full scale development of UCG worldwide has the potential to quadruple the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and raise average global temperatures by up to 10 degrees, which would render much of the globe uninhabitable. Burning all of the conventional fossil fuels we have already discovered is enough to cause catastrophic climate change by itself but plunging headlong into the world of extreme energy is entering into a whole other realm of insanity. So far 18 UCG licences have been issued around the UK, all for areas just off the coast. Admittedly this won't actually lead to tapwater being inflammable but might well turn the sea into a toxic soup. Attempts to exploit UCG in the UK will get started seriously some time in 2012.
In tandem with this drive towards extreme energy, a campaign of "extreme greenwash" has been rolled out aimed at justifying this insane course of action. The mainstay of this greenwash campaign for several years has been the hypothetical "technology" of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This "have your cake and eat it" propaganda tool is extremely useful in blunting the urgency of calls for emission cuts. Squeezing the genie back into the bottle is always difficult and in the real world CCS has failed to get a major test project going in the UK even with the government dangling a £1 billion grant as an incentive. But then its real usefulness is in its promise not its realization. Now, however, a new contender is rearing its head, geoengineering. Forget about trying to squeeze the carbon back into he ground when you can attack the root of the problem, the climate system itself. From constellations of mirrors in space to creating artificial volcanoes geoengineering is a grab bag of mad ideas to hack the climate. Like CCS it is unlikely to have much direct effect on the real world but as psychological tool to support business as usual it will doubtless prove invaluable.
Fighting against this bleak future is a much smaller, more divided and much less certain climate movement than existed a few years ago. A scattering of remnant groups from the heady years of 2008/2009 are still active but they are groping around in the dark looking for a new direction. The Climate Justice Collective, the direct successor to the Climate Camp national process, is bizarrely concentrating on the issue of "fuel poverty" (an odd category the Queen is in danger of slipping into) which the Tories are using as their justification to "drill baby, drill". Meanwhile most environmental direct action in the last year has been undertaken by a handful of small groups against extreme extraction targets, most recently under the banner of Frack Off.
While the issue of fracking and extreme energy in general, and the traction it is gaining in the public consciousness (witness the packed public meeting in the sleepy village of Balcombe on Wednesday), holds out some hope that a reinvigorated climate movement might yet rise from the ashes of the old, the problems that it faces are huge. Even if such a movement does take off it may be as doomed to failure as the last one; unless it can sidestep the temptation of becoming another establishment lobby, and instead concentrate on building a grassroots resistance to the present system of power politics.