Professor Chris Williams says a solution to the climate crisis requires a restructuring of the global economy, but when the last opportunity to do so came after the 2008-9 financial crisis, world leaders saved the banks instead
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to To Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
This year at the United Nations annual general meeting, a special session has been called by the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to discuss the climate crisis. Further, this year they will be joined by corporations and civil society organizations.
But relying on the United Nations to deliver solutions to the greenhouse gas emissions have been a failure according to most advocates and scientists. While the IPCC reports have been great at identifying and mapping the crisis, the UN has not been able to bring nation-states to a binding solution.
To discuss what can be done about the problem is Chris Williams. Chris Williams is a professor of physics at Pace University, an environmental activist, and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.
Thanks so much for joining us, Chris.
CHRIS WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM: Thanks for having me on your show.
PERIES: Chris, can you map the long but failed journey of the United Nations’ efforts to address climate change, starting with the Kyoto Protocol?
WILLIAMS: The initial rounds of negotiations going back to Kyoto in 1997 were meant to be binding. So there were going to be repercussions for the nations that didn’t live up to the emissions cuts, from the developed nations, anyway, that signed on. And yet now we’re in 2014 and emissions have only gone up. In fact, over the left most recent decade, the rate of emissions doubled over previous decades. So not only are we going in the wrong direction still, we’re going in the wrong direction twice as fast as we were before.
I don’t expect anything binding–and probably anything, actually, to be perfectly honest, at least anything substantial.
PERIES: Is carbon trading working?
WILLIAMS: There’s no evidence that it’s working. It’s working for some bankers and financial dealers in terms of the amount of money they’re making from being in the middle of the transactions, but the European trading system, which has been in place for the longest period of time, is widely regarded as a failure. It’s now in its third iteration to try and improve it, because even the organizers of the whole thing realized that the first version and the second version were inadequate and were not really having much of an impact. And so I would say that, no. I mean, the only people it’s been successful for, as I mentioned, are bankers. And in terms of actually cutting emissions being effective at doing that, it’s been a huge scam and kind of a casino, a small part of the casino that was the world economy in 2008 and 2009. So the idea that more countries want to trade emissions and that if you cut it in one place it’s okay to emit it somewhere else strikes me as illogical if we’re actually trying to overall redirect the economic activity away from ever-increasing amounts of energy use, especially when that’s predicated on the burning of fossil fuels.
PERIES: So, obviously, a massive restructuring of our economic life is required, and alarm bells have been going off in terms of the protest, demonstrations, and people organizing in the environmental movement asking for this kind of restructuring to take place. Do you think that the world leaders are actually going to be discussing this issue?
WILLIAMS: Restructuring the world economy seems unlikely, because the last time–I mean, if we’re just talking about restructuring the world economy, that really already came up in a pretty fundamental and profound way with the financial crisis of 2008 and ’09. And there was an opportunity there to rethink things, and that did not happen, because they bailed out the banks, the people responsible for the deregulation and the financial speculation in the first place. Meanwhile, ordinary people are still paying the price with unemployment and cuts to social spending and so on as a result of the fact that trillions of dollars was poured into saving the banks, who’d caused the problem in the first place. So they saved their friends in the banks. So I think that that is one example of a way in which I doubt there’s going to be any restructuring in order to save something that we all depend on but the governing elites seem to think we can do without, which is a stable climate and a functioning global ecosystem. So I don’t think they’re going to be talking about reorientating the global economy away from the kind of things that they’re pouring more money into.
PERIES: So let’s focus in on the two world’s largest polluters/emitters of carbon into the air, China and the United States. There has been some reports that Secretary of State Kerry has been in discussions with China, and yet China’s actually not coming to the summit. Do you think any progress can be made from these discussions? And what are you hearing about the discussions?
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WILLIAMS: I think the scale of the protests is growing against world leaders who are doing nothing except emit hot air about what they’re going to be doing. And so both in the United States, around the world, and in China–there are huge environmental protests in China going on all the time about the quality of the air, the water, the soil. And so I think that there is some building pressure, which is us, which is what we need to be doing more of, to force the people who are supposed to represent us in government to actually take firmer action.
But I don’t think the pressure is sufficient yet for them to really move forward, because, as you said, the two major emitters, China and the U.S., their economies are in very different places. Both are still determined to continue expanding. I mean, that’s the way that capitalism works. The economies have to expand. That’s the first problem. And they’re expanding into more and more fossil fuel use. So, for example, President Obama is opening up more of the deep underground offshore tracts of land to drilling. He is opening up the Arctic as well for the first time to more drilling read. And, of course, fracking is happening in ever more counties all across the United States, to the extent that the U.S. could finally reach the holy grail that Nixon talked about, which was energy independence, back in the 1970s.
So I don’t see any real evidence that the United States is a genuine partner in that kind of conversation, even as China has actually done some things with increasing wind and solar power. But it’s also still building coal-fired power plants and nuclear power stations.
So if you are determined to continue the accelerating outgrowth and building of your economy iand you’re not talking about fundamentally shutting down some elements of the power systems, such as, in particular, coal, in the near-term future and replacing that with more benign renewable sources, such as wind and solar, and you have a clear band for doing that and a timeframe, then I don’t think that it’s a serious conversation. And there’s plenty of evidence, some of which I just was talking about, to back up that statement.
PERIES: So, Chris, when you look around the world, things have actually gotten worse, not better, since Kyoto. You know, places like Canada is emitting 30 percent more carbon into the air than they were before. The situation in the United States, in China has gotten worse. Places like India–I just recently read that they’re opening 40 new coal plants in order to address their energy needs. So things have gotten quite bad. And yet the only thing that might work, from your point of view, is really a binding agreement of nation-states. What kind of pressure is going to be required to get them to a binding agreement?
WILLIAMS: That’s good question. I think we’re going to need–I mean, there are two possibilities, but I do think that it would have to start with historically the biggest emitter, the United States. Also it would have to start there because the United States is the richest country the world’s ever seen. And so not only are they the most responsible, but also the most capable. And so, if you don’t have the United States setting genuine goals for emissions reductions and a change to the economy and economic activity, then all of the other countries who are less capable or less responsible are going to say, well, why should we do anything if you’re not? And so I think there is the possibility that if the country most responsible and most capable were to come up with some serious plan and then start implementing it, I think that there’s a possibility that other countries would follow on. But that’s clearly not happening.
And so how can we use world opinion and the pressures and desires and protest activities of people on the ground in various countries to force all the nations to do something? Because the reality is, as the UN report made clear recently, that only ten countries are responsible for about 70 percent of world emissions. So really we should be focused on those ten countries changing, because they are the most critical. And the two biggest are clearly responsible for almost 50 percent of total missions, the U.S. and China.
But it really has to start with the U.S., which I think is where activism and protest is really key to changing the dynamics, ’cause change is not going to come through the Democrats. It’s obviously not going to come through the Republicans. And so we have to be talking about structures outside of and independent of the mainstream parties. And that’s up to us to get organized. And, fortunately, that’s–as we’ve been seeing with some of the recent environmental protests, particularly in New York, that’s [happening]. Tens of thousands of people are out on the streets wanting, demanding real change. And so that is a very hopeful sign, because when people get on the streets, things can happen much more quickly than when we leave things to Congress.
PERIES: What are some of the big demands that are being made that can actually be achieved?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think that there’s an awful lot that could be done. I think one of the first things is we should be getting in more government revenue, which means going back to a more progressive tax structure, i.e., in simple terms, taxing the rich and taxing corporations. Two-thirds of U.S. corporations pay no income tax as of right now. So that would generate a lot of money. I think we should be radically reducing the budget that goes to the military, which is almost $1 trillion a year. And with all of the extra resources, we should be hiring the millions of people that we need.
PERIES: You mentioned the military. Let me just ask you about the military, because they are one of the biggest emitters of carbon into the air.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, the military is not only one of the–the U.S. military, the Pentagon–not only one of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide pollution, but also one of the biggest energy users. About 80 percent of government energy in federal buildings goes to the Department of Defense. And they’re also one of the biggest chemical polluters, bigger than the five largest chemical corporations combined, through their actions all over the world. And, of course, they kill enormous numbers of people too around the world, with drone warfare and so on. So reducing the size of the military[, apart from (?)] acquiring lots of money to do more beneficial things, would have all kinds of other positive impacts on the planet and its people. So I think that that’s one thing.
And then, I mean, the U.S. recently–the American Association of Civil Engineers recently gave U.S. infrastructure a C-minus because the bridges, the tunnels, the dams, etc., are all falling into disrepair, the sanitation system. We clearly need a new energy grid, not just in terms of building solar panels or wind turbines, but actually a whole new grid. We need to rethink a more efficient sanitation system. We should be building trains, not cars. I mean, these are all things that will generate millions of socially responsible, socially necessary, environmentally more benign jobs, which can be well-paying union jobs, far more than is currently being talked about, if we redirected the resources in kind of a–with an eye towards long-term planning. So these are not revolutionary solutions. These are just genuine reforms to the system that would actually ultimately stop it–you know, capitalism is currently eating itself. It’s undermining its own future, not just ours. But the system cannot carry on like this. But it’s so irrational that it continues anyway as this kind of unstoppable, ever-growing monster. And so we need to kind of stop tying it down and putting the brakes on, which can happen with the kind of genuine reforms that I mentioned, but even they’re not being talked about in mainstream circles, even though they would make enormous amounts of sense. So I think it’s there that we have to apply more pressure to get that kind of ball rolling and talk about, once we achieve those things, what else can we do in terms of increasing funding to schools and hospitals, employing more teachers and nurses and so on, the kind of things that are really useful and productive for society.
PERIES: Well, Chris, I thank you again for joining us on The Real News Network.
WILLIAMS: Thank you very much for having me on your show.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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