“No Way the World Should Take These Risks”
Beneath and beyond the flow of current events, including the rise and repression of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement and the ongoing threat of double-dip recession being sparked by the Euro crisis, the primary threat to a decent and desirable human future becomes ever more severe. By any reasonable account, that danger is environmental collapse on many fronts and most particularly catastrophic climate change resulting from the wealthy Few’s petroleum-addicted profits system. A study released by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists in the spring of 2009 advanced the most comprehensive modeling ever constructed on global climate change. The report showed that “without rapid and massive action, the problem will [soon] be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago.” A prominent earth scientist heading the MIT report said that “there’s no way the world can or should take these risks” of continuing to push the envelope of the atmosphere’s capacity for safely absorbing greenhouse gasses and argued that “the least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies.”Currently in Durban, South Africa, as in Copenhagen, Denmark two years ago (see the section of this essay titled “OBAMA’S ‘BETRAYAL’” below), the conservative, Wall Street-friendly Barack Obama administration is working behind the scenes to make sure that humanity continues on the perilous path warned against by leading earth scientists in the Empire’s most prestigious science university.
“No Longer a Future Threat”
Even many of the most pessimistic climate scientists got it wrong when they started sounding alarms about anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The experts seemed to think that that the “tipping point” beyond which human life was gravely threatened was 550 carbon dioxide parts per atmospheric million (double the historical norm of 275 parts per million.) The more accurate tipping point measure, recently discovered, is closer is to 350, a benchmark we have actually passed. We are currently at 390 parts per million and projected to hit 650 before final collapse without fundamental change in our energy use patterns. Already, at 390 we have triggered a number of ominous and viciously circular warming-induced “feedback effects” that exacerbate the warming problem. As the leading environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote in his chilling and important 2010 book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, the melting of Arctic ice “replace[s] a shiny white mirror” that reflects the suns rays back to space “with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays.” Inland glaciers and snow-packs in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies are retreating, threatening local and global water and food supplies. They are “melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle.”
The thawing out of artic tundra and icy ocean clathrates releases massive quantities of methane, a major heat-trapping and climate warning gas. The melting of northern peat moss releases vast quantities of carbon. Scientists have reported that northern marshes and ponds are staying unfrozen over the winter because methane is gurgling up from below. Beyond the massive amount of carbon we have extracted from the old earth and pumped into the new one (what McKibben calls “Eaarth”) through our tailpipes and chimneys, we are now setting off the planet’s own internal “carbon bombs.” We’ve caused it but “we’re not directly releasing that methane” and “we can’t shut it off.” To make matters worse, the heat-induced softening of permafrost and the drying up of peat moss opens new northern lands to oil drilling. And as the last reservoirs of readily accessible petroleum run dry in a new era of “peak oil,” McKibben noted, we will increasingly “rely on even more use of our most abundant fossil fuel, good old coal. And the certain result of using more coal will be…more global warming, since it’s the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing twice the carbon dioxide of oil.”
Meanwhile the growing market for relatively inefficient bio-fuel production combines with warming to drive global deforestation, which exacerbates climate heating and triggers erosion, mudslides, and epic flooding. Climate heating allows certain beetles known to destroy certain trees to “overwinter” and thrive, to the detriment of forests, which become more vulnerable to fires, which themselves spew carbon into the air. The retreat of the Amazonian rainforest – the great “lungs of the planet” (currently “drying on its margins and threatened at its core”) is depriving Latin America and the U.S. corn belt of critically needed regular rainfall and removes one of the world’s great oxygenating carbon sinks (forests suck in carbon and breathe out oxygen). The “great boreal North America is dying in a matter of years.” The decomposition of forest is itself a great source of carbon release.
From Periphery to Core
The list and interplay of disastrous “negative feedback loops” goes on and on. And it is going on now: “global warming,” McKibbben observes, “is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality” in ways that are “already wrecking thousands of lives daily” in the poorest parts of the world where climate-related food crises and environmental collapse are most pressing and people have fewer defenses. The American State Department’s chief scientist projects famines related to climate change serious enough to affect a billion people at in coming decades. Global warming has created a resurgence of the deadly dengue fever in Southwest Asia ad Latin America – a consequence of the fact the mosquito which carries the dengue virus feed more heavily and hatch the virus more rapidly at higher temperatures. The worst consequences are being felt with special pain in the “developing” world, where masses of people are most vulnerable to escalating disease, food shortages, flooding, extreme weather, and other environmental disasters. Food riots broke out in thirty seven poor nations in 2008 in response to an escalation of food prices that followed the explosion in the market for biofuels (driven by the spike in oil prices) that year.
Still, climate change and the related exhaustion of global fossil fuel resources have already been heavily felt in the rich world. They contributed to Hurricane Katrina (2005) and a 2003 heat wave that killed hundreds in Europe and forcing vastly expensive infrastructure investments (e.g. giant dike improvements and other upgrades in the Netherlands and Venice) and other costs in the wealthy nations. Climate-related brush and forest fires have displaced many thousands of homeowners and apartment dwellers and killed hundreds across the rich world. New York City is spending millions in anticipation of rising ocean levels. According to a study commissioned from the Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment by Swiss Re (the world’s biggest insurance firm) seven years ago, near-term climate change will create an increasing number of storms and other disturbances that will “overwhelm the adaptive capacities of even developed nations; large areas and sectors [will] become uninsurable; major investments [will] crash; and markets [will] crash…. parts of the developed world [will] experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods as a result of the natural catastrophes and increased vulnerability due to the abbreviated return times of extreme events.” The over-exploitation of oil resources helped precipitate the financial collapse of 2008 by driving up gas prices to a degree that helped undermine suburban home values by raising the commuting cost of living in such residences.
Crazy Weather, Record Melts and Emissions
Since McKibben’s book came out in the spring of 2010, the signs of unfolding climate disaster have only intensified. Formerly unusual weather disasters have proliferated around the globe, from catastrophic flooding in Asia , Australia , and Africa to atypically intense cyclones in the Pacific and a remarkable series of blizzards, floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, strong tornados and other windstorms (including a remarkable hurricane-forces windstorm in the U.S. West – an event that put surfers on Lake Taho just last week) in the United States that have killed dozens and cost billions of dollars. Two weeks ago, the United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that linked anthropogenic planet-warming to extreme weather events such as droughts, flash floods, hurricanes, and heat waves and to dangerously rising sea levels. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist and a principal author of the new report, “A hotter, moister atmosphere is an atmosphere primed to trigger disasters. As the world gets hotter, the risk gets higher.” The World Meteorological Organization the same week issued a report showing that 2011 has been the tenth-warmest year on record, that the Arctic sea ice is at its all-time low volume this year, and that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. A study published one day before Thanksgiving reported that a current unprecedented loss of sea ice in the Arctic is an indication of human-influenced climate change. Trends from the last three decades suggest there may soon be an “ice-free Arctic” in the summer, the study reports.
The largest Artic ice melt ever took place this year, leading to the loss of 1.67 square miles of planetary ice cover. Bloomberg/Business Week, owned by the One Percent and bearing the name of the .001 percent mega billionaire and Wall Street titan Michael Bloomberg – the 12th richest American who ordered the high-tech corporate police-state eviction of OWS in his role as Mayor of New York – calmly reports the news from the science journal Nature:
“Arctic sea ice influences the global climate, since 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it is reflected back to space. When the ice melts in the summer, it exposes the ocean surface, which absorbs about 90 percent of the light, heating the water, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That influences climate patterns….’You increase the radiation that’s absorbed by the oceans, that’s one of the strongest climate feedback mechanisms,’ Kinnard said. ‘The more sea ice you lose, the more energy you get in the ocean, which warms the atmosphere’.”
A study published in the December 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change finds that global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels rose by half in the last 20 years. Last year, fossil fuel emissions increased by a record 5.9 percent, bringing the total rise since 1990 (the baseline for calculating emissions under the soon to be expired Kyoto protocol) to 49 percent. Dr. Corrine Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the at the University of East Anglia, and an author of the study, told the Guardian that the last two decades have seen only minimal progress in the effort to cut the risks from climate change: "There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency but what this shows is that so far, the effects have been marginal,"
“Marginal” is far too kind. As the environmental writer Mark Lynas noted four years ago: “all of our efforts – of carbon trading, switching off lights, the Kyoto Protocol, and so on – have a had a discernible effect so far: less than zero.”
Physics and Chemistry Don’t Compromise: Running Genesis Backwards
Welcome to the vicious carbon circle that could well be the death knell of the human species. It’s already wiping out more than a few others as we “run Genesis backwards, de-creating.” Three fourths of the big penguin colonies in the Antarctic may soon disappear thanks to the deterioration of marine life that results from the Arctic melt’s disastrous impact on the phytoplankton- the heart of the region’s food chain. As McKibven argued in Eaarth, written in 2009 and releaed in the spring of 2010, this is all happening in the present moment – not in some distant far off future inhabited by “our grandchildren.” The previous Earth is already dead, giving way to a polluted and perverted one (“Eaarth”) created by Western modernity’s rapacious over-exploitation of the planet’s stock of fossil fuels. It took the rich nations just two centuries to dangerously alter a planet that provided us with an ideal climatological “sweet spot” (with global average temperatures ranging between 58 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and carbon dioxide at 275 parts per million) for most of the 10,000 years that constitute known human civilization. The results are already staring us in the face. “This,” McKibben mused, “is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”
There is less room with each passing day to delay action to drastically reduce carbon emissions. The climate issue and the environmental problem more broadly are different from other policy areas when it comes to the need to act on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr’s call for Americans to recognize “the fierce urgency of now.”’ We are looking at an Eco-Apocalypse Now. Our response to that specter has moved into pass-fail territory, beyond letter grades. We cannot measure environmental policy improvement as if we are proceeding on an open field, advancing a few yards at a time. We have reached an epic ecological chasm: we either make the leap or build the bridge to a sustainable future or the whole game is off. With issues like health care, campaign finance, labor rights and more, progressives can at times reasonably choose to win what little they can, split the difference and then gather resources for future gains on the path to full reform, knowing that failure to win a really big and smashing victory in the present does not make progress unattainable in the future. Things are different with the environment and climate since, as McKibben notes, “Global warming…is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise.”
“This is the Moment to Give Our Children Back Their Future”
“In a rational world,” leading liberal Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted in September 2009, “the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern.” Sadly, however, global warming registers low on the list of the issues that most concern Americans amidst an ongoing epic recession that makes the need for more jobs – widely perceived as opposed to environmental regulation in a political climate shaped by many decades of corporate propaganda – paramount in the minds of many. American politicians feel relatively little popular pressure to buck the awesome power and influence of leading oil, gas, and utility corporations who spend tens of millions of dollars annually to promote junk science to deny climate change and to smear serious climate scientists as enemies of American prosperity and freedom.
That is a harsh eco-political context that the slick corporatist and fake-progressive Chicago politician-turned-president (with record-setting backing from the One Percent) Barack Obama has quite predictably shown no interest in challenging As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama spoke to with great seeming eloquence of his desire to be “a green president” and addressed the problem of global warming. During his well-received campaign speech in Berlin in the summer of 2008, he cast himself as a “citizen of the world,” promising to lead a global reduction in carbon emissions, telling the German crowd that “all nations—including my own—[must] act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one.” I heard Obama say much the same thing to 10,000 campus town liberals on a warm and breezy Earth Day above the rolling waters of the Iowa River on the scenic campus of the University of Iowa in the spring of 2007. After his election, Obama won accolades from environmental progressives for repudiating the Bush administration’s rejection of global climate science.
Promises Betrayed and Kept Through the Latest Global Climate Charade
As president, however, Obama has been more than a little “disappointing” to environmentalists on the climate. As the German environmental commentator Christian Schwagerl noted two years ago. Obama “came to office promising hope and change. But on climate change, he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush,” refusing to “take a leadership role on a problem that could shake civilization to its very core.” The “new” president’s record of betrayed expectations – the other side of the coin of promises kept to his petro-capitalist One Percent backers – is quite remarkable. It includes:
* Green-lighting mountaintop-removal coal extraction in Appalachia.
* Refusing to kill plans for dangerous offshore drilling and announcing (in March of 2010, not long before a British Petroleum oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, causing a record-setting flow of oil into the ocean) that he planned to allow disastrous oil exploitation and drilling in vast new offshore areas along the southeastern U.S. and Alaska. (The left environmental writer and activist Chris Williams noted last year that Obama had “now moved firmly into the ‘drill, baby, drill’ camp by opening up almost the entire coastline of the United States to offshore drilling.”)
*Advancing loophole-loaded and market-driven “carbon cap and trade” legislation (so gutted to please polluters that it would have barely limited carbon emissions, if at all) instead of pushing for serious and strict regulation of carbon emissions.
* Embracing and advancing “clean coal” technology and the development of “low-grade oil shale reserves, one of the most polluting industries imaginable, in Montana and North Dakota” (Chris Williams).
* Embracing rapacious corporate plans to “replace oil with biofuels, which will push marginal agricultural lands into production of genetically engineered and pesticide-saturated mono-crops, scalping topsoil and draining dwindling water supplies across the Great Plains and Midwest” as well as to assault national forests and the public’s trees.
*Dedicating only a tiny portion of the 2009 economic stimulus bill and budget proposals to mass transit and appointing “a mediocre, Republican time-server, Ray LaHood,” as transportation secretary.
*Citing the global recession and the alleged dangers of “protectionism” to justify opposing the imposition of trade penalties on nations that refused to accept limits on global warming pollution.
*Advancing a climate bill that proposed to reduce carbon emissions by a paltry 4 percent relative to 1990 levels even while serious climate researchers showed that reductions of at least 40 percent were required to stop irreversible environmental ruin and that U.S. per capita carbon emission were roughly twice that of other industrialized states and many times higher that of the developing world.
*Failing to use the crisis of the auto industry as an opportunity to undertake a major green conversion to the “development and production of electric vehicles and mass transit” and opting for “a taxpayer bailout with the goal of getting the domestic auto industry back into the business of cranking out gas guzzlers.”
*Sabotaging global talks and efforts to reach a new post-Kyoto accord to enforce binding reductions in carbon emissions on the industrialized world at international climate meetings in Bangkok and Copenhagen in the fall and winter of 2009. Obama’s “environmental team…vandali[zed] the vital Copenhagen conference” by insisting that the United States—the world’s largest carbon emitter—would not agree to any legally compulsory restrictions on its release of warming gases. The president “swept in, organized back-door, invite-only meetings and crafted a voluntary – that is, unenforceable – alternative to Kyoto, angering many.” As the leading British climate activist and intellectual George Monbiot, noted:
“The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the “Washington liberal” President acted as “a Copenhagen conservative,” functioning as “the conservative stalwart in Copenhagen” by “supporting the least-aggressive steps, advancing the conservative position of opposition to strict world-wide limits on emissions that ask much more of developed nations than of poorer countries.” Obama served as “the leader of the ‘haves’ in their dispute with the ‘have-nots [emphasis added]’ ”
*Refusing to move against the deadly corporate mining of deep underground natural gas deposits within the U.S. through the dangerous process of “fracking” (utilizing such “enhanced recovery techniques as saltwater injection and horizontal drilling”) whereby domestic water supplies are poisoned and tap-water is occasionally rendered flammable.
*Signing off in early 2011 on a budget deal that significantly cut back funding (by $49 million, or 13 percent) for programs to address climate change and that liquidated the office of the President's Special Adviser on Climate Change.
* Enlisting the U.S. State Department in advancing the environmentally disastrous Keystone XL Pipeline Project (recently delayed until after the 2012 elections thanks to pressure from large-scale landowners in Nebraska) which will carry expensively-extracted Tar Sands oil from northern Canada though sensitive Great Plains lands and aquifers to the Gulf of Mexico. (No small decision: as Chris Williams noted last year, “if …corporations are allowed to develop oil sands as an alternative source of oil, the planet is certainly cooked [emphasis added]. Extraction not only requires a lot more energy and vast quantities of water, it produces significantly more greenhouses gases [not to mention huge volumes of rock and dirt that must be removed]”).
*Initiating “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy” (New York Times) in pursuit of oil under the South China Sea and the Arctic, “where,” New York Times reporter Mark Landler notes, “fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-centuty contest for the seas” (Lander neglected to add that corporate capitalist “fuel-hunger” has created the eco-cidal climate changes that do so much to make Arctic Sea oil available for further planet-heating exploitation)
Durban Now: The U.S. as Pariah
* Undermining efforts to update the soon-to-expire international 1997 Kyoto Protocol for the reduction of global carbon emissions at the December 2011 United Nations Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa. Numerous African and other developing world governments are urgently pressing in Durban for significant binding planetary greenhouse emission reductions. China, Russia, and above all the United States are playing a deeply reactionary role. The American performance and behavior in Durban has been so obstructionist (and therefore eco-cidal given what we now about the urgency of the climate issue) that many conference participants from developing countries have argued that the U.S. should simply leave the conference to come up with whatever measures it can to save the planet without U.S. participation. The officially irrelevant U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein rightly condemns the Obama White House for “effectively killing” a legally binding global agreement in Durban. “Even when the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate in 2009-10, efforts to pass even weak legislation to reduce emissions were completely unsuccessful due to the powerful influence of Big Oil and Big Coal on both of the establishment political parties. [emphasis added].” Here is first-hand report from an environmental reporter on site in South Africa:
‘Along the coast of the shark-infested Indian Ocean where the United Nations global warming negotiations are being held, the United States increasingly is being viewed as a pariah.’
‘Despite the presence of thousands of Obama supporters in this sub-tropical surf city, even liberal environmental activists at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference say disappointment and frustration toward the administration have reached new levels.’
‘The past several days of talks have seen the U.S. seemingly unwilling to discuss more ambitious ways to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. China, meanwhile, has softened its once hardline position, indicating it could be willing to make binding carbon cuts.’
‘As countries head into ministerial-level negotiations, the dynamic appears to have left the U.S. isolated and vulnerable to attack by disillusioned former friends. Over the weekend, thousands of people marched on the U.S. embassy and deputy negotiator Jonathan Pershing -- once beloved by environmentalists -- was the subject of a Greenpeace stunt called "Bullshit Bingo."’
‘ "It has become clear that nothing can be accomplished in the U.N. talks in Durban unless the U.S. stands aside," Greenpeace declared.’
‘Many now are openly talking about the possibility of another "Bali moment," a reference to the 2007 climate conference in which a Papuan negotiator told the much-reviled Bush administration team to "lead or get out of the way." ‘
‘"The U.S. is a block to progress at every turn here in Durban," said Karen Orenstein, international policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth.’
‘"If we stay on the current trajectory and end up in a world of runaway climate change that causes severe drought in Africa and sinks small island states, future generations would be correct to look back and blame the U.S., including Obama's team in Durban," she said.’
The eco-cidal fiasco being re-enacted at this very moment by the oil-slicked Obama administration in Durban opened against the backdrop of deadly extreme weather on the very doorstep of the doomed summit. As Amy Goodman reported last week:
“The United Nations' annual climate summit descended on Durban, South Africa, t…but not in time to prevent the tragic death of Qodeni Ximba. The 17 year-old was one of 10 people killed in Durban Sunday, the night before the UN conference opened. Torrential rains pummeled the seaside city of 3.5 million. Seven hundred homes were destroyed by the floods.”
“Ximba was sleeping when the concrete wall next to her collapsed. One woman tried to save a flailing year-old baby whose parents had been crushed by their home. She failed, and the baby died, along with both parents. All this, as more than 20,000 politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, scientists and activists made their way to what may be the last chance for the Kyoto protocol.”.
CLIMATE DENIAL, ECONOMIC CRISIS, AND DEWEY’S DARK CLOUD
The Obama administration’s “liberal” and Democratic apologists like to blame Washington’s ecological policy inertia on House and Senate Republicans, who hold that human-made climate change is a leftist hoax. But most of the betrayals detailed and bullet-pointed in the previous section of this essay took place when Obama still enjoyed solid Democratic majorities, suggesting that the long reach of the fossil fuel industries’ political influence reaches across the aisle from the traditionally petroleum-soaked G.O.P. to the more nominally environmentalist Democrats.
There is little surprising about the disturbing chasm between rational policy necessity and insanely eco-cidal policy reality. As Krugman noted at the end of the administration’s first summer, “responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would…hurt…powerful vested interests” with “armies of lobbyists in place…”As McKibben observed in the spring of 2010:
“Exxon Mobil made more money in 2006, 2007, and 2008 than any company in the history of money….[and] Exxon has spent the last decade underwriting an elaborate disinformation campaign to sow doubt about climate change…In early 2009, just as Obama was getting set to unveil his energy plans, word came that 2,340 lobbyists had registered to work on climate change on Capitol Hill (that about six per congressman), 85 percent of them devoted to slowing down progress. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent more than any other organization in Washington lobbying on climate change – and also producing a series of commercials, including one in which lumps of coal sing Christmas carols. Its goal: ‘robust utilization of coal.’”
Chris Williams reported last year that Big Oil “increased its lobbying budget 73 percent in 2008 over the previous year and spent $44.5 million in just three months of 2009 alone. Since then, oil and gas spending on lobbying in 2009 set a new record: over $154 million…Electric utilities spent a further $134.6 million to influence a supposedly democratic process, dwarfing by ten times the amount spent by a alternative energy companies or environmental groups.”
Along with lobbyists, the fossil fuel corporations have conducted a massive long-term public relations offensive dedicated to creating a culture of climate denial. The Exxon-Chevron-BPT American Petroleum Institute’s propaganda machine has enjoyed no small success in swaying public opinion their way. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press right before Obama despoiled the Copenhagen conference, climate change came in dead last, number 20 of the 20 biggest issues of concern to Americans. Pew found that 57 percent of Americans felt that there was “solid evidence of global warming” but this was down 20 percent from 2007 and just 36 percent of Americans – barely more than a third of the country – believed that global warming was taking place because of human activity. A March 2010 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Americans thought that the "seriousness of global warming" was "exaggerated (an increase of 18 percent since 2006) and that 67 percent thought global warming would not "pose a serious threat" to the public in their lifetime (an increase of nearly 10 percent since 2008).A 2010 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that just 35 percent of Americans believed that limiting climate change should be “a very important [policy] priority,” down 7 points from 2008. Pew found that the percentage of Americans who felt that climate change was a “very serious problem” fell 10 points – from 47 to 37 percent – between 2007 and 2010. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) reports that the number of Americans who “say that global warming or climate change is a problem…has been declining over the last few years, so that American concern is now lower than the global average.”
The problem of mass indifference and ignorance is particularly bad in the U.S. A World Public Opinion poll earlier in 2009 asked the question “How high a priority should your government place on addressing climate change?” to 18,578 people in 19 countries and found a wide difference of opinion. Mexicans gave government climate action a priority of 9 out of a possible 10. Residents of China gave it an 8.86. United States residents gave it a residents gave it 4.71, well below even the Palestinian Territories and Iraq, where people had very serious immediate and basic non-environmental safety concerns when the poll took place.This was incredibly bad news for the human race in a world where the particularly gasoline-addicted United States accounts for more than a quarter of the planet’s deadly carbon emissions even as it comprises 5 percent of the earth’s total population and where 2008 per capita CO2 emissions (at nearly 20 tonnes per year) were exceeded only by Australia. A 2010 WorldPublicOpinion (WPO) poll of 16 nations found that just 31 percent of Americans said that that climate change was a “very serious problem,” much lower than the 60 percent of respondents who said that across all the countries surveyed.
Especially disturbing is the widespread ignorance among Americans of the scientific community’s consensus on behalf of the notion that action is urgently required to slow climate change. A 2009 WPO poll of 16 nations asked respondents’ sense of the views of scientists around the world: whether “most scientists think the problem is urgent and enough is known to take action;” “most think the problem is not urgent;” or “views are pretty evenly divided.” Among Americans, just 38 percent chose “urgent and well enough known to take action." The most common choice (43 percent) was “pretty evenly divided.” Across the 16 nations, just 24 percent chose “pretty evenly divided” and a clear majority (51 percent) selected “urgent” and well enough to take action. “Not surprisingly,” the CFR observes, “those who do not perceive [the scientific] consensus are less likely to percent global warming as a serious threat.”
These terrible opinion numbers are certainly a testament to the powerful role of corporate propaganda in “taking the risk out of democracy” in the U.S.George Monbiot’s observation in his 2005 book Heat rings all-too true today: “By dominating the media debate on climate change during …critical years in which urgent international talks should have been taking place, by constantly seeding doubt about the science just as it should have been most persuasive,” the professional climate-change deniers sponsored by Exxon and other leading oil and coal firms “have justified the money their sponsors have spent on them many times over.”
These 21st century corporate Jim Joneses have been assisted in their deadly project (which amounts to training the human species to participate in the acceleration of its own demise) by the economic crisis, however. A May 2010 Gallup poll found that just 38 percent of Americans felt that the environment "should be given priority" over economic growth, down from 55 percent in 2007.Much of that decline is undoubtedly due to the great downturn that set in 2008. By blowing up the job market and putting the need for economic re-expansion at the front of the national political mindset, the Great Recession that Obama inherited from George W. Bush decreased the likelihood that Americans would care and act to see U.S. policymakers institute rapid, serious, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The epic slump has privileged jobs over ecological sustainability in the minds of millions at home and abroad. Insofar as they are viewed as obstacles to employment expansion, environmental programs and protests tend to fare poorly in political terms during downturns. Masses of wage- and salary-dependent workers and citizens cannot generally be expected to prioritize the longer-term fate of the Earth over the fate of their often already fragile and struggling households from one paycheck, welfare check or charity allotment to the next.
But it is unclear how much difference a more environmentalist citizenry that was truly concerned about global warming would make under the plutocratic conditions of real world American “democracy.” A number of widely held progressive policy beliefs have long been largely irrelevant in the U.S, where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Welcome to America’s gaping “democratic deficit,” a significantly greater problem than the nation’s much bemoaned and overplayed financial deficit.“Since the 1970s,” Noam Chomsky sagely observed last summer, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”
BACK TO THE ONE PERCENT: THE RICH WE CAN NO LONGER HAVE WITH US
The climate issue is fundamentally and intimately related to the main issue raised by that big national news story of fall 2011– the rise and repression of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. That movement’s primary issue from the beginning has been the excessive concentration of wealth and power in the U.S., that is the control of the nation’s material and financial resources, politics, and policy by an unelected dictatorship of the rich and corporate Few, the upper “One Percent.” Eco-cidal climate change and its enablement and encouragement by the U.S. political system reflect that control and power in at least six key ways:
1. Money Talks. Like other member of the corporate and financial aristocracy, the leading One Percent investors and managers of the top oil, gas and coal companies invest heavily in the shaping of American policy and mass opinion from the top down through campaign finance contributions, hiring lobbyists (at army levels in the case of Big Oil), and the generation and purchase of propaganda and public relations to advance their cause against pro-environmental science and policies.
2. Asset Inertia. Big money One Percenters have invested huge sunk capital costs in the existing eco-cidal fossil fuel-addicted energy system – fixed capital investments that make the giant petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profits system perspective) resistant to undertaking significant conversions to clean energy technologies and methods. As McKibben explained in Eaarth: “sunk costs…it’s a phrase we need to know if want to understand why all the big companies are not jumping aboard the clear energy train. The journalist Paul Roberts figurd earlier this decade that ‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off. If we shut it down early, merely to save the planet, someone will have to eat that cost. Given such ‘serious asset inertia,’ now owner or investor in a power plant is likely to accept the writedown without a ‘nasty political fight.’”
3. Free Market Ideology. The dominant “neoliberal” ideology that oil, financial and other giant corporations and the One Percent (which owns the corporate and financial system) have underwritten, disseminated, and enforced for four decades does not sanction positive government action in defense of the common good over and against the prerogatives and profit needs of those who command massive agglomerations of capital and other resources. As Krugman noted more than two years ago, serious step to reverse global warming would violate the “dominant political ideology in America,” which “has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government.” The Marxist environmental author and activist Chris Williams states the problem more directly: “The obstacles [to any serious agreement on climate change] are…greater after the ideological assault on social spending and ‘big government’ over the last years that characterizes neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Since addressing the roots of climate change mean a frontal assault on the citadels of capitalist power and restrictions place on markets and profits that are deemed unacceptable by capitalists, the state is paralyzed by the environmental crisis and political leaders’ acceptance of neoliberal ideology.”
4. The Great Recession that has helped undermine Americans’ willingness to embrace and fight for positive environmental policies (including the serious reduction of carbon emissions) is itself a consequence of the One Percent’s financial shenanigans and more fundamentally of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist (profits) system, which moves through recurrent cycles and swings of boom and bust like human beings breathe and move between wakefulness and sleep.
5. Inter-imperial Rivalry. The American One Percent and its representatives in the U.S. state are opposed not only to social justice and democracy at home and abroad but also to the competitive threat of national capitalist blocs in other nations. This makes them highly unlikely to accept serious global carbon emission reduction agreements. In this they are of course hardly different from their counterparts in other nations. As Williams explains:
“Without the intervention of massive social protest, [inter-imperial] rivalry guarantees that international treaties on issues such as climate change will be pathetic and toothless charades. No country can accept a treaty that ‘unfairly’ disadvantages it in the mad scramble to promote their national set of capitalists…this makes a meaningful agreement almost impossible as every country seeks to angle for its own advantage – and to insert escape clauses and exclusions that are big enough to drive a fleet of Hummers through. Meanwhile, there is a clear conflict of interests between the competing interests of the developed and the developing world, especially as the United States, European Union, and Japan try to blame the lack of progress on rising powers China and India.”
Williams’ analysis is being richly validated right now in Durban, where U.S. ”negotiators” captive to American financial and corporate interests are using China’s massive greenhouse emissions as a pretext for undermining efforts to impose significant carbon limits on the rich nations.
6. The Growth Ideology. The One Percent’s continuing rule depends heavily on its promise of economic growth to the mass of the wage- and salary-dependent populace – a promise that depends under the existing socio-technical energy structure on the regular large-scale exploitation and flow of fossil fuels. Growth has long been western capitalism’s false and environmentally (some would add spiritually) lethal “solution” for the inequality that capitalism creates. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the conventional western “growth ideology” proclaims, supposedly rendering irrelevant popular anger over the fact that an opulent minority sails in luxurious yachts while millions struggle on rickety dinghies and in leaking rowboats. As the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained in 1972, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.” (As a Federal Reserve governor, Wallich was defending western capitalism against ecological economists who warned about the environmental limits of unchecked expansion.) “Governments love growth,” British environmental writer and activist George Monbiot noted in the fall of 2007, “because it excuses them from dealing with inequality…. Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy.” As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted four years ago, “the oligarchy” sees “the pursuit of material growth” as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.” When growth stops, William Grieder has noted, “the political system loses its cover. The safety valve is off. The comforting mythology about growth loses its power to distract the public from anger and to discourage critical inquiry into how the system actually functions.” And indeed, the collapse of the inequality-cloaking balm that growth affords in the epic economic collapse of 2008-2011 – the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s and the first true crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase – has given rise to mass protest movements against economic inequality and its deadly and authoritarian consequences across the world.
OCCUPY THE GROWTH IDEOLOGY
Occupy, with its clear focus (whatever the alleged vagueness of its policy agenda) on economic disparity and the corporate and financial aristocracy, is of course one of those movements. Many of its participants have by my experience and observation demonstrated a strong environmentalist commitment, expressing rejection not only of inequality and poverty amidst opulence but also of environmentally unsustainable material excess, the false and fleeting satisfactions of mass consumerism, and the divisions that modern mass producerism and many technologies create among and between people and their shared Earth. In imagining, developing, and prefiguring democratic, participatory, and environmentally sustainable alternatives to the fossil fuel- driven world the One Percent made (with Uncle Sam in the driver’s seat and bombers’ cockpit) we can look forward to this movement and its spin-offs and successors occupying the growth ideology. There is no reason to grant the wealthy Few and their armies of apologists and advance agents (opinion coordinators) a monopoly patent on the word “growth” to mean expansion of the holy Gross Domestic Product (GDP): quantitative increase in production and output that carries monetary value to investors (with alleged “trickle down” benefits for the rest of us). Human well being and welfare require much more than (and much that is quite different from and even opposed to) enlargement of the amount of production and the consumption that is derived (albeit unequally) from it. As the distinguished Yale University environmentalist James Gustave Speth noted three years ago in his book The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis, “we can and must advance alternative measures of well-being” that do not “worship at the altar of GDP.”
We could advance “growth” indices that measure and value instead qualitative, genuinely happiness-expanding growth in: social connectedness, democratic information, democratic participation, de-hierarchilization, dis-alienation, equality, leisure time, physical health, mental and emotional health, outdoor recreation, economic security, health care, companionship, senior care, child care, social inclusion/tolerance, solidarity, good educations (for life and democracy, not merely for productivity), poverty-reduction/-elimination, social protection, family strength, community stability, and – last but not least – ecological harmony and environmental recovery. We could choose to gauge our growth as safe, democratic, concerned, cooperative, fair, and community-centered, Earth-friendly human beings, not merely as dehumanized agents, profiteers (the Few) or victims (the Many) of cancerous, savagely unjust, and chaotic materialism. Acting on that choice means creating a world turned upside down – beyond the rule of the One Percent and the financialized corporate profits system that the Occupy Movement has rightly identified as the main enemy of justice and democracy at home and abroad.
The pressure on and from business and political elites to keep the quantitative growth safety valve on comes at an unsustainable price, setting up a devil’s choice between jobs and income for proletarianized masses on one hand and livable ecology for humanity (and other living things) on the other hand. The wealthy Few’s reliance on its deadly model of growth to shroud class disparity and keep “populist” sentiments at by is at the heart of How, to use the title of Kempf’s 2007 book, The Rich Are Destroying the Earth. The ruination of a human-supporting environment seems to be nothing less than an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky) for the capitalist elite, which insidiously spends billions of dollars each year on a propaganda war against modern science’s consensus findings and warnings on anthropogenic climate change and related dangers of fossil addiction. The rich themselves do not need to be liquidated and distributed across society, but their wealth and power most certainly do if humanity is going to enjoy a decent, democratic, and desirable future on this glorious but far from endlessly forgiving planet we all inhabit.
This article was originally published by Zcommunications.