What’s in the Ground Must Stay in the Ground
Professor Chris Williams argues a massive re-structuring of economic activity is required to address the climate change crisis
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
According to new data on the climate crisis, such as new satellite mapping of the polar ice caps melting at an unprecedented rate released by NASA and the IPCC draft report leaked last week warning that if you stay on the present course, that increasing greenhouse gas emissions, there will be, quote, “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems”. We are actually now in a climate crisis.
Joining us today to discuss this is Chris Williams. Chris is professor of science at Pace University and longtime environmental activist, and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.
Chris, thanks for joining us.
CHRIS WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM: Thanks for having me on.
PERIES: Can you talk more about the fossil fuel industry and interests that is sort of permeating our entire economic system, and the rationality of it all?
WILLIAMS: The rationality is rather threadbare, to say the least, because we now that according to the latest UN report four-fifths of all known fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, not be extracted and burned, if we are to stay within the agreed-upon international safe limit of 2 Celsius of global warming, which we’re halfway there, too, already. And so that would mean that about $20 trillion in assets of fossil fuel corporations need to be written off.
Unfortunately, Exxon actually wrote a report about this and said, we do not believe that governments will do this at the same time as fossil fuel corporations are still spending about–well, more than $500 billion a year looking for more, additional fossil fuels to extract and burn. So we are on very much the wrong path with regard to what science is telling us to maintain the kind of stable climate that human civilization has known for the last 10,000 years.
PERIES: Chris, does the IPCC report that was leaked last week to nation-states have anything new to say about the crisis?
WILLIAMS: Well, the report that just came out is a synthesis of the previous three reports that were released this year and at the end of last year. And I think that what it is saying or what the series of reports is saying are, first of all, for the first time, there is a limit put on how much more carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere, and we know that that is a severe limit. It requires us not to burn most of what we know is underground and has already been discovered. And the second thing is that we also know as a result of that report that emissions, the way to emissions between 2000 and 2010, the last decade, was twice of previous decades. So not only are we still going in the wrong direction, but we’re going in the wrong direction twice as fast. So those two things are new.
What the synthesis report says is not really new, because we’ve heard all this before, because they’ve just put things together. But I would say that the language is quite different, and scientists are increasingly frustrated, clearly, with the fact that the science is becoming more and more definitive at the same time as political action is becoming less and less so. And so the kind of language that’s being used in terms of words like stark, severe, frightening, repeatedly, and irreversible changes remind us–or for the first time inserted into the middle of a scientific report saying action must be taken, and it has to be very serious, and it has to be rapid.
PERIES: So the point is, really, what type of action. And if the governments who received this draft report were to actually take action, what political interest and economic interests would be affected, and how should we begin to address that?
WILLIAMS: Well, that’s a really important question, obviously, because the largest corporations on the planet, and some of the most profitable, in many cases, I think, companies like BP, Exxon, and so on, larger than the GDP turnover of most countries, would have to completely change their business. They would have to stop producing fossil fuels and produce something else or go out of business. And so, clearly these are highly influential economic and political actors, not just within the United States, but around the world.
And so what does that mean for the coal industry, for the oil industry, for the gas industry if we’re saying that we need to complete our energy infrastructure and produce energy in completely different ways? I would suggest that that is a revolutionary change in society’s priorities, where we’re looking towards what are the longer-term impacts of similar actions of symptoms human society, and how do we emphasize those and take care of those prior to the profitability interests of large corporations? That would be a radical change in politics and orientation of economics.
PERIES: Furthering this point, the U.S. being one of the largest exporters of fossil fuel–I mean, we’re here in Baltimore, and all we have to do is walk down to the dock and you see mountains and mountains of coal that’s coming in from Pennsylvania, sent through trains, and you can see it being loaded onto ships that’s being taken abroad, say, to China and other places. So they’re actually in the business of exporting the climate crises. How do we deal with this kind of economic activity that’s taking place, and what’s the seachange or the shift necessary?
WILLIAMS: Well, this is true. Politicians like to talk about the fact that emissions in the United States have actually gone down, which is true. But the reason for that is, as you point out, the fact that coal use domestically is decreasing. But that doesn’t mean that coal production has decreased, because exports of coal to China and other countries have gone up massively from the United States. And at the same time, what is coal being replaced by? Well, another fossil fuel which has other detrimental impacts, which is fracking to obtain natural gas, which is seeing such a huge expansion across the U.S. that prices have dropped below those of coal, and so it doesn’t make sense to be using coal anymore when you can burn natural gas. But both things, substances, release carbon dioxide. There are big implications for water pollution with regard to fracking. And, of course, coal is the most serious with regard to air pollution of various kinds, including carbon dioxide. So I don’t see that that is any kind of positive development.
What we really need to be doing is decreasing emissions of CO2 production, not displacing them some where else, but absolute decreases, by about 10 percent a year, which is what science says is required. But that would mean massive reorientation of economic priorities towards new types of infrastructure, whole new energy grid, not just in terms of power stations, wind farms, solar panel manufacture, etc., but also how we transport and how we use energy, including serious efforts at energy efficiency measures, none of which are really being taken and where the Obama administration has opened up even more land offshore, including the Arctic, to drilling. So we’re really headed in exactly the opposite direction, and we’re already starting to see the negative impact in terms of the huge drought in California, the Southwest generally, and all of these climate phenomena that are starting to manifest themselves as ever more extreme and ever more frequent climate events, weather events, of extreme kinds.
PERIES: The New York Times reported last week that President Obama is considering signing an agreement with a number of countries, which would be, of course, a nonbinding agreement, to reduce carbon emissions. Can you tell us more about that, if you know?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Well, Obama has found it–he’s been unable to get anything through the Senate, and so he is trying to go around that by issuing executive orders. And one example of that is to have a voluntary climate accord.
But I don’t see that really as going anywhere. It’s really a bed that he’s made for himself by not saying or doing anything in particular with regard to climate change over the last six years of his presidency. He’s been a massive disappointment compared to what he started off by saying in 2007. And that cannot be blamed purely on the Republicans. It’s as much a Democrat issue as it is anything else.
And so I don’t believe that that’s any kind of real solution. Voluntary emissions standards are not going to go anywhere, realistically. That’s what he we’ve had in place up to now. And we’ve seen that the rate of emissions has increased, not decreased.
So I think we need enforceable regulations, where countries that don’t make serious commitments and then don’t live up to them need to be penalized in some way, but the question is who’s going to be on hand to do that. As far as I’m concerned, the real answer rests with the mobilization of the people, because 7 billion people can’t be held hostage by 100 millionaires, or who are predominantly millionaires, in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. political system generally, which is beholden to the giant economic interests and the corporations. So I think that it’s really up to us to organize a movement that is large enough and powerful enough to reorient the direction of the United States and the world in conjunction with other people around the world similar to what was done in the 1960s or the 1930s, or looking back at a movement such as the antislavery movement in the 1850s and ’60s, which actually was a revolutionary movement that changed huge amounts of things within the United States and around the world. And I think that that’s the kind of change that we really need to be looking at. And that’s not going to come from politicians; it’s going to come from a grassroots movement independent of those politicians, because they’re all compromised in various ways.
PERIES: And, Chris, you’re one of the organizers of the upcoming people’s march on 21 September. Tell us more about that.
WILLIAMS: Well, the People’s Climate March is going to be huge. If you can get to New York on the 21st, you should definitely do so. There’s going to be hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. There’s also a Climate Convergence conference going on starting Friday through Saturday to complement the march and speak to issues that can be raised in workshops. Naomi Klein will be speaking, Oscar Olivera from Cochabamba Water Wars. You can check it out at ConvergeForClimate.org. And if you’re in New York and can get to New York for the whole weekend, then you can engage in a host of different activities related to protesting the UN climate talks, which will happen on the 23rd, which we know will not live up to that kind of science that is now saying what we need to do as a global community in order to protect us and protect the future and have a stable climate on which human civilizations based.
So the March on Sunday will be huge. The conference beforehand will be in place to discuss more of the politics like we’re talking about here and how we can really force change from the governments that are supposed to represent us but too often represent the interests opposed to ours of corporations whose bottom line really is their bottom line and not much else.
PERIES: Chris, all the best with organizing for the march, and please join us again when you have something new you want to report. We’ll be staying on this issue until and beyond the summit.
WILLIAMS: Thanks very much.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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