What Can We Do To Stop Climate
A Presentation to the July 10 2011 KC Labor Forum
by Bill Onasch
Our topic here today may seem to some an untimely diversion from more pressing matters. All of us are concerned about the ominous threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid coming out of a White House that was supposed to be our friend. The jobless recovery seems to be getting even worse. And GIs continue to be killed in a war we were told was over in Iraq.
Those are important questions and there is no restriction on raising them in the discussion period that follows this presentation. But I hope to emphasize that while there are many challenges confronting the working class today none–absolutely none–are more important than climate change. Preserving Social Security and Medicare will mean little to our kids and grandkids in their old age if the biosphere can no longer sustain human civilization as we know it. And when it comes to jobs there is no better full employment option than restructuring the world’s economy to create a sustainable environment.
In the first part of this Forum last month we presented the case that extreme events such as the tornadoes, megafloods, record droughts, and massive wildfires we are witnessing, along with rapid melting of polar and glacial ice, are all indicators that climate change predicted by scientists has in fact already begun.
A couple of weeks after that Forum a remarkable article appeared in Rolling Stone entitled Climate of Denial. The author was a Nobel Prize winner who had served two terms as Vice-President of the United States and who had also received the most votes for President in the 2000 election–good enough for a second place finish in our electoral system.
Al Gore frankly took up the question he most often hears since his book and film An Inconvenient Truth sparked a fleeting public interest in climate change: is it real? He says,
“It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial...
“Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now.”
That’s telling it like it is–also remarkable coming from a second generation player in the political Establishment. He even goes on with some harsh criticism of his party’s man in the White House,
“The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States....President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis.”
Continuing as he began with his Oscar-winning film, Gore honestly and accurately articulates both the severity and urgency of the climate crisis. For that he deserves our commendation. For those of us who don’t appear on any Who’s Who list, it’s helpful to cite such a prominent source for corroboration.
Gore also spreads awareness of the alternatives available to reduce, and eventually virtually eliminate, carbon emissions that are the prime culprit producing global warming. He acquaints readers with the progress that has been made in developing solar, wind, and geothermal substitutes that, along with sensible conservation measures, can keep us going with clean, renewable energy.
But when we come to the question of how do we actually make this shift from fossil to renewable globally and quickly he falls far short of the mark. Gore cannot bring himself to go beyond the interests and instincts of the class responsible for the climate crisis. It’s a class that includes Gore, and he has devoted a life of service to them. He can only think in terms of market measures, fiscal rewards and punishments, and appeals for consumer responsibility.
Measures such as cap-and-trade and carbon offsets have been around for a while–and Al Gore played a big role in establishing them. Gore represented the United States at the historic Kyoto Conference in 1997 that produced a milk toast global warming treaty. More robust measures were vetoed by Gore and the final agreement was a compromise acceptable to the U.S. position.
As it turned out, the USA didn’t ratify the treaty the government that speaks in our name helped shape. President Clinton never submitted it to the Senate. President Bush later emphatically renounced Kyoto.
But six of what is now the G-8 countries did accept their quotas and established cap-and-trade and offset credits so we do have a substantial body of experience with these measures. They boast impressive dollar figures. Last year alone the volume of the European emissions trading market was 144 billion U.S. dollars. Using these schemes, most European countries are meeting their Kyoto quotas.
But 2010 was also the hottest year ever recorded. Emissions continue to climb this year smashing all records. The facts are indisputable–market and fiscal measures to reduce emissions have been a dismal failure.
The ruling class is not destroying our biosphere out of ignorance or evil motives. They continue their destructive ways because they are highly profitable–and profit is what makes capitalism go. The use of coal, oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals is integrated in to nearly every industry and agriculture. The only non-fossil fuel that has a significant market presence is nuclear power–an option with different but hardly less disastrous consequences for our environment.
Coal is the worst offender of the fossil fuels. It is also by far the most abundant and cheapest. That’s why coal is not only the energy of choice in so-called emerging countries, such as China and India but also is used in more than half of electricity generation in the USA. American coal has long profitably supplied the least expensive industrial and residential electricity of any major country.
Over the past couple of decades there have come to be more registered cars and light trucks in this country than there are licensed drivers. Auto remains America’s biggest manufacturing industry by far and all these vehicles need to be sold, insured, maintained, repaired–and some day junked. Their constantly increasing number has required ever more miles of concrete and asphalt pavement. And all of this depends on oil. So does air travel, most train operations, and the plastics industry.
Unlike ubiquitous coal, we have already seen the passing of Peak Oil. In a little more than a century most of our planet’s recoverable oil has already been consumed and current usage will exhaust it all in a few decades at most.
In these final days oil prices are surging and the handful of companies that control it are reaping astronomical profits. There would be no U.S. military intervention in Iraq or Libya if it were not for those country’s oil reserves. The pursuit of the last drop is leading to environmentally destructive drilling at sea and in the permafrost regions. The growing use of synthetic oil based on extremely dirty shale and tar sands extractions, is adding a new dimension to ecological disaster.
And then there is the food-to-fuel program, diverting corn to the manufacture of ethanol as a mixer to extend the sputtering flow of gasoline. AgriBusiness giants such as ADM once even tried to promote this as a renewable green alternative–a claim now completely discredited. An intended consequence of this scam has been to drive up the price of corn–which in turn raises the costs of feeding livestock and many common additives to processed foods and beverages. This has led to sticker shock for us at the grocery store. In poorer countries it often means doing without amidst growing malnutrition.
T Boone Pickens, a flamboyant corporate raider who acquired substantial interests in natural gas, is pitching that fossil fuel as a clean, plentiful alternative that can make America energy self-sufficient. While natural gas is not as potent a pollutant as coal and oil it is far from clean. Recent independent studies have shown claims of vast untapped supplies of gas to be greatly exaggerated. And the new technology enabling exploitation of once unprofitable gas deposits–known as fracking–is proving to be an ecological nightmare–and we probably haven’t yet seen all of its dangers.
The dependence of global capitalism on fossil and nuclear fuels and raw materials explains their seemingly irrational, mean-spirited tenacity in blocking effective measures to get climate change under control. They are aware of the consequences of continuing the present course. But, more important to those focused on today’s bottom line, they realize needed change in course will end the lavish profits of global capitalism as they know it.
Some, like Al Gore, may experience some existential anguish but most are coldly moving to defend their power and privilege by any means necessary. They use the media to feed us lies. They frame a Hobson’s choice of either jobs or the environment. In Australia, climate scientists have had to go in to hiding because of death threats by those trying to block a new carbon tax. Convincing the ruling class to do the right thing simply for the future of humanity is about as likely as a World Series this fall between the Royals and Astros.
Taking the measures required to stop the greenhouse build up before it reaches a point of no return not only mean shifting away from a market driven economy based on profitability. It also requires capital spending on a previously unimaginable scale. A recent United Nations study estimates global expenditures of close to two trillion dollars annually for ten consecutive years is necessary to stop further climate change while providing an adequate standard of living. Such sums are way beyond the means of the private sector
Seriously implementing needed restructuring requires a level of mobilization of resources, along with economic planning, that has only been previously accomplished in this country during World War II. Now some are uncomfortable with that analogy. That war was responsible for the deaths of about seventy million persons, the majority non-combatants. It introduced nuclear weapons–also a grave threat to the future of human civilization.
But you don’t have to be pro-war to recognize the historic success of the economic mobilization for that war. It’s lessons are valuable as we seek to restructure not for war but for an economy that can sustain our biosphere–not destroy it. It is also an example of how you can create a full-employment economy–something our present system has failed to do.
What kind of social and economic restructuring do we envision? Unlike Clay Chastain’s serial delusions about transit, I have not sat down at my dining room table and worked out a precise blueprint that must be followed with no deviations. But I think some broad objectives for this country have become increasingly clear.
Because the USA is generally recognized as a super-power, and also because this is where we live and work, I’m going to focus on this country. Of course, we are dealing with a global problem that requires coordinated international effort. I want to make some brief points about internationalism before going on to what we do here.
There has been great tension between the rich imperial home countries of Globalization and what used to be known as “underdeveloped countries.” These nations, most of them outright colonies at one time, long remained underdeveloped not through the inadequacies of their people or resources but because of market and financial policies imposed upon them by the European and North American powers, along with Japan. In many cases sustainable local agriculture was supplanted by export crops such as coffee, bananas, and chocolate–products I admit to being fond of, in the case of coffee even addicted to. There’s nothing inherently wrong about a division of labor in world markets so that people in grain-rich countries can enjoy products that can only be grown elsewhere. But there was no fair exchange for these exports and that has led to poverty and malnutrition throughout much of the world.
Some of them–such as China, India, and Brazil–are now known as emerging countries and have built formidable industrial economies. Those who rule in these emerging countries seek to imitate what was done here, replicating all of the problems of urban sprawl, proliferation of cars, and insatiable demand for electricity.
To tell the poor of the world that you can’t have what we’ve got because of the global warming crisis would not only be unjust–it will not be accepted. We need to tap that great pool of wealth unfairly extracted from the poor countries by the ruling class here and put it to work to provide a decent standard of living to every resident of this planet as we tackle climate change.
A prerequisite for restructuring in America is to take control of the commanding heights of the economy away from the tiny ruling class that presently runs them for profit and put them to work in the interests of society as a whole. That means nationalizing at least the energy, transportation, auto, and, above all the banking and financial industries to create a new green public sector. That gives us the material means to implement a far-reaching plan, developed by scientists and environmentalists, implemented in the workplace by a management of elected representatives of the workers.
Such a plan would include:
* Rapidly converting the electrical grid from fossil and nuclear to solar, wind, and other clean renewable energy generating sources.
* Renovating and rebuilding our urban cores while reversing urban sprawl, reclaiming the wetlands, forests, and farm land that once surrounded our cities.
* Building new mass transit systems to provide comfortable, convenient transportation in our revitalized cities.
* Replacing most air travel and over-the-road trucking with a modern, high-speed, electrified rail network.
* Greatly reducing the usage of plastics–especially in containers and packaging where reusable/recyclable substitutes are readily available.
* Banning genetically-modified crops and phasing out chemical fertilizers and defoliants as we convert to organic agriculture.
These projects can make a difference in ameliorating climate change while still maintaining a quality living standard. They would give human civilization not only a chance to survive but to advance.
This perspective will generate millions more jobs than we presently have–more than enough to put everybody who wants a job to work. But we must frankly acknowledge up front that such a restructuring would initially eliminate millions of present jobs.
That’s why we must include a Just Transition provision. When there’s job loss because of a decision of social policy society must accept responsibility for any retraining and relocation costs to get them in to a new suitable job. Until the displaced worker is hired on to a new job they are also entitled to payments to maintain their living standards.
Union contracts for workers in the new public sector would be maintained and there would be no resistance to unionization of the unorganized.
Now at this point many say this all sounds good but it’s just a dream. The bosses won’t stand still for it. You would never get such a plan through Congress and it wouldn’t pass muster in the courts.
That’s an understandable objection. The ruling class is powerful and ruthless. Along with their control of the two-party system they dominate the White House, Congress, the courts, the mass media, the school curricula, and even most of the churches. They bribe, threaten, jail, sometimes assassinate those they perceive as troublesome opponents. The greatest military machine in history, along with a vast spy network equipped with the latest technology is maintained primarily to advance their interests. Right now they are in no mood for compromise or reform.
Well, that’s why we speak of a movement for class and climate justice. The only force around with more potential power than the ruling class is–us, the working class. There’s not only a lot more of us than them–we do all the work. As our song proclaims, “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn!”
Our destiny depends on energizing a class-conscious, fighting labor movement and utilizing our unions and other worker organizations to launch a Labor Party to contest the bosses for political power by any and all means necessary.
That statement has been valid since before any of us in this room was born. But now, the threat of climate change has raised the stakes higher than ever. I am convinced that if we fail to mobilize the strength of our class in battle soon the future of humanity will be bleak indeed. But, conversely, if we do get our act together for class and climate justice no force on Earth can stop us.
Thank you very much.
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