Photo: Getty/Sarah Rice
This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘What Resource Do We Most Need For Our Future?‘The resource we need most if we’re to get through the next few decades is outrage: outrage at the way the fossil fuel industry has decided its willing to wreck the planet’s climate, outrage at the way they’ve been able to buy politicians in order to do it. Outrage that transforms itself into ceaseless organising for real change, of a magnitude large enough to matter.
I wrote the first book for a general audience on global warming, 23 years ago. In the time since, we’ve watched as climate change turned from a theoretical future problem to a deep and immediate crisis. Last year saw by far the most multi-billion dollar weather disasters in U.S. history, and the picture was even worse around the globe. Consider Thailand, for instance, where completely unprecedented fall floods did damage equivalent to 18 per cent of the nation’s GDP.
The cause of this warming is not mysterious. Scientists have explained with endless patience that when you burn coal and gas and oil, you release carbon into the atmosphere and that the molecular structure of co2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. So far we’ve trapped enough heat to raise the earth’s temperature a degree, and that’s been enough to melt much of the Arctic, increase drought and flood, and turn the oceans 30% more acid.
The solution to this problem is also not mysterious. We need to stop burning hydrocarbons and start powering our lives with the wind and sun. Not easy to do—it would require investment on a massive scale and an unprecedented government focus. But given that, according to the British economist Sir Nicholas Stern, unchecked global warming will cost more than both world wars and the Great Depression, it’s clearly the smart thing to do.
There’s also, finally, no mystery about why we’re not doing it. The fossil fuel industry is making more money right now than any industry in the history of money. They’re unwilling to surrender any of that immediate profit and so they’re investing a portion of their winnings in spreading disinformation about climate, and in buying politicians. Here’s an example. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would help open up Canada’s tarsands to oil development.
Heavily tapped, in the words of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, they hold enough carbon to mean “it’s essentially game over for the climate.” But the U.S. Congress is pushing hard to approve the pipeline without even the year of review the Obama administration has proposed. Earlier this winter 234 members of the House voted to expedite the pipeline process—and together they’d taken $42 million from the fossil fuel industry. That’s corruption, pure and simple.
Fighting them will require outrage. If we are defeated by their financial might so be it. But there’s no use conceding defeat before we’ve begun. People around the country and around the world are starting to demand that corporations not be treated as people, that they not be allowed to dominate the political system. People are beginning to insist that we stop giving subsidies to the fossil fuel industry—especially the biggest subsidy of all, which is their unique right to pour their biggest waste product, carbon, into the atmosphere for free. No other business gets that right.
It will be interesting to see if the rest of the business community goes along with the fossil fuel industry. At the moment, they do—most big companies, for instance, belong to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, even though its fought every effort to rein in carbon pollution. (It even filed a brief with the EPA insisting that if the planet warmed it would be no problem because people could “alter their physiology” to cope with the heat). But a few companies—Apple, for instance, and Microsoft—have begun to break ranks, and their ties with the Chamber, in part because they don’t want to be identified with this kind of recklessness.
I admit that the odds are high, and that if you were a betting person you’d guess Exxon et al will carry the day. But the one good thing about outrage is that it’s a renewable resource—each new example of people and places wrecked by climate change will remind us who’s at fault. Let’s hope we can turn up the political heat faster than the fossil fuel industry can dial up the planet’s temperature.
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