Contraction and Convergence: An Exchange

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We published Roy Wilkes’ article Is ‘Contraction and Convergence’ the Answer to Climate Change? on March 30. Here’s a reply from Aubrey Meyer, the original developer of the Contraction and Convergence model, and a response from Roy Wilkes.

Aubrey Meyer said…

The challenge of human causation of climate change has raised the stakes in questions of human destiny. The issue of where we came from is now rather pointededly over-taken by the issue of where we are going to.

The prognosis is not reassuring. What we would regard as ‘catastrophe’ with rapid non-linear climate change does have precedents (see e.g. Permian Extinction 251MBP – Benton).

Answering questions of any kind requires judgement, and the climate-question is no exception.

Doing the right things for the wrong reasons is as futile now as doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Tougher still – doing the right thing for the right reasons is as elusive as ever.

Engaging with this invites a deepening understanding of ‘self’ (collective and individual) and puts on trial questions and judgements about identity and motivation for all of us – i.e. who is asking: what questions: for what reasons; for whose benefit; with what expectations; and so on and so –

Just like the right, leftist role-play is roll-play until the unitary structure of the dice is understood.

To ask the right questions for the right reasons and then (more difficult) give the right answers for the right reasons is a challenge to us all.

Here clearly it remains a challenge to which the author of this article (by Mr Roy Wilkes of the Socialist Resistance) has not yet in my judgement convincingly risen.

There is no numbers-based assessment in this critique that indicates how the author thinks about organizing and quantifying what needs to be done in the small time-space left to us all (humanity), if dangerous rates of climate change (runaway) is to be avoided.

It is disappointing to see that, while analysis from the left tends to be correctly focused by and critical of reactionary behaviour – i.e. behaviour focused more on effect than on cause, more on profit than capital – this article mimics the very thing of which it is so critical – the randomness and inequity of ‘markets’.

Frequently – and certainly here – the policy analysis and the policy demands lack coherent rationale and are just that, reactionary.

A look at GCI’s C&C reference material (we are the origin of this position – — rather than the trivia circulated about it (CornerHouse) will reveal the source of the argumentation and in turn the source of the reasoning.

When more attention is paid to this and the rates of change and the rising risks of *everything* being destroyed by climate change, it is obvious that Capitalism no less than the Socialist Resistance, will be destroyed by unless fundamental change in human structures is organised by humans.

The problem is unfettered growth, not ideology and capitalism per se. The solution (if there is one) requires numeracy about limits and sharing under limits.

C&C in this article in the author’s phrase-of-error is – ‘based on trade’. This is untrue and is not said or even suggested in the GCI references for C&C he cites at the GCI website.

C&C is a mooted framework-based constitutional structure rooted in the science of climate change and limits in which and subject to a market could operate if necessary.

The latter depends on the former (not vice versa) – in other words the market depends on the framework and is meaningless without it (which is what Mr Wilkes has presumed in error). Please think about this before you respond.

The file below works in an MS Web Browser (Logos touch-sensitive to advance through scenes)

Mr Wilkes and his colleagues will be more effective in their engagement, if avoiding dangerous rates of climate change is the ‘success’ he seeks, if they subject themselves to a little more discipline and a less error.

This will come more from identity with rationale than with the comfort-zone of reactionary rhetoric and decoys resistance.

As is, this piece simply projects powerlessness and wastes opportunity and talent.

Aubrey Meyer, GCI

Roy Wilkes responds: Mr Meyer goes to extraordinary lengths to downplay the role of the market in his Contraction and Convergence schema, yet the evidence is there for all to see. From Point 2 paragraph 5 of the GCI’s own briefing:

“…the tradeability of these entitlements in an appropriate currency such as Energy Backed Currency Units should be encouraged” and from Point 5: “C&C enables international pre-distribution of these tradeable and therefore valuable future entitlements to emit GHGs…”

Mr Meyer might claim that the market depends on the framework and not vice versa, but such distinctions are irrelevant. Rights to pollute are traded and therefore C&C explicitly accepts the market imperative and the commodification of GHG emissions.

Mr Meyer criticises me for having ‘no numbers based assessment about organising and quantifying what needs to be done.’ But the numbers aren’t the problem, Mr Meyer, nor is it primarily a problem of technology. (There is, for example, no technical or scientific reason why we can’t achieve at least a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions within 10 years. The numbers add up and the technology already exists.) The problem isn’t one of numbers but of politics i.e. of power. Put simply, the capitalist class has the power to destroy the planet but it does not have the power to save it.

There is a very simple reason for this: capitalism cannot survive without accumulation (and hence unfettered growth,) just as surely as a fish cannot survive without water. We can appeal until we are blue in the face for the fish to leave the ocean and live on the land but it simply cannot do so, however many treaties, equations, graphs and numbers we wave before it.

Why cannot the capitalist class accede to Mr Meyer’s perfectly reasonable request to abandon unfettered growth? The answer to this dilemma is explained more fully elsewhere in this blogspot, but in a nutshell: the capitalist economy consists of individual corporations each competing, one with another, for sufficient market share to enable its own profits to be maximized. That, Mr Meyer, is their primary goal, indeed it is their very raison d’etre, and not a single board of directors on the planet would dispute this.

And the capitalist governments that serve those corporations? Their openly stated economic goal, which again not one of them will dispute, can be summarized in a single word: GROWTH. The most powerful ones, including our own, hope to buy their way out of this problem of climate change through all manner of schemas and sleights of hand; but one thing they will never do is to sacrifice the very thing which you correctly identify as the root cause of the problem: the drive for unfettered growth.

But all is not lost, Mr Meyer. For there is a class which does have the potential to reorganise production in a rational and sustainable manner – the class of workers, those of us whose labour produces all of the wealth of society. Unlike the capitalist class, our class has no interest either in chasing markets for profit or in unfettered growth. We have within our ranks the capacity and the intelligence to ‘organize and quantify what needs to be done’; what we currently lack is the power to do so. Recognizing that we don’t yet have the power to save the planet is not ‘projecting powerless’ but simply facing up to reality, a reality that we need to work together to change.

The struggle for a sustainable and rationally planned economy, for the survival of our ecosystem and of our planet, ultimately boils down to the struggle of the working class for power. But just as workers need to understand their historic responsibility to act in the interest not only of humanity but of the entire ecosystem, so too do the environmentalists need to look not to the capitalist corporations and governments for solutions, but to the labour movements and in particular to the youth.


  • The anonymous ‘rethinker’ isn’t me at all. I’m not looking for a middle ground because there isn’t one. Governments cannot ‘regulate’ the problem away within a capitalist economy because capitalism cannot survive without accumulation, and accumulation cannot occur without unlimited growth (due to the demands of competition between firms.) There is no short cut, ‘Rethinker’, we have to address the problem at its source and redouble our efforts to replace the anarchy of the market with a planned economy in which we produce to satisfy human need (in a way that respects the natural limits of the biosphere) instead of producing for profit. Don’t fall into despair though, struggle for survival! This is not ‘random rhetoric’ but the harsh reality of both natural science and political economy.I do object however, to the oft repeated suggestion that I am innumerate. I am in fact a high school teacher of mathematics. But this isn’t an issue of numbers, it’s an issue of politics. But if it’s numbers you want, try these:The UK government’s currently stated target is to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050. This is based on the assumption that this would be sufficient to keep the average temperature rise below 2 degrees by keeping carbon dioxide below 550 ppmv. Unfortunately this is based on outdated science. We now know that with as little as 450ppmv (and we are already up to 380) there is a 70% chance of average temperatures going up by 2 degrees and a 50% chance of average temperatures rising by 3 degrees. A 2 degree average rise could mean a 9 degree rise at the poles, which would mean the complete summer melting of the polar ice cap and therefore rampant feedback effects.It is the cumulative emissions that matter the most, which is why there are no simple answers to Mr Meyer’s questions. But the longer we leave it until we make the necessary reductions, the worse it will get. To achieve a maximum of 450ppmv by 2050, which should be our new minimum demand, the UK emissions cannot exceed 4.8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions between 2000 and 2050. Bear in mind that between 2000 and 2006 the UK has already emitted 1.2 bn tonnes, i.e. a quarter of its allowance. If we assume a similar trajectory over the next 6 years, we will need to make a 9% p.a. reduction thereafter in order to keep within the 4.8bn tonne limit. (The difficulty of achieving this can be seen by looking at the 14 year period from 1990 to 2004, which is trumpeted as a success by the government in terms of emission reductions. The total reduction over the 14 year period amounts to only between 0.8% and 1% once aviation and shipping is included.)My suggestion that we the technology already exists to enable us to reduce emissions by 90% (on 2000 figures, Mr Meyer,) within 10 years is simply an illustration that we could and should err on the side of safety.But the point that both you and Mr Meyer seem to miss is that it isn’t enough just to know how much we need to reduce emissions by. If we are actually going to reduce those emissions, instead of just talking about it, we, that is to say the working people of the world, need to have the power to do so.

  • OK – Shall we just assume that the question [who, what, when etc] is just too good to spoil with an answer.The random rhetoric of the left is no less daft than the random rhetoric of the right. If the missing ‘third way’ is the mean position between two daft and in-numerate extremes, it was a false dichotomy to start with.Perhaps the anonymous ‘rethinker’ who is looking for the middle ground is in fact the original author if the piece and is looking for comfort in this ground.In time and in tune – music which can be so beautiful is quite merciless on this point.As in music so in the politics of post-modernity: – If you can’t count you won’t.

  • While in general I agree that Myers’ pro-market orientation is not helpful, I still find myself uncomfortable with assertions that only socialism can solve the problem of ecological crisis. I agree that capitalism requires constant growth, and that this is ultimately unsustainable ecologically. But does that necessarily imply that large corporations are incapable of reducing fossil fuel consumption? The world has by and large reduced its consumption of other commodities (CFCs, for instance, or to use an example from Canadian history, beaver pelts) so why is it impossible to suggest that reducing fossil fuel consumption is impossible in a capitalist economy?I say this not to defend capitalism, because I believe that capitalism is unjust and undemocratic, but because I am worried that there simply isn’t time to convince all the liberals and social democrats who want to use regulation and the powers of capitalist governments to slow and then stop global warming that this strategy won’t work. Global warming is so serious and urgent a problem that we simply can’t wait for the revolution to stop it. Isn’t there a middle path between dogmatic assertions of the socialist theory and reliance on the market as a mechanism? Isn’t there some way to have governments regulate – and it would need to be very heavy regulation – industries in order to get GHG emissions reduced, without requiring the workers to seize control of the means of production? I fear that if we cling to that position, then we are likely to get marginalized, social democrats are not going to have enough support, and the planet is doomed.

  • A comment received from Aubrey Meyer:OK – 90% . . . Of what? By whom? By when? with What outcome as a GHG concentration? and What assumed sharing arrangements? and What Assumed Rates of Risk to do with the worsening ratio of sinks to sources? [i.e. Airborne Fraction of Emissions] Here is a URL to a resource that help to take a view on this: - Here is a URL to a self-animating resource with voice over that is easier as a starting point: –