Economic growth makes climate chaos inevitable

By Boyd Kellner

The 2007 assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that it is virtually certain that human activities (mainly through the use of fossil fuels and land development) have been responsible for the global warming that has taken place since the industrial revolution. Under current economic and social trends, the world is on a path to unprecedented ecological catastrophes.1 As the IPCC report was being released, new evidence emerged suggesting that climate change is taking place at a much faster pace and the potential consequences are likely to be far more dreadful than is suggested by the IPCC report.

The current evidence suggests that the Arctic Ocean could become ice free in summertime possibly as soon as 2013, about one century ahead of what is predicted by the IPCC models. With the complete melting of the Arctic summer sea ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheets may become unavoidable, threatening to raise the sea level by five meters or more within this century. About half of the world’s fifty largest cities are at risk and hundreds of millions of people will become environmental refugees.2

The world is currently about 0.8°C warmer than in pre-industrial times and is within one degree of the highest average global temperature over the past one million years. The world is warming at a rate of 0.2°C per decade and given the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, there will be a further long-term warming of 0.6°C. Moreover, now with the likely loss of Arctic summer sea ice, the Arctic Ocean will absorb rather than reflect back solar radiation, which may lead to an additional warming of 0.3°C. Taking into account these developments, the world may be already almost committed to a 2°C warming relative to pre-industrial times, widely considered to be a critical threshold in climate change.3

A 2°C warming is likely to result in widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, southern Europe, and the western United States; major glacial losses in Asia and South America; large-scale polar ice sheet disintegration; and the extinction of 15–40 percent of plant and animal species. Worse, with 2°C warming, substantial climate feedbacks, such as dangerous ocean acidification, significant tundra loss and methane release, and disruption of soil and ocean carbon cycles, will be initiated, taking the course of climate change beyond human control.

According to James Lovelock, one of the world’s leading earth system scientists, if the global average temperature rise approaches 3°C (relative to pre-industrial times) and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 500 parts per million (ppm), both the world’s oceans and the rainforests will turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases. In that event, the global average temperature could rise further by up to 6°C, making the greater part of the earth uninhabitable for human beings, raising the sea level by at least 25 meters, and causing the extinction of 90 percent of species and a possible reduction of the world population by 80 percent.4

James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, argued that to avoid a devastating rise in sea levels associated with the irreversible ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as massive species extinction, the world should aim to limit further global warming to no more than 1°C (or 1.8°F) relative to 2000. According to the existing IPCC models, this implies an atmospheric concentration of CO2 no more than 450 ppm. However, in a recent study, Hansen argued that the IPCC models failed to take into account various potential climate feedbacks. Paleoclimate evidence suggests that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization has developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” atmospheric concentration of CO2 must be reduced to about 350 ppm. The world’s current CO2 concentration is 387 ppm and growing at a rate of 2 ppm a year.5

It is quite obvious that the very survival of humanity and human civilization is at stake. Given the gravity of the situation, many people (including some who claim to have the socialist political perspective) put their hope on an ecological reform of the global capitalist system, insisting that such a reform is within the technological and institutional feasibilities of the existing social system. The urgent and unavoidable political questions are: is it at all possible for the existing social system—the system of global capitalism, in all of its conceivable forms—effectively to address the crisis of global climate change and avoid the most catastrophic consequences? If not, what would be the minimum requirements for an alternative social system that will have the institutional capacity to prevent the crisis or, if the crisis cannot be prevented, to help human civilization to survive the crisis? These are the questions that anyone who is seriously concerned with the global ecological crisis will have to confront one way or the other.

1.   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,” November 2007,
2.   David Spratt, “The Big Melt: Lessons from the Arctic Summer of 2007,” October 2007,
3.   David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red (Friends of the Earth, 2008),
4.   David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red; Jonathan Leake, “Fiddling with Figures while the Earth Burns,” Times Online, May 6 2007,; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 15–38.
5.   James Hansen et al., “Target Atmostpheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” (abstract), April 2008, (accessed May 2008). Also see John Bellamy Foster, “The Ecology of Destruction,” Monthly Review 58, no. 8 (2007): 1–14.
6.   This is known as the Jevons Paradox, named after the nineteenth-century British economist William Stanley Jevons who first took note of this perverse effect. See Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “William Stanley Jevons and The Coal Question,” Organization & Environment 14, no. 1 (2001): 93–98; John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 94–95.
7.   Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2007), 110–11.
8.   Energy Watch Group, “Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy,” EWG-Series No.1/2006 (December),
9.   Michael H. Heusemann, “The Limits of Technological Solutions to Sustainable Development,” Clean Technology and Environmental Policy 5 (2003): 21–34. A recent experiment sponsored by the Germany government intends to show that a network with 61 percent of electricity from wind, 14 percent from solar photovoltaics, and 25 percent from biomass, can meet up to 100 percent of electricity demand (“Renewed Energy,” The Guardian, February 26, 2008). But as discussed below, biomass is very problematic and could emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. Thus, the experiment suggests a 75 percent limit to de-carbonization of electricity generation.
10. The energy statistics discussed here and in the following paragraph are from: International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007.
11. Although there has been much talk of developing a ‘hydrogen economy’, hydrogen itself is not a primary energy source (i.e., there are no natural stores of hydrogen to be exploited). Hydrogen fuel is produced from water, a process which requires energy input. Thus, hydrogen is simply an energy storage mechanism (much like a battery), and its environmental consequences depend on the source of energy that is used to produce it.
12. Joseph Fargione, et al., “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1235–38; Timothy Searchinger, et al., “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change,” Science 319, no. 5867 (2008): 1238–40.
13. According to Key World Energy Statistics (see footnote 9), in 2005, measured by 2000 U.S. dollars, the energy intensity of OECD countries was 37 percent below the world average, France 41 percent below world average, Germany 44 percent below world average, and UK 56 percent below world average.

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