The environment is at breaking point. The UN says we have 12 years to keep global temperatures under 1.5C, otherwise things will go very badly wrong: intensified floods, droughts and extreme heat with severe effects for the poorest of the world’s population.
But how have we got here? Well, mostly because of the mind-boggling amounts of fossil fuels we consume, our use of them embedded in both the global economy and tasks in our everyday life, like driving a car and turning on a light bulb. They are, by a long way, the main reason for global warming.
Simon Pirani, author of the book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, is an expert on the subject. We talked to him about the all-powerful car lobby, failed attempts at international cooperation and who we should look to for inspiration in the fight against climate change.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: We are often told to think primarily about what we as individuals can do to cut our emissions, say by either not eating meat or using electricity in the house. Can they be effective?
Simon Pirani: No, they can’t. The whole of society needs to react to this problem, and insofar as power and wealth is distributed in the way that it is, it is difficult to see how that will happen.
So don't bother going vegan?
I wouldn't want to say that eating meat is irrelevant. Eating meat is an incredibly resource-intensive way of getting protein into the body. We live in a world where there are a billion-and-a-half people who are undernourished. And there are also 800 million people who are obese, so there are lots of people out there who could do with eating less meat.
But to imagine the solution to climate change is to advance some sort of moral imperatives imploring people to change their diets is to start from the wrong end; it is to start from the individual. In fact, fossil fuels are consumed through technological systems like electricity networks and infrastructure which are embedded in a social and economic system.
Those of us old enough will remember that in the 1980s there were huge hopes that this networked technology would result in a reduction of fossil fuel use. The thought was that we would stay at home and network with each other on computers, and we wouldn’t all have to get in our cars and travel to work. Of course, it hasn’t worked out that way. The internet uses more electricity globally than India consumes for everything. Not only can we look up the football results, but we can also purchase more commodities, which is an incredibly fuel-intensive phenomenon. My point really is that it need not have been that way. Technologies can develop in one direction or another direction.
What about, say, taking public transport rather than driving a car?
The key argument in my book is that all those systems need to change. If we took that approach, the problem about cars would be not about convincing young men that there are better ways of having a good time than driving around in a great big heavy lump of metal, which uses a lot of energy... that would be one part of it – but the main part of it would be to see that the car industry as an industry, and car-based urban transport systems, do not serve society in the way that the technology could serve it. They serve it in a very poor and damaging way.
If you compare Atlanta in the southern US to Barcelona, they have a similar population, similar living standard, similar GDP, but Atlanta uses ten times as much fossil fuels as Barcelona does. Is this because the citizens of Atlanta are ten times happier than those of Barcelona? I suspect not. I suspect the case is that the Atlanta citizens live in a fossil fuel intensive environment, while those in Barcelona don’t. It shows us that people can live in different ways and by doing that reduce the use of fossil fuels.
We’ve had numerous climate talks since the early 1990s. Why hasn’t there been a cohesive response from the international community to end fossil fuel use?
In 1992 we had the conference at Rio that signed the treaty that gave rise to the international climate talks, and implicit in that treaty was an acceptance that fossil fuel use had to be reduced. So the discovery of global warming and the Rio treaty in 1992 coincides with the rise of neoliberalism, particularly within the spheres of American and British elites. That’s significant if we want to know why the treaty of Rio wasn’t acted upon. Why did that treaty not lead to a reduction – but, on the contrary, led to a huge rise in the use of fossil fuels?
There are some simplistic explanations like, "Oh, politicians never keep their promises." But once we get past these we can see that neoliberalism becomes more popular within governments and in business circles, in the international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank in the early-90s. So even though the political declarations are there about the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, actually everybody’s mind is somewhere else. Everybody’s mind is on liberalising and privatising things, everybody’s mind is on making markets more effective in line with those neoliberal assumptions about the way to make the economy grow. And of course, the assumption to end all assumptions is that making the economy grow is necessarily a good thing in terms of human wellbeing.
What was the neoliberal response to climate change?
In 1992, the Soviet Union has just collapsed, and the world's leading superpower, the US, is very clear – both Republicans and Democrats – that there are going to be no binding targets that the country has to stick to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The alternative presented is that market mechanisms can be used to produce the desired effect. Such market mechanisms were at the basis of the Kyoto treaty signed in 1997, which had the aim of setting up carbon markets. But this approach failed, and it failed by the only level that matters: the level of fossil fuel consumption only went up.
In 2005, the EU developed the first carbon market, and although the prices on it were high enough to keep a few speculators busy, they were too low to force any energy efficiency improvements, which was what they were supposed to do. The prices just went down: from €30 per ton in 2006, they crashed to under €10, rose and crashed again in 2013 to under €4. I remember going to a seminar at that time with a high-profile oil market analyst, who worked for one of the big investment banks. He said, "Give us a carbon price of $200 a ton: that will change behaviour."
Now, after the failure of this Kyoto Protocol, we then had the Copenhagen summit in 2009, and the Paris summit that followed that, which was the significant turning point in 2015. The Paris summit basically abandoned the idea of reaching international agreement to which fossil fuels consumption should be reduced. Instead, the Paris Agreement provided voluntary targets to be adopted by each nation. This in many ways was admitting defeat. It’s a failure similar to the failure of the way the European states failed in the run up to the First World War. The idea of this international relationship was to cooperate, and the cooperation has not happened. This implies a much wider crisis.
So we can’t rely on the international treaties and those who promise to enact them?
I want us to get away from the idea that the scientists do the science, they advise the politicians, the politicians make the target and we all do what we're told. There is a sense in which the whole discourse around the talks is saying, "Don’t worry people, the people who are in charge have this under control." There’s this asteroid coming to earth and the people in charge are going to deal with it, like a good Hollywood disaster movie. This isn’t the case.
What governments are doing – especially if they're based in the global north – they are trying to protect their own citizens to some extent from this disaster, at the cost of citizens in the global south. Society needs to take this whole process out of the hands of that very small, powerful group of people who claim to be dealing with the problem, because they’re not dealing with the problem.
Who is doing something about it?
I think it’s great that engineers are changing electricity systems so that they're more accessible to input from renewable sources that will make it more devolved, will serve people with vastly less input. I also think it's great that young people are sitting on lorries outside fracking sites, saying, "Look, this thing has to stop"; and I think it’s great people in countries in the global south are saying, "Look, we want the technology to develop electricity in our area, but we want to do that without fossil fuels." That’s three different groups in society that are looking at the problem from different angles and proposing very positive solutions. I want to see a lot more of that.
Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption is out now on Pluto.