4C Newsletter of August 2019


12 august 2019

Health issues aborted a 4C newsletter drafted last March, and I’ve decided to merge that overview of then recent events within a larger framework that covers the period since last winter. The record of events and newsworthy viewpoints that this letter is based on can be found in our news rubric. There is a partial breakdown of those postings into the categories of “extreme weather events”, “how bad is it?” and “what can be done and what is being done” in our documents section.

Dear Friends

For decades, most of the climate news has been bad. David Wallace-Wells has spelled out the framework in his chilling summation of today’s climate science, The Uninhabitable Earth. A Story of the Future. The review we’ve posted of this book in our news rubric of August 1 describes it as “a picture of disastrous change on an almost incomprehensible scale. Transformations that will have consequences for thousands of years to come are already being expressed in sudden crises that spring up overnight. The changes are at once planetary and minute…

In broad brush strokes, our ongoing self-destruction in the past year has included the following:
* greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase in 2018 at a time they needed to diminish to spare us catastrophe;
* large parts of the northern hemisphere have just endured the worst July heat wave in history;
* wild fires like the ones that had earlier devastated much of California are now raging in Sweden and Siberia;
* the accession of right-winger Bolsonaro in Brazil has brought the accelerated destruction of the Amazon rain forests, long viewed as the lungs of the earth;
* the melting of polar ice hastens a sea level rise that will within decades flood coastal cities across the planet;
* As our posting of August 1 reports, "the disruption of air currents high above the earth, the North Atlantic Jet Stream, ... was trapping warm air over Greenland [and causing] a record-setting heatwave in Europe."

All these have been followed by the release on August 8 of a new UN (IPCC) report on the dire consequences of climate change for world food production. The report underlines the need to move from a meat-centered to a vegetarian diet, based on local products rather than mega-farms producing for distant markets.

Damaged food production is where global warming intersects with global geopolitics: the change in rain patterns both in Africa and in Central America is ruining crops in many places, breeding ethnic conflicts and forcing mass migrations of farming populations northward, toward Europe and the U.S. Large numbers seek refuge and work in countries where insecure populations fear them and demagogues use that fear to come to, or stay in, power. Immigration anxiety is manna from heaven for the European and American Extreme Right.

Nonetheless, many on planet earth are becoming aware that facing up to the climate disaster our industrial society has created will require fundamental changes in the way we live: the consumerist life style that offers individual “freedom” by airborne vacations to distant places, a car for everyone over fifteen, a heavy meat diet with year-round fruit and vegetables from distant continents, and the goal of large private homes and unlimited wealth – all this will no longer be possible if we want to limit the catastrophe that is descending on us.

The world is slowly, too slowly, becoming conscious of this, as we can see by a review of the counter-activity in recent months.

The Green Counteroffensive: better late than never

There has been some progress.

On May 21, a few days before the elections to the European Parliament, the UK Guardian published an editorial calling for an enlarged Green Group in the European Parliament “to drive climate policy forward and prove that the activism of recent months has been effective.” The article claimed that “a strong result for Green politicians, an enlargement of their group of 50 MEPs to nearer 60, would show the world that a significant portion of the bloc’s 400 million voters recognize the gravity of the existential crisis confronting humanity.

In fact, the elections increased the Green representation from 50 to 75.

Despite the focus of most news media on the growth of the populist Right, climate action and green electoral support accelerated in the first half of 2019, exceeding the increase, in Europe at least, of xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-environmental electorates. There has indeed been a steady growth of right wing populist parties in France, Italy and some East European countries, capped by the UK’s Brexit drama and the shocking entry of large new climate-skeptic, anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties into the European Parliament and the Dutch upper house.

Alongside that invasion of the mind-snatchers however, spurred by increasing media coverage and public awareness of the climate crisis, unprecedentedly massive climate marches have shown an opposite trend. They started with demonstrations of striking schoolchildren, inspired by the solo action of a Swedish fifteen year old girl, an action that combined ecological with political intent. Reacting to Sweden’s wildfires and heat waves of the summer of 2018, Greta Thunberg had declared a school strike for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament. She skipped school altogether before the country’s September 8 elections, and after them, returned every Friday to picket the Parliament, with a gradually increasing cohort of adolescent supporters. (Election result? After months of uncertainty, the Social Democrats fended off a strong challenge from the right-nationalist Sweden Democrats to form a government with the help of green, centrist and far left parties.)

In the fall and winter of 2018-2019, Greta Thunberg’s example inspired many other schoolchildren across the world to organize their own demonstrations. On March 15 of this year, The Guardian reported that “Tens of thousands of children and young people in more than 100 countries have gone on strike to challenge politicians to take decisive action on climate change.” (A photo archive of these protests is on the site of The Atlantic magazine) In one of the many youth demonstrations against the climate crisis, a youngster held up a poster that said “Make the planet Greta again.”

The urgency of UN reports on the climate crisis, abetted by a sharp increase in newspaper publicity, has inspired not only this upswing in the intensity of civic demonstrations demanding action, but also the emergence of large scale civil disobedience.

- In the United Kingdom, alongside the widespread controversy over leaving or remaining in the European Union, a new radical organization, ExtinctionRebellion, used mass civil disobedience to close down London and several other UK cities for the better part of a week in April in order to focus public attention on the climate crisis: many of its tens of thousands of adherents not only sat down in major intersections and bridges but glued themselves to the pavement to avoid easy police removal. Hundreds were arrested.

- Braving arrest, in Paris and Brisbane smaller ExtinctionRebellion groups subsequently blocked traffic to protest government inaction.

- In Germany, the Ende Gelände alliance chose a coal mine in North-Rhine Westphalia as their target: According to a Common Dreams report of June 22: “Hundreds of climate activists stormed a massive open-pit coal mine in Germany on Saturday, entering a standoff with police inside the mine while thousands of others maintained separate blockades of the nation's coal infrastructure as part of a week-long series of actions designed to end Europe's dependency on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the sequence of heat waves, wild fires, floods and unusually violent storms had awakened people across the planet to the reality of approaching catastrophes and to the urgent need to mitigate them by CO2 reductions. Large climate demonstrations filed through the streets of major cities, including 40,000 who, on March 10, defied a steady cold downpour in the center of Amsterdam. Participation in this demand for government action was five times larger than any previous Dutch climate mobilization.

A close look at the Dutch situation will show us the political mechanisms that are beginning to come into play and their limitations.

Climate politics in The Netherlands

In the Amsterdam climate protest of March 10, the overriding theme was the demand for a carbon levy on the greenhouse gas emissions of major industrial groups – “let the polluter pay”. The concept was politically potent, since the Dutch GreenLeft Party had embodied it in a plan it wanted the center-right government of Mark Rutte to accept.

The Dutch situation shows the political potential but also the limits of the current mobilization. In 2015, environmental NGO Urgenda had sued the government for non-compliance with the Paris Accord. Unusually, the courts agreed, and pressured the government to come up with a plan for compliance. The government appealed the court’s verdict and three years later, on October 9, 2018, lost again. And then appealed again. Judgment from the Dutch Hoge Raad (High Court) is pending.

Meanwhile, in December 2018 the government, after negotiations with NGOs and industry, produced a plan that was heavily reliant on nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. Since many environmental groups had long rejected these as unsafe, the NGOs, supported by trade union representatives, abandoned negotiations on the plan with government and industry representatives.

A month later, on January 25, 2019, environmental organizations received two crucial supports: the government’s planning office for the environment (PBL) reported that the cabinet’s proposed climate law would not respond to the court’s demand for a 25% cut in Dutch CO2 emissions. On that same day, a proposal for a €50/ton tax on CO2 emissions, similar to the GreenLeft policy proposal, was advanced by 81 of the country’s leading economists as the best way to conform to the country’s climate mitigation obligations.

The cabinet was not united on climate matters. In the 2017 elections, the main center-right parties, the Christian Democrats and the liberal VVD, had lost too much electoral support to anti-immigrant, anti-EU and climate skeptical parties of the populist right to be able to govern without the support of two smaller, but more principled, centrist parties. These were Democrats 66 and the Christian Union, both of which had positions on climate matters that were closer to the GreenLeft party. (The latter had increased its parliamentary representation from four to fourteen in the 2017 poll but wisely rejected participation in the center-right cabinet.)

In March 2019, events combined to push the cabinet to accept the GreenLeft proposal for a heavy tax on industrial emissions: The massive turnout for the March 10 climate demo occurred three days before a renewed judgment from the PBL that the legislative proposal of the cabinet would be insufficient to adequately constrain emissions. Meanwhile the predictions for the March 20 elections for the Senate showed the government losing its one vote majority in the Dutch upper house. This would have jeopardized the governing coalition, since legislation required a majority in both legislative chambers.

Anticipating this situation, a week before those elections, on the same day that the PBL delivered its second critical verdict on the government’s climate plan and just three days after 40,000 wet and cold but determined citizens had filled the center of Amsterdam calling for an effective response to the climate crisis, the government adopted what was essentially the GreenLeft plan for a heavy carbon tax on the three hundred largest industrial companies.

In doing so, the governing coalition avoided further censure by the courts and more militant opposition from GreenLeft and the environmental NGOs. But, because the government and the media framed the proposed climate policy in terms of financial cost of the measures to taxpayers rather than the dangers of continued inaction, popular support for the new policy declined significantly in the spring of this year, from 46% to 37.5%.

Dutch climate policy has yet to be implemented.

The gap to be filled by a Global Green New Deal

Clearly, the action taken by governments until now – even by the climate-friendly Dutch one – is altogether insufficient, when measured by the emergency situation outlined in the first part of this letter, What is to be done?

Many governments, particularly in Europe, now acknowledge that there is a “climate emergency”. But their policies do not, as yet, back up that phrase with the sort of action it would warrant. The recurrent refrain is that the public would not support significant limitation on their current freedoms and standard of living (the Dutch term for such support is draagvlak). As long as climate policy is presented only as desirable, but not absolutely indispensable – something like an expensive dessert after a full meal rather than the water without which our species will die – that support will be shaky.

The Green New Deal demanded by progressives in the US Congress is a template that still requires details, a change of government and a planetary scope. The UN, whose Secretary General Guterres is a strong advocate of radical climate action [http://www.stopwarming.eu/?news&id=3579], needs to be involved, for several reasons.

One is that only the UN has the moral authority and the resources to convene the necessary conferences to coordinate climate action on a planetary level.

A second: apart from the US and Europe, all the Asian, African and Latin American countries that will suffer the most from the climate crisis, but lack the resources to combat it effectively, need to be involved. China in particular, which is steamrolling its way into industrial modernity but whose leadership claims it cannot reduce its massive coal-based GHG output – the largest in the world – until more of its people have risen above the poverty level (2030 was the last estimate) -- China must be brought into the Green New Deal picture. Only the UN could negotiate this.

A third: The issues that need to be addressed are breathtakingly large and serious: convincing people around the world that they can only preserve a planetary environment capable of supporting human life for future generations if they accept the fundamental changes in life style, hopes and expectations outlined at the end of the first part of this newsletter. Planetary organization, which only the UN can provide, is needed to begin the necessary conversion to a sustainable social order. Since the struggle against global warming is literally a struggle for survival of the human species, the climate crisis must be confronted with the same willingness to sacrifice and work that characterized the US, English and Russian peoples in the war against Nazism.

What can be done?

• Production and use of fossil fuels should stop as quickly as possible. Existing energy companies should be nationalized and invest in solar, wind and hydro power.
• Automobile factories should everywhere be converted either to the production of giant wind turbines or the manufacture of high speed trains.
• On all continents, new energy infrastructures – e.g. high voltage cables undersea and over land – need to be built quickly to carry renewable energy over long distances.
• Advertisements for air travel holidays to distant destinations should no longer be presented in television or print media.
• Since meat production involves large-scale land cultivation to grow cattle feed which, on our resource-limited planet could better be used for vegetables, meat production should be reduced to a fraction of what it now is and meat should be rationed (as it was in World War II).
• To increase the capacity of the earth’s forests to absorb CO2,many billions of trees need to be planted. Workers made redundant by the shift to renewables should be offered work here.
• To offset the cost and the culture shock to the large majority resulting from this transition, all measures should be accompanied by wealth redistribution through the tax structure and by the social guarantees common under the post-war European welfare state: unemployment and health insurance, free education for up to sixteen years, and adequate pensions for the aged. Food and shelter as a human right.

With hope,
Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change

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