Keeping the grease in the ground: a challenge

Published online 24 September 2009.

If the state of public opinion were to reflect the research on abrupt climate change, billions of people would be in a state of panic.  The problem is not merely that the proposed measures to deal with the problem will be inadequate, nor that Copenhagen will wind up with no agreement or be a farce, although both of those predictions will come true; it’s that the intelligentsia, that class of individuals who should be asking the right questions and coming up with the right answers, is not yet talking about what needs to be done.

What we will need is an agreement to limit fossil fuel production, and a new concept of economy to replace the neoliberal one, which is structurally incapable of making such a solution real.  This essay is intended to  promote debate about such a change.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Over in England, you see, they’ve gotten a lot closer to the truth of what’s happening than they have here.  Maybe it’s that their press will permit discussion of the matter without granting “equal time” to the deniers.  Or maybe it’s that England has Mark Lynas.  But they’ve figured something out there that we haven’t — dealing with abrupt climate change is a matter of survival.

Now Johann Hari’s editorial in yesterday’s Independent is merely an editorial.  But we can judge such things for their contribution to the lay discourse of their times and places.  My point is that their intelligentsia are a little closer than ours to a real discussion about abrupt climate change, close enough to panic.  It’s still not close enough.

Hari starts with an oft-repeated dictum about abrupt climate change:

To stay the right side of this climatic Point of No Return, global emissions need to start falling by 2015 – just six years from now – and drop by 85 per cent by 2050. Our leaders need to agree this at the climate talks in Copenhagen in December. The scientific debate is over. The answer is in sight.

Well, OK.  I beg to differ.  The answer is not in sight.  And the  restrictions Hari mentions are really not enough.  Our present-day global economy, moreover, does not know how to reduce its “emissions.”  It knows how to put on big PR spectacles, and we can fully expect Copenhagen to be one of those, but, no, it doesn’t know how to reduce its emissions.  Take a look at Raupach et al.: emissions are accelerating globally, and they’ve failed to come down even among Kyoto’s enforcing signatories.

Maybe we can push the intelligentsia, the thinkers with a smidgen of power over the popular discussion on abrupt climate change, closer to the truth with an interpretation of a recent recent court ruling.  The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that CO2 emissions count as a “nuisance”:

The theory of the states is important because it is a claim based on the federal common law of public nuisance. That is,  the GHG emissions constituted a public nuisance because it had negative impacts of the environments, such as the “right to public comfort and safety, the right to protection of vital natural resources and public property, and the right to use, enjoy, and preserve the aesthetic and ecological values of the natural world.”

Well, sure, but why stop with the consumers of fossil fuels?  Are we to imagine that the oil producers will continue on their merry way without contributing to those nasty “GHG emissions”?  Would it be OK if this interpretation of the common law of public nuisance applied only in the US, and that foreign “GHG emissions” didn’t count?

Uh, no.  All oil burning is a nuisance, and, yeah, we know what gas stations are for.  Moreover, there’s simply no way the folks who pump 85 million bbls./day of crude oil (and who mine an equal daily carbon-endowment of coal) each and every day are going to do so if the stuff can’t be burned.  And are we really to say that using petroleum to, say, make plastic, is not a nuisance either?

The solution, then, is very simple.  There needs to be an international agreement to cap the wells and abandon the mines. This is the only realistic way in which the nuisance of CO2 burning can be contained.  Consumer-restrictions on the burning of this stuff (without restrictions upon production) merely have too many loopholes, too many ways in which the burning of fossil fuels can be forgiven by the powers-that-be, for economic reasons.


Let me put it this way: if we can’t keep at least some of the Earth’s grease in the ground, what is the point of regulating “carbon emissions” at all?  Otherwise, all of Earth’s endowment of fossil fuel, within the limits of financial profit, will be burned into the atmosphere.  Yet this logical limitation upon human activity is not even up for discussion!  (Look, Jerome has briefly discussed this here on Big Orange.  Can you think of anyone else who has?)


Now, I’m not unrealistic enough to demand that, say, Copenhagen come up with an immediate agreement to phase out fossil fuel production: obviously, there has to be a discussion about such a solution before an international agreement were to happen, so let’s start here: with discussion.

If we are to stop “producing” fossil fuels, there would have to be a new set of economic controls.  Certain economic actors would “lose out” in the sense of not being given their chance to screw over the world; Canada and Venezuela come to mind, as producers of environmentally destructive tar sands.  Perhaps these actors could receive “compensation” — but, really, when it comes down to the reality of abrupt climate change, everyone deserves compensation, for the bigger nuisance of abrupt climate change is the nuisance which has already been loaded into the atmosphere, and is just waiting to be realized in the form of more extreme weather patterns.

The fact of the matter is that future “carbon emissions” are only an insult-added-to-injury to the past emissions which have already been pumped into the atmosphere, and this is what makes the debate so urgent.  The model of abrupt climate change adopted by the last IPCC report underestimates the risks of past and present CO2 burning.  I refer the kind readers to Petit et al., from 1999:

The lines corresponding to CO2 levels and average temperature correlate strongly in this set of data, taken from the ice cores of Antarctica.  We can see from the graph that as CO2 levels go up, temperature goes up.

Currently the CO2 levels are off the charts from the perspective of this graph: we are currently at 389 ppm of carbon dioxide, which will (if the scale on the graph from Vostok is correct) turn into a six to eight-degree (Celsius) average temperature increase when the feedback effect fully converts increased CO2 levels into increased temperatures.  Such a temperature increase would be four times as severe as the warming forecasted in the most recent IPCC report.  The intelligentsia, which in this case is the climate scientists, has for years been letting the political class “off the hook” by providing climate change predictions which are not extreme enough.  This is why James Hansen’s recommendation that we attempt to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm is such a necessary corrective to the old scientific consensus, and wake-up call to the political community.

Thus, if we are to turn back briefly to Hari’s article, we can easily guess that there is already enough CO2 in the atmosphere to make Hari’s most dire predictions into reality.  There are two reasons for any uncertainty about this conclusion: 1) hindsight is easier than prediction, and 2) it’s hard to predict when exactly the feedback from 389 ppm of carbon dioxide will fry the planet because no previous intelligent species has ever taken out Earth’s fossil fuel endowment and burned it.

Some of the impact of past CO2 emission is going to have to be mitigated through geoengineering.  We will have to fiddle with various ways of tweaking global ecosystems to reduce CO2 levels, such as salting the oceans with iron filings to encourage the growth of plankton.  For the now, however, we’d better get going on the debate that matters: leaving the grease in the ground.  The more grease that remains in the ground, the better for planet Earth, the better for us.

OK, so we debate the idea of leaving the oil, coal, natural gas in the ground.  What will emerge?

First thing we’ll learn is that the problem of climate change legislation is economic as well as being political.  We will discover a world order governed by an ideology called neoliberalism, in which a great surplus of capital, evident in the 1970s but having grown each decade since then, makes government into neoliberal government, government as a conduit for investor profits.

Neoliberal government, government under the conditions of dollar hegemony, global governance, the WTO, and so on, as have been increasingly applicable since the 1970s, is responsible mainly to the global neoliberal economy.  If they hope to attract any business in their countries, governments around the world must provide an “appropriate business climate,” which in practical terms means they must cater to the profits system, the system which has produced 793 billionaires for our globe amidst a bottom half of humanity which lives off of less than $2.50/day.  Thus the dramatic privatizations which have taken place over the last three decades around the world.

A finer-points economic analysis of the existing order is provided by Harry Shutt:

the weight of official opinion is still clearly convinced that the primary duty of government in the global economy is to prop up corporate profits at all costs despite the demonstrable reality of a surplus supply of capital (87).

Currently there is enough pressure being placed upon governments, operating within the neoliberal world order, to force them to put up an appearance of doing something about the problem of abrupt climate change, and to stage public relations spectacles such as Copenhagen.  The political classes themselves see their primary duty as that of squaring “global warming legislation” with the duty of propping up corporate profits.  This is why cap-and-trade schemes are so popular now — they establish new securities markets, conforming to the 30-year trend of increasing financialization of capital, and they allow for easy cheating should “carbon reduction” prove onerous for business.

But what we need is a commitment, signed into law, to abandon fossil-fuel production.  I am, of course, not referring to Obama’s proposal to end fossil-fuel subsidy — that’s a different thing.  This will require a new concept of economy, a concept which puts the provision of basic needs before anything else.

If we are to grant the human race the freedom to think about devoting lifetimes to stewardship of Earth’s ecosystems, we will have to grant the human race a prior freedom FROM economic need.  This means a rededication to the problems of food, clothing, and shelter, the problems of FUNDAMENTAL economic need (you know, nobody really needs a Mercedes) in light of the great initial retrenchment in resources which will go along with an international agreement to phase out the production of fossil fuels.

If we can’t agree upon an economy which provides everyone with the fundamentals, an economy of basic human rights, then what we’re likely to get are a bunch of last-minute, slapdash measures, committed in the expected panic of massive weather disruption and failing annual crops, which will hurt an awful lot of people.  Imagine a carbon tax so onerous as to make air conditioning unaffordable in 110 degree (Fahrenheit) heat, or water restrictions which make it unaffordable for people to grow their own food under conditions of skyrocketing food prices.  (Remember, most of the continental American west will be altered by the melting of the icepack atop the Sierras and Rockies, with the consequent drying up of water resources for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and so on.)


The present-day economy is guided by the profits system, which (as I argued above) has converted government into a facilitator of corporate profit.  In its basic motivation, the profits system is guided by commodity fetishism, the spell of capitalism (as I argued in my last diary).  Under the spell of commodity fetishism, fossil fuels appear to have “value,” and thus have to be profitably “produced,” whereas from an ecological perspective their continued production and burning constitute a hazard to life on Earth.


We will need an economy of mutual aid to go along with an economic effort, on the scale of World War II, to deal with abrupt climate change.  We will need something this drastic because, by the time we get enough power to deal with abrupt climate change in a proactive (rather than a symbolic) manner, the situation will require it.

Are you with me so far?

We need a debate about this stuff, and the debate about this stuff needs to make the mainstream.  We need a broad cross-section of the intelligentsia, the thinkers who have the ears of the public, and of the politically-connected, to embrace this debate.  Otherwise all we will get are more PR spectacles, and climate disaster of an as-yet-unseen extremity.


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