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System Change not Climate Change

Toward an Ecological Revolution

By David Johnson - CounterPunch, May 5, 2017

Climate change, as it has emerged as a defining political issue of our time, has a peculiar exceptionalism attached to it. While we know it is in some sense a political problem, or at least demands a political solution, we nevertheless tend to think of it as a problem in nature – one that transcends social issues and threatens social life itself. Every year, waves of liberal students enter environmental science programs at universities across the West, determined to study the changes human beings are causing in the earth’s ecosystems. We know that human activity in general, and the burning of fossil fuels in particular, is the primary agent of climate change, with very serious implications for the natural environment upon which humans depend, and for human life itself

The need to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then, is as clear as it is urgent.  Technologically speaking, there is a path forward: innovations in energy production abound, including in renewable sources like sun and wind. It would seem we have a problem and a solution. Why then do we see little meaningful reform, when the stakes are so high and the answers so clear?

Here the conversation often crumbles into a series of dead-ends. A significant portion of the public has resorted to denying the scientific consensus on climate change, and there is no shortage of funding for such a campaign. Others who accept the science nevertheless become cynical from the scale of the problem; the obstacle, many conclude, is “human nature” itself. Still others, determined to fight, seek to appease large corporations with innovations that are both environmentally friendly and profitable – so-called Green capitalism. Can the profit motive save us?

A new book edited by Vijay Prashad bursts through this rigid state of affairs. Focused around Naomi Klein’s Edward Said lecture, delivered in London on 4 May 2016, Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt is a short collection of narrative essays and analysis that responds to the global climate crisis in a refreshingly expansive way.

Climate Diplomacy and Climate Action: What’s Next?

By Brian Tokar - System Change not Climate Change, April 29, 2017

Just over a year ago, diplomats from around the world were celebrating the final ratification of the December 2016 Paris Agreement, proclaimed to be the first globally inclusive step toward a meaningful climate solution. The agreement was praised as one of President Obama’s signature accomplishments and as a triumph of his “soft power” approach to world affairs. But even then, long before Donald Trump and his coterie of plutocrats and neofascists rose to power pledging to withdraw from the agreement, there were far more questions than answers.

First, recall that the Paris Agreement was based entirely on countries voluntarily submitting plans outlining their proposed “contributions” to a climate solution.  This was the outcome of Obama and Hillary Clinton’s interventions at the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, where the US delegation made it clear that it would never agree to mandatory, legally binding limits on global warming pollution. While most global South representatives at successive UN summits sought to preserve that central aspect of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, rich countries united during the years between Copenhagen and Paris behind the notion that climate measures should be strictly voluntary.

Secondly, the Paris Agreement contained no means of enforcement whatsoever. While the text was abundant with words like “clarity,” “transparency,” “integrity,” “consistency,” and “ambition,” there’s literally nothing to assure that such aspirations can be realized. The only official body focused on implementation and compliance is mandated to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” Countries are urged to renew their proposals every few years, with a stated hope that the various “Nationally-Determined Contributions” to climate mitigation will become stronger over time. But if a President Trump or a potential President Le Pen chooses to do the opposite, there’s nothing but vague diplomatic peer pressure standing in the way.

Third, the various plans submitted prior to Paris fell far short of what is needed to prevent catastrophic destabilization of the earth’s climate systems. Various assessments of the plans that countries brought to Paris suggested an outcome approaching 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, far short of the stated goal of a maximum of 2 degrees, much less the aspirational goal of only 1.5 degrees that was demanded by delegates from Africa, small island nations, and elsewhere. We know, however, that at the current level of just over 1 degree Celsius (1.8°F)  in average temperature rise, we are experiencing uniquely unstable weather, Arctic ice is disappearing, and catastrophic storms, wildfires, droughts and floods are disproportionately impacting the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Two degrees is very far from a “safe” level of average warming; it is far more likely to be the 50-50 point at which the climate may or may not rapidly shift into a thoroughly chaotic and unpredictable state.

The global climate movement responded to the Paris outcome with an impressive showing of skepticism and foresight. Thousands of people filled the streets of Paris itself, declaring that the UN conference had fallen far short of what is needed, and parallel demonstrations voiced similar messages around the world. Last spring, a series of worldwide “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” events temporarily shut down major sites of fossil fuel extraction and transport on every continent, including major actions against oil transport by rail in the northeastern and northwestern US, a massive convergence to shut down Germany’s most polluting coal mine, and a boat blockade of Australia’s biggest coal port. Last fall and winter, the encampment at Standing Rock in North Dakota brought together the most inspiring alliance of indigenous communities and allies we have yet seen, and encampments inspired by Standing Rock have since emerged at the sites of a handful of major pipeline projects across the US.  Midwestern activists are responding with renewed determination to challenge the Trump administration’s move to resurrect the dreaded Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport toxic, high-carbon tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

It remains to be seen, of course, how much the current administration’s excesses will curtail longer-range climate progress. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is clearly on the chopping block, but independent estimates have suggested for some time that this represented (at best) only an incremental step beyond business-as-usual. The more internationalist voices in the Trump administration want the US to remain a party to the Paris Agreement, hoping that it can be weakened even further to benefit global fossil fuel interests.

Meanwhile, techno-optimists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg argue that the economic benefits of continued renewable energy development are compelling enough to keep their expansion on track for the next several years. In many locations, renewable installations are already far more cost effective than fossil fuel plants, and a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that five US states now rely on renewable resources (including big hydroelectric dams) for more than 65 percent of their in-state energy production. Employment in solar and wind energy is fast approaching ten times the number of coal jobs in the US, and nearly 2 million people are reportedly employed in energy conservation and efficiency. Low oil prices have driven a rapid decline in the most extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction, though increased automation in conventional oil and gas drilling has greatly enhanced the profitability of many such operations. Meanwhile, numerous state and local climate initiatives are continuing to partly offset the long legacy of climate inaction – and now overt sabotage – at the federal level.

But small measures are no longer enough, as the consequences of an increasingly unstable climate wreak havoc on communities around the world. Scientists now agree that we cannot simply aspire to return to a 350 parts-per-million carbon dioxide concentration, but that the atmosphere also has a finite and ever-shrinking “carbon budget.” If we exceed this maximum in accumulated carbon emissions since the dawn of the fossil fuel age, it could become physically impossible to restabilize the climate before many thousands of years have passed. Long before then, the atmospheric conditions necessary to sustain complex life on earth, much less a moderately stable human civilization, could be lost forever. We need to dismantle the fossil fuel economy in just a few short years, reducing consumption every year for the foreseeable future. Thus the Trump agenda is not just a temporary setback, but an existential threat to our survival. The New York Times opinion page editors were not exaggerating when they headlined a recent series of environmental case studies from around the world, “The Planet Can’t Stand This Presidency.”

We also know that past administrations, and governments around the world, have thoroughly failed to implement a proactive climate agenda. Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, embracing renewables and energy efficiency while simultaneously expanding fracking and offshore oil drilling, was a disaster for the planet as well. A capitalist system that demands unlimited growth – and constantly holds our jobs and economic well-being hostage to that overarching goal – could likely respond to decreasing consumption of resources with all the fury of an economic depression, shifting the worst impacts onto the most vulnerable people while bailing out the wealthy and powerful. This only reinforces what climate justice activists have been saying for some time now: that campaigns for climate action can only succeed as part of a holistic and fully intersectional liberation movement. We need to challenge all the institutions that blame our problems on immigrants and poor people while simultaneously threatening planetary survival. We need to challenge all forms of oppression, create genuinely sustainable and regenerative alternatives, and act boldly upon our understanding that The Planet Can No Longer Stand This Economic System.

The Steps to Ecosocialism

By Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster - Jacobin, April 26, 2017

We were pleased to learn that Daniel Tanuro was writing an article on carbon pricing schemes. His book Green Capitalism: Why it Can’t Work makes important contributions to ecosocialist thought, and he has an impressive record of personal involvement in many radical environmental campaigns in Europe. We looked forward to the clear explanation and strong critique of market-based approaches to climate change that we know he could write.

Unfortunately, “The Right’s Green Awakening” does not live up to the generally high standard set by his book. Instead of addressing the carbon-pricing plans that have surfaced in capitalist politics, Tanuro focuses his critique on proposals developed by leading climate scientist James Hansen and on the critical support that we gave his proposal in Monthly Review and Climate & Capitalism.

Tanuro equates our position — and Hansen’s rather different one — with a proposal advanced by some right-wing American politicians, arguing that we support “a populist variant . . . [of] neoliberal doctrine.” Naturally, we disagree.

We are not saying that our views are above criticism. Open debate is an essential part of building a global ecosocialist movement, and we welcome thoughtful responses to anything we have written. However, since Tanuro’s article seriously misrepresents both Hansen’s plan and our approach to it, we need to correct his misunderstandings before a proper discussion can begin.

Climate change is more than a tech problem, so we need more than a tech solution

By Martin J Boucher and Philip Loring - Ensia, March 20, 2017

At the COP 21 climate change convention in Paris at the end of 2015, leaders from 194 nations agreed to pursue actions that will cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming within 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial conditions. Meeting this goal will avoid continued and increasing harm to people and ecosystems around the world caused by a changing climate, and it is also a great opportunity to turn the world into a place that embodies our collective and pluralistic values for the future. Nevertheless, there remains a notable gap between current trajectories of global GHG emissions and the reductions necessary to see COP 21’s goals realized.

Numerous technological and economic strategies for bridging that gap are currently being discussed, including transitions to renewable energy and/or nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and cap and trade. However, many overlook the fundamental social issues that drive climate change: overconsumption, poverty, industrial agriculture and population growth. As such, even if these strategies succeed in mitigating CO2 emissions — renewable energies, for instance, seem to have achieved irreversible momentum — they leave unaddressed a second gap, a sustainability gap, in that they allow issues of ecological overshoot and social injustice to persist. We argue that there is an opportunity to reverse climate change by attending to these sustainability issues, but it requires that we reject the convenience of technological optimism and put aside our fears of the world’s “big” social problems.

In 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote in Science that it is possible to address climate change by breaking the larger problem of CO2 emissions down into a series of more manageable “wedges.” They offer 15 different solutions based on existing technology, including nuclear energy, coal carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency, and increased adoption of conservation tillage, for mitigating climate change one wedge at a time. Their pragmatic approach to the problem has been popularly received, as evidenced by the thousands of citations that the paper has received. However, their approach can also be critiqued for glossing over the immense costs involved and for its piecemeal and top-down nature. In other words, they assume that this complex global environmental problem can be fixed with a handful of standardized solutions.

Climate change is just one of many related sustainability problems that the world faces. In addition to rising atmospheric CO2, we are approaching or have already exceeded multiple other planetary boundaries — such as fresh water, nitrogen, phosphorus and biodiversity loss — that CO2-mitigating technologies cannot solve. Solving climate change on its own would require immense investments but leave too many other problems unaddressed. That is not to say that these technological innovations are irrelevant; Pacala and Socolow’s desire to break down the challenge into manageable pieces is both valid and appreciable. What’s missing from their assessment is the fact that the world is a complex system, and systemic problems require systemic solutions.

The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

By Pete Dollack - Systemic Disorder, April 5, 2017

Frequently lost in the arguments over financial costs and benefits when it comes to pollution is the cost to human health. Not only illness and respiratory problems but premature death. To put it bluntly: How many human lives should we exchange for corporate profit?

Two new studies by the World Health Organization should force us to confront these issues head on. This is no small matter — the two WHO studies estimate that polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year.

Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene all contribute to these 1.7 million annual deaths, accounting for more than one-quarter of all deaths of children age five or younger globally. A summary notes:

“[W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

One of the two reports, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, notes that most of humanity lives in environmentally stressed areas:

“92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies. Air pollution accounts for over 50% of the overall disease burden of pneumonia which is among the leading causes of global child mortality. Growing evidence suggests that air pollution adversely affects cognitive development in children and early exposures might induce development of chronic disease in adulthood.” [page 3]

These types of calculations on health and mortality are absent from debates on environmental regulations. And not only is the human toll missing from cost/benefit analyses, but this pollution is actually subsidized.

Momentum Builds for May Day Strikes

By Jonathan Rosenblum - Labor Notes, March 23, 2017

Shop steward Tomas Mejia sensed something was different when 600 janitors streamed into the Los Angeles union hall February 16—far more than for a regular membership meeting. Chanting “Huelga! Huelga!” (“Strike! Strike!”), they voted unanimously to strike on May Day.

This won’t be a strike against their employers. The janitors of SEIU United Service Workers West felt driven, Mejia says, “to strike with the community” against the raids, threats, and immigrant-bashing hate speech that the Trump administration has unleashed.

“The president is attacking our community,” said Mejia, a member of his union’s executive board. “Immigrants have helped form this country, we’ve contributed to its beauty, but the president is attacking us as criminal.”

Following the Los Angeles vote, union janitors elsewhere in California have also voted to “strike with the community” on May 1. As the meetings gathered steam, Mejia reports, workers in schools, grocery stores, restaurants, and farms started talking about joining the walkout too.

And the strike is going on the road: SEIU-USWW is partnering with the human rights group Global Exchange, worker centers, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, and faith groups to organize a “Caravan against Fear” that will tour California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in April, staging rallies, cultural events, direct action trainings, and community strike votes leading up to May Day.

Apollo-Earth: A Wake Up Call In Our Race against Time

By Rupert Read and Deepak Rughani - The Ecologist, March 9, 2017

Why a project to find common meaning in our common struggle to prevent climate-catastrophe deserves the name 'Apollo-Earth'

There is a mission brewing and building, a mission that needs all hands that are ready: To bring the 'un-named movement' - the 'for-life' story of our time - to a tipping point.

This needs to happen faster than the rate at which our planet is approaching fatal climatic tipping points (fatal, that is, to us - always remember that it isn't strictly speaking 'the planet' that needs saving, only the animals, including ourselves, who live on it). The climate nemesis we face is now quite predictable: it is a 'white' swan event: But it could still be forestalled, with determination. If that forestalling is to be successfully accomplished, if together we are to choose to save ourselves and our descendants, then we need to see a radical shift in humanity's collective response to the rapidly growing threat of breakdown of our environmental life-support systems.

This will only happen if the forces of negativity, idiocy and oppression are outweighed by the force for rebellion, for sanity and for good in the epic struggle which will define our century.

The Walking Dead in Washington

By Paul Gilding - Paul Gilding, February 23, 2017

We’re all focused on the drama and entertainment of Trump’s takeover of the world’s centre of military, security and economic power. For some it’s exciting and entertaining, for others terrifying and apocalyptic. I too have been glued to the news – at various times having each of those responses! But now I’ve come back to earth, recognising it all for what it is. Important, but a sideshow to a much bigger and more important game. And on reflection, I’m glad he got elected.

How can a Trump Presidency be positive? Surely this is a major setback – to action on climate change, to addressing inequality, to human rights and global security. Doesn’t it make the world a scarier and less stable place?  In isolation, all true, but in context, not so much. The context is the key.

Trump’s election is not a trend. It should not be seen as evidence of a swing to the right, to nationalism and xenophobia etc. It is simply a symptom of the volatility inherent in the accelerating breakdown of our current economic approach and model.

What we are seeing is the last hurrah of a dying approach. A desperate attempt by the incumbents to rescue the now failing economic model that did deliver great progress for humanity but has come to the end of its road – and that road finishes at a cliff.

A cliff is the right analogy for a range of reasons. Perhaps most starkly it’s climate change and resource scarcity but also inequality and the failure of the old model to deliver further progress for most people in Western countries. There are many other issues we face, but these two – climate change (and with it food supply and geopolitical security risks) and inequality within countries – are the systemic risks. They define the cliff because neither can continue to worsen without the system responding – either transforming or breaking down. So the old approach is finished, along with the fossil fuel industry, and the walking dead taking over Washington won’t bring it back to life.

This leads to why, on reflection, I’m surprisingly pleased Trump was elected, rather than Hillary Clinton. I know it is hard to imagine how someone as appalling as Trump is better than the alternative, so let me expand.

We are now accelerating towards the cliff and we don’t have much time left to change course. If Clinton had been elected, we would have continued to suffer the delusion that we were addressing the systemic risks we face in an inadequate but still worthwhile way. There would have been the same debates about fossil fuel companies having too much influence on politics, the conservative wealthy elites (yes there are liberal wealthy elites!) manipulating the system to their benefit etc. But we would have seen some progress.

Meanwhile business people would have argued the need for less regulation and “freeing up” the economy. They would have argued we needed to run the country like business people run companies, that if only we had strong (i.e. autocratic) leadership, we could get things done. And the Tea Party style extremists would have had their favourite enemy – another Clinton – to rail against and blame for it all, as they mobilized their base.

Now there’s no debate – it’s all there to see. The fossil fuel industry dominates the administration, gaining unfettered access to more coal, oil and gas. The iconic symbol and long term funder of climate change denial, Exxon has seen their CEO put in charge of US foreign policy and climate negotiations. Trump is “the businessman in charge” and can slash regulation, free up the financial markets to unleash more mayhem and wind back those pesky environmental protections.

He will attack the media, mobilise extremists and unleash all the autocratic and nationalistic tendencies that the system has – but normally suppresses. His solution to inequality will be to give tax breaks to the rich (you can’t make this stuff up!) when we know only government intervention – or catastrophe–  prevents inequality being the inevitable result of unfettered markets.

The critical result of all this? No change to the fundamental direction we are on. The rich will get richer, the middle class will stagnate, racism and conflict will worsen and we will be less secure – all while climate change destabilises civilisation.  How is this good?

Because three big things will change.

Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions

By Patrick Bond - CounterPunch, January 19, 2017

The forces arrayed against Donald Trump’s presidency and neo-fascist movement range from the Central Intelligence Agency to oppressed minorities, and will soon encompass the whole world once his climate change threats are carried out. From above, conflicts will continue with moderate Republicans, Democratic Party elites, so-called Deep State opponents including neoconservative factions of the military, exporting companies concerned about protectionism, and deficit hawks worried about excess spending on filthy-Keynesian infrastructure.

But it’s likely that elite opposition will fade within weeks. Then what about resistance from below? Learning explicitly from apartheid’s defeat, it makes sense to prepare a global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) strategy against Trump, his leading cronies and United States corporations more generally.

For human rights victims in the US, mutual aid commitments like the new United Resistance linking dozens of campaigning groups and a sanctuary movement (hated by the far right) offer close-to-home “social self-defence,” as activist Jeremy Brecher remarks in his survey of myriad anti-Trump struggles.

When it comes to raising the costs of Trump’s noxious politics internationally and preventing corporations from full cohesion to his program, the US oppressed still must take the lead. Evidence of this is already emerging, with Trump boycotts seeking to delegitimise his political agenda and companies that support it. Internationally, we can predict that when Rex Tillerson takes trips or Trump attends the Hamburg G20 in July, protesters will be out.

Not Just Transition, But Transformation: the Paris Climate Agreement

By Sean Sweeney - The Murphy Institute, November 7, 2016

The Paris Climate Agreement came into effect November 4th, 2016. More than 90 countries have ratified the deal, which is enough to turn it into international law.

Unions all over the world are trying to anticipate the agreement’s likely impacts and navigate its provisions to advance the interests of working people. Towards that end, a cross section of international labor will be in Marrakech from November 7th-19th calling for a “just transition strategy,” and to press for more ambitious targets and adequate climate financing for the global South.

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