Less Than Zero: the 1 Percent and the Fate of the Earth



“No Way the World Should Take These Risks”


Beneath and beyond the flow of current events, including the rise and repression of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement and the ongoing threat of double-dip recession being sparked by the Euro crisis, the primary threat to a decent and desirable human future becomes ever more severe. By any reasonable account, that danger is environmental collapse on many fronts[1]  and most particularly catastrophic climate change resulting from the wealthy Few’s petroleum-addicted profits system. A study released by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists in the spring of 2009 advanced the most comprehensive modeling ever constructed on global climate change. The report showed that “without rapid and massive action, the problem will [soon] be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago.” A prominent earth scientist heading the MIT report said that “there’s no way the world can or should take these risks” of continuing to push the envelope of the atmosphere’s capacity for safely absorbing greenhouse gasses and argued that “the least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies.”[2] Currently in Durban, South Africa, as in Copenhagen, Denmark two years ago (see the section of this essay titled “OBAMA’S ‘BETRAYAL’” below), the conservative, Wall Street-friendly Barack Obama administration[3] is working behind the scenes to make sure that humanity continues on the perilous path warned against by leading earth scientists in the Empire’s most prestigious science university.[4]


“No Longer a Future Threat”


Even many of the most pessimistic climate scientists got it wrong when they started sounding alarms about anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The experts seemed to think that that the “tipping point” beyond which human life was gravely threatened was 550 carbon dioxide parts per atmospheric million (double the historical norm of 275 parts per million.)  The more accurate tipping point measure, recently discovered, is closer is to 350, a benchmark we have actually passed. We are currently at 390 parts per million and projected to hit 650 before final collapse without fundamental change in our energy use patterns. Already, at 390 we have triggered a number of ominous and viciously circular warming-induced “feedback effects” that exacerbate the warming problem. As the leading environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote in his chilling and important 2010 book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, the melting of Arctic ice “replace[s] a shiny white mirror” that reflects the suns rays back to space “with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays.” Inland glaciers and snow-packs in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies are retreating, threatening local and global water and food supplies. They are “melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle”[5] 


The thawing out of artic tundra and icy ocean clathrates releases massive quantities of methane, a major heat-trapping and climate warning gas. The melting of northern peat moss releases vast quantities of carbon. Scientists have 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 (what McKibben calls “Eaarth”) through our tailpipes and chimneys, we are now setting off the planet’s own internal “carbon bombs.” We’ve caused it but “we’re not directly releasing that methane” and “we can’t shut it off.” To make matters worse, the heat-induced softening of permafrost and the drying up of peat moss opens new northern lands to oil drilling. And as the last reservoirs of readily accessible petroleum run dry in a new era of “peak oil,” McKibben noted, we will 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.”[6]


Meanwhile the growing market for relatively inefficient bio-fuel production combines with warming to drive global deforestation, which exacerbates climate heating and triggers erosion, mudslides, and epic flooding. Climate heating allows certain beetles known to destroy certain trees to “overwinter” and thrive, to the detriment of forests, which become more vulnerable to fires, which themselves spew carbon into the air. The retreat of the Amazonian rainforest – the great  “lungs of the planet” (currently “drying on its margins and threatened at its core”) is depriving Latin America and the U.S. corn belt of critically needed regular rainfall and removes one of the world’s great oxygenating carbon sinks (forests suck in carbon and breathe out oxygen). The “great boreal North America is dying in a matter of years.” [7] The decomposition of forest is itself a great source of carbon release. 


From Periphery to Core


The list and interplay of disastrous “negative feedback loops” goes on and on. And it is going on now: “global warming,” McKibbben observes, “is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality” in ways that are “already wrecking thousands of lives daily”[8] in the poorest parts of the world where climate-related food crises and environmental collapse are most pressing and people have fewer defenses. The American State Department’s chief scientist projects famines related to climate change serious enough to affect a billion people at in coming decades. Global warming has created a resurgence of the deadly dengue fever in Southwest Asia ad Latin America – a consequence of the fact the mosquito which carries the dengue virus feed more heavily and hatch the virus more rapidly at higher temperatures. The worst consequences are being felt with special pain in the “developing” world, where masses of people are most vulnerable to escalating disease, food shortages, flooding, extreme weather, and other environmental disasters. Food riots broke out in thirty seven poor nations in 2008 in response to an escalation of food prices that followed the explosion in the market for biofuels (driven by the spike in oil prices) that year.[9]


Still, climate change and the related exhaustion of global fossil fuel resources have already been heavily felt in the rich world. They contributed to Hurricane Katrina (2005) and a 2003 heat wave that killed hundreds in Europe and forcing vastly expensive infrastructure investments (e.g. giant dike improvements and other upgrades in the Netherlands and Venice) and other costs in the wealthy nations. Climate-related brush and forest fires have displaced many thousands of homeowners and apartment dwellers and killed hundreds across the rich world. New York City is 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) seven years ago, near-term climate change 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…. parts of the developed world [will] 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.” The over-exploitation of oil resources helped precipitate the financial collapse of 2008 by driving up gas prices to a degree that helped undermine suburban home values by raising the commuting cost of living in such residences.[10]


Crazy Weather, Record Melts and Emissions

Since McKibben’s book came out in the spring of 2010, the signs of unfolding climate disaster have only intensified. Formerly unusual weather disasters have proliferated around the globe, from catastrophic flooding in Asia , Australia , and Africa to atypically intense cyclones in the Pacific and a remarkable series of blizzards, floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, strong tornados and other windstorms (including a remarkable hurricane-forces windstorm in the U.S. West – an event that put surfers on Lake Taho just last week) in the United States that have killed dozens and cost billions of dollars. Two weeks ago, the United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that linked anthropogenic planet-warming to extreme weather events such as droughts, flash floods, hurricanes, and heat waves and to dangerously rising sea levels. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist and a principal author of the new report, “A hotter, moister atmosphere is an atmosphere primed to trigger disasters. As the world gets hotter, the risk gets higher.”  The World Meteorological Organization the same week issued a report showing that 2011 has been the tenth-warmest year on record, that the Arctic sea ice is at its all-time low volume this year, and that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. A study published one day before Thanksgiving reported that a current unprecedented loss of sea ice in the Arctic is an indication of human-influenced climate change. Trends from the last three decades suggest there may soon be an “ice-free Arctic” in the summer, the study reports.[11]  

The largest Artic ice melt ever took place this year, leading to the loss of 1.67 square miles of planetary ice cover. Bloomberg/Business Week, owned by the One Percent and bearing the name of the .001 percent mega billionaire and Wall Street titan Michael Bloomberg – the 12th richest American who ordered the high-tech corporate police-state eviction of OWS in his role as Mayor of New York – calmly reports the news from the science journal Nature:

“Arctic sea ice influences the global climate, since 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it is reflected back to space. When the ice melts in the summer, it exposes the ocean surface, which absorbs about 90 percent of the light, heating the water, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That influences climate patterns….’You increase the radiation that’s absorbed by the oceans, that’s one of the strongest climate feedback mechanisms,’ Kinnard said. ‘The more sea ice you lose, the more energy you get in the ocean, which warms the atmosphere’.”[12]

A study published in the December 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change finds that global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels rose by half in the last 20 years. Last year, fossil fuel emissions increased by a record 5.9 percent, bringing the total rise since 1990 (the baseline for calculating emissions under the soon to be expired Kyoto protocol) to 49 percent. Dr. Corrine Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the at the University of East Anglia, and an author of the study, told the Guardian that the last two decades have seen only minimal progress in the effort to cut  the risks from climate change: "There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency but what this shows is that so far, the effects have been marginal," [13]

“Marginal” is far too kind. As the environmental writer Mark Lynas noted four years ago: “all of our efforts – of carbon trading, switching off lights, the Kyoto Protocol, and so on – have a had a discernible effect so far: less than zero.”[14]

Physics and Chemistry Don’t Compromise: Running Genesis Backwards


Welcome to the vicious carbon circle that could well be the death knell of the human species. It’s already wiping out more than a few others as we “run Genesis backwards, de-creating.”[15] Three fourths of the big penguin colonies in the Antarctic may soon disappear thanks to the deterioration of marine life that results from the Arctic melt’s disastrous impact on the phytoplankton- the heart of the region’s food chain. As McKibven argued in Eaarth, written in 2009 and releaed in the spring of 2010, this is all happening in the present moment – not in some distant far off future inhabited by “our grandchildren.” The previous Earth is already dead, giving way to a polluted and perverted one (“Eaarth”) created by Western modernity’s rapacious over-exploitation of the planet’s stock of fossil fuels. It took the rich nations just two centuries to dangerously alter a planet that provided us with an ideal climatological “sweet spot” (with global average temperatures ranging between 58 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and carbon dioxide at 275 parts per million) for most of the 10,000 years that constitute known human civilization. The results are already staring us in the face. “This,McKibben mused, “is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.” [16]


There is less room with each passing day to delay action to drastically reduce carbon emissions. The climate issue and the environmental problem more broadly are different from other policy areas when it comes to the need to act on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr’s call for Americans to recognize “the fierce urgency of now.”’ We are looking at an Eco-Apocalypse Now. Our response to that specter has moved into pass-fail territory, beyond letter grades. We cannot measure environmental policy improvement as if we are proceeding on an open field, advancing a few yards at a time. We have reached an epic ecological chasm: we either make the leap or build the bridge to a sustainable future or the whole game is off. With issues like health care, campaign finance, labor rights and more, progressives can at times reasonably choose to win what little they can, split the difference and then gather resources for future gains on the path to full reform, knowing that failure to win a really big and smashing victory in the present does not make progress unattainable in the future. Things are different with the environment and climate since, as McKibben notes, “Global warming…is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise.”[17]