Frankenstorm and Climate Change

There is little doubt that freakish and unnaturally-assembled storms are a taste of what the future holds. The riptides of climate change are beginning to tear at the fabric of our biosphere as the earth’s climate moves toward a more volatile, violent, and less hospitable new climate.


Alluding, therefore, to Mary Shelley’s gothic horror through the appellation of Frankenstorm for the confluence of Hurricane Sandy and a cold front is, in many ways, quite apt. Particularly as Shelley herself offered a symbolic criticism of the inner dynamics of capitalism and class society in Frankenstein, captured in the quote above, as the conflicted Victor recounts his tale and the uncontrollable forces that he unleashed as a result of his compulsion to continue with his project, despite the warning signs.


That human-induced climate change is part of the reason for Hurricane Sandy, the “largest hurricane in Atlantic history measured by diameter of gale force winds (1,040 miles),” is explained by Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research: “The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast have been running at over 30C above normal for a region extending 800 kilometers off shore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.60C to this. With every degree, the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7 percent and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.


“Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and ocean temperatures, and a warmer and moister atmosphere, and its effects are in the range of 5 to 10 percent. Natural variability and weather has provided the perhaps optimal conditions of a hurricane running into extra-tropical conditions to make for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences.”


As the climate continues to warm, the effect will only increase, leading to more extreme weather events, flooding and drought, as outlined in two recent Nature articles. And warm it will. Not because we don’t have answers to prevent that from happening, but because it’s too profitable to change.


At this point, it seems indisputable that the capitalist system has put the entire web of life on a collision course with a stable biosphere and climate system. One of those systems has to give, and there is no indication that it will be capitalism. 


Specifically in terms of oil production, which, according to the International Energy Agency, is projected to rise from its current 80 million barrels per day to 110 million by 2020, as oil companies seek to exploit their reserves and drill for more.


Along with higher profits to oil companies due to the price per barrel of oil, the Age of Obama has helped to usher in new explorations and increases in output. According to a report by Citibank: “The Energy Department forecasts that U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons, which includes biofuels, will average 11.4 million barrels per day next year. That would be a 40-year high for the U.S. and just below Saudi Arabia’s output of 11.6 million barrels. Citibank forecasts U.S. production could reach 13 to 15 million barrels per day by 2020, helping to make North America ‘the new Middle East’.”


As Obama has repeatedly boasted of his Administration’s commitment to laying enough pipeline to girdle the earth and taken Romney to task by launching ads accusing him of being “anti-coal,” U.S. coal exports are at record highs due to the expansion of another fossil fuel: fracked natural gas.


So, even as U.S. carbon emissions have decreased due to coal plants shutting and being replaced by natural gas, there has been a bonanza for U.S. coal companies exporting their product abroad, leading to no net reduction in carbon emissions for the world as a whole.  In fact, quite the opposite is the case, making a mockery of the argument that natural gas is somehow a “transition” or “bridge” fuel to a cleaner energy future (leaving aside the intensely polluting effects of the fracking process itself).


Perhaps this is why the Obama administration recently abandoned its commitment to keeping global temperature increases below the absolutely critical threshold of 20C that it had formally adopted just two years ago and the number of drilling permits granted in the Gulf of Mexico is set to exceed the number issued in 2007: “Two years after the White House lifted a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill, federal regulators have issued the most permits for new wells since 2007, and many in the industry expect oil production in the Gulf of Mexico to soon exceed pre-spill levels.”


No doubt all this extra domestic production is helping ConocoPhilips (the world’s 9th largest corporation) rake in the cash from planetary ecocide. ConocoPhilips announced its third quarter profits at $1.8 billion (though the corporation annually receives $600 million in tax breaks while sitting on $1.3 billion in cash reserves and the former CEO of the company, James Mulva, “earned” $18.92 million in total compensation in 2011).


In light of Frankenstorm Sandy, Obama is now probably wishing he’d had some small reserve of political principle left to at least mention climate change in one of the stultifying presidential debates, as the two candidates, whenever talking about energy, sparred over who could burn greater amounts of fossil fuel and transform the earth into a burned cinder.


As reported by the New York Times: “Even after a year of record-smashing temperatures, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators of the four general-election debates asked about climate change, nor did either of the candidates broach the topic,” apparently the candidates nevertheless agree that, “For all their disputes, President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that the world is warming and that humans are at least partly to blame.” Yet the Times acknowledged that, “It remains wholly unclear what either of them plans to do about it.”


Furthermore: “Throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have seemed most intent on trying to outdo each other as lovers of coal, oil and natural gas—the very fuels most responsible for rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”


In fact, even as the science of climate change has vastly improved, and the pronunciations of climate scientists become ever more definitive—not to mention desperate—this was the first set of debates not to mention climate change in a generation. Not since prior to the election of 1988—when even Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle thought it was a problem that should be tackled—has climate change not been addressed by candidates during any of the debates.


Actually, the whole reason why the candidates don’t want to discuss climate change is precisely because of the economy, specifically the U.S. economy, which depends, as no other in the world, on fossil fuel energy.


Speaking in an interview for MTV about the lack of discussion of climate change in the debates, Obama expressed his “surprise” that it hadn’t come up—as if the president has no ability to raise issues in a debate.


This effectively puts Obama to the right of the group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.  Members of the group carpooled to the second debate on Long Island in order to pray in the parking lot for a mention of climate change and the adoption of government policies such as taxing carbon emissions and helping the poor deal with the effects of climate change.


While I have a tactical disagreement with regard to the effectiveness of their chosen method, I couldn’t agree more with the group’s spokesperson, Ben Lowe: “This is a long fight that we are committed to fighting. The November election was not a battle between Republicans and Democrats. It was not a battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was a battle between the corporate state and us. And if we do not immediately engage in this battle we are finished, as climate scientists have made clear.”


For many environmentalists, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the economic and social system known as capitalism. Not only do I disagree with that as a premise, but if we don’t get rid of capitalism, there won’t be much of a world left to imagine.


Therefore, even as we build a broad-based movement to fight for real reforms to slow down the monster of runaway, fossil-fueled capitalism that is creating Frankenstorms and much else in the way of ecological devastation, we need a vision for a completely different social system. This means locating the practical and ideological operation of capitalism and environmental degradation within a framework that requires its replacement with a system based on cooperation, real democracy, and sustainable production for the earth held in common trust by all people in the interests of future generations. Only by revolutionary social change can we hope to avoid cataclysmic dismemberment of global ecosystems via anthropogenic climate change.  Z

Chris Williams is an lenvironmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.