Thursday, June 8, 2017

This Changes Everything Should Mean Everything

Several years ago, (six to be precise) I posted a column by Naomi Klein titled Capitalism vs. the Climate.  It is a brilliant piece that was published in The Nation, and it was refreshing to read thoughtful research that explained to a mainstream, albeit left-leaning, audience the environmental and economic correlation between peak oil and global warming, i.e. the Carbon Crisis.  I've been a fan of Klein ever since I read The Shock Doctrine so I was glad to see that in her research she had come to a lot of the same conclusions I had.  She spelled out quite clearly that we cannot have an economy based on infinite growth when we're stuck on one planet with finite resources, that the Carbon Crisis has brought civilization to the point that in order to survive, "it demands a new civilizational paradigm."  Klein even referenced the positive efforts of the Transition Town movement and warned of how Jevon's Paradox could undo the savings from energy efficiency if that savings is "simply plowed back into further exponential expansion of the economy, reduction in total emissions will be thwarted."
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything  Source: Wikimedia Commons

When I found out Klein was writing a book on climate change and capitalism, I was eager to read her further research.  Not too eager; the hardcover edition of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was published in 2014 and I waited until last year to read it when the paperback was on sale.  My take on it?  It is extremely well researched and well written.  I would grade it as being a very good book, but for certain reasons I'll elaborate on later, it falls shy of being a great book.  Klein does succeed in elaborating on the immediacy of our predicament and the necessity of the "new civilizational paradigm" mentioned in the initial column.  As she writes on page 347, "We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if  there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need."

This Changes Everything is really good when it takes on the shortcomings of politicians and activists on both sides of the issue.  It's pretty easy to tear apart the mindset of deniers, which Naomi Klein does with aplomb.  But she is even more incisive in her critiques of so-called environmentalists that have grown cozy with Big Business, green billionaires like Richard Branson that talk a good game to the press, but don't always put their money where their mouth is, and anyone who thinks that carbon offsets constitutes a sound policy to stop global warming.  To quote her on page 223: "The problem is that by adopting this model of financing, even the very best green projects are being made ineffective as climate responses because for every ton of carbon dioxide the developers keep out of the atmosphere, a corporation in the industrialized world is able to pump a ton into the air, using offsets to claim the pollution has been neutralized.  One step forward, one step back.  At best, we are running in place."

There are a couple of issues that prevent This Changes Everything from being truly great.  First, I thought that some of the scarier probabilities of the effects of global warming were somewhat soft-pedaled.  The only time that methane emissions were mentioned was in relation to fracked natural gas.  While Klein correctly mentions on page 143 that methane is "thirty-four times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide", at no point in the book does she mention how much methane is encased in clathrates in the Arctic Circle.  I have written about this issue in multiple entries on this blog and was surprised that the only time she mentioned methane releases due to global warming in connection with the Arctic was on page 15 where she states that 6 degrees of warming could set off a tipping point "like massive releases of methane from Arctic permafrost."  As I have written before, while methane releases from Arctic permafrost is a serious future tipping point, a massive release from methane clathrates in the Arctic is the more immediate threat with the melting of the Arctic ice cap set to happen any summer between now and 2018.  Klein overlooks this threat completely.

Second, while I felt that Klein boiled down the general philosophical points of the necessity to build "an alternative worldview," as she puts it on page 482, I was hoping for greater specificity of what that view entails.  I suppose this is more of nit-picky critique; the book doesn't set out to be a manifesto, and Klein does hit one point strong on page 179 that we need to avoid to succeed: centralizing.  "Authoritarian socialism and capitalism share strong tendencies toward centralizing (one in the hands of the state, the other in the hands of corporations).  They also both keep their respective systems going through ruthless expansion - whether through production for production's sake, in the case of Soviet-era socialism, or consumption for consumption's sake, in the case of consumer capitalism."  This is an excellent point I wish she could have expanded upon more in the context of our dependence on finite energy resources.  She never mentions peak oil by name in the book, though she does mention on page 147 that "global conventional oil production from "existing fields" will drop from 68 million barrels per day in 2012 to an expected 27 million in 2035."

Overall, Klein ends the book on a more positive note than she might had she completed the book, say, sometime after November 2016.   These words from page 481 really have a hopeful outlook for the future of humanity:

"So how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology?  Part of it involves choosing the right early policy battles - game-changing ones that don't merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought."

"Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy - the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics."

And from page 482:

"Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis - embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy."

Klein gets it.  Beyond changing laws, changing our environment, our economy or the essential way that money works, we have to change our minds; how we think.  No doubt she has been trying to effect that change, particularly through her work with  But what kind of backlash can we expect from those who find this paradigm shift a threat?  Klein addressed this on a slightly darker note in her column in The Nation six years ago:

"We know the answers already. The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. “Free-market climate solutions,” as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets. And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks."

Sounds an awful lot like the present day, doesn't it?  I'm not just talking about the recent decision by Herr Drumpf to declare the departure from the 2015 Paris climate accord by the USA.  While I find that policy change disgusting, there was certainly nothing shocking about it.  It's not like he was ambiguous about his opinion of the Paris climate treaty during his campaign for the presidency.  But what I do find surprising is that in the midst of tweeting that he thinks global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese and employing lame humor about how we need global warming to counter snow in New York, the Trump administration is exploring real policy options to deal with the reality of global warming.  It's the option they want to employ that scares the hell out of me.

Team Trump Ponders Climate ‘Engineering’

Exclusive: Rather than take prudent steps to reduce the release of global-warming gases, some Trump advisers are pondering risky gambles to re-engineer the Earth’s climate, as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

While President Trump floors the accelerator to speed up global warming through executive orders and appointments of notorious climate deniers to his administration, more and more scientists are pinning their hopes on “Plan B”: planetary-wide interventions to engineer ways to avoid global climate disruption. But critics warn that such a prescription, however alluring, may be as bad as the disease.

President Donald Trump giving his weekly address on Feb. 25, 2017. (Screen shot from

Now, to compound the irony, members of Trump’s inner circle are touting climate engineering as a cheap way to insure the planet against harm without any need to change lifestyles or curb the oil and coal industries. They resemble compulsive eaters who count on frequent liposuction rather than maintaining strict diets to keep their body fat in check and stay healthy.

Evidence of climate disruption is all around us, including record-high temperatures, record-low sea ice, the die-off of major coral reefs, acidification of the oceans, drought-induced famines, and more extreme storm damage.

At the same time, climate scientists warn that barring breakthroughs in energy technology and adoption of cleaner transportation, industrial and agricultural processes, the world faces severe risks of economic and social disruption over the next half century from potentially irreversible warming.

Such considerations helped motivate more than 100 scientists and policy makers to meet in Washington, D.C., late last month to discuss some largely untested ways to prevent runaway warming by limiting the Earth’s absorption of solar radiation. These measures could include using aircraft to release tiny particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or using fleets of boats to spray the air with saline mist to promote the formation of reflective clouds.

Several prominent Trump supporters are big boosters of such climate engineering. For example, Newt Gingrich, the President’s close adviser and former House Speaker, gushed that it “holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year. Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation.”

And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told investors in 2015, when he was still CEO of Exxon Mobil, “Our plan B has always been grounded in our beliefs around the continued evolution of technology and engineered solutions to address and react to whatever the climate system and its outcomes present to us.”


The article goes on to detail the possible problems associated with geoengineering, including regional famine and floods under some proposals or the depletion of the Earth's ozone layer under others.  None of these problems were news to me because Naomi Klein had already addressed them and many others in This Changes Everything.  From page 259:

"The cons are that, depending on which sun-blocking method is used and how intensively, a permanent haze could appear over the earth, potentially making clear blue skies a thing of the past.2  The haze could prevent astronomers from seeing the stars and planets clearly and weaker sunlight could reduce the capacity of solar power generators to produce energy (irony alert).

But the biggest problem with the Pinatubo Option is that it does nothing to change the underlying cause of climate change, the buildup of heat-trapping gases, and instead treats only the most obvious symptom - warmer temperatures.  That might help control something like glacial melt, but would do nothing about the increased atmospheric carbon that the ocean continues to soak up, causing rapid acidification that is already taking a heavy toll on hard-shelled marine life from coral to oysters, and may have cascading impacts through the entire aquatic food chain."

And from page 260:

"Oh, and another con: once you start spraying material into the stratosphere to block the sun, it would basically be impossible to stop because if you did, all the warming that you had artificially suppressed by putting up that virtual sunshade would hit the planet's surface in one single tidal wave of heat, with no time for gradual adaptation.  Think of the wicked witches of fairy tales, staying young by drinking ill-gotten magical elixirs, only  to decay and wither all at once when the supply is abruptly cut off."

What I appreciated the most to Klein's approach to this matter, beyond just detailing facts and spelling out how geoengineering would effect us on a physical level, was that she also explored historically and philosophically why this approach to dealing with global warming is so wrong.  Attending a conference on geoengineering in 2011 being held in the Buckinghamshire countryside about an hour and a half northwest of London at an estate called Chicheley Hall (which was once a set in a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice), Klein gained a unique perspective.  From page 266 and 267:

This is the strange paradox of geoengineering.  Yes, it is exponentially more ambitious and more dangerous than any engineering project humans have ever attempted before.  But it is also very familiar, nearly a clich√©, as if the past five hundred years of human history have been leading us, ineluctably, to precisely this place.  Unlike cutting our emissions in line with scientific consensus, succumbing to the logic of geoengineering does not require any change from us; it just requires that we keep doing what we have done for centuries, only much more so.

Wandering the perfectly manicured gardens at Chicheley Hall - through the trees sculpted into lollipops, through the hedges chiseled into daggers - I realize  that what scares me most is not the prospect of living on a "designer planet," to use a phrase I heard at an earlier geoengineering conference.  My fear is that the real-world results will be nothing like this garden, or even like anything we saw in that technical briefing, but rather something far, far worse.  If we respond to a global crisis caused by our pollution with more pollution - by trying to fix the crud in our lower atmosphere by pumping a different kind of crud into the stratosphere - then geoengineering might do something far more dangerous than tame the last vestiges of "wild" nature.  It may cause the earth to go wild in ways we cannot imagine, making geoengineering not the final engineering frontier, another triumph to commemorate on the walls of the Royal Society, but the last tragic act in this centuries-long fairy tale of control.

This is the crossroads that humanity faces.  Whether we face it with Trump in charge, or Pence, or whoever, Klein's book is an important guide for navigating the terrain we must pass through to ensure our survival.  That's no understatement; barring some fantastic breakthrough that enables humans to travel faster than the speed of light (or clean up Mars with the same speed), this is the only planet we have to survive on.  Klein sums it up best on page 279, "We did not create it; it created - and sustains - us.  The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster.  It is our entire world.  And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves."

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