Beneath the regular din of more overtly political current events, the slide into anthropogenic climate disaster continues. Last May sensors atop an Hawaiian volcano found that average carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s air had reached 400 parts per million – “a level,” NASA’s Web site reports, “that hasn’t been seen since around 3 to 5 million years ago, well before humans roamed the Earth. Human burning of fossil fuels continues to increase the amount of carbon, a potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas, in our atmosphere,” NASA explains, adding ominously that “as a result our planet is warming, and that warming is pushing Earth systems past critical points.”
NASA says that its satellite-equipped researchers and other scientists the world over are documenting the planet’s accelerating, human-generated drift into a number of arctic “tipping points”—rapid and irreversible changes that tip Earth’s climate into a state that is contrary to long-term human survival. Potential climate tipping points listed on NASA’s Web site include an ice-free Arctic summer, the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the rapid thawing of the permafrost in Alaska (releasing vast stores of carbon-rich methane), and shifts in the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation and chemistry. “Within a few decades,” NASA reports, “the Arctic will be unrecognizable to any explorers who had seen it in centuries past. Scientists are already seeing the signs.”
The near-term prospect of ice-free summers in the Arctic is chilling in its implications for livable ecology. As NASA notes, “Ice-free Arctic summers will cause major changes in ocean ecosystems, boosting, for example, the growth of phytoplankton, which bloom as sunlight penetrates the ice. Ice-free summers also mean there is less ice to reflect sunshine back out into space, meaning that instead the ocean absorbs that energy, becoming even warmer…not good news for the already stressed ocean.”
As for melting tundra, there are 1700 billion metric tons of carbon stashed in Earth’s northern permafrost, “more than twice the carbon currently in the atmosphere.”
Another NASA report tells us tropical eco-systems generate significant new carbon dioxide when temperatures rise – another viciously circular process whereby symptoms of global warming become causes.
“Without Even a Side Glance”
Horrifyingly enough, the United States, the world’s leading carbon emitter and thus the top national creator of the deepening climate catastrophe, stands alone among the world’s advanced and developing nations in its refusal to make any significant commitment to addressing anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Taking their cue from Big Tobacco’s deadly public relations campaign against basic medical-science findings on the link between cigarettes and lung cancer during the 1950s and 1960s, the American Petroleum Institute, leading fossil fuel corporations and other wings of the corporate carbon industrial complex (CCIC) have long waged an effective lobbying and propaganda war against the earth scientists’ consensus opinion that climate change is real, disastrous for life on Earth, and human-generated. Thanks in part to this terrible propaganda war, the U.S. is actually moving backwards on the climate issue. The petro-chemical firms are undertaking a remarkable, devastating assault on the environmental integrity of the United States itself through hydraulic fracturing and other new and highly toxic and carbon-intensive methods for extracting oil and gas from underneath North American soils. These corporations and their political and government allies and enablers seem determined, as Noam Chomsky at the Left Forum in New York City last June, “to burn every last fossil fuel without even a side glance” at the consequences.
The China Smokescreen for U.S. Culpability
Beyond insidious science denial and de-bunking, the CIC has in recent years found another ideological weapon in its effort to block any significant reduction of U.S. carbon emissions: blaming China and other rapidly developing states like India and Brazil for climate change. “Why,” U.S. climate negotiators argue at the global climate summits they recurrently undermine (the Obama administration has played an especially sinister role in this regard), “should the U.S. and other rich countries cut carbon emissions when developing nations are increasing theirs?” China, they say, is now actually the major culprit behind climate change, with its carbon emissions having more than doubled since 2001.
This is a smokescreen designed to cloak the United States’ primary culpability for the monumental crime of petro-state-capitalist-eco-cide – a transgression that will dwarf all previous crimes if allowed to run full exterminist course. The contemporary climate problem has not been created solely by the United States, of course (AGW’s origins technically date to the industrial revolution in 18th and 19th century Europe). And the global manufacturing behemoth China has in fact recently surpassed the U.S. as world leader in annual carbon emissions.
Still, no nation has spewed more accumulated carbon into Earth’s atmosphere in the industrial era than the United States – an historical reality that neither China nor India will breach anytime soon. The U.S. remains far and away the world’s largest carbon-emitter on a per-capita basis. Individual U.S. citizens generate an average of 20 tons of carbon emission per year, nearly four times the rate of the average Chinese citizen.
No nation state has invested more heavily and powerfully in the political, ideological, and military promotion and defense of the at once carbon- and growth-addicted profits system than the United States.
No national government has done more to deep-six increasingly desperate international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions than that of the United States – a record that has continued with depressing vengeance through the supposedly “green” presidency of Barack Obama.
The U.S. is the leading headquarters of the corporate carbon-industrial-complex’s giant lobbying and propaganda war on the increasingly dire findings of modern climate science – including those of NASA.
The U.S. investor class leads the world when it comes to global investment in the fossil fuel industry. While most of the world’s new coal plants are being built in China and India, much of the financing comes from Wall Street. Since 2006, for example, J.P. Morgan Chase has invested $17 billion in new coal plant construction abroad. Citbank added in $14 billion during the same period.
“We’re Shipping Our Emissions Offshore”
At the same time, it is both hypocritical and absurd for the U.S. and other rich nations to point the finger of climate blame at China when the U.S. and the West more broadly are largely responsible for China’s rising contribution to AGW. As Sadie Robinson four years ago in England’s Socialist Worker:
“Simply looking at China’s emissions as a country obscures the role that the West plays in creating them. China’s rising emissions are largely due to the rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations. This is directly linked to the fact that many Western companies have effectively outsourced their emissions to China. They have rushed to open manufacturing plants in China to take advantage of lower operating costs…And these plants are largely powered by coal.”
“The West has also played a role in boosting China’s emissions by using it as a cheap source of goods. The Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research found that export manufacturing made up around half of China’s 45 percent rise in carbon emissions between 2002 and 2005. A major study published in the Nature Geoscience Journal last week reached similar conclusions. It found that the global growth in emissions since 2000 was largely driven by growth in China – but also pointed to the role of the West. It showed that global emissions rose by 671 million tons between 2007 and 2008. But a quarter of this resulted from Western countries buying manufactured goods from China and other developing countries. As Gregg Marland, a co-author of the study, put it, ‘We’re shipping our emissions offshore.’”
The Britain-based World Development Movement (WDM) agreed, adding that the rich nations also bear primary responsibility because they alone possess the technology and financial resources required to make a transition to a green economy and mitigate the costs of climate change. “Ultimately,” WDM argued, “playing a game of ‘blame China’ simply won’t work. Pointing the finger at large developing countries while at the same time citizens in rich countries voraciously consume imported manufactured goods makes little…sense. The responsibility to act first and do the most must lie with the industrialised world, not only because of historical emissions and unsustainable levels of resource consumption, but also because these [rich] countries hold many of the other key cards in the negotiations, such as the ability to transfer technology and financial resources to those who need it. All these cards will need to be played well if [climate] negotiations are to have any chance of reaching a successful conclusion.”
No nation in the industrialized world possesses more climate cards and bears more responsibility to use them differently than they have so far than the United States. For these and other reasons, there is no road to climate healing and planetary sustainability – to a livable ecology and a decent future – that does not confront the power of the deeply petroleum-soaked American “1%” and its allies and pawns in U.S. government. It is too much to say, as former U.S. Vice President and climate change activist Al Gore does, that “the United States is the only nation that can lead the world toward a solution on this issue.” Nations with large indigenous populations are currently leading the world – like Ecuador, which is seeking payment from the rich nations, Chomsky observed at the Left Forum, “to keep its oil under the ground, where it belongs.” Still, Chomsky’s judgment on U.S. political culture’s backwards movement against the global consensus on the urgent need for climate action is dire but judicious: “If these tendencies persist in the richest, most powerful country in the world, catastrophe won’t be averted.”
Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street is also the author of part 1 (“Capitalism – The Real Enemy”) in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, eds., Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (Harper Perennial, January 2014)
1Megan Scudellari, “An Unrecognizable Arctic,” NASA, Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet (July 25, 2013_ http://climate.nasa.gov/news/958
2. Ruth Dasso Marlaire. NASA Ames Research Center, “Tropical ecosystems boost carbon dioxide as temperatures rise,” http://climate.nasa.gov/news/957
3. Paul Street, “Chomsky at Left Forum,” ZNet (June 23, 2013), www.zcomm.org/chomsky-at-left-forum-by-paul-street. Quote from Street’s notes on the talk.
4. Phil Gasper, “The Growing Climate Crisis,” International Socialist Review, Issue 87 (January 2013), 17.
5. Sadie Robinson, Socialist Worker (UK), Nov. 24, 2009, http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=19633
6. Peter Hardstaff and Tim Jones, Blame it on China? The International Politics of Climate Change (London, UK: World Development Movement. November 2009), www.wdm.org.uk/sites/default/files/blameitonchina30112007.pdf
7. Al Gore, interview by Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour, January 31, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/environment/jan-june13/gore_01-31.html
8. Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012).