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As the World Burns: Hurtling Towards an Unlivable Planet

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The media and political establishments are diddling while the planet burns.

Are we really supposed to take their games seriously as humanity veers ever more dangerously off the environmental cliff?

In 2008, James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and seven other leading climate scientists reported that we would see “practically irreversible ice sheet and species loss” if the planet’s average temperature rose above 1°Celsius (C) thanks to carbon dioxide’s (CO2) presence in the atmosphere reaching 450 parts per million (ppm).

CO2 was at 385 ppm when this report came out.  It was “already in the dangerous zone,” Hansen and his team reported. They warned that deadly, self-reinforcing “feedbacks” could be triggered at this level.  The dire prospects presaged included “ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and GHG [greenhouse gas] release from soils, tundra, or ocean sediments.”

The only way to be assured of a livable climate, Hansen and his colleagues warned, would be to cut CO2 to at least 350 ppm.

Here we are eleven years later, well past Hansen’s 1°C red line. We’ve gotten there at 410 ppm, the highest level of CO2 saturation in 800,000 years. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest climate report reflects the consensus opinion of the world’s leading climate scientists.  It tells us that we are headed to 1.5°C in a dozen years.  Failure to dramatically slash Greenhouse Gassing between now and 2030 is certain to set off catastrophic developments for hundreds of millions of people, the IPCC warns.

The IPCC finds that we are headed at our current pace for 3-4°C by the end of century. That will mean a planet that is mostly unlivable.

And here’s the kicker: numerous serious climate scientists find that the IPCC’s findings are insufficiently alarmist and excessively conservative. That’s because the IPCC deletes and downplays research demonstrating the likelihood that irreversible climatological “tipping points” will arrive soon.  Among many reports pointing in this direction is a recent NASA-funded study warning that the unexpectedly rapid thawing of permafrost could release massive volumes of CO2 and methane within “a few decades.”

Conservative though it may be, the UN report is no whitewash. It calls for “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to drop global CO2 emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels and 60 percent below 2015 levels by 2030.  We need to hit zero by the mid-century point, the IPCC says. We cannot do that without radically and rapidly reducing our energy consumption.

In a remotely decent and intelligent society, public and political “elites” and “leaders” and the dominant media and politics culture would be fervently focused first and foremost on this problem.  The climate catastrophe (“climate change” is far too mild a term to capture the real crisis of capitalogenic global warming) is the biggest issue of our any timeAs the environmental blogger Robert Scribbler wrote  four years ago, “There is no greater threat presented by another nation or set of circumstances that supersedes what we are now brazenly doing to our environment and the Earth System as a whole. And the rate at which we are causing the end level of damage to increase is practically unthinkable. Each further year of inaction pushes us deeper into that dangerous future.”

If the global warming cataclysm – already significantly underway in vast swaths of the planet – isn’t averted and soon, then nothing else we care about is going to matter all that much.  We’ll just be arguing about how to fairly slice up a badly overheated pie – how to turn an overcooked world upside down (or right-side up) and how to properly manage a living Hell.

You’d hardly know this from the reigning U.S. media and politics culture, where the climate crisis and other critical environmental issues are pushed to the margins of public discussion. It is chilling (no ironic pun intended) to behold. With every passing fossil-fueled day, the specter of “man-made” ecological calamity looms ever closer and larger.

But so what? The chattering and electoral classes and political gossip-peddlers divert us 24-7 with breathless “breaking news” reports on an endless stream of supposedly bigger stories: the absurd Orwellian charge that Ilhan Omar is an anti-Semite; Michael Cohen’s alleged past pursuit of a presidential pardon; Paul Manafort’s latest sentencing hearing; Ivanka Trump’s ridiculous national security clearance; Donald Trump’s insane nativist border wall; Roger Stone’s latest Tweets; the racist medical school yearbook photos of a pathetic white governor; television celebrity Jussie Smollett’s criminal shenanigans; the latest horrible mass-shooting; the latest sex scandal; the latest real or rumored findings in the seemingly interminable investigation of Trump’s racist, sexist, and gangster-capitalist past and presidency.

Nearly two years ago, CNN co-producer John Bonfield was caught on tape telling a right-wing undercover journalist that CNN president Jeff Zucker said this to his executive producers after Trump pulled of the Paris Climate Accords: “Good job everybody covering the climate accords, but we’re done with that. Let’s get back to Russia.”  

Climate catastrophe? Television advertisers and hence news broadcasters are not real excited about that story. It’s not a big seller of cars, petroleum products, petroleum, mutual funds, investment advice, drugs, cruise packages, and insurance policies at NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, and CNN. Even it did sell well, the climate story doesn’t line up well  with corporate advertisers’ carbon-caked balance sheets.

By contrast, the ongoing Trump-Russia-Cohen-Manafort-WikiLeaks-Stone-Stormy et al. soap opera has been a ratings boon. And now we have the 2020 presidential candidate extravaganza – the quadrennial electoral spectacle – coming on to commercial line. It’s the world’s greatest reality show, with the imperial presidency as the ultimate Big Brother prize.

I’m not saying that all of what the “mainstream” media and politicians talk about is silly or insignificant. It matters to defend Rep. Omar, to fight Trump’s wall, to silence and lock up fascists like Stone, to publicize and rollback gun violence, to determine once and for all the nature of Trump’s really strange (sorry “left” Putin fans) relationship with the Russian oligarchy, to expose racism and sexism (and fascism) in the White House and the nation more broadly. Trump’s caging of children at the southern border is an atrocity that should be broadcast and denounced.  The same goes for the related clear and present danger Trump presents more broadly to democratic and even just republican and constitutional principles on numerous levels. The 2020 elections and their aftermath (including the distinct possibility that Trump will refuse the Electoral tally) will not be irrelevant to the fate of the nation and the Earth.

But nothing matters more now than the existential environmental crises we face, with the climate disaster in the lead.  There’s no chance for social justice, democracy, equality, creativity, art, love and community – or anything else (including profits) – on a dead planet.

Yes, the “Green New Deal” advocated by a cadre of progressive Democrats has made its way into media coverage and commentary in recent months. It appears that the GND – which includes welcome calls for net zero U.S. carbon emissions by 2030 – will be part of at least the primary election story thanks to Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio, Jay Inslee, and other progressive or progressive-sounding Democrats.  But don’t expect it to receive all that much attention (much less positive attention) in the dominant corporate media-politics complex. Serious discussion of the climate issue and environmental questions more broadly doesn’t serve broadcasters’ and advertisers’ bottom line interests. There is little chance that the climate crisis will remotely approach the Trump investigations and the already emergent 2020 presidential horse-race when it comes to garnering real media attention.

The reigning political and media “elite” is happy to keep capitalogenic global warming on the public margins until long past the last ecological tipping points are passed. They can be counted on them to fiddle and diddle through the species’ final, fossil-fueled flame-out. It is an existential necessity to create a new culture, media, and politics with the elementary natural and social intelligence required to properly prioritize the most pressing problems of our time.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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