Boris John Launch of COP26: Photo: No 10 / cropped from original / licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), linked at the bottom of article Boris John Launch of COP26: Photo: No 10 / cropped from original / licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), linked at the bottom of article

Amid the hot air at COP26 in November, radical arguments need to make themselves heard, argues John Westmoreland

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is to be held in Glasgow after a year of extreme weather events that has claimed thousands of lives. The situation is urgent. Hundreds of deaths from flooding have hit Europe and Asia, while an unprecedented heatwave has scorched the USA’s west coast, causing death, drought and forest fires.

The urgency of the situation has been brought into sharper relief by work that has made predicting the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) more precise, and more alarming.

COP26 needs to meet with the angry voices of thousands of demonstrators ringing in their ears.

1.5 might keep us alive

One of the aims of COP26 is to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. The goal set in Paris in 2015 was 2 degrees, but forecasts show that 1.5 degrees will still have a devastating effect on many countries in the global south, with rising sea levels and the destruction of agriculture.

Conservative MP Alok Sharma, COP26 President-Designate, and former corporate finance guru is taking the talk:

To keep 1.5 degrees alive, as the UK COP26 Presidency is determined to do, we must halve global emissions by 2030.

The Tories are keen on ‘Global Britain’ and projecting the UK as world leaders on the environment. Yet astonishingly Johnson is considering letting Oil and Gas UK drill a new field in the North Sea, which the head of the group, Deirdre Michie, dares to claim will help the UK cut its greenhouse gas emissions!

The pull of the oil giants on the green conscience of the Tories is a decisive factor in whether we save the planet or watch it burn. The Tories want to reassure the public that the crisis can be managed, but their management of the Covid pandemic includes a death toll of 130,000. Maintaining ‘business as usual’ and the untrammelled freedom of the market is the Tory mantra, as Sharma revealed:

We need transparent, reliable markets playing a role in robust emissions reduction strategies, supporting companies to deliver, providing confidence to consumers and investors, and keeping 1.5 degrees alive.

However, a recent paper published in the journal Nature Communications by the American economist R. Daniel Bressler calls into question the economic models that western governments use to predict the human impact global warming will have. In particular it focusses on the correlation of carbon emissions to deaths. This is a tool that will help us to cut through Tory green-washed spin and argue more effectively against market-led solutions to the crisis.

The mortality cost of carbon

Bressler builds on the work of William Nordhaus, who first determined what is known as the “social cost of carbon” — an economic tool for measuring the climate-related damage to the economy caused by each extra ton of carbon emissions.

Extreme climate events hit the economy. In hotter countries rising sea levels and drought can decimate agriculture and destroy industry. Turning workers into welfare dependents or refugees is the visible social cost of carbon.

Nordhaus wanted to create a model that would give governments a better cost-benefit analysis. In his version, the “Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE)”, the social cost of carbon can be given a price – about $37 per metric ton. This figure is obtained by integrating social and economic data, and is intended to give governments the clearest idea about where their carbon emission are leading them, and also the urgency of cutting emissions.

Bressler worried that deaths from global warning needed their own metric.

Nordhaus came up with a fantastic model but he didn’t take in the latest literature on climate change’s damage upon mortality, there’s been an explosion of research on that topic in recent years.

Bressler’s model included recent health research that estimates the number of excess deaths caused by rising temperatures into the DICE model. The result produced a much higher figure for the social cost of carbon: $258 per metric ton. He has called the relationship between the increased emissions and excess heat deaths: the “mortality cost of carbon.”

This is an economic and humanitarian argument for radical action that runs against the Tories’ market solutions.

Bressler’s work gives us a correlation between metric tons of carbon emissions and deaths in the period to 2021. It therefore tells us how many lives can be saved by cutting those emissions, and highlights the injustice suffered by poorer countries.

The “mortality cost of carbon” will have the biggest impact on poorer, hotter countries that are least responsible for carbon emissions. Bressler’s calculation shows at the micro level that it only takes 3.5 Americans to emit enough carbon for one death in the eighty years to 2021, whereas it would take 25 Brazilians or 146 Nigerians to have the same effect.

Reducing just one US coal-fired power plant to zero emissions will save 904 lives, and Bressler argues that this is how our economic output should be quantified – human life not profit. His overall calculation is that the toll in human life by 2021, with just a four degree rise in temperatures from pre-industrial levels, will be in the region of 74 million lives.

Bressler’s work is important because we can demand a more accurate impact assessment of economic decisions based on the mortality cost of carbon (MCC). This is important for all campaigning organisations and trade unions who have to demand that governments and employers fulfil their duty of care.

One example will suffice to make the point. Bressler argues that a release of just a million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere on top of 2020 levels for just one year will cause 226 deaths globally. Since 2001, the U.S. military is estimated to have emitted a staggering 1.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

It makes the case for a massive demonstration of anger at COP26 rather obvious.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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