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Changing the Political Climate

John Tarleton Nov 19, 2012

The Consolidated Edison substation that lit up the Manhattan sky so spectacularly on the night Hurricane Sandy arrived is a part of a massive, hulking power plant complex that has been sealed to all car and foot traffic since the 9/11 attacks.

In 2001 the nearby exit from FDR Drive was closed, and the east end of 14th Street was abruptly terminated with a chain-link fence at Avenue C, roughly a quarter-mile from the freeway.

When I lived in the East Village, I rode by the power plant many times on my bike, often stopping to stare up at the four giant smokestacks that loom high over the surrounding neighborhood. Under the prevailing norms of post-9/11 life, such precautions to thwart a possible terrorist attack seemed sensible.

Now, of course, we know that it was the ocean, supercharged by global warming, that was coming for Con Edison’s power plant — not Al Qaeda.

The same goes for our wounded subway system, which saw many miles of track submerged by the storm and will likely require many months and billions of dollars to fully repair.

Protecting the subways from terrorists has been central to counterterrorism efforts in New York City, amid fears stoked in part by the 2004 arrest of the “Herald Square bomber.” The suspect, Shahawar Matin Siraj,
was goaded and guided at every step by a New York Police Department informant until the government was ready to scoop him up. He was sent to prison for 30 years.

World Trade Center 1 (the “Freedom Tower”) has been rebuilt with special blast-proof materials and will be the most heavily guarded building in the country when it finally opens. None of this spared the World Trade Center reconstruction site itself from the surging seas that poured down West Street and filled the lower level of the site with millions of gallons of salt water. Port Authority officials are still assessing the situation. According to Crain’s New York Business, the flooding “could potentially cause costly damage to equipment and electrical systems at the multibillion-dollar construction project.”

What happens when more powerful storms occur in the future?

For the past 11 years, we’ve been told that no effort or expense should be spared in the War on Terror lest “they” strike the “homeland” again. Combined spending on the military and domestic security agencies now approaches a trillion dollars per year.

Climate scientists first informed politicians in the late 1980s about the threats posed by growing levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have continued to climb each year. Scientists warn that, as temperatures rise, we are approaching a tipping point after which runaway global warming will destabilize life as we know it.

According to Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurance firms, the number of “weather-related loss events” in North America has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades.

In the past year, we have seen the hottest annual temperature in U.S. history, record melting of the Arctic ice cap, a summer drought that affected 80 percent of farmland in the Midwest and the Great Plains and now Sandy. This follows 332 consecutive months, dating back to March 1985, in which average global monthly temperatures have been higher than the overall 20th-century average.

Yet nothing changes, as the oil and gas industries go on reaping many billions of dollars in profits.

Faced with projections of more climate chaos in the decades ahead, both major-party presidential candidates ignored climate change throughout the campaign. Instead, they advocated an all-out assault on untapped fossil fuel resources from upstate New York to the Arctic Sea (see page 10).

It has been convenient for politicians and the corporate media to fix the public’s attention on small bands of scary Islamic extremists on the other side of the world. But the real danger lies much closer to home.

In one sense, the threat is in the changing physics and chemistry of the planet — warmer ocean waters, higher levels of moisture in the atmosphere, melting icecaps — but those are merely symptoms. The real threat lies in the fossil fuel industries that will, if unfettered, lock us permanently into a dirty-energy future that will fry the planet — and a capitalist system that rewards the short-term profiteering of the few at the expense of the many as well as of the natural world.

If “green capitalism” is possible, let’s see it soon. However, to have a viable future, it increasingly looks like we will have to make a more dramatic shift to an environmentally centered democratic socialism — yes, the S-word — that places key sectors of the economy under public control, enacts a green deal, places a new emphasis on local and regional economies, gives people dignified jobs, promotes participatory democracy and makes a decisive break with the capitalist ideology of economic growth at all costs. Otherwise, we can expect planetary ecosystems to unravel further as we descend into a world in which desperate battles are fought over dwindling resources amid widespread social disintegration.

System change or climate change? That will be our fundamental choice in the decades ahead. Conventional political wisdom says the former is impossible. But the rapidly changing environment we live in suggests it’s essential — and that we fail to make it happen at our peril.