“Did We Even Have a Winter?”
I do not recall my attic den being too hot to work in during the late-winter month of March. I head out to find a comfortable indoor space and behold bikini-clad students and Magnolia trees in full bloom – in mid-March. I note that Oak trees are already starting to bear leaves.
“So,” I say to Sandy, my postal lady, “did we just go straight from winter to summer?” Sandy says, “Did we even have a winter?” Indeed, it felt like March in January and it feels like June in March here in Iowa City.
It isn’t just Iowa City, of course. According to the National Weather Service, several Iowa cities set new record highs in the 80s last Sunday, including Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Sioux City and Waterloo. The radio reports that we’re heading towards the warmest and the warmest calendar year on record in many locations.
Over in Chicago, March 2012 ranks as the warmest ever on record. The average temperature for this month has been 53.7 degrees. The average takes into account all the highs and lows, including a string of peaks well into the 80s over the past week.
The warmest Chicago Marches on record prior to this year were in 1910 and 1945, when the average temperature was 48.6 degrees.
“The summer-like temperatures this March,” the Chicago CBS affiliate reports, “cap off a winter in which a palm tree might not have seemed out of place in Chicago.” A friend of mine in that city reports that the weather there now reminds him of…San Diego.
Over in Southeast Michigan, record spring warmth has already generated a handful of early tornadoes, including one that leveled dozens of homes in the town of Dexter, just northwest of Ann Arbor last March 15th. "A tornado near Detroit is about as rare of an event as you can get in March," meteorologist Henry Margusity noted.
Reflecting near record national warmth for March, deadly tornadoes have made an early appearance in the U.S. this year. On Friday, March 2, 2012, four states were nailed by powerful tornadoes that killed 28 and devastated whole towns across a wide swath of the U.S. Midwest and South.
2012 is fitting into a disturbing 21st century trend. NASA, the nation’s space agency, gathers weather data from 1,000 meteorological stations around the world, satellite readings of the sea's surface temperature, and recordings taken in Antarctica. Last January, it reported that 2011 had been the 9th hottest year on record – this even with the cooling effects of a strong La Nina and reduced solar activity over recent years. The agency also reported that 9 out of the 10 hottest years in the modern meteorological record have occurred since 2000. The other year in the top 10 was 1998.
In the last few years, I have heard thunder and seen lightning on three different New Year’s Eves in the upper Midwest.
“The Biggest Thing That’s Ever Happened in Human History”
What’s it all about? It’s called the Greenhouse Effect and anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Thanks to excessive and ever-increasing human-generated carbon emissions, former lead NASA scientist James Hansen notes, “the planet is absorbing more energy than it is emitting. So we are continuing to see a trend toward higher temperatures.” That elementary scientific observation, supported by an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, is considered by millions of American “conservatives” – top Republican politicians and propagandists included – to be a giant hoax perpetrated by a leftist global conspiracy to deny Americans their supposed God-given right to extract as much fossil fuel as they can in the shortest time possible.
“So what?” a right wing curmudgeon I know says. “This terrible ‘global warming’ you complain about means you don’t get to wear your nice spring jacket. So you go straight to short sleeves and build a new tornado-safe room in your basement. Your air conditioning bill goes up. Boo hoo! You might as well enjoy the warmth. Move north if you don’t like heat and you want to ice skate on lakes and streams. Canada is lovely in the summer.”
But my personal discomfort is of course a minor matter compared to the broader consequences of AGW. Those consequences, already underway, include massive deleterious transformation in core planetary processes and phenomenon – extreme weather, flooding, burning, deforestation, desertification, drought, erosion, water and food availability, species survival, bacteriology, and more. As leading environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben showed in his important book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (published in the record-setting heat year of 2010), “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different.”
Even many of the most pessimistic climate scientists got it wrong when they started warning about global warming in the late 1980s. The carbon-emission problem was worse and moving faster than anyone knew at the moment of its discovery. This is for the simple reason that “global warming is a huge experiment. We’ve never watched it happen before,” McKibben observed, “so we didn’t know how it would proceed.” And “no one really knew where the red line was – it was impossible to really know in advance at what point you’d cross a tripwire and set off a bomb. Like, say, melting all the ice in the Arctic.”
For quite a while, the experts seemed to think that that the tipping point was 550 carbon dioxide parts per atmospheric million (double the historical norm of 275 parts per million).” The more accurate measure is 350, a benchmark we have already passed. We are currently at 390 parts per million and projected to hit 650 before final collapse barring any fundamental change in energy use. And we have already triggered a number of ominous and viciously circular “feedback effects” that exacerbate the problem. The melting of Arctic ice is replacing a shiny white mirror that reflects the sun’s rays back to space “with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays.” Inland glaciers and snowpacks in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies are melting very fast, threatening local and global water and food supplies.
The thawing out of artic tundra and icy ocean “clathrates” releases massive quantities of methane, a major heat-trapping and climate warning gas. Melting northern peat moss releases carbon in large amounts. Scientists have recently reported that northern marshes and ponds are staying unfrozen over the winter because methane is gurgling up from below. “Beyond the massive amount of carbon we have extracted from the old earth and pumped into the new one (Eaarth) through our tailpipes and chimneys,” McKibben noted, “we are now setting off the planet’s own internal ‘carbon bombs.’”
To make matters worse, the heat-induced softening of permafrost and the drying up of peat moss opens new northern lands to oil drilling. As the last reservoirs of readily accessible petroleum run dry in a new era of “peak oil,” we increasingly “rely on even more use of our most abundant fossil fuel, good old coal. And the certain result of using more coal will be…more global warming, since it’s the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing twice the carbon dioxide of oil.”
“This,” McKibben mused, “is the biggest thing that has ever happened in human history.”
The worst consequences are being felt first in the “developing” world, where masses of people are most vulnerable to escalating disease, food shortages, flooding, extreme weather, and other environmental disasters. But the costs of climate-related eco-catastrophe and the related exhaustion of global fossil fuel resources have already been felt in the rich world, contributing to disasters like Hurricane Katrina (2005) and a 2003 heat wave that killed hundreds in Europe. Climate change has already forced vastly expensive infrastructure investments (e.g. giant dike improvements and other upgrades in the Netherlands and Venice) in the wealthy nations. Climate-related brush and forest fires have displaced many thousands of homeowners and killed hundreds across the rich world. New York City is already spending millions in anticipation of rising ocean levels. According to a study commissioned from the Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment by Swiss Re (the world’s biggest insurance firm), near-term AFW will create an increasing number of storms and other disturbances that will “overwhelm the adaptive capacities of even developed nations; large areas and sectors [will] become uninsurable; major investments [will] crash; and markets [will] crash….In effect, parts of the developed world would experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods as a result of the natural catastrophes and increased vulnerability due to the abbreviated return times of extreme events.”
AGW is a matter of life, misery, and death for billons of human and other sentient beings. And no nation bears greater responsibility for the current environmental doomsday cycle than the U.S., home to 5 percent of the world’s population but generator of 29 percent of the world’s carbon emissions over the last 150 years.
Sadly, however, the notion of acting seriously to stem AGW is beyond the narrow spectrum of serious policy options in the U.S. President Obama recently called Republicans “Flat Earth” advocates because of their denial of climate science and their rejection of alternative energy programs. He also recently visited a solar energy facility on a 2-day energy tour dedicated to national energy affordability and independence.
That was nice, but so what? What is the president (who proclaimed on the night he clinched the nomination that during his presidency “the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal”) actually doing to honor the findings of scientists, who urgently recommend a rapid major overhaul of energy policy to drastically cut carbon emissions? With strong administration approval, national oil production, which fell to less than 5 million barrels a day in 2008, has surged to 5.7 million barrels a day four years later. Obama’s Energy Department boasts that the U.S. is now on a path to produce 7 million barrels a day by 2020 and some experts think it could hit 10 million barrels – (Saudi Arabian territory) by then. As Noam Chomsky noted last fall, “virtually every country in the world is taking at least halting steps to do something about [AGW]. The United States is taking steps backward” (N. Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance, San Francisco: City Lights, 2012, p. 304).
The significant boom in oil production is due in part to the administration-approved technique called “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking.” This practice involves the highly pressurized use of water, sand, and chemical lubricants to force more oil and gas from rock formations – something that has caused significant pollution of water supplies and is highly energy- (carbon-) intensive in its own right.
Another culprit is expanded drilling both in deepwater sites (re-green-lighted after a little speed bump called the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in early 2010) and in previously untouched continental sites where endangered species are threatened by extraction. Obama has “opened new federal lands and waters to drilling, trumpeted increases in oil and as production and de-emphasized the challenges of climate change,” the New York Times reported on its front page last Friday. Last Thursday, the same issue of the Times reported, Obama traveled to Ripley, Oklahoma to support the accelerated completion of the southern leg of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (J. Calms, “Obama’s Support for Portion of Pipeline Displeases G.O.P. and Environmentalists,” NYT, March 23, 2012, A21). The project is designed to transport dirty oil extracted through highly carbon-intensive processes from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada (a gigantic planetary carbon pool) to oil and gas refineries along the Gulf of New Mexico. Strongly opposed by environmentalists the world over, Keystone is a genuine ecological catastrophe that will speed up AGW, cause spills, and poison water, air, and wildlife up and down the continent. If the tar sands mega-project in northern Alberta gets underway, James Hansen has said, “it’s essentially game over for the climate.” (Think Progress, October 6, 2011).
Also on Thursday, the Times reported, Obama’s Department of Agriculture bowed to oil and gas industry pressure by announcing that it will not require environmental reviews before granting federal rural housing loans to people (and corporations) who lease lands for oil and gas drilling (I. Urbana, “In Reversal, U.S. Rejects Environmental Reviews on Mortgages Linked to Drilling,” NYT, March 23, 2012, A21).
The expanded domestic production of oil and gas that has been encouraged by the administration hardly fits the paranoid-style Fox News/Tea.O.P portrait of Obama as a radical-collectivist environmentalist. As the Times noted without bothering to comment on the standard plutocratic betrayal of populace-pleasing campaign promises:
“The increased production of fossil fuels is a far cry from the energy plans President Obama articulated as a candidate in 2008. then, he promoted policies to help combat global warming, including vast investments in renewable energy and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions that would have discouraged the use of fossil fuels…More recently, with gasoline prices rising and another election looming, Mr. Obama has struck a different chord….Mr. Obama’s current policy has alarmed many environmentalists advocates who say he has failed to adequately address the environmental threats of expanded drilling and the use of fossil fuels.” (C. Krass and E. Lipton,” U.S. Inches Towards Goal of Energy Independence,” NYT, March 23, 2012, A1, A20)
Of course, any environmentalist who has only recently become “alarmed” at Obama’s complicity in the petro-capitalist war on livable ecology has not been paying serious attention to his presidency. In his first year in office he committed the most underestimated of his many corporatist crimes when he vandalized the Copenhagen climate summit by insisting that the U.S. and other leading carbon-emitter states would not agree to any legally binding restrictions on its release of warming gases. According to no less business-friendly a source than The Wall Street Journal, Obama the “Washington liberal” was “a Copenhagen conservative,” The president might have proved willing (unlike his predecessor George W. Bush) to acknowledge the legitimacy of modern science on AGW but he functioned as what the WSJ called “the conservative stalwart in Copenhagen” by “supporting the least-aggressive steps, advancing the conservative position of opposition to strict world-wide limits on emissions that ask much more of developed nations than of poorer countries.” Obama served as what the WSJ called “the leader of the ‘haves’ in their dispute with the ‘have-nots.’ ” (Peter Brown, “Obama: Washington Liberal, Copenhagen Conservative,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2009).
In a similar petro-capitalist vein, Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill invested in roads and bridges for carbon-spewing cars and trucks over more environmentally friendly mass transit and high speed light rail. The administration trumpets its bailout of General Motors and the domestic auto industry this election year. Nobody seems to remember how many workers and ex-workers lost jobs and benefits in that bailout or that the administration might have pursued a different path: the employment of former autoworkers in the green re-building of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Surely,” Noam Chomsky reflected at the time, “the auto industry could be reconstructed, using its highly skilled workforce to produce what the country and the world needs—and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. But all such matters are off the agenda.” (Noam Chomsky, “Coups, UNASUR, and the U.S.,” Z Magazine, October 2009).
The administration’s willingness to coldly sacrifice environmental concerns became evident early on when it quickly caved to right wing pressure to axe the leading green jobs advocate Van Jones from the newly created position of Special Advisor for Green Jobs in July of 2009.
Truth be told, there has never been much chance that the ever-“realistic” corporation-conciliator Obama would seriously pursue green policy in the oil- and dollar-soaked culture of Washington. “In early 2009, just as Obama was getting set to unveil his energy plans,” McKibben noted, “word came that 2,340 lobbyists had registered to work on climate change on Capitol Hill (that’s about six per congressman), 85 percent of them devoted to slowing down progress.” Among the Republican candidates for Congress in the 2010 mid-term elections – an historic sweep for the rightmost of the two business press – nearly all reject the very idea of global warming.
Sad to say, climate issues fell off the charts of public concern in U.S. polling data after the onset of an Epic Recession in 2008. Corporate public relations, lobbying, and propaganda have succeeded in framing sound environmental policy for a sustainable world as an obstacle to employment and economic growth. This is a deadly blow for green politics and policy when joblessness and its many related miseries spike. The current climb of gas prices towards record levels – a fact of no small significance for the presidential campaign – also bodes ill for those who care to see the planet and its inhabitants saved from carbon baking. Along with a persistent “human recession” (lingering beyond a merely “statistical recovery”) that has pushed half the U.S. population into low-income status (below 200 percent of the federal government’s inadequate poverty rate), it is a boon for the well-funded campaign of the American Petroleum Institute and allied business lobbies to convince the public to dismiss the scientific community’s warnings on the “liberal [global warming] hoax.” As Chomsky reflected on the eve of the 2010 elections, “The executives behind the propaganda no doubt know that global warming is real, and prospects grim. But the fate of the species is an externality that the executives must ignore, to the extent that market systems prevail.” (Chomsky, Making the Future, p. 238)
The MTV-ifcation of General Motors
Which brings me back to last Friday’s New York Times. A different front-page story, this one below the fold, in that same Times issue reports that General Motors has contracted with a hip young MTV executive “to help [GM] solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young people today just do not care that much about cars… a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence.” (A recent market survey shows that 46 percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 would select Internet access over owning a car). The executive, Ross Martin, 37, has worked up “a five year strategic plan” to “infuse General Motors with the same insights that made shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘Teen Mom’ breakout hits” (A. Chozick, “As Young Lose Interest in Cars, G.M. Turns to MTV for Help,” NYT, March 23, 2012, A1, A3). The point, of course, is to get more young adults to purchase and drive automobiles, something that will help an overheated planet cook at a higher rate.
Socialization of Risk, Privatization of Profit
….And back to Iowa, where I mowed a lawn (with a hand mower) earlier than I ever have in my life two days ago (Sunday, March 25th). Maybe the most positive thing that can be said about the increased domestic production of gas and oil in the U.S. is that it seems (as the Times reported a few weeks ago) to have thrown sand in the gears of the Obama administration’s efforts to bring the insanely dangerous (think Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) and ridiculously costly nuclear power business back into expansion. But all is not lost for nukes everywhere. The leading Iowa energy utility MidAmerican has recently passed through the state’s lower legislative house a measure that will permit it to build a second nuclear power plant at advance taxpayer expense in Iowa. If the bill passes through the state’s Senate, MidAmerican will be permitted to significantly raise utility rates to pay for the construction of the deadly facility. The rate hike will give MidAmerican windfall revenues while yoking consumers and citizens with massive financial and physical hazard. According to progressive state senator Joe Bolkcum (D-IA District 39), “We [the citizens’ get the costs and all the risk while MidAmerican gets all the profits guaranteed” (“I can’t tell you any other bill I've seen that the legislature, in my 14 years,” Bolkcum adds, “that requires a company to do something as risky and controversial as this.”) “Our farmland could be completely annihilated for decades,” says state Sen. Joe Seng, (D- IA-Dist. 43), with good reason.
It’s the classic state-capitalist formula – socialization of cost, privatization of gain – backed up by the standard money-greased formula for the subversion of democracy: politics as “the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey). A recent Des Moines Register poll finds that 77 percent of Iowa are against the bill. Will it matter? A watchdog group called Friends of the Earth has released critical campaign finance data on leading Iowa politicians who support the legislation. Among their findings:
* MidAmerican’s Executive PAC donated $30,000 to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in 2010 and 2011.
* Branstad served on MidAmerican’s Board of Directors in 1999.
* MidAmerican has been a steady donor to State Senator Majority Leaders Mike Gronstal (D), who supports the bill. From January of 2003 to January of 2012, the company donated $14,750 to Senator Gronstal, donating at least annually, and in some cases several times a year. In addition, MidAmerican invested $70,000 to a political committee with ties to Gronstal.
The elite business class is hard-wired to make a charade of democracy, to destroy a livable earth, and ultimately to exterminate the human species – along with many thousands of other species it should be added. The ground cannot be prepared too soon for the development of a massive democratic-revolutionary movement against the eco-cidal profits system. Chomsky was certainly right to cite environmental concerns when he told the Occupy Boston encampment last fall that “unless the process that’s taking place here and elsewhere and around the world continues to grow and becomes a major force in society and politics, the chances for a decent future are bleak.” (Chomsky, Making the Future, 305).
Paul Street’s many books include The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [email protected]