A year-round swimsuit season? Cool! Global warming is now an American household concept, thanks to compelling doomsday scientific evidence, myriad legislative and technology-based ‘solutions’ — and a dominant culture of consumption that doesn’t give a fuck about the end results of catastrophic climate change.
Is this the point at which radical activists can safely hand over the campaign to progressive lobbyists and industry leaders, who float rosy tales of stellar fuel efficiency standards, clean coal technology, and industrial emissions trading — the ultimate in green capitalism?
Radicals, our work continues to be crucial: we can put the concept of stopping emissions back in the public mindset — demonstrating that gradual improvement ultimately doesn’t work within a context that continues to prioritize economic growth above all else. With creative thinking, radical activists can supplement pragmatic approaches, emphasizing global warming as a systemic flaw in capitalism joining racism, classism, poverty, and environmental concerns on global scales.
Strangely, after decades of study, and increasing evidence that humans are altering the earth’s climate, the subject is still debated. Conservatives papers, like the New York Post, use blizzards and winters storms to joke that “it’s not getting any warmer!” They’re missing the point. Warmer average global temperatures don’t mean more pleasant days at the beach; the sobering consequences extend far beyond longer growing seasons and expanded access to Arctic shipping routes. Rising temperatures mean atmospheric chaos, manifesting in erratic weather patterns: severe droughts, heavy rainstorms, heat waves, more frequent hurricanes, mud slides, floods. The sea does not rise smoothly.
National and international climate scientists, including analysts at the Pentagon, agree that humans have caused air and ocean temperatures to rise over the past 50 years — essentially ruling out natural climate variation as the cause. Greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, are emitted by almost every facet of industrial life, including driving, power generation, mass-scale farming, waste disposal, and of course many industries. Carbon dioxide is by far the most common greenhouse gas. Others, like sulfur hexaflouride (SF6), a popular non-toxic insulating gas here at ground level, are less prevalent than CO2 but absorb far more heat in the upper atmosphere. Deforestation is a major contributor to rising CO2 levels, as CO2-absorbing rainforest is converted into cash crop fields.
Scientists long thought that climate change happened gradually — presumably giving society time to adapt. But recent evidence from Arctic ice cores suggests that in fact climate change can happen very quickly, over the course of a few years!
Rising global temperatures could paradoxically lead to another ice age in some areas as soon as 2010-2020, while other areas get warmer. Temperatures could fall 5-6 degrees F in the northeastern United States and northern Europe, as the warm gulf stream is disrupted by fresh water from melting glaciers. In parts of South America, Australia, and southern Africa, temperatures could rise 4 degrees F.
According to a 2003 Pentagon analysis, which classifies the possible ice age as a national security priority, global chaos and war could break out soon after 2010. Britain could resemble Siberia, intense droughts could hit food producing areas, and wars could be fought over water. According to the Pentagon, rich areas like the US and Europe could become “virtual fortresses” to keep out waves of migrating “boat people” from the rest of the world (as if this wasn’t happening already).
How likely is this doomsday scenario? It is, of course, hard to say. The Pentagon report was designed to “think the unthinkable.” Although it was commissioned by leading Pentagon planner Andrew Marshall, it was not passed on to his superiors and was suppressed by the Bush administration.
The Pentagon approach suggests that we in the US have to stretch our minds in inconceivable directions to even imagine weather-related disasters common in other parts of the world. From the American position at the top of the food chain, it’s not at all “unthinkable” for Haiti or Bangladesh or some low-lying Pacific atoll country — unheard of except by locals and rich adventure eco-tourists — to be devastated by rising sea levels, heavy rainfall, and flooding.
Villages in the Himalayas are already being washed away, as mountain lakes formed by melting glaciers burst their natural dams and flood valleys. The Inuit in the Arctic face imminent destruction of their way of life as ice and permafrost melts, ending their access to food and collapsing roads and runways. People in poor countries everywhere, living on deforested hillsides, risk death as heavier rains cause mud slides and flooding.
But it is somehow shocking when south Florida is wiped out by hurricanes, or when mud slides cover homes in southern California — even though similar events happen here every few years. The same economy that is driving global warming has created an infrastructure in the US that can withstand extreme weather far better than a tent city housing migrant factory workers in, say, China, Malaysia, or Ciudad Juarez. But even apparently sturdy societal infrastructure is only as solid as the land upon which it rests. Driven by growth, development in the US is continually expanding into unstable ecological areas — like floodplains and the desert hills and mountains around LA — that leave even suburban Americans disaster prone.
Here in California, we are already seeing the effects of global warming in our water system. It’s likely that dams will have to be raised all over the state to store drinking and irrigation water, as warmer temperatures lead to less snow pack in the Sierras, and precipitation patterns become more chaotic. The Colorado River basin is experiencing the worst drought in 500 years, with effects worse than during the Dust Bowl.
Since there’s no question that humans are causing catastrophic climate change, why is the mere reduction in industrial greenhouse gas emissions offered by fuel efficiency standards, clean coal technology, and industrial emissions trading an acceptable goal? Perhaps the point is to merely attempt to postpone global disaster a little bit, till the seawalls and concertina wire guarding Fortress America have been beefed up. “Sorry guys, we tried to pass that fuel efficiency bill, but the political atmosphere just wasn’t working with us?”
Better fuel efficiency standards are an obvious, reasonable idea, but they will only guarantee that each individual vehicle emits fewer greenhouse gasses per mile of driving. Automobile industry executives, and the current presidential administration, would still be happy if more people bought more cars and drove more miles every day, driving not only their new vehicles but presumably The Economy. This, in fact, is the essence of Bush’s porous approach to global warming, which advocates reducing “greenhouse gas intensity” by emitting fewer greenhouse gasses per unit of economic output — still allowing the total greenhouse gas output to increase.
Bush hopes to achieve this false reduction with the development of new, environmentally benevolent technology. This is humorous, because technology development is always shaped by who controls the development — in this case, the same capitalist class hell bent on burning every last bit of fossil fuel. The Bush administration recently awarded $1.2 billion for hydrogen-burning car development — hardly environmentally benign, despite lower greenhouse gas emissions. New technology always has unintended negative side effects, often not diagnosed for years after the technology has been in everyday use.
Furthermore, the US gov
ernment is very specific about how it invests in more “environmentally-friendly” technology. For example, approximately 850 new coal plants are scheduled to be built in China, India, and the US by 2012, which would spew almost 5 times as much carbon dioxide as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce, according to a study done by the Christian Science Monitor. Of the 72 plants likely to be built in the US, only 2 are currently designed to use cleaner coal technology, called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology, which would siphon off CO2 before it goes up the smokestack. The US Department of Energy says they want to continue developing new technology by 2012 — but funding for a key IGCC experimental program is missing in action! Even US ‘dirty coal’ plants are more efficient than those in China or India, who are planning 562 and 213 new plants, respectively. Both countries are scrambling to fuel ballooning economies — to the pleasure of international investors.
Capitalists responded to global warming typically, by opening the Chicago Climate Exchange in 2003. Member companies can trade reductions in their emissions — commodifying, and therefore approving, the right to pollute. The atmosphere, something that moves fluidly around the globe, can now be portioned off to companies — privatized. “Americans always felt their air and water was free,” Richard Sandor, CEO and founder of the Exchange, noted in the Christian Science Monitor. “But that’s just not true anymore and we felt we could apply that to markets.” When Company A reduces their emissions and sells the reduction to Company B, the people living around Company A benefit with cleaner air to breath. But those around B continue to suffer, and the emissions themselves, “rightfully” emitted, cannot be controlled. This capitalist mindgame is highly popular: the US market for sulfur emissions is now worth more than the US wheat market, and companies will soon begin to trade mercury emissions and even endangered species!
Are we screwed?
What does a radical, anti-capitalist campaign against global warming look like? We are in the middle of a major war geared towards securing access to oil — which will all eventually be burned into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel consumption irrevocably links the Iraq occupation and global warming. The dead Iraqis ultimately caused by that SUV driving down the street are sadly matched by dead Haitians, Inuits, 3,000 French people killed by a heat wave in 2003, and countless others. This is an issue at the intersection of almost every single-issue campaign: the environment, poverty, racism and classism on global scales. The commercial trucks that emit 13% of US carbon dioxide emissions also spew asthma-causing compounds into the frequently low-income communities near shipping centers, like West Oakland.
It is hard not to find the United States responsible for the devastation of climate change, despite industrial and economic growth apologists. The US contributes directly — due to massive greenhouse gas emissions — and indirectly, through resource mining, labor, and trade policies that destabilize lower-impact ways of life in favor of engorged economic growth. It’s not just the policies of the Bush administration that are to blame. The Affluent First World lifestyle, epitomized by the popularity of the Hummer, fuels this near-term time bomb. Almost everybody living in the US contributes to the country’s effect on global warming, whether we intend to or not, because greenhouse gas sources are the structural basis of our society. Societies with fewer emissions are less industrialized. The fight is both cultural and structural — what will create the cultural change of everybody retiring their refrigerators in favor of “old-fashioned” cold boxes? What will create the structural change to make driving unattractive on a mass scale? Radicals are very good at effecting change within our own communities — how can we help this change ripple very quickly across mass US culture?
There are hundreds of legislation-based “good ideas” that would limit greenhouse gas emissions on a mass scale, from fuel efficiency standards, emissions limits, increased funding for non-fossil fuel energy sources, public transportation. But legislation that comes out of an industrial power structure won’t ever fully stop industrial emissions. Emissions are a waste product of industry; capitalism is only interested in limits if they produce value in some way, like on the Climate Exchange. The severity of the scientific evidence, of our global environmental and social predicament, is not matched by gradual, within-the-system solutions to global warming. These approaches are limited by the weakness of the hands applying them.
Any activist work done to counter first world consumption is work against global warming, and any community organizing against potential environmental disaster is valuable in countless ways. Cuba has a well organized system of neighborhood response to hurricanes that helps prevent disasters like that in Haiti last summer, where the government was already destablized with US help. Organizing for a coming disaster — figuring out how to get fresh water and food in a non-industrial context, for example — is a good way to bring the serious consequences of global warming home to our neighborhoods and daily lives.
The climate has inertia — it takes a long time to see the effects of climate change. Sea levels will continue to rise for several hundred years after CO2 emissions are stabilized. Clearly, the earth is responding powerfully to the current weight of first world living — not to mention the burgeoning capitalist growth in China, India, and other parts of the world. Can radicals organize for community sustainability — and for the very real possibility of industrial collapse?