It is becoming increasingly clear that the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe. Warnings from climate experts are becoming increasingly dire. Recently a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange by 91 of the world’s leading climate experts from 40 countries argued that the world has only until 2030 to make ‘unprecedented changes’ to avert frequent extreme climate events. The Bulletin of Climate Scientists argued that the IPCC report, as frightening as it is, was not sufficiently alarming, because it failed to give sufficient attention to the potential for self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) that could lead to an irreversible tipping point, when climate change spins out of control, with disastrous consequences.
Recent severe climate events are reinforcing the need to be concerned. The world is definitely heating up: every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade, all 18 years of this century are among the 19 warmest years since 1880 when temperature records worldwide have been kept, and 2014, 2015, and 2016 successively broke temperature records. Glaciers worldwide and polar icecaps are rapidly melting, causing seas to rise, making flooding of coastal cities increasingly likely. There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods, with widespread losses of lives and much property damage. The situation was well summarized by Gerry Brown, former governor of California, a state that was especially hard hit: “humanity is on a collision course with nature.”
All of the 195 nations that met at the climate change conference in Paris in 2015 agreed that immediate steps must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and most of the nations made pledges to make significant reductions. Yet, despite the urgency to make positive changes, the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction; GHGs increased by 1.6% in 2017 and by 2.7 percent in 2018. While climate experts have warned about climate change threats for decades, very little progress has been made.
Why such little progress? It is past time to recognise the very inconvenient truth that it is the capitalism system that is the main culprit. Capitalism requires constant growth and the pursuit of profits dominates economic considerations, with environmental considerations a distant secondary concern.
While Judaism teaches, “Who is the wise person? One who considers the future consequences of his or her actions,” and “Who is rich? One who is happy with their portion,” capitalism aims to keep people dissatisfied with their current situation, and corporations pursue immediate profits with minor concern for future impacts.
Following are a few examples of economic concerns dominating environmental concerns:
1. The fishing industry uses giant ‘factory’ ships called trawlers with nets covering huge areas that capture enormous numbers of fish. Some of the captured fish are very young or otherwise inedible so they are thrown back into the sea, where they soon die due to their weakened conditions. This is unsustainable and it is projected that, if present methods continue, the oceans will be nearly devoid of fish by the middle of this century.
2. While the oil industry knew for decades that their product contributes to climate change, they hid this information to maintain their profits. In 2018 they lobbied against better automobile efficiency so they can sell more of their products.
3. Traditionally Thanksgiving was a day when stores were closed and families gathered to celebrate, share meals, and express thanks. In recent years, a new tradition has started with stores opening on Thanksgiving afternoon to begin a major shopping season that continues through Christmas, with some stores open around the clock on some days, with major efforts to get people to buy as much as possible.
4. While animal-based diets contribute significantly to the current epidemic of disease and to climate change and other environmental threats to humanity, the livestock industry does all it can to convince people to consume its products. They ignore that, for example, the livestock sector emits more greenhouse gases, in CO2 equivalents, than all the world’s means of transportation combined, and that animal-based diets require per person as much as 20 times the land area, 13 times the water, and ten times the energy of a vegan diet.
Economic experts stress that capitalism requires at least a two percent annual growth to avert a recession or depression. Even at two percent, the economy would double in 35 years and quadruple in 70 years. Clearly this is unsustainable.
Based on the above, it is essential that the world move away from a capitalistic system that requires constant growth and puts profits ahead of the need for environmental sustainability. I plan to offer suggestions about how to do this in a future article.