No one wants their retirement to be financed by companies involved in human rights violations and environmental destruction. But that is exactly what is happening to those of us with retirement funds invested in TIAA. You can learn about the campaign to get TIAA to divest from companies involved in land grabs and deforestation throughout the world by reading the PowerPoint:
During 2015 and 2016, a number of significant public and political figures have made statements suggesting that the world is “moving away from fossil fuels,” and that the battle against greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and climate change is therefore being won. Such statements are frequently accompanied by assurances that the transition to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy is both “inevitable” and already well underway, and that economic growth will soon be “decoupled” from dangerously high annual emissions levels. This optimism has also been accepted by a section of the environmental movement, and even by some unions.
Renewables and Reality
If the “green growth” optimists are correct, the political implications for trade unions and social movements are profound. For unions, it would mean focusing aggressively on the need to protect the livelihoods of the tens of millions of workers around the world who currently work in fossil fuels and rallying around the principle of “just transition” encoded in the preface to the Paris Agreement. But it would also mean that the need to wage a determined and protracted political struggle against fossil fuel expansion and “extractivism” would immediately become less urgent. In this scenario, trade union efforts would rightly focus on working to shape the next energy system as it rises from the ashes of the old.
But what if proclamations of fossil fuels’ demise are wrong? What if the “momentum” has not shifted, and the transition to renewables-based power is neither inevitable nor well underway? In that case, the struggle against the current model of ownership that drives the growth of fossil fuels and extractivism—that is, the struggle for democratic control and social ownership of energy—remains vital. This would demand redoubled effort and commitment across all sections of our movement. It would mean the level of urgency in the struggle for energy democracy must be increased, activism stepped up, and fresh approaches embraced, encouraged, and endorsed.
Their Optimism, and Ours
In this ninth TUED working paper, authors Sean Sweeney and John Treat document the recent claims of the optimistic, “green growth” narrative; examine the evidence frequently used to legitimize and sustain it; and then consider this evidence in context of the broader trends in the global energy system, drawing on a range of major recent data sources.
What the paper’s analysis shows is that, unfortunately, the world is not “moving away from fossil fuels”; far from it. The recent “we are winning” optimism is misplaced, misleading, and disarming. It must therefore be rejected, and replaced with a more sober perspective that draws hope and confidence not from a selective and self-deceiving interpretation of the data, but from the rising global movement for climate justice and energy democracy, armed with clear programmatic goals and a firm commitment to achieve them.
Unions are urged to circulate the paper and use its contents to stimulate debates on energy policy and political action. Please send comments, additional data, and requests for more information to Irene Shen (ireneTUED@gmail.com).
The aligning interests between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s choice for U.S. president (Donald Trump), and Big Oil represents the gravest threat to humanity (and democracy) since the rise of the Axis powers in the 1930s.
That’s because while Trump may not be able to destroy global climate action and the landmark 2105 Paris climate deal all by himself — as he pledged to do during the campaign — he probably could do that with help from Russia and the trillion-dollar oil industry.
In 2015, a major study of 24 indicators of human activity and environmental decline titled ‘The Great Acceleration’ concluded that, “The last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind”. We have all seen aspects of these trends, but to look at the study’s 24 graphs together is to apprehend, at a glance, the totality of the monstrous scale and speed of modern economic activity. According to lead author W. Steffen, “It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force.”
Every indicator of intensity and scale of economic activity — from global trade and investment to water and fertilizer use, from pollution of every sort to destruction of environments and biodiversity — has shot up, precipitously, beginning around 1950. The graphs for every such trend point skyward still.
The Great Acceleration is manifest everywhere, including many areas not covered in the study. It is impossible to directly, humanly appreciate the ghastly scale of change. Only statistics can do that. For example:
Humans now extract and move more physical material than all natural processes combined. Global material extraction has grown by more than 90 percent over the past 30 years, reaching almost 70 billion tons today.
In this century “global economic output expanded roughly 20-fold, resulting in a jump in demand for different resources of anywhere between 600 and 2,000 percent”.
For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise. Today, around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. “About two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this translates to 170 million tons of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use.”
The global sale of packaged foods has jumped more than 90 percent over the last decade, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion.
“In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares… has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.”
Not only are the scale and speed of materials extraction, production, consumption and waste ballooning, but so too the scale and pace of the movement of materials through global trade. For instance, trade volumes in physical terms have increased by a factor of 2.5 over the past 30 years. In 2009, 2.3 billion tons of raw materials and products were traded around the globe. Maritime traffic on the world’s oceans has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air and noise pollution on the open seas.
Each year, the world’s heads of state meet at the Conference of Parties (COP) to discuss how to “stabiliz[e] greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” as the guiding United Nations Framework on Climate Change demands.
Seemingly little connects a community in India plagued by toxic water, a looming air pollution crisis in South Africa and a new fracking boom that is pockmarking Australia. And yet there is a common thread: American taxpayer money.
The election of Donald Trump reflects the unraveling of the centre-left across the West, and with it a fragile consensus on climate change. For two decades parties of the centre-left have created narratives about climate change that they do not really believe. They have done this to try and convince their fragile coalition of supporters and to try to bring they’re political opponents on the right into the fold. These attempts have failed.
The centre-left long ago abandoned ‘typical' green messaging in the way it talks about climate change. You don’t hear Obama, Clinton or Justin Trudeau talking about polar bears, sinking Pacific Islands or even climate change as a human rights issue. The go-to arguments of the centre-left (and to some extent centre-right politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel) are these:
Climate change will create war, terrorism and migration—it’s a national security issue
The solutions to climate change could create millions of jobs in manufacturing and industry—in areas hit most by industrial decline
Tackling climate change is an opportunity for economic growth—there is money to be made by entrepreneurs
How did the centre-left end up making these arguments? And why does no one believe them?
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.