In December, the 21st “Council of Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Paris. Almost everybody seemed to understand that we are in “no more fooling around” territory, with some notable exceptions, like, f’rinstance, India and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, these are two of the countries with the most to lose from further climate change–like, their inhabitability. Even so, it has become common knowledge that climate change denialism has largely been, um, fuelled by oil companies who did the research in the 70’s and 80’s and, like the tobacco companies before them, realized that their product was lethal, and who nonetheless chose to elevate their short-term bottom line over the long-term survival of not just their customers, as with the tobacco companies, but of the human race, along with most other species on the planet. I could be snide and sneer about the oxymoronic quality of the phrase “corporate ethics,” but it’s not just corporations that prioritize reaping short-term benefits over preventing long-term threats. It’s a fairly common human trait, it turns out, and one that is plaguing our efforts to stop doing things that release more carbon and accelerate climate change, and to start doing things that will capture carbon and reverse our ever more tightly spiralling spin into planetary oblivion. In order to reverse climate change, we must reverse our own conditioned responses. The outer depends on the inner, as always.
While many observers and participants felt that Paris was a hopeful milestone, with widespread acknowledgement of the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels, our carbon-fuelled momentum won’t turn on a dime. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could say,
“Ladies and gentlemen the situation demands, and this moment demands, that we do not leave Paris without an ambitious, inclusive and durable global climate agreement.
“Today we are formally announcing, the United States, that we are part of what we are calling the ‘High Ambition Coalition.’ … Addressing climate change will require a fundamental change in the way that we decide to power our planet and our aim can be nothing less than the steady transformation of the global economy. And that’s not a pipe dream, some sort of pie-in-the-sky idea that’s way out there and we’re waiting for Godot to come along and give us the answer. That’s not it. This is not a situation where we have to hope and pray that some smart person is going to come along and find a solution. No! We already have the solution!
“Remember, one of the things that we expect to happen here and makes Paris so important is not that we’re going to leave here knowing everything we do is going to hit the 2-degree mark, but what we are doing is sending the marketplace an extraordinary signal, that those 186 countries [that submitted INDCs] are really committed. And that helps the private sector move capital into that, knowing that there is a future that is committed to this sustainable path. That is why we need a strong, legally binding, transparent system.”
I appreciate Kerry’s invocation of “Waiting for Godot,” I have to say. But meanwhile, our friends the Saudis are using U.S.-supplied weapons and airplanes that require incredible amounts of fossil fuels to manufacture and operate to bomb their neighbor, Yemen, back into the Stone Age (which, unfortunately, isn’t really that far for most Yemenis), while the natural world bombed Yemen with a completely unprecedented tropical cyclone that brought as much rain in two days as the area usually receives in five years. The Saudis are not alone in throwing jet fuel on the bonfire that is overheating the planet. Things are heating up, so to speak,, between the U.S. and China, with much flying of aircraft and dispatching of naval vessels, with consequent carbon release. Elsewhere in the Middle East, there is a multi-party struggle for control of an area that overlaps the boundaries of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, involving not just the citizens and militaries of those countries, but Russians, Americans, Europeans, Iranians, and a hodgepodge of literally enthusiastic Islamic Fundamentalist volunteers. All their struggle does is tear up the area’s already worn-down ecosystem and intensify the human-caused desertification of what was once known as “the fertile crescent,” making that struggle ever more desperate as environmental conditions deteriorate. As I said, it seems much easier for humans to focus on short-term goals than on long-term threats.
In a less military vein,various countries around the world are proposing to build 2,100 new coal-fired power plants in the next few years. Even if only a third of them actually go on line, they will emit enough carbon to toast the planet–and, ironically, most of these power plants will be in tropical or semi-tropical parts of the world, which are most likely to be rendered uninhabitable by the global warming these plants will push. Compounding the irony, they are being built with the expectation that they will improve peoples’ standard of living. Hey, maybe they’ll all buy air conditioners, huh? Wouldn’t that be great for the GDP? To their credit, the US and the World Bank, which used to be a major source of funding for such projects, have both announced that they will no longer provide loans for new coal power plants…mostly. But they will continue to fund and promote the development of natural gas, which, while its combustion is not so carbon-intensive as coal, nevertheless releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere through the drilling process. And then there’s the fact that it involves the industrialization of vast swathes of the countryside, for what is likely to be a very short production period. Nevertheless, President Obama observed the occasion of the Paris Climate Summit to sign a bill into law with new rules that make it easier for companies to get new gas pipelines approved.
The US has also used the World Trade Organization’s ban on countries specifying a preference for using in-country manufacturers and its ban on countries prohibiting the import of agricultural commodities that compete with their own produce to derail India’s efforts to go solar (with Indian solar companies) and achieve greater food security (by helping its farmers make a better living.)
This just in–the Transcanada Corporation, the folks who wanted to build the Keystone XL pipeline, are suing the U.S. government, both in US court and in the NAFTA business LINKcourt, over our country’s refusal to allow them to overheat the planet and kill–not just us, but hemselves. Hello? By the way, this is exactly the kind of thing President Obama said would “never, never happen” under agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which he has promoted.
And then there’s the little matter of the assessed value of the companies that produce fossil fuels and provide us with the substances that are driving global warming. A very large chunk of these companies’ assets is in the form of oil and gas that is going to have to stay in the ground–and be written off, financially speaking–if we are going to avoid being written off as a species.
We’re talking about $2.2 trillion dollars here, nearly 20% of it claimed by U.S. companies. That’s $2.2 trillion dollars that has got to go poof! and disappear, or we are likely to disappear, much more messily than a poof! in a computer. The stock market has had some wild rides lately, but the devaluation of $2.2 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel assets could easily top everything we’ve seen–and felt–so far. The good news is that the business community, outside of a few blowhards, takes global warming very seriously, and is mobilizing to adapt to this transition. As I’m sure you’re aware, I have a low opinion of global capitalism, but I would be happy if the corporatists proved that they can act to significantly curb global warming. That would give us the chance to continue the discussion!
Meanwhile, here in Nashville, we see a mix of hopeful signs and habitual responses. A proposed pipeline compressor station in Joelton, which would desecrate one of our dedicated rural districts with noise as loud as two jet engines running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, was met with wide disapproval and a move by Metro Council to restrict pipeline compressor stations to already existing industrial districts. Unfazed, Kinder-Morgan, the company that wants to build the station, is taking their case to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has a reputation for just saying “yes” to pipeline companies’ requests to overrule local opposition to their projects. Another gas company, Columbia Pipeline Group, wants to do the same thing in southeastern Nashville.
On a different, but related, subject, the Nashville Planning Commission has just approved a new subdivision that will triple the number of homes on the street where I live, claiming that sidewalks within the subdivision make it “a walkable community” in spite of the fact that there is no shopping area or even a bus stop within walking distance. This is in complete contravention of “Nashville Next,” which ostensibly the city’s plan for sane expansion over the next few decades. The plan seems to presume that the future will be rosy. I have my doubts. Elsewhere in Northwest Nashville, landowners in White’s Creek are clashing because some want to preserve the rural ambiance, while others just want to make a buck–or a million bucks. Here’s the math: the project on my road will build a hundred quarter-million dollar homes. That’s a gross of about twenty-five million dollars. If the developer makes just a four percent profit on that, he’s walking away with a million dollars, and I and my neighbors will have to live with the mess. A little further away, the city is planning to widen Clarksville Highway, the main artery through this area, even though it’s considered a “fundamental rule” in traffic engineering circles that widening roads generally makes traffic congestion worse, not better.
While our new mayor, Megan Barry, is considered a darling of the city’s liberal left, she is showing no signs of departing from previous mayor Karl Dean’s pro-growth agenda. We need to get it through our collective heads that growth is the problem, not the solution.
On the other hand, there is now a national coalition of cities that have pledged to build “no new fossil fuel infrastructure,” and that are joining together to support each other in the legal battles that will surely attend such a declaration. Perhaps Nashville will join this list.
We know what to do: plan carefully how to significantly lower our energy demands, and just step away from the notion of using fossil fuels to meet our needs. We need to decrease the number of humans on the planet–compassionately! The alternative involves war, slow starvation, and sudden disaster. I do not wish them on anyone. We need to realize, personally and as a culture, that consumerism will never satisfy us, and seriously alter our expectations. I do not say “lower our expectations,” although from a materialist standpoint that is what needs to happen. With fewer toys to distract us, we will find more time for each other. Our community, rather than our stuff, will constitute our wealth and security.
This is a test, but it is not “just a test.” It is the real thing. It is a test in that we have to meet our challenge by evolving enough to shed the conditioning that has led us into our present peril. It is not “just a test” in the sense that, if we fail to meet our challenge, we are hurtling towards just as much of a dead end as the dinosaurs faced when that fatal asteroid fell out of the sky. Unlike the dinosaurs, however, we have a choice–if we can muster the will to make it.
Grateful Dead: “Throwing Stones”
Bob Dylan “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”