Don Sanderson: Modern Civilization vs. Climate Change


Maybe not ninety nine percent, but most of us can’t help but support those demonstrating on Wall Street and elsewhere around the world. Never before has humankind seen greed so out of control. Copious availability of fossil fuels has loosened energy restraints and democratic movements have loosened social constraints. I’ve argued elsewhere that the OWS movement is likely to fail because of our modern civilization’s dependence upon fossil fuels and other natural resources that become economically available thanks to fossil fuels. These resources are only sufficiently cheap if they are harvested and utilized under vast economies of scale, which requires capital and naturally results in wealth accumulation. I conclude that OWS should be targeting the root of our problems, our lifestyles, if it has any hopes of being successful. If we insist in living in a fossil fuel based economy, we can expect to pay. But inequality and wealth accumulation aren’t the only consequences, nor even the major ones; fossil fuel usage-caused global warming is.

You may be looking out the window at a cold damp November after a too short summer and wondering if all the global warming stuff is only so much nonsense propagated by climate scientists in order to get grants and promotions, another conspiracy as we are told by some. But artic and glacial ice and tundra are melting, sea levels are rising, record high temperatures are regularly being recorded around the world both in the air and sea, humidity readings are rising, storms are getting more powerful, animals and plants are migrating north, and the oceans are dying. Worse yet, methane gas, more powerful for climate warming than CO2, is unfreezing and bubbling out of the Artic Ocean. Dr. Richard Muller is a highly regarded UCB physicist who had expressed doubts about climate scientists’ conclusions. He was given a $150,000 grant by the Koch brothers that would permit him to investigate in more depth. Recently, he published his initial results. Muller found that climate scientist conclusions were not only solid, his statistical analysis of climate data lead him to conclude that the Earth had warmed, is warming, faster than two of the top three climate scientist analyses. He found that the average land temperature has risen about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-1950s.

In 2010, the global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming. The world pumped about 564 million more tons of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009, 6 percent more than the previous year. That amount of extra pollution eclipses the individual emissions of all but three countries – China, the United States and India, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases. Extra pollution in China and the U.S. account for more than half the increase in emissions last year. Chinese emissions now exceed ours by 50 percent because of its dependence on coal. In contrast, the developed countries that ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas limiting treaty have cut emissions to about 8 percent below 1990 levels – the U.S., China, and India did not ratify the agreement.

In 2007, when the IPCC issued its last large report on global warming, it used different scenarios for carbon dioxide pollution and estimated the rate of warming based on the rate of pollution. Later research based on their approach put global emissions higher than that panel’s worst case projections. It forecast global temperatures rising between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century with the best estimate at 7.5 degrees. A recent a more detailed study performed at MIT projected best estimate by 2095 at 10 degrees Fahrenheit with Artic warming of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The MIT press release calls for “rapid and massive” action to avoid this. Did I get your attention?

Barry Sanders recently wrote an eye-opening book, “Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism.” In the introduction, he sets the stage for the remainder of this thesis: “Here’s the awful truth: even if every person, every automobile, and every factory suddenly emitted zero emissions, the earth would still be headed, head first and at full speed, toward total disaster for one major reason. The military produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants large and small, in the most immanent danger of extinction.” We are wandering down dark alleys.

The Nation’s November 2011 issue contains a long article entitled “Capitalism vs. the Climate” in which author Naomi Klein asserts that the right wing understand all too well what admission that radical climate change is occurring and that we humans are to blame portends. Admission that this be true and the responses thereby required would entail the death of capitalism. They have “arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their ‘free market’ belief system.” So, the right denies its guilt in most emphatic terms because it can’t find a way to do otherwise.

The general public, who are scientifically, politically, and economically naïve, listen to those who are the most assertive. The deniers are screaming that reacting to climate change would kill jobs and send prices soaring, and they are right. Climate scientists are, well, scientists who are trained in offering their research results to open rational discussion and are unprepared for raucous marketplace battles. As a result, the deniers are winning. Klein reports “A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number of Americans who agreed was down to 44 percent—well under half the population. According to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, this is ‘among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history.’ … The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit.”

Klein cajoles, “But at a time when a growing number of people agree with the protesters at Occupy Wall Street, many of whom argue that capitalism-as-usual is itself the cause of lost jobs and debt slavery, there is a unique opportunity to seize the economic terrain from the right. This would require making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power. It would also require a shift away from the notion that climate action is just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention. Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.”

She also warns, the right “may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution.” Climate change is not the issue. It is a message, “one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.” Obama recently approved additional tracts for oil drilling in the arctic.

We indeed likely have reached peak oil production, but not of coal. If we wait for fossil fuels to become uneconomical, we will have long since burned up. So, the pressure to develop so-called green energy sources. There are at least two reasons for concluding that this is no panacea. The first is that all those sources that are actively being studied require large amounts of fossil fuel investment and are uneconomical when the costs are included. The second is that even if we had vast amounts of energy, we are still running out of many other natural resources including arable land, fresh unpolluted water, and metals and other critical minerals such as plant fertilizers. We are exhausting the Earth, destroying its living variety, and abundant green energy would only continue this. I give you one example: Borneo was one of the biologically richest regions of the world only decades ago, with a vast wealth of unique, even unnamed, species. Now it is being converted into oil palm plantations to produce oil for food, but mostly for biofuels. Tropical soils are easily destroyed by abuse as these are being, as well as those in the Amazon that are being destroyed to grow soybeans. In a few decades or sooner, there will be only deserts left. But, those fuels are green. By the way, when they are burned, carbon dioxide is released.

George Lakoff has recently written on the Alternet website, “Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility,  but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative ‘democracy’ is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.” Lakoff thanked the OWS, “your target is right:  the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.”

“The alternative view of democracy is progressive:” Lakoff continued, “Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it on their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future.

Moreover, the wealthy depend on those who work, and who deserve a fair return for their contribution to our national life. Corporations exist to make life better for most people. Their reason for existing is as public as it is private.” There is no more public reason for existing than confronting global warming. If we’re unsuccessful there, all the rest will be as straw before the fire.

We must, we all must, radically reduce our lifestyles to very simple levels soon. I can’t imagine this happening unless it is forced upon us, beginning with a huge economic crash, a Wall Street collapse into the dust, a depression to end depressions. Perhaps the OWS will enable this. But, you say correctly, most of us would then likely die. We’re going to die sometime anyhow and we could claim we would be dying for a cause: the continuation of a biologically viable Earth and, maybe, rudiments of a human species. I throw down the challenge.