It is becoming increasingly certain both that human activity is causing global warming and that this warming will have grave effects on all life on the planet. The lack of any meaningful response to the crisis is staggering, although not totally unexpected: The current industrial/corporate order requires precisely the ever increasing resource consumption that causes global warming. Around the world, almost all human actions use fossil fuel energy, spewing carbon dioxide, the main green house gas, into the atmosphere.
Unlike many other \”problems\” caused by the current industrial/corporate economic system-sweatshops, hunger, human displacement-global warming, once it permanently changes the climate, is harder to reverse should people finally overthrow the current economic system. Conversely, overthrowing this order, which requires constant economic growth and exists without regard to human happiness or even survival-much less environmental sustainability-is required to attack green house warming in any meaningful way.
No longer a question
The science behind global warming due to human emissions of green house gases is becoming increasingly certain (see sidebar). Almost every day, a new study or report is released pointing to the grave environmental consequences associated with the daily unintentional intervention in the planet\’s climate and its atmosphere. Coral reefs may have 20 years left if current trends continue. Polar bears are likely to face extinction in our lifetimes. All of the marine species currently living off the coast of Monterey, CA may go extinct because the water temperature is anticipated to change too fast for them to adapt. Wildlife is precisely adapted to its particular habitat, where ever that may be, based of thousands of years of evolution. Seemingly subtle climate changes can upset the balance, and wildlife can\’t adapt or move fast enough to compensate.
And while human animals have many cleaver ways of adapting to rapid climate change, it is likely that famine, disease, displacement and hardship will grip societies around the world in the coming decades, primarily harming those who are poorest and least able to survive now, much less cope with climate change.
Corporate hot air
International efforts to limit further emissions of green house gases, organized as the Kyoto Protocol, broke down this winter, largely because of US insistence on provisions that would protect powerful corporate interests who don\’t want any limitations on their fossil fuel profits. Don\’t look for any improvement during the oil-funded Bush years. Even if international limits had been imposed, the Kyoto plan only sought to limit emissions to 1990 levels-global carbon dioxide levels were increasing almost 1 percent a year based on those levels.
One of the Bush Administration\’s first policy initiatives looks like it will be Congressional approval of an alleged \”Energy Policy\” which purports to be the first major \”overhaul\” of US energy policy in over a decade. The plan is focused on reducing US dependence on foreign oil and ignores global warming and the need to stop fossil fuel consumption entirely.
Currently, 56 percent of US oil is imported. Under a bill proposed by senator Murkowski of Alaska, that rate would drop 6 whole percent, to 50 percent. This would be accomplished by drilling for oil in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and by giving tax breaks to rich oil companies to subsidize economically marginal drilling elsewhere. Although the environmentalists\’ focus is on how oil drilling will destroy the Alaska wilderness, the more serious danger is that the drilling and consumption of the cheap fuel in the lower 48 will permit more carbon to be poured into the atmosphere, changing the climate of both the protected and the destroyed Alaska wilderness alike.
The current \”energy crisis\” in California is likewise being used as an excuse for more fossil fuel consumption-as if the green house effect did not exist-rather than as a wake up call for the need for fundamental change. The dramatic rise in prices of energy in California are hurting the poor (and everyone else) and it is a scandal that energy companies have manufactured a deregulation crisis so they can justify super-profits.
But the answer to the California \”energy crisis\” isn\’t to build more gas fired power plants, which is the Bush Administration\’s favorite solution, as well as governor Davis\’. It isn\’t even to start publicly owned utilities to build gas fired power plants. You can\’t \”fix\” a system when it isn\’t broken-when it is functioning exactly as it was designed-to enrich a tiny minority and consume the planet.
Who is responsible?
The US currently emits more greenhouse gasses per capita than any other nation on earth. In 1997, the United States, with scarcely 4 percent of the world\’s population, emitted about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases and a quarter of human carbon dioxide emissions. An average person in the United States is responsible for emitting 20 times as much carbon dioxide associated with fossil fuel combustion as a person in either India or Indonesia according to a 1998 International Energy Agency study.
Even compared to other \”developed\” (i.e. heavily industrialized and fossil fuel dependent) nations, US green house gas emissions are extremely high. Per person fuel combustion emissions for a person in the US are exactly double that of a person in England or Russia, almost three times the emissions of a person in France or Italy, and 5 times the emissions of a Mexican.
Every modern activity in the United States contributes to these carbon emissions. 31 percent of the total is related to transportation, 33 to industry, 20 percent to residential uses, and 16 percent to commercial uses. All sectors of fossil fuel use are increasing. For example, the number of miles driven per person from 1987 to 1997 increased 33 percent, with the number of gallons of fuel burned for each mile also increasing as cars have gotten larger. Fuel economy of passenger vehicles decreased by 6.6 percent between 1987 and 1997.
It is easy to point all blame at corporate action- \”How can what I do in my house in any way compare to that smog-belching factory?!\” But residential activity accounts for a full 20 percent of US carbon emissions. A full 62% of the carbon emitted by transportation is not from industrial transportation but private cars and light trucks (SUVs!). To the degree that our lives fit the pattern of consumption created and sustained by the dominant corporate paradigm, we are complicit in global ecosystem destruction. Do you live in the suburbs and drive to the city for work? Or do you live in the city and drive to suburban outlet malls to buy bulk hamburger, soda, and discount movies? Do you feel like you have a choice?
This consumptive American lifestyle is shaped by numerous forces, none of which give a shit about our true best interests. Although we are not fully responsible, we must take responsibility because the profit-addicted corporate Hydra will not. The people who care have a humongous task: to change both personal consumption habits AND to stop the corporate/industrial production system.
The capitalist forces fueling climate change are not all-powerful. Evolution will continue. The hundred-year scale of current climate change and energy use predictions is barely a drop in the bucket of geologic time. Humans, even \”influential\” Americans, cannot defeat the forces of nature. The question is: are we clever enough to act in the immediate self-interest of our species (and other life on the planet-our biological brethren), to prevent massive suffering of our collective progeny?