4C Climate Newsletter, November 2017


29 november 2017

4C Climate Newsletter, November 2017

"Coming to a climate summit to promote coal is an act of vandalism against our common home. It is offensive to millions of people living with the impacts of climate change."

Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid's international climate lead, at the November 2017 UN climate summit in Bonn Germany (Conference of the Parties 23).

Dear friends,

As the above quote suggests, the insult to planet earth that Americans have suffered since the election of Donald Trump was last week extended to the nearly 200 governments attending a UN climate summit in Bonn. Considering a global conference on the future of “our common home” beneath the dignity of his administration, the U.S. head of state sent a meager delegation dominated by the CEOs of coal and oil companies. They came to the 23d Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to present the case for fossil fuels as indispensable to the future elimination of poverty. This despite the fact that it is precisely the poorer peoples of the earth, already subject to warming-related droughts, floods and conflicts, who are the most vociferous opponents of fossil fuel.[1]

The reaction to this provocation by those attending the fossil magnates’ conference was volatile: between 100 and 150 U.S. climate activists interrupted their presentation for five minutes with heckling and singing and then walked out of the conference room, leaving it three quarters empty. Outside, they joined an even larger group in a noisy demonstration. (See our postings of November 13.) Several international TV news programs carried this. They also presented the more sedate opposition to Trumpian climate skepticism of a considerable group of American governors and mayors. These notables were led by Jerry Brown, the governor of California, ex-U.S. vice President Al Gore and billionaire investor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City.

So the global audience was left in no doubt that governments and people everywhere, including the U.S., were, in the face of official Washington opposition to the climate accord, rushing to its defense.[2] What was left out of most of the sympathetic reporting was the fact that climate activists had been looking forward to the 2017 Bonn meeting as a venue for raising the insufficient CO2 reduction pledges of the participating countries to a more realistic level, one with at least a chance of keeping warming below 2°C, as promised in Paris. Instead, they found themselves compelled to defend the existing agreement against the yahoos from the Potomac.

Climate News outside Bonn

To give an idea of the increasing despair of those most familiar with the problem: on the same day as the Bonn protest against the energy giants, a group of 15,000 scientists released a warning that reiterated and increased the assessment of human-caused environmental damage of 25 years earlier, in 1992.

The earlier statement, signed by 1700 scientists from many countries, said, ““If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” The one sent by the much larger group this month said, “Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,”

Other news of the past week is mixed. Underlining the disappointment produced by the official U.S. delegation to Bonn, is this, from The Guardian of November 13:

“The 12th annual Global Carbon Budget report published on Monday is produced by 76 of the world’s leading emissions experts from 57 research institutions and estimates that global carbon emissions from fossil fuels will have risen by 2% by the end of 2017, a significant rise. ‘Global CO2 emissions appear to be going up strongly once again after a three-year stable period. This is very disappointing,’ said Prof Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the UK’s University of East Anglia and who led the new research. ‘The urgency for reducing emissions means they should really be already decreasing now.’”

According to The Guardian, a 3.5% increase in Chinese CO2 emissions accounted for most of the 2% rise. Nicholas Stern and Michael Mann, however, two of the most authoritative scientists dealing with climate matters, both cautioned against reading too much into the latest estimate for Chinese emissions, with Mann stressing the incomplete nature of the statistics and Stern cautioning against undue alarm, writing:

"There will be some fluctuations, for example around poor rains and hydro. We should also remember that the methods used to calculate emissions will have their own errors. [China] has a very clear strategy, particularly on coal and energy efficiency and they are getting, and will get, results."

Despite Stern’s reassuring tone on China, however, the governments of both China and India, while signing up to the Paris agreement, have consistently used the argument that most of the GHG in the atmosphere is the result of Western industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries and that the impoverished billions of the East cannot be cut off from their catch-up opportunity. China says it will peak GHG emissions in 2030, India in 2027, in both cases, obviously too late. A huge transfer of technology and funds may be the only way break through this blockage, but that is difficult to imagine at a time when the richest country on the planet is in the grip of a fossil fuel fanatic hostile to any surrender of its wealth for whatever reason.

There have nonetheless been two pieces of good news from the juridical front. A German court has admitted the suit of a Peruvian farmer against energy giant RWE, who is suing it for damages incurred by its contribution to the greenhouse gasses that are ruining his crops. And in a U.S. lawsuit reported on November 7th:

“Plaintiffs are leading Philadelphia environmental nonprofit Clean Air Council and two child plaintiffs who have been personally impacted by climate change. The Federal Government Defendants include President Donald Trump, the Department of Energy, Secretary Rick Perry, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Administrator Scott Pruitt.”

The bad news behind the good

There has been other good news, particularly some upbeat stories coming out of the Bonn Conference, but much of it was deceptive. Take the decision of the Canadian and UK governments to push an international alliance to phase out coal, supported at the end of the Bonn meeting by seventeen other countries, including France and the Netherlands. Or the plea of the new Dutch Climate Minister for the European Union to raise its 2030 climate goal from 40% to 55%.

Looked at soberly, neither of these worthy ambitions was properly supported by the actions of the main countries involved. In Canada, for example, continued exploitation of its lavish fossil reserves are undermining Prime Minister Trudeau’s reputation as an environmentalist: the country continues to export the production of its lucrative tar sands oil industry through a much-contested trans-US pipeline to the Gulf Coast refineries. Moreover, a carbon-pricing law to be implemented in Canada will probably be insufficient to permit that country to reach its carbon reduction pledge. (Toronto Globe and Mail, November 14)

In France, Nicholas Hulot, Macron’s climate minister, has put on hold an earlier decision by the government to close down 17 nuclear power plants.

In the UK, support for a coal phase-out coincides with a go-ahead for the enormous and expensive planned Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which, while not involving fossil fuel, will probably be financed by sharp cuts in subsidies for wind and solar energy. Those renewables are now cheaper than nuclear, but lack the corporate centralization that makes nuclear attractive to current fossil energy giants.

As to the Netherlands, there is total inconsistency between its support for a coal phase-out and the plans of its new government to meet its emissions reduction pledge in large part by carbon capture and storage under the North Sea. Apart from the danger of carbon leakage and the huge expense of CCS, carbon capture technology requires a 25% increase in coal usage for the same amount of power, simply to run the capture and storage processing machinery. In short, the CCS option, rather than phasing out coal necessarily increases its production.

The government’s focus on CCS is hardly surprising, considering that the fossil multinational Royal Dutch Shell, which no doubt looks forward to supplying the pipelines and hardware for the project, has long dominated the country’s energy policy. (Many of the Netherlands’ political leaders have been trained in administrative matters at Shell.)

Jan Terlouw, an elder statesman of D66, the most climate-friendly party in the new Center-Right Dutch government, said this about the cabinet’s plans in an interview with the Dutch daily Trouw on November 17:

"There’s a lot of ambition, I grant you. But I have grave doubts about one of the most important plans. The idea that you can bury half of the CO2 emissions under the ground, as the cabinet expects, is a complete illusion, enough to make you cry. Completely unthinkable from a scientific standpoint [Terlouw has a university degree in physics and mathematics]. Globally, it has hardly succeeded anywhere. And then I hear Prime Minister Rutte say that we can be a bit less ambitious in the transition to renewable energy as long as we can bury the CO2. Really! While it’s obvious that we have to move to renewable energy."

The astonishing aspect of all this cognitive dissonance is that it occurs in the wake of clear evidence that climate change is already causing massive disruption of human existence: unprecedentedly violent hurricanes have recently flattened the U.S. island of Puerto Rico and flooded both Houston and Miami; killer heat waves and floods take their toll on the aged and poor throughout South Asia; acidification of the seas is rapidly diminishing biodiversity, sea stocks and coral reefs.

How cognitive dissonance unites corporate hypocrisy to popular blindness

Of course, there are powerful corporate interests encouraging ostrichism in the media and the population at large. Not just the oil barons Trump sent to Bonn, but self-interested real estate brokers as well. Consider these sentences from a recent article by Bill McKibben discussing proposed high-tech adaptations to sea-level rise in Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come:

" It’s all designed for the relatively mild two- or three-foot rises in sea level that used to constitute the worst-case scenarios. Such tech is essentially useless against the higher totals we now think are coming, a fact that boggles most of the relevant minds. When a University of Miami geologist explains to some Florida real estate agents that he thinks sea level rise may top 15 feet by 2100, Goodell describes one “expensively dressed broker who was seated near me” who sounded “like a six-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum. . . . ‘This can’t be a fear-fest,’ she protested. ‘Why is everyone picking on Miami?’ "

More troubling than the willful ignorance of the powerful, however, is the unwillingness of ordinary people, encouraged by such evasions, to confront what Al Gore correctly labeled “inconvenient truths.” This intensifies the cognitive dissonance between official lip service to the need to combat climate change and corporate encouragement of the grab-it-now behavior of the citizenry, In Germany, for example, whose “Energiewende” was supposed to serve as a global model for the transition to renewables, the automobile industry is doing everything it can to encourage the opposite:

"Overall, the focus of innovation in the German car industry in recent years has not been on environmental performance, but on increasing the luxury feel of cars, their acceleration, and their design as SUVs. Despite its green rhetoric, the German automotive industry has never wavered in pursuing one overarching goal: To sell as many cars as possible in Germany, Europe, and the world. This business model is in strong conflict with national and international goals of making cities less congested and rapidly bringing down CO2 emissions.

“'Germany is in love with the car just as much as the U.S.,' says [Stephen] Rammler [professor for transportation design at Braunschweig University and author of a recent best-selling book on future mobility.]. ‘The question now is whether our determination to protect the planet’s climate is strong enough to change our personal lifestyles and transform this whole sector of the economy.’ "
[From Yale Environment 360.)

This susceptibility of car buyers for the “luxury feel”, the “acceleration”, the “SUV” design, suggests a deeper level of resistance in the citizenry, a refusal to contemplate the effect of such lifestyles in the affluent countries of the northern hemisphere on our children and grandchildren, not to mention on the tens of millions in coastal cities now subject to regular flooding. An “it-can’t-happen-here” attitude to the inundation of coastal metropolises like Houston, Manila, Shanghai and New York sustains the maintenance of a lifestyle in which the corporate/political ideology of material growth as the ultimate good is internalized in personal ambition.

I’m not proposing that this is a problem of individual conscience. Prevailing mentalities are a social problem and require collective social and political solutions. The acquisitive individualism shared by the wealthy and the hoi polloi is largely shaped by corporate powers that cajole individuals through omnipresent advertising and obtain what they want from legislatures by lobbying and campaign financing. Their continued hegemony is leading us to social ruin and the abyss of a climate catastrophe. Alternatives need to be proposed, and fought for, by ngo’s, trade unions, political parties and governments. But the social and the environmental have to be understood as complementary. Carbon taxes and massive subsidies for renewable energy need to be accompanied by prohibitions of advertising for commodities dangerous to the human future (currently used against addictive drugs such as heroin and tobacco) as well as by better legislation for public health and social security and by laws against plutocratic control of legislatures.

It’s not just a question of preventing fossil fuel-spewing cars. The same kind of crippled imagination that internalizes automobile advertising fosters willful ignorance about the direct impact of climate change on poor African and Asian populations: the imminent flood of refugees prepared to risk drowning and indefinite detention in displaced person camps to reach livable climates[3] as well as the inevitable armed resistance from the states and peoples of the global North that is likely, under current mentalities to greet this new demand for life from the wretched of the earth..

What kind of world do we want?

Mohsin Hamid, whose latest book is reviewed in the current number of London Review of Books [], wrote pessimistically in 2015:

[The real question raised by the refugee crisis of 2015, is] not whether the people of the countries of Europe wish to accept more refugees. [The real question is whether] they wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration:

“Simply hardening borders and watching refugees drown offshore or bleed to death on razor wire will not be enough. Europe will have to drastically reduce its attractiveness to refugees. Those who look like refugees will need to be terrorised. They will need to be systematically beaten, rounded up, expelled. Some will need to be killed. The avenues of advancement of those who are not native-born will need to be curtailed by law and by custom – a system of apartheid will need to be instituted. To be of apparent migrant origin in a European country will need to become a fate worse than living in a town or village overrun by bloodthirsty fanatics, by rapacious warlords and thugs … In such a Europe, the essence of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich will not have been defeated; it will merely have suffered an interruption that lasted a few decades." (Quote is from the LRB review)

What I am getting at here is the terrifying problem of our social autism, the inability of most people to empathize with the fate of those outside their immediate social framework, as opposed to the people they can identify with as sharing the same language, values and, in some cases, religion. This social autism is a common denominator of the widespread failure to consider as a serious problem either the suffering of refugees forced to flee their homes because of wars and natural disasters facilitated by climate change or the future suffering of our own descendants.

The climate action movement depends for its ultimate success, then, on an expansion of the empathic capacities of humankind to embrace the misfortunes of those remote from our existence and identity. If we fail, we leave to our descendants the dystopic world envisaged by Hamid: not only the suffering caused by our abdication of the climate safety of future generations, but also a global war between rich countries and the dispossessed poor, a conflict that will condemn the peoples of the global North to a gilded cage of well-fed cruelty and indifference and the South to eternal victimhood.

To prevent this, we will need to join the climate issue to an attack on the sources of our sociopathic economy – the kind of attack proposed by, among others, Naomi Klein in her recent No Is Not Enough[4]. Such a new social front inevitably brings us to challenge the global maldistribution of wealth and the disappearance of secure employment brought about by outsourcing, automation and flex work. In short: the key to reversing the cultivation of individual greed and its blockage of empathic responses to present and future suffering lies in replacing the current pursuit of growth as our highest good by a war on the grotesque economic and social inequalities now plaguing the human species.


[1] A few examples of reactions to the U.S. coal merchants in Bonn from representatives of less affluent Asian and African countries [http://www.stopwarming.eu/?news&id=2828]:
“Benson Kibiti, from the Kenya Climate Working Group, said: ‘More coal will entrench poverty’.”
“When asked whether coal could be part of the solution to climate change, Frank Bainimarama, the Fijian prime minister and COP23 president, told reporters: “I really don’t want to get into an argument with the United States of America, but we all know what coal does and we all know the effects of coal mining and of coal…
“There is really no need to talk about coal because we all know what coal does with regard to climate change,” he added.
Patrick Gomes, the head of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of 79 nations said that the US meeting was “a diversion, unfortunately” from the urgent task of climate mitigation and adaptation.”

[2] Inside Climate News, an excellent climate website for news and commentary, wrote: ´Two weeks of international climate talks made only incremental progress toward resolving disputes that have been lingering since the Paris Agreement of 2015. The main achievement may have been cementing a firebreak to prevent the Trump administration from torching the whole process.”

[3] “If Europe thinks they have a problem with migration today … wait 20 years,” said retired US military corps brigadier general Stephen Cheney. “See what happens when climate change drives people out of Africa – the Sahel [sub-Saharan area] especially – and we’re talking now not just one or two million, but 10 or 20 [million]. They are not going to south Africa, they are going across the Mediterranean.” From “Climate Change will create the world’s biggest refugee crisis’, The Guardian, November 2, 2017

[4] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough. Defeating the New Shock Doctrine. Allen Lane, 2017. Other intelligent recent analyses of the climate crisis and its historical/sociological framework are:
Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene. The Earth, History and Us. Verso 2016 (a translation of the French original of 2013);
Hein-Anton Van der Heijden, Na het neoliberalisme. Klimaatverandering, sociale bewegingen en politiek. Eburon uitgeverij, 2017;
Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago 2016.
(On Ghosh: see our newsletter of last February.)

Warm Greetings from autumnal Amsterdam,
Arthur Mitzman (coordinator of Concerned Citizens against Climate Change) and the 4C Stichting

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