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Why We Need to Stop “Reinventing” Broken Systems for Climate Change

Image depicts the climate strike in Washington, D.C. in 2019. strikein
Image depicts the climate strike in Washington, D.C. in 2019. Image via Ted Eytan

“The Paris Agreement is a covenant of hope with humanity. It has everything we need to achieve our climate goals. But to fully unleash its potential we need full implementation. To get there, Parties must finalize outstanding work under the Agreement that has remained unfinished for far too long.” This statement by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) exemplifies the notion among global leaders that the world can afford to continue debating the existential threats of climate change while introducing proposals that do little to bring about structural change. The reality of climate change is starkly different for the average person, and drastic action needs to be taken immediately.

Leaders at COP26 repeatedly pledged to lower emissions, align their states’ goals with those of the Paris Agreement, and fight against climate change. They discussed their states’ climate accomplishments and the need for increased reform, often failing to take responsibility the irreparable damage that has already occurred. Little to no attention was given to new climatic solutions, non-capitalist economic theories aimed at addressing sustainability, or propositions for radical reform. 

Solutions that try to “reimagine” or “reinvent” existing economic systems, global power hierarchies, and state policies overlook the fact that the earth has already sustained irreversible climatic harm and cannot afford incremental changes with little chance of success. Instead, states and organizations should focus on genuinely innovative and novel solutions to existential problems and implement immediate changes. 

Most experts agree that the Paris Agreement and countries’ pledges are neither ambitious enough nor likely to be instituted quickly enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5o Celsius or even 2o Celsius, temperature increases that would make Earth inhospitable to human life in the long-run. Instead, countries’ pledges would likely result in a 2.1o Celsius rise in global temperature by 2024 while existing policies could result in a 2.7o Celsius rise. Of the top 10 global emitters of carbon dioxide, which account for around 70 percent of the world’s emissions, only 1 is on pace to meet the climate goals necessary to prevent 2o Celsius of warming. 

Many countries and companies have also begun looking at policies to drive carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, as outlined in the “Net Zero by 2050” report from the International Energy Agency. Again, the proposed solutions focus on reinventing existing systems to meet a long-term goal while proposing few, if any, novel solutions aimed at creating new systems or economic strategies. Net Zero pledges falsely assume that emissions from burning coal can be “offset” in real time by limiting deforestation or increasing vegetation, often failing to realize that the benefits resulting from these policies require years to emerge while the drawbacks are apparent immediately. Temperature increases, droughts, insect outbreaks, reduced agricultural yields, flooding and erosion in coastal areas, and a host of other negative consequences appear quickly in the wake of climatic changes. These pledges also fail to address the root causes of unsustainable carbon emissions, such as the agricultural industries or lack of pollution mitigation policies placed on firms. Land restrictions and other policies that limit opportunities for carbon removal in various countries mean that certain states will have to actually go beyond “net zero” in order to reach the 2050 vision of globally not emitting more carbon than can be reabsorbed.

Capitalist-oriented works like “Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire” by Rebecca Henderson similarly propose reinventing existing institutions to solve problems with sustainability. Henderson proposes reimagining the private sector as a force for good in a world where it is more profitable for businesses to be sustainable due to consumer pressure and increased productivity. Again, while the solutions she proposes aren’t necessarily wrong, they incorrectly assume that global populations can afford the years of environmental catastrophe that will occur before companies pursue a sustainable shift in earnest. Her work ignores the notion that company greed might create new catastrophic problems in the future. As was shown by the #Exxonknew reports, Exxon was aware of the dangers of climate change decades ago and, over a forty-year period, contributed millions of dollars to political figures and organizations dedicated to spreading anti-climate change rhetoric. There’s little to no evidence that companies will suddenly cease this type of behavior even if our existing institutions are somehow “reinvented” quickly enough to avoid inevitable climatic destruction.

None of this is to say that capitalism can’t be a part of novel climatic solutions, nor that it is inherently evil or impossible to use in a productive way. Nor is it true that preexisting solutions could have never worked, as global sustainability agreements and climate reductions would certainly still be beneficial and, had they been implemented properly decades ago, would have been decently sufficient. Instead, it is just important to recognize the idealistic, long-term nature of these solutions and how, in the context of the planet’s need for immediate, radical reform, they’re completely insufficient. It is not wrong to reshape existing institutions or power structures in order to improve sustainability or global climatic health, nor is it wrong to think idealistically or propose theory with an understanding that it is not very practical. What is wrong, though, is pushing long-term solutions as the best courses of action to an immediate problem while giving little weight to the fact that irreversible climatic damage has already occurred and that future generations cannot afford to place their faith in failing, inherently flawed structures.

Amsterdam, for example, is implementing a novel economic system by embracing the theory of “doughnut economics.” Introduced in 2017 by British economist Kate Raworth, this theory argues that our goal should be to fit all of human life into a supposed “sweet spot” between the “social foundation,” where everyone has what is necessary for them to live an adequate-quality life, and the “environmental ceiling,” which accounts for human impact on the environment. A country abiding by such a system would bring all of its residents below the environmental ceiling and above the social foundation, focusing on sustainability and equality rather than GDP growth or other classical indicators of a “good economy.” Amsterdam introduced a Doughnut Economics Action Lab, large-scale infrastructure projects, employment schemes and novel policies for government contracts in order to complete those projects, as well as the Amsterdam Doughnut Coalition to run programs at a grassroots level. Many other municipalities, including Copenhagen and Brussels, have also opted to pursue the same plans. While not all countries need to go as far as adopting an entirely new system, the actions of these municipalities show the positive impact of embracing radical changes and proposals.

While this theory is idealistic in that it relies on governmental participation and supervision, as well as the notion that people will care less about wealth and income over time, it is just an example of a novel system that actually attempts to invent, not reinvent, a new way of life that accounts for contemporary global problems and needs. It’s certainly not perfect, however; it addresses sustainable needs in a way that previous structures haven’t simply because, no matter how much preexisting structures are reinvented, they were never built to care about principles like sustainability, inequity, or corruption. Therefore, previous solutions can not be fundamentally restructured to take these tenets into consideration. While they can be “reinvented” to better avoid or reduce those problems, only genuinely novel solutions shaped with sustainability and equity in mind can ever hope to address them adequately.

Global climate change has already caused irreparable damage to the global ecosystem and has led to historically grim outlooks on the global future amongst younger generations. A majority of US adults in all age groups believe that climate should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations, and that large businesses, the energy industry, and average Americans are doing too little to address climate change. A simple and effective way of both inspiring hope and mitigating future damage is to stop “reinventing” our current systems and start constructing new ones within an improved global understanding. The solution doesn’t necessarily entail the elimination of capitalism or the total abandonment of our existing institutions or structures. What is clear is that, at the bare minimum, these existing structures must work in conjunction with original, radical solutions built on different assumptions and in our contemporary time period. Only through increased attention, funding, and respect for these radical proposals can we hope to sustain our planet’s livability.