Phasing out fossil fuels: the hurdles and prospects
Bob Sheak, 9-14-19
The growing excess of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) traps more and more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere rather than radiating it back into space. As a result, the earth’s temperature goes up on land and in the oceans, resulting in a hotter planet leading to all sorts of disruptive and harmful effects. Dahr Jamail describes the problematic effects as follows in his new book, The End of Ice.
“Our planet is rapidly changing, and what we are witnessing is unlike anything that has occurred in human, or even geologic, history. The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane… has been scientific fact for decades, and according to NASA, ‘There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.’ Evidence shows that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth to warm ten times faster than it should, and the ramifications of this are being felt, quite literally, throughout the entire biosphere. Oceans are warming at unprecedented rates, droughts and wildfires of increasing severity and frequency are altering forests around the globe, and Earth’s cryosphere – the parts of the Earth so cold that water is frozen into ice or snow – is melting at an ever-accelerating rate. The subsea permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, and we could experience a methane ‘burp’ of previously trapped gas at any moment, causing the equivalent of several times the total amount of CO2 humans have emitted to be released into the atmosphere. The results would be catastrophic” (p.4).
The sources of the problem
Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, are accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere at levels that are unprecedented in human history and even for the past hundreds of thousands of years. Greenhouse gases stem from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, and military operations, from land degrading industrial agriculture, poor ranching practices, and concentrated animal feeding operations, from deforestation, from a capitalist economy that requires continuous helter-skelter economic growth, and from governments that accept the alleged growth imperative and privilege corporate interests over interventions in the interests of the public and environment. And the problem is also perpetuated from a consumerist culture goaded on by massive corporate advertising that defines the good life and relative status of people as the ability to consume ever more things. But of all the sources, the fossil fuel industries are the largest source of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbon dioxide represents 82 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted in the US, while, in second place, methane accounts for 10% (https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-of-greenhouse-gases).
Consider the evidence that the climate crisis is real and that it is in large part the result of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
The evidence that the climate crisis is real
The trends are well documented in a growing body of scientific research and empirical observation and evidence. Climate scientist Michal Mann has provided an understandable analysis of this complex problem in his book, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying our Policies, and Driving US Crazy. But the literature is huge (just goggle term “climate change.) The realty of the climate crisis is accepted by most climate scientists, by all academies of science, by majorities of people who are surveyed on the issue, as well as by virtually all political parties around the world except the Republican Party in the US, by those who profit from the current system, by the right-wing media, and by those who oppose or fear the radical changes that are said to be required to phase out fossil fuels. Insofar as the scientific community is concerned, there is little doubt about the connection of fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Wikipedia has a “chapter, updated on August 29, 2019, on the “scientific consensus” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_consensus_on_climate-change). The following quote captures the thesis of the Wikipedia chapter.
“The current scientific consensus is that:
• Earth’s climate has warmed significantly since the late 1800s.
• Human activities (primarily greenhouse gas emissions) are the primary cause.
• Continuing emissions will increase the likelihood and severity of global effects.
• People and nations can act individually and collectively to slow the pace of global warming, while also preparing for unavoidable climate change and its consequences.
“Several studies of the consensus have been undertaken. Among the most cited is a 2013 study of nearly 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science published since 1990, of which just over 4,000 papers expressed an opinion on the cause of recent global warming. Of these, 97% agree, explicitly or implicitly, that global warming is happening and is human-caused. It is “extremely likely” that this warming arises from “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. Natural change alone would have had a slight cooling effect rather than a warming effect.”
Current examples of the effects of the unfolding climate crisis
Dahr Jamail does as good a job as anyone in regularly and comprehensively updating the research on the effects of the climate crisis. In Jamail’s latest “dispatch” on September 3, 2019, published on Truthout, he offers one of his in-depth reviews of the recent research findings, recent experience with severe weather events, and current and projected trends that reflect global warming (https://truthout.org/articles/alaskas-sea-ice-completely-melted-for-first-time-in-recorded-history).
He opens his analysis with this example. “The country of Iceland has held a funeral for its first glacier lost to the climate crisis. The once massive Okjökull glacier, now completely gone, has been commemorated with a plaque that reads: ‘A letter to the future. Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.” But this is a crisis that is already upon us. And Jamail follows with these examples. “July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth since record keeping began in 1880. Nine out of the 10 hottest Julys ever recorded have occurred since 2005, and July was the 43rd consecutive July to register temperatures above the 20th century average.” And: “In Greenland, scientists were stunned by how rapidly the ice sheet is melting, as it was revealed the ice there was not expected to melt like this until 2070. The melt rate has been called ‘unprecedented,’ as the all-time single-day melt record was broken in August as the ice sheet lost a mind-bending 12.5 billion tons of water in one day. It is worth remembering that the Greenland ice sheet contains enough ice to increase global sea levels by 20 feet, and it is now predicted that it will lose more ice this year than ever before.” Additionally: “Also for the first time in recorded history, Alaska’s sea ice has melted completely away. That means there was no sea ice whatsoever within 150 miles of its shores, according to the National Weather Service, as the northernmost state cooked under record-breaking heat through the summer.”
Then he reports on how rising temperatures are affecting the earth, water, fire, and air. I’ll draw on a few of Jamail’s examples under each of these categories.
The earth– “A recent UN report estimates 2 billion people are already facing moderate to severe food insecurity, due largely to the warming planet. The other contributing factors are conflict and economic stagnation, but extreme weather events and shifting weather patterns are a large and growing contributor to this crisis, which is sure to escalate over time.” “Nine out of the 10 hottest Julys ever recorded have occurred since 2005.” Many animals “are no longer able to adjust quickly enough to the climate crisis. While birds are laying their eggs earlier as temperatures and conditions change, and are doing what they can to coax their chicks to hatch sooner, it is still not enough to keep pace with the dramatically shifting climate. Many more extinctions are on the horizon.” “Courtney Howard, board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told The Guardian that she believes the climate crisis is causing worsening states of mental and physical health around the world, and says these issues will become some of the most important of our time.” “…a leading economic historian warned recently that the climate crisis could very well become the trigger for the next global financial crisis by way of causing instability and massive disruptions in markets.”
The Water – In Zimbabwe, “some places are seeing 18 hours per day without electricity. Imagine that in the summer heat. Dams providing hydropower lack water. Power blackouts are spreading, and taps are running dry in Harare, the capital city, “affecting more than 2 million people, who have been trying to cope with not having access to municipal drinking water.” One million people in India were displaced by “flooding from heavier than usual monsoon rains.” “…a recent study published in Science Advances warned that megadroughts will likely beset the U.S. Southwest within decades. The study stated that the megadroughts are ‘almost assured,’ and will be on a scale not seen since medieval times.” “A recent and critically important study showed that one quarter of the total global population across 17 countries is already affected by extreme water stress. Lebanon, Qatar and Israel/Palestine top a list of places with the worst water shortages, as the growing climate crisis threatens more ‘day zeroes’ — days where major cities will literally run out of water.” “In the U.S., a recent report showed how 21 beach towns, including Miami Beach, Galveston, Atlantic City and Key West, will soon be underwater.” “Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm as they absorb the brunt of the heat human activity is adding to the atmosphere, and the warming waters are literally pushing Pacific salmon to the brink of their ability to survive, according to another report.” “… scientists have expressed alarm and shock about the fact that the permafrost across the Canadian Arctic is thawing out 70 years sooner than previously predicted.”
The fire – “In Alaska alone, at the time of this writing, at least 1.6 million acres have burned from at least 100 wildfires this summer. Wildfires in Siberia could well burn into October when the first snows fall, as at least 6.7 million acres have burned across Russia. “…wildfires in California have already become 500 percent larger than they were since the 1970s.” Forests in the Pacific Northwest are not growing back after recent fires. And “another report reaffirmed the fact that even the rainy Northwest is now facing the inevitable increased risk of wildfires due to higher temperatures, increasing drought and lower humidity.”
The air – “By 2050, Florida will have more days that feel like 100 degrees Fahrenheit (100°F) than any other state in the U.S., according to a recent study. Washington D.C. currently averages one week per year of 100-degree days, while by 2050 that could rise to two months. The same study warned that climate disruption will expose millions of people across the U.S. to “off-the-charts” extreme heat.” “The burning of fossil fuels reached an all-time record last year.” “… Europe sizzled under a record-breaking heat wave this summer, as heat from the Sahara baked the continent and temperature records toppled en masse. There are far too many records to name from that heatwave, but notable was the fact that Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands recorded their highest temperatures ever during Europe’s second major summer heatwave.”
Kate Aronoff identifies some recent examples of the effects of global warming in the US. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/27/climate-change-green-new-deal-republicans?CMP=share_btn_link).
“For a growing stretch of the country, climate change isn’t a joke but a deadly, imminent threat. Biblical flooding in the midwest this past month has left farmlands devastated and at least 20 people dead, all while the country lacks a comprehensive plan to handle such disasters. The Pine Ridge Reservation is experiencing a devastating state of emergency thanks in part to decades of federal neglect of and divestment from indigenous communities. And there are still people struggling to recover in Puerto Rico from 2017’s devastating hurricane season – efforts being actively undermined by a sociopathic indifference to the fate of that island’s residents. Rising temperatures are already a clear and present danger to millions of Americans, and disastrous Republican policy is already making it worse.”
The Fossil Fuel companies are at the center of the problem
The big fossil fuel companies gather and extract the oil, natural gas, and coal, process them for a wide variety of uses, and distribute them via pipelines, trains, trucks and ships to electric power plants, gasoline stations, petrochemical plants and other business, and, in the case of natural gas, increasingly for export to other countries. And in the US, fossil fuel companies are producing “a staggering scale of new oil and gas production,” as reported by Andrea Germanos (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/21/us-set-blow-other-countries-away-staggering-scale-new-oil-and-gas-production). Her source is a report released by Global Witness, a human and environmental rights group. The analysis by Global Witness “shows how the U.S. is on track to dwarf other nations’ shares of new oil and gas production over the next decade. In fact, says the analysis, 61 percent of all new global production is likely to come from the United States.” Murray Worthy, senior campaigner at Global Witness, says “No other country comes even close.”
And they haven’t done it on their own. The fossil fuel companies and their allies are – and have been – able to influence federal and state governments to subsidize their oil and natural gas, give them tax breaks, and open public lands with low-price leases while providing at public expense infrastructure and security for the companies that extract fossil fuels. Clayton Coleman and Emma Dietz, researchers at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, offer a detailed analysis of fossil fuels subsidies(https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-fossil-fuel-subsidies-a-closer-look-at-tax-breaks-and-societal-costs).
‘The United States provides a number of tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry as a means of encouraging domestic energy production. These include both direct subsidies to corporations, as well as other tax benefits to the fossil fuel industry. Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil. European Union subsidies are estimated to total 55 billion euros annually. [You can find an extensive analysis of fossil fuel subsidies at:
“Historically, subsidies granted to the fossil fuel industry were designed to lower the cost of fossil fuel production and incentivize new domestic energy sources. Today, U.S. taxpayer dollars continue to fund many fossil fuel subsidies that are outdated but remain embedded within the tax code. At a time when renewable energy technology is increasingly cost-competitive with fossil power generation, and a coordinated strategy must be developed to mitigate climate change, the broader utility of fossil fuel subsidies is being questioned.
“There are many kinds of costs associated with fossil fuel use in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution resulting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. These negative externalities have adverse environmental, climate, and public health impacts, and are estimated to have totaled $5.3 trillion globally in 2015 alone.” ….“rather than being phased out, fossil fuel subsidies are actually increasing. The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) report estimates 6.5 percent of global GDP ($5.2 trillion) was spent on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017, a half trillion dollar increase since 2015. The largest subsidizers are China ($1.4 trillion in 2015), the United States ($649 billion) and Russia ($551 billion). According to the IMF, ‘fossil fuels account for 85 percent of all global subsidies,’ and reducing these subsidies ‘would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP.’ An Overseas Development Institute study found that subsidies for coal-fired power increased almost three-fold, to $47.3 billion per year, from 2014 to 2017.”
One reason why greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels continue to be so high and rising is reflected in the “shale revolution.”
The shale revolution
Andrea Germanos gives us a sense of the magnitude of this revolution (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/03/11/climate-crisis-be-damned-shale-revolution-poised-make-us-net-exporter-oil-three). She reports that the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that “U.S. production growth [of oil and natural gas from shale rock formations] has exceeded expectations.” According to the IEA, the US will account for “70 percent of the rise in global oil production and some 75 percent of the expansion in LNG [liquified natural gas] trade over the next five years.” By 2024, “the US will export more oil than Russia and will edge up to the number two spot, right behind Saudi Arabia.” This production for domestic and foreign use ‘will impede the rest of the world’s ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production.” By 2021, the US will be a net oil exporter. And this shale production “could spew 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution into the atmosphere—roughly equivalent to the lifetime emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants.”
The power and influence of the Koch Brothers
The libertarian, neoliberal Koch Brothers have been at the center of the efforts to have government allow for the unbridle extraction, production, and distribution of fossil fuels and the denial of the related climate crisis, mobilizing 400-450 billionaires to fund organizations, like that Koch’s flagship Americans’ for Prosperity Foundation. The Koch Brothers and their fellow billionaires fund the campaigns of right-wing political candidates, support extensive lobbying efforts, pay for massive political ads for their favorite candidates, create faux grassroots groups to support politicians who want to maximize fossil fuels, and support think tanks, academics, and scientists who advance pro-industry goals.
The story of the Koch Brothers has been told in great detail in the books by Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Daniel Schulman, The Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, and Christopher Leonard, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America. You can also find an excellent documentary, originally aired on December 2016, at the online site of The Real News Network, “Trump, The Koch Brothers and Their War on Climate Science” (https://therealnews.com/stories/trump-the-koch-brothers-and-their-war-on-climate-science).
In a review of the book Kochland, Jane Mayer offers the following information on how the Kochs and their allies have stymied congressional action that would have better regulated fossil fuels and would have taken steps toward addressing the climate crisis (https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/kochland-examines-how-the-koch-brothers-made-their-fortune-and-the-influence-it-bought).
“The Kochs’ key role in stopping congressional action on climate change is well-known, but longtime environmental activists, such as Kert Davies, the director of the Climate Investigation Center, credit Leonard with discovering that the Kochs played an earlier and even more central role in climate-change denial than was previously understood. In 2010, Davies authored a report, for Greenpeace, that labelled the Kochs ‘The Kingpins of Denial,’ but he told me that he hadn’t realized that their role went as far back as 1991. (A copy of a flyer for the Cato conference can be seen at Koch Docs, a new digital collaborative-research project, directed by the liberal corporate watchdog Lisa Graves, which tracks the Kochs’ influence.)
“According to ‘Kochland,’ the 1991 conference was called ‘Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?’ It featured many of the same characters who have spread doubt about the reality of climate change and continue to challenge the advisability of acting against it. Among the speakers was Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at M.I.T., who is quoted in the brochure as saying there was ‘very little evidence at all’ that climate change would be ‘catastrophic.’
“‘Kochland’ is important, Davies said, because it makes it clear that ‘you’d have a carbon tax, or something better, today, if not for the Kochs. They stopped anything from happening back when there was still time.’ The book also documents how, in 2010, the company’s lobbyists spent gobs of cash and swarmed Congress as part of a multi-pronged effort to kill the first, and so far the last, serious effort to place a price on carbon pollution—the proposed ‘cap and trade’ bill. Magnifying the Kochs’ power was their network of allied donors, anonymously funded shell groups, think tanks, academic centers, and nonprofit advocacy groups, which Koch insiders referred to as their ‘echo chamber.’”
Electing a President
And in an in-depth article for The Intercept, Lee Fang reports on his extensive research on how the Koch Brothers money and influence were of critical importance in the election of Donald Trump (https://theintercept.com/2019/08/26/david-koch-donald-trump). Here are some of his key findings.
“In 2016, Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’s primary vehicle for influence that operates as a privately run political party, hired over 650 staffers, deploying many to battleground states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, to turn out Republican voters. The field staff filled in the gaps left by Trump’s chaotic field operation. In Wisconsin alone, Americans for Prosperity staff, equipped with state-of-the-art voter contact technology, made 1.5 million phone calls and knocked on nearly 30,000 doors.”
“Late in the campaign, the Koch money flowed to television advertisements in the Rust Belt, including the crucial states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that hammered Hillary Clinton. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has persuasively argued that the spending blitz by Republican billionaires, including Koch, in late October and early November, was the decisive factor in Clinton’s defeat. Koch groups spent $4.3 million in Wisconsin, eclipsing the $3 million spent by the Clinton campaign, with television ads that sought to simultaneously tear down Democrat Russ Feingold and Clinton, a pattern repeated in other crucial swing states.
“What’s more, over the previous eight years, the Koch network had plowed tens of millions of dollars into the region, with a focus on Wisconsin, to transform the state, once a progressive bastion, into a laboratory for the radical right. The network focused carefully on political investments designed to change the power alignment throughout the upper Midwest: new barriers to voting, dramatic restrictions on labor unions, and investments in a localized conservative voter mobilization apparatus. The states that produced the Electoral College victory over Clinton had been primed for electing a future GOP presidential nominee, and Trump was simply the beneficiary.
“MORE IMPORTANT, however, are the structural investments and vindictive political style nurtured by Koch. Though he wielded power largely behind closed doors, in the shadows of a complex web of dark-money lobby groups and think tanks, there were public glimpses of the Koch fiefdom. The most revealing of these can be seen in the the archived footage, preserved on C-SPAN, of the 2009 Americans for Prosperity annual gala.
“The event space was transformed into a miniature presidential convention hall, complete with vertical placards among the rows to represent the various states of the union. But these were not elected delegates convened to nominate an American president. These were the assorted paid operatives and talking heads that had taken a wrecking ball to progressive society. They were there to thank their benefactor in an Orwellian four-hour tribute. A parade of prominent Republican politicians and pundits took the microphone, followed by staff of Americans for Prosperity, to sing praises to Koch, who stood before the hall. As each operative stood to explain what they had accomplished on his behalf, they dutifully addressed the billionaire as ‘Mr. Chairman.’”
“The assembled speakers at the 2009 convention were quick to form the basis of Trump’s inner circle. Newt Gingrich, who helped open the event, was the first major figure from the GOP establishment to endorse Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination. Larry Kudlow, another speaker at the event, is now in the executive office shaping Trump’s economic policies. Trump himself appeared at Americans for Prosperity events as early as 2014.
In short, the Kochs and the fossil fuel industries, especially oil and natural gas, have effectively put huge resources to get their way. By the end of the Obama administration, Christopher Leonard writes, Charles and David Kochs had a combined wealth of $84 billion and by 2018 “Charles Koch’s fortune [alone] amounted to $53.5 billion” (Kochland, p. 570). They owned 80% of Koch Industries, employed 120,000 people in 60 countries, half in the US. The company has had annual revenues of over $100 billion, and would have ranked seventeenth on the Fortune 500 in 2013 if the company had been a public company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koch_Industries).
Outside of coal, the fossil fuel corporations overall are doing super well, as indicated earlier. Jamail reports that “the burning of fossil fuels,” the principal source of the climate emergency, “reached an all-time record last year , according to oil giant BP.” Julia Conley cites a report from the thinktank Carbon Tracker that details how ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and BP have “invested $150 billion in climate-warming fossil fuel projects since the beginning of 2018. These investments are going into “offshore drilling, tar sands, and fracking projects in the US and around the world. Indeed, investments in fracking projects alone have been described as a “shale revolution” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/09/06/definition-of-insance-greed-investing-billions-new-projects-fossil-fuel-corporations).
The Republican Party, a handmaiden of the fossil fuel industries
This connection between the Republican Party has been many times by investigators. In January of this year, Rebecca Leber reported on research from the Center for American Progress that finds “150 Congressional Republicans Represent Fossil Fuel Companies Instead of Their Communities (https://desmogblog.com/2019/01/30/150-congressional-republicans-climate-deniers-fossil-fuel-companies). These 150 members of the US Congress are “climate deniers,” who have collected $68 million in “dirty money” for non-identified donors.” The top recipients, all Republicans, are Mitch McConnel ($3,018,793), Jim Inhofe ($2,111,110), John Cornyn ($3,344,515), Ted Cruz ($3,372,000), and Kevin Brady ($1,753,762). These sums do not include money spent by donors “on outside PACs and support.” The 150 oppose regulations on fossil fuel companies. By now, there are few Republicans in the US Congress that are willing to support any legislation that would support regulating fossil fuels or acknowledging the climate crisis and the need for meaningful government to address this crisis.
Republican opposition to regulation and denial or dismissal of the climate crisis is revealed in a Senate vote on the Green New Deal. Kate Aronoff reported that in March of this year , “The Republican party…voted unanimously against the Green New Deal in Tuesday’s vote; 43 Democrats voted present to show unity. But like many of their Republican colleagues – and a few Democrats who joined Republicans in their no vote – neither Lee nor McConnell speak or vote for themselves. With mountains of campaign donations, they are deputized to act on behalf of the coal, oil and gas companies who fund their re-election campaigns; combined, the two senators have accepted more than $6m from fossil fuel interests over the course of their careers. In the 2017-2018 election cycle, more than four-fifths of the energy sector’s $8.5m in donations went to Republican candidates. An analysis released on Tuesday from Oil Change International found that – in total – the senators who voted against the resolution yesterday have accepted a total of $55m in donations from fossil fuel interests” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/27/climate-change-green-new-deal-republicans?CMP=share_btn_link).
Additional evidence on the Congressional Republican position on climate change and implicitly on energy policy is provided by Emily Atkin in an article published by The New Republic on May 8 (https://thenewrepublic.com/article/153844/republicans-dead-planet-earth). She finds “Republicans in Congress remain unwilling to speak honestly about the existential threat global warming poses to humanity and the natural world” and “do not acknowledge the extent of man’s responsibility for causing it.” In addition, she writes, “Most GOP politicians might not be willing to call climate change a Chinese hoax, but they’re fine if Trump continues to do it. They’re also fine with anything Trump does to worsen climate change—whether it be dismantling greenhouse gas regulations or refusing to sign an international accord stating warming is a problem in the Arctic. They’re fine with keeping quiet in the face of major scientific reports, like the one released Monday saying that 1 million species now risk going extinct due to human activity. No wonder the CO2 Coalition, a group that falsely argues that carbon dioxide is good for humans, is expanding its presence on Capitol Hill: It sees a receptive audience.” Insofar as the climate crisis is concerned, there is little hope “that the Republican Party as a whole will propose serious climate change solutions in the near or even distant future.” Atkins adds: “Given that there’s little more than a decade left to implement those solutions, there’s no reason to wait for them. If the increasingly dire reports, or the issue’s rising prominence among young voters, aren’t enough to sway Republicans, what will be? It’s time to stop treating the Republican Party as a potential partner in solving the climate crisis, and start seeing it as the immovable obstacle it’s always been.”
The additional machinations of the Republicans, with the help of the US Supreme Court
Selective voter suppression
As indicated by the previous text, there are powerful economic and political forces that oppose any regulation of fossil fuels, deny or dismiss the unfolding realty of the climate crisis, use their vast resources to support politicians who agree with them, organize sophisticated grassroots political efforts and conduct massive disinformation campaigns in attempts to convince people that their opponents are naïve and wrong and even anti-American. And at the state level, Republican politicians do their best to suppress the vote through ID laws, voter roll purging, perhaps hacking voting machines, and rigging congressional districts through gerrymandering.
Julia Conley, staff writer at Common Dreams reports on a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice that revealed “17 million Americans were dropped from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/02/17-million-americans-purged-voter-rolls-between-2016-and-2018-analysis-finds).
According to the Brennan Center’s study, this is largely a consequence of “the loosening of the Voting Rights Act,” that followed from the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder in 2013,” which gave “states with long histories of voter discrimination free reign to purge voters from their rolls without federal oversight.” The decision eliminated the legal requirement that these states “no longer have to obtain ‘pre-clearance,’ or approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ), before they make changes to voting procedures—allowing them to slash their voter rolls liberally, often resulting in voter suppression of eligible voters.” The researchers at the Brennan Center find that “Shelby County single-handedly pushed two million people off voter rolls across the country over four years after the case was decided.”
Closing voting places
Mike Ludwig reports that over the past 6 years, 1,688 polling places have been closed in 13 states (https://truthout.org/articles/more-people-are-voting-but-1688-polling-places-have-closed-in-six-years). “Civil rights groups are warning an “epidemic” of polling place closures has swept 13 states, including several southern states with deep histories of racial voter suppression,” according to Ludwig. “Civil rights groups say the mass shuttering of polling places could make it harder for rural voters, voters with disabilities, lower-income voters and people of color to access the ballot next year.” He continues: “In the six years since the Supreme Court gutted a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, making it easier to shut down polling places, local election officials in 13 states have closed 1,688 polling stations, according to a new report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund (LCEF). Most of the closures occurred after the 2014 midterm elections. In 2018, when midterm voter turnout reached a record high, there were 1,173 fewer polling stations in these states than there were just four years earlier.”
“The LCEF report largely focuses on nine states and jurisdictions in six others that were covered by the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act because of histories of voter discrimination, in some cases dating back to the days of Jim Crow,” according to Ludwig. He adds: “Until the Supreme Court threw out the preclearance section in its 2013 decision in Shelby vs. Holder, local election officials in these jurisdictions were required to notify voters of any planned poll closures well ahead of time and prove to federal overseers in the Justice Department that any voting changes would not discriminate against voters of color.” No more.
Can those who want fossil fuels to be phased out have a winning chance against such interconnected economic and political power?
Chris Hedges argues persuasively that those who hold economic and political power, “the Capitalists,” are mobilizing their forces more than ever because they are afraid (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-capitalists-are-afraid). The implication is that the proponents of phasing out fossil fuels, often as just one component of a larger agenda related to ending all sources of the climate crisis, have corporations and the Republicans and their allies worried the other side (our side) has a chance of winning.
Here are other reasons why they are afraid.
One, the science and facts that document a climate crisis and link it to the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels continue to be generated by research that cannot be empirically refuted. The National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) offers an expert summary of the evidence: https/climate.nasa.gov/evidence.
The agency collects information from Ice cores drawn from “Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers [which] show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of [previous] ice-age-recovery warming.” In addition, “Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale.” The evidence reveals that the “current warming trend” is “the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.” And: “There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.” Then there are the specific results. The global temperature is steadily rising. Oceans are warming. The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking. Glaciers are retreating in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa. The amount of spring now cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased. Global sea levels is rising and accelerating slightly every year. Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly in extend and thickness. The number of record high temperatures in the US has been increasing. The ocean is becoming acidified as it absorbs carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.
Two, there is an increasing flood of information from websites, a host of environmental organizations, authors and journalists, celebrities, NGOs, that help people to become informed about and keep up with the news/evidence on the climate crisis. Just one example. The Environmental Science Degree website lists identifies the 101 top web resources on climate change (https://www.environmentalsciencedegree.com/climate-change). Here is the introduction to the article.
“Climate change has become the focus of a great deal of scientific scrutiny in recent years, and it has become apparent that increasingly erratic weather patterns, extinction of many species, and other significant global-scale events are directly correlated with climate change. To understand the short and long term causes and effects of global climate change, it is important to look at the past, as paleoclimatologists do, as well as the present conditions that influence the climate, including greenhouse gases, natural and anthropogenic changes in landscapes, and even the temperature and acidity of polar ice and the world’s oceans. Understanding and adapting to climate change is a massive, interdisciplinary undertaking, and the sites listed here have lots of information from every possible angle.”
Three, surveys document that more and more people understand that the extreme and volatile weather and many other disruptive and catastrophic environmental events they see on the news or experience first-hand are related to fossil fuels. Recent surveys of the public confirm this. Joseph Hold reports on a survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/a-growing-number-of-americans-are-alarmed-about-global-warming).
The survey found “roughly 60 percent of Americans are either ‘alarmed’ or ‘concerned’ about global warming and that the percentage who are alarmed doubled from 2013 to 2018. The percentage of conservative Republicans who are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ worried about global warming more than doubled in the same five-year period, growing from 14 to 32 percent (compared with 80 percent of moderate to conservative Democrats and 95 percent of liberal Democrats as of December 2018).” Such surveys do not tell us whether Americans are willing to support a phasing out of fossil fuels, but they do indicate that there is growing concern over the climate crisis. It should not be too much of a leap, given the scientific evidence, to make the connection to fossil fuels.
Four, there are more and more activists in the US and around the world rallying, marching demonstrating, and organizing to phase out fossil fuels. This is exemplified in the planned global student climate strikes scheduled for September 20 and 27. The September 20th mobilization occurs three days “before a UN emergency climate summit being held in New York. Groups will also gather there.
There is an abundance of information about the strike at: https://globalclimatestrike.net. There you will find that “people in 150 countries are organizing for the global strike,” some of whom “will spend the day in protest against new pipelines and mines, or the banks that fund them; some will highlight the oil companies fueling this crisis and the politicians who enable them.” There is a broad coalition supporting the strike, including “NGOs, unions and social movements across the world,” along with “environmental, public health, social justice, and development groups. There are 450 planned strike actions already planned in the US. And there will be uncounted millions of people who cannot join the strike but support it “on the sidelines.”
The organizers of the strike say we need to strike to let decisionmakers and the public know this: “If we don’t act now to transition fairly and swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy access for all, the injustice of the climate crisis will only get worse.” And all the horrendous conditions associated with this crisis will be intensified and uncontrollable.
Locally, 350.org is organizing students and others supporting the global student climate strike to assemble at the statehouse in Columbus Ohio on September 20, 2019, that is at 1 Capitol Square, Ohio 43215, from noon until 2 p.m.
Five, more and more Democrats in state and local governments who focus on the crisis and propose measures to phase out fossil fuels. By December of 2018, Alexander C. Kaufman writes, “Forty-four mayors, 63 county and state legislators and 116 city council members were among the officials from 40 states ― including some [former] top oil and gas producers ― who signed an open letter issuing a sweeping, full-throated call for the phaseout of fossil fuels and adoption of Green New Deal-style climate policies (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/green-new-deal-local-officials_n_5C13df27e4049efa7520236). The signatories for the letter were organized “by Elected Officials to Protect America, a nonprofit formed in 2015 to rally support for local climate action. It lays out three demands. It calls for 100 percent renewable energy, though does not specify a timeline. To buttress that, it proposes ending ‘public subsidization of fossil fuels,’ and divesting from fossil fuel companies to ‘shift public investments to accelerate the transition to 100 percent clean energy and pay for the harm fossil fuels cause our states and municipalities.’ Another demand “urges the ‘end of permitting of new oil, gas, and coal projects and infrastructure” and proposed “phasing out production within 2,500-foot public health buffer zone of occupied buildings and vulnerable areas” ― a policy that would essentially severely restrict new drilling.”
Six, there are reasons to be hopeful. Wendy Becktold identifies 10 reasons (https://sierraclub.org/series/10-reasons-feel-hopeful-about-climate-change-2019). Here are some examples from her article. She reports that “more than 1,000 institutions have sold their investments in fossil fuels,” New York City had divested its $189 billon pension fund from fossil fuels.” Coal production is shrinking. In December 2018, “nine states, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Vermont – and the District of Columbia announced a regional plan for limiting carbon emissions in the transportation sector.” In 2018, “seven cities, counties, and states filed lawsuits against” some of the “90 companies [that] are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the observed increases in global surface temperatures…seeking to recover damages brought on climate-change-related disasters.” The political winds are shifting as a result of the 2018 elections. There is now an “historic number of Democrats (many of them women and people of color) elected to the US House of Representatives. One of them was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has gone on to advocate for a green new deal. And, in Sweden, then 15-year old Greta Thunberg started a global movement of students to fight against climate change when she decided to skip school every Friday and “sit outside the Swedish Parliament and protest the failure of politicians to act on climate change.”
The 2020 elections in the US will probably determine whether those who want significant government action in phasing out fossil fuels over the next 1-3 decades will be able to decisively overcome the power of the fossil fuel industries and the Republican Party and advance and expedite a plan to accomplish this. There are hurdles. Even if the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 has a progressive/leftist/socialist agenda and endorses the phase out, he or she will face the power and money of the fossil fuel companies and probably most of corporate America, obviously the Republican Party, some unions connected to the fossil fuel industries, most if not all of Trump base of 63 million or so voters, much of the network media, including public radio and television, a substantial number of independents, along with white suburban women who are turned off by Trump’s behavior and his policies that are opposed to the right to abortion and that virtually eliminate the reproductive rights of women but who fear the kind of radical change embodied in the phase out of fossil fuels, and
A Democratic presidential candidate who endorses a phase out of fossil fuels is also like to have an agenda that calls for other significant changes, such as, great increases in support for solar, wind, and energy efficiency, raising taxes on corporations and higher-income Americans, taxes on short-term transactions on the stock markets, the withdrawal of government contracts from businesses that set up companies abroad, and finding ways to tax the money that is in tax havens. This presidential candidate is also likely to support substantial reductions in the military budget. She or he is also likely to support Medicare for all, a more open border than the US now has, a full-employment policy, retraining and assistance for workers displaced from jobs, increased support for public schools and reduction in the costs of public higher education, as well as proposals on how to oppose racism through development programs for black and brown communities, a major reform of the criminal justice program and the defunding of private prisons and detention facilities. The only way that this candidate wins is by having (1) an effective campaign organization, (2) the active support of a coalition of unions, minority groups, and a wide range of progressive groups, (3) the support of some millions of supporters who give small donations, (4) a candidates who campaigns vigorously, (5) a strategic plan for running political ads, and (6) a voter registration and get-out-the vote drive to bring millions of previously non-voters to cast their ballots.
Nobody knows what the outcome will be. A centrist Democratic president would be better than Trump on many issues. And it may turn out that such a Democrat will end up running and winning against Trump. If elected, the Democratic President may try to advance a modest carbon tax, perhaps some sort of carbon sequestration policy, perhaps increased support for renewables and energy efficiency. But she or he is unlikely to support a policy to phase out fossil fuels in two or three decades. Under Trump, the worst conceivable outcome, fossil fuel interests will continue to be given maximum government support and the climate crisis will rapidly worsen. Under a centrist Democrat, there might be, in the best circumstances, some reforms but not enough to reduce meaningfully the US greenhouse-gas contribution to the global climate crisis. The best outcome would be someone like Bernie Sanders who is calling for the phase out of fossil fuels and other systemic changes. But, as Bernie has written, it would take “revolution” – and the commitment, voice, and action of young people like Greta Thunberg and the millions of students and supporters from around the world she has inspired.