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"The Struggle for Climate Justice Continues"

An Interview with Andreas Malm

by J.W. Coady

"The Struggle for Climate Justice Continues"

The adoption of the Paris Agreement this past Saturday at COP21 has been deemed by some as an 'historic breakthrough,' signalling the end of the fossil fuel era. Others, skeptical of the whole process, and citing the inability or unwillingness of governments and corporations to drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, have deemed it a dismal failure whose outcomes will commit us to levels of climate change 'dangerous to all, lethal to some.' What is becoming increasingly more apparent to those most committed to climate justice is that meaningful change will only be achieved once we have fully grasped the relationship between carbon and capitalism. In other words, to avoid the catastrophic effects associated with a 2°C increase in global average temperature, we need a revolution in how energy is produced and consumed.

Andreas Malm is a Swedish historian at the University of Lund. He has written extensively on the history of coal and the transition from water to steam power in Britain, the Chinese emissions explosion, and global capital's quest to seek out cheap labour. His forthcoming book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, is a history of the emergence of the fossil economy, ranging in scope from its origins in 19th century Britain to the crisis of the present day. Malm was kind enough to take time out of a busy schedule in Paris to answer some of the Montreal Media Co-op's questions regarding fossil capital, the links between capital and carbon, COP21 and the lessons that can be learned from history as the struggle for climate justice continues.

How would you describe 'fossil capital'? What are its historical origins?

A simple, formal definition of fossil capital would be: the maximization of profit by means of fossil energy as a necessary material substratum. More concretely, one could think of the words of Rex Tillerson, president and CEO of ExxonMobil: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, than that’s what I want to do.” That philosophy sums up the spirit of fossil capital fairly eloquently. Ever since the nineteenth century, it has informed the actions of innumerable manufacturers, investors and CEOs: if I can dig up fossil fuels or burn them and make money, than that’s what I want to do, and then come what may. In very sweeping terms, this is the force that has taken us to a world that becomes warmer by the year. But this is an entirely historical force, in the crucial sense that it has not always been with us – it is not something inherent to human civilization, not an innate trait of the human species. I would argue that fossil capital emerged as a full-blown, concentrated alloy of capital and fossil energy in early nineteenth-century Britain. The key moment was the adoption of coal-fired steam-engines as prime movers in industry.

Your work has focused on 'growth' as a key part of the definition of the fossil economy, placing a critique of capitalism front and center. Why is this important? 

The general trajectory since the early nineteenth century has been one of growing economies, growing consumption of fossil fuels, growing emissions of CO2 – all growing in tandem. If CO2 emissions had stood still at the level of, say, the year 1900, we would have had a biosphere in a far less unhealthy and unstable condition. The problem has been that emissions have grown exponentially and indeed continue to do so – in fact, while they increased globally by “only” one percent per year in the 1990s, they have done so by triple that rate in most years after the turn of the millennium, so that every year more CO2 is put into the atmosphere. That adds to the excess of the gas already out there and swiftly consumes what little is left of the so-called carbon budget, that is, the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted without pushing global warming beyond 2 degrees (not to speak of 1.5). Obviously this has some link to our capitalist economies being geared to perpetual, incessant growth. Fossil fuels provide the fuel for that fire. It has to be put out, without delay, before everything burns.

Now one should take note of the fact that global emissions were stable in 2014 and may even fall slightly this year. That is, of course, great news. Some hail it as proof that capitalist growth and fossil energy have finally been decoupled from each other, allowing us to pursue the former without combusting ever more of the latter. Others – including the researchers who keep track of the emissions – believe that it’s too early to draw such a sanguine conclusion, that this might just be a temporary blip related to events in China, and that we may soon be back on the business-as-usual trend of roughly 3 percent annual growth. Let us hope the optimists are right. But let us also be realistic and acknowledge that capitalist growth is an incredibly powerful engine that has yet to let go of fossil fuels – very far from it. The spirit of Tillerson and his gang still rules this planet. Unfortunately, it seems that the death of the fossil economy remains something to be fought for.

You draw attention to the historical contingency of coal as a dominant source of energy. Can you tell us a little about the historical shift from water to steam in Britain? What are some of the lessons, if any, that can be drawn from history, as we learn to transition to alternative energy sources?

To make a very long and complicated story very short: British manufacturers turned from water to steam not because steam was cheaper – in fact it was decidedly more expensive. Instead, the great advantage of steam-engines was that they could be located anywhere, particularly inside cities full of cheap and disciplined labor-power. Water-wheels had to be erected on riverbanks in the countryside, where the fuel – the water – remained abundant and came for free, but where there were few workers to be had. Also, water supplies fluctuated with the weather: in dry weeks, rivers could run low, in wintertime they might freeze and so on. Steam-engines could be fired up whenever their owners so desired. Since coal was cut off from both landscape and weather – being the relics of photosynthesis hundreds of millions of years old – it could be used at any point in space and time, and this eventually proved a massive benefit for capital.

Now water-power had the potential to become more widely distributed and reliable, by means of large reservoir systems, and innovative capitalists did draw up quite a flew plans for mega-dams in early nineteenth-century Britain. But very few were built. The manufacturers found it virtually impossible to cooperate in their construction – to agree on their siting, on the tax rates to be levied on the occupants, on the timing of the opening of the sluices and innumerable other details. Advanced water-power required a degree of collective planning they were incapable of. It proved far easier – more congenial to the logic of the competitive market – for each to acquire his own steam-engine and order sacks of coal to his own engine-room, tailored to his own private needs, in isolation from his rivals.

What lessons could be learned from that history? Again, very simplified: the decisive factor may not be price, but rather the properties capital desire in a fuel. The two main drawbacks associated with renewable energy are still their attachment to particular landscapes – the sun does not shine everywhere, and so on – and their variability over the year and even the hours – the sun might be covered by clouds, etcetera. Sun, wind and water are forever embedded in landscapes and weather, and that does seem difficult to reconcile with the demands of capital. It pursues profit wherever it can be found and seeks to generate it around-the-clock, and it needs a material substratum of matching properties. Coal, oil and gas can be sent anywhere and burnt anytime. Again, renewables could be made a bit more like fossil fuels – there are potentials do dispatch electricity from solar panels across vast distances and solve most or even all problems of reliability – but that tends to require collective planning and cooperative investment, just as in the early nineteenth century, only on a far greater scale. The logic of capitalism appears ill-suited to a quick transition to renewables. One way or another, that logic needs to be challenged.

Many are skeptical of the approach taken at COP21, and contend that the establishment of a patchwork of national targets will allow a 'business-as-usual' scenario to continue. What is your opinion about the agreement reached at COP21? 

I share that skepticism. The voluntary plans submitted to COP21 would, if implemented, generate a rise in average temperature on earth by roughly 3 degrees. Yet the Paris agreement is seen as a breakthrough, not the least because it set the ambitious target of keeping warming at no more than 1.5 degrees. But if you select a target and simultaneously aim your actual arrow at a point very far from it, the target practice will very likely prove a failure. We should indeed strive to keep warming at 1.5 degrees or below – and that requires that CO2 emissions be slashed across the board in developed countries, starting now, until zero emissions are reached in 2030 or thereabouts. COP21 did not unveil any concrete mechanisms for achieving its laudable goal. The national plans are to be reviewed and renewed every five years – the emissions reductions as such remain voluntary – and presumably countries will then commit to deeper cuts than now – which means, once again, that real action commensurate to climate science lies in the future. In other words: the struggle for climate justice continues.

Commentators have criticized the framework adopted at COP21 as insufficient for reducing global warming. Andrew Weaver, for instance, thinks that only tariffs, not targets, will reduce global warming. James Hansen claims that emissions reductions targets won't be met unless we put a price on carbon, ensuring that its economic costs reflect its costs to society. What do you think of such proposals?

I think most proposals of that sort are preferable to the voluntary framework we’ve had since the fateful COP15 in Copenhagen. Personally I believe that direct regulation rather than price mechanisms are needed: for instance, there should, as the government of Kiribati has suggested, be a global moratorium on new coalmines and coal-fired power-plants. And the ban should extend to coal and gas. Then all fossil fuels need to be taken offline, the mines and the platforms and the pipelines closed. With strict targets for cutting emissions year-on-year, you can shut down all fossil fuel-based infrastructure and correspondingly scale up renewables – something the market alone can hardly achieve, no matter the price signals, in the short time we have.

You've done a lot of work on the Nile Delta and the effects that fossil capital has on the planet’s most vulnerable populations. What are some of the social antagonisms peculiar to fossil capital, and how can they be confronted?

The Nile Delta is a cauldron of vulnerability, and so are most deltas of the world. Low-lying by definition, stretching out towards a rising sea, they tend to subside because of dams that cut off the flow of sediment in their rivers. With exceptionally fertile soils – at least until recently – they often host the largest concentrations of population in their countries. Add to that uncontrolled expansion of industry and rampant urbanization encroaching upon the land, and all the class divisions that come with such processes, and you can see perfect storms ripping through the deltas of the global South, from the Nile to the Mekong.

It is important to remember that the effects of fossil capital – global warming, in short – will always be articulated through multiple levels of social relations. For instance, when the sea rises along the shores of the Nile Delta, the soils become salinized, but that is a problem mostly for poor peasants who cannot afford the sand and fertilizers that could allow them to, at least temporarily, elevate and protect their lands from the rising salt water table. So sea level rise in the northern Nile Delta is articulated through unequal relations on the land – which are in turn determined by a host of factors, some internally Egyptian, others external and global.

Never expect climate change to strike in pure form. The storm will always make its impact through all sorts of social antagonisms, not all of which can, for sure, be reduced to fossil capital. What is so special about climate change is rather that it intensifies all other social contradictions – to stick with the Nile Delta case, the rising sea exerts a general pressure on the whole cauldron, with the likely result that underlying conflicts rise to the surface. Who will be rescued from the rising sea, and who will be left to drown? That is a recipe for all manner of social strife. The strategic challenge – and one to which a convincing answer has yet to be formulated – is to translate this intensification of contradictions into an onslaught against fossil capital itself.


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