Climate Denial Will Kill Us
The Trump administration’s recent move to permit oil and gas drilling in 90 percent of the federal government’s offshore land presents an opportunity. With vast protected areas of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic under threat, now is a good time to challenge some of the myths working against Americans’ willingness and ability to stem the ruinous warming of the planet that is resulting from humanity’s excessive burning of fossil fuels.
Let’s start with the wild winter weather that has struck the eastern United States. Led by Trump, climate-change deniers clucked as a hurricane-strength blizzard pulverized the Northeast, followed by subzero wind chills. This came after the great winter “bomb cyclone” hit the Southeast, bringing coastal Georgia its first “mix of snow and palm trees” since the late 1980s.
“Wow,” the Republican Fox News and talk radio crowd wisecracked. “Seems like global cooling is the real problem.” Trump weighed in on the matter on Twitter near the end of the year: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming…Bundle up!”
Trump and the rest of the climate-denial club betrayed their status as earth science know-nothings with such flippant comments. The long-term warming trend remains intact. As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported in August, every single year since 1977 has been warmer than the 20th century average. Sixteen of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred in the present century.
“While we have seen some all-time daily lows for a smattering of locations in the U.S.,” the Climate Reality Project (CRP) noted last week, “these pale in comparison with the number of all-time highs we’ve seen over the past year. In fact, the record highs have outpaced the record lows 61 to seven, i.e. nine times more often.”
All that is hardly canceled out by some severe cold in the eastern U.S. this winter. We can be sure that the Pentagon is not dropping its determination that climate change is both real and significant because of some bitter chilliness in New England.
And “while we’re seeing some cold weather in the eastern half of the North America,” the CRP adds, “the western half of North America has been unusually warm. Indeed, most of the Northern Hemisphere, and the globe overall, have been unusually warm.”
At the same time, the “dipolar” pattern of winter warmth in the West and cold in the East (evident across recent North American winters) reflects “meandering” northern jet-stream patterns resulting from the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice. The massive nor’easter storms we have seen in this and recent winters derive their energy from rising contrasts in temperature and the evaporation of water atop warming ocean surfaces.
These are reflections of, not anomalies for, global warming. This is the sort of weather one should expect because of climate change.
“OK,” some in the Fox News camp say, “maybe the planet is warming, but there’s no proof that this is caused by fossil fuels.”
This, too, is false. There’s nothing mysterious about the warming greenhouse effect that results from the rising concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. It is uncontroversial among scientists that atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen steadily in the industrial era, from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1780 to 400 ppm today (thanks to remarkably rapid increases in the current century). And because “atmospheric carbon contains information about its source,” the UCS notes, scientists have been able to determine that human-generated fossil fuel emissions are “the largest contributor to CO2 concentration since the pre-industrial era.” The latest research indicates that nearly two-thirds of global warming can be “confidently attributed to anthropogenic forcing” led by “heat-trapping emissions from burning coal, gas, and oil, cutting down and burning forests, tiny pollution particles (aerosols) and soot; and changes in land use that effect Earth’s albedo” (albedo refers to the earth’s ability to reflect solar radiation).
“OK,” comes another objection to anti-warming climate action, “let’s say all this big fancy science you environmentalists cite is accurate. Still, let’s quit being frightened little scaredy-cats about climate change. We are a hardy species. We will survive bad weather, rising sea levels and forest fires. We’ll buck up and get through this.”
No, we won’t get through the greenhouse gassing of the planet moving at its current pace toward 500 CO2 ppm by 2050, if not sooner. That level of carbon saturation translates to a 7-degree increase in global temperature. And that spells doom for the Antarctic, a critical life support for the planet.
Extreme weather, wildfires, melting glaciers and rising sea levels are only the tips of the global warming iceberg. The deeper existential danger—posing the prospect of the end of organized human life and the possible extinction of the species—is the loss of our ability to grow and access adequate supplies of food and water and to stay cool enough to maintain livable body temperatures. The risks, even likelihood, of devastating disease and resource and related migration-driven military conflicts and social strife are further apocalyptic corollaries of runaway climate change. We’re talking about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse here.
According to Sylvia Earle, longtime chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 500 carbon ppm means the following hellish scenario:
The permafrost underlying the Arctic tundra, already softening, would gradually melt, giving up its stored water and methane, greatly enhancing the greenhouse effect and accelerating the warming trend [and] … methane … is about 20 times as [carbon-] potent as carbon dioxide. … It will cause a relentless push toward higher temperatures, which will in turn release more methane from tundra regions, increasing warming in a relentless feedback cycle. … Less obvious but potentially a greater cause for concern is … the enormous accumulation of methane … locked in the deep sea as gas hydrates or clathrates. … With continued warming, the sea may give up in a geological blink the accumulation of many millions of years of carbon sequestration.
Failure to undertake efforts to reverse climate change is a death knell for countless species, including our own.
“But,” a standard objection on the right asserts, “moving off fossil fuels would be a great job killer. People need to make a living. You tree-hugging, carbon-phobic greens want to throw people out of work.”
Environmentalists can meet this widespread criticism with two responses, which always should be prefaced by a forthright statement of understanding that people need work both for income and for a sense of meaning in the world. The first and most existentially obvious point is that there are no jobs and no economy on a dead planet.
The second and less obvious point is that moving from fossil fuels to an environmentally sustainable economy would be a job-creation plus. As the brilliant progressive political economist Robert Pollin has shown in his book, “Greening the Global Economy,” investing on a giant scale in clean energy would create three times as many jobs as continuing our lethal addiction to fossil fuels. “Spending $1 million on investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency will create over 16 jobs within the U.S.,” Pollin calculates, “while spending the same $1 million on our existing fossil fuel infrastructure will generate about 5.3 jobs—i.e. building a green economy in the U.S. generates roughly three times more jobs per dollar than maintaining our fossil fuel dependency.”
What about the workers who will lose fossil sector jobs? As Pollin explains, “The solution here is straightforward: “Just Transition”—polices that include “solid pension protections, re-employment guarantees, as well as retraining and relocation support for individual workers, and community-support initiatives for impacted communities.” And because the total number of workers employed in fossil fuel extraction is relatively small, Pollin notes, it won’t take that much money to pay for a “just transition.”
The right-wing claim (advanced by Trump over the last two years) that policies to fight global warming and protect the environment are bad for jobs and working-class incomes and security is false. The opposite is the case.
Some of the objections I’ve heard to tackling the climate issue have come from the left. One such demurral says that climate change is one of those many “single issues” that tend to divert progressive activity into narrow channels. This, the thinking goes, prevents us from developing a comprehensive and many-sided commitment to broad systemic change over and against the combined and interrelated social oppression structures of our time, led by capitalism.
There are two problems with this complaint. The first and most obvious is that climate change isn’t just one of “the left’s” many single issues. Like it or not, global warming is the single biggest issue of our or any time for some simple material reasons. As the leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky argued in 2012, if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change isn’t averted soon, “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” Chomsky was writing for leftists and progressives, groups for whom “everything else” includes poverty, imperialism, racism, inequality, plutocracy, neoliberalism, sexism, police-statism, nationalism, government surveillance, mass incarceration, corporate thought control, militarism and (last but not least) capitalism.
Chomsky had a point. All bets are off on the prospects for a decent and livable future unless Homo sapiens wakes up quickly and acts on a massive scale to move on to renewable energy systems. As environmental blogger Robert Scribbler writes, “There is no greater threat presented by another nation or set of circumstances that supersedes what we are now brazenly doing to our environment and the Earth System as a whole. And the rate at which we are causing the end level of damage to increase is practically unthinkable. Each further year of inaction pushes us deeper into that dangerous future.”
The usual left, progressive and populist struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed and controlled (by and for whom) are going take on an empty feel when it becomes apparent that the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it is riddled with runaway disease and decay?
The second and less obvious problem with the single-issue charge is that serious climate action is intimately tied in with “everything else.” We must not take the dark wisdom of Chomsky’s warning to mean that we should separate the climate problem from the other matters that concern us—that environmental proactivity should simply override anti-authoritarian social justice, democratic and egalitarian priorities. After all, the climate crisis and the broader ecological rift it creates are rooted in the radical left’s longstanding bệte noire: accumulation-, growth- and exploitation-addicted profit systems, with the competitive and anarchic dispersion of sociopathic decision-making. As Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin explained three years ago on Jacobin:
It is not just that … capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values … and insensitive to the environment. … A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights.
Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein rightly put the focus on capitalism as the main culprit in her 2014 book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.” “The really inconvenient truth,” Klein noted, “is that [global warming] is not about carbon—it’s about capitalism … [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” Climate change, she argued, “is a civilizational wake-up call … telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.”
At the same time, Klein challenges activists to see how addressing the climate crisis can be a bridge to progressive social change and democratic resurgence on issues and problems directly linked to the climate question: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, economic regulation/deregulation, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more.
In “This Changes Everything,” the argument wasn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.” Klein’s point instead was that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to democratic progress on “everything else we talk about.”
Do we have to undergo a radical transformation beyond the current reigning corporate and financial oligarchy—the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of wealth and empire—to create a sustainable society? Probably. Still, the ecological situation is so dire and urgent now that it is irresponsible not to call for all hands on board, including those of “green capital,” to save prospects for a world worth democratizing.
Time is running out, and the notion that we can’t do anything to save the planet until popular revolution dispatches the bourgeoisie is a reckless line at this dangerous point. Let us do anything and everything we can to enlist and compel as many forces as possible to the cause of greening the national and global economy—including even, yes, corporate and financial “elites.” If Klein is right, and I suspect she is, a serious tackling of the climate problem is going to bring with it a significant and intimately related corollary social justice and democracy dividend.
A useful analogy here is the war against global fascism—the greatest threat to humanity during the late 1930s and 1940s. North American mass production systems were reconverted in an amazingly short time so that millions could be put to productive and necessary work making the weapons required to defeat the supreme planetary peril of the time: fascism. We have a generation at most to undertake a comparable reconversion to defeat capitalogenic ecocide and to transform our societies in egalitarian fashion along the way.
There’s some good news, looking forward. The climate denialism that reigns atop Washington now has made the U.S. an environmental “pariah state” (to use to Jeffrey Sachs’ term) in a world that has come to understand that climate change is real, deadly and human-generated. Much of the world is moving in the right direction.
Here in the U.S., Trump’s climate denialism is still a minority sentiment among the populace. His recent offshore drilling move is opposed, The Washington Post reports, “by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers and the Defense Department.”
The technologies required for a green energy transformation to prevent looming geocide—a crime that will make even the Nazis look like small-time transgressors—are available and affordable, ready for expanded application. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California at Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi showed two years ago that 139 countries can now “each generate all the energy needed for homes, business, industry, transportation, agriculture—everything—from wind, solar, and water-power technologies by 2050.” If nations rely on energy technologies vetted by socially and environmentally responsible scientists rather than those promoted by capitalist industries, a clean energy transition is feasible.
Clean Energy Wire reports that Germany “crossed a symbolic milestone” by “briefly covering around 100 percent of electricity use with renewables” on New Year’s Day. In 2017, Germany, the world’s fourth biggest economy, met a record 36.1 percent of its power needs with renewable sources.
Is it too late to make enough of a climate difference to save the future? I hear this again and again from fatalistic internet correspondents on the left. But according to the UCS, there’s still time:
We cannot avoid some level of warming caused by the heat-trapping emissions already present in the atmosphere. … But, with aggressive measures to reduce emissions and adapt to those changes we cannot avoid, we have a small window to avoid truly dangerous warming and provide future generations with a sustainable world. … The Paris Agreement of 2015 calls for a reduction in emissions worldwide, enough to keep global warming under the dangerous threshold of 2 C. We can reach that goal through immediate and sustained action to reduce our heat-trapping emissions like adopting technologies that increase energy efficiency, expanding our use of renewable energy, and slowing deforestation (among other solutions).
Is this too optimistic? Perhaps. Maybe the chances of rescuing prospects for a decent future are only 30 percent percent or 20 percent. Maybe they are higher. Who knows? Why take our odds down to zero by giving up in advance? Resignation to a predetermined geocidal collapse is morally irresponsible and intellectually irrational.