It’s more than 50 years since scientists first came to understand that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities could be drivers of a potentially catastrophic warming of the world’s climate. It’s more than 30 years since the issue gained serious attention and politicians began promising to do something about it.
In 1992, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—more commonly known as the Rio Earth Summit. It was there that the first major global climate agreement, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was signed.
In a speech to the summit, US President George H.W. Bush boasted that he had “come to Rio with an action plan on climate change. It stresses energy efficiency, cleaner air, reforestation [and] new technology”. He appealed to leaders of other industrialised nations to make “a prompt start on the [Framework] Convention’s implementation ... Let us join in translating the words spoken here into concrete action to protect the planet”.
The star of the conference, however, wasn’t Bush or any of the many other world leaders and celebrities in attendance. It was a 12-year-old Canadian girl by the name of Severn Cullis-Suzuki—the daughter of scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki. Cullis-Suzuki, together with her 9-year-old sister and a few friends, had formed a group called the Environmental Children’s Organization and launched a fundraising drive to pay for their trip to Rio.
Cullis-Suzuki delivered what would come to be known as “the speech that silenced the world”. “I am here to speak for all generations to come”, she said. “I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet, because they have nowhere left to go. I am afraid to go out in the sun now, because of the holes in our ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air, because I don’t know what chemicals are in it.
“All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions ... [But] you don’t know how to bring the salmon back up in a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forests that once grew where there is now a desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.”
In the aftermath of the summit, Cullis-Suzuki was feted and travelled the world as an environmental campaigner. You could have been forgiven for thinking, for a time, that her appeal had hit its mark—that while the challenges posed by environmental destruction and climate change were immense, world leaders were at least steering things in the right direction.
We know today this wasn’t the case. All the talk by Bush and other world leaders of “concrete action to protect the planet” was just for show. Behind the scenes, away from the cameras and the uncomfortable exposure to children’s fears about the future, the “business as usual” of the capitalist death-machine rolled on unabated. It rolled on through the 1997 Kyoto climate summit, through Copenhagen in 2009, Paris in 2015 and Glasgow in 2021. It rolled on despite the endless stream of words and promised actions, and despite the periodic proclamations by politicians and media that this or that breakthrough had been made.
Today, Cullis-Suzuki is in her mid-40s, and by any measure the situation for the world’s climate and environment is massively worse than it was when, as a 12-year-old, she delivered her speech in Rio.
In 1992, global CO2 emissions totalled 22.6 billion tonnes. By 2022 they had risen to 37.2 billion tonnes—an increase of 65 percent. Earth’s life-support systems—the ecosystems and natural processes on which human society depends for its survival—are everywhere in a state of crisis, if not outright collapse. Extinction rates are accelerating further from already record highs, with up to a million species likely to be lost in the coming decades.
The world’s atmosphere and its oceans, lakes and rivers are being polluted with ever increasing quantities of toxic chemicals, plastics and other detritus of human society, with devastating consequences for both environmental and human health.
In the past two years, we’ve witnessed an accumulation of signs that the climate crisis may be accelerating beyond what scientists’ already worrying models have predicted. This year is set to be the world’s hottest on record by a significant margin. The global mean temperature for 2023 is currently sitting at 1.46 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, only fractionally below the 1.5 degree “safe limit” that was established as a global target at the Paris summit in 2015.
A recent paper by James Hanson—famous, among other things, for being one of the first to sound the alarm on global warming in testimony to the US Senate in 1988—argues that scientists have underestimated how fast the planet is warming. The paper, published in Oxford Open Climate Change, found that Earth is likely to pass 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030 and reach 2 degrees before 2050. This is a level of warming that, according to scientists, risks triggering feedback loops such as the release of large amounts of methane from the Arctic permafrost that could propel us into a “hothouse Earth” scenario of runaway warming that could threaten the viability of human civilisation as a whole.
In a rational society, these developments would have been greeted by those in power with growing alarm and recognition of the need for rapid change. We, however, do not live in a rational society. We live in a capitalist system that, day by day, is descending further into a state of irrationality and barbarism at every level.
Despite the growing scale of destruction, the response of global leaders in politics and business remains more or less the same as it was in the 1990s. When the need arises—such as when gathered for the latest global climate talk-fest—they proclaim their enthusiasm for a green transition in which, just like the US plan that George H.W. Bush boasted about in Rio, things like “energy efficiency, cleaner air, reforestation, [and] new technology” will somehow magically solve everything in the near future.
If anything, there’s been a regression on this front. It’s hard to imagine the Rio Earth Summit having been hosted by the head of a major global oil company. Yet that’s exactly what we’ve seen with the latest UN Conference of the Parties summit—COP28—which took place in early December in the Persian Gulf petro-state of the United Arab Emirates and was hosted by Sultan Al Jaber, chair of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).
Predictably, Al Jaber used the summit to argue against the phasing out of fossil fuels, saying it would “take the world back into caves”. ADNOC produced 2.7 million barrels of oil a day in 2021 and plans to double that by 2027.
How could this have been allowed to happen? How is it that Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s 1992 “speech that silenced the world” could today be used in school curriculums and at corporate retreats as an example of “convincing communication” when, if you go by what’s happened since, it convinced none of the political or business leaders in the room that day of anything at all?
People talk about Cullis-Suzuki as the 1990s version of Greta Thunberg. It’s a good comparison. Both were children who very capably made highly charged and emotional, but also entirely rational, pleas for world leaders to deliver the change we need to avoid catastrophic climate and environmental breakdown. Both were, initially at least in Thunberg’s case, widely celebrated and became famous the world over as the “voice of their generation”. And both were, when you look at the broader sweep of history, entirely ignored.
The climate and environment movements themselves share some of the blame for this. An excess of credulity and trust in those in power has arguably been the greatest weakness. People have been far too prepared to believe leaders like Bush, or today the likes of our own Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, when they declare their commitment to a green transition that is always somehow just around the corner.
Participants in these movements, particularly at a leadership level, have been much too inclined to regard politicians as good faith actors making decisions based on what, by their lights, is in the public interest. Seen in this way, it may appear as if the problem remains one of ignorance—that they simply don’t understand the science and therefore the true cost of their inaction. This might, at a stretch, have been true of some in the 1990s, but it makes no sense at all today. The science of climate change is clear, and politicians have no shortage of intelligent people to explain it to them.
Another thing that, in recent decades, has hobbled the climate and environment movements is what Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy has called “the NGO-isation of resistance”. Already in the 1990s, there existed a significant number of well-funded global environmental organisations, the leaders of which had ready access to the corridors of power. Over subsequent decades that sector has continued to grow, and is represented in Australia by organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation.
The multimillion-dollar budgets of such organisations—used to fund, in Roy’s words, a kind of “resistance” that is “well-mannered, reasonable, [and] salaried ... with a few perks thrown in”—depends on the contributions of wealthy donors. This dependency represents both a disincentive to radicalism, and an incentive to lay claim regularly to “wins” that supposedly demonstrate the organisation’s effectiveness.
Their existence is bound up with the idea that there’s no need for any radical reshaping of the economy and society and that change can come via the “proper channels” of lobbying and polite discussion. That, suffice to say, makes them very useful to politicians like Albanese wanting to gain a green rubber-stamp for their latest “ambitious” climate non-plan.
If we’re to have any hope of halting the world’s slide towards total climate and environmental breakdown, we must dispel all illusions about what’s going on. When you strip it back to the fundamentals, it’s all very clear. The immense and ever-increasing profits being generated by the global capitalist class from the exploitation of the world’s human and natural resources would be threatened by any serious effort to transform society in the interests of sustainability and a safe climate. The people who run the world—both the captains of industry themselves and politicians who serve them—are therefore determined to preserve the status quo as long as possible.
These people are psychopaths. They may well nod along to emotional appeals from children to preserve the planet for future generations. But their vision of the future is one in which tens, if not hundreds, of millions of children will suffer and die for the sake of capitalist power and profit. If the past 30 years of failure on climate have shown anything, it’s that no amount of lobbying, rational argument or polite discussion is going to convince them to change course. We need to build a movement so powerful and disruptive to the operations of the capitalist system that it either forces our leaders to act or forces them out of the way.
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