Monday, January 4, 2016

2145. After Paris: To Succeed the Climate Justice Movement Must Lead

By Kamran Nayeri, January 4, 2016

This essay is primarily addressed to fellow climate justice movement activists but anyone concerned with the ongoing planetary and social crises may find it useful. 

I have divided what follows into two parts.  Part 1 addresses the challenge facing the climate justice movement to stop and reverse as much as possible the unfolding climate catastrophe by transitioning to a post-carbon economy as soon as possible.  Part 2 is an invitation to the climate change activists to consider taking up the planetary crisis of which the climate crisis is an aspect for a movement-wide discussion.  To win the climate justice battle would be a short term gain if the planetary crisis continue unabated. 

Part 1

Where do we stand after Paris?
Those who celebrated the Paris climate agreement and hailed Obama administration for climate leadership set the bar too low.  If fully implemented and all its assumptions turn out to be valid the“too little, too late” non-binding Paris agreement will result in a world at least 3.5 degree Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by 2100 than pre-industrial levels.  That is, it is recipe for climate disaster.  Even so, the assumptions underlaying the Paris agreement are highly questionable. First, the much touted 2 degree Celsius goal of climate policy has its origin in a 1975 paper by the climate economist William Nordhaus who called it “a first intuition.” It gained traction because it allowed policymakers room to delay tackling climate crisis.  The highly insufficient promised emissions reductions rely in part on “negative emissions” cancelling out continued GHGs emissions! “Negative emissions” depend on technofixes of dubious nature such as carbon capture and storage.  One much touted such technology that promises capture of carbon at point of production and storing it underground is still laboratory experiment.  But storing huge among of GHGs gases underground is recipe for disaster.  A blow-out in the Porter Ranch facility of the Southern California Gas Company has caused 150 million pounds of methane to be released into the atmosphere by December 30 and the leak continue unabated (Democracy Now!, December 30, 2015). Another “carbon capture and store” idea is reforestation on a scale and speed never attempted before. But experts doubt such an ambitious project can get underway in time to ward off climate crisis.  In fact, we still face large scale deforestation at a rapid pace.  Finally, the gods of self-interest (greed) and market will be the drivers of climate policies adopted, beginning with emissions trade schemes (“cap and trade”). Policymakers pretend not to know that it is the fossil fuel powered capitalist industrialization that has caused the climate crisis and that market driven schemes, including “cap and trade,” have failed to contribute significantly to slowing global warming wherever they are implemented.  Of course, the main problem with technology-focused approach to addressing the climate crisis is that it entirely ignores the socioeconomic basis of it. I will return to this below. 

Those who condemned the Paris climate agreement as failure and fraud have set the bar too high.  How could the political and business elite who did not take any effective action against climate crisis for a quarter of century provide us with a roadmap to a timely transition to a world free of fossil fuels short of really massive climate justice actions at least in key polluting countries and the E.U.?  Instead, the Paris agreement by-and-large reflects an understanding reached between President Obama and President Xi Jinping in Beijing in November 2014 (see, White House press release of September 25, 2015).  Currently, China and the United States are responsible for about 55% of GHGs each year.  They reached this agreement because of the increasing risk climate crisis poses to both economies as well as domestic pressure in the U.S. by the climate justice movement that had just organized a march of 400,000 people in New York City and in China by the rising expectation of sections of the Chinese people who live in dangerously high pollution caused by rapid industrialization. While the Paris agreement falls short of meeting the requirements to stop and reverse the climate crisis it still does represent a significant break with a quarter of century of inaction or  ineffective action by the key polluters.  Before the world public opinion, 195 governments have agreed that the climate crisis is an  existential threat to humanity and 184 countries offered plans on how they would put a ceiling on GHGs emissions and move to reduce pollution.  As Bill McKibben puts it the Paris agreement is a good one for 1995 not for 2015. However, “…[W]hat this means is that we need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.”  I think most of those who condemned the Paris agreement and politicians who engineered it ultimately realize that the climate justice movement must continue to hold them accountable in order to win over a majority of public opinion to join the street actions that can force the hand of public officials to do what is right. 

Still, I would like to propose that while much larger mobilizations are necessary they are not sufficient. The climate justice movement also need to outline the main planks of a program to  confront the climate crisis, educate, organize and mobilize around it to force big polluters to adopt it.  And that time is of essence. 

The climate justice movement must lead the policy discourse
The central demand of the global climate justice movement has been for a rapid transition to a post-carbon economy powered by relatively safe renewable energy sources like solar and wind.  However, the climate movement has not offered a positive program of how this can be accomplished in a timely manner to ward of the worse of the climate crisis.  In effect, the movement has left this crucial policy decision to the politicians, business leaders, technocrats and bureaucrats who are deeply committed to the status quo. 

Thus, the climate justice movement must set 1.5 degree Celsius as the ceiling for global warming compared to the pre-industrial levels (the safer 1 degree Celsius ceiling is no longer possible due to political inaction).  To get there, the climate movement must demands specific actions that put the brakes on the fossil fuel industry and to speed up transition to a post-carbon world economy. Such a campaign must be focused on nine countries and the E.U. that are responsible for more than 70% of global emissions.  Ranked by their “absolute emissions,” they are China, U.S., E.U., India, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Mexico.  As James Hansen said in his interview with the Guardian about the Paris agreement “[a]s long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest...they continue to be burned.”  Because of hydrofracturing in the US. and elsewhere the world is awash with relatively cheap oil and gas.  We must lead a fight to put a price on carbon. 

Tax GHGs emissions now! 
While the climate justice movement in each country must keep the government accountable for its voluntary climate pledge it also should demand an end to all tax breaks, subsidies and leasing of public land to the fossil fuel industry for exploration and production. (See, for example, Lydia Millet,  “Obama Should Issue an Executive Order Ending Future Leases for Fossil Fuels on Federal Land,” The New York Times, November 11, 2015)

But if we are to stop the climate crisis, we should put a price on carbon as soon as possible.  Various currents in the climate movement have been asking for it.  GHGs emissions damage the planet and its inhabitants and their price must reflect compensation for it. There is already widespread recognition of the public health hazard of alcohol and tobacco and a number of countries tax them accordingly.  The World Health Organization has just called for a 75% tax on tobacco prices as an optimal measure to cut tobacco use (WHO, Raising Taxes on Tobacco, 2015).   Why not demand a GHGs emissions tax at the point of production? 

To begin with, a carbon tax has support across ideological spectrum.  Most recently,  Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, called for a carbon tax (The New York Times, December 15, 2015).  Quoting José Manuel Entrecanales, chairman of Acciona, the giant Spanish renewables company, Friedman argues that solar and wind technologies already are competitively priced against new fossil fuel projects.  But Entrecanales stressed: 
“…leveraging the Paris consensus to get a price on carbon in the big emitting countries is the ‘Holy Grail,’ the thing that tips everything. Because while renewables can win against new fossil fuel plants, old fossil fuel plants built without any pollution control, and with all their capital expense amortized and still enjoying subsidies, can still run very cheaply — if you don’t count their massive carbon impacts.
A price on carbon, said Entrecanales, ‘would drive technology, it would drive R&D, it would drive investment, it would drive consumer habits.’ So Paris was necessary. A price on carbon will make it sufficient.”
Endorsing Friedman’s idea, Quinto Zondervan of the Climate Action Business Association wrote in the letter to the editor (NYT, December 19, 2015):
“I could not agree more with Thomas L. Friedman …that a price on carbon would be a very welcome and effective contribution we could make from the United States. 
“Through the American Sustainable Business Council we are working with businesses and business leaders across the country to bring about exactly this outcome.”  
William C. Tucker, Assistant Regional Counsel, Environmental Protection Agency, also wrote in the same letters column:
“What is needed…in addition to the Paris accord, is a gradually increasing carbon fee and dividend (a fee or “tax” on fossil fuels rebated per capita to all individuals), imposed at the source, instituted unilaterally by China and the United States, with the therat of tariffs as incentive for other countries to follow with similar measures.  This will ensure that the environmental costs of carbon emissions are reflected in fossil fuel prices, making renewables increasingly competitive in the open market.” (emphasis in original)
The climate justice movement needs to adopt as its central demand a carbon/emissions tax with subsidies for low-income people.  A subsidy for low-income people is necessary because four decades of neoliberal polices have created extreme income inequality and because the climate justice movement needs to bring into its ranks and leadership working people who are or will be most affected by the ravages of the climate crisis.  Such subsides can be funded entirely from the emission tax itself.  Emission taxes can also be used for subsidies to support transition to clean renewal energy. (for a somewhat more detailed presentation, see, Nayeri, “The Climate Movement Should Demand: Tax Greenhouse Gases Emissions With Subsidies for Low-Income People,” July, 2015)

For a 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. Some of the European Union members, most notably Germany, have taken important steps to cut emissions already.  The Paris agreement has committed United States and China to reduce emissions in the coming years. However, compared to the existential threat of climate chaos these are rather timid actions or worse timid declared intentions boxed in by each country's corporate and economic interests as well as the technocratic and bureaucratic methods employed.  The climate movement should demand that they honor and exceed these intentions or actions by creating a Climate Club through adopting as soon as possible meaningful emissions taxes with subsidies to low-income people.  Such taxation policy must be geared to rid the world of fossil fuels before 2050. 

Emissions tariff and Climate Change Assistance Fund
To ensure the success of the emission tax policy, the Climate Club countries must 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 an International Climate Change Assistance Fund to ensure a rapid transition to a post-carbon economy in the Global South and mitigate the worse impact of the climate crisis on vulernable nations. This is not simply a matter of historical responsibility of the industrial countries but also of international solidarity with the peoples of the Global South.

It is entirely in order to ask how to demand an emissions tax in a tax-adverse country like the United State where one of the two governing parties opposes any increase in taxation.  I suggest that the problem lies not in the nature of what we must demand but in the work it take to educate, organize and mobilize millions of people for meaningful action against the climate crisis.  If climate crisis is indeed an existential threat no effective policy is too grand to demand and to implement.  How did the U.S. government mobilize the entire country “to fight fascism” in World War II? How did the U.S. government responded to 9/11?  How the U.S. raised and spent trillions of dollars to bail out “too big to fail” corporations and banks or to conduct its “war without end” doctrine?  We must demand a governmental mobilization even larger than these because it is the humanity's future and much of life on Earth that is in question. 

Thus, the strategy of the climate justice movement must be based on mass education, organization and mobilization around key sets of demands that we pose to the government.  

Part 2

The Anthropocene
While the goal of the climate justice movement is to stop and reverse climate change as soon as and as much as possible and to do so we must work across ideological lines to adopt and implement the above reforms and others it would be self-defeating to ignore the fact that climate crisis is simply the most visible facet of the planetary crisis.  To ignore this fact is to mistake partial reforms with lasting solutions.  Even if we succeed in keeping the big majority of fossil fuels in the ground and transition to a post-carbon economy by 2050, the planetary crisis most likely will undermine the web of life on which humanity thrives. 

A useful way to identify facets of the planetary crisis is offered by Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center (see, Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity, 2009). They defined and studied nine planetary boundaries (thresholds for safety of human societies) as follows:
  • Stratospheric ozone 
  • Land use changes 
  • Freshwater pollution and shortages
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Ocean acidity
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus input into the biosphere and oceans 
  • Aerosol loading
  • Chemical pollution 
There is no dispute that the planetary crisis is caused by “human activities.”  In fact, a rapidly growing literature is centered on the idea of the Anthropocene (New Man), a geological epoch defined by human impact on the planet’s natural systems.  As a review of the list of the planetary boundaries above shows industrial pollution as a common causal factor. In fact, ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen who proposed and popularized the term in the West have suggested that the Anthropocene could be dated with the introduction of the steam engine in the English Industrial Revolution.  However, industrial revolution in England was the cumulation of processes that joined capitalist accumulation with technological change especially fossil fuel powered  production and transportation resulting in the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production in England.  Ever since industrialization has expanded across the globe as part of the integration of the capitalist world economy (even “socialist” Soviet Union and China adopted a similar model).  Thus, leading ecological socialists have argued the Anthropocene is driven by 250 years of industrial capitalism. 

However, this view ignores that fact that many pre-capitalist civilizations also suffered ecological crises leading to their extinction (see, for example, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, 2004; also, see, my review of it and of similar works).  Clearly, anti-ecological human activities predate capitalism and can continue in societies that at least for a time thought of to be post-capitalist, like the Soviet Union and China.  

My own view is that the Anthropocene began with the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago when some hunter-gatherers became first farmers (see, Nayeri, 2013, “Economics, Ecology, and Socialism: A Critical Outline, Part 2”).  As archeologists and anthropologists have documented a paradigm shift occurred in worldviews of the early farmers. Hunter-gatherer bands who lived in relative stability with the rest of nature for 190,000 years held ecocentrist worldviews, including animist views.  They did not see themselves separate and apart from the rest of nature but very much part of it. Animists even believed that all beings, animate or inanimate, possessed spirits. However, the transition to farming was made possible by a gradual process of alienation from nature beginning with domestication.  Ecocentrist worldviews gradually were replaced with anthropocentrism (speciesism or human supremacy ideology). Farming required a measure of domination and control of nature, including the domestication of plants and animals.  But the very process of transition to farming also domesticated the mind of the farmer (Barker, 2006, pp. 39-40).  Indeed, civilization has been a series of “intelligent design” projects. That is, humanity has tried to impose artificial selection on a biosphere shaped by billions of years of Darwinian natural selection.  This process of alienation from nature has deepened to this day.  And the results are terrifying—compare a “toy dog” with its ancestor the gray wolf.  Capitalist civilization is based on domination and control over the entire planet and its inhabitants which now seem a "natural" requirement as humans (except the present day hunter-gatherers) are incapable of surviving on their own in nature the way wildlife does something our hunter-gatherer ancestors did very well for 95% of the existence of our species.  Thus, the very concept of nature has changed since the dawn of agriculture—from Mother Nature to our aboriginal ancestors to a fearsome foe that must be dominated and controlled for our own wellbeing.  It is self-evident that overcoming the planetary crisis requires a world cultural revolution to end the 10,000-year anthropocentric detour to return to ecocentrist worldviews the only possible ideological basis for harmonious attitude towards the rest of nature.  Some of us already embrace a revival of ancient naturalist views. But modern ecocentrist worldviews can be based on Deep Ecology, Darwinian evolutionary theory or Big History. Although a rational comprehension of ecocentrism as a worldview is necessary, it is not sufficient. It must be accompanied by love of Mother Nature that can on;y come from the heart. 

If the above argument is essentially correct then the planetary crisis and the social crisis are actually two aspects of the same reality.  Successful farming at the dawn of history provided an economic surplus which led to social stratification, social alienation, exploitation, and all forms of oppression. This is much more researched and much better understood because of the influence of the work of Marx and Engels that centers on historical materialism.  However to this day, the socialist tradition has not embraced alienation from nature even though historically it preceded social alienation.  At any rate, human civilization made of various class societies has been teaming with social conflicts as well as conflict with the rest of nature. The capitalist civilization has brought us to the brink in just 250 years because of its dynamics of capital accumulation and incessant technological change.  The entire planet is being turned into one giant factory for profits and power. 

Ideological currents within the ecological movement and how to move forward
The ecological/environmentalist movement in general and climate justice movement, in particular, are universalist movements because maintaining the planet’s biosphere and climate are necessary for supporting the web of life, including humanity. Thus, individuals and currents from all social classes with all kinds of ideologies work together in these movements to further their common cause.  That is our strength. 

However, ideological currents offer proposals for the movement that are based on their own particular worldview.  Take, for example, a pro-capitalist pundit like Thomas L. Friedman who has spoken up against the climate crisis.  In the same column where Friedman advocates putting a price on carbon, he also advocated capitalist “greed” as the economic motor for confronting the climate crisis.  Except, he conveniently ignores the fact that since the 1970s a key polluter, the Exxon Corporation (Exxon-Mobile since 1999), knew from its own scientists and has tried to conceal it the fact that fossil fuels foster the climate crisis. Is this not an illustration that capitalist “greed” has been the economic force behind the climate crisis?  Could the same mechanism lead us to a sustainable economy and society?  The short answer is: No! 

Liberal minded currents in the environmentalist/ecology movement might disagree with Friedman’s naked appeal to capitalist greed.  However, they essentially argue that the capitalist economy and society built on self-interest and profit motive can be made to act for the wellbeing of people and the planet using Green technologies, Green taxes, and ecologically conscious consumption. That is, they believe in marrying core capitalist values with ecologically friendly reforms to arrive at some form of a sustainable Green Capitalism (for a detailed critique of this view see Richard Smith’s, “Green Capitalism: The God that Failed,” 2011). Of course, we would be foolish to reject reforms in the struggle for a sustainable and just society.  I have just called for such reforms to fight the climate crisis.  But it would be disastrous to believe that reforms can overcome a systemic crisis, and the ecological crisis in general and climate crisis, in particular, are systemic crises.  We must address the root causes of the crisis. Thus, in my view, even the struggle for reforms must be based on grassroots mass mobilization and independent political action while liberal environmentalists continue to rely on “better” politicians, “good corporate citizens," technocrats, and bureaucrats. 

Thus, our movement must consider not only a transition to a post-carbon economy but also a transition to a post-industrial and post-capitalist society.  I like to call this an ecological socialist society and point to a few key features of it. 

First, it must be an egalitarian society firmly rooted in a participatory democracy with ecocentrist world views.  We must give up the doctrines of superiority that have shaped human civilizations so far—doctrines of the superiority of one group of humans over another group and doctrines of the superiority of humans over other species and mastery over nature.  (For a brief and enlightening statement of such an ecocentric world view see The Eight Point Platform of Deep Ecology.) 

Second, the new society would need to be significantly smaller in size and economic output to make it ecologically sustainable.  As a species, we are using most of the life-sustaining resources of the planet.  Today, humans use 12,000 times more energy per day as was the case when farming started; 90 per cent of this is a result of industrialization and 10 per cent because of the exponential growth in our numbers. (Boyden, 2004) Let’s consider energy flow and the food chain. Ultimately, all species live off energy that arrives on Earth via sunshine.  Through photosynthesis green plants (primary producers) convert solar energy into sugars. They consume about half of it for their own livelihood. What remains is called Net Primary Productivity (NPP).  The NPP is the basis for all animal life. Herbivores eat plants to gain energy for their livelihood (primary consumers). Carnivores live off herbivores (secondary consumers).  Some omnivores also eat secondary consumers (tertiary consumers).  The final link in the food chain is the decomposers that live off the organic matter of plants, herbivores, carnivores and omnivores.  In each step in the food chain about 90% of the energy is lost. In 1986, Vitousek, P. et. al. estimated that about 40% of the NPP in terrestrial ecosystems was being co-opted by humans each year.  Additionally, they noted, “humans also affect much of the other 60% of terrestrial NPP, often heavily.” Clearly, if one species among millions take so much of the NPP others go with little or no energy/food and into decline.  The study cited is among the most conservative estimates of the impact of human society on the rest of species.  Is it a wonder that the planet is facing the Sixth Great Extinction with extinction rate 1,000 times faster than the natural background rate? Habitat loss is the number one contributing factor—with habitat loss goes loss of sources for energy/food for the affected species. 

Thus, we need a democratically decided population policy that empowers women and we must replace the culture of having (capitalist consumerism) with a cultural of being for a much smaller population that lives off what we need for human development but not for conspicuous living.  Instead of the fetish of growth of Gross Domestic Product as the measure of progress, we must have a human development and happiness index.  

Thus, we need degrowth and restructuring of the economy designed by direct producers and consumer councils.  Of course, shrinking the world economy would be unevenly applied. We must shrink the economies of the Global North where 20% of the world population today consumers 80% of the world economic output. On the other hand, economies of the Global South must expand while radically restructuring in such a way to enhance sustainability and human development.

Everywhere the entire structure of economies must change.  Some key capitalist sectors will disappear—like the military-industrial complex and advertisement.  Other will expand—like health care, education, and culture.  Still others will be transformed radically, like energy and transportation.  International and national trade will decrease radically while regional and local trade will increase as economies become locally centered. What we produce, how we produce and what we consume will change. 

With the gradual shrinking of the world population and economy, humanity will withdraw from much of the planet that capitalism has colonized by expelling or destroying much of  wildlife.  World-renowned biologist, E. O. Wilson in his much anticipate book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (March 2016) proposes a plan to give back half the earth to wildlife preserves. 

As the most active section of the ecology and social justice movements, the climate justice movement must encourage thinking and discussion of such vital issues facing the humanity. To lead requires forward thinking and thinking outside the box.  The climate justice movement must take the lead in organizing discussions not just about how to organize the next large march but also how to think collectively about a number of key demands necessary for the transition to a post-carbon economy by 2050 and to a post-industrial, post-capitalist economy and society in not too distant future.  As the Paris climate summit showed capitalist politicians discuss climate crisis much like they negotiate a trade agreement.  It is about who would prevail in the international capitalist pecking order.  Their outright failure is entirely possible. Didn’t we just learn that the Doha international trade negotiation between 185 countries that began in 2001 just ended in failure? 

The truth is that laws of physics and ecology are not negotiable and humanity is running out of time.  The climate justice movement cannot rely on capitalist politicians, corporate leaders, technocrats or bureaucrats to stop and reverse the climate crisis in a timely fashion if at all.  The perspective offered here is for a grassroots mass mobilization strategy that count on an educated public to implement a program that we know will work.  In the process, the climate justice movement can help heal the old divide between the labor and social justice movements and the ecology/environmentalist movement as the planetary and social crises are indeed rooted in the industrial capitalist world economy. 

The arguments presented here are entirely based on stylized facts and their interconnections in theory and history rationally construed.  However, they should not be seen divorced from the value system we must embrace: the head and the hand must be mediated by the heart.  Only those who are in love with Mother Nature can defend it against the civilization's onslaught.  Let’s not forget who we are: her children. 

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 Zondervan,  Quinto. Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, December 19, 2015.

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