‘This Changes Everything’

‘This Changes Everything’

Climate change and the failure of frat boy politics
by Richard McLachlan

It’s 8.30am in early November. Two leaf-blowers kick into life in adjacent yards. In this neighborhood, and others all over Brooklyn, young and underpaid Hispanic men with petrol-powered backpack blowers are redistributing the leaves of our more prosperous neighbors – from their front yards to the pavement. Here they gather in drifts, shifting restlessly in the wind with scraps of plastic and paper, or tied up in giant plastic bags, awaiting pickup by the city. As well as being a laughable misuse of resources, it’s a nice metaphor for the socialization of loss.

The prospects for the global climate and the biosphere described in Naomi Klein’s latest book This Changes Everything, and in the recently released IPCC report, show a socialization of loss so comprehensive as to require a new way of talking about profit and loss.

There is usually the pretence of an equation – something with two sides; those profiting and their defenders, refer to a quid pro quo for those on the losing side. Taxes are paid (not always equitably, but to some extent), jobs are ‘created’ (even if many of them are crappy and demeaning), and material comfort is not absolutely out-of-reach for anyone (at least not in theory). With radical climate change we all stand to lose – pretty much everything, sooner or later.

But the ground may have just shifted. President Obama has backed his dramatic emissions agreement with Premier Xi with a $2.5b pledge to a fund to help poorer countries fight climate change. The news of the agreement between China and the US is being presented as a dramatic shift – even by those who don’t like it. “Why should we act when China doesn’t?” is no longer available to those resisting action. Talks are under way in Lima, and expectations are high. Reluctant and incremental approaches to emission control may finally have to take a back seat.

The biggest burnt offering

Klein, referring to a World Bank report on the likelihood of a 4 degree Celsius warmer world by the end of the century, cites the former head of UK’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. In a chillingly understated response to this prospect Kevin Anderson says such warming is “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community”

Seven decades since the almost total annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population, is it possible we are looking at another global crime, a burnt offering that might once more justify the term Holocaust? In this case, an act of comprehensive ecocide.

The active perpetrators can be identified. The key suspects are a relatively small group of fossil fuel executives, Wall Street money managers who act for a tiny elite controlling almost all the world’s wealth, and their bought politicians, all of whose loyalties lie within that tight circle. Fully informed by scientific consensus, they are knowingly destroying the biosphere’s ability to support Anderson’s “organized, equitable and civilized global community.”

Sounds like a burnt offering, but to whom? Sacrificing that which is held most dear in order to win the deity’s favor has a long lineage across religions. This pre-modern worldview, made explicit, is disturbingly evident in a speech by James Inhofe, the man most likely to replace Barbara Boxer as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee in the new US Congress. He seeks support from Genesis 8:22 to claim that it is “outrageous” and arrogant for people to believe human beings are “able to change what He is doing in the climate”.

So who is the object of sacrifice here? It’s hard to express just how divided the American polity is on religion and various forms of magical thinking. In 2010 the Pew Research Center published survey results indicating that just under half of Americans believe Christ will either ‘definitely’ (27%), or ‘probably’ (20%) return to earth in the next 40 years – and, one has to assume, render all this anxiety about the future irrelevant.
Forty years hence coincides rather elegantly with contemporary and rather biblical- sounding predictions from the IPCC – “Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely (italics theirs) that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.”

But there is another, no less revered, object of veneration. In the US it is almost unquestioned across the political spectrum. “The ‘invisible hand’ (runs a headline in Fortune magazine) has an iron grip on America”. The article cites Mitt Romney, whom pundits are now speculating will run for President in 2016. He was quoted in 2012 deploying the familiar trope – “The invisible hand of the market always moves faster and better than the heavy hand of government.” Almost no-one will contest him on that front.

Magical thinking about ‘markets’ motivates an even greater portion of Americans (and many others around the world) than the 48 percent of second Adventists cited above. And despite the clarity of the First Commandment, there are many here who worship both deities with equal fervor. Yet it looks increasingly clear there is as much chance of an imaginary hand averting climate disaster, as there is of a radiant, pale-skinned being in white robes descending to earth in 40 years time.

There_is_no pilot (Laurie Anderson)

The feeling of helplessness in the face of grim news about our future is addressed directly by Klein in her book. She reframes the problem, the seemingly intractable status quo controlled by others, the sense of futility and disempowerment, as an opportunity for a mass movement to challenge unregulated capitalism and its increasingly discredited ‘Chicago School’ expressions.

Madison Avenue, rarely more than half a beat behind popular movements, is well known for neutralizing opposition by appropriating it. The day after I finished This Changes Everything, a Victoria’s Secret catalogue arrived on the doorstep. The theme for this month – ‘This Changes Everything’.

The first week of November saw a rout of the Democrats in the US mid-term elections. Signing off the completion of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline running from Canada to the Gulf Coast is at the forefront of the Republican and some of the oil-state Democrats’ agenda. So far it has passed in the House. Destruction by stealth of the EPA’s effectiveness is also on the cards. James Inhofe says “God will protect us”.

God, James Inhofe, and a host of fresh Congressional apologists for the fossil fuel industry notwithstanding, the IPCC report and Klein’s well researched book remove any doubt about what’s unfolding, what is causing it, and what has to be done to address it.

Frat boy politics is not equal to this task

The term ‘Frat boy’, referring to members of US college fraternities, is hard to define precisely. But everyone here knows what it means: privileged white boys with an over-inflated sense of entitlement to, among other things, behave boorishly. The term is also used to describe men of limited vision, often acting together on behalf of a club. It is associated with macho posturing, and unreflective foolishness.

“Coal is the future” (Australian PM Tony Abbott 3/11/14
the day following the release of the IPCC Synthesis Report)
And thanks to John Oliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3IaKVmkXuk

It is easy to dismiss uber frat boy Tony Abbott, or highly influential if delusional Republicans in Congress. But the smirking dismissal of Green Party questions in Parliament by their only slightly more urbane fellow traveler John Key, or Canadian Stephen Harper’s refusal to attend the recent climate summit in New York, are equally unacceptable responses on the same continuum. It’s a continuum characterized by a profound lack of imagination. Here’s Paul Kelly, The Australian’s editor-at-large, referring to the recent US/China deal on carbon emissions – “Tony Abbott has been blindsided in political terms by Barack Obama, who grasps the aspirational nature of climate change politics.” The same could be said of John Key and his Cabinet.

Always candid in revealing his limitations, Tony Abbott speaks for a much more widespread failure to envision a carbon-free future – “I am not going to take action on climate change which clobbers our economy. I’m just not,” he said. “And I don’t expect any other country, whatever they might say, will take action on climate change that would clobber their economy and cost jobs.”

Naomi Klein is clear – the time for this form of centrism, of non-threatening, minor improvements is past. We need, she says “to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.”

Klein’s position, well informed by her previous research into what she calls ‘disaster capitalism’, is that if communities do not take control of a situation spiraling out of control, those who obstructed the solutions will just shift their focus. ‘Profit-seeking and militaristic forces’ will respond in their own way. This, she says, will result in “the world of a tiny group of big corporate winners and armies of locked-out losers that we have imagined in virtually every fictional account of our dystopic future”. Advertisements for this form of survival inequity now appear regularly on the New York subway walls.

What John Key, Tony Abbott, Stephen Harper, James Inhofe, and many others like them, lack is the imagination and the courage needed to make meaningful decisions on behalf of a wider constituency. They are starting a long way behind where the world should be right now, as Inhofe indicates with his recent comment, “people are trying to resurrect “the notion that there’s “actually some truth to the global warming thing”.

Of course Inhofe’s vision is easy to dismiss. But he is less on the fringe than you might imagine. Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser has dismissed NZ scientists as needing to ‘stick to their knitting’. In February this year National’s Simon Bridges represented his government with a cringe-inducing statement, telling IPPC lead author Professor Ralph Sims that he, Simon, had “read a lot of books” about climate change, and that if Sims “spent 15 minutes with him he might learn something.”

Closer in to the center on the bell curve of resistance to change, Inhofe has also written that “global warming alarmists are set to destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and significantly raise energy prices for families, businesses and farmers, basically anyone who drives a car, uses heavy machinery, or flips a switch.” ‘Clobber the economy’ in other words.

Here’s John Key in February this year – “if you want to do more in this space, it will cost consumers and it will cost jobs. Now that we have sorted that out, we can take that to the New Zealand public and see which one they want to vote for.” In the current global political environment, this notion that New Zealand as a minority emitter can just ‘do its bit’ toward the ‘solution’ to a ‘global problem’, is starting to look fatuous.

Out from under climate debt

Substantive efforts to halt or slow global warming are regarded by some as an attack on ‘our lifestyle’. In many ways this is true. But in a global context, the ‘lifestyle’ of the highly developed economies is profligate and unsustainable as well as being highly inequitable within those economies. At the same time, hundreds of millions elsewhere barely survive. It is for these sorts of reasons that Klein argues for reform on a much larger scale than just reducing carbon emissions.

The idea behind climate debt is that the carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution have benefitted the economies of only a relatively small group of countries, and have frequently powered their colonizing, resource-acquiring projects. It is the cumulative emissions of these countries that have contributed so significantly to the current rising temperatures. We have arrived at a place where, Klein reports, “Developed countries, which represent less than 20 percent of the world’s population, have emitted almost 70 percent of all the greenhouse gas pollution that is now destabilizing the climate”.

The climate justice at the core of this is that the developed nations with 200 hundred years of emissions behind them owe a debt to those countries at whose expense they have benefitted. Developing nations should be able to bring their populations the benefits of housing, electricity, food security and clean drinking water without having to follow the same polluting trajectory as those who have already arrived there.

This is a very different approach from National’s Tim Groser, who claims “New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change, taking into account our unique national circumstances, both to restrict our own emissions and support the global efforts needed to make the cuts that will limit warming.” New Zealand is the fourth highest emitter per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada. Groser’s use of the term ‘fair share’ warrants closer examination.

According to Bob Lloyd, Director of Energy Studies at the University of Otago, “in international climate change negotiations NZ is regarded as a particularly ‘tough’ negotiator. By ‘tough’ read ‘selfish’. … To get global buy-in NZ must act as a global leader in emissions reductions, not a selfish backwater.”

This ‘selfishness’ is not restricted to NZ. It is endemic, bound up with nation state identity, ‘centrism’ and, of course, a desperate adherence to the bottom line. It is also further evidence of the massive failure of vision with respect to climate change. It finds expression in the disingenuous and selfish narrative that emissions can be reduced while still exporting fossil fuels to be burned in other parts of the globe.

John Key is correct; the issue is a global one and must be addressed in that way – but not by doing the barest minimum – sitting by while his poorly-informed cabinet ministers sneer at concerned scientists. Digging up coal and selling it just because everyone else is doing it is not acceptable. There is far more fossil fuel available in reserve than can ever be safely burned. But the logic of the market demands that those reserves will surely be burned. As Bill McKibben has argued so persuasively, that carbon must be left in the ground.

Digging it up is even beginning to defy commercial logic. Recently Goldman Sachs, BP, and Oxford University cast serious doubt on the profitability of new investment in coal mining infrastructure with the Oxford study pointing to the risk of such investment becoming ‘stranded assets’. Goldman Sachs considers the window for profitable investment to be closing. This is especially relevant in Australia.

But many Australians are just embarrassed by Tony Abbott’s truculence. On Thursday 13 November, 400 of them buried their heads in the sand on Bondi Beach to protest their government’s stance on climate change.

Forced and false choices – or sane alternatives?

The ‘burning platform’ is a cute metaphor often used to manufacture crisis and thus encourage change in government and business circles. It comes, appropriately, from the oil industry and a 1988 fire on a North Sea drilling platform. It describes the need to make a last minute choice between extremes – between certain death by fire, or probable death in freezing water. Its power lies in its reliance on luck versus certainty – “I will certainly be burned to death, but if I jump someone might just pull me out of the water in time”. So you jump 15 stories into the patches of burning oil floating on the freezing North Sea. The difference of course, is that the actual burning platform was not a manufactured disaster – it was an accidental one.

The fossil fuel industry, faced with irrelevance and supported by bought politicians, is on track to drag every last profitable ton of carbon from the ground and sell it to whoever will buy, thus creating the burning platform that forces a nightmare choice on us all. NZ, in selling its coal, is ‘doing its bit’ to support that scenario as well. The metaphor’s choice of jumping into the frozen North Sea is Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ that will activate in response to a crisis and profit from our choices either way.

A recent article in Slate criticized Klein for her attack on corporate capitalism, for overlooking the efforts of many large organizations to ‘green’ their activities. It cites, for example, Walmart’s project to reduce its carbon emissions to zero.

But for Klein the problem cannot be addressed by a singular focus on the climate that does not address the wider malaise of unregulated capitalism and its negative impacts on the lives of increasing numbers of people. While Walmart’s ‘green’ policies are laudable, the company is fervently anti-union and pays its employees just over half what is considered a reasonable minimum wage.

Klein, and she is by no means a lone voice, is clear that a market driven system will not act against its own interests. Capitalism, almost by definition, will not transform itself in the interests of anything other than growth and profit. ‘It’ will not address, among other things, oppressively low wages, untenable levels of student, medical, and mortgage debt, harassment of black youth by the police, mass incarceration, and a broken immigration system. The extent of these massive systemic failures suggests there is no responsible party acting on behalf of a decent existence for people and the biosphere.

Klein argues for change driven from the bottom and by politicians accountable to community rather than business interests. She emphasizes the role of indigenous peoples, their stewardship of remaining wilderness areas, and traditional decision-making processes. She also highlights the divestment from fossil fuel portfolios that is gathering momentum and embraced by college and university endowment funds, churches, city authorities and even some national pension funds.

Klein offers Germany and Denmark as examples of government sponsoring community ownership of energy generation. This is where Obama’s grasp of the ‘aspirational nature of climate change politics’ seems to elude John Key and his vision-challenged cabinet. New Zealand, has a national identity built around being first in women’s suffrage, climbing high mountains, challenging Apartheid, winning Formula One races, and excluding nuclear armed or powered ships from its ports. The population of Denmark was 5.6 million in 2013. New Zealand’s was close to 4.5 million the same year. The ability to influence change is not related to population size. NZ can indeed ‘punch above its weight’ when it really matters.

Walking home down Flatbush Avenue recently, I passed a shop selling women’s clothing – ‘hoochie mama’ clothes with a high spandex content. Outside was a mannequin dressed in a skimpy top, café-au-lait colored ‘skin’, and unseeing eyes. An elderly woman, her companion trying to pull her away, stood shouting at it in Russian, punctuating what I had to assume were insults with blows to the model’s left nipple with her forefinger. In the end, getting no response, she just punched it in the face and walked off down the street. Yes, it really happened.

No-one wants to be the angry babushka shouting impotently at an unresponsive mannequin, helplessly enraged as others pass in and out with their purchases. This past Thanksgiving, helplessness gave way to action. Groups of protestors all over the US gathered to insist, in the wake of Ferguson Missouri, that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Shopping malls were shut down. Freeways were blocked. Intersections were obstructed. Daily. And it continues. The Administration is taking notice. In This Changes Everything, Klein is clear that we have the power to shift this frozen moment. “When governments are willing to introduce bold programs and put goals other than profit making at the forefront of their policy making, change can happen with astonishing speed.”

This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein
Simon and Schuster 2014