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Screenings, Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Challenging choices: what future for planet Earth, part 2

 

04/29/2015
Gerald SchmitzNaomi Klein, This Changes Everything:
Capitalism vs. the Climate (Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2014)
McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming
(New York, Penguin Books 2014)
Merchants of Doubt (U.S. 2014)

In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.
— Gro Harlem Bruntland et. al. Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, Joint Paper by the Blue Planet Prize Laureates, 2012

This is the second of a two-part series.

In her award-winning manifesto This Changes Everything, high-profile Canadian activist Naomi Klein cites the above to underline her insistence that half-measures on climate change are futile — “because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.” No doubt that message will permeate the film of the same name directed by her husband Avi Lewis, scheduled to be released this fall.

Although Klein admits that her own years of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protesting paid too little attention to the climate crisis, she now sees it as the great opportunity for radical global change, the “basis of a powerful mass movement” that will bring issues into a “coherent narrative” for replacing a “savagely unjust economic system” on the road to a low-carbon economy. Unlike the shocks exploited by disaster capitalist opportunists (explored in her previous book The Shock Doctrine), this “people’s shock” aroused by a disastrous environmental scenario will make up for the failures of governments and politicians to both curb greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the ravages of rampant capitalist globalization.

Even if you don’t share that conviction, this long book divided into three main parts offers a wealth of provocative details. Klein begins by taking on the climate skeptics, deniers, conspiracy theorists and conservative “think-tanks” such as the Heartland Institute, typically heavily funded by ideological right-wing networks and fossil-fuel interests. While marshalling the science behind the climate crisis, she lends credence to far-right claims that it serves a left-wing agenda given how emphatic she is about any solution demanding a radical alternative to existing forms of capitalism as well as the oil and gas industry.

From trade rules that inhibit green-energy programs to subsidies for high-carbon energy producers, Klein surveys the multifarious ways in which corporate capitalism — combined with the free-market orthodoxies of privatization, deregulation and public austerity — makes matters worse while limiting an adequate response to climate change. Going beyond “extractivist” resource exploitation and the fetish of endless growth, she foresees an immense potential for renewables to replace carbon-emitting energy sources. We can live better with much less environmental impact. That also means taxing carbon polluters and eliminating corporate influence.

But how? Klein believes only an overarching social movement can force the necessary political actions. In Part II, Magical Thinking, she’s not only dismissive of existing political actors, she disparages “Big Green” non-governmental organizations (e.g. The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defence) for their “greenwashing” overtures to big business. (These attacks have delighted some neoconservative commentators.) In effect, Klein has no time for capitalist compromises — corporate “social responsibility” co-operation with NGOs, market-based carbon pricing and trading measures, mainstream climate-change negotiations that miss targets while leaving capitalist economies largely unchanged. Similarly she dismisses all manner of technological schemes to slow down global warming or mitigate its effects.

In Part III Klein pins her hopes on what she calls a “Blockadia” of resistance, a populist uprising of grassroots democracy spreading around the globe. (She cites the Tar Sands Blockade against the Keystone XL Pipeline depicted in the documentary Above All Else, but omits that the East Texas protesters lost their fight against the southern leg.) Klein points to many other targets for resistance from the shale “fracking” boom to the Harper government’s “war on science.” She provides many examples of activism by indigenous peoples and affected communities, moratoriums on resource exploitation, movements for divestment in fossil fuel companies, and the like. She calls for the people to take back their “fossilized democracies” because of the failure of existing political systems from the local to the international to take on “the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy.”

Unfortunately these exhortations depend on their own leap of magical thinking. Klein doesn’t have a word to say about the role of political parties, parliaments, or how societies could elect governments capable of making the massive legislative changes required. She discusses North-South issues of climate justice, debt and burden-sharing. But again she has no time for the inter-state compromises of the United Nations framework for negotiating agreements. She personalizes her appeal by linking her own pregnancy to the struggle to adopt “a worldview based on regeneration and renewal rather than domination and depletion.” Stirring words but lacking a political program with any actual governmental prospects. By discarding conventional politics the reader is left to embrace her faith that “only mass social movements can save us now.”

***

Investigative journalist McKenzie Funk has done a public service with Windfall, a brilliant often satirical global survey of the manifold ways in which actors have been positioning themselves to profit from climate change. After all, given the political failure to deal with it, why not look for investment opportunities to capitalize on the effects and inevitable adjustments? Visiting 24 countries over six years he “met hundreds of people who thought climate change would make them rich.”

Funk’s book is also divided into three main parts. In “The Melt” he examines Arctic warming scenarios of increased shipping and a “Cold Rush” of resource exploitation involving major oil and gas companies. He has fun linking the Canadian government’s recent assertions of Arctic “sovereignty” to that prospect of potential Arctic riches. He notes that Greenland’s push toward self-government has been fuelled by resource revenues. He has a fascinating chapter about how innovative Israeli technologies for water production and snow-making might be applied to areas (such as the Alps) where the glaciers are melting away.

In “The Drought” Funk addresses areas of prolonged severe drought such as California where there have been a record increase in wildfires. With that have come many private companies offering firebreak services, huge increases in insurance rates, a growing water business as well as markets in water rights. The same warming that worsens these droughts will have variable effects as some parts of the globe become wetter or have longer growing seasons. From the higher latitudes to a number of African countries, investors have been grabbing large tracts of land in areas where it is anticipated that agriculture could benefit. He also digs into the nature of huge projects like the Saharan African “Great Green Wall” that attempt to contain desertification.

In “The Deluge” Funk looks at how global sea rise threatening islands and coastal cities could lead to climate refugees escaping too much rather than too little water. Entrepreneurs of climate adaptation will want to look at sea-wall technologies in which the Dutch are leaders. From Texas to Bangladesh border defences offer ways that could be adapted to keep out climate migrants. Genetic modifications might help to prevent the spread of tropical diseases. Giant geo-engineering schemes dreamed up by the likes of ex-Microsoft futurist Nathan Myhrvold’s investment firm Intellectual Ventures will offer climate “solutions” to stressed governments and populations.

Because “the climate is changing faster than we are,” Funk concludes by warning about “magical thinking” which evades responsibility for human-caused climate problems that will worsen global inequities. “The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone. Some people — the rich, the northern — will find ways to thrive while others cannot, and many people will wall themselves off from the worst effects of warming while others remain on the wrong side. . . . Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.”

***

Given all the empirical evidence and ethical imperatives, why are governments and their electorates in the world’s richest democracies still not facing up to the climate challenge in an adequate way? Part of the answer might be found in a bracing new documentary Merchants of Doubt (http://sonyclassics.com/merchantsofdoubt/) by director and co-writer Robert Kenner (Food Inc.), inspired by the eponymous 2010 book by science historian Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (http://merchantsofdoubt.org/). Just who benefits in ideological and business terms from selling doubt to the public underlies the latter’s subtitle How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Essentially it’s a story of how powerful corporations, industry associations, conservative anti-government groups and media have gone about hiring skilled propagandists and compliant individuals claiming a scientific background (although sometimes these are advocates posing as scientists or scientists from other fields) to counter scientific research or produce contrary reports with the express purpose of undermining the findings of public-interest, independent science on the harms to human welfare caused by certain products and activities. A confused, doubting public is less likely to press for governmental solutions involving regulations, penalties or other remedial measures.

Big Tobacco’s lobbying against the overwhelming evidence of cancer-causing effects is legendary. The industry’s modus operandi, which has included spending heavily on big advertising firms like Hill & Knowlton, confirms the film’s case. Thank goodness for insiders who have blown the whistle. Tellingly, as one industry document stated, “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public” (emphasis added). The fight for public health continues to this day. Tobacco giant Philip Morris is currently suing Uruguay over its tough anti-smoking laws as part of a global strategy to intimidate governments.

The chemical industry has similarly tried to cast doubt on the toxicity of chemicals found in a number of common consumer products. A just-released documentary by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, The Human Experiment (http://thehumanexperimentmovie.com/), narrated by executive producer Sean Penn, points out that of the 80,000 chemicals on the market in the U.S., most have not been adequately tested for safety. Exposure to these has greatly increased over recent decades which have also seen striking rises in incidences of maladies ranging from various cancers to autism.

Forget the precautionary principle, powerful industries focused on protecting their bottom line rather than human health have sometimes resorted to brazenly unethical tactics to discredit or hijack scientific research and beat back the efforts of concerned citizen activists. Indeed, in addition to employing “scientific” shills and pseudo-experts, the public-relations campaign sometimes includes creating (and funding) fake “citizens” associations supporting industry claims and rejecting government action.

That depressing if familiar playbook can be seen in spades in sowing controversy about what to do (if anything) about climate change. The Participant media coproduction “Merchants” effectively shows what is going on (go to www.takepart.com/doubt for clips and educational materials). Taking on magical thinking, the movie introduces a professional magician and his card tricks as a visual framing device for exposing the sleight-of-hand arts of distraction, deception and misdirection employed by the professional doubters-for-hire. Magicians are “honest liars,” but these are shameless deceivers who sometimes resort to the most shameless, odious tactics. One particularly cynical practitioner, who regularly appears in the media, is Marc Morano, founder of the website Climate.Depot.com which has published the personal email addresses of leading climate scientists so that they can be subjected to violent vulgar verbal abuse online. He is unrepentant on camera, proudly relishing his role.

As the film demonstrates, the debate is not really over the science of human-influenced climate change. That rests on a robust peer-reviewed global consensus drawing on an enormous body of data — enough to convince the editor of Skeptic magazine and even a longtime conservative Republican Congressman from South Carolina who paid the electoral price for his apostasy after acknowledging the truth. Rather, the political debate is over the implications for the role of government in relation to the patterns of production and consumption preferred by big business. Among the conservative and libertarian ideological right, environmentalists are accused of being “watermelons” — green on the outside and red on the inside. Scientists, no matter how reputable, will be attacked for “junk science” (a favourite National Post tactic), or smeared as being part of a “socialistic,” “communistic” or “world government” plot if their findings suggest that governments must increasingly act to reduce the sources of the greenhouse effect which has been known for decades.

So it comes down to the responsibility to be honest about the real challenges and choices facing us individually and collectively. Sometimes we hear that Canada is an insignificant contributor to the planetary problem (so, conveniently, please don’t target our “oilsands” or other activities). In fact, among some 200 countries, Canada is the ninth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So do we care about being part of the solution or not? It is as much self-deception to think that we can evade responsibility as it is to pretend we can ignore the consequences of a warmer world. The future will not be kind to those would fool us again.