For a moment he lost himself in the old,
familiar dream. He imagined that he was master of the sky, that the world lay
spread out beneath him, inviting him to travel where he willed. It was not the
world of his own time that he saw, but the lost world of the dawn -- a rich and
living panorama of hills and lakes and forests. He felt bitter envy of his
unknown ancestors, who had flown with such freedom over all the earth, and who
had let its beauty die. -- Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars
9, 2013 – Links International Journal of
Socialist Renewal -- Recent reports from institutions
such as the World Bank detail how, as a result of
human activity, we are on track for a four-degree Celsius increase in average
global temperatures. Should this come to pass, the Earth would be hotter than
at any time in the last 30 million years; an absolutely devastating prognosis
that will wipe out countless species, as ecosystems destabilise and climate
becomes a vortex of ever-more erratic and wild weather events.
this, however, Americans not long ago suffered through an election campaign in
which climate change quite literally wasn't mentioned -- at least until the
final weeks, when a hurricane forced the presidential candidates to acknowledge
even as the World Bank published its report -- with the conclusion that
avoiding a 4-degree temperature increase was "vital for the health and
welfare of communities around the world" -- bank officials were
nevertheless still handing out loans to construct more than two dozen
coal-fired power plants, to the tune of $5 billion.
an entirely manufactured crisis, the so-called "fiscal cliff,"
has dominated political discourse since the election, notwithstanding the fact
that humanity is hurtling toward a very real "carbon cliff." Carbon
emissions are at record highs and set to rise further in a world where 1,200
new coal-burning power stations are under construction, and oil and gas
extraction are ramping up around the world. 2012 was a record year of heat in
the continental US, which set 362 new record high temperatures and not a single record low.
direct contrast to politicians and the media, fully 80 per cent of Americans
believe that climate change will be a serious problem for the United States
unless the government does something about it -- with 57 per cent saying the
government should do a "great deal" or "quite a bit."
for the 1 in 3 Americans who say they are wary of science and distrust
scientists, 61 per cent now agree that temperatures have risen over the last
100 years. Commenting on the new poll, Stanford University social psychologist and pollster Jon
Krosnick wrote, "They don't believe what
the scientists say, they believe what the thermometers say...Events are helping
these people see what scientists thought they had been seeing all along."
background of overwhelming public concern helps situate the upcoming national
demonstration in Washington, D.C., on February 17, against the building of the
Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas. If built, the pipeline
will carry 800,000 barrels a day of highly-polluting tar sands oil, effectively
dealing a death blow to hopes of preventing rampant climate change. The
demonstration has added significance as activists attempt to draw a line in the
sand and pose the first big litmus test for the second term of Barack Obama.
corporations hunt every square centimetre of land and sea for more fossil fuels
to sell, disfiguring the earth as they line the pockets of their shareholders,
millions of people know that the world is changing in ways that drastically
limit the beauty, diversity and stability of life on earth.
also know, or are coming to realise, that the people they elected to protect
and serve them spend far more of their time appeasing the corporations responsible
for the climate emergency and ecological crisis than they do addressing their
concerns. Rather than limiting the power of the corporations, politicians of
both major parties in the US are greasing the wheels of capitalist expansion.
Hence the vital need to demonstrate our anger against the destruction
sanctioned by our government.
that an overwhelming majority of Americans, and even most people hostile to
climate science, are in favour of action, why is it that the overwhelming
majority of politicians, who presumably are subject to the same weather as the
rest of us, can't seem to see the need? Why aren't our elected representatives
proposing serious measures to prevent it from getting worse?
one answers this question is not one of semantics. Rather, it is of decisive
importance because it determines how one should fight and with whom one should
forge alliances. Unfortunately, it is a question that Bill McKibben, cofounder
of 350.org and a key organiser of the February 17 demonstration, has struggled
with, but not conclusively resolved. His confusion is evidenced by the title of
an article he wrote in January:
"Our Protest Must Short-Circuit the Fossil Fuel Interests Blocking Barack
Obama" -- implying that Obama would do something if he could.
the run-up to what is likely to be the largest US demonstration to date against
the fossil fuel industry and proponents of "extreme energy"
technologies, we are at a potential turning point in the movement for
ecological justice and environmental sanity. The stultifying lull of the
election campaign, during which many Big Green groups set aside their disappointment with Obama aside and stayed quiet
about his inadequacies, is at least temporarily gone,
with a large and varied coalition of groups helping to promote the February 17
momentum generated from this demonstration could serve as the launching pad for
a sustained campaign that begins to stitch together the myriad forces fighting
locally around the country, transforming previously isolated or single-issue
initiatives and groups into a broad united front for climate justice that draws
in other forces, such as unions.
a number of activists and organisations will go to Washington hoping to
persuade someone they see as a potential ally in this fight against the fossil
fuel corporations -- to persuade President Obama to go beyond the stirring
words in his inaugural address and act on climate change.
is the position of Big Green groups like the Sierra Club. Even as it pledged
for the first time to take part in civil disobedience, its executive director,
Michael Brune,declared that the new strategy
was part of "a larger plan to support the president in realising his
vision and make sure his ambition meets the scale of the challenge."
first thing Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry could do is say no
to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That would be inordinately
easy, as Obama has the final say and doesn't require Congress' support to shut
it down. After 53 senators from both parties signed a letter urging him to green-light
the pipeline, Obama is running out of ways to further delay his decision.
spite of the rhetoric of his inaugural address, the pivotal question remains:
Is Barack Obama -- or any Democratic leader, for that matter -- really on our
side? Is it just a question of persuading a reluctant friend, hamstrung by a
right-wing, dysfunctional Congress and stymied by powerful corporate interests,
to act by demonstrating outside his house to let him know we're there for him?
Or should we be surrounding his house, knowing full well that he won't give in
to our demands without a social movement that acts independently of his wishes
understand the reasons for Obama's "lack of desire" to address
climate change -- a microcosm of the larger inability of global leaders and
institutions to do likewise amid two decades of increasingly futile climate
negotiations -- it's necessary to go beneath the surface appearance of things;
to examine the structure and ideology of the system of capitalism.
their financial system was threatened by the crisis that began in 2008,
political leaders didn't sit around for 20 years arguing that they had to wait
until all the facts were in and attempting to reach consensus on a solution.
No, in a heartbeat, they threw trillions of dollars at the banks.
when a far larger crisis, one that threatens the basic stability of the
planetary biosphere, unfurls as a result of the same policies of reckless
growth, waste and warfare, they spend their time rubbishing scientists and
ignoring the unraveling weather outside their windows.
to get to the root of the issue, it becomes necessary to analyze the
intertwined workings of the whole economic system of production and exchange of
goods and services -- that is, capitalism. Only by doing this can we hope to
formulate an effective strategy to combat climate change and thereby recognise
that ecological and social justice are inseparably connected to each other, via
an organised, grassroots and global challenge to the capitalist social order.
doesn't need to be an anti-capitalist to take part in this struggle, but one
does need to recognise that unless the pendulum of social power swings back
toward the working people in the US and around the world, and that limits and
regulations are placed on the activities on corporate power, we have no hope of
saving our world.
point we must grasp is that this struggle is not really about technology, nor
which renewable energy models should be deployed, nor whether this or that
politician or this corporation or that CEO are more or less evil than the
others. It's not about things or people at all -- it's about relationships.
It's about democracy, which is itself about social power and the relationships
power of the oceans, the power of scientific rationality, the power of the
tides and hurricane-force winds are self-evidently not enough to persuade the
capitalists to act. The only force strong enough to do that is the organised
force of the people. We must take the place of gravity to pull the pendulum of
contending class forces -- wrenched rightward by 30 years of neoliberalism -- back
toward our side.
as a socialist, I would argue that we need to live in a world where there are
no classes with diametrically opposed interests, in perpetual conflict over
social and political power. Only in such a socially just and ecologically
sustainable world will there be any long-term hope for humanity to live in
peace with itself, other species and the planet upon which we all depend. The
stepping-stones of that revolutionary road are the acts of struggle needed to
contrast to his inaugural speech, Obama's first press conference after
re-election gave a more accurate insight into the priorities of his second
term. Unlike four out of five Americans who want the government to do something
to address climate change, Obama made it clear that this wouldn't be a priority for his
I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to
be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is
somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change,
I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that.
two mentions of the need for "growth" in a single sentence, Obama
faithfully echoed the declaration of the Earth Summit, Rio+20, held in June
2012, where the representatives of 190 countries, while dismally avoiding any
commitment to new targets or limits on greenhouse gas emissions, did commit -- 16 times in all -- to
"sustained growth", a phrase taken to be synonymous, rather than in
fundamental conflict, with another term: "sustainability".
obligation to promote growth underlines why the root of the climate problem is
systemic. If capitalism is not growing, it is in crisis. Growth must occur
continuously and in all sectors. If the sector in question is highly
profitable, it will grow even faster, regardless of any social considerations.
for example, the fossil-fuel sector. Oil production, rather than declining, as
is desperately needed to stop climate change, is predicted to increase from the current 93 million barrels per
day to 110 million by 2020 -- with some of the
biggest increases worldwide occurring in the US The Holy Grail of all
administrations since Richard Nixon -- energy independence -- is being made
possible by the policies of the Obama administration, as the New York Times reported in a special feature:
oil production, which declined steadily to 4.95 million barrels a day in 2008
from 9.6 million in 1970, has risen over the last four years to nearly 5.7
million barrels a day. The Energy Department projects that daily output could
reach nearly 7 million barrels by 2020. Some experts think it could eventually
hit 10 million barrels -- which would put the United States in the same league
as Saudi Arabia.
the climate blogger and former Clinton administration official
Joseph Romm put it, Obama is "basically
pushing a moderate Republican agenda. It's just that there aren't any moderate
Republicans left, much as we don't have any 'below average temperature' years
if we examine the roots of the issue, we find that the pathetic response of an
administration purporting to be concerned with environmental questions has much
less to do with individual personnel than it does with the dynamics of
1992, when George H.W. Bush flew to Rio for the first Earth Summit, all things
seemed possible. The "evil empire" -- as Ronald Reagan liked to call
the tyrannical dictatorships of the USSR and Eastern Europe, which operated
falsely in the name of socialism -- had collapsed under the weight of its own
economic, social and ecological contradictions. Politicians in the West were
euphoric. They had seen off what they perceived to be an existential threat to
today's world of enforced austerity, it's difficult to recapture the sense of
optimism that pervaded Western ruling class circles in the early 1990s. The
atmosphere of triumphalism was so great even Republican presidents like Bush
could make promises about protecting the environment. A few years later, when
the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was written, Western governments were still willing to
pledge that they would do the heavy lifting with regard to reducing emissions,
while developing countries would be free from such limits.
the seeming "lack of will" at Rio+20 last year can be much better
explained by the onset of a huge structural crisis of capitalism, rather than
the "lack of vision" of individual politicians.
of optimism about acting on climate change, the real optimism these days among
capitalists is about the profits they can make from the oil and gas bonanza.
giant and planet-wrecker par excellence BP is predicting that by 2030, the
entire Western Hemisphere will be energy independent, due to the expansion of
new techniques for oil and gas exploration, such as fracking in shale deposits,
and horizontal and deep-water drilling. Fossil fuels are expected to remain at
81 per cent of the energy mix, in an energy economy that will be 39 per cent
larger than today.
oil executives such as Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of Texas-based
Pioneer Natural Resources -- headquartered in an area of the world that
received only two inches of rain for the whole of 2011 and spent most of the
year with large parts of the state on fire -- are nevertheless overjoyed:
not be concerned with where our oil is going to come from is probably the
biggest home run for the country in a hundred years...It sort of reminds me of
the industrial revolution in coal, which allowed us to have some of the
cheapest energy in the world and drove our economy in the late 1800s and 1900s.
on who you are, the outlook for natural gas is even rosier. The International Energy Agency recently released a report
that asked in its title "Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?" The
answer was a resounding "yes" due to the North American shale gas
boom and a "strong post-crisis recovery" in demand.
other side to this "golden age," as the report makes clear, is that
future economic expansion based on natural gas "alone will not put the world
on a carbon emissions path consistent with an average global temperature rise
of no more than 2 degrees Celsius," but on a "trajectory consistent
with stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at
around 650 parts per million CO2 equivalent, suggesting a long-term temperature
rise of over 3.5 degrees Celsius."
in the insane capitalist "logic" of the 21st century, short-term
profit-taking must be maximised at all costs.
a little-reported phenomenon, the energy companies have figured out that they
can find oil in shale deposits previously considered marginal in the same way
that they "frack" for natural gas. With the price of oil over $80 a
barrel, it's profitable to seek oil in this way, regardless of the environmental
not only is there a natural gas boom in the US, but there's also an enormous,
though much less publicised, oil boom. In fact, the oil boom from previously
untapped shale deposits is so large that its effects can be seen from space. The
Bakken Field in North Dakota, all 15,000 square miles of it, is one of the
largest contiguous oil fields in the world, with output doubling every 18
months. In Texas, production from the Eagle Field increased 30-fold between
20010 and 2012.
reason that the remote and sparsely populated Bakken Field now rivals Chicago
in light pollution, making it visible to orbiting satellites, is because the
natural gas that comes up with the oil, rather than being collected and sold,
is simply set on fire, in a process called "flaring". This senseless
act of vandalism and waste is the result of the fact that companies are in such
a rush to make money from oil that they can't be bothered to develop the
infrastructure necessary to cope with associated natural gas.
As Stanford University academic Adam Brandt, who analyses
greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, explains:
"Companies are in a race with their competitors to develop the resource,
which means there is little incentive to delay production to reduce
flaring." In Texas, the natural gas flared in 2012 could have provided electricity
to 400,000 homes.
while one set of capitalists is fracking for natural gas on the East Coast -- thanks
to political leaders like Governor. Andrew Cuomo in New York, who appears to be
ready to open up the state to fracking -- in other parts of the country, a
different set of capitalists is setting fire to the exact same gas
because it's a nuisance that slows down production of the different fossil fuel
could exemplify the utter waste and anarchic insanity of capitalism than this
fact. One of the government regulatory bodies supposedly in charge of
overseeing the oil corporations, North Dakota's Industrial Commission, gave
their logic for refusing to take action against this senselessness: "If we
restricted oil production to reduce flaring, we would reduce the cash flow from
oil wells fivefold...As well as cutting waste, we are mandated to increase
production, which we would not be doing."
for the third and dirtiest arm of the triumvirate of fossil fuels, the world is
predicted to be burning 1.2 billion tons more coal per year in 2017. Coal has
actually declined in use in the US due to companies switching electricity
production to cheaper natural gas, which has reduced US carbon emissions.
might think this is a good thing. However, capitalism is a global system, so
any coal not sold here, finds a market overseas. The Chinese population is
literally choking to death on grotesque amounts of air pollution in cities such
as Beijing. And who's to blame? The US government says China is building too
many coal plants -- but increasing amounts of the coal destroying people's
lungs and the planet's air in Asia is coming from mines in the US According to a report in ClimateWire:
Chinese coal is largely sourced from domestic mines, EIA figures show that US
coal shipments to China have dramatically risen in recent years, punctuated by
a 107 per cent jump from 2011 to 2012. Chinese imports of US coal surged from 4
million tons in 2011 to 8.3 million tons last year.
brings us to the international dimension -- and the economic and military
competition between countries that makes it impossible for effective
international agreements on climate change and emissions reduction to be
Barack Obama really wanted to do something about reducing energy consumption in
America -- and killing a lot fewer people around the world -- he could start
with a massive reduction in military spending. The US military is the single
biggest user of energy in the United States, with the Department of Defense responsible for 80 per cent of government
energy requirements. Just the cost of the war in
Iraq would have paid, from now until 2030, for all the investment in renewable
energies necessaryto stay below two degrees
Celsius of warming.
examples illustrate two things. First, we are in a do-or-die battle with the
economic system, because capitalism is in fundamental conflict with the
biosphere. And second, only a committed alliance of social and ecological
justice activists that is clear about the nature of the enemy and prepared to
confront the political and economic architects of the crisis stands a hope of
is why fighting the XL pipeline is about much more than stopping a single
pipeline or the first test of Obama's second term. It's about building a
movement for social and ecological justice and making it clear that we are going
to organise to prevent any more infrastructure being built that will drive us
over the ecological cliff.
energy analyst Chris Nelder has put it, we face a choice between keeping the
old fossil-fuel based infrastructure that is burning up the planet, and adding
to it at an annual cost of $1.6 trillion just to keep it running -- or
transitioning, at much lower economic, let alone environmental, cost, to a new
energy paradigm. His figures and argument are worthy of a lengthy quote:
of incremental spending on an effectively dead transportation regime, we should
be thinking about one that can survive the challenges ahead, and deliver more
economic benefits than costs. We should be setting an ambitious target, like
replacing all commercial passenger air flights with high speed rail for trips
under 1,000 miles, replacing 90 per cent of our city street traffic with light
rail, and moving all long-haul freight traffic to rail. Even if the cost of all
that rail infrastructure were in the range of $3 trillion, it would be a
$6 trillion (minimum) in sunk costs and $1.6 trillion per year in maintenance,
the $1.2 trillion per year estimate I offered in my article on infrastructure,
plus building the high speed rail network at a generous estimate of $1
trillion, looks very reasonable.
another way: Would you rather spend another $32 trillion over the next 20 years
just to maintain our outmoded, unscalable, aged, unhealthy system, plus another
$2.8 trillion in lost productivity due to delays and gridlock, only to wind up
out of gas? Or would you rather spend $25 trillion to repair our existing
infrastructure, transition transportation to rail, transition the power grid to
renewables, upgrade the entire grid, and solve the carbon problem, to have free
course, whether we travel that road or not -- and whether we leave behind a
world to our descendants as beautiful as the one we were born into -- will
depend on our own independent, organised self-activity to wrench control away
from a ruling elite that is quite happy to continue making money from a system
that must be overturned.
[A version of
this article also appeared in the US Socialist
Worker. Chris Williams is a long-time
environmental activist and the author of Ecology and Socialism:
Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books 2010).]