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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

More Thoughts on Climate Change

The Daily Escape:

Frenchman Bay, viewed from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia NP, ME – 2019 photo by pmek99. Note the cruise ships lining up to visit Bar Harbor.

Following up on our post about climate change, many responded by attacking the premise that climate change is happening or, that it is due to human causes.

There have always been deniers. For example, a survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Global Project in partnership with the Guardian, found that 13% of Americans believe that humans are not at all responsible for climate change. Another 5% of Americans don’t even believe the climate is changing. So, 18% think we shouldn’t worry about climate change.

Then again, 20% believe that extraterrestrials live amongst us.

Wrongo isn’t sure that we are focused correctly when we talk about climate change. It’s not the planet that’s in trouble, its humans. Humans thrive within a specific range of availability of water, air, and food, as do all animals. If one of the critical inputs is compromised, humans will fail to thrive, our habitable locations will shrink, and the human population will also shrink. The planet will survive.

For much of human history, humans have lived in hotter, dryer locations. They also survived in colder places, and in both, were able to live hard, but reasonably happy lives. Do we want to regress to that?

Peak human experience requires surpluses of food and livable space if the population is to grow. How can that happen on an overpopulated, resource-constrained planet?

Focus on this: Global population is projected to reach approximately 10.9 billion by 2100. If that is true, we will require 10X today’s electricity output by 2100. When you think about it, even if today, we had already reached the (unrealistic) level of 50% of power sourced from renewables, that would equal only 5% of the power we will need 100 years from now.

So, where will all that energy come from? Can Silicon Valley invent a different form of electric power generation? Will the world go fully into nuclear power?

The same is true for water. Where will the increased water resources come from? Desalination?

Suppose there is no climate change. We are still facing peak oil and peak other resources. We live on a finite Earth. Think about energy: We’re in a world of expanding energy demand. This will mean substantial shortages in the medium-term, which means immense and unavoidable energy price increases.

Politically, the higher prices should be used to defray the energy costs of the majority of the population that isn’t rich enough to pay them. Doing that will take a different economic system than we have today.

Can deniers also wish these problems away?

  • We live in a world where the big polluters, corporations, are dedicated to maximizing short term returns for a relatively few wealthy beneficiaries.
  • We still live in a Neoliberal world where government works for the few, where government largess continually transfers income to the wealthy, while our infrastructure is allowed to decay.
  • We still live in a world where economic growth cannot be sustained forever without collapse.

It will take a global mobilization that is massive, disruptive and smart to deal with the resources constraint, even if there wasn’t any climate change. What we really lack is the SOCIAL technology to mobilize corporations and politicians to bring about change.

Concern about the twin problems of finite resources and climate change hasn’t brought about any particular political, social or spiritual commitment on the part of the power elites in finance, corporations or politics.

For all of our superiority at the apex of the animal kingdom, we seem unwilling to solve what surely lies ahead. That’s why we see Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old scolding world leaders, with 4 million kids standing behind her. To adapt, we will require a Manhattan Project-level of effort, but we’ll have to do all that work in the face of depleted resources, an unstable climate, and a contracting economy.

We have choices. We can continue as we are, or we can stop now, take a moment to reassess, and then put ourselves on an alternative path, as the younger generation says we must.

Thunberg challenges us to stop being selfish, to care about the future, to care about living things and recognize that we are all part of the natural world, and that our commitment to continuing economic growth is killing the planet.

We should listen, organize, and act.

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The Kids Are All Right

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta CN – 2008 photo by Andy Simonds

For the past few days, Wrongo has been writing about both ideas and people that could help to shape a reform of American capitalism.

We’ve talked about Bernie Sanders, Richard Murphy, Alan Curtis and Alexi Yurchak, and the Yellow Vests in France. Today, let’s focus on America’s youth, at least some of them:

More than 1,000 young people and allies flooded the Capitol Hill hallways and offices of Democratic representatives to demand that elected officials listen to their youngest constituents—as well as some of the world’s top scientists—and back the bold proposal to shift the US to a zero-carbon energy system by 2050 in order to save the planet from an irreversible climate catastrophe.

The protesters were mostly members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, 800 of whom had attended a training on lobbying members of Congress and their staffers the previous evening. They carried signs reading, “Do Your Job,” “Back the Deal,” and “No More Excuses“. Here is a picture of them in the halls of Congress:

Before you get all crazy about the (apparently) professionally-made signs, here’s a web site where you can easily make them. More from Common Dreams:

Many also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the following message: “We have a right to good jobs and a livable future,” two key components of the Green New Deal, which would create 10 million jobs in the first decade by putting Americans to work building a green energy infrastructure…

At least 143 of the demonstrators were arrested as they lobbied in 50 congressional offices. But, they had an impact. The number of Democratic lawmakers now supporting a Select Committee on a Green New Deal has now reached 31, twelve of whom signed on this week. How it came together reveals how the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), will use its growing membership.

The Caucus agreed with incumbent members who were willing to have a select committee so long as actual lawmaking authority remained in existing committees.

This wasn’t all due just to the kids. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has spent the past few weeks wrangling support for the Green New Deal as well. The outcome was the result of a collaboration between the CPC leaders, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement.

Wrongo doesn’t know if a Green New Deal is a good idea or not, but much of the message will resonate with voters. Who will be against “good jobs and a livable future”?

And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is showing that she has really good political instincts.

We should be happy that these kids are speaking from their hearts. They are practicing for when they will need the strength to fight the hard political battles of their generation. But, why aren’t we seeing a million parents fighting alongside their kids?

We also should remember how undervalued kids are in America: We under fund their schools. We are providing only low-wage service economy jobs for most of them when they grow up. We hardly care whether they are covered under a health insurance plan. We take them from their parents at the border.

No wonder they are learning to act, since we, their guardians, seem unwilling to act for them.

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Pope Francis on Capitalism

With the Pope starting his visit to the US, most focus will be on Conservatives’ support for the Catholic Church’s views against abortion and gay marriage. Conservatives are far less enthusiastic about Francis’ views about climate change and capitalism, both of which are covered in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.

While the Wrongologist has not read Laudato Si´, he did read an extensive and thoughtful review by William Nordhaus in the NY Review of Books, who says the Pope thinks that the degradation of our environment is a symptom of deeper problems: rapid change, unsustainable over-consumption, indifference to the poor, and the decay of social values.

Nordhaus notes that the encyclical contains an extensive discussion of the features of markets and modern capitalism. It emphasizes dysfunctional tendencies and distortions, witness his criticism of excessive consumption:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. [Paragraph 203]

And Francis’ criticism of the distorting effect of the drive for profit:

Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? [Paragraph 190]

Nordhaus quotes Francis, who argues that profit-seeking is the source of environmental degradation:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. [Paragraph 195]

Francis singles out financiers for special disapproval:

In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment…. [Paragraph 56]

The Pope criticizes capitalism’s push to make ultra-consumers of everyone:

This paradigm [consumerism] leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. [Paragraph 203]

Pure capitalism ignores two major shortcomings of those economies run by Mr. Market: The first is the emergence of monopolies, or things like unregulated pollution, which distort market outcomes. The second is inequality of opportunities and income. And much has been written about rising income inequality, particularly by Seitz and Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz.

However, it would be inaccurate to point solely to the depletion of resources or pollution as major causes of rising poverty. Instead, it is forces such as the labor-saving nature of new technologies like robots, rising imports from low- and middle-income countries, and the capture of our income taxing system by corporations and the wealthy that have distorted our markets.

Specifically, as economist Arthur Okun has written, markets do not have automatic mechanisms to guarantee an equitable distribution of income and wealth:

Given the chance, [the market] would sweep away all other values, and establish a vending-machine society. The rights and powers that money should not buy must be protected with detailed regulations and sanctions, and with countervailing aids to those with low incomes. Once those rights are protected and economic deprivation is ended, I believe that our society would be more willing to let the competitive market have its place.

So, as this week rolls out, expect to hear many voices on the right argue that Francis is an unrealistic economic fool. In particular, expect to hear George Will’s arguments this week in the National Review echoed by the media. Here is a representative quote from Mr. Will: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media…He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

See what George Will did there? He says that climate denialism is pro-science, while belief in climate change is anti-science.

Know the enemy by their arguments.

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Do Demonstrations Matter Anymore?

Newsweek reported that The People’s Climate March on Sunday in New York was perhaps the largest climate change protest in history. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people took to the streets. Celebrities and high-profile politicians were among the marchers. The protest was big on social media, but it was largely ignored by the TV talking heads. HuffPo reported:

All in all, it was a perfect opportunity for some of America’s biggest news organizations to cover the topic of climate change, something that usually gets either ignored or badly handled. For Sunday talk show hosts, there was even a nice political hook, since the march was pegged to a UN summit that President Obama will be attending.

But HuffPo said that no Sunday morning show except MSNBC’s “Up” so much as mentioned climate change, or the march. There was one reference on “This Week” by The Nation’s Katrina van den Heuvel, who pointed out that the march was actually gathering right outside the ABC studios in Lincoln Center where the show is taped. The fact that more people actually showed up for climate change than an iPhone 6 sale in New York City is big news and it should have been covered!

Why no coverage? And more important, do demonstrations matter anymore? From Juan Cole:

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for demonstrating and admire everyone who came out in New York City on Sunday (some 400,000 according to Time magazine) to demand that world leaders deal urgently with climate change.

Cole makes the point that in the current political climate, holding large rallies rarely results in any political change. But, there have been exceptions. Consider the 1963 March on Washington. That was a case where succinct demands were associated with ground-up mass actions across America. It did not bring about immediate results, but the demonstrations combined with months, and sometimes years of base-level organizing, delivered energy and momentum to that same cohesive set of demands.

But the 21st century is not the 1960’s. Now, people just send a tweet and think they’ve accomplished something. The failure of demonstrations today is symptomatic of the failure of our democracy, which refuses to separate corporate money from elections, or from influencing the mass media. Pew Research reports that only 40% of Americans think that it is important for Congress and the White House to tackle the issue of climate change. The public already knows about climate change and sees it as a problem, yet nothing is done by either party, because it would inconvenience their corporate patrons, and anger the Koch brothers.

A 2010 Stanford University poll showed that voters are unpersuaded by the usual arguments against taking action on global warming:

Only 18% believe that slowing climate change would cause unemployment, and only 14% think the US should wait for other countries to go first.

What climate change activists must first realize that the obstacle is oligarchy, not public awareness of the issue.

Large demonstrations can help build local organizations, can bring together a broad range of activists who would not otherwise have face-to-face contact and can show like-minded people that they are not alone, that there are large numbers of people who share their views. These things are all valuable to any movement for social justice.

The writers of the US Constitution believed it important enough to explicitly provide for ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble’, although recent efforts in cities across America to abridge that right in the name of public safety  have been growing. Assembly should still be seen as a form of pressure that requires many other steps to move the needle on the status quo.

The movement also needs a charismatic leader, a compelling story and a skilled group to coordinate all activities.

The next stage has to be competing for mind-share of our Congresspersons and Senators, against the entrenched and very wealthy hydrocarbon industries.
Gerrymandering that has produced a structural Republican majority in the House means that climate activists need to find GOP challengers who are deeply concerned about global warming and who are willing to primary the incumbent.

In the end, a single-issue Climate PAC, if very well-funded, could make a difference. Much of the climate change action will have to be done or coordinated by politicians, and at the moment most of those in Washington are owned by Big Oil, including by the Koch brothers.

Finally, it is clear that in addressing climate change, we address multiple ills in our society, including the tremendous waste of resources caused by the pursuit of war. We have long needed a political movement that ties together the various threads of what is wrong with our society and shows how they are interrelated.

Climate change activism has the potential to do that.

 

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