False Hopes and Disingenuous Agreements: COP21 and Climate Catastrophe

The corporate mass media were briefly all agog about the agreement reached in Paris for the world’s nations to reduce green house gas emissions and save the planet.[1] COP21 was widely declared a success, then quickly ignored. But really, what was accomplished? A very slick propaganda pitch by the world’s political elites, that’s what. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the unanimous agreement among the leaders of all nations at the conference was impressive in itself.

After several decades of consistent scientific consensus confirmed by massive planetary evidence, the politicians were forced to admit the obvious. That was a major step toward serious climate action. Yet it was embarrassingly similar to a bunch of alcoholics admitting their addiction at their first 12-step meeting. Unfortunately, it is far too little and it also may be too late. Global warming is a threat to humanity now and the addiction of corporations, governments, and people to fossil-fueled global economy remains fundamentally unchanged. In covert denial, major media reports buried the facts of failure deep in their glowing descriptions.

Indigenous earth advocates and leaders of island nations – as well as major climate organizations such as 350.org and Friends of Earth – objected that the “agreements” have no teeth. The agreed goals of the negotiating nations fall far short of targets demonstrated by the scientific evidence to be necessary to avoid planetary climate catastrophe. The science-based targets must be reached very soon. In contrast, the carbon-emissions cuts the politicians pledged to make do not add up to a total that is sufficient to keep global warming to even the insufficient goal of an increase of no more than 2º C.

Denial as Affirmation

Working toward the 1.5º C. the climate science consensus deemed necessary to avoid climate catastrophe is presented in the Paris accords as a vague wish. On the positive side, the agreement is a universal political acknowledgement that there is indeed a climate crisis. The nations present agreed that something must be done. That’s all – hardly a plan of action. COP21 produced an agreement of concern; none of its targets for governmental action are enforceable or adequate. Most importantly, virtually nothing is said about how nations can achieve the agreed goals. Yet the praise pours forth.

In the U.S., the mass shooting at a community center in San Bernardino, California, interrupted any scant coverage of the UN conference. Every last detail of the terrorist shooters’ lives was covered over and over by CNN, MSNBC, and other cable outlets. Given the apparent inspiration given them by ISIS and the immigration security failure in the case, the attention given it is certainly understandable. Yet over the two-week span of the conference, the U.S. corporate media gave coverage to COP21 at a level implying its relative unimportance to Americans. One might wish that it had been given the level of coverage of Donald Trump’s latest offensive utterance, and with greater honesty. However, the mass media are deeply implicated in the fossil-fuel addiction of the corporations that control it.

Perhaps the scant news coverage has to do with the fact that the U.S. is unique in its political stance toward global warming. Everyone knows that the climate-crisis denying Republican-controlled Congress will never ratify any climate-action agreement with its present membership. First, nothing President Obama attempts to accomplish will be accepted by this racist radicalized Tea-Party dominated gang of corporatist obstructionists. Obama’s efforts to shape the agreement so that it does not require congressional ratification will not significantly change U.S. political stagnation over the issue. Second, the blatantly racist hostility to Obama in Congress is merely amplified by the climate-denial fossil-fuel industry funding of so many legislators. It is a lose-lose situation for climate action in the U.S., and it is a disaster for the planet.

Major national news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting at the end of the conference, have at least implicitly proclaimed victory for the environment. Despite the failures of content and commitment evidenced by the document itself, it is widely praised for the hope it brings to the deepening climate crisis. Agreement in principle, however, is entirely different from any commitment to specific climate actions. What can we realistically hope will be accomplished as a result of the COP21 accord?

Affirmation Diverting Attention to Wrong Policies

A compilation of actions taken and not taken by the various nations that have contributed in extremely different degrees to climate destabilization would be book-length. The global fossil-fuel industry and its connections to governments and corporations is highly complex and differentiated. In the U.S., federal efforts to constrain emissions from coal-fired power plants remain ambiguous at best. The Environmental Protection Agency attempts to impose stricter emissions standards on power plants. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management continues to virtually give away coal mining leases in the Powder River Basin without competitive bidding. The price of coal is thereby held down in a “giant subsidy” to the coal industry.[2] The social costs of burning coal – pollution driven health damage and the climate destabilization – remain unaddressed. The coal problem is only one of many contradictions in government action in relation to emissions reduction. Most are driven by the demands of industry upon the state. The culture of unrestrained fossil-fuel driven economic growth remains unscathed.

The corporate agenda of industrial growth not only continues unabated, but has permeated talk of how to limit carbon emissions. Research and development of exotic new technologies for energy production dominate governments in the industrially developed Western nations. The Bill Gates’ coalition of billionaire “venture philanthropists” has convinced governments to spend on new high-tech energy production. Even if the research and development efforts for such exotic strategies as Bill Gates’ new technology for nuclear power generation could be guaranteed viable, they are misdirected.

Right Action Threatens Corporatism, and Must

Instead, public authorities should be investing in more difficult to organize but absolutely necessary immediate actions to conserve energy and cut carbon emissions directly. Existing means for energy conservation and near zero emissions production – solar and wind – are immediately available. Their immediate deployment should be maximized. But that would seem to require structural changes in the economy of global extractive capital. Actually, their gradual deployment is already forcing change in energy investments, as is the divestment movement. If sufficient investment shifts to renewable energy, the fossil-fuel industry cannot continue to drive governments of the “advanced” industrial nations to continue down the path of destruction.

Those who have contributed most to the problem have contributed least to its solution. The corporatist model of new industrial technology for reducing carbon emissions merely serves to take us further down the path of wrong action. Those who can instigate real change away from the corporatist model of over-production and over-consumption toward an ecological economy, must take action now. Given the intransigence of federal policies subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, the contradictions between abstract federal climate policy and the continued support for extractive capital will become more obvious.

Local and regional efforts to protect aquifers, farms, local drinking water, and indigenous lands from their destructive effects are making extractive investments more difficult. Communities, municipalities, and regions must reassert their innate rights to self-preservation by direct actions replacing fossil-fuel based energy production, instituting comprehensive energy conservation programs, and restricting the carbon emissions allowed. The false hopes of abstract international agreements must be replaced by the realistic hopes of direct actions by people where they live.

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[1] Prime examples include: Chris Moody, “Paris climate deal: 5 big issues,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/paris-climate-deal-5-big-issues/2015/12/12/2bb2ba8c-a107-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html?wpisrc=nl_pwrainbow and Coral Davenport, “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris,” New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/world/europe/climate-change-accord-paris.html.

[2] James Surowiecki, “The Financial Page: Money to Burn,” The New Yorker, December 7, 2015, p. 28.

Why Recycle? Sometimes the Necessary is Insufficient

I have been recycling for a long time. At first it was just aluminum cans and glass bottles, especially when there was a deposit to collect. Then plastic grew to dominate the world of packaging. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, ‘mid-twentieth century’? Why, I even remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk when I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties. But that was re-use, not recycling. I suspect those glass milk bottles, when cracked, chipped, or broken, were just thrown in the trash. But their useful lives had been extended beyond twenty-first century imagination. I sometimes remember little details about my post-WWII childhood better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity.” Today’s consumerism is driven by the high-tech petroleum-based industrial culture of perpetual economic growth and one-use post-consumer waste.

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a new Website dedicated to helping consumers live a “parallel lifestyle” by buying only ecologically sustainable products and services. Living a parallel strategy can be done now, even though the economic culture would have you think otherwise. While not always obvious, many consumer decisions involve making a ‘mainstream’ or a ‘parallel’ buying choice. Buying organic lettuce, for example, involves avoiding the heavily fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. Less petroleum inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for giant industrial harvesting machines and long-distance trucking, etc., all contribute to lower carbon emissions. But then the proliferation of plastic packaging of produce, whether organic or not, ups the carbon cost of eating.

Plastic Proliferation

Plastic Proliferation

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife was to make for the APW holiday reception. Despite its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products from around the world available there. It is the only place in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan halibut – just a day out of the sea – if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle class income. Many prepared salad ingredients are displayed along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” pre-washed spinach leaves, Romaine hearts, etc., are all neatly packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

Finally, the recycling of plastic in “progressive” Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and unidentifiable fused materials combinations used in ever more complex packaging systems just accelerates. Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling.

Images of wholesome fresh organic food are belied by the carbon cost of the food-presentation fetish of marketing strategies that require more recycling. Increasingly necessary, recycling is yet another carbon emitting industrial process. The proliferation of complex packaging systems matches the expanded technologies for the production of diverse plastic packages themselves. I have noticed more and more plastic packages that have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Sometimes the recycle triangle with number is so feint and obscurely placed as to suggest an intent that it not be seen. Is the ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

In the cultural context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, hardly holding back the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. We could recycle everything and it would not stop global warming before it reached the point of no return from climate catastrophe and social chaos. Paradoxically, recycling is another fossil-fuel dependent industry. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient. If the parallel strategy really takes hold and works, there should be far less need for recycling.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties were re-used many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on today’s obsession with “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction for manufacture. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. So should the production of plastic packaging. The revenue generated by a direct tax on carbon energy production – think Exxon-Mobil – should be used to convert energy production to the simplest forms of renewable technologies now available. And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the commercial environment – the factory. What is most important about consumer waste is that it can only be reduced by constraining its production. If all, or even half, of the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. In such circumstances, the consumer has little or no choice, and the energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

COP21, Bill Gates, and Climate Catastrophe

COP21, like the United Nations climate conferences before it, appears to be floundering over international non-binding showcase “commitments” to reduce carbon emissions — and is emitting effusive illusions of progress. Pleas of island nations fall on deaf ears. The negotiators are ignoring the scientific evidence that the reductions they are talking about fall far short of what is necessary to keep the planet habitable in the coming decades.

Coal Fired Generating Plant_Think.Progress

Meanwhile, a new set of players or “stakeholders” has appeared on the scene. Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, retired from his position as CEO and creator of Microsoft, is now overseeing one of the biggest philanthropic foundations in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is forming a group of 28 leading world investors called the “Breakthrough Energy Initiative.” This group of investors is aligning with governments in a new public-private venture called “Mission Innovation.”

Gates has pulled together billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), George Soros (consummate currency trader), Jack Ma (Alibaba), and Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal, in a massive effort at venture philanthropy. With their government allies, these guys are taking the powers that be directly down the wrong road. Their goal is to invest in Research and Development (R&D) of new low or no-carbon energy production technologies over the next five years. Their billions of private and public dollars could be much better spent on direct climate mitigation efforts urgently needed now.

First, we don’t have time to bet on the optimism of wealthy technophiles. No, not all problems in the world can be solved by some new (likely energy-intensive) technology. The Climate Crisis is NOW. We must apply all possible existing scientific and material resources to reduce  carbon emissions in the present, rather than betting on yet to be proven technologies that may be invented and developed in a few years.

Second, all new technology, especially the high tech stuff almost universally favored by venture capitalists, is energy intensive in both its development and its deployment. We need just the opposite: low-tech or existing technologies. Neither existing solar nor wind technologies need new R&D investments to be deployed now.

Third, we must transform the profligate endless-growth high consumption and waste economy that produces most of the carbon emissions currently destroying climate stability. Otherwise, emissions cannot be curtailed enough to avert disaster. That involves things we already know how to do, such as insulation, various other energy saving actions, and reductions in the explosive international trade that consumes so much fossil-fuel generated energy.

Neither the Gates Group of Billionaires nor the faux negotiators of COP21 seem willing to face the hard problem of immediate massive reductions in carbon emissions. What humanity and the planet need is a complete transformation of the global growth-at-any-cost economy into an ecological economy grounded in the earth systems that have sustained us all — so far.

What we need most is “Local Community Resilience to Avoid Climate Catastrophe,” which is the title of my article just published in the Green Fire Times, the largest distribution newspaper in Northern New Mexico. GFT focuses on all things related to sustainable life in the Southwest. In that article, I discuss resistance, replacement, and resilience, as the “three R’s” of survival under the conditions we face. These ideas are also discussed in some previous posts on this site. Civil society movements demonstrating outside the Paris conference — and around the world — are growing, as they did in response to previous establishment climate conferences that accomplished next to nothing. But they must grow much faster. The building of a global movement to achieve the Next Great Transformation offers the best hope, if it can happen fast enough.