The changes in the global climate are as extreme as the US presidential season
by Richard McLachlan
In this discordant Northern Hemisphere Spring, nature and human politics seem to be reflecting each other’s upheavals – and amplifying them. There is still no obvious destination to this trip through the looking glass that is the US primary season. What began as an entertaining aside to candidate selection moved quickly to center-stage. With TV game-show inevitability, Trump pushed all contenders into the wings. He is a winner. And America has been losing for too long. He’ll make us winners again. He keeps telling us that. The media went along for the ride, giving this billionaire ratings magnet more free publicity than others could dream of.
As the ‘unifying’ Republican Party is forced to acknowledge his extraordinary feat, nobody is laughing at Trump any more. They no longer call his party supporters the ‘Vichy’ Republicans. As his former foes fall in line behind the ‘Orange Duce’ (mixed metaphors abound), they are just the GOP gearing up to defeat Clinton.
The backdrop of uncertainty to this political theater of the absurd is a climate going crazy. As we left New York in early winter to return to New Zealand, there were trees starting to flower on the neighborhood streets. Others were breaking into vivid leaf well after the sap should have subsided in preparation for the coming snow and ice, the grey skies and the wet leaves underfoot.
2016 looks set to up the ante on 2015 – another record hot year in a pattern of global warming that is increasing despite the modulating hot and cold effects of el Niño and la Niña. While there is a growing movement to ‘do something’ about a problem that subsumes pretty much everything, climate change has yet to get anywhere near the top of the agenda.
‘Environment’ and ‘global warming’ were 13th and 22nd respectively on the country’s list of the Public’s Policy Priorities for 2015. Terrorism, the economy, and jobs were 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Party differences on climate change are stark. Global warming was considered a 2015 priority for the President and Congress for 54 percent of Democrats, and for only 15 percent of Republicans.
Keeping fossil fuels ‘in the ground’ has worked well as a memetic response to Bill McKibben’s pivotal 2012 essay, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. The divestment movement has also made significant progress in persuading US colleges, pension funds, churches, and municipal authorities to divest their funds of fossil fuels. The scale of divestment now represents $3.4 trillion in assets. But given the Armageddon-like scenarios that accompany increasing global temperatures, the scale of oil, coal, and gas production is disconcerting. It is reflected in the trainloads of fossil fuels on the move, new gas pipelines being installed, and export terminals built as the US enters the global energy market after 40 years of a ban on such exports.
Last night, a week or so after the global ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels’ actions, we attended a neighborhood meeting of 350.org. It was, in part, a debrief on a local action against ‘bomb trains’ passing through Albany, the New York State Capitol. ‘Bomb trains’ are named for their derailments and associated explosive fires. Each one of the 100 or so tanks in a bomb train holds 30,000 gallons of crude oil capable of creating an inferno so intense, the fire services tend to stand by and wait for them to burn out. In 2013 a 63-car derailment and explosion in Quebec Canada killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings.
In the period during which climate change has escalated from an issue of growing concern to a blazing existential crisis, total carloads of oil shipped in the US have risen from 9,500 in 2008 to 493,126 last year. Were it not for falling international coal prices, New Zealand would be exporting its coal with the same indecent urgency. We’re all complicit, whether we are producing the stuff or burning it.
The 1,400 or so people who went to Albany did not get to disrupt any bomb trains, so they called in a DJ and danced on the railway tracks from which the trains had been diverted for the day. Elsewhere, two women were arrested for lowering themselves in front of the oncoming trains on another functioning line, while many of the 1,400 wondered what they were doing there.
We were in Washington DC at the time, and attended a march against offshore drilling. Groups had come from the Arctic and from Louisiana – and their stories of land loss and contamination were heartbreaking. The numbers attending the march did not stretch further than a city block and, after a long tour past parks and monuments, and the many tourists there to view them, the march petered out with speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
A conversation with a pro-fossil fuel guy passing in an open-topped BMW revealed the tension underlying this apparent lack urgency. As he tooled by the march calling out the Sarah Palin mantra, “drill baby, drill”, I asked if he had grandchildren and what would he say to them about the state of the world. “At least they’ll have jobs!” he said. And that is what Trump is offering to bring back, along with the Keystone oil pipeline.
Donald Trump, giving gleeful succor to the ill informed, claims not to ‘believe’ in climate change. He considers it a hoax. If his levels of support among Congressional Republicans is any indicator, a good number of the 26 percent of the population identifying as Republican will vote for him – as well as a yet unknown proportion of the 42 percent who identify as Independent.
As for the Democrats, it is questionable whether Hillary Clinton’s ‘creating jobs through a renewable economy’ approach can address the dimensions of the crisis. Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, points to Clinton’s “web of corporate entanglements” as part of the reason she is “uniquely unsuited to the epic task of confronting the fossil fuel companies…” It is pretty much universally acknowledged that Clinton will be the successful nominee – and fervently hoped by many that she will beat Trump to the Presidency. Polls show scant evidence for wild optimism either way.
Clinton supports ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing of subterranean rock formations to release gas and oil). She is not averse to fossil fuel extraction on public lands, refuses to commit to putting a price on carbon, and does not support the move to divest from fossil fuels. In a search for the ‘win/win’ solution, and given her approach to Wall Street, she appears to view change as an act of collaboration, of partnership, with those who are causing the problem.
Today (25 May) Exxon faced further shareholder action at its AGM. Rebellious shareholders won a vote making it easier for them to propose board members concerned about climate change. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson has demonstrated both his distance from ‘keep it in the ground’, and the limitations of incremental change by shareholders. Here is Exxon’s proxy statement released last month – “We believe…. the transition of the energy system to lower carbon sources will take many decades due to its enormous scale, capital intensity and complexity… We believe that none of our proven hydrocarbon reserves are, or will become, stranded.” I.e. we won’t be ‘keeping it in the ground’. We are going to dig it all up and sell it to people who will burn it.
Fracking is contentious. Unlike coal and crude oil, there are strong-ish arguments in favor of fracking. These are compelling or not, I suspect, depending on the value one places on a consumption-driven status quo and its future prospects. The arguments in favor present fracking as less problematic, producing less carbon, than other fossil fuels. Flying from Salt Lake City to New York City, this is the view of fracking operations – a significant part of a long plane trip. Each of the 50,000 or so new holes drilled every year uses around 10 acres of land.
Some of these energy issues play out locally at Indian Point Energy Center, site of a three-unit nuclear power plant 36 miles north of Midtown Manhattan on the east bank of the Hudson. Two of the units are at the end of their 40-year license period. Twenty-year extensions will likely be granted. There are 40 year’s worth of spent nuclear fuel rods stored in water tanks on site. The facility is within easy range of the 20 million humans living in the tri-state area.
Spectra Energy is installing a high-pressure 42-inch pipeline extension carrying fracked gas from the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale deposits. It will pass under the Hudson’s west bank rail line, on which ‘bomb trains’ of up to 120 cars carry Bakken Crude, and emerge 105 feet from the diesel fuel tanks powering the nuclear plant’s backup generators. Oh, and its path is in close proximity to two fault lines.
So as the population fights among itself to determine the future landscape – politically, socially, and environmentally – the energy industry, ensuring its assets are not left stranded, presses forward regardless. The above pipeline is schedule to be complete in November.
Sixteen years ago a far-fetched Simpsons episode had a future President Lisa dealing with a budget deficit left by former President Trump. Imagine an equally fanciful episode with Lisa protesting a high-pressure gas pipeline running under a bomb train line and emerging from the Hudson River by the fuel supply to the back up generators for the aging nuclear plant with the spent fuel rods in the swimming pool – all 35 miles from Manhattan? Reverse engineer the present moment, and you’re there.
This extraordinarily high stakes election cycle is taking place in a culture saturated with Reality TV and winner/loser game shows. Donald Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ series ran for 14 seasons and, according to Trump, earned him over $200 million. This current Trump show, perfectly tailored for the 24 hour news cycle, presided over by nonplussed but excitable media figures, against a backdrop of geopolitical and environmental upheaval, is creating an entirely new normal – and no-one has any serious idea where it is headed.