The cause of and cure for climate disruption

There is a political dispute going on about climate change, global heating, or global climate disruption. The dispute, unfortunately, is not simply about what to call it but about whether ‘it’ is happening at all, and if it is whether ‘it’ is being caused by human activity. Ordinary people are in no position to investigate the factors involved in this dispute on their own. But when 97% of the scientists who have researched the causes of the rise in recorded world temperatures publicly conclude that global climate disruption is being driven directly by human activity you would think that the dispute was settled. You would think that humanity, writ large, would get on with the task of spurring governmental and social institutions to quit the widespread practices responsible for our planetary predicament. Well, think again.

Climate change deniers are derisively compared with ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. In fact this is not a behavior found in ostriches. Natural selection would have done away with the gene concerned and the ostriches carrying it long ago. Nor could it ever have become a learned behavior among ostriches as it would have proven fatal too quickly to be learned. Humanity, though, has time to learn – but that time is running out. Let us hope that our ruling and capitalist classes are as smart as ostriches – or as lucky.

What are our kids learning about climate change?

The ‘national teaching standard’ that treated the human causation of global warming as settled science was banned by state legislatures in South Carolina in 2012 and in Wyoming in 2013. The state senate in Oklahoma tried to pass a similar ban but the state house rejected it.

The National Research Council (under the National Academy of Sciences) released the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013. The Standards, written with input from educators in 26 states, recommend that students study ‘the rise in global temperatures over the past century’ and ‘the major role that human activities play.’

The efforts to block or distort teaching about climate change and its causes are eerily similar to the attempts by conservatives and religious fundamentalists to put ‘creationism,’ based on biblical texts, on an equal footing with evolution in science classrooms.

Lisa Hoyos, co-founder of Climate Parents, a national group founded in 2013 that defends classroom teaching on human-caused climate change, says: ‘On one side you have 97% of scientists and videos of melting polar ice caps. On the other you have 3% of scientists with discredited theories. Why give them equal space?’

The West Virginia state school board adopted standards based on the Next Generation framework in November 2014, but at the request of L. Wade Linger, a board member who runs an information technology company, modified the language to accommodate, among other things, a reference to Milankovitch cycles – long-term shifts in the earth’s orbit that some climate change skeptics (though very few scientists) have blamed for rising temperatures. The strategy of getting people to doubt the validity of an inconvenient truth that is well verified by science is described by the science historians Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes in their book The Merchants of Doubt (2010). The giant tobacco companies made successful use of this strategy to confuse the law courts and many people about the deadly consequences of smoking, continuing to make a profit even as they were killing off their customers.

Libby Strong, president of the West Virginia Science Teachers Association, declared that ‘the science was compromised by these modifications’ (referring to the revisions requested by Linger). In January 2015 the state school board voted to drop the ‘Linger revisions’ and reinstate the original Next Generation text.

The conservative activist group Truth in Texas Textbooks lobbied the state to reject school textbooks that did not acknowledge climate change skepticism and express doubt in the science itself. The State of Texas is the second biggest schoolbook market in the United States. Instead, after being lobbied directly by environmentalists and the Climate Parents group, two large publishing houses – Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education – strengthened language on global warming.

Inconvenient question #1

Why is it that the main engines of the global economy – major transnational corporations and their disinformation and confusion-generating think tanks – have persistently tried to obfuscate the fact of global heating and its source in human activity?

Inconvenient question #2

What does it mean to say that climate disruption is caused by ‘widespread practices’ and ‘human activities’?

What are these ‘widespread practices’ and ‘human activities’? How is it possible that the intelligent and observant human beings that constitute the collective ‘we’ should have carried on with their daily lives without noticing that the things they were doing had begun to disturb the environmental balances among the myriad natural forces that had allowed life to emerge and evolve on Planet Earth?

An inconvenient truth

The ant cannot see the mountain on which she is walking.

We, as intelligent and observant human beings, see ‘our’ economy as jobs and wages, groceries bought and bills paid – the simple and harmless activities that fill our daily lives. These are the everyday ways in which the capitalist system, from which ‘our’ economy is derived, presents itself to us.

Capitalism is supposedly based on free-market production and exchange of commodities, with ‘scarce’ resources allocated to different commodity-lines through market prices that are set by the mechanism of ‘supply and demand.’ Capitalism is supposed to be the most moral system of resource distribution ever known. It is also supposed to be ‘the end of history’ – an eternal fixture in human life – because it corresponds to human nature so closely that it actually developed in a natural and organic manner in accordance with innate human propensities.

None of this is true. It is an invented myth or fable.

Point #1. There has never been a ‘free’ market. As feudalism declined in Europe and gave way to merchant capitalism, the doctrine of ‘mercantilism’ was adopted. This doctrine held that the economic interests of the nation could be furthered by government intervention to protect domestic industries by means of monopolies and tariffs on imports.

Point #2. Only the most exotic of resources are truly scarce.

Point #3. There is no economic law of supply and demand. Supply can be controlled through monopoly and cartel agreements and reduced at will in order to raise prices. Prices are often set by boards of directors.

Point #4. Distribution under capitalism is nothing more than rationing of commodities and services according to how much money you have. With women doing the same work as men and being paid only 80% as much; with the world’s top 1% in possession of half of all household wealth, what is moral about that?

Point #5. Capitalism is not a product of nature. It takes arduous political work – and at times military intervention – to keep the system running as it traverses its repeated cycles of boom, slump, and recession.

Point #6. There is no fixed human nature beyond the biological propensity to cooperate and to adapt to changing social and natural conditions.

The industrial revolution and birth of industrial capitalism and the factory system

The industrial revolution that began about 1750 was one of great scientific discovery, mechanical invention, and technological development. The new means and methods of production created a new mode of production under which productive capacity grew at a tremendous pace – beyond the wildest imagination of earlier ages.

The water wheel was abandoned as the power source for the burgeoning factory system because in order to use it the factory had to be on the bank of a river. The industrial revolution replaced it with the steam engine.

Hydrocarbon fuels – above all, coal – now took pride of place. This led to a huge increase in the number of coalmines and mining jobs. From the start there were adverse environmental consequences. The air was filled with smoke and coal ash (in the twentieth century it would be called ‘fly ash’) and in British factory cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle it was ‘dark as night at noon.’

In the twentieth century liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons – oil and natural gas – took the place of coal as the fuels of choice to power industrial production. While these fuels burned much more cleanly than coal, they too pumped carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Although it was known that the atmospheric CO2 level was rising, only toward the end of the century did an understanding emerge of the long-term impact on the global climate.

A primer on capitalism

The capitalist system of production operates in accordance with the ironclad law: No profit means no production. The purpose of capitalist production is to satisfy the thirst for profit of the owner class, the 1% — and not human needs like dependable safe housing, nutritious food, necessary medical care, and good education for the working class, the 99% of the population who make the profit that goes to the 1%.

Capitalism is a system based on unpaid costs. When corporations burn those hydrocarbon fuels to power industry, the unused dreck that spews from the smokestack is dumped free of charge into the atmosphere. Economists call this an ‘externality’ because it does not appear on the corporate balance sheet. But there is a human cost: people breathe the polluted air and are sickened by it. Terrifyingly, these corporate externalities are now sickening the biosphere that encompasses all life on earth.

Only recently has the legal system recognized CO2 as a pollutant. But self-reporting and self-regulation remain the norm for corporations. The fox is left in charge of the henhouse.

Big Oil and the monetary control of liberal democracy

ExxonMobil is the most powerful oil company on the planet. It is worth half a trillion dollars, making it the world’s second most valuable company (after Apple). Its AAA-rated bonds yield slightly higher dividends than Treasury securities. Creditors (investors) aren’t in the least worried about a default or write-down. Devaluation could result only from a government regulatory crackdown and that is not on the cards. ExxonMobil has a 19% annual profit margin and  astonishing, an annualized return on equity of nearly 21%.

After buying XTO Energy, a hydraulic fracturing company, for $35 billion, ExxonMobil became the largest domestic producer of ‘fracked’ natural gas – that is, methane. Methane is ’25 times more potent than CO2 over a 100-year timeframe (this is the 100-year global warming potential, a common metric in climate science)’ (‘Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal,’ Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, February 2011, p. 77). A recent flyover using infrared photography revealed huge plumes of escaped methane in the atmosphere at every single fracking wellhead site observed. The conservative estimate was a 20% loss of extracted methane to the atmosphere.

The vast transnational corporations are considered to possess ‘corporate personhood’ and therefore the same legal rights as real people. They have legions of lobbyists to buy elected politicians in those countries where the ‘democratic’ form of government prevails. One group of researchers write:

We find firms lobbying for this provision have a return in excess of $220 for every dollar spent on lobbying, or 22,000% (Raquel Meyer Alexander, Stephen W. Mazza, and Susan Scholz, Measuring Rates of Return for Lobbying Expenditures: An Empirical Analysis under the American Jobs Creation Act, April 2009).

In 2014 Oxfam released a report that found:

Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

The wealth of the richest one percent of people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.

The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world (Oxfam International, Working for the Few: Political capture and economic inequality, p. 2).

Liberal representative democracy: a bought and paid-for sham

In the current US presidential campaign we are offered a choice between Donald Trump, a billionaire crook who seems unable to tell the truth and is an avowed racist with authoritarian or even fascist tendencies, and Hillary Clinton, who belongs to the corporate-shill faction of the Democratic Party and will do anything to please her Wall Street taskmasters.

Until his recent withdrawal and endorsement of Hillary we also had the self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders, who may be described as a relatively honest social democrat. His relative honesty made him a unicorn – and unicorns do not get elected president of the United States.

Elections are no sign of a living, breathing democracy. Our corrupt representative democracy represents only the capitalist class. Corporations control the world’s governments and run the world. They are destroying the earth. What are we, the 99%, to do?

In a recent study Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University conclude that ‘the US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite’:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (1 out of 5 in favor) is adopted only about 18% of the time, while a policy change with high support (4 out of 5 in favor) is adopted about 45% of the time.

On the other hand:

When a majority of citizens disagree with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change they generally do not get it.

Professors Gilens and Page conclude:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a wide (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened (‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,’ Perspectives on Politics, September 2014). [1]

Robyn Pennacchia calls this ‘the “Duh” Report’:

Maybe Americans should just accept their fate… Perhaps we ought to suck it up, admit we have a classist society, and do like England with a House of Lords and a House of Commoners instead of pretending that we all have some kind of equal opportunity here (‘The “Duh” Report: Study says America is an Oligarchy, not a Democracy,’ Death and Taxes, April 15, 2014).

Bernie Sanders called for a political revolution. He had pretty strong support! Is it time for us – the working class, the 99% — to carry out a revolution? It is high time. A total revolution is what we need.

Impossible, you think? Why? The word ‘impossible’ is not a refutation. It is a challenge!

Through revolutionary action we shall break our chains.

Through revolutionary action we shall save ourselves and save the world.

Come, let us reason together and decide on strategy and tactics to abolish the capitalist system.

 

Note

[1] For a fuller account of the study see Gilens’ book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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