The majority of humans on the planet are now feeling the effects of climate breakdown. With the planet 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels, devastating wildfires, heat waves, floods, droughts and storms are increasingly affecting the everyday lives of people and communities across the globe. Scientific analysis shows that these climate-related disasters, whether sudden, like hurricanes, or gradual, like sea-level rise, will intensify in the years to come.

If we do not take immediate and drastic action to rapidly lower global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, we are likely to breach crucial limits in the planet’s climate system, with catastrophic consequences for global food security, human health and livelihoods.

Yet, though the global community negotiated ways to slow climate change at COP 27 in Egypt, these leaders did so against a backdrop of work showing decades of failure to heed science and meaningfully change course. In my research, I describe how our current economic system creates bars around us that block meaningful climate action, while profoundly shaping many of the responses we do get, like net zero commitments and carbon offsetting. We live in a carbon cage, built by industrial capitalism, its dependence on fossil fuels and its dogma of limitless growth on a planet with finite resources; if we do not break this stranglehold, we will continue to speed toward rapid and catastrophic crisis.

One of the major questions that fuels my research is why governments and policy makers, faced with decades of overwhelming scientific evidence and the increased frequency and visibility of devastating climate disasters and their human and financial costs, have not produced policies and action consistent with the threats we face. Scientists have been warning of the potential perils of a changing global climate since at least the 1950s. And while publicly denying that climate change is happening, in the 1970s and 1980s oil companies like Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, were actively studying the problem themselves.

In the 1990s scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change began releasing reports on climate breakdown, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change created to address the problem. Its first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in 1995 in Germany, followed 25 years later by COP 21 when almost 200 countries agreed to the Paris Agreement.

Yet what these countries are actually doing is not enough. Current country pledges to the Paris agreement not only fall short of the agreement’s basic goal to limit warming to under 2 degrees C and its aspirational target of 1.5 degrees C, they could lead to warming of 2.6 degrees C by century’s end. Governments globally have fossil fuel production plans that are double what would be in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. In addition, many of the net zero commitments that companies and governments have made, with plans that include using carbon offsets, are either not believable or not transparent. At COP 27, UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked that fossil fuel companies are engaged in “rank deception,” using “bogus” net-zero pledges to cover up their plans to massively expand fossil fuels.  

This brings us to the carbon cage: all of us are stuck in a fossil-fueled economic system, its significant levels of production, its need for commensurate levels of consumption, and a powerful constituency of vested interests that seeks to maintain the status quo, with the fossil fuel industry the most prominent amongst them. This has led to overlapping ecological crises on a planetary scale. Yet who suffers most depends on factors such as class, race, gender, history and geography. Geography is critical; the status quo benefits the Global North disproportionately, with its long history of carbon-intensive growth and development that often relied on the colonial domination and exploitation of peoples and nations predominantly in the Global South.

The metaphor of the carbon cage, also described in the video accompanying this commentary, allows us to think about what all of this means for our everyday lives. While individuals and communities across the world may increasingly recognize the high stakes of climate breakdown, those least responsible are already paying the greatest cost. For the majority of the world’s population, bodily survival depends on getting a job to pay for the things that keep us alive: food, shelter and clothing at a minimum.

For far too many across the globe, securing adequate and dignified employment is difficult to impossible. In turn, our jobs require people to consume, and to consume a lot, regardless of the planetary consequences of mass overconsumption. What’s more, governments depend on tax revenues from growth to fund critical services, while pension plans depend on market growth so that their members may one day retire with security.

It can be incredibly difficult to challenge a system that commodifies existence, and overall, each of these factors represents a specific bar in the carbon cage that complicates our ability to address effectively the climate crisis.

However, like any set of bars, those in the carbon cage, while strong, need not be permanent. The work being done globally on a just transition, aiming to replace an economy built on extraction, waste and injustice with one that regenerates communities and the planet for collective well-being, can weaken the cage. This work includes energy democracy, with community and publicly owned renewables that ensure that essential services respond to need over profit; and local agroecological food systems that build biodiversity and resilience while feeding communities.

The options are limitless: green jobs, accessible public transportation for all, livable cities, goods built to last, and so much more. These are the examples that should inspire leaders at COP 27 to finally change course.

This article was supported by the Global Reporting Centre and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Kate Ervine is an associate professor of global development studies at Saint Mary’s University and the author of Carbon. Her research examines the global political economy of climate breakdown, with a focus on climate change mitigation, carbon markets, climate finance to the Global South, and climate justice. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateErvine.

This video was produced by Duy Linh Tu, Jeffery DelViscio, Tulika Bose, and Dominic Smith.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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