Where is America’s Will to Combat Global Warming?
Richard Gale & Gary Null
Progressive Radio Network, June 17, 2019
At this very moment, exceptional climatic and environmental events are underway across the planet. Greenhouse gas emissions have already passed the 440 ppb threshold and continue to climb towards the 2 degree Celsius benchmark sooner rather than later. The Catch 22 is that carbon emissions and severe climate-related catastrophes are increasing simultaneously. Extreme events such as droughts and floods demand more energy. Hotter days require more air conditioning while colder days demand more heating. Consequently, emissions rose 2 percent in 2018, the highest increase almost a decade.
During the past couple months, all of South and Southeast Asia has experienced blistering record-breaking heatwaves. In May, India’s town of Phalodi hit 123.9 degrees Fahrenheit causing relentless water shortages and deaths from heatstroke. Villages have been forced to go without drinking water for days.
In the US, there have has been an unprecedented swam of tornadoes: over 900 since the start of this year. During a two week period in May, approximately 200 ripped through states from New Jersey to Texas. Likewise massive flooding devastating farmlands across mid-western states, from North Dakota to Louisiana, is being reported as the new “face of climate change” by the University Of Notre Dame. These trends provide sound evidence to confirm a recent Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research observation that the warming Arctic is directly impacting alterations in the jet stream current over the Northern Hemisphere and giving rise to extreme cold spells and heatwaves in the lower latitudes.
If this is not fearful enough, reports about conditions in the Arctic, Greenland and the Antarctic are becoming more dire. The University of Leeds measured Antarctic ice thinning at a terrifying rate. Half of the remaining glaciers will be gone well before the end of the century, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland. In the US, the loss of its remaining glaciers will be more rapid. It was established long ago that glacial loss will create extreme water stress for hundreds of millions of people, alter weather patterns and further contribute to sea level rise.
In May, a study published in the journal Nature warned of the rapid thawing of the northern climes permafrost. The threat has been largely ignored because it was perceived earlier as a crisis in the distant future. The paper out of the University of Guelph in Ontario, noted that a collapse of the tundra and the release of tons of methane would “transform the landscape in mere months through subsidence, flooding and landslides.” Scientists at Woods Hole Research Center predicted that the warming of Alaska is occurring so rapidly that “The numbers [of people] needing relocation will grow, the costs are going up, and people’s lives and cultural practices will be impacted.” And at this very moment 45 percent of Greenland’s massive ice sheet is melting, an enormous increase from the 10 percent melt that is normal at this time of year.
Entire ecosystems, primarily huge tracts of forested lands, are also toppling faster than predicted. That same month the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services assessment of extinction rates was announced. The study was based upon an analytical review of 15,000 scientific papers. The report concludes that nature is globally declining at rates never before witnessed while humans have inhabited the earth. About a million animal and plant species now face extinction within the next couple decades due to humanity’s adverse impact on the environment.
All of these reports and events should have made top headline news. But they didn’t. We are being told endlessly that there is time to correct and mitigate the climate threats. But as climate journalist Robert Hunziker remarks, where is the leadership to spearhead the necessary corrections to our economic system and way of life? Aside from the approximately 17 million educated Americans in the professional class who are intellectually capable of tackling the climate problem to devise solutions, only a small circle are not distracted by lower priorities. A larger faction, who are fully aware of global warming’s immediate threats, such as Al Gore and other neoliberals, will only promote solutions that will benefit them personally and as long as the fixes do not interfere with their energy consumption, lifestyle and behaviors. As a result, effective solutions seem to remain far off into the future. If this is the case, then it might be game over as the debate continues to wage between a utopian ideal for change versus our dystopian reality.
The government and mainstream media have strong incentives to make every effort to convince the public that there is no reason to be deeply bothered by these unfolding events; unless, of course, you are a victim of extreme weather. The corporate media, at the behest of its private industrial sponsors, is every bit complicit in promulgating rampant climate change denial as is the Trump White House. The billionaires in Silicon Valley, and their legions of tech-savvy clones couldn’t give a damn about the destruction of the planet. Rather they bank on a techno-fantasia scenario to leave the planet and colonize the Moon, Mars or somewhere in another star system. It is easy to point fingers at the Republican Party, the Koch Brothers and their network of militant Libertarians and GOP supporters, and the fossil fuel and agro-chemical giants. Nevertheless a third of the corporate-entrenched Democrats campaigning for the White House, including Biden, do not make the climate a top priority. The situation is worse among other Democrat leaders in the legislative branch who are not running.
Public calls for a drastic reinvestment of the national budget to prepare for a climate meltdown, we are told, would thoroughly upset the balance of economic power and commerce upon which the nation’s GDP and corporate globalization depends. Federal budgeting must be diverted away from the military complex — which only further fragments and destabilizes the world — and financial protections, incentives and subsidies provided to those industries contributing most to the climate crisis and be reinvested in a Green Marshall Plan or a Green New Deal. Unfortunately, these radical, albeit necessary, solutions are marginalized as idealist dreams. None of them are being taken seriously enough to be introduced into legislative committees and boardrooms for honest and genuine deliberation. And it may be a losing proposition. More than 200 of the largest corporations estimate a $1 trillion in expenditures and losses directly due to climate change within the next five years. A report released by the Carbon Disclosure Project credits this corporate loss to a negligent undermining of the impacts climate change will have on business and economic growth.
Estimated costs for the proposed New Green Deal, or any other viable solution, vary enormously and are basically divided between capitalist forces of corporate interests and those sensitive to the high probability of cultural and environmental collapse. On the capitalist side represented by Wall Street, the Koch Brothers and their corporate allies, Fortune magazine estimates are as a high as $93 trillion. More liberal estimates range between $8-12 trillion. The conflict is that the status quo of the financial sector is motivated solely by investing in industries where there is the greatest growth potential and highest return, and that continues to be oil, natural gas, war, and more recently the 5G technology roll out that will also extremely energy-intensive and further accelerate climate change.
Furthermore, the power and coffers of corporate lobbying is derailing any attempts to address the crisis. The fossil fuel and agricultural industries’ armies of lobbyists are the most aggressive. Then there are many other unsustainable industries dependent upon the energy provided by oil and natural gas to keep production churning. A joint study out of the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara determined that the polarized disconnect between what needs to be done and what is actually being accomplished is largely due to the success of lobbying efforts to assure obstacles impede policy action. Perhaps the most glaring example was opposition to the 2009-2010 Waxman-Markey Bill or the American Clean Energy and Security Act, regarded as potentially the most effective bill to date. Private industry spent over $700 million to lobby against it. The Chicago study found that the amount spent by companies was proportional to how much they were anticipated to gain or lose on the stock market.
Environmentalists and climate experts throughout the world recognize our fossil fuel driven civilization is the harbinger of global ecocide. It is no longer simply the oil and natural gas, coal and hydrofracking corporations who are solely responsible for climate change’s acceleration. Our entire economy of product consumption is petroleum based, from plastic bottles to agriculture, petrochemical feedstocks, the asphalt covering 164,000 miles of major US highways, waxes and nylon, from paints to lipstick and nail polish, roofing and water pipes, and even the hundreds of billions of capsules used for pharmaceutical drugs. The list is endless. Plastic pollution alone has increased 10 times during the past four decades. Postmodern culture literally swims in a cesspool of oil-based and energy-intensive products, GMO frankenfoods and conveniences reliant upon fossil fuels. We see, touch, taste and smell fossil fuels repeatedly. Aside from extreme weather events, we often fail to notice the immediacy and rate of the dramatic changes underway that will touch upon every aspect of our lives. As a civilization, we are a corporate Oil R Us.
The food on our dining table carries a history of greenhouse gas release. So do our mobile phones, computers, jeans and sneakers, etc. Our agro-chemical industry, and the junk food culture that relies upon it, dramatically contribute to the acceleration of global warming and reduces one of the critical stopgaps for slowing it down. Nearly 75 percent of the planet’s freshwater resources, over a third of the world’s land surface, are now dedicated to the agricultural and animal livestock industries. This has contributed to accelerating land degradation. Land productivity has declined by 23 percent at a time when the global human population growth rate is rising 1.1 percent annually, or by 83 million people. Consequently a little under one billion people are facing food insecurity in Asia and Africa alone. And there is no sign of this trend abating; a Greenpeace International analysis published this month estimated that another 50 million hectares of forests — 123 million acres or a roughly the size of Spain — will be destroyed by 2020. The major corporations leading this charge to level forests include General Mills, IKEA, Johnson and Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Nestles, PepsiCo, Proctor and Gamble and Unilever.
According to a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research report, one third of greenhouse gas emissions originate from our industrial agricultural system. Nitrogenous fertilizers substantially increase nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the atmospheric warming power as CO2. Although the air we breathe is 80% nitrogen, plants cannot use it. Instead plants require nitrogen in the form of nitrates, which is scarce except in fertile, bioactive soil. Therefore the depletion of organic soil from over herbicide and pesticide use requires nitrate rich fertilizers for plant and crop growth. Moreover, nutrient-rich bioactive soil produced by organic regenerative agriculture will sequester atmospheric CO2 thereby reducing global warming. Barren, lifeless soil on the other hand is incapable of sequestering CO2. Therefore, our modern agricultural system is utterly contrary on every level for future, sustainable food security. A dramatic and urgent shift away from the industrial model to adopt organic, no-till, crop covered farming methods will greatly increase our land’s capacity to sequester CO2, which one of the few solutions in our arsenal to slow global warming. At the same time yields and foods rich with phytonutrients and minerals will increase thereby assuring healthier produce as more and more arable lands are threatened by extreme drought and rains as climate change continues.
All of these trends are being steered by Wall Street, multinational corporations and the politicians private interests have bribed to allow business to proceed as usual.
Although Clinton’s 44-point plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was ineffective, expensive and largely a cop-out to placate America’s largest industrial polluters–neither Clinton nor Bush and Obama after him agreed to ratify the 1992 UN Kyoto Protocol which would have forced nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions based upon scientific consensus instead of private interests.
In a 2015 interview on Vox media then President Obama got it right. Climate change, the President said, affects far more people than terrorism. On other matters, Obama was dead wrong, such as undermining the 2009 Copenhagen climate accord and “lobbying” on behalf of American private energy interests to weaken the Paris agreement. Obama played the card of political correctness; at the time, a Pew Research Center survey found 76% of Americans still believed terrorism was our greatest threat and should be our nation’s top national security policy.
Aside from the many warranted criticisms leveled against international climate summits, the failure of the US to sign on to even these treaties with all their shortcomings is a harsh warning. It should convince us that as a nation, there is no national incentive to confront climate change head on and matters will worsen. So too will the amount of socio-economic devastation from increasing weather events that will destroy the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Environmentalists demand that we must transition to clean renewable energies immediately. But technology itself, including “green” technologies such as solar power and wind turbines, also rely upon resources that leave a carbon footprint. We therefore need to be very honest with ourselves and weigh the options carefully. Solar panels require the use of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium, copper, gallium, sliver, tellurium and other metals. Wind turbines require steel alloys, nickel, chromium, aluminum and manganese. Most of these metals require heavy mining, and all mining operations rely upon fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases. Mining also contributes to ecological depletion of trees, flora and advances soil degradation. For sure, technologies will buy time. But none of alternative energies being voiced the loudest are the silver bullets to slam on the breaks of accelerated warming altogether. Perhaps one of the only promising solutions is an enormous scaling back on progress and development, which follows the old 1970s mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” But such a policy is completely contradictory to the entire neoliberal economic machine that fuels corporate globalization and expanding markets. In short, climate change and the environment are moral issues, and free market capitalism, according to Jerry Mander and founder of the International Forum on Globalization, is fundamentally amoral and without any human value other than currency.
There are so many criminal defendants in finance, industry, politics and the mainstream media responsible for our climate catastrophes who are determined to keep the fossil fuel economy alive. In July 2017 the Climate Accountability Institute and its partners released a report charging only 100 corporations as being responsible for 71% of all global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. If our governments were in fact democratic and possessed any integrity, these firms would be held responsible for untold damage done to the environment, towns and communities and families.
“The ecocidal narrative,” writes the Norwegian environmental economist and psychologist Per Espen Stokness, “says that people, governments, or corporations that irresponsibly kill off species or forests, or endanger climate stability are committing crimes against humanity.” There are numerous environmental crimes being committed throughout the world. Rather than restricting these activities to decrease them, they are hastened to meet the demand for consumer greed and consumption. The annihilation of the rain forests in Papua New Guinea and the Amazon, the northern Boreal forests, massive strip mining for phosphates in Indonesia and rare earth metals across Africa, the orgy of logging wherever trees remain standing, the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta are only a few of many ecocidal examples at a time when the science unequivocally concludes these same activities must cease if there is any chance of survival.
Finally, we need to look at how the government, private industries and the media have framed the climate crisis in order to capture the climate narrative and perpetuate either climate denialism or to undermine its urgency. Today, only about 3 percent of Americans can be said to live a very healthy lifestyle, including being conscientiously aware of their carbon footprint. That leaves the remaining 97 percent of Americans still addicted to doing stupid things. In Franny Armstrong’s British documentary The Age of Stupid, the point is driven home that as a species we are obsessed to remain ignorant and dumb about our human predicament. Our habits, which represent the worst of our media’s corporate sponsors, are enabling our pollution regime to destroy the lungs of the planet in order to create more space to grow genetically modified crops and raise livestock. In China it is worse as a massive urban blueprint is underway to construct a mega-city combining three provinces to accommodate over 400 million citizens. It is difficult to wrap our minds around the enormity of this project after considering the world’s largest greater metropolitan city Tokyo is home for 38 million and New York City a mere 8.6 million. When the astronomical energy needs to sustain such a megalopolis is added to the equation — power and electricity, food, transportation, concrete and asphalt, etc. — it will become the single largest polluter on the planet.
Fortunately, the majority of Americans now regard global warming as a very real problem, 70% according to a 2016 Yale University survey. Groups such as the more radicalized Democrat faction supporting the New Green Deal, Zero Hour, the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, and a more unified global Green Party are constructive signs that will heighten public awareness. Nevertheless the public still perceives climate change as too impersonal, distant, and unlikely to have any immediate impact upon their lives and financial well being. Most continue to believe that aside from the weather getting hotter or wetter, their lives will not change substantially. Only 41 percent believe they will be personally affected by extreme climate events. Despite growing public concerns, almost nothing has changed in Washington to tackle an overheating planet. A recent 2019 Yale University survey of 29 national concerns found that climate change was dead last for conservative Republicans and third for progressive Democrats. Centrist Democrats, who comprise the majority of the party, place the climate seventh.
Clearly our political polarization has a long ways to go before we will witness any truly constructive and hopeful effort to transition away from fossil fuels and increase taxes on industries that rely upon them most heavily. We would suggest that investments in the most polluting industries and corporations be equally taxed extra. In the meantime, temperatures are now consistently breaking record highs annually and this may alarm and reinforce climate change acceptance. If we can understand more deeply how climate change will directly disrupt our lives, our health, and our purses, then it might trigger our determination to make the necessary changes in our lives so that we are not contributors to the problems, but rather find ourselves as part of the solution. Hopefully, it will also dramatically change our political landscape and oust our elected officials shilling for the corporate regime
We can no longer seek comfort in being complacent and ignorant about the gradual decay and death of the planet’s ecosystems and resources. These are not unusual or freak coincidences that climate deniers would like us to believe. Rarely do we give thought about the deeper causal factors that point directly back to our individual and societal behaviors. Winters start later; spring arrives earlier. Prolonged rainfalls and extreme weather incidents are perceived as mere aberrations, as are months of excessive heat and drought. Scientists are fond of saying this is the new “normal” just as the mainstream media would have us believe that obesity and a shorter life span are new norms as well. But life continues. We passively accept the adverse changes subtlety affecting our lives. Assimilation and adaptation to inimical change is far easier and more comforting than waking up from our ignorance or denial of life-threatening problems. People simply say, “that was a weird year” or “the weather has been very strange lately,” and assume everything will return to a median range the following year. Everything is supposedly cyclic, right? This is what the Big Polluters, the media and White House would like us to believe. But the earlier years of “normalcy” don’t reappear. Each year witnesses new record-breaking weather events at home and elsewhere in the world. And the trend is picking up steam and there is no sign of a viable leadership, with rare exceptions, for Americans to put their faith in.