Climate Catastrophe and Extinction Rebellion

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the last years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – economic inequality, racism, and militarism. If King were alive today, he’d be talking about the five evils that are interrelated, adding patriarchy and Ecocide, the destruction of livable ecology.  He’d also be noting the dangerous rise of a new national and global fascism linked to the presidency of a malignant racist who glories in accelerating humanity’s environmental self-destruction while the media obsesses over matters of far slighter relevance.

I was given three questions to answer today. The first question runs as follows: “How have you as a historian mapped the trajectory of Climate Change over time? What do we have to worry about right now?”

Let me say as politely as I can that I don’t like the phrase “Climate Change.” It’s too mild.  Try Climate Catastrophe.  If a giant oak tree is about to collapse on to your little house, you don’t say that you are risk of housing change. You say “holy shit we’re about to die and we better do something fast.”

I haven’t really tracked climate change as an historian.  I am an urban and labor historian, not an environmental one.  The climate issue really started being noticeable to me with the often-forgotten Chicago heat wave of July 1995, when hundreds of people, very disproportionately Black, died.

I rely on climate scientists to crunch the time-series numbers on planetary warming and what they are telling us is not good, to say the least. We are at an oak tree tipping point for the house of humanity.  It’s the biggest issue of our or any time. As Noam Chomsky told Occupy Boston 8 years ago, if the environmental catastrophe led by global warming isn’t averted in the next few decades, then nothing else we progressives, egalitarians, and peaceniks care about is going to matter.

In 2008, NASA’s James Hansen and seven other leading climate scientists predicted “irreversible ice sheet and species loss” if the planet’s average temperature rose above 1°Celsius as they said it would if carbon dioxide’s atmospheric presence reached 450 parts per million. CO2 was then at 385 ppm. The only way to be assured of a livable climate, Hansen said, would be to cut CO2 back to 350 ppm.

Here we are eleven years later, well past Hansen’s 1°C red line. We’ve gotten there at 410 ppm, not 450.  It’s the highest level of CO2 saturation in 800,000 years, 600,000 years before the first fossil evidence of homo sapiens.   I recently attended an Extinction Rebellion meeting in which it was reported that 22% of all human industrial-era carbon emissions have taken place since 2009, one year after Hansen issued his warning.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest 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 carbon emissions 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 to 4°C by the end of century. That will mean a planet that is mostly unlivable. Tipping points of unlivable existence are already being reached by millions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Sub Continental and Southeast Asia, parts of Central America and other regions where climate-driven migration is underway, with significant political consequences.

Numerous Earth scientists find the IPCC report insufficiently alarmist. It omits research demonstrating the likelihood that irreversible climatological “tipping points” like the thawing of the northern methane-rich permafrost could occur within just “a few decades.”

We really don’t know how quickly the existential threat may unfold. This is an experiment that’s never been run. What do we have to worry about? Extinction. Current female life expectancy in the United States is 81 years. A baby girl born this year would in theory turn 81 in 2100, when, at the current Greenhouse Gassing pace, Antarctica will have melted and the Amazonian rain forest will have long ceased to function as the lungs of the planet.

I was also asked by this conference’s organizers to discuss “connections between Climate Change, class inequity, and imperialism” and to offer ideas on why “this intersectionality [is] often overlooked.”  Let me to be as brief as I can because that’s a doctoral dissertation or two. Eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster are right about capitalism.  It is a system not just of class disparity but of plutocratic and corporate class rule, the rule of the owners and managers of capital. And there are a number of environmental problems with capitalist class rule. The fist problem is that the owners and managers of capital don’t really care about anything other than the accumulation of capital and profit. They are systemically compelled to commodify anything and everything they can get their hands on. They have always been perfectly content to profit from anything and everything.  They cash in on slavery, fascism, mass-incarceration, endless war, and even on turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber – a crime that quite frankly makes the Nazis look like small-time criminals by comparison.

The second problem is that the owners and managers of capital are constantly throwing masses of human beings out of livable wage employment and off of social safety nets and out of common lands and public schools and public housing and the only so-called solution to the mass poverty that results from this constant Enclosure process  they’ve ever been able to offer is the promise of new jobs through ever more expansion and growth, an environmental disaster on numerous levels.

The third problem is that Wall Street and Bond Street and LaSalle Street and the rest of the big financial streets and exchanges have huge fixed and sunken investments in a vast Carbon Industrial Complex. They do not want to see that giant portfolio devalued by home sapiens choosing to survive by keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.

The fourth problem is that capital is inherently and systemically opposed to and threatened by social, public, and environmental planning on the scale required for the task of moving humanity off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy and broadly sustainable environmental practices.

Fifth, class rule regimes insulate their top decision-makers from the worst environmental consequences of their growth-addicted systems.  By the time people living in ruling-class bubbles begin to sense existential threat to themselves, it is generally too late for them to do anything about it except stuff like trying to get the Tesla guy to fly them to Mars or to download their consciousness into an Artificial Intelligence satellite to roam the galaxy for eternity.

With imperialism the connections are less abstract. Eating up more than half the nation’s federal discretionary spending and sustaining more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 nations, the Pentagon system itself has the single largest carbon footprint of any institutional complex on Earth The so-called defense budget steals trillions of dollars that need to be spent on green infrastructure and green jobs if we are going to reduce carbon emissions to a livable scale. At the same time, America’s global super-power has long depended on U.S. control over global oil and gas reserves: the remarkable economic and geopolitical power that flows to control over the flow, pricing, and currency denomination of those reserves and the super profits that result from their extraction and sale. Oil control has long been a great source of American critical leverage in the world system. (The fact that the United States under Obama achieved so-called energy independence through accelerated fracking and drilling in the homeland doesn’t change the strategic calculation. It’s never been primarily about getting access to the oil for our cars and trucks and facilities.  It’s been about the critical imperial leverage oil control grants Washington). A planet that depends on renewable energy rather than petroleum to run its economies will be less susceptible to that sort of imperial domination.

Why are these intersectional connections overlooked?  Because it’s a capitalist media and its sponsors are not interested in talking about how capitalism and its evil twin imperialism are about profit over people including in this case profit over people as an organized presence on the planet.

The final question I was given is “What effective solutions and political strategies do you have to offer?” This isn’t what you are asking, but I do want to say six things regarding the path forward. First, there’s a whole bunch of information out there to use to counter the standard “cost and benefit” arguments that we can’t afford to undertake a national and global Green New Deal and  that shifting to renewable energy is a job killer.  Both of those arguments are false. The technologies are available and affordable. Green jobs do pay and will continue to pay better than fossil fuel jobs.  I have sources I’ll be happy to share on all that.

Second, we can’t afford NOT to make the transition. It is darkly hilarious to hear corporate Democrat and Republican right-wing commentators advance critical so-called cost-benefit analyses of the big scary Green New Deal.  Whatever you think of whether or not the Green New Deal is radical enough to get the job done, at least Green New Dealers are talking seriously about the benefit of a livable earth. It seems like society might want to absorb significant costs to achieve the continuation of the species. It’s a green cliché but it’s true:there are no jobs on a dead planet. There is no economy on a dead planet.

Third, we need to be ready to talk about green jobs and what they do and might pay and about how we can create social safety nets for fossil fuels sector workers if we want to sell environmental reconversion to the populace. The carbon-capitalist Exxon-Mobil-Donald Trump-Joe Manchin right has propagated the notion that green transformation is a giant job-killer. We must counter that claim in ways that show we understand and care about the concerns of the working-class majority.

Fourth, we need to be existentialists, not catastrophists.  It’s not about the crystal ball.  We can’t care about the odds.  The betting line on Green Transformation does not matter.  Maybe it’s just 1 in 10.  Maybe it’s better. It doesn’t matter. The odds go to zero in ten if we don’t take action. Let Vegas take the bets.  We are on the field of action.

Fifth, Howard Zinn was right.  It’s not just about who’s sitting in the White House or the Governor’s mansion or the Mayor’s office or the city council seat.  It’s also and above all about who’s sitting in the streets, who’s disrupting, who’s monkey-wrenching, whose idling capital, who’s occupying the pipeline construction sites, the highways, the workplaces, the town-halls, the financial districts, the corporate headquarters, and universities beneath and beyond the biennial and quadrennial candidate-centered big money big media major party electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. This is true about fighting racist police violence. It’s true about labor rights and decent wages.  It’s true about all that and more and it’s true about saving livable ecology.

Sixth, know your climate enemies.  If you think it’s just the eco-fascist Republicans, you are sadly mistaken. Yes, unlike Donald Trump, Barack Obama did not deny the existence of anthropogenic, really capitalogenic global warming.  But so what?  As Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers noted last year, “Obama watered down global climate agreements and grew oil and gas output and infrastructure in the United States.…Obama presided over the highest gas production in history and crude oil production rose by 88%, the fastest rate in the 150-year history of the U.S. oil industry.”  Obama bragged about this to a bunch of petroleum executives at the Baker Institute last year.

Vote if you think it’ll make any difference but don’t drink the full Kool Aid of American electoral fake-representative politics, the longtime graveyard of American social movements. Become a Gilet Jaune or a Gilet Verde. Get your yellow, green, red and black vests on. Learn how to build barricades. Study civil disobedience. Join the great Extinction Rebellion, which has a dynamic new Chicago chapter and will be making some splashes here and around the world this year. Remember the words of Mario Savio: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!”

If you’re waiting for some elite politician to fix this ecological mess you will be hung out to dry well past humanity’s expiration date.

A significantly shorter version of these comments were delivered at the Chicago Peace Summit at Loyola University in Chicago last Saturday.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).