“Given the urgency and magnitude of the escalating pace of climate change, the only hope lies in a rapid and unprecedented mobilization of humanity around this issue. . . that some spark might ignite a massive uprising of popular will around a unifying movement for social survival and the promise it holds for a more prosperous, more equitable, and more peaceful world.”
-Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point
There is no cause, no issue, no crisis more significant and more immediate than the crisis of global warming. There is a very real prospect that, absent a deep and broad clean energy revolution, we will see within our lifetimes a massive disruption of human society throughout the world—above and beyond the widespread structural injustice and poverty that already exists—via floods, major storms, rising sea levels, large-scale refugee movements, droughts, deforestation and a major decline in food production. More and more people in the United States are coming to realize this.
Why, then, are the many different actions being taken in the U.S. about this crisis, important as they are, so minimal when compared to the urgency?
One reason is certainly the scope of the issue. With global warming we are dealing with a problem that is not just international in scope; it is also intertwined with the basic functioning of our economic system, currently dependent upon fossil fuels–oil, coal and natural gas–for the production of needed energy to power our cars and computers, to light our buildings and streets, to provide heat in the winter and to make possible a number of other products and processes that are essential to modern civilization as we know it. Absent the knowledge that there are many concrete steps that can be taken to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption and therefore greenhouse gas emissions without any significant effect on these social and economic processes, and absent the hope that our government is willing to seriously address this issue, it’s understandable that people feel helpless.
This is related, of course, to corporate control of our mass media and the influence within the corporatized economy of energy companies like Exxon Mobil. Information about the escalating seriousness of the climate crisis is underreported or underplayed, and there is even less information provided about the viability of clean energy alternatives like wind and solar and the potentially huge impact of serious energy conservation and energy efficiency standards if they were built into the way in which our economy functions. Much of the information that people get on this and other crucial issues comes via the internet, alternative media, word of mouth or other less-extensive sources.
Then there is the “competition” of issues like the war in Iraq, the health care crisis, problems with our schools, polluting sprawl and other environmental problems, police brutality and a racially-discriminatory legal system, violence against women and more. These issues are important, and they also tend to affect people more directly on a day-to-day basis, which makes them more immediate in people’s consciousness and therefore more natural focuses for popular organizing.
But probably the major reason why we have seen little overt activism–demonstrations in the streets, sit-ins, mass lobbying campaigns and the like—on global warming is because it has only been in the last few years that the scientists who have been studying this issue are realizing and reporting that there is an alarming increase in the rate at which global warming is taking place and that the window is closing during which time human action has a chance of averting a massive world catastrophe.
We are literally faced with a race against time, as indicated by these facts:
-Virtually every single glacier on the planet is receding noticeably and dramatically. According to Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, 43% of the Arctic sea ice has disappeared in the last 40 years. In a recent interview Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), spoke about the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas on which 1 billion people are dependent for water. The IPCC is made up of approximately 2,000 scientists from around the world and has been studying this issue since 1989.
-The melting of the Arctic sea ice could lead to a shutting down of the Gulf Stream so that it no longer continues up the Atlantic coast and across the Atlantic Ocean to northwest Europe. This could lead to an average temperature drop in that area of 10 degrees and the devastation of European agriculture. And because the Gulf Stream is like an engine powering what is called the “Great Ocean Conveyor,” a current which winds through all the world’s oceans, its disruption would probably lead to additional weather havoc throughout the world.
-According to Ross Gelbspan in his book, Boiling Point: “In 2001, researchers at the Hadley Center, Britain’s main climate research institute, found that the climate will change 50 percent more quickly than was previously assumed. . . When they factored in the warming that has already taken place, they found that the rate of change is compounding. Their projections show that many of the world’s forests will begin to turn from sinks (vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide) to source (vegetation that releases carbon dioxide). . . by around 2040.”
-According to an article in the August 11th, 2005 Guardian newspaper in England, “A vast expanse of western Siberia is undergoing an unprecedented thaw that could dramatically increase the rate of global warming, climate scientists warn today. Researchers who have recently returned from the region found that an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres – the size of France and Germany combined – has started to melt for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. . . The area is the world’s largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. It is a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying ‘tipping points’ – delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth’s temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures.”
-A recent report indicates that, because of ocean warming, there has been a significant decrease in the number of fish and sea birds off the coast of the Pacific northwest due to an estimated reduction of ¾ of the plankton that is normally available for fish to feed on.
-Climate Change News, an email publication of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, reported that, “Retreat rates of Greenland’s glaciers are substantially increasing, according to a BBC video-interview of a NASA research team. The team has been monitoring this area from Iceland and satellites. NASA Scientist Jay Zwally said, ‘The alarming aspect of this is the increase in melting and the effect of warmer temperatures on the thinning ice. It’s a really dramatic change and it’s picked up in the last 5 to 10 years. Before that, things were relatively stable but now we’re seeing the effect of climate change kicking in.’ Daily, enough ice calves off of one large glacier in Greenland to supply water to New York City for a year. In the past five years, a section the size of a small city has melted from this glacier, contributing to sea level rise.”
-Taking these types of developments into account, an international task force reporting to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and co-chaired by his close ally, Stephen Byers, concluded in early 2005 that we could reach “the point of no return in a decade.”
Facing the Facts
In the face of these facts, and given the predominant role within the world of the U.S. government which, under oil millionaires Bush and Cheney, is literally obstructing efforts to address this issue, it is easy to feel pessimistic about the chances of reversing global warming in enough time to avert worldwide disaster. Indeed, the United Nations, as contained in an official publication, El Diario, circulated at the Conference of Parties 10 international meeting last year, reported that global warming has led over the past decade to nearly 500,000 deaths, has impacted over 2.5 billion people and has generated economic losses of over $690 billion.
Some people say, as I’ve heard it expressed, that “It’s too late.” They believe, with justification, that there is so much carbon dioxide and methane either in the atmosphere or certain to enter it no matter what is done in the coming years that we cannot avoid tremendous climate instability and negative impacts for decades to come.
That is probably true. But other things are also true.
-No one alive is absolutely certain of what the future holds in store, either as regards the specific effects of global warming or as regards the equally important process of popular mobilization on this issue.
-If it turns out to be the case that there are an unfolding series of steadily more destructive global warming impacts, that does not mean we should relax our efforts to enact a clean
energy/sustainability revolution as quickly as possible. The longer it takes to enact that revolution, the more extensive will be the damage done to all forms of life on the earth and the more difficult it will be to bring into being that badly-needed, new, equitable and sustainable society.
-Oil, coal and natural gas are finite resources. Many energy analysts, including those in the pay of Exxon Mobil, are predicting that we will soon be at the point of “peak oil,” the stage at which we will go, in the words of “The End of Peak Oil,” an article in the June, 2004 National Geographic, “from an increasing supply of cheap oil to a dwindling supply of expensive oil.” This is occurring as demand for energy is accelerating around the world and as a greater percentage of the oil that remains is more difficult to pump and more expensive to extract from alternative sources such as tar sands, oil shale or coal. As stated elsewhere in that article, “In the end the quest for more cheap oil will prove a losing game: Not just because oil consumption imposes severe costs on the environment, health and taxpayers, but also because the world’s oil addiction is hastening a day of reckoning.”
If there was no crisis of global warming, a transition to wind, solar, tides, biomass, geothermal and other forms of clean energy would be necessary in this century on economic grounds alone.
-And there is a number of positive aspects to this deep and wide energy crisis. It will only be solved by the nations of the world working together, as is already happening within the framework of the Kyoto global warming treaty. It will only be solved if the tremendous power of the oil and coal corporations over U.S. energy policy is significantly lessened. The needed clean energy revolution will directly create large numbers of new jobs producing, installing, maintaining, teaching about and improving these systems. And the kind of massive and sustained political movement needed to bring about these changes, built of necessity on principles of not just environmental sustainability but, if is to be broad enough to be successful, economic and social justice, can generate the political forces to make the United States not a nation to be feared and hated but a constructive partner in a world moving towards social, environmental, racial, gender and economic justice for all.
Specifics of a Transition
Given that, as this is written, the USA has spent close to $300 billion in the last three years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, resources for a clean energy transition are not an issue. The resources are unquestionably there if there is a political will.
Other countries are far ahead of the USA in the “political will” area. In his book “Boiling Point,” Ross Gelbspan reports that, “Holland, for example, recently completed a plan to cut its emissions by 80 percent in forty years. Germany has committed to cuts of 50 percent in fifty years. British prime minister Tony Blair has pledged the United Kingdom to reducing carbon emissions by 60 percent in fifty years. Even China, whose economy grew by 36 percent between 1995 and 2000, cut its emissions by 19 percent during the same period.”
In the area of energy efficiency, Gelbspan refers to “Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, (who) has identified and developed an extraordinary array of efficiency technologies that, if adopted, would reduce our carbon emissions considerably. Whereas most economists estimate that the industrial world could cut its aggregate emissions by about 30 percent through efficiencies, Lovins contends that figure is closer to 50 percent.”
Defense of the world’s forests and the spreading of community-run, not corporate-run, tree planting campaigns is a concrete way to preserve and spread an absolutely essential natural resource in the battle to stabilize our climate. It was a positive development when the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Wangari Maathai of Kenya, leader of the Green Belt Movement which has planted 10 million trees since 1977.
Gelbspan has outlined a World Energy Modernization Plan, developed in the late ‘90s by a group of “energy company presidents, economists, energy policy experts and others,” which has since received the support of other organizations and individuals. It involves three “interacting strategies:” ending subsidies for fossil fuels and using them instead for the development of clean energy (approximately $20 billion/year in the U.S.); the creation of a large fund to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries, possibly financed by a ¼ of a cent per dollar tax on international currency transactions, yielding $300 billion; and the development within a “Kyoto-type framework” of a “progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard” under which every country would reduce its carbon fuel use by 5 percent a year until there has been a global 70 percent reduction.
Without question the rapid development of solar, wind, geothermal, clean biomass, tides and perhaps other non-polluting energy sources is an absolute necessity. Wind power in particular is growing rapidly in Europe as it has become increasingly competitive economically with fossil fuels.
Another necessary step—some environmental activists believe the key step– is to shift from regressive taxes like sales taxes to “carbon taxes.” Analyst Charles Komanoff has explained the concept: “Such a tax directly addresses the buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere that is causing global warming. The tax revenues would also let fiscally pressed state governments eliminate regressive sales taxes while maintaining vital services, making carbon taxes palatable to otherwise hostile constituencies and officials. Based on the chemical make-up of fossil fuels, a carbon tax would be lightest on natural gas, around 40% higher on petroleum products like gasoline, and another 20% higher on coal.” Such a tax-shifting plan would create a more equitable and progressive system of taxation while encouraging energy efficiency and conservation.
One questionable technological “fix” for this crisis is carbon sequestration, under which carbon dioxide in the air would be captured and buried deep underground. One problem with sequestration is the high cost of the process. Other problems are the possibility that at some point in the future an earthquake could lead to the CO2 being released into the atmosphere or the possibility of contamination of underground water aquifers. Although the severity of the crisis is an argument for continued research into the potential of this process, it should certainly not be a central part of the solution.
This entire transition from an inefficient and wasteful dirty energy economy to one which is about conservation and clean and efficient use of energy must be done in a just way. In the words of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative (www.ejcc.org), “Low-income workers, people of color and Indigenous Peoples will suffer the most from climate change’s impact. We need to provide opportunities to adapt and thrive in a changing world. No group should have to shoulder alone the burdens caused by the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy. A just transition would create opportunities for displaced workers and communities to participate in the new economic order through compensation for job loss, loss of tax base and other negative effects.”
Can nuclear power be part of the answer? Most environmental activists don’t think so. In a statement released earlier this summer and signed by a significant number of the major national enviro groups (e.g., Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG and others), it was stated: “We flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is an acceptable or necessary solution. Instead we can significantly reduce global warming pollution and save consumers money by increasing energy efficiency and shifting to clean renewable sources of energy. . . Nuclear power still remains the least attractive, least economic, and least safe avenue to pursue.” It is unnecessary, too expensive, too dangerous and too polluting. “We believe that the financial and safety risks associated with nuclear power are so grave that nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming. There is no need to jeopardize our health, safety and economy with increased nuclear power when we have cleaner, cheaper solutions to reduce global warming pollution.”
The Requirements for Success
However, the battle to slow global warming and stabilize our climate will not be won on the basis of logical, rational arguments. Those are important, but given the economic forces we are up against, what is needed is a political and social movement the likes of which this country and world have never seen. We need an early 21st century mobilization for global survival that is massive, visible, multi-faceted, creative, and determined. It must also be willing to use non-violent civil disobedience in a strategic way to underline the urgency of this crisis.
We need individuals who are willing to make personal sacrifices for this most fundamental of causes, the cause of global survival. In the words of Donella and Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers in “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update,” “How to bring into being a world that is not only sustainable, functional, and equitable but also deeply desirable is a question of leadership and ethics and vision and courage, properties not of computer models but of the human heart and soul.”
If we truly believe that the clock is ticking toward midnight, that we’re minutes away from it and that at midnight the flood gates will almost literally be opened, we need a growing number of people who are prepared both for the daily sacrifices of hard work on the details and the less frequent dramatic actions of demonstrating, fasting, sitting-in, being prepared to risk arrest or go to jail.
What we really need in this country is something like a Tiananmen Square action on the mall in Washington, D.C.
In the spring of 1989 hundreds of thousands of students and workers non-violently took over the government plaza in Beijing, China demanding democratic reforms, adherence to socialist principles of equality and protesting government corruption. For a month this occupation continued. A number of the participating students went on a hunger strike to press their demands. Although the demonstration was broken up by military force on June 4th, the example of these young people was felt throughout the world.
For the last several months a coalition of environmental, student, people of color, religious, labor, peace, community-based, women’s and other groups has been discussing the idea of a massive national march on Washington sometime in 2006. It has not yet been decided upon. Instead, many of the groups which participated in those discussions are working together to organize local actions all around the country and, indeed, around the world on December 3rd. This is at the time that a major international conference is being held in Montreal of all the countries which signed the Kyoto Protocol, as well as some that have not, like the United States. It is hoped that a successful organizing campaign leading up to December 3rd will provide a springboard into a stepped-up 2006 campaign which will include a decision to organize a massive D.C. action.
There are reasons to believe that such a 2006 campaign is possible. One key reason is the emergence over the last few years of a growing movement for clean energy among students. In the fall of 2004 close to 300 college campuses experienced local actions on this issue and an important national network, Energy Action, which brings together over 20 mainly youth and student groups, is continuing to grow and build.
Without the energy and fresh perspectives of young people, no movement for global justice has a chance of success.
Another reason is the growing understanding within the peace movement of the connection between the war on Iraq, fought for oil and control of the oil-rich Middle East, and global warming. Momentum is building for a major demonstration against that war on September 24th in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. The major national peace coalition, United for Peace and Justice, supports the call for actions on December 3rd so that it is reasonable to expect that many of those who demonstrate on September 24th will be “likely suspects” for visible action on this issue.
And within the environmental movement a debate was re-opened in late 2004, having been raised over a decade ago by people of color activists, as to how it can become more effective, less policy-wonkish, more diverse, less white middle-class. Some of the large, more established environmental groups were part of the discussions about a national march on Washington and are connected with the organizing efforts toward December 3rd.
There are many localities, and some states, which are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and replace dirty energy with clean energy alternatives. Just recently the U.S. Conference of Mayors went on record as in support of these efforts.
Finally, and very significantly, the global warming crisis is of such a magnitude that even within the ranks of the leadership of the Republican Party and the Christian Right, there are people speaking out about the need to address it, including U.S. Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Stowe and long-time party figures like James Baker and James Watt. Rev. Rich Cizik, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals, has been quoted as saying, “I don’t think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created.”
Increasingly, people in the USA are getting it. A poll in July, 2005 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland reported that “an overwhelming majority of Americans supports the US agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions in concert with other members of the G8 Summit. The new PIPA-Knowledge Networks poll asked, if, at the G8 Summit, ‘the leaders of these other countries are willing to act to limit the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, President Bush should or should not be willing to act to limit such gases in the US?’ Eighty-six percent said that he should. Eighty-one percent of Republicans supported this as well as 89% of Democrats. Virtually all respondents—94%—said the US should limit its greenhouse gases at least as much as the other developed countries do on average. Nearly half—44%—think the US should do more than average.”
All of this has happened without a visible movement taking action in the streets. Is it unrealistic to believe that with such a movement many things would be possible that right now seem impossible?
We must act as if we have it in our power to bring into being a new world, a desirable world, a world grounded upon justice where we are at peace with one another and the earth which gives us life. Because we do.