People's Power for a People's Planet; Understanding Climate Change and What We Can Do About it
Thursday, January 28, 2010
We don't need to be experts or scientists to understand the basics about Climate Change. This has been made much easier thanks to the work of folks like Dr. James Hansen. A couple of years ago he published a paper that simplified our understanding of the phenomena by looking at the concentration - parts per million - of CO2 in the atmosphere. By going over the extensive data compiled so far on past and current climate information we know that for all of human history that number was about 275ppm. Though, two hundred years ago that changed. 
It was the use of greenhouse gasses, which has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution that lies behind Climate Change. When we burn coal or fuel the greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere and as it, along with other GHG's like methane and chlorofluorocarbons, accumulates it adds to the Greenhouse Effect. This creates numerous other chains of events that affect the polar ice caps, the oceans, droughts and more.
And it's not just burning fuels for energy that releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Deforestation and our assault on entire ecosystems does this as well. Plants absorb CO2 while emitting oxygen, but when a plant is cut down the absorbed CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This problem can be magnified when forests are cleared, as they are in Brazil, to raise livestock that expels methane gasses, another greenhouse gas. Over the last fifty years the size of the rainforests, wetlands and grasslands has been reduced by half. All of this and more is adding to the crisis.
As Climate Change accelerates it creates new problems of its own. Droughts are growing larger and larger in terms of square miles. As fresh water is released into the oceans the salinity is altered in ways that adversely affect marine life and the weather. The reality of our ecosystem is that it is not only finite it is fragile and that major disruptions in biodiversity can have a tremendous chain effect. Imagine a house of cards where columns are continually knocked out. The house crumbles.
Climate Change is a real threat and human activity is a major factor. Over the past two hundred years the concentration of CO2 has reached 387ppm with an additional 2ppm being added each year, and since "business as usual" means more growth the trend is alarming. But that's not the worst of it. The worst part is that this is way beyond the safe threshold of 350ppm. That's the number we need to come down to (at the least) by 2050 before we reach the tipping point where there is no return.
At risk of coming off too radical, a major part of the problem are two things: Capitalism and Imperialism.
Capitalism, the modern dominant economic system based on private enterprise and market allocation, is guided by its main motive: the maximization of profits. Being environmentally and socially responsible is a hindrance to Capitalism so long as regulation is not implemented to force all to play by fair and safe rules. This means that while carbon does not have a price tag attached to it the external costs of Climate Change will go unpaid, which is convenient for the capitalist system since this is friendly to the profit motive, and it will be "business as usual." That is, until the planet comes to collect its dues.
The conquest and extension of power that is at the heart of Imperialism is destructive, to say the least. The U.S., the sole reigning super power, is only 5% of the world's population yet it accounts for nearly half of global military spending. Building and maintaining over one thousand foreign military bases and the carbon emitted by ships, tanks and so on leaves a tremendous carbon footprint. Putting whole countries aside, the Pentagon is the largest polluter in the world.
There are two particular ways in which we can effectively price carbon emissions here and now but both would need to be implemented through a binding international treaty. An accurate accounting of the costs of our activities will be a qualitative incentive to scale back our reckless production and consumption patterns, and hopefully do more to highlight the unbearably high and grotesque costs of militarism.
Before briefly going into detail it should be pointed out that since the crisis stems from the developed countries it would not be fair for the undeveloped countries to see their development hindered by acts they are not responsible for. Africa and Asia, for example, suffered needlessly under colonialism and their growth has been stunted because of it. This is why the bulk of the responsibilities and obligations should be placed on the developed world to reduce their CO2 emissions.
(1) Carbon Tax: Governments would have to determine the rate at which to accurately account for CO2 by the a ton.
(2) Cap and Trade: Governments would auction off 100% of finite permits and any entity found emitting CO2 unlawfully would be subjected to penalties.
The current political reality, especially for the primary culprit (U.S.) is that the first option is pretty much dead in the water due to the ideological notion that "tax" is a four-letter word. However, recent opinion polls of the citizens of the primary culprit reveals that most acknowledge Climate Change as manmade (74%), and most favor action (54%) and a binding international treaty (55%) even though more think it will "hurt" the economy. 
Political Economists like Robin Hahnel have recently done much to push for the latter while referencing The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework as a detailed way of implementing the latter option.  
Last month in Copenhagen, Denmark world leaders gathered for their annual UNFCCC conference to discuss resolving this crisis but unfortunately it proved fruitless (to put it mildly). The historian and recently deceased activist, Howard Zinn, said two months ago, "But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in." While these words ring true and hint at the need for restructuring, the people on top have chosen to continue pushing our planet to the brink of catastrophe and it has regrettably been made possible due to, like Zinn noted, our obedience. The people of Mexico have a way of responding to these kinds of problems: ¡Ya basta! : Enough is enough! 
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that time is running out and that we need to be escalating our efforts of organizing in our workplaces, in our homes, our schools, our communities, our churches, our mosques, our synagogues, everywhere. This shouldn't be too difficult for us. We have only three basics things to cooperate with each other on:
(1) Getting Educated
(2) Getting Organized
(3) Getting Active
We know what is wrong and we know what needs to be done to fix it. This is a good thing. My wife told me, "I think that's the bad thing - that we know how to fix it, but won't be able to because there are too many selfish, money and power hungry bastards standing in the way - and they will stand there, until we literally make ourselves extinct." If our efforts fail, which depends on how much we commit ourselves to our goals, then I told her, "If it comes down to that then we know who to eat for our judiciously last meal."
All jokes aside. As a parent who deeply loves his children, and even if you are not a parent I don't doubt that you can relate, I cannot for the life of me risk my child's deriding us for something as simple as action.
In closing, I want to share with you something the comedian, Richard Pryor, once somberly said, "What scares me is that one day my son will ask me ‘What did you do, Daddy, when all the shit was going down?'"
- James Hansen, "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?", read at http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf
- NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, December 11-14, 2009, and USA Today/Gallup Poll, December 11-13, 2009, Climate Change, read at http://pollingreport.com/enviro.htm
- Robin Hahnel, "A Climate Change Policy Primer," January 12, 2010, read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/4105
- EcoEquity, "The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, read at http://www.ecoequity.org/docs/TheGDRsFramework.pdf
- Howard Zinn, Democracy Now!, January 28, 2010, read, listen or watch at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/28/howard_zinn_1922_2010_a_tribute