Activists have called for an International Day of Action Against Climate Change July 15, 2006. On that day, the “Group of 8” (G8) — leaders of the richest industrialized countries — will gather in St. Petersburg, Russia to plot their continued commodification and domination of the planet, this time under the banner of “Energy Security.” And, perhaps, thousands of people in cities and towns across the globe will rise up to demand alternatives to fossil fuels and zero emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s up to you — now is the time to link up with others in your area and make something happen July 15.
A leaked G8 Communiqué on Energy Security calls for trillions of dollars in new investments in oil, gas and coal production worldwide, plus wide-scale global expansion of nuclear energy. In other words, just as most regular folks are concluding that continued human dependence on fossil fuels risks the earth’s ability to support life as we know it, the leaders are plotting more of the same.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer with ever wilder weather extremes — all the hotter as millions of cars spew millions more tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. The world leaders should feel the heat, too. Each additional day of business as usual the earth is moving one step closer to what scientists refer to as “the tipping point” — after which human-caused climate change will become irreversible and natural feedback loops such as melting ice sheets may accelerate climate change and cause permanent climate chaos.
A call to action issued by Rising Tide North America and Earth First! notes: “With runaway climate change looming just over the horizon, such neoliberal business-as-usual poses a direct threat to the continuation of life on Earth as we know it. Resistance is self defense. The G8 agenda promotes petroleum-dependent ‘Energy Security’ that pollutes our land and atmosphere, ravages poor and indigenous communities, and scorches the Earth’s climate. Their recipe for disaster must be met with our global opposition! As G8 energy ministers promise trillions in new subsidies to the industries destroying our planet and our future, we will take action to shut them down!”
The call to action continues: “This is a call for autonomous, decentralized actions appropriate for your town, city, or bioregion. Use this international day of action to support local struggles against oil refineries, gas pipelines, strip mines and coal-fired power plants. Disrupt the financial backers of the fossil fuel industry. Host teach-ins to spread sustainable post-petroleum living skills. Find a weak point in the infrastructure of resource exploitation and throw a literal or symbolic wrench in the works. Visit your local polluters and give ’em hell!”
Ultimately, all mainstream discussion of efforts to limit global climate change propose solutions that are far too little and too late. Proposals like the Kyoto Treaty which would cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels for industrialized countries, or initiatives to create markets to trade carbon credits, or efforts to invent machines that are still dependent on fossil fuels but that use less of them all miss the point. The only way to step back from the climate change cliff is to quickly go cold turkey on fossil fuels and reach zero net human emissions of greenhouse gases. Virtually no mainstream politician or media outlet is calling for a zero emissions goal — “unrealistic”, they say. “It would hurt the economy too much.”
But from an ecological standpoint, zero emissions has to become realistic. Shifting to a zero emissions world requires not just lobbying and government reform, but a wholesale paradigm shift.
Many people hope that technological break-throughs will allow society to eliminate fossil fuel use without requiring anyone to change their life style. The current craze for hybrid or biofueled cars is a perfect example– people want to figure out a way to keep living in an instant, motorized, convenient world but not feel bad about the environmental consequences. But it is far from clear that people in the developed world can continue energy intensive life-styles in an environmentally sustainable fashion — even less clear that energy business as usual is possible if modern forms of life are extended world-wide.
And for every alternative energy source that has promise — like wind or solar — capitalism spews out ten times as many fake solutions that pretend to be “green” but really secretly depend on fossil fuels. In the struggle for a zero emissions world, it is crucial that people learn to sort all the confusing “alternatives” and compare them against each other. It doesn’t help to compare a real option against a false option. We need to compare apples to apples rather than apples to oranges.
For example, windmills are a zero emissions technology. All over the country construction of windmills is running into opposition because people are concerned with appearance issues and in some cases, bird fatalities. Opponents make an incorrect comparison of “windmill vs. no windmills” instead of a more correct comparison of “windmill vs. coal fired power plant.” Strip mines and the global warming caused by burning coal have very negative consequences — including on appearance and birds — but they are rarely included in the windmill debate because their effects are elsewhere or diffuse and harder to recognize. The failure to compare the alternatives is a very common problem when thinking about environmental issues.
Anytime a solution promises “less” fossil fuel consumption, be suspicious! Less emissions are still emissions — the real goal is zero emissions.
Bio-fuels like biodiesel and ethanol are perfect examples: both require massive inputs of fossil fuels (for machines and fertilizer) to grow the biofuel crops and then more fossil fuels to transport and process the fuels. They are thus far from zero emissions options — they just shift the fossil fuel dependence from where you can see it (at the gas pump) to somewhere else.
Hybrid cars are even more absurd as a “solution” to climate change. They may reduce emissions by 50%, but that means they still emit 50% of the greenhouse gases of a regular car. They prop-up the fossil fuel addiction and greenwash it.
Hydrogen powered machines are another complex alternative. Hydrogen gas burns without creating any greenhouse gases — water is the only exhaust. However, most hydrogen available at the moment is created from natural gas in a process that releases CO2. Thus, “clean” hydrogen at the moment is no better than burning natural gas, which is none too good.
Of course, it might be possible to produce hydrogen with power from windmills, and it might be possible to produce some bio-diesel using organic agriculture and bio-diesel powered tractors — thus closing the loop. But until that is done, these alternatives are fake. And when you hear the factory farm giant ADM and the Bush administration pushing bio-fuels, you have to figure that closing the loop and creating a real alternative isn’t the main goal — greenwashing and making profit are.
Many people who claim to be concerned with climate change are also pushing an expansion of nuclear power which — although it does not directly produce greenhouse gases — is hardly a sustainable solution. There is still no way to safely dispose of nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to decay. In addition, mining and processing uranium as well as building multi-billion dollar nuclear power plants all emits tons of greenhouse gases.
Of course solar power, hydro-electric, geothermal and wind all have some similar problems. For example, photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels that convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity require massive amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce, as well as mining and toxic chemicals. Some PV panels will take eight years to pro
duce as much energy as they required for their manufacture! Some older wind turbines kill lots of birds, although newer, larger models have reduced bird kills. There are no easy answers — the massive human population on the Earth has an insatiable appetite for all kinds of resources from food to energy. The answer will probably lie in reducing human energy consumption while at the same time figuring out energy sources that — after initial construction — will be zero emissions.
Personal is political
Effectively challenging global climate change — or even figuring out constructive ways to think about it without getting mired in guilt or despair — can be very difficult. Whether we like it or not — with or without our consent — practically everything people do if they live in the developed world depends on fossil fuels. Getting up in the morning, obtaining food, communicating, moving about, even publishing Slingshot contributes to climate change.
As more and more people become aware of the risks of global climate change, some people wish on an isolated, individual level that they could get by without constantly creating greenhouse gases — thus the emotional power of hybrid or biodiesel cars in some circles. But fossil fuels are so integrated into our lives that real change can seem overwhelming or even impossible.
Corporations and government policies maintain dependence on fossil fuels, but the uncomfortable truth is that rejecting fossil fuels requires change on an individual level as well as on a structural level. Nearly everyone who has grown up with modern conveniences like cars, refrigerators, clothes dryers, running hot water, etc. feels on some level entitled to these uses of energy, and almost everyone in the developing world who grew up without these options wants them.
If a popular movement to address climate change has any chance of success, it has to get beyond absurd band aid solutions like nuclear power, hybrid cars and other “alternatives” that continue a resource extraction model without taking a guilt-based approach that blames people for living within a system not of their own creation. At the same time, a movement that always seeks to blame someone else for global climate change — never allowing that on some level, all of us are involved in what is going on — is doomed.
In the 1970s, the women’s movement expanded by convening thousands of consciousness raising groups — support groups that helped the participants understand and attack patriarchy both on a personal and political level. These groups offered personal, psychological and social support for experimentation, struggle and change.
Changing a system that is cultural, political and personal requires more than just global days of action. Its going to require mutual support to help people move beyond the overwhelmingness of global climate change that paralyses people into inaction or causes them to grasp at fake solutions.
Perhaps climate change support groups could help people deal with the complex social, cultural and psychological barriers to change in the way people relate to technology and the environment. These groups could allow people to support each other through these changes. These groups could also provide crucial, decentralized, local research to help sort out all the proposed “solutions” to greenhouse gas emitting technology and expose fake solutions. For example, when considering a particular technology with respect to climate change, such groups could look at all the costs and benefits:
• Does society really need the technology in the first place, and if so, why? For instance, why use a clothes dryer instead of a clothes line on a nice day?
• What are all alternatives to the technology and what are their problems? For example, if a particular development isn’t built as urban infill in Berkeley, will the people who would have lived there be forced to live in an even less ecologically viable suburban developments built on greenfields two hours from jobs?
• Compare the alternatives to each other to figure out the best one. Avoid concluding that any alternative to a current technology which is slightly better is a real “alternative.” An alternative solves a problem rather than slows it down.
It is possible for the world to attain zero emissions, but it will require a global mobilization on a mass scale — something like the way that the life of the whole world changed during World War II. Factories were converted to war production, cultural norms altered and new technologies quickly created — from Rosie the Riveter to the nuclear bomb. Using a war as a model for a conversion to zero emissions is plenty problematic, but the point is that if climate change was recognized as a crisis of global and historical proportions, the solutions could move beyond band aids and fake, green washing ploys and on to real solutions.
Every year hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in new fossil fuel infrastructure — drilling, pipelines, ships, refineries, etc. — to say nothing of millions of new cars built every year. All these investments make the fossil fuel industry and the governments they control even more resistant to alternatives because companies want to reap the profits of their investments.
Meanwhile, alternative energy projects like windmills or solar power feel lucky if they get a few millions in investments. What if all the money invested in fossil fuel infrastructure was channeled into wind and solar energy projects? A lot of alternatives that seem “unrealistic” might seem a bit more realistic if they were taken as seriously as fossil fuels always are.
Rising Tide North America is a new network initiated in the US by the Earth First! Climate Caucus, with inspiration and support from the UK’s Rising Tide direct action movement for climate justice and against climate change (www.risingtide.org.uk.) For info or to register a local action, email efclimatecaucus @wildmail.com or reclaimthecommons.net.