Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity

Blue waves gently breaking on a beach
Photo: Ninara | CC BY 2.0
Carol Dansereau | Counterpunch | November 13, 2018

Let me tell you about why I woke up crying today. It has to do with just how close we are to full-blown climate disaster. I was thinking about children who are already experiencing the horrible consequences of global warming, and I was thinking about particular children I love and what’s in store for them. Most of all, I was thinking about the unthinkable: that we are on the verge of ensuring that most, if not all, life on Earth will be snuffed out.

Everyone should be tossing and turning in their beds unable to sleep, experiencing the raw emotions that led me to tears this morning.

This is not a joke, or a drill. This is it. Decision-point for humankind. The UN says we have to turn things around within 12 years to avoid catastrophe. Others give us even less time.

We need to act.  And we need to act quickly. But we need to act rationally as well. It won’t help to run out and just “do somethinganything” to fight for our future. We need to look honestly at whether the things we’ve been doing so far are effective. They aren’t.

The Sierra Club sent me a message a few minutes ago, about how we need to redouble the sorts of efforts they’ve been leading, and in particular, the effort to elect Democrats.  They want to mail me a “Make America Green Again” bumper sticker, which I’m supposed to use to persuade others to vote Democrat.

I can’t do that. We can’t do that. Because Democrats take us backwards on climate. Make America green again? It wasn’t green before! Electing Democrats and pursuing the incremental agenda they and their fawning environmental groups put forth, is literally suicidal.

Moonwalking:  The Years of Living Delusionally

Lots of people believe that prior to Trump we were on the correct course. While things weren’t perfect, we did make overall progress under Obama and the Democrats, they say. And now we need to fight to preserve and expand that climate “legacy”.

This thinking is plain wrong, and it’s dangerous. To save ourselves, we’ve got to understand that we were moonwalking all those years. We talked as if we were winning; we thought we were moving forward bit by bit, but in truth, we were losing ground dramatically. Like Michael Jackson, we faced forward, and we moved our arms and legs resolutely as if moving in that direction, while we slid rapidly backwards.

Yes, Obama eventually talked about climate change and the need to address it. Yes, he adopted fuel efficiency standards and a “Clean Power Plan”.  He signed the Paris Agreement.

But each of these measures and Obama’s other climate “actions” were very weak, as the links above attest.  More importantly they were overshadowed and completely undone by his staggering promotion of fossil fuels. Obama wanted to massively increase oil and gas production and infrastructure.  And he did. The statistics are truly mind-boggling. For example, he:

  • Proudly oversaw the biggest increase in oil production in U.S. history.
  • Dramatically expanded natural gas production.
  • Avidly promoted fracking. Obama handed out vast numbers of drilling permits that authorized this particularly destructive method of fossil fuel extraction. His much-touted fracking regulations were explicitly designed to reduce pollution “without slowing natural gas production.”
  • Massively expanded offshore drilling. Obama bragged that he had opened up “more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore,” and “quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high.”
  • Approved the construction of tens of thousands of miles of fossil fuel pipelines. By 2015, there were 207,800 miles of fossil fuel liquids pipeline in the United States, a 13% increase over 2011.   By 2014, 16.2 billion barrels of crude oil and petroleum products were delivered by pipeline annually, a 20% increase over 2010.
  • Gave initial approvals for all sorts of other pipelines which are now receiving final go-aheads from Trump.
  • Issued giant new leases to coal corporations in the Powder River Basin, ensuring that coal has by no means gone away completely, despite Obama’s rules preventing construction of new coal-fired power plants. It has been estimated that Obama’s Powder River Basin leases will add 4 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 200 new coal-fired power plants.
  • Oversaw a huge expansion of coal exports.
  • Facilitated a 1000 percent increase in U.S. oil exports between 2009 and 2016, resulting in an estimated additional 12 million to 22 million metric tons of C02 emissions per year due to increased oil production. Obama’s removal of restrictions on oil exports in December of 2015, led to an all-time high of nearly 2 million barrels exported per day by October of 2017.
  • Massively expanded natural gas exports, leading to a record high in 2016. It is estimated that by 2020 60 million mt of liquid natural gas will be exported each year.   Obama’s support for numerous Liquid Natural Gas projects has been key to this expansion.
  • Directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure other countries to support fracking.
  • Authorized the Export-Import Bank to hand out almost $34 billion worth of low-interest loans and guarantees for fossil fuel projects abroad. This was about three times the amount provided under George W. Bush, and almost twice that provided under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton combined.  The Bank backed two of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the world, for example, facilitating combined annual carbon emissions of more than 56m tons. (Average U.S. coal-fired plants emit “only” 3.5m tons, and the biggest U.S. coal plant emits “only” 19m tons per year.)

The Party’s pro-fossil fuel approach was carried out at the state level as well as the federal level. Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, former head of the Democratic National Committee, enthusiastically supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  The same Governor JerryBrown, who was praised for denouncing Trump’s proposed expansion of offshore drilling in federal waters, himself greatly increased offshore drilling in state waters. He eased restrictions on drilling and fracking, fired regulators who sought to make drilling safer, and ignored pleas to close the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility despite the massive leak there.

We lost eight precious years when Obama was President.  Instead of moving forward, we hurtled backwards, both in terms of flooding the world with fossil fuels that have led to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in terms of locking ourselves into more of the same via massive infrastructure. It is even possible that Obama’s actions and inactions have already pushed the climate to the point of no return.

How We Get Fooled

People get confused about what the Democrats actually do in office because many environmentalists and other Party loyalists play up token advances as monumental gains.  At the same time, they downplay or completely ignore climate-destroying actions.

They also play games with statistics.  An Obama fan gushes in 2016 that “solar power has increased by 30 times since he [Obama] took office.”  He doesn’t mention that solar power was such a miniscule part of the U.S. energy landscape to begin with that it still represents less than 1% of the U.S. energy mix after that leap forward.  Obama enthusiasts make much of the fact that  Obama expanded renewables capacity, without noting that fossil fuels still thoroughly dominate the U.S. energy mix despite that expansion. They overlook the unpleasant fact that mass production of fossil fuels leads to lower prices that directly undermine renewables.  And fossil fuel infrastructure put in place with Obama’s enthusiastic support locks in the very fossil fuels we need to eliminate.

Emissions graphs are also used to spread confusion.  By showing only the years 2005 onward, people can emphasize seeming declines in emissions during the Obama years—declines likely associated with the economic downturn of those years.  U.S. emissions remain well above levels for 1990—the year that is supposed to be used as the baseline.

More importantly, graphs used to imply climate progress in the U.S. don’t account for the emissions associated with the huge volumes of oil, gas and coal we export, or the fossil fuel facilities we have financed abroad.   Nor do they reflect emissions associated with all those products Americans import.  If we only look at greenhouse gases generated within our nation, U.S. emissions increased by 9% between 1990 and 2014.  If we add in the emissions associated with the products we import, the increase becomes 17%.   (Approximately 22% of global CO2 emissions are associated with goods that are produced in one country but consumed in another.)

What really matters is what’s happening globally.  The overall trend for greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere has been up up up for decades.  Global temperatures have been going up up up.  All of this means that we, as a species, are going down down down.   Democrats, as well as Republicans, are to blame.

Leaving Dead-ends and Delusions Behind

It is clearly suicidal to continue the long-time dominant strategy of major environmental groups:  striving to get Democrats elected and working with them for incremental reforms.

Here’s the truth.  Carbon taxes, divestment, fuel efficiency standards, tax credits for solar panels, setting nice goals, and similar policy measures are not going to work.  Nor is begging people to drive less, eat lower on the food chain, and otherwise tread more lightly on the planet.  And doing all of these things at the same time won’t make them magically add up to salvation.

To halt global warming, we need to rapidly stop fossil fuel production, period.  At the same time, we need to develop and implement comprehensive plans that i) directly deploy renewables, mass transit and other climate solutions at the necessary grand scale,  ii) provide economic security for all workers, including in particular, those displaced by climate mitigation, and iii) ensure that every person has the capacity and resources to live healthy lives for themselves and the planet.

To be able to do these things, we need to have:

  • Direct control over fossil fuel production, and over the deployment of climate solutions.
  • Ample financial resources to implement climate solutions and to cover associated costs, such as ensuring full employment in a fossil-fuel-free economy.

This means that we need:

  • Public ownership of the major industries, starting with the energy and financial industries, so we can make the decisions ourselves, and do what needs to be done directly and immediately.
  • Vibrant systems for democratically managing those industries, and for developing and implementing plans that are just and effective.
  • Guaranteed economic rights for all including the right to a good-paying job, dignified well-paid retirement, free health care, and free education.

In other words, we need to move beyond capitalism.  We need socialism.  Instead of ceding decision-making authority and resources to a few oligarchs, we need to keep these for ourselves.

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican Parties are going to move us beyond capitalism.  They’ve made that abundantly clear.

Both parties are happy with the current inherently undemocratic capitalist system.  Under that system, major industries are privately owned, which means a few people get to make decisions that affect everyone.  (Exxon’s and Chevron’s owners get to decide whether to pull oil and gas from the ground, for example.)

We’re supposed to be able to steer those decisions through policies adopted by our elected officials and government agencies, but things don’t work that way.  Corporate profits flow to corporate owners creating giant piles of money which they use to thoroughly distort everything.  Big Money buys elections, legislation, news media outlets, public relations strategies, nonprofit groups, school curricula, lawsuits, smear campaigns against activists, violence, scientific research, control over enforcement agencies, and more.

Because profits flow to corporate owners rather than the working people who generate those profits, we find ourselves without the wealth to do what needs to be done.    Moreover, because big corporations control so many jobs, they can extort concessions out of us as individuals, communities and a nation.

Solutions to global warming are sitting right in front of us, but we can’t implement them.  We don’t hold the reins, we lack the money that our labor created, and our jobs are threatened if we challenge the corporations. This insane, unjust set-up has got to go.

But the Democrats and the Republicans are united in blocking real change.  They’re both heavily funded by oligarchs, they firmly uphold the economic system that creates oligarchs, and they do the oligarchs’ bidding.  A lot of elected officials from both parties are oligarchs themselves.

We need to organize a movement that demands system change.   And we need to help that movement birth a new political party, of, by and for working people, that is truly democratic.

We must get beyond futilely trying to get corporate owners to do the right thing.  We must get beyond a system that funnels wealth to the few, thereby creating massive inequities, and Big Money distortion of every aspect of our lives.  We must get beyond political parties that prop up capitalism and serve the wealthy few.

Is there a place for seeking incremental reforms in our struggle to save humanity?  Yes.  But strategies involving support for such reforms must be developed and carried out in the context of our larger goal:  securing and using real power through democratically managed public ownership and guaranteed economic rights.  That’s what we need to keep front and center.  Everything we do needs to feed into that goal.

The Power to Survive

Some say it’s crazy to fight for system change, leaving the Democrats and incrementalism behind.  “System change is impossible” they maintain.  “We can’t possibly achieve it in time to stave off disaster.”  But which is crazier really?  Fighting for actual control over our destiny, or continuing to fight within the very system that produced global warming, a system that thoroughly disempowers us?

We have not yet seen what can happen when we fight for real change that can make people’s lives truly better.  For a long time, all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room by Democratic Party apologists and incremental reform-focused nonprofits.  What if all the energy, time, and money poured by unions, activist organizations, and individuals into dead-ends went to the real fight instead?  What if instead of saying, “that’s impossible, we can’t change the system,” we believed we could, and we fought that way?

What if people fighting losing battles on all sorts of huge problems engendered by capitalism—global warming, the economic distress endured by most people, endless war, underfunded education, racism, other forms of oppression, and more—united to take on the common root of those problems?  What if we were honest about the abysmal record of the Democrats, not just on global warming, but on most of these other issues as well?

We–the working people of the world who are screwed by the current set-up—are many.  They—oligarchs who hoard society’s wealth and maximize corporate profits at our expense—are few.

There are abundant signs that people are disgusted with the status quo.  Everyone sees that big corporations call the shots.  Except for a very few people at the top, no one likes that arrangement.  Change is in the air.

Because we do the work of society, we really do have power.  It’s time to recognize and use that power.  If we unite and have each other’s backs, we can engage in strategic broad strikes, and in pouring into the streets in a systematic and effective way.  We can win this fight.  We can put obvious solutions to global warming swiftly in place.  The main thing holding us back is false hope in dead-end reforms and in capitalist parties that do not represent us.

One can argue about whether Democrats are better than Republicans, i.e. we can engage in the age-old “lesser evil” comparison.  But that is a diversion from the vital reality we must grasp.  Neither party deserves our support.  Both have reprehensible records and agendas.  Both are in the pockets of the oligarchs who control society and deny us our most basic rights, including even our right to ensure the survival of humankind.  We can no longer passively accept as our lot that our only choices are Democrats and Republicans, and that working for ineffective reforms within the confines they set, is the best we can do.

Finding Strength.  Finding Each Other.

I’m tired.  The oligarchs have huge power, and it’s been such a hard slog already.  Those of you who are older, who have been fighting all these years, know what I mean about how it wears you down over time.   And everyone, young and old, who’s paying the slightest bit of attention, knows how disheartening it all can be.  We are up against massive Big Money forces that manipulate information and much more.

But life and justice are simply too precious to give up on. Let’s dig deep and rise together at last.

Each of us needs to tell the truth, everywhere we can, even though that can be uncomfortable and frightening.   Stand up and explain unapologetically that incremental changes are a dead-end.  The Democratic and Republican Parties are dead-ends.  We have the power to win fundamental changes and must unite to demand them.

The other thing we need to do is find each other.  If you are lucky, there is an organization near you that understands what I’m talking about in this article.  It fights for system change and is part of building the movement and the political party we need.   If no such group exists, start something new.  Engage in the simple yet radical act of bringing people together to talk. Have them over to your home.  Or convene a meeting at your workplace or campus. Please contact me about your efforts, particularly if you are in the Pacific Northwest.

Roadmaps already exist laying out how current renewable technologies can swiftly replace fossil fuels.  There are more than enough resources to create the world we want—one in which everyone’s needs are met, and we live in harmony with our environment.  When we no longer cede the reins and our wealth to the few, we, the many, will find our way forward.

Carol Dansereau (www.caroldansereau.com) is a long-time environmental attorney and organizer, and the author of What It Will Take. Rejecting Dead-ends and False Friends in the Fight for the Earth.  She is organizing a new SCNCC chapter in Seattle Washington and can be reached at cdansereau@earthlink.net