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Global Capitalism and Climate Change

How Markets Will be the End of Us


Thanks to the capitalist policies prioritizing profit over sustainability, and what policymakers perceive as ‘short-term gains’ over long-term human survival, the issue of climate change is more in focus than it ever was. From the looks of it, the same policies that brought us to this point of almost no return are the same ones that will carry us further towards what now seems like an inevitable global catastrophe.

According to a recent article published in Rolling Stone magazine, the world has approximately 565 gigatons left to release to the atmosphere before the earth reaches a critical two-degree increase. However, there are at least 2795 gigatons of carbon fuel left buried in earth and oil companies are already aligning with policy makers to sell all they can dig out.

While these figures look like certain doom for the earth, we can always trust the market to figure out a way to save itself, even at the cost of certain people. More specifically, there are two ways by which the hand of the market will force the hand of those who are interested in the survival of the market—policymakers, oil companies and other corporations who benefit from fossil fuels—to make decisions that will ensure its survival.

First, fossil fuels inevitably diminish returns and threaten the profits of those who benefit from the survival of the market. We are living through this already. According to NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) overview of current research results, “it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.” Moreover, they predict a “30% increase in potential damage in the Atlantic basin by 2100.” Keep in mind that the National Weather Service lists that seven of the top ten costliest hurricanes in the U.S. took place within the last decade—delivering a total damage of 217,466 billion dollars. Consequently, that figure is expected to rise in the coming decades. In addition to this number, we need to further consider the annual costs of maintaining fossil fuel spending. Once we add the $502 billion per year fossil fuel subsidy—money which the government provides to keep the price of gas down—plus the $120 billion per year in health related costs, as well as $1.6 trillion per year in infrastructure spending related to fossil fuel energy, we are faced with an almost $2.5 trillion yearly cost to sustain the fossil fuel machine. Not to mention the combined cost of crop and supply losses due to high temperatures and draught. Compare that figure with a mere 54 billion dollars of tax revenue the U.S. made from the top three oil companies in 2013.

We can expect the costs of sustaining fossil fuel consumption to rise over the in next decade—or at least maintain the 50 to 1 ratio of cost to profit. We can also expect the market to react accordingly to these numbers. Eventually, after series of economic crises, depressions, and catastrophes, somewhere along the line, the real cost of maintaining the production and consumption of fossil fuels will surpass the fantasy of its profit. That is when we can expect the market to react in a way to turn things around and save humanity.

Second, the consumption of fossil fuels will cause human suffering to the extent that it will severely affect demand, threatening market activity and eventually the profits of those who have vested interest in the survival of the market. It is no secret that winters are getting colder and summers are getting hotter on a global scale. Thus far, what most considered a tiny increase in the average temperature of the planet, a mere 0.8 degrees, caused 30% increase in ocean acidity, the disappearance of one third of summer sea ice in the Arctic, increased vapor in atmospheres, unprecedented fires, draught, and environmental catastrophes. These catastrophes, as they are expected to get more severe as we increase fossil fuel consumption, will inevitably spike death rates from freezing, heatstroke, hunger, thirst, floods, droughts, storms and other mechanisms by which the earth tries to balance out the damage we deal. According to the World Health Organization, “global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004.” Global warming increased so severely that a report released in 2012 showed the same number rose to 400,000 in 2010 and is expected to be 700,000 in 2030.

The market, of course, does not care about human death or suffering unless it negatively affects demand or market activity. But, therein lies the good news! Looking at these numbers, it is safe to assume that within this century human suffering will be so severe that it will eventually motivate the market to take action against it.

Those who are benefiting from the market’s reliance on fossil fuels will not be moved to make a change unless they are personally impacted by the possible consequences of climate change in the short run. As “Aubrey McClendon, America’s second-largest producer of natural gas” adequately put: “Where is the mushroom cloud? Where are the dogs with one leg? Where are the people that have been maimed or hurt?” While he has the privilege of being blind to current economic and human consequences of his work, we can always trust the market to show him, or others in his line of business, the real ramifications of what they do—after enough suffering takes place to affect them personally.

Ali E. Erol, Ph.D. is a Lecturer at American University.