Climate Change and the Sixth Great Power: Bonn Climate Talks Show People Not Governments Can Save the Planet.

Science Magazine, the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has an article detailing the results of a paper on the discovery of a methane producing microbe living in an oxygen rich environment namely wetlands. This is important for climate models do not consider the possibility that methane can be produced in oxygen rich environments, so therefore climate models understate the greenhouse effect, which drives global warming, given that methane is a greenhouse gas.

That understatement is not trivial, for as the Science article points out

Researchers have long known that wetlands are Earth’s largest natural source of methane. They’ve placed estimates on the amount of methane produced globally based on the notion that only the oxygen-free portion of any wetland could harbor methanogens.

In just the last decade, ocean researchers have seen evidence of methane being produced in oxygenated water, and dubbed the phenomenon the “methane paradox,” but no microorganism has been found to be responsible.

The newly discovered wetland microbe is the first such organism ever found. That’s why Wrighton and her team named it Candidatus Methanothrix paradoxum

Over the last couple of days the two week Bonn climate change talks, largely devoted to the modalities of implementation of the Paris Agreement, concluded with little fanfare to which we return. In the lead up to the Bonn talks the US Global Change Research Programme published the most updated scientific assessment on the science of climate change including its potential impacts on Earth systems and the contributors to the Report hailed from NOAA, NASA, the National Labs, among other noted Earth scientists from leading universities and research institutes. It is easy to see why the Trump administration has a problem with science and scientists. The Report comes at a whopping 440 odd pages, but the Executive Summary can be examined relatively quickly. There can be found many of the Report’s key findings including this one;

Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases emitted globally and on the remaining uncertainty in the sensitivity of Earth’s climate to those emissions (very high confidence). With significant reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases, the global annually averaged temperature rise could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less. Without major reductions in these emissions, the increase in annual average global temperatures relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century

The major reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases needed are, thus far, not occurring as global climate tracker points out

In the absence of policies global warming is expected, to reach 4.1 °C – 4.8 °C above pre-industrial by the end of the century. The emissions that drive this warming are often called Baseline scenarios (‘Baselines’ in the above figure) and are taken from the IPCC AR5 Working Group III. Current policies presently in place around the world are projected to reduce baseline emissions and result in about 3.4°C warming above pre-industrial levels. The unconditional pledges or promises that governments have made, including NDCs as of November 2017, would limit warming to about 3.16°C above pre-industrial levels, or in probabilistic terms, likely limit warming below 3.5°C.

There remains a substantial gap between what governments have promised to do and the total level of actions they have undertaken to date. Furthermore, both the current policy and pledge trajectories lie well above emissions pathways consistent with the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal

So, both current policy and pledges made for future greenhouse effect abatement commit the Earth to warming above 2.0c over preindustrial levels. It should be stressed that this is not just because of the Trump administration and its withdrawal of the US from the Agreement. The weaknesses of the Agreement reached in Paris had much to do with the fact that Republican control of Congress prevented the reaching of a binding treaty, given that climate change scepticism is a core feature of the contemporary Republican Party. However, even more fundamentally, none of the world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases are currently projected to reach their targets, even though they have cynically taken a public relations kudos from Trump’s withdrawal which suggests that they are, and even worse their pledges of future action are below what is required to limit warming below 2.0c over preindustrial levels. This was a point well made in a careful and detailed analysis by The New York Times which looks at all the major emitters not just the United States;

Under the Paris deal, each country put forward a proposal to curtail its greenhouse-gas emissions between now and 2030. But no major industrialized country is currently on track to fulfill its pledge, according to new data from the Climate Action Tracker. Not the European Union. Not Canada. Not Japan. And not the United States, which under President Trump is still planning to leave the Paris agreement by 2020

Perhaps the most damaging impact of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is that it makes it harder for remaining parties to the Agreement to make the needed further pledges on greenhouse gas emission reductions to those already made. The Bonn climate talks themselves ended on a sour, but highly revealing point. This is how, accurately, the New York Times described their conclusion

As the two-week Bonn talks concluded on Saturday, negotiators said they had made headway on creating a formal process under the 2015 Paris agreement in which world leaders would regularly and publicly detail the efforts they are making to address climate change, pinpoint areas where they are falling short, and push each other to do more.

It is, in effect, a giant bet on the power of peer pressure — with the future of the planet at stake. And no one yet knows how that bet will pan out

A bet between great powers on the future of the planet is not good enough, Trump or no Trump, and it is not one the peoples of the world should allow. Their attitudes and actions will be critical, as implied in the NYT article linked above

The biggest unknown is whether this whole process will translate into meaningful further action to cut emissions. At Bonn, there were a few signs peer pressure is working and that some countries are indeed feeling compelled to take stronger action…


…Experts say national climate policies will be shaped far more by domestic considerations than by international pressure

That means the future of the planet relies upon domestic pressure exerted from the bottom-up by an aroused and active citizenry, as was argued by ecological groups from the start of the climate change emergency but who were ignored by government oriented environmental groups. During the classical balance of power era in Europe there were five great powers; Great Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria-Hungry. Marx argued that there was a sixth great power namely the peoples of Europe taking the form of an organised working class which was, in effect, arrayed against the other great powers and which the other five from time to time took time out from their own rivalries to collectively guard against. Marx argued that the sixth great power must watch and study the affairs of the other five carefully, to harass them with all the means at their disposal, and that such combined action was critical to the emancipation of the working class.

Such now has become a matter of survival not just of lofty notions of emancipation. Following upon the Paris Agreement an exciting and developing climate movement has increasingly become active, examining carefully the current policies and pledges of the great powers, harassing them to ensure that their pledges are to be fulfilled and extended, and seeking to block coal projects, for instance, through direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience what Naomi Klein has called “blockadia.” I have also participated in such actions. I have read reports reporting that polls suggest a good portion of the people of the United States would be prepared to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience on climate change, and more young people would be prepared to do so than similar polls on other issues in the 1970s.

In Australia, following the example of similar actions elsewhere, for instance the Keystone XL pipeline battle that continues, nonviolent civil disobedience or direct action has increasingly targeted the physical, financial and government infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry and its acolytes especially the planned Adani coal mine in Queensland. This is important.

But it is important not to neglect the sixth great power.

Direct action is at its most effective when a large and highly mobilised social movement supports it, otherwise it is too weak and easily managed through the coercive instruments of the state. The working classes need to act at the point of production to ground the planet destroying machine to a halt, for example through green bans of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers. A key step that needs to be taken toward that end is activists within the labour movement pushing matters in this direction for the leaders of the labour movement have little incentive or desire to do so. If such working class action is not organised, there will be no transition to a viable future, let alone a clean future and, most certainly, there will be no transition conducted in accord with elementary principles of social justice both at the domestic and global level which is as it must be.

Our future is on our hands, and we will grab that future when we come to the realisation that we are indeed a sixth great power and the one the rest most fear.

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