Thursday, August 20, 2015

What we need to do to save the planet: some ideas based on Naomi Klein's book "This Changes Everything"

Jill and I have taken some major steps this year to live sustainably by reducing our electrical usage by over 90% and our water use by nearly 50%, but this kind of individual action is meaningless if the fossil fuel industry is allowed to continue to extract fossil fuels and pollute the planet without paying for the damage they are causing. This is the message that I got from reading Naomi Klein's powerfully written and carefully researched book This Changes Everything.

Naomi, a Canadian with a new-born child, has "skin in the game": she wants to be sure her child grows up in a world that is livable. And she has credentials as an expert on economics and trade: her book Shock Doctrine exposed the fallacies of "neo-liberalism" by showing the havoc and misery that this doctrine causes, particularly to the poor.  Now she is using her considerable skills as a writer and researcher to show incontrovertibly that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates without making the planet virtually unlivable for vast numbers of the world's population. Even organizations like the World Bank recognize that global temperatures will rise 2-3 degrees C by the end of this century, and such a temperature rise would be disastrous. 

She  explores not only the science, but also the politics and economics, underlying the climate crisis. She argues  persuasively that the environmental movement got derailed in the 1980s and 1990s when many major organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, began taking money from the fossil fuel industry. Instead of calling for tougher regulations, a carbon tax, and a reallocation of resources to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, the Corporate Environmentalists began to talk about "partnerships" with the fossil fuel industry, "transition" fuels like gas and nuclear, and "cap and trade," using market forces to lower carbon emissions. None of these approaches have worked very well, and carbon emissions continue to soar.  Meanwhile, the corporate interests have enacted trade laws that could unravel all the environmental laws that were passed in the early days of the environmental movement. Klein reminds us that in the 1970s the environmental movement, with broad grassroots support, successfully challenged the fossil fuel industry with effective legislation such as  the Clean and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, etc. Klein believes, and offers convincing evidence to show, that broad-based grassroots efforts could help to enact the kind of major policy changes necessary to halt the destruction of the planet by greedy corporate interests.

The stakes are high, and we need to drastically change our way of living as well as our way of thinking. Klein had a great analogy. Suppose a doctor told someone who was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, "You are running a serious risk of lung disease and cancer!"

"What do you recommend that I do, doctor?" asks the smoker.

"I suggest you begin by smoking one less cigarette every month," replies the doctor. "Can you handle that?"

"Sure," the smoker says with a smirk, convinced that smoking is not a serious problem if that's all the doctor recommends.

This is unfortunately the message we are conveying when we tell people that all they need to do to solve the environmental crisis is change to florescent light bulbs or use canvas bags to buy groceries. Much more than superficial changes are needed if we want our planet to be livable for generations to come.

Klein argues that we need to mobilize at the local as well as the national level and push for policies that will actually make a difference. Here are a few of the many ideas that we need to consider:

1) Grass roots efforts linked to global movement to oppose the fossil fuel industry and its pernicious "free trade" laws that are used to nullify local and national environmental laws. Klein cites examples of how this approach is working in local communities from British Columbia to Greece. What is especially impressive is how indigenous groups have used treaties to insist that their lands continue to be usable for hunting and fishing, that their water be drinkable and their air breathable. If these treaty obligations are honored, projects like Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, would not be possible and this would inspire many local efforts in places closer to home (such as LA, where fracking and drilling is taking place in low-income communities). Klein calls for a coalition of indigenous people (who often live at near subsistence levels) and environmental activists (who have more access to money and power). Such a coalition would have the political clout to enforce existing laws and enact new ones that will make a difference.

2) Carbon tax and dividend. This approach calls for a carbon tax that raises the price of fossil fuels (thereby reducing consumption) and returns the tax to the people so that they can then invest in more energy efficient cars etc. This method has worked successfully in British Columbia and is being advocated by  the Citizen Climate Lobby. See 

Carbon taxes without dividends have also worked well in Germany and other countries. Gasoline taxes in Europe tend to be twice as high as they are here in the US but Europeans do not pay more per mile to drive than Americans. Why? Because gas prices are high, they purchase gas-efficient cars that get twice as many miles per gallon as Americans. That's why Europeans drivers pay approximately the same amount per year on gasoline as Americans but their carbon footprint is half as much as ours.

Imposing a carbon tax also helped to make Germany a leader in environmental products, thereby boosting the economy.

Another option would be to use some of the carbon tax to directly subsidize programs like GRID and Replace Your Ride (see below).

What doesn't work is "cap and trade," an arcane system that sets up pollution benchmarks and then allows businesses to buy and sell "carbon credits." This has turned into an elaborate game with very few positive results.

3) Programs like GRID and Replaceyourride that incentivize alternative energy and create jobs. GRID uses California's cap and trade funds to provide free solar panels to low income people and also trains volunteers to install these panels. This is a triple win: it's a job creator (70% of the volunteers go on to get well-paying, clean jobs in the fast growing solar power industry), it fights poverty by cutting down electrical bills and it helps save the planet. A program like this on a national scale would make a huge difference. "Replace your ride" provides up to $9500 to low income people to replace their gas-guzzling clunks with energy efficient cars.

4) Eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels, increase fossil fuel taxes (or make the industry pay what they actually owe) and use this increased revenue to subsidize wind and power. If the money spent subsidizing oil and gas were spent on solar and wind, every home could have free solar panels and millions of local jobs would be created. 

5) Increase regulation on coal-powered plants. Obama's new regulation will help reduce dependence on coal, but substituting natural gas is really not much better, especially when it's fracked. We need to kick our dependence on any kind of fossil fuel addiction.

6) Ban fracking and high risk extraction methods such as tar sands. Put the burden of proof on the industry to prove these methods are safe. Right now they don't even have to reveal what toxic chemicals they use!

7) Cut the military budget by at least 25% since it is the biggest polluter on the planet.

To implement any of these policy changes will require a huge transformation of political consciousness among Americans and others around the world. But unless we do something drastic, there is little hope that our grand children will inherit a livable planet.

Time is running out and we can no longer afford to live in denial. We need to take climate change as seriously as we would take a doctor's diagnosis that our mother has stage four cancer. This is precisely the situation our planet is in. The diagnosis is dire, the prognosis is grim, but we can defy the verdict. If we organize resistance, we can make a difference. Klein provides many examples of successful resistance, and so does history. Si, se puede!


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