Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The Earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities… These changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe… The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations, which will worsen international tensions and increase risk of conflicts among and within nations. It is imperative to act now.1
Such were the conclusions of the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security, a meeting of over 300 scientists, experts, policymakers, elected officials, and the media held in Toronto in 1988 to discuss growing concerns over “global warming.”
Co-organized by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the “world’s first large-scale climate conference” recommended the creation of a fund, “financed in part by a levy on the fossil fuel consumption of industrialized countries,” to invest in technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; “the nearly complete elimination of fully-halogenated CFCs by the year 2000;” and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2005.2
For some, the supposedly “radical event”3 was an important moment in the global struggle against climate change. Elizabeth May, former leader of the Canadian Green Party, attended the 1988 event and remembers its role in the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “setting up a process that is essentially the world’s largest peer review. Over 2,000 scientists, appointed by their governments, began meeting regularly to provide a consensus view and a special report called ‘advice to policy makers.’”4
And, yet, while the IPCC successfully gathers and disseminates the international science on climate change, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase exponentially, and the international community has blown right past the so-called Toronto Targets set in 1988.5 The IPCC itself has warned of the urgent need for global action to limit the devastation of climate change6 and, since 1988, there have been numerous international conferences on climate, each seeking global action to address the crisis, all with little lasting effect.
Scientists and policymakers reached consensus about climate change more than thirty years ago, and agreed to take substantive action immediately. Why, then, are we currently grappling with the very consequences – the droughts, the storms, the heavy rainfall; the inequitable access to food and water resources; the growing political instability; the extinction of animal and plant species – they predicted?
The answer is: neoliberalism.
In the postwar period, as a response to the expansion of the Keynesian welfare state, business and industry initiated a decades-long campaign to (re)assert their power and control over governments and citizens. Employing a variety of methods – including staffing university economics departments, financing think tanks, engaging in union busting, controlling mainstream media, and forming powerful lobby groups to blackmail politicians – this counter-hegemonic force sought to complete the withdrawal of governments from the economy (except to aid profits); destroy civil society groups and transform all relationships into economic ones; dismiss scientists and experts offering contradictory perspectives; and, ultimately, maximize profit and accumulate individual wealth.7
By the late 1980s, when climate change was recognized as a global crisis, neoliberalism had become enormously successful, evidenced, in part, by the election of allied politicians across the global North (followed by their imposition of various policies across the global South). Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States are the most well-known, but Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – although personally and politically invested in environmental issues, especially acid rain and water pollution8 – promoted similar ideas in Canada.
He and his successors from across the political spectrum, including so-called left-wing governments at the provincial level, deregulated markets and facilitated the development profitable multinationals (also heavily dependent on fossil fuels for production and transportation). They shifted the tax burden from wealthy corporations to individuals and transformed citizens into taxpayers and clients while undercutting government spending and planning. They privatized publicly-owned Crown Corporations, including Air Canada (a recipient of enormous pandemic bailouts), Connaught Labs (which if still publicly owned could have produced low-cost COVID-19 vaccines for the nation), and dozens of others.9
In numerous ways, they implemented the neoliberal system. Thus, when scientists, the media, and politicians, including Mulroney, came to a consensus about climate change in Toronto in 1988, it was already too late. Because of neoliberalism, governments and politicians claimed they were unable to interfere in the economy, except, of course, when bailouts were requested or war deemed necessary. Corporations and the corporate-owned media went on the offensive, funding and reporting supposedly “balanced” coverage of the issue that raised doubts about the evidence and slowed demands for action. Increasingly atomized “taxpayers” had few places to meet with like-minded individuals, little time or energy to expend on mobilizing, and limited effect on well-funded but amorphous opponents. Revenues from taxation dropped at the same time there was growing refusal to borrow (despite historically low interest rates), leaving less money for governments to spend on programs and services. Perhaps most significantly, the very notion of a collective response to a global crisis (except war) became incomprehensible.
But the climate catastrophe – like the Second World War – requires a collective response. Individuals and even individual nations, regardless of their dedication and commitment, cannot solve these problems alone.10 No meaningful action on climate change, then, will ever be achieved within the neoliberal framework.