In the 1970s Exxon-Mobile scientists realized fossil fuel extraction and the CO2 emissions therein were fueling global warming. Obviously this sort of phenomenon could have devastating consequences to the planet, but more importantly to Exxon-Mobile’s scientists, Exxon’s bottom line. The company took great lengths to cover up their discovery and began a decades long disinformation campaign to prolong fossil fuel dominance and the power it yields for them.
In 1990 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change let the world know the consequences of climate change were coming. They laid out that climate change was real, it was driven by human causes, and specifically CO2 emissions, “will enhance the greenhouse effect and cause additional warming on Earth’s surface.” They estimated by that time Earth had already increased in temperature by 0.6C. They speculated business as usual could fundamentally change sea levels and the climate, wreaking havoc in ways that would be both obvious and impossible to predict.
This prompted the UN and the international community to pursue action via the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement of its kind, with a goal of lowering CO2 emissions. The United States never ratified the treaty and its admittedly ambitious (although just a necessary first step now) goals have never been actualized. It set the precedent for agreements like the Paris Climate Accords, which again the United States failed to ratify, with Trump even going as far as pulling the United States out of the agreement entirely. Kyoto and Paris both highlight the difficulties inherent in crafting climate policy, and also its fragility.
So when parties prepare for the worst, and many are, they can be forgiven for doing so. Large financial institutions such as the Bank of England have begun to stress test their investments for potentially devastating consequences of climate change. Large consulting firms have produced significant research readying their customers and preparing them to take advantage of climate change. Other investors have taken less savory steps to profit from climate change, but at the end of the day, almost everybody is getting ready and it’s important to look at what information they’re working with and what exactly it means.
We’ve Got 12 Years to Stop Climate Change, What Does That Mean?
In the 1990s when the IPCC said the climate had already changed by 0.6C in the industrial age and was enroute for more drastic changes as the temperatures rose further, we know the general thrust of that prediction has come true. Temperatures have indeed continued to rise.
So now the question becomes one of how to limit those temperatures from rising even more. Specifically, can we limit any increase to 1.5C or 2.0C. Both of which have problems of their own, but avoid some of the most catastrophic outcomes that come with an increase of 2.0C+. To avoid changes in excess of 1.5C net global carbon emissions must come down by 45% from 2010 levels, and reach zero by 2050.
On this goal Jim Skea the Co-Chair of the IPCC’s working group III said, “limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.” However those unprecedented changes would likely be well worth the cost warns Hans-Otto Pörtner, the IPCC working group’s co-chair, because “warming of 1.5C or more increases the risks associated with irreversible changes such as the loss of some ecosystems.”
Changes of 1.5C would contribute to more than just ecosystem loss. It would create sea level rises of over 48 cm (56 cm for 2C), the number of “heat wave” days which are already deadly would go up 16x (23x for 2C), and annual snowpack will drop by 8% (11% for 2C.) On top of that average daily temperatures could rise as much as 1.7C (2.6C for 2C) and average drought length could increase by as much as 2 months, (4 months for 2C.) The list of potentially devastating consequences goes on and on.
So the idea behind the “12 years to solve climate change” statistic, is that these changes are unavoidable unless we take significant steps to reduce emissions in the next 12 years. Unfortunately the last few decades of climate policy and the failure of international multilateral agreements to actually reduce emissions leave little hope that we can actually hit that 12 year goal. However it has created a sense of urgency in policymakers which has created aspirational frameworks like the Green New Deal, backed by budding political machines like the Sunrise Movement. Nowhere is this urgency better exemplified than the Extinction Rebellion protests which seeks to inject a new radicalism into the environmental movement, taking to the streets in cities around the globe.
However, as stated earlier, these budding political movements aren’t the only people interested in harnessing the power of climate change. Financial institutions like banks and hedge funds, and even individual retail property investors, all have their own unique strategies to not only withstand climate change, but potentially to profit handily at the destruction of the environment.
The Many Approaches to Climate Profiteering
In one sense, large financial institutions like the Bank of England would be irresponsible not to prepare for climate change. They know the case I laid out above just as well as any and have more on the line than most. And it’s not just their bottom line at stake, it’s the safety and security of normal people’s assets. So of course the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs, and many others are spending significant time and energy preparing for the worst. Largely because in the case of climate change, the worst is really fucking devastating.
So on its face there is something unsavory about any amount of resources being spent preparing for the “after” as opposed to avoiding it all together. However again, these are big institutions with a lot at stake, so it makes sense. However, this sensible preparation from big institutions is in stark contrast to the moral depravity of people bent on climate change profiteering whatever the cost.
A recent New York Times magazine article, “How Big Business is Hedging Against the Apocalypse” detailed some of the most unsavory investment strategies hoping to cash in on climate change. Pharmaceutical companies betting long on a resurgence of malaria in the Southern U.S.. Real estate speculators hoping to cash in on the potential gentrification-like impact of high income earners in Miami moving inward from coastal neighborhoods to those less directly at risk. Extractive industries banking on new reserves currently covered by glaciers in places like Greenland and Antarctica. These all point to the same “putting our needs ahead of solving this problem” aspect of the previous plans, but taken to a whole new level.
This goes beyond simply prudent planning from large financial institutions and speaks to an inherent problem in the capitalist framework. Specifically the need to consume and the drive for profit no matter the cost. Just like selling cigarettes to children once their cancer causing effects were clear (or Exxon-Mobile covering up climate change for decades) these investment strategies are pretty clearly morally dubious. Yet the money is there for the taking, so someone will naturally take it. And can you fault them? Especially in a world where so much hinges on one’s ability to amass money, some people will naturally do so by any means necessary.
Obviously one solution to these climate change vultures is prevent climate change all together. Another though, and one that is likely linked to any meaningful solution to climate change, is to imagine something outside capitalism all together. A system where resources are spent keeping people in their communities, deploying malaria drugs before its resurgence, and a system which does everything to keep the resources under the ice caps right where they are. Not one which intends to profit off the collapse and calamity which ensues. Which unfortunately is the system we have today, but hopefully, that won’t always be true. Because if we’re going to solve climate change or other like crisis, the structures we live under today simply will not do.