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Naomi Klein’s Inconvenient Climate Conclusions

Andrew C. Revkin, Dot Earth (blog), New York Times
Naomi Klein, the author of a string of provocative and popular books including “The Shock Doctrine,” recently took on global warming policy and campaigns in “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” a much-discussed cover story for The Nation that has been mentioned by readers here more than once in the last few weeks.

The piece begins with Klein’s conclusion, reached after she spent time at a conclave on climate sponsored by the libertarian Heartland Institute, that passionate corporate and conservative foes of curbs on greenhouse gases are right in asserting that a meaningful response to global warming would be a fatal blow to free markets and capitalism.

She challenges the environmental left to embrace this reality instead of implying that modest changes in lifestyle and shopping habits and the like can decarbonize human endeavors on a crowding planet.

Please dive in. The piece is particularly relevant this week given the continued standoffs and disconnect between stated goals and behavior at the climate treaty talks in Durban, South Africa. Whether you embrace or dispute her conclusions, the article is a worthy and substantive provocation. I disagree with her in pretty profound ways, yet some of her points echo my assertion awhile back that greenhouse-driven climate change is “not the story of our time” but a symptom of much deeper issues. I contacted Klein, who kindly spent quite a bit of time engaging in an e-conversation about her argument. Here’s our chat:

… Klein: I think we need to admit that climate change really does demand a profound interrogation of the ideology that currently governs our economy. And that’s not bad news, since our current economic model is failing millions of people on multiple fronts.

Question: Your examination of liberals’ views appropriately reveals the unwillingness – at least of “mainstream” liberals? – to acknowledge the full scope of what would need to happen on a world heading toward 9 billion people seeking decent lives. Certainly others — e.g., Growthbusters and the Post Carbon Institute — have not.

But you also seem to presume that the only strategy that can work is “radical government intervention,” when there are other approaches that have gained some traction — including no-brainers like strengthening standards and incentives for energy efficiency and conservation (which surveys show have very wide support, including among Republicans outside the obstructionist fringe, see p.5 here) while reviving long-eroded basic research and development in basic energy-related sciences. (Even George Will has warned the new Republican power brokers against neglecting science.)

Klein: I agree that some market incentives and R&D investments are part of the solution, and I say so in the piece. But do I think they can get us to 80 per cent emissions reduction by mid-century? No. Not everything is win-win, some very powerful players are going to have to lose if we ever decide to get serious about climate change, which is why the denial movement is so well funded.
(7 December 2011)
I got lost in the double negatives in Andrew Revkin’s reference to Post Carbon. I think Revkin is saying that Growthbusters and Post Carbon Institute **HAVE** been willing “to acknowledge the full scope of what would need to happen on a world heading toward 9 billion people seeking decent lives.” Any other interpretations? -BA

Obama Will ‘Reject’ Attempt to Restart Keystone XL

George Zornick, The Nation
Last week, we flagged an attempt by Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved within weeks—something the Obama administration has delayed until at least 2013, if the project even survives that long. Terry is crafting a measure that would take the power to approve Keystone XL away from the Obama administration and give it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency. His bill would also require FERC to approve the pipeline within thirty days.

Terry plans to attach this bill to a big year-end package that would extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. But when asked about Terry’s plan by a reporter yesterday during an appearance at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said he would reject any package that contains provisions on Keystone XL:
(8 December 2011)

The brutal logic of climate change

David Roberts, Grist
Girl with rock. The consensus in American politics today is that there’s nothing to be gained from talking about climate change. It’s divisive, the electorate has more pressing concerns, and very little can be accomplished anyway. In response to this evolving consensus, lots of folks in the climate hawk coalition (broadly speaking) have counseled a new approach that backgrounds climate change and refocuses the discussion on innovation, energy security, and economic competitiveness.

This cannot work. At least it cannot work if we hope to avoid terrible consequences. Why not? It’s simple: If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. That means moving to emergency footing. War footing. “Hitler is on the march and our survival is at stake” footing. That simply won’t be possible unless a critical mass of people are on board. It’s not the kind of thing you can sneak in incrementally.

It is unpleasant to talk like this. People don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to believe it. They bring to bear an enormous range of psychological and behavioral defense mechanisms to avoid it. It sounds “extreme” and our instinctive heuristics conflate “extreme” with “wrong.” People display the same kind of avoidance when they find out that they or a loved one are seriously ill. But no doctor would counsel withholding a diagnosis from a patient because it might upset them. If we’re in this much trouble, surely we must begin by telling the truth about it.

So let’s have some real talk on climate change.

For today’s inconvenient truths (ahem), we turn to Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change who was, until recently, director of the U.K.’s leading climate research institution, the Tyndall Energy Program.
(5 December 2011)
These two editorials by David Roberts of Grist (an EB ally) were recommended by long-time EB contributor Bill Henderson. He calls them “Most important op-eds of the year.” -BA

The brutal logic of climate change mitigation

David Roberts, Grist
In my last post, I discussed a new peer-reviewed paper by climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. It paints a grim picture:

The commonly accepted threshold of climate “safety,” 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F] temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, is now properly considered extremely dangerous;

even 2 degrees C is drifting out of reach, absent efforts of a scale and speed beyond anything currently proposed;

our current trajectory is leading us toward 4 or 6 (or 8 or 10) degrees C, which we now know to be a potentially civilization-threatening disaster.

Like I said, go ahead and pour yourself a stiff drink.

So, what does this grim situation say about our current climate policy efforts? The paper also contains some important insights on that front.

… We pretend that 2 degrees C is our threshold. Yet the climate scenarios and plans presented to policymakers do not actually reflect that threshold. As Anderson and Bows say, “most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.”

Note, also, that most popular climate scenarios include an implausibly early peak in global emissions — 2010 in many cases, 2015-16 in the case of the Stern Report, the ADAM project, and the U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change.

Why do climate analysts do this? Why do they present plans that contain wildly optimistic assumptions about the peak in global emissions and yet a high probability of overshooting the 2 degrees C target?

The answer is fairly simple, and it has to do with the answer to question (4), regarding what level of emissions reductions is reasonable to expect. According to the Stern Review and others, emissions reductions of 3 to 4 percent a year are the maximum compatible with continued economic growth. And so that’s the level they use in their scenarios. Yet reductions at that pace offer very little practical hope of hitting 2 degrees C.

In other words, climate analysts construct their scenarios not to avoid dangerous climate change but to avoid threatening economic growth.
(8 December 2011)

The 1 Percent and the Fate of the Earth

Paul Street, ZNet

“No Way the World Should Take These Risks”

Beneath and beyond the flow of current events, including the rise and repression of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement and the ongoing threat of double-dip recession being sparked by the Euro crisis, the primary threat to a decent and desirable human future becomes ever more severe.

By any reasonable account, that danger is environmental collapse on many fronts[1] and most particularly catastrophic climate change resulting from the wealthy Few’s petroleum-addicted profits system.

A study released by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists in the spring of 2009 advanced the most comprehensive modeling ever constructed on global climate change. The report showed that “without rapid and massive action, the problem will [soon] be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago.” A prominent earth scientist heading the MIT report said that “there’s no way the world can or should take these risks” of continuing to push the envelope of the atmosphere’s capacity for safely absorbing greenhouse gasses and argued that “the least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies.”[2]

Currently in Durban, South Africa, as in Copenhagen, Denmark two years ago (see the section of this essay titled “OBAMA’S ‘BETRAYAL’” below), the conservative, Wall Street-friendly Barack Obama administration[3] is working behind the scenes to make sure that humanity continues on the perilous path warned against by leading earth scientists in the Empire’s most prestigious science university.[4]

“No Longer a Future Threat”

Even many of the most pessimistic climate scientists got it wrong when they started sounding alarms about anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The experts seemed to think that that the “tipping point” beyond which human life was gravely threatened was 550 carbon dioxide parts per atmospheric million (double the historical norm of 275 parts per million.) The more accurate tipping point measure, recently discovered, is closer is to 350, a benchmark we have actually passed.

… From Periphery to Core

The list and interplay of disastrous “negative feedback loops” goes on and on. And it is going on now: “global warming,” McKibbben observes, “is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality” in ways that are “already wrecking thousands of lives daily”[8] in the poorest parts of the world where climate-related food crises and environmental collapse are most pressing and people have fewer defenses.

The American State Department’s chief scientist projects famines related to climate change serious enough to affect a billion people at in coming decades. Global warming has created a resurgence of the deadly dengue fever in Southwest Asia ad Latin America – a consequence of the fact the mosquito which carries the dengue virus feed more heavily and hatch the virus more rapidly at higher temperatures.

The worst consequences are being felt with special pain in the “developing” world, where masses of people are most vulnerable to escalating disease, food shortages, flooding, extreme weather, and other environmental disasters. Food riots broke out in thirty seven poor nations in 2008 in response to an escalation of food prices that followed the explosion in the market for biofuels (driven by the spike in oil prices) that year.[9]

Still, climate change and the related exhaustion of global fossil fuel resources have already been heavily felt in the rich world.

… As president, however, Obama has been more than a little “disappointing” to environmentalists on the climate. As the German environmental commentator Christian Schwagerl noted two years ago. Obama “came to office promising hope and change. But on climate change, he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush,” refusing to “take a leadership role on a problem that could shake civilization to its very core.”[21] The “new” president’s record of betrayed expectations – the other side of the coin of promises kept to his petro-capitalist One Percent backers – is quite remarkable. It includes:

* Green-lighting mountaintop-removal coal extraction in Appalachia.

* Refusing to kill plans for dangerous offshore drilling and announcing (in March of 2010, not long before a British Petroleum oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, causing a record-setting flow of oil into the ocean) that he planned to allow disastrous oil exploitation and drilling in vast new offshore areas along the southeastern U.S. and Alaska


The Obama administration’s “liberal” and Democratic apologists like to blame Washington’s ecological policy inertia on House and Senate Republicans, who hold that human-made climate change is a leftist hoax. But most of the betrayals detailed and bullet-pointed in the previous section of this essay took place when Obama still enjoyed solid Democratic majorities, suggesting that the long reach of the fossil fuel industries’ political influence reaches across the aisle from the traditionally petroleum-soaked G.O.P. to the more nominally environmentalist Democrats.
(9 December 2011)
Long article. -BA