Conversion to Renewable Energy is Going Too Slow to Avoid Catastrophe
By John Lawrence – This is the sixth and final part of this series. Part 5 can be found here.
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, debunks the idea that all we have to do is to cooperate with the extractive industries and urge them to get greener. We do not have to go to extremes, but can phase in renewable sources of energy gradually. The gradualist approach is the essence of green capitalism. This will not work Klein says:
[The] bottom line is … our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. 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.
The gradualists are the ones that insist that our response to global warming can be painless, that we don’t need a “war on carbon”, that we can coexist and cooperate with the fossil fuel extractive industries, that we can gradually phase out fossil fuels and phase in renewables in such a way that job creation remains constant in the switchover and ExxonMobil’s and Koch Industry’s stock values need not plummet.
This is from Politically Fashionable Carbon Gradualism vs. Reality by Michael Hoexter:
The carbon gradualist ideal contained within the idea of carbon pricing as the leading edge of energy transformation is not simply born out of too studious acceptance of neoclassical economics’ worldview but also out of the fantasy of a non-disruptive, non-wrenching transition from a fossil fuel run economy to one that is run entirely on renewable energy and perhaps some as yet undiscovered nuclear energy. Politicians and political actors are not eager to join the fight against the fossil fuel industry as well as confronting our societies’ fossil fuel and “cheap” energy addiction overall. The notion that there must exist a gradual transition away from fossil fuels is preferable to a sharp turning away from them because of the consequence that political leaders would have to stage a bitter fight with fossil fuel interests, and would need to fight to assume, in most cases, complete regulatory control over the fossil fuel industry.
There is no gradual way to change over from fossil fuels to renewables without experiencing the disastrous effects of extreme weather events, droughts, food and water shortages and all the rest. The changeover must be abrupt and disruptive in order to forestall the worse effects of global warming.
It’s not going to be easy to get Americans in particular to renounce a way of life that goes back to the founding of the United States at least. As recently as 2007, Americans, when asked to rank their political concerns in order of priority, ranked climate change last. They are more concerned about having good paying jobs which the extractive industries in a steady march of TV ads keep promising if only the American people will get behind them.
Additionally, the promise of US energy independence from foreign oil if only we continue fracking, mining and drilling is an enticement that appeals to our sense of patriotism, and one that Americans have only recently started to relish. Now in order to combat global warming, Americans are being asked to give up jobs, energy independence and a whole way of life, really, in order to leave untapped wealth in the ground. Many are not buying it, and the extractive industries are going all out in order to insure that the American people will not buy it.
Climate Change Deniers Not Ready to Give Up on Capitalism
The Heartland Institute is one of the institutions devoted to climate change denial. They fear that what is necessary in the war on carbon that environmentalists are advocating is a back door to socialism.
The call for mass transit and high density affordable housing near transit terminals is the antithesis of the free market alternatives they advocate. And forget about subsidizing poor countries in their efforts to create a middle class without polluting the planet in the process.
Conservatives will fight efforts to combat global warming because those efforts presuppose lifestyles that they are ideologically opposed to, namely, lifestyles not dependent on greed as a motivator and competition as an economic stimulus or even a market based economy in which GDP growth is the sine qua non of American government policy.
A return to local economies, cooperative endeavors and self-subsistence is a reversal, a regression, if you will, to an economy that existed 100 years ago and gradually disappeared with the urbanization of the middle class.
Heartland regular James Delingpole has said, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.”
Heartland president Joseph Bast is even more blunt: “Climate change is the perfect thing … It’s the reason we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”
They can’t fathom the enormity of abandoning the American way of life in order to pursue what they consider a will-o’-the-wisp because the implications of that reality are just plain unthinkable for them.
The network of climate change deniers is fueled by millions of dollars from US billionaires. A February 2013 report in the Guardian revealed that they had donated $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change … the ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.”
From The Age of Disbelief in National Geographic:
Last fall the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which consists of hundreds of scientists operating under the auspices of the United Nations, released its fifth report in the past 25 years. This one repeated louder and clearer than ever the consensus of the world’s scientists: The planet’s surface temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years, and human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels, are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the warming since the mid-20th century.
Many people in the United States—a far greater percentage than in other countries—retain doubts about that consensus or believe that climate activists are using the threat of global warming to attack the free market and industrial society generally. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the most powerful Republican voices on environmental matters, has long declared global warming a hoax.
The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another. It’s very clear, however, that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.
Some Environmental Organizations Not So Green After All
In the old days (in the 1800s) as many as a million Attwater’s prairie chickens made their homes along the Texas and Louisiana coast. But as “progress” ensued and the oil and gas industry took over those areas, Attwater’s prairie chickens started to vanish. A major environmental group, The Nature Conservancy, the richest environmental organization in the world, sought to do something about Attwater’s poor, endangered prairie chicken.
As luck would have it, in 1995 Mobil Oil announced that it was donating land where the Attwater’s chicken nested to The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
For all appearances this was a successful cooperative effort between a major oil company and a major environmental group, and hopes for Attwater’s chicken ran extremely high. It was going to be a “top priority” to keep them from going extinct.
Then in 1999, The Nature Conservancy did something that was a major disconnect for nature lovers in general and for fans of Attwater’s prairie chicken in particular. They commissioned an oil and gas operator to drill a new gas well inside the preserve, the rationale being that with the money so gained from the project, they would be able to do even more good work to save the environment although Attwater’s prairie chickens would be given short shrift in the process.
They had done the very thing that its supporters and members thought they were there to prevent. They started making money by extracting fossil fuels from the preserve. The spot where they authorized drilling turned out to be very close to where the endangered birds nested.
In 2002 the LA Times exposed the drilling. For traditional conservationists this was a little like finding out that the ACLU had sponsored the building of a new prison complex. “They’re exploiting the Attwater’s prairie chiken to make money,” exclaimed Clait E Braun, a leading expert on prairie chickens.
Of course The Nature Conservancy maintained that they could do their drilling without harming in any way the Attwater’s chicken. They managed to sound like any other fossil fuel extracting company. While claiming to protect the environment, they ended up exploiting it to make money.
Although TNC is a non-profit, that doesn’t mean that its management and officers aren’t profiting handsomely in terms of their salaries. It just means that at the end of the year, there’s no money left over that the government might consider to be profits.
TNC, seeing the error of its ways, announced that they wouldn’t do any new drilling, but that did not mean that they wouldn’t continue to extract gas and make a profit on the gas well it had already drilled in the Texas nature reserve. To this day they are still doing it even after the story broke that caused considerable outrage much to the detriment of the beleaguered Attwater’s prairie chicken.
The Demise of Attwater’s Prairie Chicken
And then the unthinkable happened. In November 2012 the Attwater’s prairie chicken went extinct. The whole purpose of the Texas City Prairie Preserve was to prevent that from happening, but under TNC’s watch it did happen, while they profited from millions of dollars in revenues from drilling and pumping gas and oil.
Under TNC stewardship, the largest environmental nongovernmental organization in the world – boasting over one million members, with assets of over $6 billion and operating in 35 countries – had completely wiped out an endangered species.
In a strange disconnect from reality, TNC’s website continues to boast that the “land management techniques the conservancy utilizes at the preserve are best practices that we export to other preserves.” All I can say is God help the other preserves.
The denouement of this whole situation is that the environmental movement has failed catastrophically to battle the interests behind soaring carbon emissions. Instead they have become part and parcel of them. And TNC is not the only one to have formed such partnerships.
Conservation International and the Conservation Fund have received donations from Shell and BP. The World Wildlife Fund has a long relationship with Shell as does the World Resources Institute. Conservation International also has partnerships with Walmart, Monsanto, BHP Billiton (a major extractor of coal), Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and McDonald’s.
Not only that but some of these major conservation groups have invested in coal, gas and oil companies further entangling themselves and doing business with the major corporations responsible for the global warming crisis.
As many of their supporters have recently found out, the organizations they thought were fighting the polluters are instead in bed with them, and I’m sure their executives, managers and officers are making out very well pretending to help the environment while profiting handsomely behind the mask of a non-profit organization.
There are other organizations, however, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which never took a donation from an oil or gas company and who never invested in one. They have track records of going head-to-head with Big Oil and Coal.
Rainforest Action Network has been at the forefront of the international campaign against Chevron for the disaster left behind after the profits had been extracted from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Food & Water Watch has helped to get big victories against the fracking industry. 350.org launched the fossil fuel divestment movement, and has been at the forefront of the national mobilization against the Keystone pipeline.
All this is to say that “market-based” solutions to the global warming crisis have done nothing more than to aid and abet the fossil fuel industry itself.
The continual purring in TV ads about how “green” the oil and gas industry has become and how many jobs they’ve created and will create is doing less than nothing to combat global warming. In fact they’re helping to perpetuate it. As Naomi Klein says, “[Large foundations and green organizations] succeeded in taking what began as a straightforward debate about shifting away from fossil fuels and put it through a jargon generator so convoluted that the entire climate issue came to seem too complex and arcane for non-experts to understand, seriously undercutting the potential to build a mass movement capable of taking on powerful polluters.”
In other words the powerful coal, gas and fracking industries, fossil fuel extractors all, have succeeded in buying off many but not all organizations claiming to be protecting the environment. They have become in cahoots with those whose activities are increasing global warming and the climate change situation so that well meaning people who want to do something to help negate global warming are confused into thinking they are helping the movement when in fact they are working against it.
What is required is intervention in the market mechanism not how to develop complex financial mechanisms to help the market fix the problem.
Large fossil fuel extractors will continue to suggest a gradualist approach to the amelioration of global warming. Basically they are trying to slow down the movement to replace fossil fuels with renewables because their profit margins depend on the continued use of fossil fuels. They will co-opt as many conservation organizations as they can and schmooze viewing audiences with their TV ads in which they portray themselves as concerned good guys who are only trying to help.
Their approach is completely self serving, however, and will do little if anything to change the dynamics of increasing greenhouse gases. What is required instead is a repudiation of the fossil fuel industries and a realization that market approaches will not work. Increasing GDP at all costs will only make climate remediation a secondary concern.
This will not be sufficient to keep the planet from warming more than 2 degrees C which is the limit beyond which human civilization will be severely challenged.
Green Capitalism: The God That Failed
In a great article by that name Richard Smith summarizes the situation succinctly:
As soaring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drove global CO2 concentrations past 400 parts per million in May 2013, shell-shocked climate scientists warned that unless we urgently adopt “radical” measures to suppress GHG emissions (50 percent cuts in emissions by 2020, 90 percent by 2050) we’re headed for an average temperature rise of 3 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Four degrees might not seem like much, but make no mistake: Such an increase will be catastrophic for our species and most others. Humans have never experienced a rise of 4 degrees in average temperatures.
But our ancestors experienced a four-degree cooler world. That was during the last ice age, the Wisconsin Stage (26,000 to 13,300 years ago). At that time, there were two miles of ice on top of where I’m sitting right now in New York City. In a four-degree warmer world “Heat waves of undreamt-of-ferocity will scorch the Earth’s surface as the climate becomes hotter than anything humans have ever experienced. … There will be “no ice at either pole.” “Global warming of this magnitude would leave the whole planet without ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.” Sea levels will rise 25 meters – submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world’s people presently live.
Freshwater aquifiers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate – and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California. The “wholesale destruction of ecosystems” will bring on the collapse of agriculture around much of the world. “Russia’s harsh cold will be a distant memory” as “temperatures in Europe will resemble the Middle East. … The Sahara will have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and be working its way north into the heart of Spain and Portugal. … With food supplies crashing, humanity’s grip on its future will become ever more tentative.” Yet long before the temperature increase hits four degrees, the melting will have begun thawing the permafrost of the Arctic, releasing vast quantities of methane buried under the Arctic seas and the Siberian and North American tundra, accelerating GHG concentrations beyond any human power to stop runaway warming and sealing our fate as a species.
Smith goes on to say that most climate scientists and activists have not come to terms with the implications of what must be done to prevent a catastrophic rise in Earth’s temperatures. It would mean a contraction in economic activity, a lowering of GDP, for the entire world. It would mean huge job cuts in advanced economies.
CEOs and corporate boards are not beholden to society; they are beholden to the bottom line. Profits are their be all and end all even if it means the ending of all the earth. They are interested in the short term not the long term. Wall Street demands it. No corporation will give up its competitive advantage in the market place for the sake of saving the earth.
Smith states: “I claim that profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform – not the other way around, as green capitalism theorists had supposed.”
But then is socialism or communism any better? China, despite being an allegedly communist nation, has as much of a growth imperative as the capitalist west. The world’s largest gas and oil corporation – even larger than ExxonMobil – is the China National Petroleum Corporation with 1,668,072 employees.
In fact the world’s largest corporations in terms of employment are oil and gas corporations and gas guzzling automobile manufacturers.
Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Saudi Aramco and Volkswagon are in the top ten of the world’s largest employers. The top twenty includes Total, Toyota, Chevron and Phillips 66. These are all oil and gas corporations or automobile manufacturers. The top 30 includes four more oil and gas corporations and three more automotive corporations.
The world economic situation is fragile enough without causing a major disruption and depression that global warming mitigation would entail. Any cutbacks we have to make to save the human species in the decades and centuries to come can come only at the expense of massive layoffs for the humans in the here and now.
As is almost certain, given the choice, humans will not sacrifice the quality of their present lives in order to preserve the quality of life for unborn generations. They will not give up a definite in the present tense to support an indefinite in the vague distant future.
As Smith contends, “Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today – and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”