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Tweaking While the Earth Burns

The Climate in Obamaland

by SASHA ROSS

To begin his speech on climate change at Georgetown, President Obama evoked the image of earth as seen from space in 1968. “[W]hile the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time.” Imagine what it looks like today—the Alberta tar sands’ vast tailing ponds expanding into the boreal forest, plumes of smoke from brush fires obscuring parts of Australia, algae blooms clogging the rivers, widening deserts, retreating glaciers.

If Obama’s speech made one lasting impression, it was that the US “will reduce its greenhouse-gas pollution to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.” Really, that’s only a 5 percent drop from today. While the reduction in greenhouse-gases in the US will come through a very complex system of tax breaks, emissions caps, techno-fixes, and carbon trading schemes, a recent report published in Energy Policy admits that the US and other developed countries will require a 50 percent reduction in 1990 levels—this report places Obama’s target far from the mark. The national climate change policy has its head in the clouds, and obscures what is happening on the ground.

Land is really what is at stake. Just this week, two separate direct action protests against the construction of an Enbridge pipeline set to carry tar sands oil out of Alberta. One protest in Michigan included an activist entering the pipeline and locking down, while the other in Ontario involved an extensive multiple-day occupation and numerous lock-downs. Obama has focused, along with much of the Climate Justice Movement, on the Keystone XL pipeline miles away, and Obama even mentioned in his speech that he would ensure the pipeline would be halted unless the State Department could certify that it would not significantly contribute to climate change. The trouble is, the State Department already made such claims, so it looks like the pipeline will be accepted.

Oil production, largely derived from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, hit the sharpest spike in decades in the years 2011 and 2012. Concomitant with this increase of oil production is the rise of sexual assault and violence, as oil workers invade small towns looking for a good time. Judging by this “male dystopia,” the jobs-jobs-jobs agenda stinks with the residue of structural misogyny and rape culture. At the same time, due to the drive to frack oil wells, Texas oil production may double by 2020. Obama did not mention that shipments of petroleum by train increased 46 percent in 2012, and new routes for coal exports are projected for the West Coast in spite of a heated protest movement spearheaded by community groups. Meanwhile, coal production continues to rise steadily over the past several years, as the “Saudi Arabia of Coal” in the Powder River Basin finds new routes out of the North America.

Obama’s strongest defense is, “even as we’re producing more domestic oil, we’re also producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth.” US natural gas production hit an all-time record high in 2012, and is projected to increase in coming years—in Obama’s speech, he insisted that such production boosts jobs, promotes clean energy, and calls for more infrastructure. Gas production is, however, often facilitated by alterations to residential zoning laws that have become possible through subversion of the democratic process by public-private partnerships. That the frack wells have poisoned aquifers, making life virtually impossible in some areas, only provides more fodder for contemporary enclosures and residential market speculators. Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air keeps a growing list, currently over a thousand people driven from their homes and/or suffering from long-term health problems throughout the Marcellus Shale, as well as in the fracking hubs of Colorado and Texas. In just one of numerous accidents, on May 24, a natural gas processor spilled 241 barrels of natural gas liquid into Parachute Creek, polluting local irrigation reservoir with carcinogenic benzene.

Obama continues, “sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.” The reductionist logic of such liberal platitudes to the Climate Justice Movement ignore the industrial poisoning of the land. Anything will work, as long as it is “clean burning” or promotes “clean energy.” Obama states, “we’ll keep working with the industry to make drilling safer and cleaner, to make sure that we’re not seeing methane emissions”—this notion of “not seeing methane emissions” is especially strange, considering scientists and engineers like Cornell University’s Anthony Ingraffea insist that methane emissions have made natural gas into a failed climate solution. According to Ingraffea, “It is not enough of a benefit to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand natural gas when that money could be put to use in deployment of renewables.” Even renewables have problems, however.

Comparing the rush for “clean energy” to the Space Race, Obama announced that the US ought to compete with Chinese production of solar panels. This is by all accounts a frightening declaration, considering that solar panel factories happen to emit extremely toxic fumes and pollutants into the air and water, while using rare earth metals that require extremely damaging mining enterprises. The problem with these factories came to a head in China in 2011 when the workers at a Zhejang plant forced the factory to close its doors, due to terrible health effects, including, among other things, cancer. Although solar factories may create more jobs, the workers in China have already met with their negative aspects. Obama calls upon the developing world to meet the same standards of pollution control as the US, while simultaneously encouraging regimes around the world to produce more fossil fuels (in Libya, for instance), while mandating that the US increases its own extractive industries. It is, indeed, a fact that the US has obstructed climate change proceedings around the world since at least the Kyoto Protocols, and Obama himself helped scuttle the optimistic attempts of the African Union to put forward a real climate change policy during COP15 in Copenhagen.

Focusing on emissions, Obama completely overlooked one of the worst contributors to climate change and biggest destroyers of land and water—deforestation. Deforestation contributed nearly twice the amount of emissions of heat trapping gases in 2010, yet Obama’s Forest Service has mandated a 20 percent increase in volume of board feet harvested from National Forests by 2014. This hike is alarming, considering that the forest service already considers “public lands” to be “plantation lands” on a thirty-year cycle. The FS and Bureau of Land Management have been hacking away at everything they can get their saws through since the RARE II report in 1977—what’s left is either short growth or critical late successional reserve forest that has been left to mature since the massive clear cuts of the 1950s and 1980s. These forests are teeming with endangered species, and they are the country’s last carbon banks—according to the Wilderness Society, almost all of the most critical national forests are up in the Pacific Northwest Cascadia bioregion.

In Mount Hood, the US’s most hiked glacial peak, the FS is sharpening the blades of the timber industry to reap 6,000 acres out of an area sweeping the north face of the mountain, but environmental groups were afforded no fair chance at field checking the sales. Before local biodiversity group, Bark, helped stop it, another 2,000 acre timber sale was slated for the western side of Mount Hood, putting the most beautiful part of that temperate rainforest up for grabs, including 150-year-old trees, the probable stomping grounds of the endangered Sierra Nevada Red Fox, and the last thriving salmon habitat on the mountain, the wild Sandy River.

Most bioregions are not so privileged as to have enough biodiversity groups to ensure that the Endangered Species Act and Environmental Protection Act are followed. Since the Clinton Administration’s heinous “Salvage Rider,” which allowed timber industries to cut down old growth for “fire prevention,” and the Bush Administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” (check-marked by Oregon’s finest Democrats), budgetary items that went to enforcement of environmental standards—namely, requirements for federal checking of timber sales—have been cut.

While conservatives like to blame environmentalists for the decline in the timber industry’s employment rolls, it is the timber industry’s all-out assault on the working class that should be blamed first. There are frequent claims that 13 percent of Oregon’s economy comes from timber. In Oregon, however, property taxes, income taxes, and tree severance taxes on timberlands paid by the timber barons rarely account for more than 5 percent of the counties’ total. Sixty-to-seventy percent of timber harvested is shipped overseas with minimal tariffs, much of it without even touching local sawmills, which used to be bastions of union labor. The seasonal employment of logging is notorious, up there with coal mining as a non-unionized and highly dangerous career with very little rewards.

The amount of board feet harvested today is roughly equivalent to that harvested in 1940, yet in timber states, the industry employs as little as 15 percent of their previous workforce. In 1990, timber production was more than four times what it is today, yet, between 1990 and 2007, the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries Timberland Index reported an annual compounded return of 12.88 percent, nearly 20 percent higher than the S&P index. The decline in harvested timber since the early 1990s does not seem to have impacted the corporations’ bottom line, in fact, the return price for stock in timber companies like Weyerhauser has increased as much as 60 percent since April 2012. Still, taxpayers subsidize the logging roads, sometimes using the FS and BLM’s ability to bypass environmental impact analyses to cut roads straight through old growth. In a strange inversion of the expected reality, the federal government is known to spend more on constructing logging roads for a given timber sale than it receives for the lease of the land. And the seasonal loggers get screwed along with the good old Spotted Owl.

Throughout the world, the general pattern of the World Timber Total Return Index shows that timber industry stocks have risen 215 percent between 2009 and 2011. Since the beginnings of the global food crisis, moneyed interests, multinational corporations and national elites have captured billions of acres across the Global South. The ramping up of the timber harvest in the US is only a small part of the resource push spearheaded by extractive industry throughout the world. It extends to other industries in the US as well, and increasing solar and wind production will not help to mitigate the problem. An average of 8 percent of land in every state of the Union is owned by foreign investors, with the exception of Maine where foreign investors own twice that. Half of this land is forest, much of it owned by timber companies from Canada and the Netherlands like Irving Woodlands. The Dutch pension fund is typically pointed to as the reason for their expansive investment in the US—the Dutch are staking their future on US land while we here are hemorrhaging social wealth (whether this points towards a larger pattern of the chicken coming home to roost, we will have to wait and see).

The rural farming sector of the US is also increasingly falling into the hands of outside investors. In Illinois, outside investment in farm sales increased by 66 percent in 2011, to 73 percent of all sales. This trend echoes a larger buy-out of land in the US. Between 2005 and 2010, the total amount of privately held farmland rose by 65 percent. Foreign direct investment leaped 6.7 percent in 10 months during 2010, reining in a total area the size of Indiana. While the features of the Global Land Grab are different in the US than they are in the rest of the world, it appears as though what is happening in the US is similar to what is happening in the Global South. First of all, the amount of available land in the North Atlantic countries is far less than that of the Global South. It is also more expensive, so the stakes are different—while foreign investment in land is rising, it does not touch the levels at which corporations are buying up land in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Land grabs are “legitimized” and enforced in the US by police and facilitated by courts and private-public partnerships, but that does not make what is happening in the US any more “legal” in terms of democratic control over public lands and resources. Instead, there is a run on natural resources in the US, and the financialization of the economy has provided the pretext to siphon the revenue directly to the upper class.

By all accounts, if Obama is calling for an increase in solar panel construction, emissions caps, and so on, he is also responsible for a simultaneous increase of extractive industry throughout the world. In his speech, Obama insisted that subsidies to coal-fired power plants worldwide must end, but only if those plants do not have carbon capture technology, which is highly dubious in terms of its proposed positive impacts. Since, forecasts show that coal, oil, and natural gas are only set to increase, it will clearly take concerted citizens’ campaigns to overthrow the industry barons and empower workers to take their fair share from the economy. While Obama speaks of climate change and the future of ecology in the US, he will not attempt to delink from the imperialist economy he has helped to build out of fossil fuels and deforestation, and the security state he has helped enfranchise to keep it in place.

Sasha Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, the coordinator of the Earth First! Journal—Cascadia Field Office, and an activist with Bark. His recent writings can be found in continent., The Singapore Review of Books, and Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Resistance Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). This article is also being published at newswire.earthfirstjournal.org.