Liberty Tree (Vol. 1, Issue 2), May 1, 2006
[Rachel's introduction: The movement to avoid catastrophic climate change will include a clean energy revolution -- greatly improved energy efficiency and energy conservation. We need a new democracy movement to make it possible for governments, local and national, to take corrective action on climate change.]
By Ted Glick
Since about the time that the worldwide Kyoto Protocol officially went into effect on Feb. 16th, 2005, there has been a marked upsurge in activism on the climate crisis. This is a very positive development, given that global warming is real, it is having destructive impacts now, as in Hurricane Katrina, and it is accelerating.
A January 29th article on the front page of the Washington Post put it this way:
Now that most scientists agree human activity is causing Earth to warm, the central debate has shifted to whether climate change is progressing so rapidly that, within decades, humans may be helpless to slow or reverse the trend.
Others, like Stephen Byers, a top aide to Tony Blair, think it is not decades but years. In early 2005, a task force he co-chaired concluded that we could reach "the point of no return in a decade." Leading scientists, journalists and others in the USA and worldwide agree. As author Bill McKibben recently wrote in an article for the Boston Globe, referring to the works and views of NASA's Goddard Space Institute Director James Hansen:
... so we go on burning ever more fossil fuel, and the earth keeps getting warmer--as Hansen's monthly monitoring of 10,000 temperature gauges around the planet makes depressingly clear. But the new high temperature record isn't the real reason Hansen is so agitated right now, nor the reason the Bush administration would like to silence him. Instead, it's the messages about future change that his computer climate models keep spitting out. Those models reveal a miserable situation at present, but a dire one in the years ahead. In his December speech to the Geophysical Union, [Hansen] noted that carbon dioxide emissions are 'now surging well above' the point where damage to the planet might be limited. Speaking to a reporter from The Washington Post, he put it bluntly: Having raised the earth's temperature 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last three decades, we're facing another increase of 4 degrees over the next century. That would 'imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.' The technical terms for those changes include drought, famine, pestilence, and flood. 'It's not something we can adapt to,' he continued. 'We can't let it go on another 10 years like this.' And that's what makes him so dangerous now. He's not just saying that the world is warming. He's not just saying we're the cause. He's saying: We have to stop it now. Not wait a few decades while Exxon Mobil keeps making record profits. Not wait a few decades until there's some painless new technology like hydrogen cars that lets us drive blithely into the future. Not even wait a few years until the current administration can cut and run from Washington. We are literally in a race against time. It is the responsibility of all conscious people living today to take up this issue with all the energy and determination that we can gather. Present and future generations of not just the human race but all life forms on this planet are depending on us.
What To Do
Climate activists are pretty much in agreement that there are three primary tasks which must continue to be supported and much more seriously undertaken if we are to have a chance of avoiding this truly apocalyptic future.
One is energy conservation: the insulation of homes and buildings; switching to compact fluorescent (CFC) light bulbs; using low-energy appliances; setting thermostat temperatures low in the winter and, where air conditioning is used, high in the summer; using hybrid, electric or other high mpg vehicles; recycling; and other actions.
A second is energy efficiency: Tightening up the way energy is produced, distributed and used in industry, business and other institutions. Estimates for how much energy could be saved in this way range from 30 to 70 percent.
The third is a clean energy revolution: The substitution of wind, solar, clean biomass, tides, geo-thermal and hydrogen for the oil, coal and natural gas that are now being used.
There are differences, however, among environmentalists on certain major issues. One point is over the question of nuclear energy. Some of the more compromise-oriented environmental groups are willing to accept nuclear power, even if unenthusiastically. Most groups reject nuclear power as a viable alternative.
A second point of divergence has to do with the Kyoto Protocol. Although most US environmental groups are supportive in general, very few actively promote it. Many seem intimidated by one Senate vote in 1997. In the words of Wikipedia:
On July 25th of that year, before the Kyoto Protocol was to be negotiated, the US Senate unanimously passed by a 95-0 vote the Byrd- Hagel Resolution (S. Res. 98), which stated the sense of the Senate was that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include binding targets and timetables for developing as well as industrialized nations or "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States."
This bi-partisan dismissal of Kyoto was reflected more recently during the 2004 Presidential campaign when Bush campaigned against it and the Democrats consciously left it off of their platform. Other, more radical environmental groups are critical of the Kyoto Protocol because "carbon trading" is a main element of the agreement. Carbon trading is distinct from "carbon reduction" in that the latter focuses on penalizing those countries that do not meet their emission reduction targets. These groups are also critical of carbon trading from an environmental justice perspective because implementation in the South has sometimes exacerbated economic injustice while gaining only questionable positive impacts as far as greenhouse gas reductions.
The year 2005 witnessed the emergence of a new group, the Climate Crisis Coalition (CCC), which openly organized support for the Kyoto Protocol even as they articulated in their Kyoto and Beyond petition (www.kyotoandbeyond.org) that "we recognize the current goals of the Protocol are too low -- and its timetable too long -- to effectively halt the escalating instability of the global climate." It went on to say, however, that "the Kyoto Protocol is the only existing diplomatic framework through which the entire global community can address this unprecedented challenge."
Over the course of 2005, particularly in relationship to organizing toward the December United Nations Climate Conference in Montreal, there was a growing number of primarily local, grassroots organizations that adopted the CCC position and circulated its petition.
There is a much larger issue, of course, that is not just for the organized environmental groups, but for everyone within the progressive movement. That is the issue of corporate power.
The heating up of the earth began with the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels--coal and, later in history, oil and natural gas. As economies have developed around the world, all of them have relied upon one or more of these energy sources to fuel that development. This has been true whether a country's economic structure is capitalist or socialist.
At the same time, there is no question that the growing dominance of transnational corporate power, backed up by military force over the course of the last century, has led to the enshrining of corporate profit as a societal objective irrespective of the impact upon increasingly fragile ecosystems. Powerful energy corporations like ExxonMobil and Chevron have used their wealth and power to buy politicians who do their bidding, mainly, but not only, Republicans.
Is it possible to slow, stop and reverse global warming as long as corporate power persists in its present form?
From a strategic perspective, should the global survival movement, the movement for a clean energy revolution, become more explicitly an anti-corporate movement?
Prior to my active involvement on this issue over the last couple of years, I would have been quick to say yes, without question. However, I have learned that, as with many other things in life, it is not so simple. The fact is that there are a growing number of corporations who are not just speaking out about the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions but are actually taking action to reduce their own. The entire insurance industry is very concerned, for understandable reasons, about the long-term threat to their profitability and even their existence as global warming leads to more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, major droughts and storms. Magazines like Fortune and Business Week are carrying stories sympathetic to those calling for government action to reduce emissions.
Of course, it is difficult to envision the overall corporate world -- the super-rich of the United States and the world -- being willing to participate in the kind of fundamental social and economic transformation necessary, and urgently necessary, if we are to halt before that "point of no return." Corporate globalization is a highly energy intensive process with the transportation costs involved in shipping goods around the world. There is no question that we need to move as rapidly as possible to decentralize and localize economic and social life to reduce our need for oil and gas. Besides their clean and renewable nature, an additional advantage to wind and solar power is that their use allows people to get off the energy grid of utility corporations and be more self-sufficient. This is absolutely necessary for survival, an essential direction.
It is completely on target for climate activists to be explicit about these issues, and to call into question the corporate system itself. To the extent that this helps to build a stronger independent progressive movement operating outside of the corporate-dominated, two-party system, that is a good thing. But it is also consistent to demand immediate action on climate change by individual corporations and banks. There have to be many approaches to succeeding in the life- and-death struggle to stabilize our climate.
Urgent Action, Grassroots Organizing
It seems to me that the urgency of our situation calls for two approaches right now.
One is the organization of a visible political movement. This means demonstrations in the streets. It means hunger strikes, nonviolent civil disobedience, actions that underline the urgency of our situation.
Sooner or later it has to mean a massive march on Washington, perhaps combined with a mass nonviolent direct action.
The other approach is widespread and ongoing local grassroots organizing, educating our communities about this crisis, linking it to the need for more democracy, pointing out, for example, that a clean energy revolution can create millions of jobs. We should be doing this in 2006 in relationship to the upcoming Congressional elections, demanding that candidates for office support a strong platform of action to address this crisis and supporting those who already have the right positions. We need to get more local governments to make energy conservation, efficiency and a clean energy transition central to how they govern. And we need a new democracy movement to make it possible for governments -- local and national -- to take corrective action on climate change.
No single issue is more important than this one.
Ted Glick is a co-founder and leader of the Climate Crisis Coalition: http://www.climatecrisiscoalition.org
He is also acting coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network: http://www.ippn.org