Now scientists must speak the plain truth about the climate crisis to the people of America and the world.
Joint statement by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (US) and Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary (UK), released at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference December 202213.12.2022
▶ Build a mass, integrated, independent environmental movement
▶ Turn to the youth, minority communities, immigrants & refugees, workers, poor & oppressed – the chief victims of the climate crisis
▶ Take over the oil, gas & coal industries and their wealth in order to shut them down and reconstruct the economy
Over the last two months the University of California has been shaken by the mass unionization and unprecedented strike action of tens of thousands of graduate student instructors and student & academic researchers on every one of its ten campuses. Two of the four unions involved are still on strike this week. A large proportion of the striking students are scientists, many of them climate scientists.
These young students/workers are responsible for a great part of the teaching and ground-breaking research at UC. They are fighting for fair and just treatment and recognition of their vital role in maintaining the prestigious UC system. They have challenged an established management with close ties to the state’s political and economic establishment.
They are also part of something wider, a diverse movement of younger people,
women, workers, immigrants, poor and oppressed people around the world
against the self-serving pillars of authority (political, economic, religious – and even scientific) who have imposed decades of austerity and mounting authoritarianism, allowed the uncontrolled spread of the preventable COVID-19 pandemic, and failed utterly to avert the existential threat of a run-away climate crisis.
Whether or not the movements are directly taking up the fight to stop global
heating, whether they are in the USA, China, or Iran, their progress is a source of hope for the future, because science itself, by its very nature, is a challenge to established authorities and ideas. Science is most effective when it is in rebellion. From Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin and the climate scientists who have faced slander and abuse, heroic scientists who challenged authority have been the real beacons of progress.
The scientific community – the people who know best how urgent the situation is – must face up to that responsibility now.
The climate crisis and the failure of the Climate-Crisis Conference (COP) process
The scientific evidence for the scale of the climate crisis and the speed at which it is developing is stronger than ever. The disastrous impacts of global heating are happening now, before global average temperatures have even reached the supposedly ‘safe’ figure of 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level. Not only the small island states and the people of Pakistan, Africa, Central America etc, but the populations of California, Kentucky, New York, Colorado, Florida, and British Columbia can testify that we are already living with ‘dangerous climate change.’
Outright denial of anthropogenic (human-caused) global heating has consequently become unfashionable; for now, at least, it has been relegated to a minor cult in Far-Right circles. The market for the “Merchants of Doubt” is facing a recession. That might be regarded as a victory for climate science –except that it has not been translated into any greater urgency in practice. The scientific consensus is that last year’s Glasgow conference (COP26) achieved nothing; its promises were watered down during the conference and came to nothing afterwards.
President Biden made a speech about the urgency of the situation and a few days later he conducted the largest ever auction of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, selling 80 million acres to the oil industry.
This year, COP27 in Egypt did not even agree on a promise for future action on
global heating. It raised a white flag of surrender to rising greenhouse gas emis‐
sions, and its promise of support for the worst affected countries avoided any hard details or mechanisms. The sheer pointlessness of COP27 was best characterized by the rhetoric of the speech that President Biden gave during a short stop-over in Egypt – empty and boastful at the same time.
In practice, if not explicitly, this conference sounded the death knell of the 1.5
limit. The whole UN inter-governmental process is now in crisis.
The process of neoliberal containment
COP27 was the outcome of the process that gathered steam in the 1980s & ‘90s,
during the heady days of the Montreal, Toronto, Rio and Kyoto conferences. That period proved to be a false spring. To some extent those conferences were a battleground between two very unequal sides. On the one hand, there were the poorer countries that used their majority in the UN General Assembly to set up the Brundtland Commission in 1983, and the scientists who had set up a series of climate science conferences that ran parallel to Brundtland. On the other hand, there were the governments of the richest and most powerful countries, the corporate business interests, fossil fuel industries, and their many, highly paid lobbyists. This was obviously an unequal battle.
Step by step, the richest countries and corporations asserted their power and
increasingly side-lined climate science, swamping the scientists with hordes of
politicians and lobbyists, and blocking any effective and timely action to slash
greenhouse gas emissions.
The only positive outcomes, mainly from the Montreal Conference, were that
the deadly hole in the Ozone layer was patched up (with other greenhouse gasses, unfortunately) and that acid rain was restricted, at least in Europe and North America. The first simply involved a change of materials by refrigerator manufacturers and the second was a relatively straightforward mechanical task. And both those achievements came relatively cheap. Those were really the limit of international, inter-governmental cooperation to end pollution.
However, global heating cannot be stopped by a quick fix in a limited section
of the economy, and it cannot come cheap for the corporations, the banks and the governments.
If that was ever a possibility, it could not have been in the political and economic conditions of the last four decades. It is no accident that this process began at the same time as the rise of what is usually referred to as neo-liberal economics. The underlying story of the Montreal to Kyoto conferences was the war between science and the neo-liberal project. The neo-liberal role has been to ‘manage’ the response to a growing climate crisis in order to prevent any serious action that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to maintain the dependence of the global economy on fossil fuels. It became as central to the neo-liberal project as the extreme ‘free trade’ policies, financial deregulation, privatization, and restrictions on labor rights.
That led straight to the betrayal and deceit at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, where all the limited concessions to climate science and poor countries were ripped up. That triumph for the neo-liberal corporate forces was led and achieved by President Barack Obama.
The market v. science
Throughout this process, the world’s richest and most powerful elites have
behaved as though the laws of the market, the investment cycles and global trade – and therefore the interests of rival national elites – are more powerful than the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They promised that the wonders of the market could resolve the climate crisis, so we got cap-and-trade, catastrophe bonds, off-setting, etc. – one scam after another, one
source of corruption after another, while the laws of science continued to push up global average temperatures and their “green” market economy becomes sicker and less attractive with every passing year.
At the same time, governments and corporations have constantly blocked any
effective response to the dangers to humanity that have been revealed by scientists. Consequently, global heating is rapidly progressing towards a decisive ‘point of no return,’ at which the heating of the earth becomes irreversible and escalates the earth’s temperature to a super-hot condition that, if reached, will result in the extermination of humankind.
For the most part the governments of major powers don’t deny that anymore.
President Biden’s speechwriters made sure he alluded to it at Sharm-el-Sheikh. Biden, and other cynical political leaders who spoke in the same vein, seem to imagine that if they speak about the coming catastrophe with sufficient ‘passion’ the general public will think they are going to do something to save the world.
There, and in Glasgow a year earlier, Biden attempted to sound ‘scientific’ by
focusing on the need to limit emissions of methane which, as he pointed out, is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Of course, it is essential to limit methane emissions, but nothing has been done to achieve that since the Glasgow speech. Moreover, a major factor behind the growing level of methane in the atmosphere is the melting of frozen soils in the Arctic tundra because of global heating; that will continue if CO2 emissions continue to rise, or even remain at their present level.
In his opening speech at COP27, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, declared that “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” Indeed, it would seem that like the legendary Dr. Faustus, the governments, bankers and corporate leaders of all the major economies have made a pact with the Devil – just a few more decades of profit before they go to Hell. Until recently, they thought they would be safe, living in countries with a temperate climate. That illusion has already been destroyed, but they continue to act as though their wealth and power will allow them to escape the jaws of Hell, while the flames devour the world’s poor and oppressed and the peoples of Africa, southern Asia, Latin America and the small island states.
After four decades of conferences leading to this year’s effective collapse, it
should be crystal clear that the market economy is not only unable to solve the climate crisis, it is actually responsible for the crisis.
The politics of the climate crisis
We must recognize, however, that the politicians and capitalist corporations
could not have imposed their agenda for so long and with so much success (if rapidly rising emissions can be called a ‘success’) without the collaboration of the climate scientists. The scientists have been under a great deal of pressure. The institutions where they work and the research they carry out are largely funded by governments and other public authorities, and to some extent by corporations, but nevertheless they carry out their work thoroughly and report their findings accurately and publicly. Yes, sometimes scientists modify their advice to make it more acceptable to the politicians (to be ‘taken seriously’) but on the whole governments need the information to be reasonably accurate and open, in order to maintain some level of public credibility.
At least they have needed that so far. The real ‘collaboration’ is the common
and unremarkable acceptance of the notion that change can only be brought
about by the ‘powers-that-be,’ the governments and the rich and powerful. This is generally expressed through the notion that ‘scientists advise, governments decide.’ It is the same principle that has led to the terrible, and entirely preventable, suffering and death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, and acceptance of the need for austerity since the financial & economic crisis of 2008/9 – the principle that business comes first, that the profit motive is the only possible motive for human society to function.
There is nothing remotely ‘democratic’ about that; it is driving the rise of authoritarianism around the world. Moreover, the whole conception is simply wrong. No major, substantial advance for human progress and freedom has ever happened without massive struggles that went beyond the bounds of
business as usual. Our own history is proof of that: the Revolutionary War, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement. And overcoming the threat to human society posed by the climate and environmental crises must rank at least as demanding as any of those.
In January 2011, little more than a year after the Copenhagen conference, Britain’s leading scientific body, the Royal Society, published an article entitled Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, by two eminent British climate scientists, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. It presented a thorough analysis demonstrating that by then (11 years ago) there was ‘little to no chance’ of keeping within the generally agreed limit of 2 Celsius above the pre-industrial average – and that temperature would actually be ‘the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change.’
In their conclusion they state, quite correctly, that:
… Despite the evident logic for revising the 2ºC threshold, there is little political
appetite and limited academic support for such a revision…Put bluntly, while
the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission
In a footnote to that passage, the authors raise the suggestion “If the impacts
are to remain the principal determinant of what constitutes dangerous, [which of course they should] then would it be more reasonable to characterize ‘1◦C as the new 2◦C’?” But in arguing against economists and scientists who insist business growth must come before the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (and therefore play down the dangers) they propose that:
… Extremely dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within [the richer] nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fueled development within [poorer] nations.
In essence, a planned economic contraction to bring about the almost immediate and radical reductions necessary to avoid the 2◦C characterization of dangerous climate change whilst allowing time for the almost complete penetration of all economic sectors with zero or very low carbon technologies.
And that was written in the aftermath of the biggest financial crash for 50 years, when severe austerity was already being imposed on millions of poor and exploited people around the world. The authors’ proposal is political, not scientific. It is just as much bound by the laws of the capitalist market and the
doctrine of neoliberalism as the scientists and economists they criticize.
Faced with the break-down of the established UN process and the new growth
of struggles against authoritarianism, austerity, the market economy and the
threat of global heating, it is necessary for the scientific community to make new political choices.
Take over the oil, gas, and coal industries and their wealth in order to shut them down and reconstruct the economy
To stop the overheating of the climate, it is necessary to eliminate the global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. That is obviously only possible if oil, gas and coal are eliminated as sources of fuel and energy. Those industries still have massive investments, powerful stockholders and show no signs of going out of business – in fact they are currently raking in record profits, and that wealth gives the owners and shareholders huge political influence. The logic is unavoidable. Those companies must be taken into public ownership without compensation, expropriated – much as slavery could not be abolished without expropriating the slave owners. And just as new slaves could not be bought after abolition, new investment in fossil fuels must be made a criminal offence.
Expropriation has a dual purpose: both to shut down the fossil fuel industries, as well as to finance the production of clean energy and the equipment that will run on clean energy as a fuel source. Expropriation should require the confiscation of all material and financial assets of the fossil fuel industries by the national government, the conversion of those assets into public utilities, and the rapid reallocation of those assets to rebuild the energy infrastructure on a clean basis. It is important to note that the great bulk of the accumulated wealth of those industries exists in the form of finance capital and is controlled by investors and bankers—expropriation must also be applied to those titan financiers. The program for the fossil fuel industries should be straightforward: expropriate, reallocate, eliminate.
We will be told that expropriation is an extremist measure. We reply that it is
actually a very moderate measure compared with the alternative – the extinction of humanity and countless other life forms.
We must build a mass, independent & integrated environmentalist movement fighting to win
More than a decade ago, environmentalists watched with hopeful enthusiasm as former Vice-President Al Gore and other celebrity reformers sought to persuade world leaders and corporate executives of the need to address the climate crisis. Under today’s political conditions and worsening climate, that
hopeful period looks naively utopian in hindsight. The celebrity reformers, along with their method of appealing to the rich and powerful using the handy tools of rational arguments and moral persuasion, achieved nothing. Or, insofar as the planet can report, less than nothing.
The corporations would only embrace environmentalism as part of a public image for themselves, as an advertising gimmick, and as a means of avoiding scrutiny for their crimes. All the worst polluters began promoting themselves as environmentally friendly, with the eager assistance from many environmentalists who were overjoyed to have friends in high places. Through this process, just as the official leaders of the environmentalist movement
seemed to be ascending to the top of society and gaining influence, they were actually descending into corruption and becoming part of the problem that they
had purported to solve.
The lessons of the old movement are painfully clear: environmentalists must
not step into the trap of adapting to the corporate “allies” or their political mouthpieces. New leaders must step forward to carry the movement beyond its old shortcomings. Independence from corporate interests, independence from the politicians and political parties who rely on corporate funding, is imperative for the movement to be able to speak with its own voice and assert its own demands. Otherwise, the movement will only continue ineffectually seeking progress through the same kinds of market-based measures that have not worked and will not work. The leaders of the movement must speak the plain truth: the oil, gas, and coal industries must be shut down.
Our potential allies are abundant. Just look around—look at the trail of human
destruction that has been wrought by this crisis, and you will find along that trail millions of people, bloodied but not broken, who want to survive and are looking for leadership. Look to the new generation of youth, who are not willing to accept that the end of the world must arrive before their own lives have barely begun. Look to the freedom fighters who are trying to save their democratic rights from the tyranny of oil oligarchs in authoritarian governments. Look to the poor and oppressed who have no stake in monopoly capital and no businesses from which to profit. And look to the millions of immigrants and refugees, fleeing from the hottest parts of the world and searching desperately for freedom, for a home. These are the real friends of the
environmentalist movement; these are the real allies. From that trail will emerge the greatest and most committed leaders that the movement has ever known. And from those friendships, may we all find new reasons why life is worth living, and why humankind is worth saving.