Monday, June 29, 2015

1908. Pope Francis' Ecological Vow

By Paul Valley, The New York Times, June 28, 2015
Pope Francis
In the days just before its publication, those involved in drafting the pope’s controversial eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ were much exercised about how it would be received by conservative critics. But Pope Francis, Vatican insiders tell me, was unfazed. He remains so in the face of the onslaught of criticism that has indeed ensued.

The pope’s acceptance that global warming is almost certainly man-made has irked the vocal minority with more skeptical views. They say Francis has overlooked the ability of technology to provide solutions to climate change. They’ve upbraided him for ignoring the role of free markets in lifting millions out of poverty. They’ve criticized his dismissal of birth control as the answer to an overcrowded planet.

The truth is that Francis saw all that coming. As the dust settles, after the whirlwind that accompanied its publication, closer examination of the encyclical reveals that the pope implanted within it strategies to rebut these attacks. Laudato Si’ turns out to be one of the shrewdest documents issued by the Vatican during the past century. It has revealed Francis as a wily and sophisticated politician of the first order.

Francis learned a lesson from the American conservatives who branded his previous papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium, as Marxist. His eco-encyclical contains a raft of defenses against critics who dismiss it as the work of some kind of left-wing maverick.

The document takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi. The 13th-century saint, like his 21st-century namesake, combined a love for the poor, for peace and for nature. But if the saint’s theology was new, the pope’s is traditional. Moreover, he has taken care to locate his text firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by previous popes, including two beloved by American conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis also made a point — highly unusually — of referencing the pioneering eco-theology of the Orthodox Church, as well as citing no fewer than 18 teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. All this demonstrated his acute awareness of the importance of alliance-building on such a major issue. You are not, he was telling critics, dealing with just one man here.

He took similar care over the science. The pope should stick to religion and leave science to the scientists, said one conservative, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, in one of a wave of “prebuttal” remarks as the encyclical was being finalized. That is exactly what Francis did in accepting the view of the 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists who say human activity is a major contributor to global warming. The pope’s political acumen was also clear from the way he timed the encyclical to target the three United Nations summits on financial aid, sustainable development and climate change later this year.
But there is something more profoundly subversive about Laudato Si’ than what it says on climate change. On the day it was published, the pope privately told his closest advisers in Rome that the encyclical was not really an environmental document at all. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The real problem, he insists, is the myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change to date. The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment in pursuit of short-term economic gain is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics has taught us that the world is a resource to be manipulated for our gain.

This has led us into unjust and exploitative economic systems that support what Francis calls “a throwaway culture,” one that treats not just unwanted things but also unwanted people — the poor, the elderly and the unborn — as waste.

Capitalism may maximize our choices, he observes, but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want.

It is in this analysis that the pope’s replies to his conservative critics lie. Capitalism may have lifted millions out of poverty, but it has done so at a huge cost. That is shown by the catastrophic air pollution in China, which has replaced the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worse than that, poorly regulated capitalism in the global south has left behind millions more — the weakest and poorest.

Technological solutions often just change the problem without truly solving it, the pope says. His critics have countered that gas from fracking is less polluting than burning coal. But that is like advocating dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. Carbon-trading, Francis says, may just encourage speculation — and continued overconsumption.

Population is likewise a red herring, he insists. Poor people make hardly any contribution to global warming, according to one of the pope’s chief science advisers, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. A 10 percent cut in emissions by rich nations, he says, would be far more effective in combatting global warming than any birth control program.
In all this, the market has tricked us into confusing technological advance with progress. It has reduced our politics to a maximization of our individual freedom and choice. We have forgotten the common good as we have our common home, the earth.

Francis is saying that the environmental crisis is really a crisis in laissez-faire capitalism. And he is saying that the answer is a profound change at all levels — political, economic, social, communal, familial and personal. This is not Marxist, for it lacks a materialist view of history. But it is revolutionary — and deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Previous popes have spoken out boldly on environmental degradation. but it was mainly a side issue. For Francis it is central. He is the first pope from the global south, and from the outset he called for “a poor Church for the poor.” He is unafraid to rebuke the world’s politicians for “weak” leadership. But he also gets into the nitty-gritty detail to tell ordinary Catholics to use less heating and air conditioning, sort and recycle garbage, use buses or car-shares, and turn off unnecessary lights.

Ecologists have been saying all that for decades, but Francis is delving to a deeper level in the human psyche. Such “simple daily gestures,” he says, will “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.” He asks “every person living on this planet” to stand before God, or our own consciences, and be honest with ourselves about the consumerist lifestyle to which so many of us are in thrall.

Francis knows that if the consciences of ordinary Catholics can be pricked, they may begin to adjust their life choices — and that could create pressure for political action. Climate change skeptics may well find that in Francis they have met their most formidable opponent.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester and the author of the forthcoming book “Pope Francis — The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.”

1907. Pope Francis Recruits Naomi Klein in Climate Change Battle

By Rosie Scammell, The Guardian, June 27, 2015
Noami Klien
She is one of the world’s most high-profile social activists and a ferocious critic of 21st-century capitalism. He is one of the pope’s most senior aides and a professor of climate change economics. But this week the secular radical will join forces with the Catholic cardinal in the latest move by Pope Francis to shift the debate on global warming.

Naomi Klein and Cardinal Peter Turkson are to lead a high-level conference on the environment, bringing together churchmen, scientists and activists to debate climate change action. Klein, who campaigns for an overhaul of the global financial system to tackle climate change, told the Observer she was surprised but delighted to receive the invitation from Turkson’s office.

“The fact that they invited me indicates they’re not backing down from the fight. A lot of people have patted the pope on the head, but said he’s wrong on the economics. I think he’s right on the economics,” she said, referring to Pope Francis’s recent publication of an encyclical on the environment.

Release of the document earlier this month thrust the pontiff to the centre of the global debate on climate change, as he berated politicians for creating a system that serves wealthy countries at the expense of the poorest.

Activists and religious leaders will gather in Rome on Sunday, marching through the Eternal City before the Vatican welcomes campaigners to the conference, which will focus on the UN’s impending climate change summit.

Protesters have chosen the French embassy as their starting point – a Renaissance palace famed for its beautiful frescoes, but more significantly a symbol of the United Nations climate change conference, which will be hosted by Paris this December.

Nearly 500 years since Galileo was found guilty of heresy, the Holy See is leading the rallying cry for the world to wake up and listen to scientists on climate change. Multi-faith leaders will walk alongside scientists and campaigners, hailing from organisations including Greenpeace and Oxfam Italy, marching to the Vatican to celebrate the pope’s tough stance on environmental issues.

The imminent arrival of Klein within the Vatican walls has raised some eyebrows, but the involvement of lay people in church discussions is not without precedent.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, delivered the keynote address at a Vatican summit in April on climate change and poverty. Anticipating the encyclical, he said he was depending on the pope’s “moral voice and moral leadership” to speed up action.

When it came to the presentation of the document itself, the pontiff picked a five-strong panel, including a Rome school teacher and a leading scientist. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who heads the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, used the time to give churchmen a lesson in climate science.

The pope has upset some conservatives for drawing people from outside the clergy into the heart of the debate, while critics have also argued the Catholic church should not be involved in an issue that should be left to presidents and policy-makers.

But Klein said the pope’s position as a “moral voice” in the world – and leader of 1.2 billion Catholics – gives him the unique ability to unite campaigners fighting for a common goal. “The holistic view of the encyclical should be a catalyst to bring together the twin economic and climate crises, instead of treating them separately,” she said.
Much of the pope’s discourse focuses on the need to give developing countries a greater voice in climate change negotiations, a view that sits uncomfortably among some in developed nations. “There are a lot of people who are having a lot of trouble in realising there is a voice with such global authority from the global south. That’s why we’re getting this condescending view, of ‘leave the economics to us’,” said Klein.

She views the rise of Francis as an environmental campaigner as marking a welcome shift not only in the international sphere but also at the Holy See: “We’re seeing the power base within the Vatican shift, with a Ghanaian cardinal [Turkson] and an Argentine pope. They’re doing something very brave.”

While the upcoming conference is centred on the pope’s encyclical, delegates will also be looking ahead to decisive international meetings this year. Before the Paris talks comes a UN summit, where states are due to commit to sustainable development goals, which will inevitably affect the environment.

The pope will fly into New York on the first day of the meeting and address the UN general assembly, reinforcing his message and emboldening countries worst affected by climate change.

For Klein, the papal visit will mark a much-needed change in the way negotiators discuss the environment. “There’s a way in which UN discourse sanitises the extent to which this is a moral crisis,” she said. “It cries out for a moral voice.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

1906. This is How the World Ends: Twelve Risks That Threaten Human Existence

By Deirdre Fulton, CommonDreams, February 15, 2015
"Apocalypse Taipei." (Photo: Michael Chen/flickr/cc)

Extreme climate change. Global pandemic. Major asteroid impact. The rise of artificial intelligence.

These are just a few of the potentially world-ending events that threaten civilization as we know it, according to a new report from researchers at Oxford University.

The study, "Global Challenges", urges readers to consider a new category of global risks—low-probability, high-impact scenarios that hover at the extreme end of the spectrum.

"This report has, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, created the first list of global risks with impacts that for all practical purposes can be called infinite." However, the authors note, "the real focus is not on the almost unimaginable impacts of the risks the report outlines. Its fundamental purpose is to encourage global collaboration and to use this new category of risk as a driver for innovation.”

The report looks only at events that could trigger a civilization's collapse—"defined as a drastic decrease in human population size and political/economic/social complexity, globally for an extended time.”

In the case of extreme climate change, for example:

Mass deaths and famines, social collapse and mass migration are certainly possible in this scenario. Combined with shocks to the agriculture and biosphere-dependent industries of the more developed countries, this could lead to global conflict and possibly civilization collapse. Further evidence of the risk comes from signs that past civilization collapses have been driven by climate change.

According to the researchers, the 12 global risks that threaten human civilization are:

Current risks
1. Extreme Climate Change
2. Nuclear War
3. Ecological Catastrophe
4. Global Pandemic
5. Global System Collapse
Exogenic risks
6. Major Asteroid Impact
7. Supervolcano
Emerging risks
8. Synthetic Biology
9. Nanotechnology
10. Artificial Intelligence
11. Uncertain Risks

Global policy risk
12. Future Bad Global Governance

Total oblivion is not a foregone conclusion, however. 

For each scenario, the authors lay out both the worst-case outcomes and factors influencing those outcomes.

"There are remedies, including technological and institutional, for all risks," reads the report. "But they will require collaboration of a sort humanity has not achieved before, and the creation of systems which can deal with problems preemptively.”

To that end, Global Challenges identifies 10 strategies to "help mitigate immediate threats while also contributing to a future global governance system capable of addressing global risks with a potential infinite impact.”

That list includes:
Better quality risk assessment for global challenges
Development of early warning systems
Encouraging visualization of complex systems
Increasing the focus on the probability of extreme events
Establishing a Global Risk and Opportunity Indicator to guide governance
Explore the possibility of establishing a Global Risk Organization

1905. Climate Change Cannot Be Addressed Without Breaking From Capitalism

By James Plested, REDFLAG, June 27, 2015


“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.”
– Walter Benjamin

The longer the capitalist system goes on, the more it resembles the “runaway train” of Walter Benjamin’s imagining. And nowhere is this clearer than in the case of climate change.

Here we face a challenge with potentially devastating consequences – rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, the destruction of ecosystems and an accelerating rate of extinctions. Yet the current “drivers” of the train, the world’s business and political elite, show little interest in changing track.

Reforms, half-measures and market-friendly solutions have gotten us nowhere. Only when we pull the “emergency brake” on the system, forcefully wresting power away from the minority who are currently at the controls, can we hope to avert catastrophe and begin the task of building a better, more sustainable world.

The scale of the problem
The global average temperature has increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius since records began in 1880. This warming is concentrated in the past three decades; all of the warmest 20 years on record have been since 1990.

According to the joint Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO State of the Climate 2014 report, if carbon emissions continue to climb at the rate of the last decade, Australia can expect a rise in average temperatures of up to 5 degrees by 2070.

Five degrees might not sound like much. But for the natural systems on which our lives depend it would be catastrophic. Don’t think of it as simply having more balmy winters. Take the analogy of the human body: our temperature usually is within 0.5 degrees of 37 degrees Celsius. If it increases to more than 37.7 degrees, we don’t experience it simply as “feeling warmer”. It’s a medical condition called a fever. Hit 40 degrees and it’s a life-threatening emergency.

In the longer term, increasing global temperatures would cause the widespread collapse of the earth’s natural support systems. This would be devastating for humanity. For untold numbers of people, it would threaten the already precarious provision of the barest minimum of food and water. Entire cities and countries would be swallowed up by rising seas. Millions would be driven from their lands and homes.

There’s no guarantee this won’t happen sooner, and be more severe, than current models suggest. Notably, numerous “real time” measures of climate change, such as summer sea-ice coverage in the Arctic, are currently tracking beyond even the worst case projections drawn by bodies like Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Rhetoric and reality
We’re encouraged to believe that the worst case scenario won’t be allowed to eventuate. World leaders, most recently at the G7 summit in Bavaria in early June, often wax lyrical about limiting warming to the supposedly “safe limit” of 2 degrees.

Yet many scientists say that the 2 degree warming limit is far from safe. One of the world’s leading climatologists, NASA’s James Hansen, calls it “a prescription for long term disaster”.  What would be required to achieve this goal? According to analysis by the Carbon Brief, emissions would need to start falling by at least 5.5 percent a year from now. The “facts on the ground” don’t give much cause to hope that such a rapid turnaround will be achieved.

Globally, fossil fuel companies are estimated to have around US$27 trillion worth of proven oil, gas and coal reserves on their books. Even under the most optimistic scenario, if the world is to avoid going beyond a temperature rise of 2 degrees, around US$20 trillion of this needs to stay in the ground.

All of it, however, has already been incorporated in the behemoth of global finance. The fuel may lie underground, but the money has already been booked by bankers and wealthy shareholders, who are unlikely to accept a US$20 trillion hit to their bottom-line.

Is there any sign that governments around the world are preparing the captains of industry for something like this? Far from it. Instead, we’re seeing a mad scramble to secure vast untapped reserves in remote and environmentally fragile regions.
The melting of the Arctic ice sheet, for example, is viewed as an opportunity to exploit previously inaccessible supplies of deep-sea oil and gas. Countries bordering the region are desperate to claim as large a portion of the territory as possible.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Investment Outlook 2014, annual investment in new fossil-fuel infrastructure has more than doubled in real terms since 2000, reaching more than US$1 trillion a year in 2013.

A competitive drive to oblivion
A World Wide Fund for Nature report from 2011 found that, based on existing technology, the transition to a 100 percent renewable global energy system could be achieved by 2050 for an investment of no more than US$4 trillion a year. This might sound like a lot. But when you compare it with the colossal amounts sloshing around in other parts of the economy – the up to US$32 trillion stashed away in offshore tax havens, the US$3.1 trillion lost annually to tax evasion, or global military spending of US$1.7 trillion a year, for example – it’s peanuts.

The technology is there. The money is there. So why isn’t it happening?

The short answer is that such action would run counter to the basic logic of the capitalist system, on which the immense wealth and power of the world’s ruling class is based.
Capitalism rests on the ability of business owners and investors to turn a profit. The amount of return that capitalists get depends on minimising costs while maximising the price they receive for the goods or services they produce. Each business is competing against others in a common market, so they must ensure that their costs don’t rise above those of their competitors.

The history of capitalism is a history of more profitable businesses eating up their less competitive rivals. That’s why, as the system develops, we see an ever greater concentration and centralisation of capital in the form of giant multinational corporations that dominate the world economy.

These dynamics feed into competition between nations – imperialism. The relationship between nation states and the businesses based within them is one of mutual interdependence. Businesses rely on states to provide the “armed might” they need to secure their interests in an increasingly “globalised” world. For nation states, the success of businesses based within their borders is crucial to secure a revenue base and to avoid civil unrest and other issues that could arise were economic growth to falter.“globalised” world. For nation states, the success of businesses based within their borders is crucial to secure a revenue base and to avoid civil unrest and other issues that could arise were economic growth to falter.

States, like businesses, cannot afford to “opt out” of the competitive global scramble for control over resources and markets. To do so would be to erode their position in the global pecking order.

Capitalism’s fossil fuel addiction
In terms of “inputs” to the global economy, a cheap, reliable supply of fossil fuels is, with few exceptions, central to the competitiveness of businesses and the standing of the nations in which they operate. You only need to look at the tumultuous and violent history of the most oil-rich region in the world – the Middle East – to see the lengths to which the world’s major powers will go to secure it.

In the years since the global financial crisis, cheap energy has become more important.
The US in particular has undertaken a massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production based on the new, and highly environmentally damaging, method of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Since 2010, oil production from fracking in the US has more than tripled.

According to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, the US is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in less than two years. It is already the number one gas producer, having beaten Russia to that title in 2012.
Cheap energy has provided a significant boost to the US. It has lowered business costs across the economy, improving the competitiveness of US-based corporations in global markets. And it has given a boost to consumer spending without the need for any increase in wages.

Perhaps most important is the leverage that increasing energy independence promises to give US imperialism. For example, it will reduce the importance of the Middle East for US foreign policy, allowing it to free up military resources for its “pivot to Asia”.
US president Barack Obama parades about as someone who takes climate change seriously. However, he is presiding over a long term geopolitical strategy that is based firmly on the continued exploitation of fossil fuels for decades to come.

If the world’s leading economic and military power, far from transitioning away from fossil fuels, has rapidly expanded production in an effort to gain an advantage over others, why should any other country act differently? Why should any other country with an existing or potential abundance of cheap fossil fuels not fully utilise them to maximise their own power and influence?

The answer is they neither can nor will act otherwise. That’s why we’re currently seeing countries around the world, in the face of often significant community opposition, follow the US example and build up their own fracking industries. And that’s why the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year will likely be another case of fiddling while the planet burns.

What kind of movement?
Despite increasing awareness of the problem and the rise of environmental NGOs with multi-million dollar budgets and an army of paid staff and volunteers, we’re in a much worse position now than we were 20 years ago. The rate of destruction of the earth’s natural support systems continues to accelerate.

A large part of the failure of the environment movement can be attributed to its inability to recognise that serious action on climate change would entail a direct challenge to the logic of capitalism and to the interests of those whose wealth and power depend on it. Environmentalists have all too often striven for a “respectability” that, while it may provide access to the corridors of power, renders them easy prey for the big money interests that dominate within.

This has meant that solutions proposed have been either sadly inadequate to the scale of the issue or completely ineffective in reducing emissions.

Thus, on the one hand, we have farces like “Earth hour” and various other corporate-friendly sustainability initiatives that amount to little more than exercises in “greenwashing”. Alternatively, there’s the focus on individual consumption – a phenomenon largely limited to small enclaves of relatively well-to-do people living, by and large, in the trendy suburbs of major Western cities.

Finally, there are the various forms of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes that, in an effort to avoid any significant impact on business competitiveness, have tended to over-compensate polluters and/or allow for the passing on of costs to income-poor consumers.

In her book This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate, Naomi Klein describes such approaches as trying to fit the “square peg of climate crisis” into capitalism’s “round hole”. What’s needed, as she sees it, is a mass movement that’s not afraid to take direct action to disrupt “business as usual” – whether that’s the business of companies directly involved in fracking, tar-sands mining and other acts of climate vandalism, of the big-banks and investors who profit from it or of governments that facilitate and support them.

The question remains, however: what kind of mass movement could realistically hope to pose a genuine challenge to the entrenched and well-protected interests of the global capitalist ruling class?

The case for socialism
Under capitalism, there are areas of life in which meaningful reforms can be fought for and won: the eight-hour day, the abolition of slavery, reproductive rights, equal pay, universal health care, half decent age pensions, voting rights, an end to legal discrimination of various kinds. Socialists have been at the forefront of many if not most past struggles for such reforms.

Climate change is different. Things have progressed to the point where nothing short of getting rid of capitalism could conceivably allow us to address the issue in the timeframe required to avoid the potentially irreversible damage to the earth’s natural support systems. As Terry Eagleton put it in his book After theory, this is “plain realism”: “No enlightened, moderately intelligent observer could survey the state of the planet and conclude it could be put to rights without a thorough-going transformation”.
On one hand this means the total restructuring of the economy on socialist lines – building a society in which workers exercise direct, collective and democratic control over the entire productive apparatus of society. This is the pulling of the “emergency brake” on the runaway train of capitalism. The replacement of the current economy with production for human need would completely undermine the current drive to environmental calamity.

However, the rich and powerful have made it abundantly clear that they are prepared to watch the world burn in order to protect their interests. This should not come as a surprise. They were prepared to destroy Europe in two world wars and brought humanity to the brink of nuclear Armageddon last century for the same reason. Nothing has changed.

 No fundamental economic restructure is possible so long as the capitalist class remains in power. So the struggle for a socialist economy, which is the only basis for dealing with climate change, must be a struggle to strip the rich of their economic, military and political power.

Recognising something of this, there is a trend today to say we need to put the “eco” in socialism. Workers clearly have a stake in fighting for sustainability. The exploitation of workers and the degradation of the environment – whether through carbon emissions or the myriad other forms of pollution that currently blight our world – go hand in hand. Global capitalism’s fossil fuel addiction has its origins in the same competitive dynamic that drives the scramble to undermine workers’ wages and conditions.

Workers stand to lose the most in a runaway warming scenario. Particularly for workers in developing countries, but increasingly also in the West, questions of sustainability, far from being something that can be put off into the indefinite future, are already having a direct impact on lives and livelihoods. It makes sense, then, for workers to play a central role in environmental struggles.

Yet it is highly unlikely, at least in the West, that a revolutionary challenge to the power of the ruling class will be driven by concerns for “the natural environment”. Historically, mass revolutionary struggles have been triggered by other issues of immediate concern – economic crisis, war, poverty and so on.

Mass revolutionary struggle, whatever drives it, holds the promise of liberation from the logic of the market and the pursuit of profit at all cost. Then we could build the kind of society in which the world is no longer treated simply as a resource for exploitation, but, as Marx famously put it, as humanity’s “inorganic body” – something that we should care for and nurture in the same way as our own flesh and blood.

Friday, June 26, 2015

1904. The Climate Movement Should Demand: "Tax Greenhouse Gases Emissions With Subsidies for Low-Income People"

By Kamran Nayeri, June 26, 2015
New York People's Climate March in September 2014
The climate movement must take the initiative
The world governments, in particular the American government, have failed miserably to adopt and implement effective policies to mitigate global warming and catastrophic climate change despite scientific knowledge that it threatens the very existence of human species and much besides. 

While the grassroots movement demanding action to mitigate catastrophic climate change has been gaining momentum its focus so far has been on registering opposition to government inaction.  It is high time that the climate movement raise specific policy demands because government devised policies  have failed to work so far.  This is because governments place corporate and economic interests above protecting the climate. Precious time is wasted as the world edges closer to the tipping point when it will become impossible to stop the coming catastrophe due to feedback effects. 

For an emissions tax with subsidies to low-income people
The movement needs to adopt as its central demand a carbon/emissions tax with subsidies for low-income people.  This is easy to explain and to understand. Economic activities producing greenhouse gases (GHGs) do not factor in the cost of pollution.  Economists call this “externalities.” Since the Industrial Revolution, this has served as a generous subsidy to industries that cause emissions.  It is high time to add in this environmental cost through an emission tax.  However, the low-income people should be cushioned against such a tax eroding their already low purchasing power.  A subsidy is necessary which can be funded from the emission tax itself.  Emission taxes can also be used for subsidies to speed up transition to clean renewal energy (those that have minimal adverse effect on the environment—solar, wind and geothermal but not natural gas and nuclear).

The climate movement can enhance its effectiveness by focusing its campaigns on nine countries and European Union that are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gases. Ranked by their “absolute emissions,” they are China, U.S., E.U., India, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Mexico. 

Seven of these countries and E.U. have higher per capita emissions than the world average: Canada, U.S., Russian Federation, Japan, E.U., Indonesia, China and Brazil.  In eight countries and E.U.  the transition to clean renewables energy will be largely accomplished by phasing out fossil fuels through a carbon tax (a form of emissions tax).  In Indonesia where key sources of GHGs are deforestation and land use an emission tax is required.

Climate Club
Early industrializers of the West and Japan as well as China should take the lead because of the historic responsibility of the former and the fact that China’s pollution is largely driven by industrial production for the West that makes China the leading emitter today. The E.U., in particular some of its member states like Germany, have taken notable steps to cut emissions already.  Last year, United States and China announced intention to reduce emissions in the coming years. And on Germany’s urging the recent G-7 meeting announced its intention to work for a world free of fossil fuels by the end of the century; a largely symbolic gesture. But all these have been rather timid action boxed in by each country's corporate and economic interests.  The climate movement should demand that they honor and exceed these intentions by creating a Climate Club through adopting meaningful emissions (or when appropriate carbon) taxes with subsidies to low-income people.  

Emissions tariff and Climate Change Assistance Fund
Key to the international success of emissions taxes is that Climate Club countries impose import tariffs on leading emitters who are not yet in compliance. The combination of emissions tax and import tariffs will benefit any country that joins the Climate Club and make it unfeasible economically not to join it.  All such tariff should go to a Climate Change Assistance Fund that gives assistance to the countries most affected by climate change and least able to face it alone and to help them transition to a post-carbon economy.  

How to proceed
In sum, I believe it is high time for each organization in the climate movement to discuss this and other policy proposals in their general meetings. What to do about climate change is too important to leave to politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats and business interests who routinely place corporate and economic interests before the health of the planet and all who live on it. 

Whenever we plan for protest actions various participating groups propose demands or slogans close to their own vision. There is usually harmony with the directions and goals of the climate movement.  However, it is time to strive for greater unity by adopting clear and concise policy of our own on how to combat climate change.  

The policy proposals here will run into opposition by many politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate leaders. However, climate movement is a political movement precisely because we must overcome such oppositions by our ever-more powerful mobilizations and unity in action.  Who else will design and implement solutions to climate crisis if not the climate movement?  At the same time, there may be criticism by some of us who have proclaimed “System Change, Not Climate Change.”  Of course, there is truth in the notion that the capitalist system is responsible for global warming and the planetary crisis. However, most people who raise this slogan do not subscribe to the idea that effective policy to combat climate change has to wait for the downfall of capitalism. In fact, it is the reverse.  Only through building a mass climate movement that can forge and force an effective climate policy on the existing capitalist world order that we can take genuine steps to overcome it.  

We can win the fight to reverse 250 years of greenhouse gas emissions if enough social forces are organized and mobilized in key countries and across the world.  It requires a clear understanding of policies, strategies and tactics that can achieve our goal.  Of course, we will continue with campaigns to end fracking, tar sands oil, explorations in particularly dangerous locations, coal trains and bomb trains.  But emission taxes with subsidies to low-income people and formation of a Climate Club that impose import tariff on major emitting countries and provide assistance to the countries of Global South to cope with climate change and transition to a post-carbon economy will be a powerful complement that will unify the movement across the world and point the way forward. 

Technical Appendix
It is well known among economists that in the global capitalist economy individual countries have no incentive to limit emissions that bring them economic benefits as long as they do not have to share its costs.  It is a typical free rider problem.  Given this, in a recent article in the American Economic Review, Yale climate economist William Nordhaus has argued for the formation of a Climate Club to combat climate change.  The two basic conditions for membership are: (1) to impose a meaningful carbon tax; and, (2) to impose import tariffs on countries not in the Club.  Professor Nordhaus discusses estimates for Social Cost of Carbon (environmental costs) to estimate proper tax rates as well as proper import tariff rates. Professor Nordhaus does not consider subsidies for low-income people nor a Climate Change Assistance Fund for countries of the Global South.  However, his work shows that relying on “peer pressure” and a “cap and trade” system will not work.  His policy proposal is also simple to understand and easy to implement if accepted.  Even in the environmentalist movement proposed policies to confront climate change is often a laundry list of options that work if they are undertaken at the same time and by a range of economic and social actors.  Taxing GHGs emissions and cutting off subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry historically are easy to understand and explain and effective. 


Notes
 1. They failed to arrive at any common policy for 21 years of Conference of the Parties (COP) and 11 years of Meetings of the Parties (MOP). Meanwhile CO2 concentration in atmosphere has continued to rise rapidly reaching 403 ppm in May 2015. 
 2. See, Kamran Nayeri, “People’s Climate March Was a Huge Success; What to Do Next?,” October 1, 2014
 3. See, for example, June 23, 2015 Letter to the White House by thirteen environmentalist organizations protesting EPA’s intended policy to substitute biomass for coal instead of transition to clean energy. 
 4.Mengpin Ge, “6 Graphs Explain the World’s Top 10 Emitters,” World  Resources Institute, November 25, 2014. 

Related posts:

1913. Discussion: Emissions Tax, The Climate Movement, and Radical Social Change


Thursday, June 25, 2015

1903. Interview With Eric Foner: The Face of Racism Today

By Elias Esquith, Salon, June 24, 2015
Historian Eric Foner
During the past generation or two, the way educated Americans, and especially historians, have come to understand the Civil War and Reconstruction has dramatically changed. Whereas it was once in vogue to play contrarian and argue that the war over slavery — and the subsequent effort to establish true, multiracial pluralist democracies in the South — had little to do with African-American liberation and white supremacy, that is thankfully no longer the case.

While no one, two or three-dozen people can rightly be said to deserve all the credit for this decades-in-the-making shift, few would deny the pivotal role played by Columbia University’s Eric Foner — especially his classic book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” Among others, it was Foner whose top-notch scholarship and unusually engaging prose helped usher in a new understanding of this seminal era that continues to gain influence today.

Recently, Salon reached out to Foner to get his take on the historical roots of the savage attack on Charleston, South Carolina’s, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We also discussed Gov. Nikki Haley’s call for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the state’s Capitol grounds, as well as what it means to say Americans must confront their own history. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

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How significant would it be, symbolically, for the Confederate battle flag to be removed by South Carolina?

As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.
Symbolism has its limits. On the other hand, to see that flag flying … it’s a statement by South Carolina. Black people perfectly well understand what it stands for. A lot of white people do also. I think removing it is certainly a positive step.

Can you tell me a bit about South Carolina’s history in this regard, and why it’s often singled, out even among its fellow former Confederate states?

I have taught in South Carolina as a visiting professor. I have lectured many times in South Carolina at the University of South Carolina, at Clemson, at Beaufort, in Charleston. I have good friends there and I’m certainly not trying to suggest that everyone in South Carolina is a deep racist or has anything to do with a guy like Dylann Roof. On the other hand, one has to recognize that South Carolina has a very unique and deplorable history when it comes to slavery and race.

It goes way back to the American Revolution. South Carolina had delegates who insisted that Thomas Jefferson take out a clause that condemned slavery from the Declaration of Independence. It was South Carolina delegates who got the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause into the Constitution. It was South Carolina who was the leader in nullification, the leader in secession. The first shot of the Civil War was shot there. South Carolina was the only Southern state in which the majority of white families owned slaves.

And yet, not incidentally, it also had an unusually large African-American population, too, right?

It had about a 60 percent black population at the time of the Civil War. In other words, the majority of the people in South Carolina were slaves. To say that the Confederate flag represents the heritage of that state is not true; it actually did not represent the majority of South Carolinians even at the time the Confederacy existed.

What was South Carolina’s experience during Reconstruction and the long postwar era?
During Reconstruction, South Carolina was the site of a very remarkable experiment in interracial democracy. Because of the large black majority, you had a considerable amount of African-Americans holding office at various levels: going to Congress, being in the Legislature, and local offices.

The result of that was a violent reaction against it. The Ku Klux Klan was very powerful in South Carolina. In 1876 there was the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction government. There have been a lot of massacres — if you want to call them that — of black people in South Carolina history. The Hamburg massacre of 1876 was part of the overthrow of Reconstruction. People forget about the Orangeburg massacre, where a number of black students were killed by officers of the state highway patrol at Orangeburg, a black college, in 1968. This is the history of South Carolina.

South Carolina was the home of Ben Tillman, one of the most vicious racists and segregationists of the 19th century. [Former South Carolina governor and senator] Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 against Truman and the Democratic platform. South Carolina was one of the few states that voted for Goldwater in 1964, which was an indication of the possibilities of a Southern strategy the Republican Party has been following ever since. This is the history of South Carolina.

Again, not everybody in South Carolina is responsible for that history, but a guy like Dylann Roof imbibed those views and that heritage. It’s there and I don’t think the state has really confronted it. In a way, flying the Confederate flag is one indication of the fact that South Carolina has never really come to terms with its extreme history of slavery, racism and anti-black violence. It’s not the only place in the country that has that, obviously, but it always has been at the cutting edge of these kind of movements.

You just reminded me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates said recently on Twitter. He argued that Roof’s attack was in some ways more reminiscent of the violence perpetrated against African-Americans in the late-19th century than the upheavals associated with the civil rights movement.

I agree with him. When you read Roof’s statements and manifesto, you see, apart from his craziness, language which does bring you back to the overthrow of Reconstruction in the late-19th century.

They have been raping our women — this was the charge against every black person that was lynched; they were rapists. That’s the picture of blacks in “Birth of a Nation.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, this was completely untrue. In fact, there was far more rape of black women by white men [than of white women by black men]. This is just a racist trope that was used against Reconstruction. It was used to justify segregation. It was used to justify lynching.

What else?

The idea that they are “taking over.” In Reconstruction, they did take over. Even though the governors were white, blacks exercised remarkable amounts of political power compared to what had existed before the Civil War. This led to a very violent reaction against it. Roof’s language is the language of political white supremacy, the desire to put blacks back into their place and to restore white domination. Of course, he’s delusional in the sense that black people are not taking over South Carolina; they have very little political power in South Carolina. But that racist notion is deeply ingrained in reactionary thought.

Is there a similar history of attacking people while they’re in church, as if to say, Even here, you are not safe?

We know there have been other attacks on black churches in the country over the years. The Klan of Reconstruction and the Red Shirts of the 1876 campaign, which overthrew Reconstruction, they went after black people in their homes to make the point that you are not safe anywhere. In a sense, the church [attack] is an example of that.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we need to confront our history and acknowledge it and bear its weight. What does that mean to you? Because sometimes I worry that that, too, is becoming a bit of an airy, vague cliché.

I’m a historian. I believe people need to know our history. On the other hand, there is a tendency to displace the causes of current problems onto history.

The problems of black Americans today, putting aside this terrible event, are rooted in history, but are also rooted in the present. The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo who had been putting blacks into subprime mortgages until they lost their homes in 2008. It’s the people who will not hire a black person. It’s the people who will not hire a person when they see he has a black-sounding name [on his résumé]. In other words, the point of studying history is to understand its link to the present — but it’s not to displace the problems of the present. It’s not to say this is rooted in history and the slaveowners are responsible for whatever the problem is today.

One-hundred-and-fifty years later, we still have a problem in this country coming to terms with the existence of slavery. There’s no museum of the history of slavery in the entire United States. There’s a Holocaust museum; there’s plenty of other museums [about tragedies and atrocities], but there’s no memorial to the victims of slavery in the U.S. We have memorials to the victims of the Irish famine; why don’t we have a memorial to the victims of slavery somewhere? What I want people to learn from history is the depth and importance of slavery, and then 100 years of segregation, in shaping the way American society is today.