This Changes Everything
By Naomi Klein (2014)
A year ago, I was having dinner with some newfound friends in Athens. I asked them for ideas about what questions I should put to Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of Greece’s official opposition party and one of the few sources of hope in a Europe ravaged by austerity. Someone suggested, “Ask him: History knocked on your door, did you answer?”
That’s a good question, for all of us.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity Tom Crompton, Tim Kasser (2009),
“To the extent people prioritize values and goals such as achievement, money, power, status and image, they tend to hold more negative attitudes towards the environment, are less likely to engage in positive environmental behaviors, and are more likely to use natural resources unsustainably.”
Free trade agreements, privatisation, deregulation, low income taxes, low corporate taxes, cuts to public spending…
… the commitments made in the climate negotiations all effectively functioned on the honor system, with a weak and unthreatening mechanism to penalize countries that failed to keep their promises.
The commitments made under trade agreements, however, were enforced by a dispute settlement system with real teeth, and failure to comply would land governments in trade court, often facing harsh penalties.
… countries are responsible only for the pollution they create inside their own borders—not for the pollution produced in the manufacturing of goods that are shipped to their shores.
Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another… [T]hese changes are safely within market logic—indeed, they encourage us to go out and buy more new, efficient, green cars and washing machines.
Consuming less, however, means changing how much energy we actually use: how often we drive, how often we fly, whether our food has to be flown to get to us, whether the goods we buy are built to last or to be replaced in two years, how large our homes are.
Jimmy Carter, 1979:
“… too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
… the speech is still invoked as proof that any politician who asks voters to sacrifice to solve an environmental crisis is on a suicide mission.
The lesson from all this is not that people won’t sacrifice in the face of the climate crisis. It’s that they have had it with our culture of lopsided sacrifice, in which individuals are asked to pay higher prices for supposedly green choices while large corporations dodge regulation and not only refuse to change their behavior, but charge ahead with ever more polluting activities.
The Fossil Fuel Industry
… oil and gas companies remain some of the most profitable corporations in history, with the top five oil companies pulling in $900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010.
… they have actively blocked progress at every turn.
“German emissions are not up because nuclear power is down. They’re up because nobody told the German power companies not to burn coal, and as long as they can profitably sell the electricity somewhere, they’ll burn the coal—even if most electricity consumed in Germany was renewable. What we need are strict rules against the extraction and burning of coal. Period.”
Investment in fossil fuels continues:
In 2011, a think tank in London called the Carbon Tracker Initiative conducted a breakthrough study that added together the reserves claimed by all the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned. It found that the oil, gas, and coal to which these players had already laid claim—deposits they have on their books and which were already making money for shareholders—represented 2,795 gigatons of carbon…
That’s a very big problem because we know roughly how much carbon can be burned between now and 2050 and still leave us a solid chance (roughly 80 percent) of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. According to one highly credible study, that amount of carbon is 565 gigatons between 2011 and 2049.
“The thing to notice is, 2,795 is five times 565…. What those numbers mean is quite simple. This industry has announced, in filings to the SEC and in promises to shareholders, that they’re determined to burn five times more fossil fuel than the planet’s atmosphere can begin to absorb.”
… the very thing we must do to avert catastrophe—stop digging—is the very thing these companies cannot contemplate without initiating their own demise.
The prospect of getting paid real money based on projections of how much of an invisible substance is kept out of the air tends to be something of a scam magnet.
Once absorbed into this system, a pristine forest may look as lush and alive as ever, but it has actually become an extension of a dirty power plant on the other side of the planet, attached by invisible financial transactions. Polluting smoke may not be billowing from the tops of its trees but it may as well be, since the trees that have been designated as carbon offsets are now allowing that pollution to take place elsewhere.
The EU Emissions Trading System (ETS),
“… has not reduced greenhouse gas emissions… the worst polluters have had little to no obligation to cut emissions at source. Indeed, offset projects have resulted in an increase of emissions worldwide: even conservative sources estimate that between 1/3 and 2/3 of carbon credits bought into the ETS ‘do not represent real carbon reductions.’”
Various studies show companies making windfall profits from the system:
- $32 to $99 billion for electric utilities
- $1.8 billion for airline companies
… rather than getting the polluters to pay for the mess they have created—a basic principle of environmental justice—taxpayers and ratepayers have heaped cash on them and for a scheme that hasn’t even worked.
Geoengineering, e.g., solar radiation management (blocking the sun’s rays),
- Doesn’t change the underlying issue
- Can’t be turned off without first removing carbon from the atmosphere
- Doesn’t help with the carbon absorbed by oceans
- Reasonable level of uncertainty of what the effects will be
- Volcanic eruptions that blocked the sun have previously caused: drought, famine, flooding…
- “claiming millions of lives…”
- “flooding with high mortality rates…”
- “took the lives of at least 125,000…”
And almost no one seems to want to talk about what happens if our geoengineering operations are interrupted for some reason—by war, terrorist attack, mechanical failure, or extreme weather. Or what if, in the middle of simulating the effects of a Mount Pinatubo–like eruption, a real Mount Pinatubo erupts. Would we risk bringing on what David Keith has described as “a worldwide Ice Age, a snowball earth,” just because we forgot, yet again, that we are not actually in the driver’s seat?
… science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes “untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief.”
Rich countries will suffer the least, but they’ve done the most harm so far.
“The number of people that went through industrialization the first time around is like a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people going through industrialization this time.”
… developing countries today are squeezed between the impacts of global warming, made worse by persistent poverty, and by their need to alleviate that poverty, which, in the current economic system, can be done most cheaply and easily by burning a great deal more carbon, dramatically worsening the climate crisis.
The home front during both World Wars: rationing, victory gardens, victory bonds, fuel conservation, increased use of public transport…
Twenty million U.S. households—representing three fifths of the population—were growing victory gardens in 1943, and their yields accounted for 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed that year.
… Chris Hayes, in an award-winning 2014 essay titled “The New Abolitionism,” pointed out “the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth” and concluded that “it is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition.”
Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway:
“Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”
Encourage zero-carbon sectors to “expand and create jobs” and carbon emission sectors to contract:
- Cheap and clean public transport
- Affordable energy-efficient housing along transit lines
- High-density city planning; discourage sprawl
- Bike lanes
- Low energy agriculture
- Make manufacturers responsible for waste
- Luxury taxes*, financial transaction taxes*, emission taxes*, closing tax havens*
- Removing fossil fuel subsidies*
- Redirect military spending*
- Ecosystem restoration
- Potentially, shorter work hours
* These measures could contribute, in total, $2 trillion annually.
And those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impact (such as the caregiving professions, which tend to be occupied by women and people of color and therefore underpaid).
Blocking fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure development, etc, “in your backyard.” E.g., Keystone XL, fracking, mining…
Especially in/near protected or native land.
“Can we live without water?” the anti-fracking farmers chant in Pungesti, Romania.
“Can we live without Chevron?”
Remove investments in carbon emitting industries, invest in zero-carbon industries (Divest-Invest).
Put another way, the real problem is not that trade deals are allowing fossil fuel companies to challenge governments, it’s that governments are not fighting back against these corporate challenges.