Climate Change is not our main problem. Climate change is symptomatic of two other major problems:
1) Pollution and
1) Let us define ‘waste’ as the byproducts of production and consumption that can be ‘re-cycled’ or processed by either the economic system or ecological system.
‘Pollution’ is then defined as the byproducts of production and consumption that cannot be ‘recyled’ or processed by the economic or ecological systems.
Sometimes, what would normally be waste can be produced in quantities which exceed the capacity of the ecology or economy to reprocess and it becomes pollution, as has happened with CO2 emissions. It is theoretically possible that pollution could likewise become waste, but I’m not sure this has ever happened easily or well. It is often hard to make reprocessing pollution profitable or even cheap (financially or energetically).
The changes to geological markers which define the Anthropocene are largely down to pollution. Climate change is mostly generated by pollution from excess greenhouse gas emissions made from energy production.
2) Extraction is the process of extracting food, minerals, materials, fuels etc. from the earth’s ecologies.
Extraction can likewise be of two types.
‘Tame extraction’ which allows the ecological system to repair itself after the extraction occurs. This takes time.
‘Excessive extraction’ which damages the ecological system, either through straightforward destruction, or through not allowing the ecology the time to regenerate.
The more ecologies are damaged the less they can process and recycle waste, therefore excessive extraction increases the chance that waste will become pollution.
For example, the amount of carbon dioxide we can produce safely goes down as we increase deforestation and poisoning of the oceans. Instead of being absorbed, as it should be, CO2 increases and traps in heat, changing the climate. This is compounded by massive increases in the amounts of CO2 and other Greenhouse gases being emitted, largely through burning fossil fuels (or dead forests), but emissions from warming seas and tundras are also starting to accelerate, and the weather becomes more tumultuous and unstable.
Politics of pollution and extraction
Pollution has both an economics and a politics. Pollution is emitted because it is cheaper to emit it than to restrain it, or to reprocess it. Pollution increases profit. We might say a key technique of capitalism is to freeload costs onto taxpayers or those who cannot resist. This is why pro-corporate politicians, such as President Trump, often boast about how they are reducing green tape and making it easier to pollute and poison people. So any political or economic system with people in power who consider reprocessing pollution too expensive, too diminishing of corporate (or other) profit, or as inhibiting some other beneficial project, will increase pollution, and that will have consequences; in some cases that will include direct harm to people. One, not yet recognized problem for polluters, is that some forms of pollution cannot be confined; they affect everyone detrimentally.
The politics of excessive extraction is similar. It is cheaper and more profitable (in the short term) to destroy ecologies than it is to preserve them. This is especially the case if the companies involved do not have a local base. They can then move elsewhere leaving a trail of destruction behind them. A good example of this is coal mining in Australia. Anyone who travels to the Hunter Valley can observe this, if they are careful, as the destruction is often hidden by high green mounds alongside the roads. We also have massive over-fishing in the world’s oceans because it is cheaper to take huge amounts of fish than to fish selectively. This is helping to causing a complete destruction of ocean ecological cycles, which is furthered by plastic, oil and other pollution. Small fisher peoples cannot compete and they end up having to change their lives and buy the fish they used to catch or starve. It is no longer true that if you teach a person to fish you feed them for a lifetime.
The politics of pollution and the politics of extraction mean there is a tendency to put the pollution and the destruction from excessive extraction onto relatively powerless people. Powerful people, by definition, often have the ability to push poison and mess away from themselves, and the wealth to import food from places that have not yet been destroyed. It is almost always the poor, or those living in relatively remote places that suffer poisoning, or destruction of their land and surroundings. However, the effects of destruction cannot always be confined (it spreads) and as poor and remote areas get destroyed, the destruction is likely to move into more prosperous areas. For example, with the NSW government’s determination to poison residents, and destroy their homes, with the Westconnex highway and tunnel system so a toll company can tax travel forever. Pollution may also have a psycho-political component as putting it on others indicates dominance over those others, and is a literal way of making a mark on the world – hence the apparent joy some people appear to take in polluting.
The problems we face increase because pollution and destruction go hand in hand. They reinforce each other, or feedback into each other, making the situation worse. They further reinforce and are reinforced by relations of power. Governments want to encourage business, economic growth and development and, in current terms, that means pollution and excessive extraction. There is little corrective available, unless governments can be recaptured by the people being damaged, and regulations imposed on the amount of pollution that can be emitted and the amount of destruction that will be tolerated. This in itself generates a problem in an age of international neoliberal capital. Capital will likely move to them areas of lowest regulation and highest permissible destruction, because this is more profitable, leaving the area without the investment. The oceans are a particular problem as it is easy to escape observation of destruction and pollution at sea, and there is confusion over who controls what is done.
So while local regulation is important, it is also important to have international regulation, and then international competition for capital and investment can get in the way.
Unfortunately, neoliberal governments tend to believe that the State exists to protect and encourage corporate business and wealth, and regulations are only worthwhile when they prevent opposition to business, or protect established business, and hence the idea that business should be regulated for the general good, or for self-protection is anathema, and hard to achieve. People also tend to think that more consumption is good, and this supports destruction by business.
This implies nothing will change without a general change in philosophy, as well as encouragement and support for those who are resisting pollution and excessive extraction in their local areas.
To reiterate, climate change is, itself, not the problem. The problem is that we are destroying and overloading our ecologies through pollution and excessive extraction, and this is occurring for political and economic reasons; often to reinforce the power and wealth of the corporate elites. Climate change is just a very destructive symptom of these processes, which makes everything worse.