A tectonic shift is occurring suddenly in the debate over climate change.
Only a year ago, at least in the US corporate media, there was always a rough equivalence accorded to those experts who were warning about a looming climate disaster facing mankind, and those who called the whole thing a “conspiracy” by corrupt scientists and politicians (albeit without ever explaining a motive).
Suddenly, though, that rough equivalence in the coverage is gone. The climate deniers are now exposed as charlatans in the pay of energy companies, and the coverage has shifted to talking about climate disaster being closer than we had been being told. If there is a “conspiracy,” we are now learning, it may be that climate scientists, afraid of creating a sense of hopeless and doom among the public, have been soft-pedaling their warnings, stressing the need to quickly cut back on the use of greenhouse-gas-producing fuels in order to try and keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade (roughly 4 degrees fahrenheit), when they all really know that a 4-degree centigrade rise is already “baked into” the earth’s near-term climate future, perhaps by as early as 2100.
This shift has yet to make its way into the public’s consciousness in the US (and much of the rest of the world too), but it is clearly going to happen. The question then will be: how will governments, and more importantly, the people of the world, respond to the new much grimmer reality?
Clearly, the capitalist system, fully corrupted at this point because of the size to which global corporations have grown, and the power they have gained to buy governments, cannot and will not rescue humanity from itself. Just look at the latest news from the Shell Oil Company, where internal documents just released show that company scientists have assured top executives that global warming in the far north means Shell can aggressively lease tracts of the formerly ice-bound Arctic Ocean and move floating platforms up there to extract even more oil and gas from the newly ice-free seafloor. These documents flatly declare that a 2˚C temperature rise is passé and that a 4˚C rise is already in the cards, moving towards a staggering 6˚C rise (note for US readers: that is an almost 11˚F temperature rise globally!).
The notion that corporations and a capitalist politico-economic system could ever take the necessary steps to halt climate disaster, for example by adopting energy conservation and becoming “green” companies, was always a pipedream. Just “going green,” while still producing unneeded junk and continuing to try and grow would never reduce total carbon emissions. It would require massively scaling back the production of useless or polluting goods and services, and shutting down many operations. And while the current US Supreme Court majority may think, or pretend to think, that corporations are people, they actually are institutions that are by their very nature and structure devoid of conscience, devoid of morality, and even devoid of any sense of long-term self-preservation.
A person who made his living trapping sea otters, might, upon learning that the animal was in danger of going extinct, voluntarily stop hunting them, but a corporation, informed that it us overfishing and will wipe out an entire fish species or fishing ground, will not, unless forced to do so, and will predictably fight and bribe politicians and regulators to allow it to keep fishing until there are no more fish.
The fundamental point of corporate law is to limit the liability of actual owners of a firm – to insulate them, that is, from responsibility for their own wretched and self-serving actions. This means that the actions of a corporation, however noxious or criminal, do not generally get blamed on its officers and managers. A good example of this is the felony penalties being assessed today against five of the world’s biggest banks by the US Justice Department for manipulating global currencies. Not a single executive of any of those banks, as I wrote earlier this week, is being indicted for this crime, though the banks themselves are now felons. Aside from some $6 billion in fines that will hardly be noticed by investors, the banks get away scott-free.
We have also seen, during the recent global fiscal crisis, how the big banks all gambled recklessly with their and investors’ assets, ultimately losing so much money that they had to be either bailed out by national governments and taxpayers, or allowed to go bust. The managers simply didn’t care either way. They had already become among the world’s richest people, rewarded year after year by themselves and their boards of directors and shareholders for their epic corruption and mismanagement. Even if they had been ordered to leave their jobs as a part of the rescues (they weren’t), they would have walked away billionaires.
The same is true of all the giant corporations of the world. There is no penalty for failure or even criminality in the corporate world, only for a failure to keep pushing growth each year to impossible heights until eventual collapse.
Given this dysfunctional model, how could anyone expect the commanding heights of the US or the global economy to take the kinds of steps needed to slow or halt climate change?
A this point, if we want to try and hold global warming to the 2˚C limit that scientists say is the maximum increase in temperature that would offer any hope of preventing runaway heating and the resulting chaos of mass extinctions, huge human die-offs and the likely collapse of civilization, we will have to halt the production of internal combustion engines, shut down most corporate farming, close down all coal-fired power plants, massively convert to on-site solar and wind power generation, and most importantly, stop pumping and digging carbon-based fuels out of the ground.
Huge companies like Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and the like would have to be shut down, or massively downsized and broken up.
We’re talking here in other words about a revolution — a total shift away from an economic model that elevates “growth” to godlike status to one that focuses on human needs (as opposed to wants), and away from a philosophy that sees humans as destined to conquer and exploit nature to one that sees humans as simply one integral part of nature — a philosophy that requires us to figure out how to fit in with and preserve the natural world.
In such a new world, there can be no rich, because the rich – even the ones who may pose in their dotage as do-gooders — are dangerous and self-centered parasites. Neither can there can be poor because where there are poor, there will be inevitable demands for more — demands that, while understandable, will lead to destruction of the natural world. Only if all humanity shares to ensure a decent secure life for all can there be any hope of long-term human survival on this limited planet.
That’s admittedly a tall order, but at least we are reaching a point — perhaps too late, but we’ll see — where the enormity of what humanity faces can no longer be avoided. The methane is already boiling or even exploding up out of the Arctic permafrost and, even worse, out of the seafloor of the coastal continental shelf above Siberia and North America, and over the short term, methane is about 180 time as potent a greenhouse gas as is carbon dioxide. All over the perimeter of Antarctica, which we were earlier told was not showing significant warming, we are seeing the ice melting now, while the Arctic Ocean, solidly frozen year round for the last 2.6 million years, will be ice-free in summer, possibly this year, but assuredly in the next couple of years. Greenland, meanwhile, once a huge sheet of white ice a mile thick, should now be called Greyland, as the rapidly melting ice sheet has now exposed so much of the pollution dumped there over several centuries of Industrial-Era snowfalls, that its surface in summer looks like the remnant snow in New York City three days after a snowstorm: more soot than ice.
Expect corporate America and the bought politicians in Washington to start pushing for “technical fixes,” as a New York Times opinion-page writer did yesterday. But this kind of “Hail Mary” effort to avoid the necessary revolution in our economic system and in our whole way of viewing the human experiment will not work. Tinkering with the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth by increasing cloud cover or injecting sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, or trying to continue burning coal and oil while “sequestering” the resulting carbon are all actions beyond any conceivable technological development because of the scale required, and would, if they could be done, have such enormous negative consequences (many unpredictable), that they simply cannot happen, or be allowed to happen.
For now, the best that can be said is that we are leaving behind the period of denial and the false hopes. As with addiction, the first step is acknowledging one’s sickness, and we are now beginning to acknowledge the real sickness of our capitalist world.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).