This Changes Everything
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Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it.
Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive in this jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face—and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place.
I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit.
I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my “elite” frequent flyer status. A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away.
Or maybe we do look—really look—but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right.
All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit-by-bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.
If we are to curb emissions in the next decade, we need a massive mobilization larger than any in history. We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth.
Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings.
But we need not be spectators in all this: politicians aren’t the only one with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.
Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.
The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change, beyond “mitigating” and “adapting” to it in the grim language of the United Nations. It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.
Finding new ways to privatize the commons and profit from disaster is what our current system is built to do; left to its own devices, it is capable of nothing else.
Many of us are getting a lot better at standing up to those who would cynically exploit crises to ransack the public sphere. And yet these protests have also shown that saying no is not enough. If opposition movements are to do more than burn bright and then burn out, they will need a comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve those goals.
Progressives used to know how to do this. There is a rich populist history of winning big victories for social and economic justice in the midst of large-scale crises. These include, most notably, the policies of the New Deal after the market crash of 1929 and the birth of countless social programs after World War II.
As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.
But before any of these changes can happen—before we can believe that climate change can change us—we first have to stop looking away.
It really is the case that we are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below.
And it’s not just environmentalists who are raising the alarm. The World Bank also warned when it released its report that “we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” And the report cautioned that, “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”
And keep in mind that these are the optimistic scenarios in which warming is more or less stabilized at 4 degrees Celsius and does not trigger tipping points beyond which runaway warming would occur.
They mean, quite simply, that climate change has become an existential crisis for the human species. The only historical precedent for a crisis of this depth and scale was the Cold War fear that we were heading toward nuclear holocaust, which would have made much of the planet uninhabitable.
The vast majority of nuclear scientists never told us that we were almost certainly going to put our civilization in peril if we kept going about our daily lives as usual, doing exactly what we were already doing, which is what the climate scientists have been telling us for years.
And yet rather than responding with alarm and doing everything in our power to change course, large parts of humanity are, quite consciously, continuing down the same road.
What is wrong with us?
Time is tight, to be sure. But we could commit ourselves, tomorrow, to radically cutting our fossil fuel emissions and beginning the shift to zero-carbon sources of energy based on renewable technology, with a full-blown transition underway within the decade. We have the tools to do that. And if we did, the seas would still rise and the storms would still come, but we would stand a much greater chance of preventing truly catastrophic warming.
But we are not stopping the fire. In fact we are dousing it with gasoline. After a rare decline in 2009 due to the financial crisis, global emissions surged by a whopping 5.9 percent in 2010—the largest absolute increase since the Industrial Revolution.
What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.
We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.
When historians look back on the past quarter century of international negotiations, two defining processes will stand out. There will be the climate process: struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals. And there will be the corporate globalization process, zooming from victory to victory: from that first free trade deal to the creation of the World Trade Organization to the mass privatization of the former Soviet economies to the transformation of large parts of Asia into sprawling free-trade zones to the “structural adjusting” of Africa.
What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.
For any of this to change, a worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own neighbours not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention.
Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance.
Can we pull it off? All I know is that nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.
Unless our culture goes through some sort of fundamental shift in its governing values, how do we honestly think we will “adapt” to the people made homeless and jobless by increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters? How will we treat the climate refugees who arrive on our shores in leaky boats? How will we cope as freshwater and food become ever more scarce? We know the answers because the process is already under way. The corporate quest for natural resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be seized to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations, unleashing a new stage of neocolonial plunder layered on top of the most plundered places on earth.
Once self-sufficient rural residents will lose their lands and be urged to move into increasingly crowded urban slums—for their own protection, they will be told. Drought and famine will continue to be used as pretexts to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt.
And rather than recognizing that we owe a debt to migrants forced to flee their lands as a result of our actions (and inactions), our governments will build ever more high-tech fortresses and adopt even more draconian anti-immigration laws. And, in the name of “national security,” we will intervene in foreign conflicts over water, oil, and arable land, or start those conflicts ourselves. In short our culture will do what it is already doing, only with more brutality and barbarism, because that is what our system is built to do.
For a long time, environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor. It was supposed to bring us together. Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further into a society of haves and have-nots, divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather, at least for now, and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.
Put a little more simply: for more than two decades, we kicked the can down the road. During that time, we also expanded the road from a two-lane carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway. That feat was accomplished in large part thanks to the radical and aggressive vision that called for the creation of a single global economy based on the rules of free market fundamentalism, the very rules incubated in the right-wing think tanks now at the forefront of climate change denial.
Meanwhile, denigration of collective action and veneration of the profit motive have infiltrated virtually every government on the planet, every major media organization, every university, our very souls. As that American Geophysical Union survey indicated, somewhere inside each of us dwells a belief in their central lie—that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines. And if we are that, then what hope do we have of taking on the grand, often difficult, collective work that will be required to save ourselves in time? This, without a doubt, is neoliberalism’s single most damaging legacy: the realization of its bleak vision has isolated us enough from one another that it became possible to convince us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth saving.
In short, we have not responded to this challenge because we are locked in—politically, physically, and culturally. Only when we identify these chains do we have a chance of breaking free.
“If the trade rules don’t permit all kinds of important measures to deal with climate change—and they don’t—then the trade rules obviously have to be rewritten. Because there is no way in the world that we can have a sustainable economy and maintain international trade rules as they are. There’s no way at all.”
Indeed the three policy pillars of the neoliberal age—privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending—are each incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels.
In 1965, the concept was so widely accepted among specialists that U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson was given a report from his Science Advisory Committee warning that, “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. … The climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”22 But it wasn’t until James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before a packed congressional hearing on June 23, 1988, that global warming became the stuff of chat shows and political speeches.
That message was so profound, so fundamental, he argued, that it called into question the founding myths of modern Western culture.
In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature—the soil, forest, sea—was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it. The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience.
For this reason and others, the start of 1989 felt to many in the environmental movement like a momentous juncture, as if the thawing of the Cold War and the warming of the planet were together helping to birth a new consciousness, one in which cooperation would triumph over domination, and humility before nature’s complexity would challenge technological hubris.
But if that was the way 1989 began, it would end very differently. In the months that followed, popular uprisings would spread across the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, from Poland to Hungary and finally to East Germany where, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Under the banner “the End of History,” right-wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition, whether socialism, Keynesianism, or deep ecology. They waged a frontal attack on political experimentation, on the idea that there might be viable ways of organizing societies other than deregulated capitalism. Within a decade, all that would be left standing would be their own extreme, pro-corporate ideology.
Simultaneously, that voracious lifestyle would be exported to the middle and upper classes in every corner of the globe.
The victories in the new era would be faster and bigger than almost anyone predicted; and the armies of losers would be left to pick through the ever-growing mountains of methane-spewing waste.
As the free trade system was put in place and producing offshore became the rule, emissions did more than move—they multiplied. As mentioned earlier, before the neoliberal era, emissions growth had been slowing, from 4.5 percent annual increases in the 1960s to about 1 percent a year in the 1990s. But the new millennium was a watershed: between 2000 and 2008, the growth rate reached 3.4 percent a year, shooting past the highest IPCC projections of the day.
In 2009, it dipped due to the financial crisis, but made up for lost time with the historic 5.9 percent increase in 2010 that left climate watchers reeling. (In mid-2014, two decades after the creation of the WTO, the IPCC finally acknowledged the reality of globalization and noted in its Fifth Assessment Report, “A growing share of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions is released in the manufacture of products that are traded across international borders.”)
International trade deals were only one of the reasons that governments embraced this particular model of fast-and-dirty, export-led development, the conditions attached to loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were a major factor. *
Underneath it all is the constant drive for endless economic growth, there is no question that the trade architecture and the economic ideology embedded within it played a central role in sending emissions into hyperdrive.
One of the primary driving forces of the particular trade system designed in the 1980s and 1990s was always to allow multinationals the freedom to scour the globe in search of the cheapest and most exploitable labour force.
B y the end of the 1990s, virtually all roads led to China, a country where wages were extraordinarily low, trade unions were brutally suppressed, and the state was willing to spend seemingly limitless funds on massive infrastructure projects—modern to ensure that the lights stayed on in the factories and the goods made it from the assembly lines onto the container ships on time. A free trader’s dream, in other words—and a climate nightmare.
The same logic that is willing to work labourers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls because it’s the cheapest way to produce.
A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence.
In the past, when workers organized to demand better wages, and when city dwellers organized to demand cleaner air, the companies were pretty much forced to improve both working and environmental standards. That changed with the advent of free trade: thanks to the removal of virtually all barriers to capital flows, corporations could pick up and leave every time labor costs started rising.
So while our clothes, electronics, and furniture may be made in China, the economic model was primarily made in the U.S.A.
The victims in all this are regular people.
The greatest tragedy of all is that so much of this was eminently avoidable. We knew about the climate crisis when the rules of the new trade system were being written.
After all, NAFTA was signed just one year after governments, including the United States, signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio.
The significance of the NAFTA signing was indeed historic, tragically so. Because if the environmental movement had not been so agreeable, NAFTA might have been blocked or renegotiated to set a different kind of precedent. A new trade architecture could have been built that did not actively sabotage the fragile global climate change consensus.
The errors of this period cannot be undone, but it is not too late for a new kind of climate movement to take up the fight against so-called free trade and build this needed architecture now. That doesn’t—and never did—mean an end to economic exchange across borders. It does, however, mean a far more thoughtful and deliberate approach to why we trade and whom it serves.
If we don’t think about how the economy is structured, then we’re actually never going to the real root of the problem.
And all of these constituencies would be needed to fight for these policies, since they represent the reversal of the thirty-year trend of removing every possible limit on corporate power.
W e have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, while failing to place value on those things that most of us cherish above all—a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with one another.
In other words, changing the earth’s climate in ways that will be chaotic and disastrous is easier to accept than the prospect of changing the fundamental, growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism.
Implicit in all of this is a great deal more redistribution, so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet’s capacity. Which is precisely why, when climate change deniers claim that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s also because they are paying attention.
Unlike encouraging energy efficiency, the measures we must take to secure a just, equitable, and inspiring transition away from fossil fuels clash directly with our reigning economic orthodoxy at every level. As we will see, such a shift breaks all the ideological rules—it requires visionary long-term planning, tough regulation of business, higher levels of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the changes they desire. In short, it means changing everything about how we think about the economy so that our pollution doesn’t change everything about our physical world.
But the floods were particularly awkward for the coalition government led by Conservative prime minister David Cameron because, in the three years prior, it had gutted the Environment Agency (EA), which was responsible for dealing with flooding. Since 2009, at least 1,150 jobs had been lost at the agency, with as many as 1,700 more on the chopping block, adding up to approximately a quarter of its total workforce.
Cameron is no climate change denier, which is what made it all the more incredible that he had hobbled the agency responsible for protecting the public from rising waters and more ferocious storms, two well-understood impacts of climate change.
Over the course of the 1970s, there were 660 reported disasters around the world, including droughts, floods, extreme temperature events, wildfires, and storms. In the 2000s, there were 3,322—a fivefold boost.
Yet these are the same three decades in which almost every government in the world has been steadily chipping away at the health and resilience of the public sphere. And it is this neglect that, over and over again, turns natural disasters into unnatural catastrophes.
And with policymakers still locked in the vice grip of austerity logic, these rising emergency expenditures are being offset with cuts to everyday public spending, which will make societies even more vulnerable during the next disaster—a classic vicious cycle.
It’s no mystery where that public money needs to be spent. Much of it should go to the kinds of ambitious emission-reducing projects already discussed—the smart grids, the light rail, the citywide composting systems, the building retrofits, the visionary transit systems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our lives in traffic jams. The private sector is ill suited to taking on most of these large infrastructure investments: if the services are to be accessible, which they must be in order to be effective, the profit margins that attract private players simply aren’t there.
The U.K. under David Cameron has also cut supports for renewable energy.
The fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their core product was warming the planet, and yet they have not only failed to adapt to that reality, they have actively blocked progress at every turn.
These companies are rich, quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto regular people around the world. It is this situation that, most fundamentally, needs to change.
But according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to “renewable and alternative energy ventures.” Instead, they continue to pour their profits into shareholder pockets, outrageous executive pay (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson makes more than $100,000 a day), and new technologies designed to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels.
That means any attempt to tax the extraordinary concentration of wealth at the very top of the economic pyramid, as documented so persuasively by Thomas Piketty among many others, would—if partially channelled into climate financing—effectively make the polluters pay.
This perception of fairness—that one set of rules applies to players big and small—has been entirely missing from our collective responses to climate change thus far. For decades, regular people have been asked to turn off their lights, put on sweaters, and pay premium prices for nontoxic cleaning products and renewable energy—and then watched as the biggest polluters have been allowed to expand their emissions without penalty.
Western governments have responded to these hard times—which have been created by rampant greed and corruption among their wealthiest citizens—by asking those least responsible for the current conditions to bear the burden. After paying for the crisis of the bankers with cuts to education, health care, and social safety nets, is it any wonder that a beleaguered public is in no mood to bail out the fossil fuel companies from the crisis that they not only created but continue to actively worsen?
To fund the kind of social programs that will make a just transition possible, taxes will have to rise for everyone but the poor. But if the funds raised go toward social programs and services that reduce inequality and make lives far less insecure and precarious, then public attitudes toward taxation would very likely shift as well.
But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: it is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share.
And that won’t happen until the corporate liberation project that has shaped our political culture for three and a half decades is buried for good.
If we are to rise to a challenge that involves altering the very foundation our economy, we will need every policy tool in the democratic arsenal.
The mantra of the early ecologists was “everything is connected”—every tree a part of an intricate web of life. The mantra of the corporate-partnered conservationists, in sharp contrast, may as well be “everything is disconnected,” since they have successfully constructed a new economy in which the tree is not a tree but rather a carbon sink used by people thousands of miles away to appease our consciences and maintain our levels of economic growth.
Which helps explain why, in 2012, coal’s share of the U.K.’s electricity production rose by more than 30 percent
Meanwhile, the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism has fared even worse: indeed it has “essentially collapsed,” in the words of a report commissioned by the U.N. itself. “Weak emissions targets and the economic downturn in wealthy nations resulted in a 99 percent decline in carbon credit prices between 2008 and 2013,”
One report found airline companies raked in a windfall of up to $1.8 billion in their first year on the market in 2012. In short, rather than getting the polluters to pay for the mess they have created—a basic principle of environmental justice—taxpayers and ratepayers have heaped cash on them and for a scheme that hasn’t even worked.
At the very least, they demonstrate that seeing the risks climate change poses to financial markets in the long term may not be enough to curtail the temptation to profit from planet destabilization in the short-term.
Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2 billion invested in just two oil giants, BP and ExxonMobil, as of December 2013, and those are only the beginning of his fossil fuel holdings.
“We focus too much on deployment of stuff that we have today,” Gates claims, writing off energy solutions like rooftop solar as “cute” and “noneconomic” (despite the fact that these cute technologies are already providing 25 percent of Germany’s electricity).
Which leaves us with Branson—his pledge, his prize, and his broader vision of voluntarily changing capitalism so that it is in keeping with the laws of “Gaia.
In the years after his climate pledge, Virgin airlines’ greenhouse gas emissions soared by approximately 40 percent.
And it’s not just airplanes. While he has been publicly waging his carbon war, Branson unveiled Virgin Racing to compete in Formula One
He also invested heavily in Virgin Galactic, his own personal dream of launching the first commercial flights into space, for a mere $250,000 per passenger.
It’s just that the Virgin Group decided to follow the basic imperative of capital: grow or die.
Richard Branson got at least one thing right. He showed us the kind of bold model that has a chance of working in the tight time frame left: the profits from our dirtiest industries must be diverted into the grand and hopeful project of cleaning up their mess. But if there is one thing Branson has demonstrated, it is that it won’t happen on a voluntary basis or on the honor system. It will have to be legislated—using the kinds of tough regulations, higher taxes, and steeper royalty rates these sectors have resisted all along.
Post–market crash and amidst ever more sinister levels of inequality, most of us have come to realize that the oligarchs who were minted by the era of deregulation and mass privatization are not, in fact, going to use their vast wealth to save the world on our behalf. Yet our faith in techno wizardry persists, embedded inside the superhero narrative that at the very last minute our best and brightest are going to save us from disaster.
If we respond to a global crisis caused by our pollution with more pollution—by trying to fix the crud in our lower atmosphere by pumping a different kind of crud into the stratosphere—then geoengineering might do something far more dangerous than tame the last vestiges of “wild” nature. It may cause the earth to go wild in ways we cannot imagine, making geoengineering not the final engineering frontier, another triumph to commemorate on the walls of the Royal Society, but the last tragic act in this centuries-long fairy tale of control.
“You can test a vaccine on one person, putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk.” But with geoengineering, “You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation.” In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs—for years. Which is why science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes “untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief.”
The central concern with geoengineering fixes to global warming is that the cure could be worse than the disease.”
Does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater risk of extreme weather?
Rob Nixon, an author and University of Wisconsin English professor, has evocatively described the brutality of climate change as a form of “slow violence”; geoengineering could well prove to be a tool to significantly speed that up.
If geoengineering were ever deployed, it would almost surely be in an atmosphere of collective panic with scarce time for calm deliberation.
This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible opposition melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable. It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change.
If we sign on to this plan and call it stewardship, we effectively give up on the prospect of ever being healthy again. The earth—our life support system—would itself be put on life support, hooked up to machines 24/7 to prevent it from going full-tilt monster on us.
Building a livable world isn’t rocket science; it’s far more complex than that.”
Corporations that either dig up fossil fuels or that, like car companies, are responsible for a disproportionate share of their combustion, have a long track record of promoting geoengineering as a response to climate change, one that they clearly see as preferable to stopping their pollution.
We don’t need to concern ourselves too much with geo-engineering for the future, we just need to stop getting fossil fuels out of the ground today.”
To fail to exercise those options—which is exactly what we are collectively doing—knowing full well that eventually the failure could force government to rationalize “risking” turning whole nations, even subcontinents, into sacrifice zones, is a decision our children may judge as humanity’s single most immoral act.
“The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behavior.” And worst of all, it tells us that, “should the fix fail, we have someplace else to go.”
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made.
Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.
No place, it seems, is off limits, and no extractive activity has set its sights on more new land than hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
The endgame, according to Republican politician Rick Santorum, is to “drill everywhere”—and adds up to about half the entire island. And in July 2013, residents of the northeast of England were enraged to hear their region described as “uninhabited and desolate” in the House of Lords—and therefore eminently deserving of sacrifice.
How is it possible that the state, instead of protecting me from this attack, is sending police to beat up people whose only crime is trying to protect their families?
In 1776, Tom Paine wrote in his rabble-rousing pamphlet Common Sense, “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.”48 Well, the distance is closing, and soon enough no one will be safe from the sorrow of ecocide.
But in the era of extreme energy, there is no longer the illusion of discreet sacrifice zones anymore. As Deeohn Ferris, formerly with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, aptly put it, “we’re all in the same sinking boat, only people of color are closest to the hole.”
Two centuries of pretending that we could quarantine the collateral damage of this filthy habit, fobbing the risks off on others, the game is up, and we are all in the sacrifice zone now.
In a sane world, this cluster of disasters, layered on top of the larger climate crisis, would have prompted significant political change. Caps and moratoriums would have been issued, and the shift away from extreme energy would have begun.The fact that nothing of the sort has happened, and that permits and leases are still being handed out for ever more dangerous extractive activities, is at least partly due to old-fashioned corruption—of both the legal and illegal varieties.
When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No safety pledge will assuage; no bribe will be big enough.
In other words, extreme energy demands that we destroy a whole lot of the essential substance we need to survive—water—just to keep extracting more of the very substances threatening our survival and that we can power our lives without.
We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need.
Put another way, a broken bank is a crisis we can fix; a broken Arctic we cannot.
Under mounting pressure, the World Bank as well as other large international funders have announced that they will no longer offer financing to coal projects except in exceptional circumstances, which could turn out to be a severe blow to the industry if other financiers follow suit.
What has changed in China in recent years—and what is of paramount concern to the ruling party—is that the country’s elites, the wealthy winners in China’s embrace of full-throttle capitalism, are increasingly distressed by the costs of industrialization.
These victories add up: they have kept uncountable millions of tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
The divestment campaign is based on the idea—outlined so compellingly by Bill McKibben—that anyone with a basic grasp of arithmetic can look at how much carbon the fossil fuel companies have in their reserves, subtract how much carbon scientists tell us we can emit and still keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and conclude that the fossil fuel companies have every intention of pushing the planet beyond the boiling point.
“What the fossil fuel divestment movement is saying to companies is your fundamental business model of extracting and burning carbon is going to create an uninhabitable planet. So you need to stop. You need a new business model,”
In fact, current trade and investment rules provide legal grounds for foreign corporations to fight virtually any attempt by governments to restrict the exploitation of fossil fuels, particularly once a carbon deposit has attracted investment and extraction has begun. And when the aim of the investment is explicitly to export the oil, gas, and coal and sell it on the world market—as is increasingly the case—successful campaigns to block those exports could well be met with similar legal challenges, since imposing “quantitative restrictions” on the free flow of goods across borders violates a fundamental tenet of trade law.
And it certainly doesn’t help that many of our governments seem determined to hand out even more lethal legal weapons in the form of new and expanded trade deals, which companies, in turn, will use against governments’ own domestic laws.
Put another way, the real problem is not that trade deals are allowing fossil fuel companies to challenge governments, it’s that governments are not fighting back against these corporate challenges. And that has far less to do with any individual trade agreement than it does with the profoundly corrupted state of our political systems.
Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.
Like the trees, soil, rocks, and clay that the industry’s machines scrape up, masticate, and pile into great slag heaps, democracy is getting torn into rubble too, chewed up and tossed aside to make way for the bulldozers.
The interests of financial capital and the oil industry are much more important than the democratic will of people around the world. In the global neoliberal society profit is more important than life.”
Indeed, the failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.
In short, dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation. There can be no more green museums because the fossil fuels runaway train is coming for us one way or another.
The overriding principle must be to address the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.
Developed countries, which represent less than 20 percent of the world’s population, have emitted almost 70 percent of all the greenhouse gas pollution that is now destabilizing the climate.
For instance, India still has roughly 300 million people living without electricity. Does it have the same degree of responsibility to cut its emissions as, say, Britain, which has been accumulating wealth and emitting industrial levels of carbon dioxide ever since James Watt introduced his successful steam engine in 1776?
The right, as usual, understands this better than the left, which is why the climate change denial crowd consistently claims that global warming is a socialist conspiracy to redistribute wealth.
There is, however, much that can be done in the industrialized north to help tip the balance of forces toward a model of development that does not rely on endless growth and dirty fuels. Fighting the pipelines and export terminals that would send fossil fuels to Asia is one piece of the puzzle. So is battling new free-trade deals, reining in our own overconsumption, and sensibly relocalizing our economies, since plenty of the carbon China is burning is going toward making useless stuff for us.
It was planet-warming coal that powered the textile mills and sugar refineries in Manchester and London that needed to be fed with ever more raw cotton and sugarcane from the colonies, most of it harvested by slave labor.
When the British Parliament ruled to abolish slavery in its colonies in 1833, it pledged to compensate British slave owners for the loss of their human property. This led to payouts that represented a staggering 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual spending budget. Much of that money went directly into the coal-powered infrastructure of the now roaring Industrial Revolution—from factories to railways to steamships. These, in turn, were the tools that took colonialism to a markedly more rapacious stage, with the scars still felt to this day.
Wealthy countries do not just need to help the Global South move to a low-emissions economic path because it’s the right thing to do. We need to do it because our collective survival depends on it.
With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.
At some point about seven years ago, I realized that I had become so convinced that we were headed toward a grim ecological collapse that I was losing my capacity to enjoy my time in nature. The more beautiful and striking the experience, the more I found myself grieving its inevitable loss.
Indeed one of the most distressing impacts of the way in which our industrial activities affect the natural world is that they are interfering with systems at the heart of the earth’s fertility cycles, from soil to precipitation.
It suddenly dawned on me that I was indeed part of a vast biotic community, and it was a place where a great many of us—humans and nonhuman alike—found ourselves engaged in an uphill battle to create new living beings.
More than three quarters of the mass-produced chemicals in the United States have never been tested for their impacts on fetuses or children.
We have a global agricultural model that has succeeded in making it illegal for farmers to engage in the age-old practice of saving seeds, the building blocks of life, so that new seeds have to be repurchased each year. And we have a global energy model that values fossil fuels over water, where all life begins and without which no life can survive.
This is the one-two punch of an economy built on fossil fuels: lethal when extraction goes wrong and the interred carbon escapes at the source; lethal when extraction goes right and the carbon is successfully released into the atmosphere.
In species after species, climate change is creating pressures that are depriving life-forms of their most essential survival tool: the ability to create new life and carry on their genetic lines.
Indeed it was only once humans came up with the lethal concept of the earth as an inert machine and man its engineer, that some began to forget the duty to protect and promote the natural cycles of regeneration on which we all depend.
Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners.
To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.
What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be. Climate change is our chance to right those festering wrongs at last—the unfinished business of liberation.
It must always be remembered that the greatest barrier to humanity rising to meet the climate crisis is not that it is too late or that we don’t know what to do. It is that we are afraid—with good reason—that our political class is wholly incapable of seizing those tools and implementing those plans, since doing so involves unlearning the core tenets of the stifling free-market ideology that governed every stage of their rise to power.
And it’s not just the people we vote into office and then complain about—it’s us.
The end of the world as we know it, after all, is not something anyone should have to face on their own.
Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.
But we will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game—arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation.
We do know that a warming world will, sadly, provide no shortage of potential sparks. The world tends to look a little different when the objects we have worked our whole lives to accumulate are suddenly floating down the street, or smashed to pieces, turned to garbage.
It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.
“History knocked on your door, did you answer?” That’s a good question, for all of us.