Committing Geocide: Climate Change and Corporate Capture
Susan George is president of the board of the Trans National Institute, an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world. She spoke at the Seminar of the International Center for the promotion of Human Rights [CIPDH] and Unesco titled “Interreligious and inter cultural dialogue: consciences and climate change” in September in Buenos Aires. Find the video here.
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights has given me the honour of closing this seminar and I’m extremely grateful to the CIPDH for including me in this important event. We could compare this seminar to one part of the long road on a kind of modern pilgrimage; one stage of a difficult but infinitely rewarding journey. We’ve shared part of this road towards what we all hope will be a stable, sustainable world, fit for human habitation.
We hope this pilgrimage will lead to the success of the COP22 in Marrakech and then continue well beyond, until we reach that far-off goal of halting, then reversing climate change.
We know that the earth and all the myriad forms of life living on its land and under its seas are unlikely to withstand an increase in temperatures beyond 2 degrees. We have already reached more than one degree above the historical average and have been dangerously slow to take this road. Now it is crucial that we continue.
It strikes me that all religions have their pilgrimages, whether to Mecca, Saint Jacques de Compostelle, the place in India of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the holy Hindu cities of India or the sacred sites of Jerusalem. The people who set out on these pilgrimages of faith are usually seeking forgiveness or salvation, enlightenment, healing or perhaps the granting of a special wish.
Our common pilgrimage is of a different nature. We do not seek personal blessings but salvation and hope for all peoples and for our home, the earth. All are under tremendous threat. We have embarked on this journey because we recognise that humanity has never been in greater danger than at this moment.
I try not to speak of “saving the planet”. Whatever human beings may do, the planet will continue to rotate on its axis and to orbit the sun as it has done for some four and a half billion years. Planet earth, which we think of as “ours”, is not really “ours” at all. It could perfectly well continue, utterly changed, to move along its prescribed path without us. Indeed, one could easily argue, as the so-called “deep ecologists” do, that the planet would be far better off without us, since they stress that we humans are the most predatory, wasteful and destructive species ever to have lived on earth in those four and a half billion years.
I am not here to promote the deep ecology view. I am here rather to introduce and define what I see as a new phenomenon in the history of humankind. I call it Geocide. Geocide is the collective action of a single species among millions of other species which is changing planet Earth to the point that it can become unrecognisable and unfit for life. This species is committing geocide against all components of nature, whether microscopic organisms, plants, animals or against itself, homo sapiens, humankind.
Homo sapiens has only existed for roughly 200,000 years. The time we’ve spent one this planet compared to its total age is infinitesimally short, just the tiniest sliver of geological time. It amounts to a mere 0.00004 percent of earth’s existence. And although any given species of plant or animal–vertebrate or invertebrate– tends to last on average about ten million years, our species seems determined to cause its own extinction, along with the rest of creation, long before it allotted time.
The death of an entire species is, geologically speaking, a common occurrence. Some extinctions are spectacular—think of the dinosaurs—most are quiet disappearances that leave few traces. Several species will have disappeared forever between the time we arrived and the time we leave this seminar. Scientists tell us that the “background rate” of extinction is approximately a thousand times greater than average and some have begun to call our era the “sixth great extinction.” The previous one, the Permian extinction, occurred about 250 million years ago. Some 95 percent of all species then on earth were wiped out, probably because of volcanic activity and warming causing huge releases of methane from the oceans.
Species disappear massively because they cannot adapt fast enough to rapidly changing conditions. Some, humans included, can adapt to a broad set of environments and wide divergence of temperature, from Siberia or Greenland to Pakistan or the Sahel, but no species is infinitely adaptable and all have their limits.
Ours is the only species among millions that has been gifted with language, tool-making skills, and above all consciousness, the capacity for imagination, thought and spirituality. And yet, the end of our own existence seems beyond our collective comprehension: too terrible and too definitive to contemplate. Extinction can’t possibly happen to us—we humans are too technologically brilliant, we can find the solution to any problem, we are the lords of creation and we cannot fail, much less disappear.
No one except a few eccentrics now denies that humans are capable of committing genocide; we have witnessed horrible episodes of mass murder in our own lifetimes and, because we have recognised this horror, we are able to name it. All languages have been obliged to add this terrible word, genocide, to their vocabularies.
Are we even capable of imagining, much less recognising that we are also capable of committing geocide? In my mind, this term goes beyond “ecocide” which so far seems limited to specific environments or geographic locations such as the razing of a forest or the massive pollution of, say, the Gulf of Mexico. Geocide is alas more general: it is a massive assault against nature of which we are only a part, against all earthly life and against Creation as well as the complete denial of human rights; I submit that this ultimate act of destruction is underway and that we need a name for it. Without a name, we have no concept and without a concept we cannot combat it. This is why I searched for a new word.
Perhaps you find me alarmist. Let me give you a few of the most recent findings of scientists concerning the speed and advancement of climate change. Most are derived from the recent State of the Climate Report led by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. It draws on the input of hundreds of scientists from 62 countries.
In 2015, new records were once again set for temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events. Like 2014, 2015 was the warmest on record and 2016 is likely to break that record too. Oceans cannot absorb all the greenhouse gasses we are producing and they are rapidly warming. Last year the Eastern Pacific was two degrees warmer and the Arctic Ocean reached a peak of fully eight degrees more than historic averages. Arctic sea ice-cover was the lowest since satellites started measuring it 37 years ago. Ocean warming is causing huge toxic algae blooms to spread in the Pacific North West and off the coast of Australia, killing corals, fish, birds and mammals. Scientists and journalists have coined the term “marine heatwaves.”
Arctic marine species are struggling to adapt to huge migrations of competitors attracted by the warmer waters and eating the limited food supply. If the Greenland ice sheet melts completely, its disappearance would raise sea levels by a stunning seven meters. Last year it showed melting over half its surface.
We must also expect heavy human death tolls due to more floods, more droughts, more forest fires and more violent storms as well as more displaced persons and more climate refugees seeking a liveable home. Food and water shortages, especially for the tens of millions dependent on glaciers for their water supply, will also be more common. Less discussed but very much present in the thinking of military strategists such as those in the Pentagon , are the expected increases in political instability, hostilities, so-called “failed states” and outright warfare. Experts now acknowledge that the war in Syria was partly caused by the long drought in its wheat-growing regions.
Climate change is not arithmetic—in other words, 1+1+1 does not necessarily make a nice straight line on a graph. Change is exponential, meaning that each increase in heat can provoke further increases. This is called “positive feedback” and it can continue until “run-away” climate change takes over and becomes unstoppable. Among the most frightening examples right now is the permafrost meltdown in Siberia and Alaska. An estimated 1400 billion tonnes of methane are imprisoned in this permafrost and methane gas is twenty times more powerful than CO2. Depending on how fast the permafrost thaws, this colossal reservoir of greenhouse gasses could provoke irreversible climate change and geocide would take over. Even the rich, who tend to think of themselves as completely exempt from the laws of nature, could not escape the consequences.
Maybe we are already beyond the danger point. But since nobody knows for sure, we must act as if we still have a chance to halt and reverse climate change. The people present in this seminar are extremely diverse but all of us are serious and well informed, profoundly concerned with climate change, human rights and frequently with the spiritual dimensions of life. Therefore we have also chosen to stand against the odds and to do our best to make sure that the human adventure can continue.
But it strikes me that precisely because serious, thoughtful and ethical people have themselves made this choice, they may have particular difficulty accepting that not everyone shares their ethics or their commitment. Ask yourself this question: Do you tend to believe that the risks of climate change are so glaringly obvious and so universal that all normal people must necessarily support the same objectives that you do? Do you think, for example, that since we have the technology, the knowledge and the money to make the great transition to a fossil-fuel free world based on renewable energy, those who do not share our sense of urgency are simply misinformed? that they need only more information and better explanations?
If you think that, then I have to take the risk of offending you. To be blunt, I fear that such a view is dead wrong. Undoubtedly people unaware of the dangers of climate change still exist, but they are certainly not the people in charge of world affairs.
No. The real problem is that we are faced with determined, well-organised adversaries who care nothing about human rights or climate change; who would probably laugh at the very mention of geocide. They want only one thing: business as usual and a world in which they can make endless amounts of money using any and all available resources, no matter what the costs to nature and to human life. Unless we can accept this reality and confront these adversaries, as well as the public and private organisations they serve, I’m afraid we have no hope of ultimately preventing geocide.
Real enemies exist. They will not be changed by rational argument, exhortation, prayer or moral example. Confronting them is made more difficult because they occupy prestigious, powerful positions and can intimidate those who try to stop them. Here it may be useful to cite the words of the 19th century British historian Lord Acton. He memorably wrote, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, adding that “great men are almost always bad men…” Power corrupts because it allows persons, institutions or governments to impose their will and to shape the world to fit their immediate interests. In the past, this was often done through warfare and here another great 19th century thinker, the military strategist Karl von Clausewitz defines war as “an act of violence to force the adversary to do our will”.
Combine Clausewitz and Acton, place them in the 21st century and you can define power as the capacity to impose the will of whatever system that powerful person serves. Today the powerful in both the public and private spheres, particularly in the still-dominant Western countries, serve the interests of an advanced capitalist system in which giant transnational corporations are major political actors. Often these huge petroleum, gas or coal companies as well as their banks are richer and more powerful than many dozens of States.
Their goal, as Clausewitz put it, is to force everyone else to “do their will”. Corporations neither want nor need to use open warfare or brutal methods. They are staffed with people who are extremely well paid and highly rewarded for serving their aims. Anyone who refuses to sacrifice personal ethics in order to meet the goal of increased profits and influence will not remain employed for long.
These executives are content to live in a short-term world and today all of us are also forced to live in it, even though we know that the longer-term perspective is vital for grasping concepts such as “runaway climate change” or “geocide.” The leadership of huge fossil-fuel corporations and banks is chosen because it is prepared to sacrifice whatever values may be necessary to attain the goal of higher profits. No corporation president has the power to change this. They all know that their individual positions depend on following the rules; they serve their institutions which our national governments all too often protect, nurture and often obey. Denouncing, removing and replacing individuals is not the point. For them, the future of humanity and the fate of the earth are unfortunately not the point either.
We have to fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground and the only force that can restrain the corporations is the force of the law. The law will only change under the influence of strong, well-organised public opinion. We need the commitment of people like you, who are leaders and can influence large segments of public opinion to create pressure. We desperately need pressure on governments to oblige them to act forcefully and stand up to corporate power.
Perhaps you think I am making blanket accusations. To conclude this talk, let me speak briefly about a few of the corporate strategies aimed at gaining even greater freedom and profits. The effect of these examples is to accelerate climate change. Because we have little time left, I’m leaving out the specifics on the power of the largest and richest companies in the world. I will also leave out the road and air transport sectors, as well as the companies, located especially in the South, involved in massive deforestation. The corporations involved may be public or private. Here is my short selection of less well-known corporate influences on increased climate change.
Corporate use of lobbies has grown exponentially over the past several decades. Lobbies are now a major, multi-billion dollar service industry. One can distinguish three kinds: The first is simplest and most straightforward: individual companies hire in-house advertising, communications and public relations staff to present its best face and its viewpoint not just to improve sales but also to influence public opinion, opinion leaders, the media and government.
Example: a major oil company such as BP decides to re-brand itself as an “energy company” even though 98 percent of its activities remain in fossil fuels and renewable sources of energy have only a tiny share.
Second, corporations promote climate change denial. For example, Exxon-Mobil learned almost forty years ago from its own scientists that climate change is a dangerous reality has nonetheless spent millions financing so-called “think-tanks” and corrupt scientists whose only job is to provide arguments and propaganda, supposedly proving that climate change is non-existent or is nothing to worry about.
The more climate denialists they can create, the longer they can obstruct legislation to control their behaviour. Lobbyists know that it is usually enough to create doubt and they have succeeded brilliantly the United States. Here, according to recent surveys, one in four people doubts or negates the reality of climate change. No Republican candidate for political office, including Donald Trump, will risk saying in public that climate change exists—we are talking about the country which as you know is by far the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gasses. .
Finally, these companies also invariably belong to industry-wide lobbying organisations whose role is to defend the interests of the whole sector—for example fighting any decision of the United States Environmental Protection Agency or European regulations. The countries where the petroleum industry is a key part of the government itself, as in China or Saudi Arabia, present specific problems which citizens are usually ill-equipped to deal with. In such cases, the only feasible strategy is to reduce the demand for fossil fuels overall.
The following information is drawn from a 2013 International Monetary Fund Report—a sign of progress since climate change was not previously addressed by the IMF. Subsidies to fossil fuels are a worldwide phenomenon. Some allow consumers to pay less than the cost of supply; others allow the corporations to offload the costs of the environmental damage they cause. Economists call these damages “externalities”, such as pollution, contamination of water supplies or clean-up of extraction sites and these costs must be paid by governments—or not paid at all, which results in higher costs for public health, etc.
According to the IMF, the total cost of subsidies to fossil fuels comes to an astonishing $1.900.000.000.000, (nineteen hundred billion dollars). If all these unjustified government handouts were eliminated and the companies were made to pay for their own externalities, the Fund calculates that a decline of 13 percent of all global CO2 emissions would ensue.
Not only do subsidies make fossil fuels unrealistically cheap and make it harder for renewable energy sources to compete; they also reduce government spending for far more important purposes. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, governments are spending an average of three percent of their budgets on subsidies—the same amount as their expenditures for public health. Most of those subsidies benefit people who are already better off—poor Africans don’t have cars and aren’t even on the electricity grid. However you look at them, fossil fuel energy subsidies are unnecessary, costly and harmful.
So I was happy to learn from our Moroccan friends here that Morocco has already successfully phased out all subsidies to fossil-fuels so as to invest heavily in renewables. What’s more, they did it in just 18 months, proving that you can make major changes quickly. So bravo to Morocco which should be a model for all countries. [Applause].
3. Bilateral and multilateral trade treaties
These treaties invariably include a clause called “Investor to State Dispute Settlement” or ISDS which allows foreign, and only foreign, corporate investors to sue sovereign governments before private arbitration tribunals made up of three private lawyer-arbitrators for any new legislation which the company judges may harm its present or even its future profits. For example, elimination of subsidies would surely be seen as a threat and foreign companies receiving them would doubtless sue the government.
A few current cases include Occidental Petroleum suing (and winning) against Ecuador for refusing to allow drilling in an ecologically protected area. The tribunal awarded Occidental compensation of $1,7 billion. The Lone Pine company is suing the Province of Quebec for $250 million because it denied permission for fracking in the Saint Lawrence river basin. As soon as President Obama vetoed the Keystone pipeline intended to transport particularly dirty tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, the Canadian Company Transcanada brought a lawsuit against the US demanding $15 billion.
Often it’s enough to threaten ISDS legal action to make a country think twice before passing a law to protect its people or the environment. A government may “win” against the corporation—as it has in 35 percent of the cases so far–but it can never really win because it signed the treaty, can’t refuse the lawsuit and the costs of private arbitration run to millions of dollars. Fossil fuel and petroleum services companies may also sue one government in order to scare off others from making any similar changes.
To conclude in just a few words, let me say that my fervent hope is that every person here will leave our seminar understanding that a corporate takeover is underway and that it will make a deadly contribution to geocide. I also hope that in addition to all your present professional or volunteer engagements you will accept the additional responsibility of making known and fighting against geocide. Despite the efforts of good people everywhere to reduce their individual carbon footprints, it will not be enough unless we can oblige the present structures promoting fossil fuels to change or disappear.
I am often asked if I am optimistic or pessimistic. I am neither. I don’t know the future. But I have hope. I believe that we still have a chance; that human beings can overcome even threats as terrifying as geocide. Many can be spurred to action by human rights activists and religious leaders. Let us make sure together that our common pilgrimage leads us to that outcome.