22 april 2016

Dear Friends,

Like Caesar's Gaul, this newsletter will have three parts. The first is a quick look at the major climate news since we last wrote to you.


It hasn’t been grabbing the headlines, but there has been a great deal of climate news in the months since the Paris Conference last December. Some of it is terrible, such as the possibility that an Antarctic ice melt might raise sea levels by six feet this century.

Or the news that the planet, under the influence of last year’s el niño, is warming at a pace that is alarming even the scientists who expected it.

There is also Bill McKibben’s warning about methane release from fracking.

And there was the bad news we posted about Bangladesh’s plans, announced shortly after the Paris accord, to increase the proportion of its electricity produced by coal-generated power from 2% to 50% (by 2030). These plans included “the Rampal project, a 1,320 megawatt coal plant under construction 15km from the Sunderbans swamplands, a Unesco world heritage site on the Ganges delta that is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest.” At the beginning of April, Bangladeshis demonstrated massively against this project, largely financed by Indian and Chinese companies with help from a German engineering firm. Police fired on the thousands of villagers protesting the construction of two large coal plants, killing four and wounding dozens of demonstrators.

But much of the news is good.

-- Coal consumption globally is diminishing, particularly in China, with many large coal companies on the verge of bankruptcy.

-- Anti-coal Activism in Europe and the US is spreading. It has been generally non-violent and inclined to use the legal system. Replicating last year’s favorable ruling by a Dutch court in the Urgenda case, a federal court In the Pacific coast state of Oregon backed efforts of a group of adolescents to sue the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry “for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging, and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels”.

-- On a larger scale of non-violent activism, the month of May 2016 will see another global wave of protest against fossil fuel, coordinated by 350.org and Breakfree 2016.

-- Energy industry efforts to breathe new life into “clean coal” - Carbon Capture and Storage – are foundering on the unwillingness of investors to back a technology that is both risky and costly (see Stephan Singer’s three part essay of mid-March and our March 29 posting on the demise of Canada’s CCS pipe dream.

-- Renewables are flourishing (new investments last year exceeded those in carbon fuels) and the price of UK offshore wind power has been falling dramatically. If we can figure out a way of getting enough renewable power to supply electric vehicles, Elon Musk is prepared to sell us Teslas at an affordable price.

There is a considerable amount of other good news you can read about in our news rubric for January-April 2016.

Yet, despite the fact that national commitments to emission reductions (confirmed at last December’s UN summit in Paris) are so meager they would bring us to a catastrophic three degree C. world rather than the 1.5C the Paris accord recommends, no major industrial power has signalled readiness to raise the target for a viable, GHG bearable future. In fact, there is little public discussion of the need for rapidly ramping up the governmental commitments to halt catastrophic warming.

This is partly because accepting that need involves a rethink of our most fundamental notions of the good life and of economic globalization as the royal way to it, a point I will discuss further on. It is also because the media that tell us what to worry about emphasize other matters.


Terrorism, refugees fleeing to Europe, the U.S. election primaries, a growing hostility among Europe’s citizens to the European Union: these are the issues dominating the news media in the first three months of 2016. Climate change? Well, most of us know it’s happening, and as a background note of doom, it adds to the pessimism inspired by those dominant issues, but it cannot compete with them as a pressing source of public concern, in part because global warming, where thought about at all, is understood not to be an immediate problem. A brief article in the Dutch press, for example, reports that both the national employers’ organization and the main trade union federation (FNV) have rejected as unnecessary the climate plan offered jointly by the Dutch Greens (Groenlinks) and the Labour Party (PvdA).

Yet, apart from the fact that nothing is more threatening to the planetary future than climate change, some of those issues that crowd global warming out of the news media have a rarely discussed relationship to it.

Climate change in Africa and the Middle East, drying up or flooding arable land, has already produced local wars and mass migrations that impact the rest of the world. Take the refugee crisis in Europe for example, which in large measure is a product of the war raging in Syria between the Assad regime and popular elements opposed to it. That most of the Syrian revolt has been taken over by Isis-led military efforts to replace the Syrian and Iraqi governments with an Islamic fundamentalist Caliphate has given that revolt a second sinister aspect for many Europeans: it has become a breeding ground for the kind of terrorism indiscriminately attacking the “infidel” population in Brussels and Paris

But without the climate-related five-year drought in Syria, the revolt against Assad, now largely taken over by Isis and used as a training base for the terrorist attackers of Paris and Brussels, would probably not have gotten off the ground. The flight of millions of drought-ruined farmers to Syria’s urban slums was the breeding ground for that revolt, as well as, in reaction to the ensuing civil war, for a second obsession of European publics and policy-makers: the current refugee crisis (See our posting of September 7, 2015).

This refugee crisis, of course, exacerbates the existing anti-EU trend among European voters. The popular hostility to destitute Middle Easterners and North Africans, desperate to escape to the relative safety of Europe, feeds into a splitting apart of what had been for decades a Euro-American consensus around neoliberal ideology. This ideology has long identified deregulation, privatization and unlimited GDP growth with public happiness. But it conceals contradictory values of communal celebration of mass consumption and a media- and advertising-stimulated individualist ethic of acquisitiveness. The two sides are bound together by a universal value of material accumulation: More is better.

This attractive, and for many self-evident notion, apart from having proven unrealizable for 90% of the world’s people, has also become incompatible with a planet of limited resources. Climate change, the end result of a devil-take-the-hindmost pillaging of the earth’s profitable carbon energy sources, is the consequence of our most fundamental ideologies, as well as being implicated in many of the issues that monopolize public consciousness. That includes the U.S. political competitions for the Republican and Democratic presidential candidacies.

While the moderators of Republican Party candidate debates have tactfully refrained from raising global warming with the contenders, climate skeptics one and all, it has only rarely been mentioned in the discussions among Barack Obama’s would-be successors in the Democratic Party. Yet it is hard to imagine a problem whose solution during the next four year presidential term will be more vital to the well-being of the American people as well as all other peoples on earth,


The challenge to the movement against climate change is that none of the existing political trends – neither the prevailing corporate consensus nor its left- or right-split-offs – has presented a serious alternative to the more-is-better ideology that seems to condemn our future. Eduardo Gudynas, in a brilliant article on “the Quadrilemma of Globalization” (published on Taylor&Francis online and posted on our site recently), explains why effective climate action is incompatible with ideologies of global economic growth as well as democracy and national sovereignty. . His “Quadrilemma” essay endorses Harvard economist Dani Rodrik\'s idea concerning the incompatibility of globalization with our other ideals and extends it to the struggle against climate change.

Gudynas dismisses the notion that climate change is a result of a specifically capitalist ideology: “Contributors to greenhouse emissions are found under quite different political ideologies and diverse development strategies. It ranges from the Middle East oil monarchies, to the European Union liberal democracies, from the endorsement by the Communist Party of China, to the new left governments in South America, like Bolivia. However, beneath the heterogeneity in their politics and economics, they all share core ideas of development, such as oil addiction to sustain progress.” Although not discussed in this essay, Chavez’s Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela, which derived national income from the country’s oil resources, is an excellent example of this last notion.

While extending Rodrik’s “trilemma” to include the world’s difficulty in effectively confronting climate change, Gudynas appeals, for a possible alternative, to a Latin American philosophy of Buen Vivir. This philosophy challenges “the core components of development, such as economic growth based upon the export of natural resources”. All such strategies of development undermine effective action against climate change, insofar as they“share the same or similar postures, like the separation between nature and society, or ‘progress’ as a major goal, which ends in all cases in unsustainable strategies”.

Gudynas, who is a Uruguayan social philosopher, stresses in his article the difficulty of the Latin American Left, such as the Bolivian socialism of Evo Morales, in living up to its ideal of “mother earth” as an alternative to exploitative capitalism. The problem in Bolivia, according to Gudynas, is that the developmental policies of the government rely, as do most Latin American countries, on selling its natural resources on the world market. Despite the fact that Morales frames his approach to global climate change in terms of the biosphere “rights of Mother Earth”, his national development strategy promotes “extractivisms, including an increase of oil extraction, major changes in the use of soil and deforestation, new large dams to export electricity, etc”.

Acknowledging that his critique is politically incorrect, Gudynas insists, in his conclusion, that for a real alternative to an environmentally fatal business-as-usual, the world must move beyond contemporary development strategies. “A strict agenda to tackle climate change should … include measures like moratoria on the exploration and extraction of oil and gas, so as to maintain emissions levels within the carbon budget. But this immediately generates collisions with other components; oil-exporting countries could invoke their sovereignty to continue their exportations, while many industrialized nations would like to continue their high consumption lifestyles, rejecting restrictions on importing fossil fuels ... The problem with international negotiations, like those on climate change, or in the Paris Agreement, is that this expresses wishful thinking that all four objectives could be achieved at the same time. The core ideas of contemporary development provided the structure of belief and feelings supporting objectives like economic growth, material well-being, and democracy, but also the idea that all of them are complementary and can be achieved at the same time. It is a posture that conceals its contradictions…."

To achieve the clarity and the political weight necessary to stop the catastrophic evolution of the planet’s climate, the climate movement will have to confront and expose those contradictions, and begin a serious debate on the alternatives to them.

Arthur Mitzman, coordinator of Concerned Citizens against Climate Change [www.stopwarming.eu]

PS If you find this analysis useful, forward it to a friend and suggest they sign our appeal, which will give them access to future newsletters.

>>> Back to list