How China Can Prevent Climate Catastrophe? Moving Humanity Toward Global Ecological Civilization
Climate catastrophe? Aren’t we already witnessing climate catastrophe? As the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report tells us, there is still a chance to keep warming at no more than the 1.5°C target, but tipping points to climate catastrophes much worse than we are witnessing now will kick in if this target is breached. According to Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at Manchester University, this IPCC report is too optimistic and neglects the interests of most of humanity living in the global South. Anderson estimates there is a 50 percent chance of meeting the 1.5°C target if global carbon dioxide emissions are reduced to zero by 2040.1
It is now crystal clear that ongoing wars, in particular the Ukraine war, create huge obstacles to the global cooperation necessary for any chance of meeting the 1.5°C warming target. Please take note of the Science editorial of April 1, 2022, “To solve climate, first achieve peace,” which recognized this obstacle and called for the imperative cooperation of the United States and China to reach the goal of climate security.2 Following the lead of China’s peace plan, we should support the call for an immediate ceasefire in the Ukraine war, and for all parties involved to negotiate.3 China is now being recognized as the leading peace force in the world with the recent success in bringing about better relations between long-term enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, a reduction in tensions to the dismay of the United States and Israel, and likewise a potential basis for more effective struggle against these two repressive regimes by their own citizens. Since conventional oil has the lowest greenhouse gas footprint of the fossil fuels (with coal and natural gas having the highest footprint, to be phased out first), we should recognize the potential of oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela of extracting the minimum amount of conventional oil necessary as an energy source to rapidly build renewable energy technologies especially in the Global South, while phasing out global fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and at the same time earning revenues from such production for improving the quality of life of their own people.4
It is precisely in the Middle East that China can take an historic lead in promoting a renewable energy transition and confront the increasing climate threat. China is the world leader in green capital, actually creating renewable energy supplies, but this green capital is still coupled in the Chinese economy with powerful sectors dedicated to continued implementation and imports of fossil fuels, as well as an ambitious plan to build hundreds of new nuclear fission reactors.5 Can China emerge to fulfill its claim that its goal is a new ecological civilization, that is, become the global leader opening a global ecosocialist path?6 This contingency will likely only be realized with class struggle led by China’s working class and allies. How can China become the global leader for climate security? One example is the termination of China’s plan to build hundreds of nuclear reactors, the rapid phaseout of coal, and the accelerated creation of renewable energy supplies. In a new Belt and Road Initiative, China could build solar power in the Arabian and Saharan Deserts to supply electricity to the whole region and Africa, indeed the whole world, while powering direct air capture of carbon dioxide (DAC) and permanent burial of carbon as carbonates in the crust of Oman. DAC with permanent burial in the crust as carbonates is a carbon removal technology that will be imperative, along with restoring natural ecosystems and replacing industrial agriculture with agroecologies, given that the atmospheric carbon dioxide level must be brought down to below 350 parts per million and kept there as the ocean re-equilibrates with the atmosphere.7
Of course, unless global fossil fuel consumption is ended soon, at the same time as there is a significant buildup of renewable energy supplies, the 1.5°C warming target will be exceeded. Therefore, the enemy of humanity, militarized fossil capital and its political instruments, must be defeated by a transnational movement led by the working class and its allies, in particular Indigenous communities. Promoting a global Green New Deal (GND) with a progressively increased ecosocialist character is a viable strategy to defeat militarized fossil capital, and in its initial stages should capture truly green capital as an ally.8 But green capital is a problematic ally, since it is also a driver of extractivism with its negative impacts. Therefore, transnational class struggle must also confront green capital with the goal of minimizing these impacts, with full respect for the rights of the peoples impacted, notably Indigenous communities around the world and peoples in the Global South. There are already solutions available that can sharply reduce the negative impacts of extractive mining, particularly as renewable energy infrastructure replaces fossil fuels.9 The defeat of militarized fossil capital and an ecosocialist path forward will very likely require the emergence of a global subject with sufficient power to prevail.10 Likewise, the emergence of China as the global leader of struggle for climate security can inspire the transnational working class and its allies to champion a global GND to make this goal possible.
We should recognize China’s enormous achievement of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in just a few decades, bringing the Chinese people’s life expectancy to a global rank in 2020 of 45, with the United States ranking 51st, Cuba 49th.11 Hence, there is a strong basis for hoping that China, with its Communist Party in leadership, can lead an ecosocialist path forward for humanity in the next few decades, which is critical for any chance at meeting the 1.5°C warming target. The fate of 8 billion people on our planet literally rests in the hands of China’s workers, farmers, scientists, and engineers.
1. Kevin Anderson, “IPCC’s Conservative Nature Masks True Scale of Action Needed to Avert Catastrophic Climate Change,” The Conversation, March 24, 2023.
2. H. Holden Thorp, “To Solve Climate, First Achieve Peace,” SCIENCE 376, no. 6588 (March 31, 2022).
3. Patrick Wintour, “Chinese Peace Plan for Ukraine Greeted Cautiously by the West,” Guardian, February 18, 2023; “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 24, 2023.
4. David Schwartzman and Quincy Saul, “The Path to Climate Justice Passes Through Caracas,” Counterpunch, March 11, 2019.
5. “Beijing ‘Doubling Down on Fossil Fuels’; China’s CO2 Emissions Increase; Coal Production Growth,” Carbon Brief, March 17, 2022; Nick Ferris, “Weekly Data: China’s Nuclear Pipeline as Big as the Rest of the World’s Combined,” Energy Monitor, December 20, 2021.
6. David Schwartzman, “China and the Prospects for a Global Ecological Civilization,” Climate & Capitalism, September 17, 2019.
7. Douglas Fox, “Rare Mantle Rocks in Oman Could Sequester Massive Amounts of CO2,” Scientific American, July 1, 2021; Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman, “Can the 1.5 ℃ Warming Target Be Met in a Global Transition to 100% Renewable Energy?” AIMS Energy 9, no. 6 (2021): 1170–91.
“Surface Area in the Sahara Desert Required to Power the World with Solar Energy Only – World of Engineering,” China Solar Thermal Alliance, December 8, 2022. The China Solar Thermal Alliance is an ongoing initiative to build concentrated solar power in deserts. Note that the computed 23,398 terawatt-hour = 2.7 terawatt-year is about the annual global electricity consumption level, while the present primary global primary energy consumption level is 19 terawatt-year, which would require about 11 percent of the Sahara Desert. This could be reduced by siting concentrated solar power on other deserts including the Arabian Desert, along with oceanic wind farms and photovoltaics on roofs and floating platforms. Global energy needs will very likely require even more than 19 terawatts for climate adaptation and mitigation, see footnote 9.
8. David Schwartzman, The Global Solar Commons, the Future that Is Still Possible: A Guide for 21st Century Activists (Galesburg, Illinois: Solar Utopia.org Press, 2021).
9. Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman, The Earth Is Not for Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible (Singapore: World Scientific, 2019); David Schwartzman, “A Critique of Degrowth,” Climate & Capitalism, January 5, 2022.
10. David Schwartzman and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, “Prefiguration and the Emergence of the Global Subject,” Science & Society 86, no. 4 (2022): 564–83; Robert Latham, “Organizing Anticapitalist Internationalism in Contemporary and Historical Perspective,” Rethinking Marxism 34, no. 4 (2022): 449–68.
11. See footnote 6. World Bank Group Wikipedia, list of countries by life expectancy. The latest data for life expectancies will likely show even higher values for China and Cuba than the United States given the COVID deaths/population ratios of the three countries with the United States/China rate = 47.66, United States/Cuba = 4.13. “Mortality Analyses,” Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, accessed March 30, 2023.
David Schwartzman is the co-author of The Earth is Not for Sale.
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