First published on 50-50, openDemocracy, on April 14, 2014
There is nothing new about this. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in this week’s New Yorker, we have known since the seventies that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming. The signs of impending disaster are clear. The polar ice caps are melting; the coral reefs are dying; the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increased carbon emissions. Heat waves, heavy rains and floods are worse and more frequent. Species are becoming extinct; fresh water supplies are being used up; the world’s food supply is at risk. But we still keep burning carbon like there was no tomorrow; in fact 'atmospheric carbon dioxide levels [are] rising almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decades of the 20th century’.
The US is not the only country putting the world at risk, but it is the one I know best, and it is an egregious offender which, instead of imposing a carbon tax, subsidizes fossil fuel production with tax incentives worth four billion dollars a year. As if things were not bad enough, now Congress has visions of checkmating Russia by supplying an endless supply of fracked natural gas to Europe, which will of course increase carbon emissions. Meanwhile the Obama administration is still dithering about whether to green light the Keystone pipeline which, if approved, will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries. Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA says that if the pipeline goes through, ‘it will be game over for the climate’.
In short, this is an emergency. Bishop Desmond Tutu has just issued a call to support the global campaign to divest from fossil fuels, and target the US over the pipeline, using similar tactics to the boycott of apartheid South Africa. As he sees it, ‘We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth’.
That is certainly true in American politics, where the power of money has reached an all time high; the disgraceful McCutcheon vs FEC Supreme Court decision will only increase the domination of millionaire donors. The Republicans, in particular, have long been ruled by an alliance between worshippers of Moloch and Bible-punchers. In the 2012 election, the infamous Koch brothers, whose wealth comes from oil, gave Republican candidates $3 million with another $36.6 million coming through their nonprofit foundation, Americans for Prosperity.
The Koch Brothers, libertarian believers in free enterprise, are also major funders of climate change disinformation. No surprise that they have also expressed the desire to 'take the unions out at the knees', are major donors to groups attacking women's reproductive rights and gay rights, and of course oppose Obamacare and other efforts to help the poor or extend the social safety net.
One spokesman for the ‘free enterprise’ right is Joseph Bast, director of the Heartland Institute, a leading opponent of the scientific consensus on climate change, also known for combatting the idea that tobacco smoke had anything to do with cancer. Among the many funders of the Heartland Institute are Phillip Morris and Exxon Mobile, the Walton family of Walmart fame, and various rightwing foundations. Bast has already blasted the IPCC’s climate change report in Forbes magazine—whose motto is ‘a capitalist tool’—claiming that ‘No changes in precipitation patterns, snow, monsoons, or river flows that might be considered harmful to human well-being or plants or wildlife have been observed that could be attributed to rising CO2 levels’.
I ask myself, what kind of people are willing to risk destroying life on earth just to make money? Do they think they can survive in their gated communities if the rest of us perish? Do they plan to relocate to another planet? A prophet would say they worship false gods—in this case, Moloch, the money god of capitalism described long ago by Allen Ginsberg: ‘Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! ...Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities! Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!’
But US worshippers of Moloch are not the only obstruction to action on climate change; Christian fundamentalists are equally fierce in attacking the scientific consensus. Some of them believe that the degradation of the climate is God’s punishment for sin, which they may define as anything from short skirts to homosexuality. Others welcome global warming as a sign that the end of the world is coming and they will soon be raptured up to that gated community in the sky.
Only in this US is this level of unreason considered sane—in fact, according to the last Pew Research Center poll, one third of the US population believes the world was created exactly as described in Genesis. Among them is Rep. Paul Broun, a Tea Party Republican from Georgia, who recently said: ‘I've come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution, and embryology, and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.... I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says’.
It is hard to know what to do about a political system held captive by an alliance of big money and Bible-punchers. US environmental groups are certainly becoming more activist in response to climate change; in March, 15,000 people turned out and hundreds of students were arrested at the White House in a protest against the Keystone pipeline. But these are not the kind of numbers needed to save the planet, and most Americans are too busy struggling to make ends meet to have time for politics. It is impossible to overstate the exhaustion and dis-empowerment of the working and/or middle class (over here, we have never been too clear about the difference). The official unemployment rate is stuck at 6.7%, a gross underestimate since it doesn’t count people who are working part time or have given up looking. One-third of the workforce is now in contingent employment with no union or job security. Many people have to work 60 to 80 hours a week, often putting together part time jobs. Add to this the extra time and energy, mostly female, needed to make up for lack of public services for the elderly, young children, and the disabled, and the hours most Americans spend driving (producing carbon emissions) because of poor public transportation options, and you have a crushing burden of overwork. Even though the system has lost all credibility, particularly with the young, the ruling elite has no problem keeping the lid on, because people are so hard-pressed and the American left is too weak to present a coherent alternative.
Then there is the abysmal state of US science education—since local school boards determine curricula and standards, the teaching of evolution is likely to be compromised in conservative communities. A survey of high school biology teachers estimated that only 28% deal with evolution in a robust way that unifies the curriculum. Another 13% are creationists and roughly 60% want to avoid controversy.
Scientists are trying to respond to this problem through the media. In February, 'Bill Nye the Science Guy', host of a popular kids’ program on public television, accepted an invitation to debate the founder of the Creation Museum of Petersburg, Kentucky, where diorama dinosaurs frolic with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And now Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, a profoundly rightwing station whose coverage of climate change was judged 72% misleading by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has jumped on the science bandwagon in collaboration with National Geographic. They have produced 'Cosmos' a thirteen part series about space hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. The series had a huge debut, hitting 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages. While the series will not address climate change or evolution directly, deGrasse Tyson believes that it will have an effect by saying to the audience: “You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd?”
But science education, however necessary, is not enough to challenge the power of Moloch and the fundamentalists in Washington. Bishop Tutu is right; pressure must be applied to the US by the rest of the world. Corporations and governments who do business here and in Canada should be vocal about fossil fuel subsidies and refuse to work with anyone involved in the Keystone Pipeline. Diplomats and journalists who engage with the US should become a lot more aggressive about climate concerns. Countries and NGOs should consider developing the kind of popular education and organizing projects for the American heartland that the US government has used to “build democracy” in other countries.
As the IPCC report says, we have to get moving now for it will soon be too late. If our various intellectual, cultural and political elites are capable of mobilizing for the Olympics, for a “war on terror,” even to find the black box of a vanished airplane, they have got to be able to get going on climate change. This crisis supersedes and includes all other questions; it will affect all our movements and constituencies, all our countries and peoples, millions of other species and the earth itself. What is it going to take to get our governments to deal with it?