Blowing hot air about global warming

January 16, 2013

New data proves that the climate crisis is getting worse--but Barack Obama is committed to saving corporate profits before protecting the environment.

IT'S THE middle of January, but here in Chicago, where is based, there's no snow. In fact, every day, we set a new record for consecutive days without 1 inch of snow accumulation--today makes 327. The last Chicago winter with this little snowfall was more than a century ago: 1889-90.

By itself, one Chicago January with temperatures reaching into the 50s doesn't mean much. But unseasonably warm weather patterns are occurring across the U.S.--and they come on top of a recent report that means a lot: The year 2012 was the hottest on record for the U.S.

The unmistakable conclusion: The climate is changing.

Everywhere, that is, but Washington, D.C.

While the evidence of global warming and its disastrous consequences continues to stack up, the U.S. political establishment remains caught between two alternatives. One is the Republican position: Deny climate change exists and allow Corporate America to frack, drill and generally pollute without limit. The other is the Democratic position: Recognize that man-made climate change is real, acknowledge that its effects are already bad and will become catastrophic, talk about the need for action...and then allow Corporate America to frack, drill and generally pollute without limit.

President Obama speaking in Florida
President Obama speaking in Florida (Paul E. Alers)

For Republicans and Democrats alike, profits come before the environment.

Indeed, after four years of a Democratic president who promised as a candidate to reverse the policies of his Republican predecessor, U.S. energy policy is more destructive today, not less. According to the Energy Information Agency, if current trends continue, U.S. oil production will reach a 26-year high by 2014.

Obama may talk about the need to slow the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, but the agenda of the U.S. capitalist class, in competition with its international rivals, is driving a rapid increase in oil and natural gas production. According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's number one oil producer in 2020!

And yes, that's taking place under the Democrat who millions of people expected to turn the U.S. away from the disastrous policies of the "drill, baby, drill" Republicans.

All this points to another unmistakable conclusion: Achieving meaningful action isn't coming from inside the Beltway--so it's up to us.

WHEN IT came to smashing the record for the hottest year in the U.S., 2012 left the competition in the dust. According to the New York Times:

The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year's 55.3 degree average demolished the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.

If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at weather stations across the country, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by the Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records. That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.

Globally, 2012 is expected to be only the eighth- or ninth-hottest year on record--it will rank as slightly cooler only because of a moderating "La Nina" weather pattern that affected other parts of the planet. Even so, as the Times reported, "Assuming that prediction holds up, it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed."

Aside from temperature spikes, the U.S., like countries around the world, has been hit by more, and more frequent, severe weather events--including an extended drought that killed corn and soybean crops and hurricanes such as Isaac and Superstorm Sandy. The recently released draft of the National Climate Assessment--the flagship report on climate change in the U.S.--begins:

Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.

And still, climate change was absent from the 2012 election campaign. Obama said almost nothing on the question--on the contrary, he ran campaign ads touting the fact that domestic oil production was at an eight-year high.

In his first press conference after winning re-election, Obama "reaffirmed" the need to address climate change, stating, "I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions, and as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it."

That may seem like a step forward from the silence of the campaign, but Obama's answer about what his administration has done to stop climate change was laughable. He pointed to measures to improve vehicle fuel efficiency standards and to increase some renewable energy production. "We haven't done as much as we need to," he admitted.

Yeah, no kidding.

In fact, such measures are dwarfed by Obama's real accomplishment of increasing oil and gas drilling. Corporate mouthpiece Forbes magazine was was full of praise for Obama when it reported on the International Energy Agency prediction that the U.S. would soon become the world's top oil producer:

[I]t gets better--so much so that I hope the Obama-bashers out there are sitting down because this is going to sting a bit. The report further indicates that by 2035, the U.S. will reach energy self-sufficiency and go from being an importer of oil--we currently import 20 percent of our total energy needs from other nations--to a net oil exporter...

"Five years ago, if I or anyone had predicted today's production growth, people would have thought we were crazy," says Jim Burkhard, head of oil markets research at IHS CERA, an energy consulting firm."

In addition to promoting drilling in the U.S., especially in Alaska, the Obama administration--after being forced to back off by activist pressure--is believed to be getting ready to give the green light for Keystone XL tar sands pipeline later this year. Renowned climate scientist James Hansen says that if oil production from tar sands comes fully online, it's "game over."

Those hoping for a "re-energized" Obama administration to start a real conversation about climate change will surely be disappointed. As Betsy Taylor, an environmental consultant in Washington, D.C., told Britain's Guardian, "The political opportunity created by Sandy could be slipping away. We are disappointed that [Obama] hasn't talked or used his bully pulpit...In the very short term, there was an opportunity post-Sandy, but I don't think it has been seized."

THE RULE is simple: Anything that threatens in any way the potential profits of the corporate polluters, the car companies, the frackers and the oil companies is off-limits in Washington.

Obama admitted as much when he said any plan to tackle climate change had to be weighed against the potential economic impact--though he used concern about unemployment as a cover. "[I]f the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that," Obama said. "I won't go for that."

But climate change will continue unless the corporate polluters primarily responsible for it are impacted economically.

The fossil fuel industry remains the most lucrative in the world--last year alone, ExxonMobil reported record profits of $16 billion. That's 16 billion reasons to not stop destroying the Earth--and Exxon is just one company among many. And Obama, who, as a candidate in 2008, once called for a "windfall tax" on super-profitable oil companies, has never mentioned it since taking office.

Obama now claims he's "seriously considering" hosting a climate summit at the White House sometime during his second term, but don't hold your breath.

If such a meeting ever happens, it will be doomed because it accepts the current terms of the debate. The administration will make sure that the oil companies, the "energy consultants" and the frackers all get "a seat at the table"--but there won't even be standing room only for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the farmers struggling to cope with severe drought or the Gulf Coast residents trying to piece their lives back together after the BP oil spill.

Those who care about the environment will be told they have to work in "partnership" with big business. But the corporations aren't our "partners." They are killing the planet and threatening the lives and living conditions of ordinary people around the globe.

Meaningful change won't happen in Washington without a large struggle from below that forces it. Environmental activist Bill McKibben has been far too kind to Obama in the past, but he was absolutely correct to argue at TomDispatch:

The president must be pressed to do all he can--and more. That's why thousands of us will descend on Washington D.C. on Presidents Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there's another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he's simply not up to this task, and that we're going to have to do it for him, as best we can.

If he won't take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That's why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.

If he won't use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we'll try. That's why young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the UN into action.

If he won't listen to scientists--like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake--then top scientists are increasingly clear that they'll need to get arrested to make their point.

Make no mistake: We can't afford to wait for Obama and the Democrats to take action on climate change themselves, because they won't. That's up to us.

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