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Subhankar Banerjee: Don’t expect much from global leaders gathering in NYC for the 2014 Climate Summit – most of their countries work with the fossil fuel industry

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

A video of satellite mapping of the melting polar ice caps released by NASA is alarming. Have a look.


According to climate scientists of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC, we are now potentially in an irreversible climate crisis. The IPCC reports that if we stay on the present course of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, there will be–and I quote–severe and pervasive irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

Joining us to discuss this from Port Townsend, Washington, is Subhankar Banerjee. Subhankar is an environmental and humanities scholar and activist, he founded, and he’s the editor of an anthology, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.

Thanks for joining us, Subhankar.


PERIES: Subhankar, obviously, recapping the polar ice cap is out of the question. So then what can the leaders of these nation-states that’ll be gathering in New York at the end of the month for the climate summit do to address the alarm bells being sent off by IPCC?

BANERJEE: I wish I could say a whole lot. In fact, what I’m going to do is talk about what they might be able to achieve in next–the big climate summit that’ll take place in December 2015, but not a whole lot, because what’s taken place is that–let me just broaden it a little bit–is that two main climate institutions, the IPCC and the other arm of UN, the UN FCCC, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that is charged to come up with the treaty–so this meeting is to get to that point.

So what’s happening is that both of these institutions’ useful life is essentially coming to an end. And IPCC has been around for about a little over a quarter of a century, and they have done the best they can. Having said that, it is a conservative organizations, in the sense that what they have said in the past and have been saying, the reality is almost always outpacing it in many cases. Like, the polar melting of the ice cap that you mentioned is melting much faster than what IPCC had predicted. The Arctic Sea ice is melting much further.

Having said that–and these changes are [incompr.] constantly. Having said that, the IPCC reports are extremely important, ’cause it is giving us a comprehensive global picture of where we are. And in the latest synthesis report, they mention that the impact that we are already seeing could be considered dangerous. And that’s already pretty early for them to say that.

Having said that, the UN FCCC, the climate treaty that’s supposed to happen, that’s been going on almost also quarter of a century now. And that’s basically come to a dead end, because nothing really can be achieved in next year’s Paris summit, mainly because no large country, industrial country and industrializing country like China and India, are really interested in solving the climate crisis. All of these countries–U.S., Russia, China–are all moving in the opposite direction by massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction and transport. And that’s where we are today.

So the thing is that we would hope that these nation-states would do something, but the reality is saying it’s actually what’s happening is the [incompr.] It’s going in the reverse direction.

PERIES: Subhankar, so if they have not been able to successfully come up with a treaty or a binding agreement all these years, what do you expect of them in the coming meeting?

BANERJEE: Well, like I said, really not much. It’s going to be a lot of windowdressing and kind of really a charade, essentially, because they are essentially just catering to corporate interests. So I don’t really have a clear answer to a question [of] what can we expect. [What] We would expect then, ideally speaking, is to really get a control on their extraction expansion of fossil fuels and emission reduction. But even emission reduction, who knows? Them might come up with a number.

PERIES: So if the countries aren’t able to–and especially the larger fossil-fuel and carbon-emission countries like China, the United States,–aren’t able to really do anything in terms of the nation-states and its leadership, it can also command the fossil-fuel industry to have some regulation and do something more assertive. Do you think that’s a possibility?

BANERJEE: Not exactly, because most of these countries are really working with the fossil fuel industry. And in the U.S., fossil fuel industry basically runs the United States government, as like James Hansen’s–once said, that it’s basically fossil fuel–oil, coal-fired, oil-well Congress we have.

So let me just give you a couple of examples, and maybe this will clarify. Right now, just last week, Russia and China, President Putin and Chinese vice premier–this just happened last week, few days ago–launched the construction of what they call the Power of Siberia pipeline that’ll bring in the Siberian gas from Russia to China and rest of [snip] This is the largest construction project on earth ever–$70 billion construction project–and the largest oil-and-gas network on earth. It’s much bigger than anything that has ever happened. So that’s taking place on the Russian Arctic. And Russia and China have signed a deal, a $400 billion contract earlier this year, in May, to supply Siberian gas to China over the next 30 year period. And not only that, on top of that they have already started–just last week, again, just a few days ago, they have started accepting payments not in dollar, but in yuan and ruble. So that will have very severe impact on [incompr.] Our petrodollar, the hegemony of petrodollar, is coming to an end.

So now if we move to that U.S. side, in Alaska, Arctic Alaska, there is a renewed push to open up Arctic Alaska to Arctic Ocean to oil drilling. Shell just last week submitted their petition or their application to drill in the Chukchi Sea, and they’re bringing two oil rigs now, although it’s all caught up in legal battles right now, and we will see what happens. And the Obama administration right now is trying to fast-track the environmental impact statement, which–I’ve just spoken with the [incompr.] people, my colleagues there, they just said that this is a fast-track process going on right now.

Secondly, in July, President Obama started the process to sell more leases in the Arctic Ocean, in the Beaufort Sea. The lease sale will take place in 2017, but he’s already asking the stakeholders to provide their comments. Something absolutely this president should not be doing: to sell more leases in the Arctic Ocean. So while on the one hand, on sort of the political rhetoric side, we keep hearing that the president is interested in solving the climate crisis [incompr.] emissions, all of that is essentially a charade and a windowdressing at the same time expansion of both the extraction part, as well as the transport part is taking place.

And in the Pacific Northwest, you mentioned Port Townsend is where I live. There is now a real great fear of massive expansion of what we call tanker traffic through the entire Salish Sea that kind of borders U.S. and Canada and the Arctic Ocean, to bring in essentially three things to transport: coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, and tar sands oil from Canada to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, if that gets built. So all of these massive expansions are taking place.

So now if we come to that UN climate summit that’s going to take place, of course all of these countries will talk about various rhetorics and cutting down emission here and there. But underneath the hood, it’s actually massive expansion of fossil fuel going on.

PERIES: Subhankar, this is devastating, this contradictory point of view of the Obama administration advancing fossil fuel industry on one hand and pretending to wanting to address it on another hand. And in The New York Times just recently it was reported that President Obama might circumvent the Republican stalemate in Congress and try to come up with a nonbinding agreement that he would get leaders of other states to sign. Is there any teeth to that?

BANERJEE: Yeah. So, essentially what is happening is that everybody recognizes the fact that a legally binding treaty at the UN level is not possible. And President Obama furthermore has come to realize that getting anything passed through that U.S. Congress is not possible either, something legally binding. Like, U.S. cannot commit without the approval of Congress, and Congress will not approve it. So what he is trying to do now is circumvent that and saying that why don’t we figure out a way to have a non-legally binding treaty on emission cuts. And while each country will pledge something that will cut this much percentage by this year and so on and so forth–and that’s what he’s going to bring to the table or trying to bring to the table, so that at the Paris summit next year, something non-legally binding could be achieved. All that in words sounds good. And what The New York Times did not point out is that essentially on the surface it all sounds good, but it’s basically a hollow thing. It’s a face-saving measure. At the very beginning, as I was saying, that the useful life of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is coming to an end–and so this is the end, this is all they can do, at a time when the entire planet’s climate system is collapsing.

PERIES: So what’s left? What can the social movements that are organizing, environmental movements, what can they be doing to reorganize themselves?

BANERJEE: I am very glad you asked that. So, essentially, the climate activism so far has been focused on pleading to nation-states. That’s what they have been doing [incompr.] organizations. I think there is–a major re-arranging and reorganizing is needed, because [incompr.] activism is coming from–very good work is going on at the local level, at the community level, in terms of resistance. In fact, in the Pacific Northwest, to give you one good example, at least, in the midst of all these bad ones, is that the Oregon state legislature defeated a proposal by this Australian company to build the coal port in Oregon. And there are two other ports that are in the planning in my home state, Washington. So that was a victory, partial victory for now. One of the three coal ports have been defeated for now. So local resistance, committed local resistance that can connect to the national ones, is one approach. And we have to fight. We cannot give up. So kind of in a way instead of talking about a national and global climate movement and activism, it’s really coming back to the local, coming back to the community level.

Secondly, what I have been writing about is that the focus has been so much on this emission reduction that we are not reflecting on ourselves. And the point that I try to bring up is reducing our appetite for consumption. Unless we reduce the consumption, mass consumption, there is no way we can tackle climate change or any other host of other anthropogenic injuries that are taking place. Forty years from now, just to [incompr.] forward, we’ll be having this conversation where we will say, oh, solar is here, wind is here, we have lot of clean energy now, and yet the species are disappearing at the same rate that it did early in the century and so on. And the reason is our appetite for material consumption is enormous. It’s increasing. We need to control that. And there are good examples there as well, in the food sector in the U.S. and in India and in other countries where community farming is taking place. So somehow if the climate movement reorganizes itself and brings back this idea of local resistance, local community action, as well as how to reduce appetite so that we can live happily–. So there is a sacrifice element in that. But that’s the only thing that can honestly kind of get us to a point to genuinely mitigate not only climate change, but host of these other anthropogenic injuries.

PERIES: But, Subhankar, some people would argue that at a local level there’s lots of good things going on, in terms of in California banning plastic bags, for example, local farming, local farmers markets, people growing their own food even in cities, there’s lots of good things. But will all this activity amount to anything significant that really reduces the effects of climate change?

BANERJEE: You know, given where we are, I believe that this local resistance, if it is multiplied by, let’s say, orders of magnitude and local community action multiplied by order of magnitude–we have not been seeing that right now–that would indeed have very significant impact. Just imagine this, just give you an example. Let’s say–and to give you an example of this, where this dialog gets all–kind of hits a dead-end is this idea of replacing your light bulb. It’s a very false narrative, because when you talk about replacing a light bulb, what we are talking about is a substitute, replacing one thing with another. And in the 1950s, the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about that the environmental movement always talks about substitute and does not handle the appetite itself. We are back at that same thing. So it’s not about replacing a light bulb; it’s about reducing consumption at the core. It’s just like reducing extraction rather than reducing emissions.

So back to that question, again, nobody has an answer. But because nation-states and everybody’s moving forward with expansion of fossil fuel, the best we can do as a committed citizen is reduce our consumption so significantly that–imagine this, if 40 percent reduction [incompr.] consumption, already you would have much bigger impact than 2 or 3 percent reduction in emission that the present is proposing.

PERIES: That’s a very good note for us to end on, Subhankar. I hope you come back and keep us updated on this very important topic.

BANERJEE: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade he has worked tirelessly for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He founded, and is editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point which will be published in paperback on August 20, 2013 (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation.