Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Bad News and the Good

The climate change challenge is also a huge social justice opportunity

Here's the bad news in three numbers:

2 degrees Centigrade. 565 Gigatons. 2,795 Gigatons.

(All from Bill McKibben's article, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, July 2012, Rolling Stone.)

For almost two decades the global consensus among scientists and responsible political leaders has been that the world ought to act to hold the average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Centigrade (or less) above the range that has prevailed for more than 10,000 years of human history. That ain't happening, Bill McKibben writes:

"So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected." The damage has been so extensive thus far that scientists are saying that the world faces huge problems long before the 2 degree limit is reached.

McKibben quotes NASA scientist James Hansen: "The [2-degree] target that has been talked about in international actually a prescription for long-term disaster."

Nevertheless, the 2-degree limit was reaffirmed at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. But, according to McKibben, "scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees." Based on current estimates of carbon dioxide "production" already underway" a further increase of 0.8 degrees is inevitable. "That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target," McKibben adds.

But 2,795 gigatons "is the [scariest] number of all," he wrote. "The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number--2,795--is higher than 565. Five times higher."

There's no way to do justice to McKibben's piece by continuing to summarize what he had to say. Significantly, the article contains a strong denunciation of the role that fossil-fuel companies are playing in preventing effective action against climate change. A thorough understanding of the economic interest these companies have in preventing regulations that leave their most important assets unconsumed ought to be a requirement for everyone who wishes to join the fight to minimize further damage and mitigate the damage that has already been done. A complete read of McKibben's piece would be a good place to start.

One last point to be made here about the bad news. It is very bad. Bad enough to satisfy even pop culture tastes whetted by, say, Falling Skies, or The Walking Dead.

As seems to be the case so often with bad news/good news-type formulations, the good news is more ambiguous than the bad news, but an article in today's Washington Post, "Paper giant to stop cutting in rain forests," suggests that even multinational corporations, who historically have been part of the problem, will respond to the kinds of political and social pressure that environmental and social justice organizations can muster.

"Asia Pulp & Paper, the third-largest pulp and paper company in the world, announced Tuesday that it is halting operations in Indonesia's natural rain forests, a victory for advocates who have been negotiating with the company for a year," reporter Juliet Eilperin wrote. Other NGOs, like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and The Forest Trust, have also worked successfully to pressure major corporations to move toward sustainability targets. Significantly, these organizations have frequently bypassed  purely political strategies in favor of directly targeting multinationals who are much closer to the heart of the problem.

"Nestle agreed to a deforestation pledge in October after Greenpeace aired an ad in Europe showing an office worker biting into a Kit Kat bar that revealed a bloddy orangutan finger; Mattel stopped using [Asia Pulp & Paper]'s materials in its boxes in June 2011 after the group began a PR campaign in which Ken broke up with Barbie, distraught over the idea that she was engaged in rain forest destruction," Eilperin wrote.

Such news, of course, is not nearly as good as it needs to be. "Fossil-fuel companies," as McKibben calls them, are the worst of the worst, and are quite notorious for being willing to harm the interests of other multinationals, if their capitalist colleagues become obstacles to their own profits.

Though the oil crises (embargoes, shortages and dramatic price hikes) of 1973-74 and 1979 harmed the interests of most oil consumers globally, it also helped leading oil companies to join the ranks of the world's largest industrial corporations, a list once headed by auto companies. Fossil-fuel companies, McKibben points out, have over twenty trillion dollars in reserves posted on their balance sheets.

If (actually when, as things stand now) the top six oil companies were able to bring all their known reserves to the market, the combined carbon pumped into the atmosphere through the consumption of that oil would use up the rest of the 2-degree target. But action to keep their reserves off the market and out of the atmosphere would tank the value of oil company assets and bankrupt their operations. This is not something fossil-fuel corporations are going to volunteer to do, writes McKibben. He quotes Naomi Klein, a veteran peace and justice activist and writer: "...these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

For those of us still waiting to get involved, we are not about to enter the pop-culture version of the end of the world. It will not be a few intrepid road warriors banding together in groups alternately committed to either good or evil and battling each other for supremacy.

Severe climate change is already here and it will be a grinding slog for everyone. It will mean longer droughts and more severe storms. It will mean wrenching economic dislocation and even larger gaps between the rich and the poor around the world. It will mean lower agricultural production, higher food prices and, for some, malnutrition and, even, starvation.

A lucky few are able right now to insulate themselves from significant changes in the quality of their lives, and will continue to do so. But for most of today's young people, climate change will mean a lifetime of struggle to maintain something like the quality of life they have today.

All right, then. NGOs and the rest of us against the oil companies. The ultimate battle for peace and justice and sustainability.

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