It’s not about the carbon
by Jim Miles
While there are still many people debating whether or not global warming is occurring, or if it is caused by human factors or just another of ‘nature’s’ natural cycles (after all, are not humans a part of nature?), the most educated voices are now saying: Yes it is human caused…and it’s all too late.
Not necessarily too late to try and do something about it, but too late to think we can stop it. At best, the recently emerged view is that global warming, no matter what we do, will increase for some decades before it is even slowed down, let alone stopped; at best that means the varying societal interests need to actually do something about the process rather than throw out political homilies and platitudes that mean little.
Two recent conservative magazines have produced articles that quite boldly say it is too late, we cannot stop it. The National Geographic Magazine, which at times prides itself on its non-advocacy of positions by presenting balanced reports, quite plainly says, “No matter what we do now, that warming will increase some – there’s a lag time before the heat fully plays out in the atmosphere. That is, we can’t stop global warming.”  More impressively in my mind is a similar article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine that says essentially the same thing, but in even stronger language: “But the mounting scientific evidence, coupled along with economic and political realities, increasingly suggests that humanity’s opportunity to prevent, stop, or reverse the long-term impacts of climate change has slipped away.”
Too late folks, the game is over! But perhaps not as the articles indicate the solutions, as per the Geographic, “in every case…will demand difficult changes,” and from FP, “Riding out the consequences of a warming world will be difficult, and we need to prepare now.”
Even more dramatically, if one can look at the significance of the information, Britain’s Stern Review  on the economics of climate change indicates, “Ultimately, stabilization – at whatever level – requires that annual emissions be brought down to more than 80% below current levels.” 80%? That figure is well beyond any political or environmental target that has made it through public discourse. British columbia, Canada, is talking about a 33% reduction in emissions by 2010 without having any significant plans in place to do so, and while the national government had initially heavily endorsed Kyoto, it has not produced even minimal results from their statements on that accord. The United States never even bothered to sign on to Kyoto, recognizing at least intuitively the political uselessness of trying to change their own behaviour. The answer from the Stern Review is based on economics:
Action on climate change will also create significant business opportunities, as new markets are created in low-carbon energy technologies and other low-carbon goods and services. These markets could grow to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year, and employment in these sectors will expand accordingly.
The Stern Review continues with its economic analysis and at least identifies the reality of the current global economic structure between rich and poor:
All countries will be affected. The most vulnerable – the poorest countries and populations – will suffer earliest and most, even though they have contributed least to the causes of climate change. The costs of extreme weather, including floods, droughts and storms, are already rising, including for rich countries. Adaptation to climate change – that is, taking steps to build resilience and minimize costs – is essential. It is no longer possible to prevent the climate change that will take place over the next two to three decades, but it is still possible to protect our societies and economies from its impacts to some extent.
Can we really grasp the significance of all this? Is it possible to really do something about it all? And are economic answers the right way to go? My quick answers are no, maybe, and definitely not.
FP provides a pessimistic economic view:
given the scale and complexity of modern economies and the time required for new technologies to displace older ones, only a stunning technological breakthrough will allow for reductions in emissions that are sufficiently deep to stop climate change.
The Stern Review is quite optimistic, unrealistically so in my estimation:
Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.
The Geographic is much more cautious and much more closer to the truth, whether intended or not:
Many of the paths to stabilization run straight through our daily lives, and in every case they will demand difficult changes.
I doubt very much that the average person can truly comprehend the significance of this information. In the west we live surrounded by global riches, wealth beyond the carrying capacity of our own lands and, sometimes, most people’s imaginations. Food and energy supplies are imported daily from thousands of miles away. The transportation of food and its initial production are energy intensive, and energy supplies are coming increasingly under the gun, a situation I will come back to later. Yet because of our riches we can afford the food and the energy. We can afford to use more energy – and this is the big point missed by all three commentaries on climate and economics – for our consumptive lifestyle, for the purchase of many unnecessary, unneeded products that both consume energy in their use and consume energy for their production, for our leisure travel, for our status and emotional comfort. We live in a society designed for the ultimate consumer, the automobile and its related economic activities from the millions of units produced annually to satisfy our status, greed, and need for speed and power, to the malls where they transport us to consume even more of our environment. The propaganda of consumption (some call it advertising) builds on the rationale of greed and on the largely unsubstantiated need for ‘growth’ which in turn is almost purely defined in economic terms but not social terms, on the right to deserve all these riches, and to flaunt them to the rest of the world as our right and heritage and religious justness. Ultimately, we can afford to survive the worst effects of global warming…or so we think…or so we ignore.
The rest of the world struggles with lack of food, poor water and sanitation, disease, lack of basic education and medical services. Their economies struggle with equality more so than ours do, aggravated by the disasters of ‘structural adjustments’ and other accomplishments of the western based global financial rulers of the Washington Consensus, the World Bank, the IMF, WTO, OECD and other organizations related in kind and mind. The daily significance of life for an increasing number of global citizens is to try and put even one square meal on the table, to survive another day waiting for medical attention they may never see, to live without aspiration for sons and daughters to do more than continue in a similar vein, to get an education that will permit them to make a healthier more stable global social climate.
The rest of the world suffers, essentially, from our grab for resources and riches, a grab that is protected by the ‘hidden fist’ of the military, by the covert actions of the CIA and other agencies operating clandestinely at their will. People live in areas suffering from authoritarian rule because the west, mostly the United States but also including its European partners, could not tolerate any form of successful social democracy that did not bend to the will of the more enlightened economies and philosophies of neoliberalism and ‘free’ markets. These are not people that are too much concerned with the global environment. How can they be when their own environments are poisoned by industrial wastes, controlled by transnational corporations that care little for the environment as a living space or as a working space, when their indigenous crops are replaced by global corporations and large scale factory farming, when they themselves are reduced to poverty wages removed from the land that once supported them. Ultimately, they will be the ones to suffer the most from global warming as they can afford nothing or little beyond their next meal.
I realize that this is an overstated dichotomy, as there are gradations of economic and social susceptibility between the two, and not just in separate countries but within countries and regions as well, but the point I am obviously making is that the developed countries control of the global riches, through the force of military might and economically subversive tactics makes it so that the rest of the world, and the poor everywhere, will suffer significantly more from the still as yet fully unexpected and unanticipated impacts as advanced global warming comes upon us. Most of us living in the west remain wilfully or ignorantly removed from thinking about the consequences of our lives as we see the good life perhaps diminished but not gone. The others are too busy struggling for daily survival to even be aware of the situation or at best have the leisure to contemplate what it means. At either end of the spectrum and all along its continuum, not many can grasp the significance of what is yet to come if these predictions are correct.
It’s not just the carbon
The effects of global warming should be generally well known in a superficial intellectual level: the loss of species, the invasion of species into new areas, bigger and stronger storms, more heat and more moisture, rising sea levels, changes in agricultural production, habitat loss, loss of the ice caps and the surprising theory of a European ice age caused by the stopping of the ‘Atlantic conveyor’ heat exchange system, and other nuances along the same lines as the preceding. In our comfortable richness we pay only lip service to these while doing ‘green’ activities such as recycling, or cycling to work once in a while to assuage our environmental consciousness into thinking it has done something positive, or perhaps some have attended environmental protest to save a forest or pond, only to drive home to their relative comfort in neighbourhoods where forests and ponds have long since disappeared.
Governments talk at great lengths about carbon and what to do with it. Cars need to go ‘green’, carbon taxes can be applied, carbon credits can be traded, and new carbon emissions goals are set but go unsupported with legislation and action. Research for more climate resistant crops is encouraged, hoping to sustain the previous centuries green revolution in agriculture. Transit is obviously one of the better ways to reduce carbon, but cities continually plan with major road expansions whose increased traffic will greatly offset the smaller gains made by a weaker rapid transit infrastructure. The government always turns to the people, urging everyone to reduce energy use by shutting off light bulbs and computers to help clean up the air. Neon lights are touted as being part of the answer without recognition of the energy required to make them and then to dispose of them safely and guard against chemical pollution from their retired carcasses. Nuclear energy is becoming green again, as it does not add to global warming, only to the radioactive pollution and contamination of large sectors of the world while at the same time encouraging the nuclear industry and all that it encompasses within our increasingly militaristic society. Modern technologies of solar power, wind power, and tidal power are encouraged but are far from eliminating our reliance on carbon derived fuels. As always, the mantra of growth keeps raising its ubiquitous head, keeping governments trapped in their own circular arguments of not wanting to damage the economy and therefore not applying standards as stringently as would be necessary to prevent carbon increases.
All those suggestions to slow or halt the rise in carbon pollution sound impressive and good, but as indicated at the beginning it is all too little, too late, except for the Stern Review that sees a bright light with all the money to be made from the new technologies. Unfortunately, leaving carbon cleanup to the profit makers will probably be just as damaging to the ecology and the economy (except for the very few on high) as the actions of the IMF, WTO et al have been to the ecology and climate of the developing and undeveloped countries of the world with their attempts to eliminate poverty and create democracy. Corporate trading of carbon credits or carbon ‘debts’ will only ensure more profits to the already wealthy but will not help the polar bears keep the ice they need to survive on, nor the indigenous populations of the Andes keep the glaciers that provide the majority of their water.
Even with all the positive actions compounded, we will not stop global warming. The actuality of doing everything in our power to stop carbon emissions is limited by the reality of societies’ momentum towards growth and consumption, and it is this point where the argument turns – it is not about the carbon. Carbon is simply the scapegoat, the ‘evil other’ that threatens us, the by-product for our societal destruction of the environment. We are all looking for the solutions in the wrong area. Certainly halting carbon emissions is the overall goal, but diplomatic and economic attempts to change anything significantly will not succeed within our current economic lifestyle.
Blame the consumers – we’re all guilty
In one recent review, I was criticized for blaming the consumer, making the consumer the victim of global warming in the manner that the empires of the world blame the people being occupied as being the aggressor and the fault for all their problems. It is a ridiculous comparison: an occupying army labels itself the ‘victim’ of the occupied peoples aggression through ideological rhetoric and control of the media; the so-called ‘aggressors’ have no recourse to significant media and must suffer the deadly effects of occupation in silent fear – or in open rebellion. To label consumers as ‘victims’ in this comparison is bizarre as they have immensely more freedom to complain and agitate for their wishes and desires within a safe society.
Are we ‘victims’ of anything? Well, one could claim to be a victim of our societies brainwashing by way of all the corporate advertising/propaganda that is so omnipresent as to be a constant background radiation, mostly unrecognized, to our lives. We could be ‘victims’ of corporate and government collusion to keep our consumptive economy growing because they cannot visualize anything less then the perpetuation of their own power. But compared to staring down the barrel of a machine gun, or listening to the whine of incoming munitions, or watching approaching helicopters with their made in America missiles, to have a consumer labelled a victim is senseless.
Theoretically we are all educated to have free choice and free speech and we only make ourselves victims if, when we come to the realization that we are destroying our environment and our lives, we do nothing about it except apply some superficial activities to ease the guilt of our lifestyle. We are capable of making choices, individually and collectively, using our intelligence, social conscience and freedoms (admittedly increasingly limited under the rubric of the ‘war on terror’) to change our personal direction and our government’s direction. It is our lifestyle that is to blame, and even if we somehow manage to arrest climate change at a new static level we are still consuming way too much of our environment to be able to reverse the overall affect of global warming and its co-protagonists, pollution, resource exhaustion, and war.
Certainly, let’s reduce our carbon emissions, but also let’s return to the Geographic statement that bears repeating:
Many of the paths to stabilization run straight through our daily lives, and in every case they will demand difficult changes.
I find this a rather powerful statement within its simplicity for all that it implies. “Our daily lives” will have “difficult changes” not just asked of them, but “demanded” of them and one way or the other, the climate itself will “impose” these changes on us.
Bring home the military.
Our economy, our huge consumptive economy, our “daily lives” are based on the control and extraction of wealth from the undeveloped or developing countries. Quite naturally, at least at the peoples’ level, at the indigenous level, they somehow do not see our enlightened benevolence and spiritual beneficence that supposedly accompanies this extraction. Our control of these resources then comes back to the ‘hidden fist’, again a rather powerful phrase aided by the simplicity of its visual image. Routinely over the course of Twentieth Century history, that fist has both been hidden and revealed. When hidden, it sometimes is caught out as in the Iran-Contra ‘scandal’, but generally it is free to undermine democratic governments, destroy indigenous democracy movements, and generally support corporate initiatives be it for control of land for banana production, for control of mineral resources, for control of oil resources, or more technically for control of genetic materials of indigenous species as well as the human genome.
When visible it is obvious to the eye, but concealed behind the rhetoric of democracy, freedom, liberal free markets, with the over-riding justification being the racist and bigoted ‘war on terror’. But it is only concealed to the home town crowd, those imbued with the rhetoric of justification that argues constantly of good intentions, superior civilization (the white man’s burden), and with the patriotic hubris of America first, best, and always. It is time to engage in the viewpoint of the ‘other’: the indigenous peoples of the world who continue to suffer under the subjugation of corporate and militarily supported minority governments; the Islamic followers who are now universally condemned in spite of rhetoric about freedom and equality, subject to racist barriers promoted under the ‘war on terror’; and all other faiths and peoples whose beliefs and values do not adhere to the corporate free market perspective of the world.
As much as they are thought to be the ones that will suffer most from future global warming, we have much to regain from them, the most important being our sense of balance in regards to our own self-importance in the world. In short, we must change ourselves - our way of thinking and our way of acting.
Solutions – ‘growth’ or minimalism
There are two main routes that we can follow as global warming increases. First, we do little or nothing as we are currently doing – or little or nothing as is envisioned by our brilliant far-sighted leaders – let nature beat the crap out of everyone and then continue to run the same militarized corporate economy for our own strategic security and the rest be damned. It would not be a pretty world. Or secondly, we can change our thinking, and more importantly change our actions, our lifestyle, and the kind of society we support, an all-encompassing change that brings the recognition that we can no longer continue consuming the planet as we are, that we do not need all the ‘stuff’ that advertising creates a ‘need’ for, that we do by necessity need to live a more minimalist lifestyle. Unfortunately, in countries with minimal or no social safety net, such as the U.S., the impact of decisions to change lifestyles and change government operations will be felt most strongly by the working poor and the shrinking middle class. It still might not be pretty, but it would set exemplars for future generations to avoid the same trap that we are currently in.
We need to end the militarist conquest of the other peoples of the world in order to free them from being regarded as the ‘evil’ other, that the ‘other’ has the same hopes, wishes, and desires as we do for a peaceful existence, food on the table, a happy family life, a shelter to live in, and work that makes a meaningful contribution to our families and society; and free them from having their resources extracted and pollution and waste and poor health be their inheritance, that their resources are for their own use and benefit, and for fair trade with countries that wish to purchase them.
We need to change our economic views, such that in a finite world with an increasing population, the distribution of goods and services trends towards egality. We need to realize that the individualistic free-for-all of ‘free’ trade does not and will not promote equality and democracy, that the majority of successful societies and countries have succeeded by not following the free trade maxims, but by having strong social supports in education, health, working conditions and workers rights, the rights of women and children, and protection for the environment. It seems bizarre that we still need to call for that kind of world.
Growth should no longer be the mantra, nor should the slightly improved version ‘sustainable growth’ be allowed to fool us any longer. This needs to be done at many levels, within our personal lives at home, within the broader framework of local communities, at federal political levels where leadership change is a necessity if anything effective is to be done, and finally at the international level where a reconditioned UN could be effective to bring about more global equality, coordinated with the shutting down of military alliances (NATO, SEATO et al) and other organizations that are extensions of the corporate military western mindset.
The specifics come down to personal actions, actions taken at home to consume much less in material goods and in luxury services, to shop locally for food and entertainment. The American economy, and those tied into it, are already in significant trouble with the massive accumulated debt of “an unvisualizable, indeed unimaginable, $37 trillion, which is nearly four times Uncle Sam’s GDP [italics added]”  It is also inconceivable that such a debt supported economy, faced with growing international competition, will be able to survive much longer. Instead of supporting the economic debt by spending beyond personal means, we need a return to the idea of saving and buying locally, an idea that supported the growth of the ‘Asian tigers’ before they allowed themselves to open up to global speculative markets. Either way, economic meltdown, or atmospheric meltdown, the economies and our lifestyles are endangered.
Will our economy suffer? Of course it will, especially in the GDP measurement of things under the growth mantra. But another personal change towards taking actions to promote and participate in socially/globally responsible governments will alleviate much of that discomfort. And besides, if the scientists and environmentalists are correct in their conclusions as presented at the beginning of this article, we will become very uncomfortable anyway. Nature “will demand difficult changes.”
It is now recognized that global warming is happening, that it is happening faster than expected, that in order to reduce carbon output we need to make changes to our usage of carbon consuming compounds. I have argued here that carbon is not the cause, it is simply the scapegoat. The real cause, the real culprit is you and I, those of us within the huge consumptive and unsustainable free market economy that obsessively quests for growth in a finite world. The changes that need to be made need to occur at all levels of society, from personal actions broadening out to civic, federal and international actions that create a radically less consumptive world with significantly more freedom and societal health for all humanity.
 McKibben, Bill. “Carbon’s New Math”, National Geographic, October, 2007. http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007-10/carbon-crisis/carbon-crisis-p3.html
 Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan Turekian, “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Stopped,” Foreign Policy, September, 2007. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3980
 Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/3/2/Summary_of_Conclusions.pdf
 Andre Gunder Frank, cited in Auerback, Marshall. “Giant in decline,” Asia Times. January 25, 2005. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/GA25Dj01.html
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.