This Changes Everything (part 2)

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Naomi Klein’s book is a plea for strong action to combat climate change. On the one hand, she argues that renewable energy technologies “have become radically more efficient and affordable, making a full transition to the power they provide both technologically and economically feasible within the next few decades.” On the other hand, she sees methods of fossil fuel extraction becoming more and more dangerous. Natural gas is a popular alternative to coal, but fracking threatens water supplies, and gas obtained by fracking emits methane at a rate 30% higher than conventional gas. Public policy should focus on curbing fossil fuels and developing cleaner alternatives, both as quickly as possible.

Much of the book is a critique of more limited solutions that require fewer changes to our way of life. They treat climate change as “a narrow technical problem with no end of profitable solutions within the market system….” Change your lightbulbs and buy a different kind of cleaning liquid, and we’ll be fine.

Wishful thinking

Klein is rather disappointed in the environmental movement, which she says has failed to live up to its initial promise. Back in the 1970s, twenty-three federal environmental laws were passed, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Toxic Substances Act. But this legislative progress largely ground to a halt when the changing political climate brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. With free-market capitalism once again the reigning ideology, many of the new environmental groups tried to work within the system rather than challenging it. Many relied on donations from the same fossil-fuel companies that were also pushing environmental deregulation, and some even made their own investments in the fossil-fuel industry. Their reluctance to challenge the economic power structure forced them “to place their hopes in solutions–whether miracle products, or carbon markets, or ‘bridge fuels’–that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking.”

In the negotiations leading up to the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the United States insisted that emissions reduction be accomplished through “cap-and-trade” rather than direct emissions limits. Under cap-and-trade:

[P]rojects that were employing practices that claimed to be keeping carbon out of the atmosphere—whether by planting trees that sequester carbon, or by producing low carbon energy, or by upgrading a dirty factory to lower its emissions—could qualify for carbon credits. These credits could be purchased by polluters and used to offset their own emissions.

Ironically, even this market-based solution was too radical to be ratified by Congress, but it was adopted in other countries, notably the European Union.

In theory, the emissions in the atmosphere could come out the same whether a polluting company reduced its own emissions or paid someone else to reduce theirs. The problem was that it was too easy to game the system. The alleged reductions that qualified for credits were sometimes illusory. Companies were accused of adopting dirty methods of production so that they could then earn credits for eliminating them. “Even conservative sources estimate that between 1/3 and 2/3 of carbon credits bought into the [European Union’s Emissions Trading System] ‘do not represent real carbon reductions.'”

In the following decade, the cap-and-trade bills introduced by President Obama came out of the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups and large polluting companies. The bills would have given energy companies “free allowances” covering 90 percent of their existing emissions, so the most they would have to do to keep right on polluting was to buy credits to offset the other 10 percent. But again, even that plan was too radical to pass Congress.

Fixing the earth or fixing ourselves?

Klein is especially critical of technological fixes that promise to counteract the greenhouse effect of whatever emissions industry fails to control. One that has received a lot of attention is Solar Radiation Management, which would attempt to limit the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth. We might spray large amounts of sulfate into the stratosphere, with an effect similar to major volcanic eruptions that have been known to reduce global temperatures in the past. Among the objections Klein cites:

  • It could create a permanent haze over the earth, eliminating blue skies and interfering with astronomy
  • It could impede the production of solar energy
  • It would not address the underlying causes of climate change
  • It would not deal with other effects of climate change, such as increased carbon in the oceans, with detrimental effects on marine life and the aquatic food chain
  • Once started, it would have to be continued indefinitely; otherwise, “all the warming that you had artificially suppressed by putting up that virtual sunshade would hit the planet’s surface in one single tidal wave of heat, with no time for gradual adaptation.”

Apart from the scientific details, Klein questions the conception of humanity and nature that underlies proposals of this kind. We would be tinkering with the entire planet as if it were a machine that we could fine tune. The greatest danger is that the earth would “go wild in ways we cannot imagine,” since we don’t understand the whole biosphere well enough to know in advance what it would do. In the words of MIT microbiologist Sallie Chisholm:

“Proponents of research on geoengineering simply keep ignoring the fact that the biosphere is a player (not just a responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second—a ‘self-organizing, complex, adaptive system’ (the strict term). These types of systems have emergent properties that simply cannot be predicted. We all know this! Yet proponents of geoengineering research leave that out of the discussion.”

Klein’s reference to complexity theory in this context suggests to me that environmentalism is part of a paradigm shift that has been taking shape for some time. The machine metaphor for understanding natural systems is under attack, and a more creative model of reality is emerging. (See especially the writings of complex system theorist Stuart Kauffman.) Our relationship to nature is coming to be seen more as a creative partnership and less as a dominance hierarchy.  As a sociologist of gender, I notice the same theme of partnership vs. dominance running through the study of gender relationships. That connection makes sense. In Western patriarchal culture, nature has been conceived as feminine and controllable, while mankind has been conceived as masculine and controlling. Klein also develops a parallel between women’s fertility and the fertility of the earth, both of which have been objects of male regulation. It is this entire worldview that is now being challenged.

Klein sums it up well when she says, “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster [i.e., our Frankenstein monster to get back under control]. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”


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