By Roger D. Harris
Posted on June 23, 2015 by the Communications Committee
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Global warming demands immediate and practical solutions. Such solutions are available, and they would enhance our quality of life rather than diminish it. At the same time, pursuit of these solutions points to the need for more basic, long-term changes to the system of waste which defines the country that has contributed the most to creating human-caused climate change.
Yet the debate over climate solutions has been hijacked. Most mainstream politicians simply point the finger at each other, blaming their opponents for gridlock. Confronting the world’s biggest polluter – the US military – has been taken off the table; even the statistics on greenhouse gas emissions have been cooked to make the effects of the global and domestic security state invisible. And instead of addressing the political dimensions of how to retool an unsustainable economy, the discussion has devolved into choosing among dueling technologies.
Climate Change Deniers
The scientific consensus on global warming is conclusive. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal; the certainty is 100% that the planet is warming. Further, the warming is very likely due to increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. That is, there is a 90% certainty that some of the increase in global temperatures are due to human-caused factors.
These are the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). This United Nations scientific body is the authority on climate change. Their conclusive 2007 report had 600 authors representing 40 countries and was reviewed by 113 governments.
A small minority of climate scientists still contest the IPCC findings. These climate change deniers do not have either the consensus of the scientific community to back them or the agreement of the broader public. A majority of American public opinion supports the IPCC findings, and even the US Senate voted 98 to 1 to recognize global warming in an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill.
The Democratic Party promotes itself as the good guys “who believe in climate change” against the bad guys such as the anti-rational, anti-science, anti-reality Republicans who "deny climate change." Now that the scientific and public consensus is in favor of the understanding that anthropogenic climate change is happening with negative planetary consequences, why beat a dead horse? The answer is that hammering on the climate change deniers delays the day when governments have to be held accountable for doing anything about climate change.
In 1998, the world’s nations met in Japan under the auspices of the United Nations to discuss the risks inherent in global warming. They developed protocols to achieve "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."
The Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the US. In fact, the treaty was never even brought to the floor of the Senate, as there was a bi-partisan consensus from the very beginning in opposition to the protocol and to prevent it from even being discussed. The Democratic Party has had in its platform since the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol a position opposing it. Granted, the Kyoto Protocol is not the whole answer, but it points in the right direction and is better than no protocol at all.
The Democrats get to have their cake and eat it too. Al Gore and company can whine about the climate-denying Republicans, while not lifting a finger to solve the problem. In fact, the Democrats and the Republicans are in the same camp of doing little to effectively combat climate change, all the while looking out for opportunities to better serve the energy companies.
The US’s main contribution to the Kyoto Protocol was by then Vice President Gore who was one of the main proponents of cap-and-trade, a system that allows capitalists to make even more money from pollution. For instance, if an auto plant moves from Detroit to Mexico, the owner of the plant under cap-and-trade might be able to profitably sell so-called "carbon credits" for not operating the Detroit plant.
Climate Solutions Debate Hijacked to be about Alternative Energy Technologies
The climate solutions debate has been hijacked by the energy corporations who profit from their concessions and the politicians who serve the corporations. The debate is framed by the corporate interests to be a debate about alternative technologies – which portion of their portfolio will receive the latest and greatest public subsidies. Should we have more "clean energy" or should we invest in "clean coal" and so forth. Is wind better than solar, and is wind and solar better than oil and gas? Can nuclear be made safe? Is hydrogen fuel cell technology feasible or even a solution? How long will it take and how much of a "commitment" (read – public paying private capitalists to make a profit) will it take to bring new technologies on line?
Technology Is a Tool, Not a Solution
Technology is a tool, not a solution in and of itself. Whether it is a solution depends on how the technology is applied. Right now, for instance, solar development is the single biggest cause of destruction of natural lands in the state according to the California Native Plant Society. Wind turbine development is endangering eagles, other birds, and bats. If technology is simply applied to perpetuate current patterns of unsustainable development, progress is not being made.
We can leave the dueling technologies to competing corporate interests, because technology alone cannot fix a problem rooted in the political economy. As the former president of Uruguay Jose Mujica said, we need a new development model.
Conservation – the Low Hanging Fruit
Completely and utterly left out of the debate is the obvious low hanging fruit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – conservation. This is something that can be done right now, needs to be done right now, and can be done within the current context of political power. We don’t have to wait to institute socialism (although it would help immensely) to immediately adopt conservation measures.
For starters and at a societal level, ban outdoor gas patio heaters, use screw-in fluorescent bulbs (as has been done in socialist Cuba), energy efficient refrigerators and air conditioners, reflective roofs and pavements, and lighter weight automobiles. Build mass transit oriented cities with sufficient population densities to have real urban amenities, where jobs and housing are in close proximity. This is the kind of conservation that improves rather than degrades the living conditions of working people.
Ironically, conservation has been edged out of the debate, when it is the single most effective immediate measure by a wide margin. Conservation has even received the silent treatment in any number of progressive discussions on climate solutions, which have become fixated on banning the use of all fossil fuels, a demand which cannot be implemented immediately and may not even be entirely practical.
The big national conservation organizations are currently going all out shilling for the wind industry to get them yet more government subsidies. The National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club are leading the pork barrel charge. Yet not a whisper from these folks about conservation. How curious; the big national conservation organizations have forsaken conservation while accepting millions of dollars from the energy industries (e.g., Sierra Club took $50 million for promoting natural gas).
The big national conservation organizations are also all gaga over the latest technological fix. Their technological whoring knows no bounds. Both the National Audubon Society’s and the Sierra Club’s magazines have had admiring full color spreads on the wonderful new field combat use of solar employed by the imperial armies in Afghanistan.
Conservation by Whom?
Part of the reason some progressives have left out conservation as a climate solution relates to the way conservation is framed. Al Gore and the other politicians who serve the corporations use the scam which places guilt and blame on individual people as the source of wastefulness, while ignoring the system of wastefulness. Let us be clear that we do not mean individual sacrifice but do mean systemic solutions.
Some people view conservation of energy and a reduction in consumption as their own personal responsibility. But it is really a project for us to undertake as a society. While we can make some changes in our own habits which will have a very minor impact, we must organize to combat the systemic waste created by the capitalist system, with its continual need for expanding profits.
While individuals can do their part in contributing to conservation by recycling and conscientious consumerism, the individual should not be the target for conservation. Empirically, individual consumer choices are not the main problem…we’re not going to save the planet by recycling our beer bottles or swearing off of meat. It works the other way around. Consumerism is engineered by a system of wastefulness. Over half of the food produced is not consumed due to profligate capitalist commercial practices.
And by the system of wastefulness, let us be clear that we mean capitalism. Capitalism is predicated on the ethical premise that greed runs the world and on the economic premise that expansive and ruinous growth is a necessity. Capitalism calls the "commons" a myth, because capitalism is designed to destroy the commons and the commonwealth that goes with it. Capitalism is the system that manufactures needs without the structural possibility of satisfying them. As Madison Avenue tells us, you never have enough stuff.
The Military – the Third Rail of US Politics
This leads to the second major way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which won’t be touched by the corporations, or the politicians that support them, and certainly not by any of the big national conservation organizations swilling on corporate and government largesse. The third rail of US political discourse -- the most sacred of our institutions – is the military and the now universal and perpetual practice of war.
Something like a third of the US-generated greenhouse gases could be eliminated overnight if the arsenal of warships, fighter planes, anti-personnel tanks, armored Humvees, and so forth were immediately mothballed. (And, may we add, there are other good reasons for that measure beyond energy conservation.)
Surely the most wasteful, destructive, and anti-environmental activity that the US engages in is its war-without-end. Yet not one major national environmental group will utter even a mild rebuke about the “defense” budget and the multitude of wars it funds. Somehow the desert is oh so fragile in the US, but oh so good a bomb target in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, etc., etc.
According to chat on the web, environmental gurus like Bill McKibben who bravely "speak truth to power" suddenly lose their tongues when it comes to the issue of the military. McKibben wages "war on fossil fuels," yet cannot extend the metaphor to war itself.
US Military Exempted from Climate Controls
According to activist Sara Flounders:
There is an elephant in the climate debate that by US demand cannot be discussed or even seen. This agreement to ignore the elephant is now the accepted basis of all international negotiations on climate change.
It is well understood by every possible measurement that the Pentagon, the US military machine, is the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products and the world’s worst polluter of greenhouse gas emissions and many other toxic pollutants. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements.
Ever since the…Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1998, in an effort to gain US compliance, all US military operations worldwide and within the US are exempt from measurement or agreements on reduction. The US Congress passed an explicit provision guaranteeing US military exemptions. The complete US military exemption from greenhouse gas emissions calculations includes more than 1,000 US bases in more than 130 countries around the world, its 6,000 facilities in the US, its aircraft carriers and jet aircraft. Also excluded are its weapons testing and all multilateral operations such as the giant US commanded NATO military alliance and AFRICOM, the US military alliance now blanketing Africa. The provision also exempts US/UN-sanctioned activities of ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘humanitarian relief.’ - Sara Flanders, "The Pentagon — the climate elephant", International Action Center
Climate Debt of the Rich Nations
Meanwhile the US unjustly calls upon the poor nations of the world to assume levels of responsibilities for combatting global warming, which would impede their development, while the rich nations of the world and in particular the US have been both the beneficiaries and the cause of today's excessive greenhouse gas production. The rich nations with the US as most prominent have a "climate debt" to pay off, because it is their military and their industry which has disproportionately caused global warming.
System Change – Not Climate Change
In conclusion, it is important to understand the inherently anti-environmental nature of ever-expansive capitalism. Unless and until the system of waste known as capitalism is replaced by a system designed to address the needs of people, there will be no ultimate solution of global warming.
This analysis of capitalism should inform our understanding and our polemics, but simply saying we need "system change, not climate change" is insufficient. Given the immediate urgency to address global warming before climate trends become irreversible, we must put forward intermediate demands …foremost are the demands for conservation and for curbing the US military. The climate solutions debate is an opportunity to expose the system of wastefulness, the system of capitalism.
Roger Harris is a member of the State Central Committee from Marin County. A retired wildlife biologist, he serves on the board of the Marin Task Force on the Americas and the Marin County Parks and Open Space Commission.
For more on climate change, see
- Why Ecosocialists Should Register Peace and Freedom (September 29, 2013)
- Statement in Opposition to Cap and Trade (August 25, 2011)
- Resolution on the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (April 3, 2011)