Tag Archives: climate change

Bleak, but not unexpected, news: capitalism is destroying the planet

greenland glacierBleak, but not unexpected, news today. According to a new report published in Nature, sea level rise over the last two decades has taken place at a significantly faster rate than previously reported. To be specific, the acceleration is 25% higher than so far assumed. Coasts from Florida to Bangladesh are threatened.

In a not-unrelated report, scientists also announced that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. The graphic to the right makes this point in quite stark terms.hottestyear2014

Finally, two studies by international teams of researchers have concluded that humans “are eating away at our own life support systems” at a rate not seen in the last 10,000 years. According to a summary article in The Guardian,

Of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels – human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use.

Near the conclusion of the article, the articles’ lead author, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is quoted as saying,

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.

A surprisingly direct indictment of capitalism, although the word is never directly mentioned by Steffen or by The Guardian.

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The Flood Next Time

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14A new report from the World Meteorological Organization itemizes the destruction currently being caused by climate change.

At the top of the destruction caused in recent decades is flooding.

As this chart below shows, the destructiveness caused by floods (indicated in blue) is increasing. Indeed, floods constitute 89% of reported disasters. And this is not just economic damage. Storms are responsible for 1.45 million of the 1.94m global disaster deaths.

An excellent article in the Guardian summarizes many of the key findings in the WMO report.

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Climate Wake Up Call from the Establishment

RiskyBusinessCaptureViaRiskyBusinessYouTubeThe political and economic establishment in the United States has finally woken up to the threats posed by climate change.

In a new report, appropriately entitled Risky Business, members of the business and policy-making establishment sound the alarm call about the potentially cataclysmic impact of climate change on the US economy.

Published by an economic modeling firm that normally works for the fossil fuel industry, Risky Business predicts starkly apocalyptic scenarios over the coming two centuries: more than a million homes and businesses along the nation’s coasts could flood repeatedly before ultimately being destroyed; agriculture will become impossible in Midwest, the nation’s grain belt; heat and humidity will become so intense that spending time outside will become impossible in much of the eastern half of the United States.

What does the group propose should be done about this dire situation? According to the summary article in the New York Times, many of the power brokers involved in the report are in favor of imposing a tax on carbon emissions.

A step in the right direction, but adequate to the horrifying scenarios depicted in the report? Not half likely! What we clearly need is a wholesale reorganization of the economy away from the cardinal principle of headlong, heedless growth. Not much about that in Risky Business.

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It’s Much Worse Than We Thought

sn-temperaturesA new report out in Nature reveals that the Earth is far more sensitive to greenhouse gases than scientists previously thought. The situation we find ourselves in, it turns out, is even more grave than we thought.

The report suggests that “because some climate models don’t accurately represent the formation of low-altitude clouds, Earth is likely to warm at the high end of the range estimated by 3 decades of research as carbon dioxide levels grow.”

Put in lay terms, what this means is that most of the estimates for global warming that have circulated in recent years have been far too conservative. The environmental crisis we face is actually far worse than we have been imagining, it turns out.

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The Politics of Climate Change

xin_15212061620171092619063Some good academic work has been coming out on the politics of climate change lately.  Here are a couple:

The latest special issue of the ACME, an online, open access journal of critical geography, is devoted to this topic, and features articles by Erik Swingedouw, Kelvin Mason, and David Featherstone, among others.

The Open Humanities Press, another open access project, has a series of books devoted to Critical Climate Change. Particularly interesting in this regard is Impasses of the Post-Global, which has contributions by a fantastic group of scholars working across a wide variety of genres.

Finally, the most recent issue of American Book Review, which I edited, has some great essays on Post-Apocalyptic Literature. Contributors include Jayna Brown, Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Tavia Nyong’o, Lee Quinby, Sukhdev Sandhu, and myself.

(Un)happy reading!

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Amandla! For Eco-Socialism

Today the Democratic Left Front, a new formation in South African politics, organized a conference on Ecosocialism.

The conference began with a youth delegation arriving on the wings of rousing anti-apartheid choral singing:

There was some difficulty getting the conference going because the singers kept their kinetic chants wheeling round. Makes sense. To sit down and listen is to give up a kind of agency, often to speakers who are older, wealthier, and whiter than they. Sitting here at the beginning of this program, I wonder to what extent the organizers have erred in not including more space for these young people in the conference. But perhaps there will be opportunity for dialogue of some kind during Q&A.

Michelle Maynard of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance began the day by talking about the links between human beings and all of the natural systems on the planet. She went on to contrast this with the reified view of the Earth promoted by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Maynard then continued to talk about how this worldview underlies current attitudes towards the commodification of the planet.

Next up, Vishwas Satgar spoke about the need to have this conference in order to arm the comrades against neoliberalism. This kind of capitalism is about chaos, since it is driven by unstable financial speculation. What we’ve seen in past decades in global South and what we’re seeing now in heartlands of capitalism today is global instability of neoliberalism. But capitalism is not surrendering. The current financial crash doesn’t mean that capitalism is dead. In the end, the squeeze is on all of us. We have to pay the price of paying the debts of capitalism, just as nature gets squeezed. Other legs of systemic crisis: food crisis resulting from systemic control of food by capitalist corporations, leading to major hunger crises around world; resource peaks, including oil, and the scramble for what’s left, as two most populous countries of the world – China and India – scramble for more scarce resources; climate change, and resulting political chaos, leading us into increasingly dangerous period politically; securitization of political life.

What’s at the heart of all of this is inability of a civilization to reproduce itself. In this context, what are the ruling classes offering us?  What are they putting on the table? They’ve been talking about addressing the climate crisis through markets. Clean development mechanisms, green markets, Kyoto Protocol, etc. – all these solutions embed the market as center piece. These are all master concepts of green neoliberalism today. All of these solutions are still married to juggernaut of growth and industrialization. But we’re at the point where crisis is total. We can’t fix the crisis through piecemeal solutions such as decarbonization using markets. We need a total solution. Marketization is also about competitive strategies: taking crisis and turning it into an opportunity for more accumulation. We know that commodification creates enclosures. Green economy does not address the deeper systemic crisis.

In response to this civilizational crisis, we need resistance. We’ve been living through upswing of resistance over past two decades. Chiapas, Egypt, Occupy Wall Street. But this resistance has to go further. It has to be civilizational resistance. We also need to transnationalize alternatives. The dominant view is that we’re an irrational mob. But we have answers and alternatives, and we need to put them forward on transnational level. COP17 isn’t going to solve the problem. The battle is in particular national contexts. We need to take the battle forward on this level.

Jacklyn Cock, Professor at University of Witwatersrand, then spoke about how capitalism is responding to the current crisis. Capitalism is responding by saying that it doesn’t have to change. It can adapt through three key techniques: new technology, like carbon capture & storage and GMO crops, which have not been adequately tested; expanding markets, particularly through carbon trading; greenwashing.

Using time to make two key points. South African government policy is contradictory, and what links it all together is commitment to green capitalism. Government’s recent white paper which pretends to be a green paper. It is based on expanding markets and commodification. We know about this in South Africa because of the history of commodification of water.

Pablo Solon, former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, spoke next. He began be talking about the distinction between living for more and living better. Bolivian environmentalists have emphasized the latter, because natural resources are limited. This is why we helped create the Declaration of the Rights of Earth. We have been treating the Earth as if it has no rights, the way we used to treat slaves. Today there is an apartheid against Nature. Need to reject the approach towards the commodification of nature that characterizes contemporary global elites.

Answering some of the questions raised during the teach-in last night, Solon emphasized the absolute need to take power in order to reverse the trend towards commodification of the environment.

This session of the conference ended with a series of heartfelt questions from members of the audience about how climate change is going to effect their health and their livelihoods as rural people.

While putting together this report, I came across a couple of interesting sites:

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From the Frontlines: Indigenous People Fighting Climate Change

A recent study by the National Wildlife Federation concluded that Native Americans are the people in the U.S. most affected by climate change.  From Alaskan Native villages slipping into the sea to droughts on some reservations and floods in others, Native Americans are on the frontlines of climate chaos.  They are also leading the fight to challenge the political ecology that is causing climate change.

All too often, this struggle remains invisible to most people in the U.S. and around the world.  As Rob Nixon argues in his recently published book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, contemporary media like to focus on spectacular, immediate violence such as the 9/11 attacks.  Since environmental damage seldom conforms to these spectacular expectations, the struggles of affected communities are often ignored by the dominant media. Given this media silence, we need to find new ways of raising the average person’s awareness about what is happening to indigenous peoples within our own borders and around the world.

This imperative makes the recent work of LifeMosaic particularly important. LifeMosaic is a Scottish-based non-profit which has launched an important new series of short films to help raise awareness and build knowledge about climate change and the struggles of indigenous peoples.

LifeMosaic officially launched the new series, Fever – A Video Guide to coincide with the Continental Encounter of the Peoples of Abya Yala for Water and Pachamama in Cuenca, Ecuador, 21-23rd June 2011.

Fever – A Video Guide, is made up of four short films which have been designed as a resource for Indigenous communities, to help share information about climate change as well as the struggles and the strategies that communities employ to defend their rights and determine their own futures. In the films we hear stories from communities in places as diverse as Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia.

But the films aren’t just for Indigenous People. “[They’re] also for local facilitators,” says LifeMosaic, “to help strengthen the capacity of networks and organizations in their awareness-raising and advocacy work on climate change.” “[The films can also] be used to bring indigenous peoples voices to audiences such as government officials; to all those whose work relates to indigenous peoples, forests and climate change; and in schools, universities, film festivals and other public events,” LifeMosaic adds.

All four films are available in Spanish, English and Bahasa Indonesia. They can be freely viewed or downloaded by anyone. DVD copies may also be requested by visiting LifeMosaic’s website and clicking on “Request a DVD”.  A Community Facilitator Guide is also available: http://www.lifemosaic.net/pdf/Facilitators%20Guide%20English.pdf

Fever was awarded the 2010 award for Creativity and Contribution to the Indigenous Narrative by the Indigenous Peoples’ Latin American Network for Film and Communication at the Xth International Indigenous Film and Video Festival in Quito, Ecuador.

Overview of the films

The first film, Fever , explains the essential points of climate change and why it is so important to Indigenous Peoples. Watch/Download Fever (21 minutes).

The second film, Impacts, shows how large-scale industrial projects like plantations, coal mining and oil extraction impact indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and rights as well as contribute to global climate change. Watch/Download Impacts (20 minutes).

The third film, Organization, provides examples of organizational tools and strategies used by indigenous peoples to protect their cultures, territories and rights. Watch/Download Organization (23 minutes).

The fourth and final film, Resilience, examines indigenous peoples’ increasing resilience to climate change by strengthening their customary systems and developing new approaches for adaptation. Watch/Download Resilience (22 minutes)

All four films help to put the global struggle against climate change in context. Indigenous Peoples are shown to be the populations most heavily impacted by climate change today. But these communities are also the frontline of the global movement against climate change. The LifeMosaic films show how such communities are adopting cutting edge organizational forms such as participatory democracy and online social networking in order to fight back against the political economic forces driving climate chaos.

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Nuclear Power/Knowledge

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant drags on, with even more worrying news emerging today of radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s water supply. The entire infrastructure of one of the world’s most modern and cohesive societies seems to be threatened with collapse.

Seen from outside, this crisis seems likely to have huge reverberations in Japan. The Japanese collective imaginary was indelibly marked by the U.S. use of atomic weapons to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The nuclear nightmare lived on in the post-war period in popular cultural icons such as Godzilla, whose slashing tail and fiery breath leveled entire cities just as the atom bomb had, with Japanese cinema-goers watching this replay of their traumatic history in a kind of mass repetition compulsion.

How tragic, then, that the country is now reliving a nuclear nightmare.  But, given this traumatic legacy of being the only nation subjected to nuclear weapons, why did Japan build nuclear power plants anyway?

The answer lies in the resource crunch that led Japan into war.  As Gabriel Kolko and other historians have argued, Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor not simply out of jingoistic malignity (as is often the representation in U.S. accounts of the war), but because of competition over resources.  Japan lacked many of the natural resources necessary for a modern industrial economy, including, first and foremost, petroleum. As a result, the Japanese began to expand the tentacles of their empire into the South Pacific during the first half of the twentieth century.  They quickly ran into the tottering remnants of the British empire and the newly assertive presence of the U.S. in the region.  The U.S. moved aggressively to prevent the Japanese from gaining access to petroleum, rubber, and other important resources.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, then, was the preemptive act of a power that felt it would ultimately be outmaneuvered on the chess board of inter-imperial conflict in the Pacific. The bloody war that ensued underlined in even more dramatic terms the need to develop alternative sources of energy to those which the Japanese empire had sought and failed to capture by force of arms. Hence the turn to nuclear power.

The questions raised by Japan’s ongoing nuclear agony hit close to home for New Yorkers today. The Indian Point nuclear power plant sits only 24 miles north of downtown Manhattan.  Recent publications by Columbia University researchers suggest our region is more prone to seismic activity than previously understood.  And there’s always the threat of terrorism.

The debate about nuclear power is likely to intensify as a result of the crisis in Japan. Last year I moderated a panel during which the noted climatologist James Hansen underlined the gravity of the environmental crisis that is likely to unfold as a result of our failure to curb the release of greenhouse gases.  At the end of his presentation, Hansen argued that we need to embrace nuclear power in order to forestall cataclysmic climate change-induced natural disasters.  President Obama has been following this line.

A shouting match broke out as a result of Hansen’s pro-nuclear position as audience members adamantly opposed to nuclear power raised their voices and refused to clear the hall after the scheduled end of the event.  Such debates are already returning to the media and the halls of Congress.  The issues we’re confronting are agonizingly difficult and not at all cut-and-dry. A powerful riposte to the anti-nuclear green position, for example, is offered here by environmental writer George Monbiot.

Japan’s nuclear crisis has massive implications for us all. Perhaps some good may come out of crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in the long term, despite the unfolding devastation today.  Perhaps Japan will lead the way in developing the renewable sources of power that global human civilization needs in order to forestall catastrophic climate change.  But, if it does so, it is unlikely that the country will be able to sustain a modern industrial infrastructure.  The future is not, in other words, at all clear.

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The Emerging Emergency

Scientists are predicting that 2010 is likely to be the hottest year on record.  The last weeks have seen a series of meteorological catastrophes – including droughts, floods, and hurricanes – rock different regions of the planet.  Officials in Pakistan estimate that approximately 20 million people have been displaced by the flooding of the Indus River valley, the worst mass displacement since the partition of the sub-continent at independence in 1947.  The Russian forests have been burning down wholesale, and a giant iceberg just calved from the northern section of the Greenland ice shelf, suggesting that warming has made the entire continent-size ice mass unstable.

This week climate scientists from around the world will gather in Boulder, Colorado to discuss the creation of an early warning system to predict future meteorological disasters caused by climate change.  The expectation is that the events of this year are a (relatively modest) harbinger of climate change-induced catastrophes to come.  This will be the first full session of Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE), an organization set up by the leading meteorological organizations in the US and UK.

Such efforts are laudable.  But mitigation of the devastating human impact of climate change is going to take more than simply more effective meteorological science.  We need sweeping changes in current political systems, which remain very much bound by national paradigms and enmities.  If more effective prediction simply means more efforts to contain displaced people within particular nations, it could play into the hands of the increasingly apparent forces of xenophobia in the over-developed world.  There is still no UN-recognized designation for climate refugees.  This was one of the central demands of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and it remains one of the foremost imperatives for climate justice as we begin to confront the emerging emergency.

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Consumed

Mainstream news organizations seem to be discovering anti-consumerism.  A couple of articles have appeared recently in the New York Times focusing on the ways in which the deepening recession is impacting Americans’ consumption patterns.  In a piece in the business section of the paper, for instance, the lack of correlation between purchases of material objects and happiness is noted.

The background, of course, is that the economic downturn has made it harder and harder for the U.S. middle class to stay on the treadmill of work and consumption that they’ve been persuaded to climb onto by decades of Madison Avenue advertising.  Money, the article argues, is far better spent on experiences (particularly ones with a social component) than on material things, since the latter quickly lose their aura of newness and become simply a drag, while experiences continue to resonate in our memories even after they are over.

But I think that the Times article makes a key mistake.  By linking the anti-consumerist movement to the economic downturn, it suggests that resistance to frenetic consumption is a product of forced austerity.  It well may be in some instances, but this perspective is likely to cement the association between the environmental movement and self-flagellating, hair shirt-wearing, humorless, style-deficient killjoys.  The point about happiness and the turn away from the hollowness of the consumer lifestyle gets lost in the very real sufferings created by the recession, about which the Times recently ran another article.  The recession may be leading families to stay at home playing scrabble more than previously, but it’s also leading to more grinding, quiet desperation and to more domestic abuse.  This is not a particularly silver lining.

Another problem with the Times article is that it treats our collective ambivalence about consumption as if it were a recent phenomenon.  In fact, such attitudes are rife in popular culture, and have been for a long time.  It’s not just Woody in Hollywood’s Toy Story 3 who notices that we’ve created a soulless culture of disposability.  Such an awareness is virtually ubiquitous, one might even say constitutive, of Hollywood.  From the days of Bladerunner and The Terminator, our major culture industry has been quite willing to limn our fear that the gadgets we create and then discard will bite back.

In a brilliant presentation at the Grad Center last spring (a brief summary of which you can find here), Professor Patricia Yaeger discussed the way in which films such as these represent our collective hopes and fears around consumption.  Yaeger spoke in particular about our fascination with robots, who provide us with anthropomorphized incarnations of our consumer fantasies that the things we create might somehow provide us with meaningful emotional relationships.  At the end of the day, however, as Marx pointed out long ago, commodities are just other people’s alienated labor.  They remain alien to us, and also ineluctibly linked to forms of exploitation – as well, it should be added, as environmental degradation.

Today, the issue of environmental collapse seems increasingly prominent in our collective meditations on consumption.  Peculiar, then, that the New York Times article didn’t focus at all on the environmentalist imperative behind campaigns to diminish consumption.  Perhaps the author was afraid of being painted as a killjoy.  But the point is that less consumption actually tends to increase happiness (once the basic requirements of life such as food and a safe dwelling are secured, of course), as long as it’s linked to deepening social networks.  And, of course, it’s also key to preventing runaway climate change.

Here’s an excellent report from the New Economic’s Foundation that underlines precisely these points.  It’s called Are You Happy?

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