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Facing our inconvenient truths

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  In the case of the debate around climate change, the reaction to the new movements around Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the Green New Deal will be based on several inconvenient truths that many on the green side of things have chosen to deny.  This is a new development from the tired, thick-headed denial of the problem – a denial that is disproved every time you drive in the countryside without having a single bug splat on your windscreen; or every time you walk along the high tide line on your nearest shore and look at the mountains of discarded plastic washed up there. 

There is an environmental crisis; and we humans are the cause of it.  And outside the USA at least, the overwhelming majority of us accept the science.  Things we could get away with in the late 1950s, when there were just 3 billion of us, have come back to bite us as our numbers accelerate toward 8 billion.

There is, however, a reason why so many campaigners focus their energies on “awareness raising,” as if changing the minds of Donald Trump and his followers is the biggest issue facing us.  This is that we lack any credible solution for addressing the crisis that does not involve a huge amount of pain and sacrifice.  Any examination of the global impact of renewable energy-harvesting technologies will quickly dispel any belief that these offer a solution – or even mitigation – for the catastrophe that is unfolding.  Global dependence upon fossil fuels has barely moved (from 87% to 86%) in the last two decades.  The non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies that we have deployed have been added to our energy mix rather than substituted for existing fossil fuel consumption.

A common objection here is that western states – particularly in western Europe – have made huge strides in replacing fossil fuels in electricity generation; and that today’s biggest fossil fuel consumers are developing states which are allowed to continue burning fossil fuels in order to raise living standards.  The problem with this line of argument – and its inclusion in the 2015 Paris Agreement – is that the demand for fossil fuels in countries like China and India is fuelled by western states’ insatiable demand for cheap consumer goods.  As such, their carbon emissions should be counted as part of our carbon footprint.  Indeed, even our so-called “green” technologies cause huge environmental damage to parts of the planet that we choose to overlook.  As Annie Kin at ACH News points out:

“As a culture, we are myopic. We only see what we want to see. We only see what the culture wants us to see and in this case, the culture wants us to see how amazing it is to buy a solar panel/hybrid car/wind turbine and do our part to curb global warming. We do it and feel great giving the culture our money, knowing, when we go to bed, we did this incredible, Earth-saving venture.

“But what if we were really informed? What if we were given all the information on the creation of this ‘green’ product? What if our ‘greening’ was really, at the core, just more destruction?

Kin goes on to document two of “green” technology’s most important – and most polluting – extraction zones, the lithium sands in Chile’s Atacama Desert and the Mongolian rare earth mineral processing facilities at Baotou:

“Most people have never heard of Baotou, China. The same people probably could not (or would not) want to imagine life without it…

“In a place that was once filled with farms as far as the eye could see, now lies a lake (which are called tailing ponds), visible from Google Earth, filled with radioactive toxic sludge. The water is so contaminated that not even algae will grow… Because the reservoir was not properly lined when it was built, waste leaked into the groundwater, killing off livestock, making residents sick and destroyed any chance of farming. In reality, though, farmers have long been displaced by factories. The people that remain are experiencing diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems. Residents of what is now known as the ‘rare-earth capital of the world’ are inhaling solvent vapors, particularly sulphuric acid (used for extraction), as well as coal dust. But hey, we need wind turbines to save the planet. And the electric car is definitely going to reduce carbon emissions…”

The irony here is that rare earths are only rare in the way hydrogen is rare – they are almost always chemically bonded with other elements.  In fact, the mining waste heaps of Europe and North America contain plenty of rare earths that could be just as easily refined as those in China.  The only difference is that the Chinese state is willing to tolerate environmental destruction on a scale that would be unacceptable in the west.

Any green new deal initiative to switch even a small proportion of the west’s fossil fuel use to electricity generated by non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies would have devastating consequences for those places – mostly in Asia, Africa and South America – that operate the extractive industries that provide the environmentally toxic raw materials upon which so called “green” solutions are ultimately based.

Fortunately, though, the backlash against the environmental movement looks set to appeal to truths that are far closer to home – something that will at least allow our civilisation to forego the final orgy of growth-led destruction envisaged in the various versions of the green new deal.  These primarily concern our insatiable appetite for energy itself; together with the means by which we pay for it.  As Noah Millman at The Week explains:

“One of the reasons why gasoline taxes work so well for generating highway funds is that when the price of gas goes up, the demand for gas doesn’t go down that much or that quickly. The reason: There’s no substitute for energy. When beef prices spike, people switch to pork or chicken to minimize the negative impact on their lifestyle. But when gas prices spike, they can’t stop commuting to work…”

The same can be said of energy in general.  When domestic gas and electricity prices rise we seldom cut back on energy use; preferring instead to make cuts to more discretionary spending.  One consequence of this – currently unfolding across the western states – is a “retail apocalypse” that has seen famous-name stores go bankrupt in their thousands; leaving tens of thousands of workers to join the unemployment queues.

It is no accident, then, that the reaction to the current wave of environmental protest has focused on the price of energy and the impact on jobs.  Consider, for example, the New York Post’s attack on the Governor of New York as the impact of the state’s fracking ban begins to be felt:

“Gov. Andrew Cuomo doubled down last week on his blame-the-messenger approach to New York’s growing shortage of natural-gas supplies by ordering the Department of Public Service to ‘broaden its investigation’ of National Grid and threatening to ‘find another franchisee.’

“Anything, rather than admit that his own policies are at fault.

“The utility has stopped taking new gas customers in parts of Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens where it can’t handle the new demand — because Team Cuomo vetoed the proposed Williams pipeline to bring in supplies from New Jersey. (Jersey is also blocking the pipeline, since Gov. Phil Murphy is appeasing the same green extremists.)

“National Grid gave months of warning that it would need to impose the moratorium if fresh supplies weren’t ensured.”

In the (not so) long-term, of course, fracked gas will have to be replaced anyway; simply because fracked wells deplete at a faster rate than conventional gas fields.  This, however, will be lost on those New York State residents who are obliged to shiver in the dark for wont of a gas supplier even as Americans elsewhere enjoy around eight years of additional gas supply (assuming the US is not foolish enough to export its gas reserves to Europe)

There is no way around the fact that “green” means expensive at a time when fossil fuels offer (relatively) low prices.  And this is devastating for campaigns that must, ultimately, win political power if they are to even begin to address the crisis.  Couple this to the fossil fuel-related jobs that are likely to be lost, and you have a recipe for reaction in societies and economies as divided and unequal as ours.  Which is why, no doubt, Mr Trump’s favourite cable news network has come out fighting in response to Bernie Sanders’ promise of a nationwide ban on fracking:

“Presidential candidate and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders renewed his call for a ban on fracking on Wednesday, but how many jobs would disappear if his policy went into place?…

“More than 162,000 Americans work in natural gas mining and extraction, according to a 2019 report by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO). More than 625,000 Americans work in the natural gas industry as a whole…

“Meanwhile, industry proponents have argued that fracking adds to the natural gas supply and cuts energy costs for people across the board. The Global Energy Institute, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, published a report in 2016 claiming that the U.S. would lose 14.8 million jobs by 2022 if a fracking ban were instituted.”

These criticisms may come from people who deny the existence of climate change; but that does not invalidate them.  And, as Millman points out, people are selfish in their loss-aversion:

“It’s a well-known fact that humans are loss-averse. We’ll spend a lot more to preserve what we have than we will to gain something new; we fear losses more than we desire gains.

“You’d think this would make fighting climate change easier, because that fight is the ultimate in avoiding loss. But the opposite is true. Everything we need to do now to fight climate change feels like a loss. Give up your lightbulbs, your straws, your cheeseburgers. The losses keep piling up, until they feel like a description of the new permanent state: a state of deprivation. And they don’t just pile up; they escalate. Give up straws, okay. But give up your car? Give up air travel?

“It’s not that people are categorically unwilling to spend money to prevent catastrophe. Building a sea wall to defend Manhattan would probably be an easier sell than building a wall on the southern border. But the kinds of sacrifices needed to seriously decarbonize in a hurry would be monumental, more like accepting the loss rather than preventing it.”

Only six times in the last century have global carbon emissions fallen:

  • The Great Depression
  • The end of World War Two
  • The 1973 and 1979 oil shocks
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union
  • The 2008 Great Financial Accident

With the exception of 1945 – which amounted to getting back to normal – each of these events has involved considerable economic hardship, social division and political extremism.  Nevertheless, they barely dented our carbon emissions.  To rapidly decarbonise the global economy in anything like the time required to keep global temperature rises below 2oC would involve economic disintegration on a scale not seen since the Black Death ravaged medieval Europe.  Even in a social democratic egalitarian society it would be impossible to secure a majority vote for such economic chaos.  In the highly unequal neoliberal economies of the west, even the mildest reform in this direction is likely to produce a revolt of the impoverished majority.  The political right understands this, and has benefited at the ballot box by drawing a distinction between the largely affluent class minority that supports such changes and the impoverished bottom 50 percent who inevitably end up paying for it all. 

It is tempting to argue that economic inequality is a far less important problem than the growing environmental disaster.  But the reality is that environmental campaigners have failed to develop a plausible plan for tackling the crisis (one that doesn’t require raping the Earth for the last accessible resources and then saddling the people of the developing states with the toxic fallout) that does not involve severe economic hardship which, within the current system, will inevitably be passed on to those who can least afford it.  When you are forced to resort to emergency food packages to feed your family, it is easy to regard the “green” movement as just another of the (many) neoliberal scams that make a lot of money for corporate welfare queens, but leave the poor even poorer. 

There is cynicism in the climate change-denying right when they raise these issues.  Not least because they are often among the most dependent of corporate welfare queens themselves.  Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the unequal manner in which the costs and benefits of “green” technologies have been distributed.  More importantly, as our economies continue to contract, those at the bottom of the heap cannot afford to ignore the costs.  And, as the presence of Trump in the White House and Johnson in 10 Downing Street shows, if the system continues to impoverish them, the bottom 51 percent will vote for the most idiotic of climate change deniers so long as they promise to improve their economic fortunes.

As you made it to the end…

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