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Humans, CO2 and Climate Change

Since the publication of Alexander Cockburn’s latest assaults on the link between the burning of fossil fuels and global climate change, I’ve been inundated with hundreds of emails from CounterPunchers demanding to know my position. I thought my views had been clear for many years. But I’ll take this opportunity to summarize them.

1. The planet is warming once again.

2. This latest period of warming is largely caused by the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

3. The CO2 clotting the earth’s atmosphere is mostly produced by the burning of fossil fuels and by deforestation and slash burning.

4. So, yes, human activities are largely responsible for the current phase of climate change. Even the most strident scientific critics of the IPGCC reports do not dispute this anymore. Most of the scientific contention is over the rate of future warming, not causality. The most conservative of critics tend argue that the pace of warming is slowing. I disagree, but I’ll be ecstatic if I’m proved wrong.

5. Climate change models are models not facts. We should be suspicious of them. Empirical observation, from ice cores and paleobotany, are more valuable. That said, sometimes the models have underestimated the problem, as in the recent evidence on the accelerated rate of Arctic melting. Yes, billions of dollars are being poured into new computer models and hi-tech research tools. Where’s the harm? That’s less money going into the killing machines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Close the oil depletion allowances, then we can talk about how much money is being wasted on climate change research.

Mike Davis chides me for my aversion to modeling. He contends that the computer models are getting better and better. And he’s right. The margins of real contention have also narrowed considerably. Still the emphasis of most modeling is prognostication. Predicting the future is a fun but risky occupation. Instead, I look to the natural history. There the evidence of causality is overwhelming and decisive.

6. As I understand it, the water vapor critique is a recycled canard that circulates through global warming denialist camps with the same feverish import that 9/11 conspiracists attach to Larry Silverstein’s infamous quip that he’d “pulled WTC building 7.” Water vapor is, indeed, an important greenhouse, but it is a feedback response not a forcing mechanism. Water vapors also reside in the atmosphere for a relatively short time, 14 days or so, compared to 20 years for CO2 emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.

7. Here’s where my skepticism comes in. Humans have contributed to global warming, but seem utterly incapable of solving. Al Gore offers rhetoric not solutions. He had his shot for eight years and his administration couldn’t even come up with an alternative energy policy. Kyoto was a hollow half measure, weakened even further by the Clinton administration, and Gore didn’t even try to push that through the US Senate. Three strikes and you’re out, Al. Gore places most of the blame on individual consumption and not on corporate rapaciousness and the capitalist system that is driving nearly every environmental crisis, including climate change. You will search his essays, books, speech and films in vain for any sustained critique of corporate behavior. Instead, he offers the tired neoliberal approach of tax incentives and carbon credits that rewards those with the most blood on their hands.

8. Huge profits are being made from global warming fear mongering, from the do-nothing NGO grant whores to the nuclear power industry to strip miners decapitating the mountains of Appalachia for low sulfur coal to British Petroleum’s quest to saturate the Third World with genetically engineered crops for a new generation of biofuels.

9. The environmental movement is dead. (DOA: April 2, 1993.) It is a co-opted exoskeleton of its former self, largely controlled by cautious politicos and neoliberal hacks like Gore, who suckle from grants doled out from oil industry seeded foundations (such as Pew, W. Alton Jones and Rockefeller), and who advance free-market incentives over regulation, lobbying and public relations over real mass movements and direct action.

10. So we’re fucked. But don’t worry. I hear the Rapture approaching. In any event, this is a human problem, not a planetary one. Last summer floating through Cataract Canyon, I leaned over my little kayak to touch the tortured shapes of rocks from the violent Permian Period, 251 million years ago, when 98 percent of the planet’s species went extinct. But the dance of life went on. Now, the question, really, is whether humans want (or deserve) to be part of it. Although if we are intent on checking out, I don’t see why we have to take the polar bears with us.

A final caveat. I’m not a scientist. In fact, as a neo-Luddite, I tend be extremely cautious in my relationship to science and technology. There are, however, many climate scientists, working in hostile bureaucratic conditions, whose research I highly value, such as Julio Betancourt. I find the RealClimate.com site to be a very useful archive of articles
distilling hard science on climate issues into readable prose. Yes, the NGO grant hucksters on climate change (or endangered species) are obnoxious, but they haven’t killed anyone–except through their indifference and passivity. I reserve my true hatred for the pr thugs and scientific guns-for-hire (going rate: $2,500 a day) at Big Coal, the rapers of West Virginia and Black Mesa, and Shell Oil, the killers of Ken Saro-Wiwa. They can roast perpetually in the Hell’s Cul-de-Sac, otherwise known as Phoenix, Arizona, circa 2050.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

 

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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