How can we confront climate change?

September 25, 2013

Activist, author and filmmaker Naomi Klein sparked a furious debate among activists with her sharp critique of well-funded mainstream environmental groups. The discussion has raised important questions for the movement as a whole, including what strategies the left should stand for. Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis and a participant in the ecosocialist coalition System Change Not Climate Change, responds to the debate in this second installment of a three-part article.

IN THE debate with Naomi Klein, prominent activists such as Joseph Romm, who publishes a lot of excellent information and analysis on his blog, deploy another common argument.

Rather than partnering with major corporations to change corporate behavior, many environmentalists cite the inability of enacting anything remotely radical in Washington today as a reason to trim their demands to what might feasibly garner enough votes to pass in a conservative and dysfunctional Congress awash with corporate cash.

Indeed, the first four reasons Romm gives for supporting cap-and-trade legislation in Congress all revolve around accepting the severe limitations of what's deemed possible by Congress, business and the general public. This is, of course, standard fare for apologists of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party and their complete inability to deliver any substantive progressive change.

It is a line of argument premised not only on the demonstrably false basis that the Democratic Party would do those things if it could, but more generally on the notion that these are static things and simple facts of life we have to accept, rather than the malleable thoughts of people, subject to change based on the balance of social forces and the impact of activism.

Protesters in North Carolina call on Barack Obama to say "no" to the Keystone XL pipeline
Protesters in North Carolina call on Barack Obama to say "no" to the Keystone XL pipeline (Will Wysong)

Responding to this line of argumentation based on "the politics of the possible," not letting "the perfect be the enemy of the good" and other such banalities, one could reasonably reply that limiting our horizons for change to what members of Congress will find acceptable, when a significant percentage don't believe in science, let alone climate change, is a recipe for stagnation and deep disappointment.

Moreover, as the re-election rate of incumbents to the U.S. Congress has only dipped below 90 percent twice since 1964, and is often above 95 percent due to systematic gerrymandering by both major parties and the money, power and influence that comes with an incumbent's position, focusing on Congress seems a very futile avenue for activist attention. Unless a member of Congress is so blatantly incompetent or brazenly corrupt that they manage the difficult task of standing out from their peers, it is essentially a job for life.

Subsequent to the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which deemed that corporations are people and therefore legally able to make unrestricted independent political expenditures, it would seem likely that re-election rates in the U.S. will approach levels that would make even old Soviet bureaucrats blush. In scouting possible locations for combat, it would appear improbable that a focus on lobbying Congress, in the absence of a movement trying to occupy Congress, will result in victory.

And with the Supreme Court invalidating key sections of the Voting Rights Act; the criminal justice system making it systematically impossible to account for the existence of institutionalized racism, despite its glaringly obvious and pervasive impact, as extensively documented in Michelle Alexander's excellent The New Jim Crow; and the easily absorbed legal and financial obligations imposed on BP in the wake of Deepwater Horizon; it should be clear that the courts are unlikely to be our most fertile terrain for waging a pitched battle with the forces of the corporatocracy.

To be clear, this is not to say activists should completely ignore Congress or legal skirmishes, but they can only play a secondary role to larger, more decisive battles fought elsewhere, with more resolute allies, on more favorable political topography. Campaigns that focus on mobilizing the population en masse, which help prepare the path for successful changes to the law through Congress and the courts, as our forces change people's perceptions of what's possible and march closer to the citadels of power.

KLEIN WAS also taken to task by Romm and others for failing to appreciate the benefits of market-driven solutions to climate change, such as cap-and-trade schemes and carbon offsetting schemes administered through the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This despite the well-documented abuses and comprehensive resistance from indigenous groups to the UN's REDD scheme of forest offsets (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

However, this is the basis for Klein's claim that green NGOs are worse than climate deniers--because they fail to grasp the revolutionary corollary of the science behind climate change in the way that corporate climate change deniers clearly have.

Capitalism is incapable of effectively addressing the crisis because to do so would violate the most revered of capitalist directives: make money at all costs. Therefore, the attempts of politicians in thrall to capitalist entities, busily devising market-based solutions such as cap-and-trade, will never work because they are trying to jam a very dollar-shaped peg into a distinctly earth-shaped hole.

While Romm cites evidence to substantiate his rather desperate claims that the largest carbon trading system, the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS), is working just as intended, many others disagree. According to the rabidly free-market magazine The Economist, the EU's ETS, which has "long been a mess," is now "holed below the waterline" as the price for carbon credits has plunged to junk bond status, due to a huge oversupply of allowances (close to 2 billion ton, or a year's supply of emissions).

Even the European Commission itself admits, "In the short term, this surplus risks undermining the orderly functioning of the carbon market; in the longer term, it could affect the ability of the EU ETS to meet more demanding emission reduction targets cost-effectively." Time magazine recently posed the question, "If Carbon Markets Can't Work in Europe, Can They Work Anywhere?"

In fact, as reported by Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, the U.S. has achieved the same reductions in carbon emissions as the EU with no cap-and-trade program, nor any discernible climate policy of any kind. As he concludes:

With the U.S. and the EU averaging ~2 percent [reductions in carbon emissions] per year since 1990, it is ironic indeed to see otherwise committed environmentalists acting as apologists for the EU ETS. The uncomfortable reality is that no policies have been put in place anywhere in the world that have indicated an ability to accelerate rates of de-carbonization to levels approaching [the necessary minimum of] 5 percent per year. That includes the EU ETS. If greater progress is to be made, debate will have to move beyond carbon pricing and the relative success or shortfalls of the EU ETS.

Unfortunately, even as European politicians scramble to cobble together yet another reform of the ETS to salvage the "green" flagship of EU environmental policy from ignominious collapse, many other countries around the world, driven by the same nostrums of neoliberal orthodoxy, are seeking to emulate the exact same system--a system ripe for corporate abuse, fraud and all manner of financial scams, without doing anything about carbon emissions. This is the denialism that Klein is talking about, as well as the danger represented by having people believe that something is being accomplished when the exact opposite is the case.

For more on how major financial institutions play the carbon credits system, the New York Times recently looked into the latest "hot new game on Wall Street." The big U.S. banks have reportedly been stockpiling ethanol credits from biofuel production in order to artificially drive up the price and reap windfall profits, at the expense of motorists forced to buy gasoline mixed with ethanol from corn fermentation.

No genuine environmental organization can back carbon trading or other market-based schemes. Dozens of social justice and environmental and indigenous organizations have called unequivocally for the scrapping of ETS before it does more damage and further locks in the very fossil-fueled energy production system we're trying so urgently to dismantle.

KLEIN, AS a board member of Bill McKibben's organization, has also come under attack from left-wing activists committed to a broader vision of the dramatic degree of change required if we are to prevent such a future. They lump in with the larger, older organizations for several reasons.

First, the funding of the group is now substantial and derives from the same non-transparent, undemocratic, conservative and moneyed sources as the more established ENGOs. For these critics, the amount and source of funding explains's choice of, in their view, weak and inconsequential targets for attack--its sole focus on stopping the northern section of a single pipeline, the Keystone XL, and divestment from fossil fuels.

In this view, even the arrests of over 1,000 protesters at the White House in November 2011 was part of a cynical campaign choreographed by sinister corporate and pro-Democratic Party forces to manipulate climate activists:

The "idealists" here were the rank-and-file, day-to-day worker-bees, writing press releases and doing social media work for and Friends who became True Believers in the mission, as well as the 1,000-plus arrestees, many of whom ironically probably flew to Washington, D.C., to get arrested on planes fueled by tar sands crude.

Activist John Stauber stated that "Martin Luther King must be turning in his grave" because "[t]he much-hyped victory for civil disobedience at the White House claimed by [in November 2011] is a mirage. Rather than civil disobedience, it looks now like civil obedience, pursuing the goal that President Obama smell like an Earth Day rose for his heroic stand against the XL Pipeline."

As for's divestment campaign, Canadian journalist and activist Cory Morningstar writes in an article called "McKibben's Divestment Tour: Brought to you by Wall Street" that it's not just their dodgy sources of funding that are highly problematic, but the entire political thrust of, which is designed to pacify the masses. According to Morningstar, divestment makes student activists feel that they're doing something to address the climate crisis, when in reality they provide effective political cover for the corporations to continue their planet-wrecking activities and allow capitalism to float by unnoticed as the root cause of the entire problem: and friends serve a vital purpose. These organizations successfully make certain that the public feel good about themselves. Simultaneously, they ensure obedience and passiveness to the state in order to secure current system/power structures and keep them intact.

Coming from a somewhat different political direction, Christian Parenti, author most recently of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Chaos, singles out three important flaws in a campaign focused on divestment:

Though elegant in its simplicity--attacking Big Carbon directly--this symbolically charged strategy (or rather tactic) suffers three crucial weaknesses. First, it misrecognizes the basic economics of the fossil fuel industry and thus probably won't hurt it. Second, it misrecognizes the nature and function of the stock market. Third, it ignores the potentially very important role of government in addressing the climate crisis.

In an article that largely agrees with Klein, anti-tar sands activist Macdonald Stainsby, writing at CounterPunch, argues: "Suffice to say, [ is] now very well-funded, by the very same people who fund not just Big Green, but the very people in North America it is most deadly to hand direction of social justice struggles to: The Democratic Party, especially the Hopey-Changey variety of brand Obama."

With regard to the September 2013 Draw the Line protests, Stainsby goes on to point out:

McKibben and his pro-administration organizing are already back at it. There is now yet another anti-Keystone XL "day of action" people are asked to participate in for September 21, 2013. It will be in several larger venues across the U.S., appealing to and not in defiance of the Obama administration--targeting in particular John Kerry, as he is secretary of state and apparently has been given the reins for the KXL decision.

Meanwhile, John Kerry is trying to get a Saudi-backed war going in Syria...[W]ar is the greatest environmental catastrophe possible, and ramps up oil use massively (in particular bitumen and other "really heavy" types of crude make jet fuel better than they create gasoline for your car), while further deepening imperial designs in the primary oil-producing region of the world. Yet...McKibben was praising John Kerry for stating that the climate threat is real to islanders in the Pacific whose entire nations are disappearing. No mention of his war-mongering in Syria.

LEAVING ASIDE the highly problematic language describing people prepared to get arrested for their beliefs as mindless drones in the service of the Democratic Party--and as morally suspect because some of them may have traveled by plane in a large country with limited rail infrastructure--these arguments all exhibit the same fatal flaw when it comes to building movements.

In the abstract, the left criticisms of, Bill McKibben, the campaign against KXL and for divestment are correct. McKibben continues to vacillate as to whether Barack Obama and the Democratic Party can be part of the climate solution, despite Obama's boast about his administration building enough pipeline to circle the earth "and then some."

Surely the sun has set on the idea that the Democratic Party, regardless of the charisma, rhetoric, race or gender of its leaders, can possibly be an effective vehicle for people's hopes and dreams for meaningful environmental or any other kind of progressive change.

Obama has had six years to show us otherwise and yet has merely blown hot air of no real consequence in the vague direction of his environmental supporters, while in practice girding up for continual expansion of U.S. fossil fuel production. Indeed, the U.S. achieved another "milestone" in August when fossil fuel production hit its highest levels since 1989, due to the high price of oil and increases in the use of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. Production is expected to increase by a further 1 million barrels in 2014.

In the longer term, all reports indicate that, as we enter the "Third Carbon Age," global production of fossil fuels will be far larger in 2040 than it is today, thanks to the rise of "unconventional sources." Technological innovations and billions of dollars in investment, along with high oil prices (and hence profits) justifying that investment, have made possible the extraction of oil and gas from previously out-of-reach sources: fracking, deepwater offshore drilling, tapping frozen underwater sources of methane thanks to the climate-related loss of Arctic sea ice.

In combination, these have opened up several new frontiers in oil and gas extraction. The Obama administration, in the May 2013 White House document National Strategy for the Arctic Region, argued that the U.S. must "make the most of the emerging economic opportunities in the region" by ramping up military capability and economic investments in Alaska.

The southern portion of Keystone XL, traveling through Texas and Oklahoma, which gives Canadian tar sands oil the strategically important outlet to Gulf Coast refineries and shipping hubs, has already been green-lighted by the Obama administration. The northern portion and the focus of anti-pipeline activism from and other ENGO's merely addresses a bottle-neck at Cushing.

If the State Department and Obama give the go-ahead to build, it will further increase the flow of tar sands oil, but it is not required for the southern portion to become operational. What has prevented the southern portion from being nearer to completion has been the forthright and determined resistance of tar sands blockaders and local groups and individuals standing in the way of construction equipment.

Despite acknowledging the dire impact of this section of Keystone XL in a recent report compiled by the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth, titled FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test, the conclusion is itself a fail, as it omits to mention any of this, nor calls on President Obama to issue a statement against its southern section completion.

And TransCanada and the Canadian government are busily making contingency plans in the event that the Obama administration does, against expectations, veto the project. Oil pipelines that go west, east and north from the tar sands in Alberta are already being planned.

If all else fails, a further huge increase in rail traffic is being prepared, the negative results of which we have already seen in human terms with the dozens of deaths in the town of Lac-Mégantic as a direct result of the mad scramble for profits and corporate deregulation. In 2009, there were 500 train cars carrying tar sands oil out of Canada; a mere four years later, the projection for 2013 is 140,000.

HOWEVER, SOME left-wing commentators and activists seem to want to use these developments not as useful pieces of information, signifying the relentless compulsion to accumulate profit, but rather as a bludgeon with which to attack other activists for their naivety--as if no one but them understands that of course capitalists will seek other avenues to get their way.

With so much money at stake, it's completely unrealistic to expect them to act any other manner. The point is that the movement has already forced them to do so by continually forcing a delay in their plans.

In terms of the impact of the divestment campaign, Bill McKibben has repeatedly stated that it is unlikely to significantly damage the profits of some of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet. But the aim of divestment struggles around other questions--most famously, against the apartheid regime of South Africa before it fell in the 1990s--was never purely financial. Even more important is the political effect of such campaigns in undermining public support for the targets.

Even where we to limit our goals to solely transforming energy production away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources--on its own, a goal which will require a massive, highly organized and resolute social movement--it will not be enough. A report in the science journal Nature Climate Change demonstrates that renewable energy technologies don't primarily replace more polluting fossil-fuel sources--rather, they add to them. Author Richard York's research indicates that a more overtly political supplementary strategy will be needed:

Of course, all societies need energy. So obviously, if societies are to stop using fossil fuels, they must have other energy sources. However, the results from the analyses presented here indicate that the shift away from fossil fuel does not happen inevitably with the expansion of non-fossil fuel sources, or at least in the political and economic contexts that have been dominant over the past 50 years around the world....

The most effective strategy for curbing carbon emissions is likely to be one that aims to not only develop non-fossil energy sources, but also to find ways to alter political and economic contexts so that fossil-fuel energy is more easily displaced and to curtail the growth in energy consumption as much as possible.

In other words, as I and other left-wing activists have consistently argued, the question is primarily about social and political change, rather than technological advances or technocratic solutions.

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