– For Z Magazine, January 2008
If 2006 was the year that the “inconvenient truth” of global climate disruption made its way into the popular consciousness—and sparked a huge new wave of green products and corporate greenwashing—then hopefully the results of 2007’s revelations about the earth’s rapidly changing climate will prove more substantive and long-lasting. Not only did the UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issue a massively comprehensive report on climate science and its consequences, but the disturbing, and sometimes catastrophic, reality of worldwide climate collapse began to affect almost everyone’s daily life.
Here in the US, where the minds of a media-saturated public seemed to be firmly lodged in the sand around this issue for at least two decades, people finally began to notice the disturbing changes in the weather, and in the once familiar pattern of the seasons. In most regions now, spring comes a couple of weeks or more earlier than it used to, and fall comes later. In much of the country, unseasonably warm weather appeared sporadically throughout the year, and cold spells were sudden, severe, and relatively short-lived. Rain in many areas was sparse, and appeared more often in rapid, concentrated deluges. Major floods seemed more common than ever, the extreme drought in much of the Southeast—the worst in over a century—made national headlines, and nearly everyone saw the news of the unprecedented wildfires that swept across far southern California in October. Midsummer temperatures in much of the US Southwest, as well as in parts of Greece and Turkey, reached 115 degrees or higher.
The professional deniers continue to relegate all this to mere chance and coincidence but, fortunately, many fewer people are paying attention to such dismissals than before. Beside the overwhelming intuitive sense that something is seriously amiss, two central facts make the evidence more compelling than ever. First, the patterns of heating, highly erratic weather, and cycles of floods and drought are felt worldwide, and closely match the projections of climate modelers going back more than a decade. Today’s observations closely follow what the modelers have long been predicting, though much of what we are seeing today was once predicted to occur several decades further into the future.
Second, the scientists of the IPCC have documented an unprecedented convergence of findings from hundreds of studies and tens of thousands of distinct data sets in numerous independent fields of inquiry. This feat of scientific data gathering and assessment may have been worthy of a Nobel science prize if the panel hadn’t already been awarded the coveted prize for peace. Never before have studies in so many fields converged on one disturbing conclusion: that the evidence for the role of human activity in altering the earth’s climate is “unequivocal,” and that the disruptive consequences of those alterations are already being felt in literally thousands of different ways.
Another reality that began to break into the public consciousness in 2007 is that the effects of chaotic global warming are most felt by those people who are least able to adapt or compensate for these disturbing changes: the roughly half of the world’s population that live on less than two dollars a day. Beside the anecdotal evidence, several systematic studies, including the IPCC’s second volume addressing the consequences of climate change, have begun to map out this story in detail. Impoverished people around the world are also bearing the consequences of some of the most prevalent false solutions to global warming, including the push for so-called ‘biofuels,’ and the dual hoax of carbon emissions trading and purchases of offsets. Considerations of justice and equity further highlight the scale of social and economic transformations that are necessary if we are to head off the very worst consequences of an increasingly erratic, overheating climate. While business-as-usual scenarios in terms of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions have now been shown to be untenable, so too is the continuation of business-as-usual in the structure of our political and economic institutions.
One of the first articles to bring the global justice consequences of global warming to a wide audience was an exceptionally insightful piece in the New York Times that appeared fast on the heels of the IPCC’s initial 2007 report. As reporter Andrew Revkin stated, “In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the recent warming of the planet. Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest.”
The Times dispatched reporters to cover four widely varying instances of people coping with the consequences of a severely altered climate, illustrating some stark contrasts across different parts of the world. In a village in Malawi, officials struggle to maintain the functioning of a simple weather station, chronically lacking basic supplies like light bulbs and chart paper, while in India, rural villagers struggle to cope with the effects of increasing floods and more erratic monsoons on their already fragile life support systems. Meanwhile, Western Australia has built a state-of-the-art water desalinization plant, powered by an array of wind turbines about 100 miles away, and the Dutch have begun building homes attached to huge columns that allow the actual houses to rise and fall by as much as 18 feet with the ebb and flow of tidal waters.
The plight of people in Pacific island nations is also finally attracting some mainstream press attention. With rising sea levels, not only are people less able to live near the shore, but even inland sources of essential drinking water are becoming brackish due to increasing infiltrations of sea water. Migration of Pacific islanders to New Zealand has quadrupled in recent years, according to The Independent, as rising numbers of island communities are becoming uninhabitable. Island nations, according to the IPCC, are collectively responsible for far less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Here in the US, Hurricane Katrina brought home the extreme inequity in people’s capacity to cope with climate-related disasters. While affluent homes have been restored, and people again flock to New Orleans’ unique tourist quarters, roughly a third of the population has yet to return and public housing projects remain empty, and continually threatened with demolition, despite a relatively low level of storm-related damage. While the human toll from the more recent San Diego area wildfires was comparatively low, the systemic inequities remained rather harsh. Naomi Klein reported in The Nation in November that residents able to pay several tens of thousands of dollars were whisked away to elite resorts to wait out the fires, while their homes were sprayed with special fire retardants that were tragically unavailable to their neighbors.
It has become common wisdom that people living near the coasts are highly vulnerable to the uncertainties of a changing climate, however the magnitude of that threat remains controversial, even among climate scientists. The IPCC, reflecting the high level of scientific uncertainty around this issue, projected an estimated sea level rise of less than 25 centimeters this century, based on current trends. But scientists agree that the two most vulnerable glacial landmasses, Greenland and the West Antarctic, each hold enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet.
In a paper published by the British Royal Society last spring, NASA climatologist James Hansen documented a much higher level of ice sheet instability than is accounted for in the IPCC report. Factors such as the decreased reflectivity of Arctic zones due to global warming—the well known “albedo effect”—along with an increasing incidence of glacial fractures and quakes and the lubricating effects of glacial meltwater, all point toward a much faster rate of melting. Hansen stands by the far more disturbing prediction of an 80-foot sea level rise, based on extrapolation from the period 3-4 million years ago when global temperatures were last as warm as they will become by the end of this century, if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialized world by 80 – 90 percent.
Several systematic studies, all released in the past year, affirm the conclusion that the world’s poorest people are by far the most at risk from an increasingly erratic, warming climate. The IPCC itself devoted several chapters of its second volume to the human costs of global warming. By comparing all of the available studies issued since their last report in 2001, and quantifying the confidence levels of various observations and trends, this report establishes a benchmark for virtually all future study.
Their basic message is overwhelming in its consequences. The northern- and southernmost portions of the earth’s temperate zones may reap some short term benefits from global heating, including longer growing seasons. The tropics and subtropics, however, where most of the world’s poor people live, are in for a future of uncertain rainfall, persistent droughts, coastal flooding, loss of wetlands and fisheries, and increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. Flooding will most immediately affect residents of the major river deltas of Asia and Africa. The one sixth of the world’s population that depends on water from glacial runoff may see a brief increase in the size and volume of their freshwater lakes as glaciers melt, but very soon the overall decrease in glacial area will become a life-threatening reality for many people.
The IPCC predicts a worldwide decrease in crop productivity if global temperatures rise more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, but crop yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by half as soon as 2020. In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to “increased water stress.” Agricultural lands in Latin America will be subject to desertification and increased salt content.
The health consequences of climate changes are perhaps the most starkly framed: “[I]ncreases in malnutrition and consequent disorders…; increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased burden of diarrheal disease; the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone…; and, the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors,” including malaria. There is little doubt that those with “high exposure, high sensitivity and/or low adaptive capacity” will bear the greatest burdens.
The UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005, offers a particularly graphic representation of where we seem to be headed. One page of this report (p. 119 of the Synthesis Report on Ecosystems and Human Well Being) offers a pair of world maps, each with a bar graph superimposed on every continent. The upper map chronicles the number of major floods reported in each decade from 1950 to 2000; the lower map displays the number of major wildfires. Everywhere but in Oceania (which is facing such a severe drought that large portions of Australia are now virtually unable to grow crops) the graphs rise steeply as the decades advance. Over this period, global temperatures only rose about one degree Fahrenheit; only the most optimistic of the IPCC’s projected future scenarios limits further warming during this century to less than three additional degrees.
The biannual UN Human Development Report, issued at the end of November, reported that one out of every 19 people in the so-called developing world was affected by a climate-related disaster between 2000 and 2004. The figure for people in the wealthiest (OECD) countries was one out of every 1500. Yet the funds available thus far to various UN efforts to help the poorest countries adapt to climate changes ($26 million) is less than one week’s worth of flood defense spending in the UK, and about what the city of Venice spends on its flood gates every 2 – 3 weeks. The report estimates that an additional $86 billion will be needed to sustain existing UN development assistance and poverty reduction programs in the face of all the various threats attributable to climate change.
Two additional studies addressed the likelihood for increased violent conflict in the world as a result of climate-related changes. A paper published in the journal Political Geography by Rafael Reuveny of Indiana University examined 38 cases over the past 70 years where populations were forced to migrate due to a combination of environmental (droughts, floods, storms, land degradation, pollution) and other factors. Half of these cases led to varying degrees of violent conflict between the migrating population and people in the receiving areas. It is clear, states Reuveny, that those who depend the most on the environment to sustain their livelihood, especially in regions where arable land and fresh water are scarce, are most likely to be forced to migrate when conditions are subjected to rapid and unplanned-for change.
In November, the UK-based relief organization International Alert reached a similar conclusion. In a report titled “A Climate of Conflict,” they compared maps of the world’s most politically unstable regions with those most susceptible to serious or extreme effects of climate change, and concluded that 46 countries, with a total population of 2.7 billion people, are firmly in both categories. The report states:
“Hardest hit by climate change will be people living in poverty, in under-developed and unstable states, under poor governance. The effect of the physical consequences – such as more frequent extreme weather, melting glaciers, and shorter growing seasons – will add to the pressures under which those societies already live. The background of poverty and bad governance means many of these communities both have a low capacity to adapt to climate change and face a high risk of violent conflict.”
The report profiles 8 case studies of places in Africa and Asia where climate changes have already put great stress on people’s livelihoods and often exacerbated internal conflicts. The outlook is significantly improved, however, in places where political institutions are relatively stable and accountable to the population. This contrast allows for a somewhat hopeful conclusion, with the authors extolling “the synergies between climate adaptation policies and peacebuilding activities in achieving the shared goal of sustainable development and peace.” One specific recommendation is to prioritize efforts to help people adapt to a changing climate, especially where subsistence-based economies already contribute very little to global warming but are highly vulnerable to the consequences. Various international NGOs have already intervened, particularly in Africa, to document and disseminate those adjustments in farming practices that prove most useful in facilitating adaptation to a changing climate.
Worldwide, the potential human toll from severe changes in the climate is even more disturbing than the statistics and “objective” case studies suggest. Two centuries of capitalist development—and especially the unprecedented pace of industrial development and resource consumption that has characterized the past 60 years—have created conditions that threaten everyone’s future. “There could be no clearer demonstration than climate,” says the recent UN Human Development Report, “that economic wealth creation is not the same as human progress.” Those who have benefited the least from the unsustainable pace of economic growth and expansion over the past five or six decades are facing a future of suffering and dislocation unlike the world has ever seen—unless we can rapidly reverse the patterns of exploitation that many in the global North have simply come to take for granted.
Mitigations—Worse than the Disease?
Unfortunately, many of the most widely promoted solutions to the problem of global warming don’t come close to addressing these highly unequal impacts. Indeed, some of the most popular proposals, including the widespread conversion of food crops to so-called “biofuels,” and the payment of fees by Northern consumers to development projects in the South hoping to “offset” personal greenhouse gas emissions, often do significantly more harm than good.
A year ago in these pages (Z January 2007), we cited some early studies demonstrating that the extraction of ethanol from corn and biodiesel fuel from soybeans may not offer much of a solution to the dual problems of climate change and declining fossil fuel resources. Most striking at the time were the land use consequences of US production of agrofuels (this is the preferred term among activists and critics in the global South): for example, researchers at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that the entire current US corn and soybean crops could only displace about 3 percent, respectively, of our gasoline and diesel consumption. In the past year, the pressure on global grain prices from the accelerated push for agrofuels has led to a near crisis in global food supplies.
Analysts such as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute have been predicting a conflict between food and fuel consumption for some time; Brown calls it an “epic competition between 800 million people with automobiles and the 2 billion poorest people.” But in the past year, the effects began to reverberate worldwide. World corn prices nearly doubled, as more than 20 percent of the US corn crop was diverted to ethanol production. Wheat prices rose to an all time high as Midwestern farmers seeking to profit from the ethanol boom converted acreage from wheat to corn production. (Wheat is also relatively drought tolerant, whereas corn is far more dependent on large inputs of water and chemicals.) The world price of milk increased nearly 60 percent, and people in Mexico rioted as their prices for tortilla flour nearly doubled. China announced a freeze on the diversion of food grains to fuel production, as the effect on their own food prices began to be felt. Even the elite journal Foreign Affairs determined that “[t]he biofuel mania is commandeering grain stocks with a disregard for the obvious consequences.”
The most popular solutions to this dilemma carry equally troubling consequences. Europe is getting less of its biodiesel from soybean or canola oil and more from oil palm plantations, mainly in southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, have lost 80 – 90 percent of their tropical rainforests to intensive logging, followed by the planting of monocultures of oil palms. Brazil is plowing under its unique Cerrado grasslands for sugarcane plantations, known to be a more efficient source of ethanol than corn, and is collaborating with the US and global investors to export its exploitative model of sugar production throughout the Caribbean. Meanwhile, soy plantations are spreading deep into the Amazon to satisfy growing demands for biodiesel, as well as for livestock feed. Peasant and indigenous groups throughout the global South have come to see the agrofuel push as an accelerated effort to expand industrial agriculture and drive subsistence farmers from their lands.
Meanwhile, virtually all biofuel/agrofuel advocates are staking the future on the hope of rapidly switching from food crops to cellulose-rich sources—mainly trees, grasses and crop wastes—as the major feedstock for agrofuel production. But these scenarios, too, often rely on the massive replacement of natural biodiversity with monoculture plantations of “energy crops.” Cellulose, as one of the two main structural components of plant cells, is extremely resistant to chemical or biological digestion, and current experimental “cellulosic” agrofuel plants consume far more energy than they produce. Thus, the push for cellulose-based fuels has also turned into a massive subsidy to biotechnology companies that are attempting to re-engineer enzymes and microorganisms—and even synthesize entirely novel bacterial genomes—in the hope of developing an efficient way to turn cellulose into fuel.
Even if these technical problems can be resolved without dire unforeseen consequences, there is simply not enough “excess” biomass to keep all of the privileged world’s cars running. Crop “wastes” are an essential resource for farmers seeking to return some fertility to the soil after harvesting grains, and many of the grasses frequently proposed as fuel sources are noxious weeds in many parts of the world.
One of the most disturbing consequences of the push for cellulose-based fuels is a resurgence of interest in the genetic engineering of trees. A company known as Arborgen, partly owned by International Paper and Mead-Westvaco, received USDA approval last summer to expand its experimental plots of a variety of eucalyptus that is genetically engineered to withstand cold temperatures. This would allow these highly invasive and resource-consuming trees to be planted throughout the southeastern US, as well as in other moderate temperate zones. Backers of this technology continually invoke the idea that such trees are needed to make fuel to replace petroleum, in an attempt to disarm critics and dismiss wider ecological concerns. Throughout the global South, people whose lands have been appropriated by corporations for conversion to commercial tree plantations have joined the worldwide campaign to prevent the commercial growing of genetically engineered trees (see Z March 2006 and stopgetrees.org). Ultimately, there is simply not enough biomass on earth, whether on fields, grasslands, or forests, to replace the millions of years of accumulated biomass that produced the once abundant reservoirs of fossil fuels, consumed at an ever accelerating pace during the past century.
Similarly, the growing practice of purchasing carbon dioxide credits in order to “offset” affluent consumers’ excessive greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly opposed by people on the receiving end. Carbon offsets, whether sold on the internet, or negotiated through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, also favor the conversion of forests into monoculture plantations, and further the displacement of traditional communities. The intensive monitoring required by the UN may be necessary to prevent profiteering and outright fraud, but also significantly favors homogeneous and biologically deficient plantations owned by transnational timber companies, in contrast to richly biodiverse tropical and subtropical forests inhabited by indigenous communities.
Most of us tend to view planting trees as an inherently benign activity, but as Larry Lohmann has documented in his thoroughgoing study, Carbon Trading: A critical conversation on climate change, privatization and power (available for download from www.thecornerhouse.org.uk), international funding for tree planting (also for various industrial conversions and even for solar electricity) often exacerbates inequalities and semi-feudal economic relations in the recipient regions. Further, the process of global warming has begun to measurably decrease the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, as nighttime respiration begins to emit more carbon than the trees can absorb through photosynthesis during the day. The added damaging effects of hurricanes and other catastrophes can quickly turn even the healthiest forest into a net emitter of carbon dioxide.
A Different Response
The more closely we follow the evolving discussion of global warming and its potential impacts, the more often we seem to find ourselves hovering at the edge of despair. This is especially true once we realize how many of the proposed “solutions” merely worsen the problem and exacerbate inequalities around the world. Powerful interests in the US are seeking massive subsidies for even more destructive false solutions, including the expansion of nuclear power and the liquification of coal. for But as the recent UN Human Development Report states, “resigned pessimism is a luxury that the world’s poor and future generations cannot afford.” So what are we to do?
Most analysts opt for a cautious approach, trying to piece together enough different strategies to reduce CO2 emissions while maintaining current levels of production and consumption. Such systematic analysis is necessary, and several approaches to building a more renewable energy system will be reviewed in a future article. But it is not sufficient, and current consumption levels in the industrialized world simply cannot be sustained. The technical obstacles to addressing the problem of global warming are often not even the most important ones. If we can find a way beyond the current impasse in our ability to imagine and realize a different kind of society, the problem of reorganizing our energy sources becomes far more tractable.
The last time a popular movement compelled significant changes in US environmental and energy policies was during the late 1970s. In the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo, imposed during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the nuclear and utility industries adopted a plan to construct more than 300 nuclear power plants in the United States by the year 2000. Utility and state officials identified rural communities across the US as potential sites for new nuclear facilities, and the popular response was swift and unanticipated. A militant grassroots antinuclear movement united back-to-the-landers and traditional rural dwellers with seasoned urban activists and a new generation of environmentalists who only partially experienced the ferment of the 1960s.
Just over 3 decades ago, in April of 1977, over 1400 people were arrested trying to nonviolently occupy a nuclear construction site in the coastal town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. This event helped inspire the emergence of decentralized, grassroots antinuclear alliances all across the country, committed to nonviolent direct action, bottom-up forms of internal organization, and a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. Not only did these groups adopt an uncompromising call for “No Nukes,” but many of them promoted a vision of an entirely new social order, rooted in decentralized, solar-powered communities empowered to decide their energy future and also their political future. If the nuclear state almost inevitably leads to a police state—due to the massive security apparatus necessary to protect hundreds of nuclear plants and radioactive waste dumps all over the country—a solar-based energy system could be the underpinning for a radically decentralized and directly democratic model for society.
This movement was so successful in raising the hazards of nuclear power as a matter of urgent public concern that nuclear construction projects all over the US began to be cancelled. When the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania nearly melted down in March of 1979, it spelled the end of the nuclear expansion. While the Bush administration today is doing everything possible to underwrite a revival of nuclear power, it is still the case that no new nuclear plants have been licensed or built in the United States since Three Mile Island. The antinuclear movement of the late 1970s also spawned the first wave of significant development of solar and wind technologies, aided by substantial federal tax benefits for solar installations, and helped launch a visionary “green cities” movement that captured the imaginations of architects, planners and ordinary citizens.
The 1970s and early ‘80s (before the “Reagan revolution” fully took hold) were relatively hopeful times, and utopian thinking was far more widespread than it is today. Some antinuclear activists looked to the emerging outlook of social ecology—developed by Murray Bookchin and others—as a new theoretical grounding for a revolutionary ecological politics and philosophy. Social ecology challenges prevailing views about the evolution of social and cultural relationships to non-human nature, and explores the roots of domination in the earliest emergence of human social hierarchies. For the activists of the period, Bookchin’s insistence that environmental problems are mainly social and political problems encouraged radical responses to ecological concerns, as well as reconstructive visions of a fundamentally transformed society.
Radically reconstructive social visions are relatively scarce in today’s political climate, dominated by endless war and rapidly rising inequality. But dissatisfaction with the status quo reaches wide and deep among many sectors of the US population. While elite discourse and the corporate media continue to push political debates rightward and politicians of both major parties glibly comply, poll after poll suggests the potential for a new opening, reaching far beyond the confines of what has become politically acceptable. The more people consume, and the deeper into debt they fall, the less satisfied most people seem to be with the world of business-as-usual.
Global warming can represent a future of deprivation and scarcity for all but the world’s wealthiest, or this global emergency can compel us to imagine a radically transformed society—both in the North and the South—where communities of people are newly empowered to remake their own future. The crisis can drive us to break free from a predatory global economy that fabulously enriches elites, while leaving the rest of us scrambling after the crumbs. The reality is too urgent, and the outlook far too bleak, to settle for status-quo false solutions that only appear to be addressing the problem of global climate disruption. Instead, we can embrace the reconstructive potential of a radically ecological social and political vision, prevent catastrophe, and begin to make our way toward a fundamentally different kind of future. As a writer in The Nation recently summed up her assessment of two books on the rise of the right wing politics in the US, “sometimes only a willingness to be radical really brings about change.”
In February’s Z, Orin Langelle will offer a photo essay on the recent UN climate talks, held in Bali, Indonesia. Brian Tokar’s books include Earth for Sale, Redesigning Life? and Gene Traders; he can be reached via social-ecology.org.