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The limits of growth

By Benjamin Habib - posted Monday, 14 December 2009

The evidence seems to be mounting that Copenhagen climate conference will be underwhelming as a springboard for co-ordinated global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an ideal world, the conference will yield an international agreement that will ultimately lead to the stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 350 parts per million, the level of CO2 concentration at which dangerous tipping points in the Earth's climate system might be avoided. In the real world, governments are unlikely to achieve any agreement of substance, nor should we expect them to.

In any multilateral forum, participating states reach agreement with great difficulty, usually by settling on the few areas of convergence between the positions of each participant. This is difficult enough in negotiations between two or three countries, let alone all the member states of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).

The position each state takes into negotiations is shaped by its domestic politics. A negotiating team cannot sign up for an agreement that is unlikely to be ratified back home. Agreements inevitably tend towards the lowest common denominator and rarely feature binding instruments or rigorous enforcement mechanisms.


In the case of the Copenhagen negotiations we have added reason for scepticism. Governments all over the industrialised world are captive to the complex interests and inter-relationships built up around fossil fuel-based economies over decades. Because of this, governments are incapable of undertaking mitigation solutions that are commensurate to overwhelming scientific evidence of threat.

Rollback of the resource consumption and economic production that is the source of greenhouse gas emissions is what is necessary to move away from business-as-usual emissions growth. Politicians seem unwilling or unable to comprehend this. They seem to think that we can maintain growth trajectories ad infinitum and still reduce our overall emissions. On a finite planet, bound by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, that is impossible.

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are created by economic activity: industrial production, agriculture, transportation, and material consumption. Therefore to reduce emissions to the degree mandated by scientific evidence, it is inescapable we must curtail economic activity. To do that requires us to move away from the perpetual economic growth paradigm. There is no way around this; we have reached the limit of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste. Perpetual growth is impossible without the severest of consequences human societies and the ecosystems that support them.

Moving away from the perpetual economic growth model is not just a policy question; it is something which challenges economic interests, social relationships, ideology, and world view of individuals. Polluting industries have to be dismantled. Social relationships have to change from the social isolation of rampant consumer-driven individualism towards more community-oriented relationships. Individuals have to re-evaluate their relationship with the people around them and the natural world.

This is extremely confronting to conservatives, who by definition prefer the status quo. When presented with this reality, it is easier for them to deny the existence of global warming outright. The light version of denial is adopted by the techno-fix crowd, who believe that new technologies or an alternative energy source will allows us to maintain growing economies indefinitely. The proponents of both positions are fundamentally mistaken. The only viable solutions are ones which acknowledge the obvious limits of the Earth as a closed, finite system.

However, given the atrophy of the economic system in which governments operate and the complicated web of entrenched interests, as well as their commitment to an unsustainable growth paradigm, how can we expect governments and dirty industries to act responsibly on this issue? These institutions cannot lead the vanguard of climate change mitigation. So we should stop asking them to.


The necessity of community-based leadership is becoming abundantly clear. We need a grassroots movement for change in which every individual person participates and plays a role. People need to stop looking to the government as the great saviour and become personally accountable for reducing their carbon footprint.

Only when there is a demonstrable constituency for change will the atrophied monolith of the old economy begin to move; only then will the political system that represents it begin to follow. Because democratic governments are so reactive, they will have to move with the groundswell or lose their legitimacy.

The saddest thing about the climate debate in Australia is that the furor over economic impacts of emissions reduction fundamentally misses the point. Sceptics talk about the economic cost of emissions reduction as if it were a choice between prosperity and ruin. This is a false representation of reality. The real choice is over the degree of damage we are willing to tolerate. It’s a negative-sum game where everybody loses.

Politicians of all stripes seem not to have considered the political ramifications of weak climate policy. This clearly has escaped the Rudd Government, with its woefully inadequate CPRS, as it has the opposition, mired in climate denial. This will not play out as politics-as-usual. This issue is energising the Australian public, particularly young people, in an unprecedented fashion. The public reaction is likely to get more disruptive and extreme over time because our elected officials are incapable of crafting mitigation solutions that match the scale of the problem.

Climate change is bringing a dangerous new dynamic to domestic politics. Governments are abdicating the task of climate mitigation to ordinary citizens. While one the one hand this is empowering for everyday people, on the other, the reactionism of elected leaders may drive citizens to circumvent institutional process and take matters into their own hands, ranging from peaceful protest, to direct action sabotage, to outright violence. Politicians will have brought this challenge to their institutional authority on themselves.

Climate change altered the landscape of Australian politics as well as the weather. Because the major political parties remain deeply wedded to the old carbon-intensive economy, the tempestuous events in Canberra of the past few weeks may only register as a light zephyr in comparison with the political storm to come.

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About the Author

Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga.

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