4C Climate Newsletter - Katowice vs Green New Deal

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14 january 2019

4C Climate Newsletter: Katowice vs. Green New Deal

14 January 2019

Dear Friends,

With many of us still in shock from the flop of the Katowice climate summit, it would be disingenuous to start this letter on an upbeat note. So let’s look first at the grim side of the climate news in 2018, a year that ended with the failure of the 24th UN Conference on climate change. Blocked at major points by a coalition of Russia, the US, and Saudi Arabia, it was incapable of doing anything more than cobble together a set of rules for measuring carbon emissions.

THE BAD NEWS

Katowice’s non-result was received by mainstream media – at least the ones who had heard the warnings of climatologists that inaction now put us in great peril – with the tone of sarcastic disbelief usually reserved for the tweets of the American president.

For example, a columnist in the highly respected Financial Times began his column on the latest UN effort to deal with the climate crisis with this paragraph:

Let's get this straight: the world gathers for a vitally important conference on global warming in Katowice, Poland — one of the few chances to agree on a plan to slow it down. It goes immediately awry. Its hosts, the Polish government, decide to showcase the benefits of coal, which is to global warming what matches are to fire. That's dissonant enough. Then the US, the world's second-largest emitter, gives presentations on the benefits of fossil fuels. Moreover, the Trump administration bands together with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to remove any sense of urgency from the concluding language. Maybe global warming is happening, maybe it isn't. Who knows? What we do know is that America claims to have several hundred years’ worth of oil and coal in the ground. It intends to use it.

Many of the environmental NGOs participating in the Katowice climate summit came away with even stronger feelings of disgust than the FT columnist. See our postings for

December 14, Friends Of The Earth On Katowice Non-Result

December 16 Carbon Brief - Key Outcomes At Katowice Climate Talks

December 20 A Young Canadian Climate Activist On The Bad News From Katowice

and December 23 Climate Activist Kit Vaughan On The Demise Of The UN Climate Program

The bulk of the climate news preceding the Katowice flop was even worse. A sampling:

 A summer and fall of California wildfires that left close to a hundred dead and a small city destroyed, in a series of forest infernos attributed to prolonged drought and heat waves, aka climate change. Scientists expect multiple simultaneous disasters from future warming

 According to a December report of the UK’s national weather service(Met Office), the 2018 summer heat wave in the British isles that caused hundreds of early deaths had been made 30 times more likely because of climate change. Moreover, advisors to the UK government warned in October that a probable one meter increase in sea level this century would make much of the coast open to frequent flooding or even uninhabitable.

 Also in the summer and fall of 2018 the US East Coast and Caribbean islands experienced “the third in a consecutive series of above-average and damaging Atlantic hurricane seasons, featuring 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes and a total of $33.3 billion (2018 USD) in damages…. Most forecasting groups called for a below-average season due to cooler than normal sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and the anticipated development of an El Niño. However, the anticipated El Niño failed to develop in time to suppress activity, and activity exceeded most predictions.” (Quote is from Wikipedia).

China saw its vital rice crops damaged by the highest summer temperatures in almost six decades.

In India, monsoon rains several times heavier than usual led to inundations that claimed 69,000 lives and made 17 million homeless. The flooding of India's coastal cities was said to be in line with climate change predictions.

 In sum, 2018 saw global GHG emissions increasing by 2.7% to a new high following a 1.6% increase in 2017. These somber results followed three years in which emissions remained largely flat, giving hope that the peak had been reached. (Scientific American, December 6, 2018)

 Noting that warming and extreme weather were increasing more rapidly than anticipated, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did finally recognize the urgent need to keep warming below 1.5 C and warned of disaster if that level was exceeded.The UN's warning, while the most authoritative, was one of many similar prognoses.

Reactions to this new wave of climate disasters, to the scientific warnings, and to efforts to mitigate future ones, were hardly encouraging.

 In France, weeks of “yellow vest” protests against Macron’s tax on diesel - part of his program to reduce fossil fuel use – achieved, on December 4, suspension of the planned climate-friendly measures. The riots and the backdown were routinely cited, even by sympathetic journalists, as an example of how unpopular concrete steps to limit emissions were (for example John Dizard in an FT article on electric car batteries: “As the European policy world noticed with last week’s French government surrender on diesel taxes, going green is not that easy.” Climate skeptics and fossil fuel apologists were prone to see Macron’s backdown as signifying a salubrious popular repudiation of government action against climate change. (This was not necessarily so: more on that below.)

 In October, the special IPCC report that warned of catastrophic extreme weather if warming exceeded 1.5 C prompted the editors of the Portland, Maine Press Herald to comment that we had reached a Pearl Harbor moment. This came following a year in which public opinion in the United States and across the planet noted with consternation the effects of Donald Trump’s climate skepticism, epitomized by his abandonment of the Paris Accord, by his celebration of fossil fuel at the Katowice climate summit, as well as by his abandonment of 78 environmental regulations (as calculated by The New York Times at the end of the year).

 In 2018 countries from China and India to the European Union were trying to control the damage caused by the US exit from “Paris.” See “What Remains Of The Paris Accord A Year After The U.S. Exit?

 Trump’s anti-environmental head of the Environmental Protection Agency, after a year of deregulation, had transformed it into a lapdog of the fossil fuel industry. See “The Fossil Fuel Takeover Of The Us Environmental Protection Agency

 The US Secretary of the Interior’s sell-off of public lands to fossil fuel entrepreneurs rivaled that under President Harding in 1922 See “95 Years After Teapot Dome Scandal, US Shrinks Federal Land To Sell Oil Deposits

In other words, climate change is upon us, killing large numbers now, and, given the refusal of Trump’s USA and other states in the grip of the fossil fuel mafia (Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia) to even recognize the problem, prospects for the human future are bleaker than ever.

Nonetheless, it would be overly pessimistic to say there has been no progress in the last year.

THE GOOD NEWS OF 2018

• The cost of renewable energy, particularly wind power continued to fall, making it globally competitive with fossil fuel.

• Indigenous peoples in Canada and the US, backed up by environmental activists from both countries, challenged the hubris of fossil fuel companies ruining their ancestral lands with oil pipelines. as well as the government’s lease of their land for oil drilling

• The Chinese government, alarmed at the pollution damage to millions of its citizens, fought with provincial authorities to close coal plants and expanded production of consumer products requiring less fossil fuel.

• Citizen lobbies – NGOs like Dutch Urgenda and Milieudefensie, even a group of American youngsters, were suing both governments and major fossil fuel producers, while at shareholder meetings of the latter, groups of activists challenged their companies’ lack of consideration for the inevitable transition to renewable energy.

• Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 15 year old, gained international attention by sparking a school strike for climate change, then bluntly told the delegates to the UN conference in Katowice that their inaction was stealing her future.

• In October, the European Parliament called for a sharpening of the EU climate targets, including a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% in 2030

• In November, the US congressional elections showed a sufficient swing toward environmentally aware Democrats to wrest control of the House of Representatives from a climate-skeptic Republican Party. The Republican governor of Illinois, lavishly supported by fossil fuel CEOs, lost to a Democrat who had pledged “to put the state on track to generate 100 percent of its power from renewables.” In the Congress, the new Democratic majority included a number of climate activists, including the 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. When the “Sunrise” climate group organized a sit-in in the office of the incoming House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to demand legislative action for a New Green Deal that would link jobs and climate action, Ocasio Cortez joined it and quickly emerged as its spokesperson.

So there has been no shortage of positive news for those trying to slow the oncoming climate disaster. Even Macron’s ill-fated plan to tax diesel fuel revealed not so much the impossibility of finding popular support for policies that might require sacrifices, but rather the blindness of well-intentioned liberal policy makers who think they can impose climate-friendly sacrifices on ordinary people while prioritizing tax and labor policies that benefit the wealthy and increase the already painful gap between rich and poor. This was the tenor, among other commentaries, of Rikhaya Diallo’s article on the AlJazeera website, “Why are the 'yellow vests' protesting in France?” and of the “Tribune” in Libération, cosigned by Dominique Méda, Pascal Lokiec and Eric Heyer: “Cette colère des gilet jaunes est le résultat de vingt ans de politiques néolibérales”

Macron himself is an excellent example of this blindness: He combined his neoliberal policies of lowering taxes on the wealthy and making it easier for employers to fire workers with an apparent comprehension of the need for serious climate action, expressed in a series of proposals and statements.

*In March 2018, his response to the US. withdrawal from the Paris Accord was to make “an impassioned plea for a border tax to prevent cheap carbon-intensive products [from] entering the EU market which could undermine cleaner local producers” as well as for a European carbon price floor.

*For US climate researchers who found the Trumpian federal government inhospitable, he launched a “Make Our Planet Great Again” program with major grants to 13 U.S. researchers.

* Addressing the US congress in April, Macron told the lawmakers: “what is the meaning of our life, really, if we work and live destroying the planet while sacrificing the future of our children?"

* Moreover, in November, shortly before the Donnybrook of his fuel tax plan, Macron demanded that the Brexit trade deal then being negotiated with the EU be made contingent on automatic incorporation of future European climate change directives into UK law.

The failure of Macron’s fuel tax proposal was then due to a cognitive dissonance common to many proposals by neoliberal statesmen to tackle the climate problem.

THE INDISPENSABLE GREEN NEW DEAL

There have been several unsuccessful political efforts in the United States to mitigate CO2 emissions by legislating a carbon market. The EU has also tried this, with its emissions trading scheme, but even the European version has not had much result, while the US proposals were either voted down in Congress, or died in committee. Historically, the best of those was the Climate Protection Act submitted by Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer in 2013, which died in committee. More recently, there have been proposals, spearheaded by veteran climate scientist Jim Hansen but picked up by a largely conservative group of elder statesmen in the US, for a carbon tax (or fee) and dividend system, which would distribute the proceeds of a carbon tax in such a way that the mid and low income groups would be compensated but the poor would benefit most. As one commentator put it, this might "make climate change action work for such groups as France’s gilets jaunes." But this kind of modest redistribution would do little to redress the ever-increasing insecurity of the bottom three quarters of the citizenry.

It is only Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s new proposal for a Green New Deal that attacks the root of the problem, a problem most clearly recognized by Naomi Klein in her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate: that climate change is only one of the two toxic gifts of a planetary industrialization fueled by coal and oil, and that the other toxic gift, filtered through neoliberal economies that prioritize deregulation and privatization, is its Siamese twin. That other poisoned apple in the garden of neoliberal globalization is the vast and growing inequality between rich and poor, an inequality that breeds insecurity everywhere and creates the conditions for yellow vest-type resistance to any climate-friendly measure – like increased fuel taxes – that will make the position of the middle and working classes even more precarious than it already is.

The great merit of Ocasio Cortez’s proposal is that she and her friends are not only attacking the climate problem at its root, but they are also sharply focused on legislation in the House of Representatives and on its practicalities. The sit-in of climate activists in Pelosi’s office was to gain her backing for a new select committee to formulate and propose a Green New Deal, and since January 1 Ocasio Cortez has formulated their demand as a “proposed addendum to House rules” that would establish precisely such a committee. While Pelosi appeared sympathetic to the sit-in’s demands, she only agreed to reinstall a pre-Trump committee on climate change. But the radical Democrats never expected their Green New Deal to be accepted immediately by the party leadership. They are in this for the long haul, looking forward to the 2020 elections to be able to implement their ideas.

The giant corporations that are now in political control of most of the world’s consumer societies depend, for their various programs of enriching their shareholders and executives, on the enfeeblement of the 90% of the population outside those categories. Until there is a fundamental shift from the neoliberal policies that have made most people’s lives so precarious – a shift implicit in the Green New Deal - they will continue to maintain that enfeeblement by deregulating, cancelling, or preventing any social legislation which might lessen mass insecurity by providing universal health care, guarantees of adequate food and housing, secure pensions, and decent and well-paid jobs.

In the absence of this kind of welfare, in a world in which politicians seem to be telling people their desire for it violates the fundamental principles of economics, one cannot expect the citizenry to accept willingly measures to limit climate change if they impose even more insecurity and impoverishment.

In other words, the argument for a Green New Deal idea is this: The policies needed to quickly mitigate climate change -- a publicly subsidized crash program for conversion to renewable energy, as well as the necessary infrastructure for it -- will require sacrifices in customary living standards from the citizenry in developed countries. For a generation or so, travel using non-renewable energy will probably need to be rationed or prohibited, meat production and consumption will need to be sharply curtailed, and many non-indispensable goods rationed. These sacrifices will only be acceptable to citizens if accompanied by measures that require the wealthy to sacrifice the most, proportionately, and that guarantee the less wealthy a renewed security in the necessities of life: adequate food, housing, health care, public transportation, education, and pensions. What is needed as a social basis for global resistance to catastrophic climate change, then, is a restoration of the welfare state. The latter was the postwar version of the New Deal that in America had restored hope to the generation of the Great Depression. After World War II, comparable measures protected for decades the shattered populations of many European countries from personal and social disintegration.

Briefly put, the violent opposition to Macron's fuel tax demonstrates why such a green-social construction may be the only way forward for us, not just in the US but across the planet. It is for all of us to transform this Green New Deal from hope to reality.

Cordially, and with best wishes for the new year,

Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change


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