4C Climate Newsletter - June 2020 - Post-Pandemic Perspectives


20 june 2020

Dear friends,

In the ten months since our last newsletter the normal flow of news on political, social and environmental matters has been interrupted. For many of those who share the concerns of 4C about the climate crisis, the need for radical measures against the pandemic appears paramount. Before the winter, there were four dominant questions: How rapid and effective would the movement away from a fossil fuel-centered world be? How bad was the climate crisis and how much worse would it get (killer heat waves, floods, droughts etc.) What was the likely evolution of the two main movements to mitigate its threat -- the citizen movements embodied in the multitude of climate action groups, from the relatively conservative ones like the Environmental Defense Fund to the radical civil disobedience groups like Extinction Rebellion? And what were the chances of reform by governmental action, such as the Green New Deal?

Most of our newsletters have focused on the rich harvest of articles on those questions that we've posted in our news rubric. Because of the pandemic, this letter will be somewhat different.

The Covid-19 pandemic burst into our lives and consciousness a few months ago, transforming hopes and perspectives both for investors intent on using current economic models to augment their wealth and for citizens determined to transform them for the sake of social justice and/or climate sanity. We see this in the struggle in the ”developed” West between public health officials and social critics on one side and, on the other, status quo-economists and business ideologists, about how serious the pandemic is and therefore how necessary it is to take recession-threatening measures to limit it. In the US, the President, fearful of defeat in the November elections if the economy sinks to depression levels, clearly supports the business ideologists who didn’t take the pandemic very seriously. This has crippled the public health counteroffensive, with 120,000 registered deaths the result.

Meanwhile the closing of so many enterprises to slow down the pandemic, including the passenger airlines that had thrived on transporting citizens to exotic holiday destinations, has resulted in a significant, if temporary, drop in greenhouse gas emissions; this was partly the result of government action in Europe to sharply curtail flights and encourage rail traffic within the continent. Moreover, austerity-oriented governments have been required to legislate huge sums of money for business bailouts and unemployment relief. This has encouraged many in the climate action movement in their hope that a comparably rapid increase in government action and particularly the closure of non-essential businesses, once the pandemic is behind us and the full weight of the oncoming climate catastrophe is felt by all, will be feasible. Massive public support for such measures, as well as the current proof that they can be quickly implemented, will be necessary in the not distant future.

Complicating the struggle against the virus in the here and now are not only the adverse effects on economic life of its suppression but the simultaneity of other critical issues. While measures against the pandemic may be igniting a severe economic crisis, the pandemic as well as the recession have coincided in the US and other countries with a sharp uptick in racial and class conflict, and that has a political and economic context: Politically, 'strong man' populist leaders use pre-existing racist and xenophobic sentiments among libertarian opponents of central state regulation to cement popular opinion in their favor. Libertarianism also drives the deregulatory economic policies strongmen embrace, which explains the support of big business.

In the U.S. the populist current is violently racist as well as libertarian. The police murder of George Floyd, for example, came after three years of Donald Trump's dog whistling to the radical right/white supremacist crowd, exemplified by his "good people on both sides" comment when the KKK marched and Nazis bellowed antisemitic chants at anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville. Trump’s recent use of a tear gas attack on peaceful protesters behind the White House to clear the path for his stroll to a Bible-wielding photo-op at a nearby church, and his subsequent construction of an eight-foot high wire fence to keep protesters away from "his" property, followed on his racist justifications (keeping out the Central American rapists, murderers and drug dealers) for demanding a huge concrete wall on the Texas/Mexico border.

Although African-Americans were most directly affected and infuriated by Floyd's murder, their protests were joined by multitudes of non-minority citizens fed up with Trump's pandering to the racist right, and unwilling to leave their non-white compatriots exposed alone to police vengeance. Moreover, police violence was not only exercised on blacks, as the skull fracture and brain injury of a 75 year old white protester, George Gugino of Buffalo, NY, has testified.

There is, however, an even larger issue, tying the simultaneous crises of Covid-19 and the protests against racial inequality -- the two crises that now compete for headline space – to the climate crisis. That issue is the malaise of the kind of society we have been living in. This has been made explicit in the posters pasted up in my Amsterdam neighborhood by Extinction Rebellion which state (I translate from the Dutch): “We cannot return to normal, because “normal” is exactly the problem.”

Some – Bruno Latour for example - have made the argument that the same capitalist rapaciousness toward nature that is destroying the physical conditions for a livable climate has opened the world to this awful affliction by its industrialization of agriculture, with profit maximization overriding health considerations, and its globalization of production chains. A Guardian article of June 17 cites the world's highest authorities as confirming Latour's analysis: "Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International, and the world has been ignoring this stark reality for decades."

That rapaciousness also augments the insensitivity of so many to those "others" whose humanity racists deny because of differences in skin color, religion or language.

Thus the plunder of the commons bemoaned by conservative as well as radical critics of economic individualism seems to be doing us in at a rate not dreamed of by earlier social pessimists.

Despite the temporary pandemic-related dip in industrial activities, the ravages of ever-increasing greenhouse gases continue to darken the future of humankind, albeit at a (temporarily) slower rate. Until the pharmaceutical companies have discovered a vaccine against this virus, there is little concerned citizens can do but plan for the grim post-pandemic future, and for the kinds of mass action that will activate an ever-larger movement for social transformation.

A Green New Deal that is focused not on the restoration of GDP growth, but on a sustainable economy for all humankind will be required, on as broad a global scale as possible. It will need the cooperation of all current geopolitical powers - the EU, China, the US and Russia, coordinated by the UN.* It will have to be based on a renewal of state regulation of the economy but now along the lines of social ecology rather than capitalist globalization. This necessitates a re-invention of the res publica, relying on us as citizens, not consumers. Our starting point could be that Extinction Rebellion poster mentioned above: “We cannot return to normal, because 'normal' is exactly the problem.”

Fraternal greetings from Amsterdam,

Arthur Mitzman, coordinator of Concerned Citizens against Climate Change

* See our posting of a Guardian article of June 16 (http://www.stopwarming.eu/?news&id=4003) that cites the head of the UN's environmental organization: The coronavirus pandemic is 'just a fire drill' for what is likely to follow from the climate crisis, and the protests over racial injustice around the world show the need to tie together social equality, environmental sustainability and health, the UN’s sustainable business chief has said.

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