The Ascendance of Trump Makes Broad-Based Climate Action Essential…and Achievable

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

On December 5, former vice president Al Gore met with Donald and Ivanka Trump in an effort to convince the president-elect that he should not gut federal policies and agreements dealing with climate change. Three days later, actor Leonardo DiCaprio also paid the Trump duo a visit, urging them to help build a green, climate-friendly economy with lots of jobs.

The two men could not have had less impact on greenhouse warming if they had flown up to Alaska together and asked the glaciers to please stop melting.

In a conversation with Gore on December 6, the climate-hawk governor of California, Jerry Brown, urged optimism. He believes that other world leaders can convince Trump that his retrograde climate policy is not a good idea politically. (First, though, those leaders are planning to convince Syrian president Bashar Assad to adopt Scandinavian-style social democracy.)

Meanwhile, Scientific American and a whole slew of scientists want you to sign a change.org petition calling on Trump to make the United States a leader in the climate struggle (and to be sure to use the hashtag #ActOnClimate.) I expect, though, that you’ll be at least as effective if you instead start your own petition urging Chevrolet to stop building SUVs and make bicycles instead.

Trump of course ignored these entreaties, instead demanding from the Energy Department the names of all personnel who have been involved in efforts to reduce carbon emissions. We can assume that he didn’t make the request because he wants to give those employees raises.

Ambitions for federal action on greenhouse emissions have sunk to such depths that, according to a climate-conscious writer for The Hill, “our best hope” is, of all people, Ivanka. Even if she were to convince Donald not to scuttle the Paris Agreement on climate, we’d still be in the realm of futility, talking about global carbon-cutting pledges that would lead to a world-shattering global temperature increase of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius (and that’s in the unlikely event that all countries live up to their commitments under the agreement; it would likely be worse.)

Forget Trump. If saving civilization from an untimely heat death actually did depend on whether or not the U.S. president can be convinced to take appropriate action, then we would have already been doomed long before 2016. Policy steps taken by current and past presidents, as well as campaign promises made by Hillary Clinton, all fell far, far short of cutting emissions as much as is needed to avert disaster. They didn’t even get us to the starting line.

Will Donald make it easier to get radical?

Instead of begging our megalomaniac-elect to save the world, we all should follow the examples of the Standing Rock Sioux, the #ShutItDown activists, the city of San Francisco, and others who are confronting the ecological crisis where it’s happening.

Arguing for that in an invigorating December 1 Portland Rising Tide essay, Arnold Shroder noted that the opening for building a bigger, more radical, more effective movement may be wider now than it was before November 8. He wrote,

“Federal intransigence on climate is such that most plausible scenarios for significant near-term emissions reductions involve states, counties, and municipalities—who have managed [until now] to convince themselves that meaningful climate action is the job of someone with more power, like the federal government and the United Nations—to find diverse and creative ways to dismantle their fair share of the fossil fuel economy.”

However, Shroder continued, most local and state officials are still going to act only when pushed to act, so intense public pressure and bold actions will be needed: “Direct action can influence the behavior of political entities which are capable of significantly impeding Trump’s agenda. This is true in many respects. The fact that so much of the political establishment, even on the right, is averse to Trump likely creates unique opportunities. . . . [I]nstitutional collaboration at all levels is necessary for any of this madman’s visions to become reality, and in a way that has perhaps never been true of a US president, it isn’t at all clear where he will and will not receive that collaboration.”

He points to the defiant resolution passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a month after the election (and huge street demonstrations), in which they declared that the city will “never back down” in its support of climate action, immigrant protection, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, workers’ rights, and universal health care, adding, “We will not be bullied by threats to revoke our federal funding.” Cities large and small across the country have declared similar intentions.

Shroder too urges that activists who are focused primarily on climate and the fossil-fuel menace join forces with those fighting back against racism, mass incarceration, and deportation; those resisting the growing impunity of police with their right to harass and shoot at will; those fighting for workers’ rights, and people carrying out many other struggles. We’re going to need demonstrations more frequent and even larger than those that helped stop Washington’s war on Vietnam.

Getting Over Paris

This better path now open to the climate movement—that is, instead of asking Washington or corporations or the investor class, “Please do this,” to tell them, “We’re gonna do this and this and this, no matter what you say or do”—can energize people at a time when prospects are looking grimmest. But most people or groups, even climate-aware ones, won’t be roused to action unless prominent figures—not just celebrities like Gore and DiCaprio, but all national and local climate leaders—make clear the scale of the emergency and stress that incremental emissions reductions are doomed to fail.

The need for quick, urgent action is not a hard case to make. Despite allowing the global temperature to rise by two and a half to three and a half degrees, the Paris agreement declares that its eventual goal is to hold the rise to a degree and a half. That’s because all of the realistic projections now show that even the old goal, a two-degree rise, will mean catastrophe. Achieving the 1.5-degree goal will require eliminating all greenhouse emissions within the next 15 years, and sooner in the case of heavy emitters like the United States.

That’s a very tall order. But one benefit of 2017’s otherwise horrific alt-reality will be that activists and organizations won’t be bound by the political horse-trading that under a Clinton or Sanders administration would have meant settling for incremental, far-too-slow emissions reductions. Now they will be free to push hard, out there across America, for the immediate, steep drop in the use of fossil fuels and other greenhouse-gas sources that is so essential.

But they will also have to be publicly candid about a hard consequence of such deep cuts: that they will require America and other high-emissions nations get by on far less energy from all sources.

Why’s that? Well, suppose we overthrow this regime soon and get serious about climate. Building wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal infrastructure will be essential to sustaining civilization, but a rapid buildup will require huge energy inputs. And we will have to be rapidly abandoning fossil fuels at the same time we are constructing renewable energy infrastructure. The concurrence of those two crash campaigns will leave far less net energy to be consumed for doing everything else we need to do.

So the transition will be tough, but what about the long run? Can renewable sources eventually supply as much energy as we now consume, so that America can eventually return to today’s profligate lifestyle? Some research reaches optimistic conclusions, but more hard-nosed studies that take all limits and pitfalls into account find that once we start dealing with on-the-ground realities, we will have to accept that the energy abundance we’ve enjoyed in this short-lived fossil-fuel era won’t be repeated in a renewable-energy future.

The primary limitation we will face in building renewable energy capacity is its higher requirement for energy input per unit of energy generated. That can be ten to twenty times larger than was required for mining and pumping the coal, oil, and gas with which today’s world was built. That leaves much less net energy to be used by society at large.

Second, we will obtain less and less energy per unit of energy invested as time goes on. That’s because we are already exploiting the best locations for wind, solar, and biomass power; we’ll be moving on to successively less windy, sunny, productive places.

Furthermore, some of the wind and solar energy generated, maybe much of it, will have to be stored using batteries, hydrogen, compressed air, or other means. It will then have to be reconverted either to electricity or liquid fuels and transmitted from often remote regions to places where people and businesses are concentrated. All of those processes will severely shrink the net energy available to society, because much energy is expended during both conversion and transmission.

Finally, all production of wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy has an ecological impact on the landscapes where it occurs. So if we are to halt our degradation and destruction of the Earth’s natural ecosystems, it will be necessary to declare large areas off-limits to the energy sector.

Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery of Monash University in Australia have been examining scientists’ projections of global potential for renewable energy generation, and pointing out all of these limitations. They have concluded that future renewable output “could be far below present energy use.”

The bottom line: we will have to redesign our economy and society to get by with a permanently lower input of energy and other resources. This will require a World War II-scale mobilization, something that obviously isn’t going to happen in a Trump administration; however, if we mount emergency mobilizations in communities, counties, and states around the country, along with open political rebellion in defense of the Earth, we could start cutting emissions and blazing a trail for nationwide climate mobilization at the same time we are striving for rapid regime change.

A new nation conceived . . .

Slashing energy consumption will be a hard sell in America unless a majority of the country understands clearly the dreadful consequences of not doing it. But it’s just as important to emphasize that a life with lower energy consumption is not going to be one of gloom and misery. On this point, some international comparisons might be useful.

For example, consider scenarios in which we reduce the net energy available to run American society (total energy, from all sources) by 50, 75, or 85 percent. We then can ask which countries today have similar per-capita consumption of energy. (Since no one can really be sure how much we’ll have to reduce, I chose those percentages arbitrarily before looking at the data, in order to avoid any charges that I was cherry-picking percentages or countries.)

There are four countries that consume about half (45 to 55 percent) as much energy per capita as America does: France, Japan, Slovakia, and Slovenia. So clearly, a well-functioning society with good quality of life can easily run on that kind of energy input. (By the way, all four of those countries have much lower inequality scores and higher human development indices than we do.)

But unfortunately, any realistic examination of our predicament tells us that we are going to have to cut energy use by a lot more than half.

So let’s look at the group of countries that consume about a quarter (22 to 28 percent) as much energy per capita as the United States. That’s more of a mixed bag: Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Mexico, Montenegro, and Thailand. (Hong Kong is within this range as well, but it’s not a country.) All but Mexico have better scores for income inequality than the United States. And among 150 nations, the ranks of these “25 percenters” on the human development scale run from around 30th best (Croatia and Cyprus; compare with USA at no. 28) to near 70th (Mexico and Thailand.)

Some of these countries would clearly be better places to live than others (based on my experience, I’d go for Croatia any day!), but the larger point is that consuming 75 percent less energy than Americans do doesn’t require adopting the lifestyle of the Neolithic.

If it turns out that we will have to go further and get by on about 85 percent less energy per capita, our present-day examples are Armenia, Botswana, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Georgia, Jamaica, Jordan, and Panama. Lower living standards for sure, but wide variation in quality of life. The main problem making some of these countries, and some of those listed above, less-than-desirable places to live is not that they are energy deprived. It’s that a large share of their populations endure material deprivation while a privileged few hoard much of the wealth and power. (Note that such conditions clearly exist in today’s United States.)

This is not to say that by going on a strict energy diet, the United States would come to resemble present-day France or Bosnia or Ecuador or any other country. We’d still be America, but a thoroughly transformed America—maybe better, maybe worse. Done right, the scaleback would force us to stop expending energy on all kinds of wasteful, socially harmful, or ecologically destructive activities. We would ensure that everyone has sufficient access to the shrinking energy pie, along with a good livelihood and good quality of life.

To achieve that transformation it will be necessary, in Marx and Engels’ terms, to expropriate the expropriators. The 99 percent will have to seize wealth and political/economic power from the 1 percent. But in a world with a ceiling on available energy, there will also need to be a shift of resources from the top half to the bottom half of the population if there’s to be sufficiency for all.

No more soft pedaling

Up to this point, the mainstream climate movement has been highly allergic to talking about energy reductions of 75 percent or more, let alone the economic transformation that would entail. Some have refused to let go of the idea that the “American way of life” can be sustained; others have known all too well what was required, but soft pedaled their message for fear of scaring the wider public away from climate action—a maneuver writer Chris Shaw has decried as the “not in front of the children” strategy.

I have heard that argument made ad nauseum in another, no less condescending form: “We have to let people have hope!” OK, fine. In the perilous years ahead, I’m going to respond to that nostrum this way: “I agree. So start asking your readers or audiences or neighbors this: “What gives you more hope: broiling ourselves on the High setting under Trump, cutting emissions gradually so as to broil ourselves on Medium under the Paris Agreement, or turning off the broiler and living with a lot less material abundance but in a more just, more fair country?”

We can let Washington decide between those first two choices for us, or we can choose the third.

This article was originally published by GreenSocialThought.org.  

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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