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Can We Get Serious Now?
Why we are being lied to and what to do about it
Imagine that we are all on board a sinking ship. There are big holes in the hull, and we are taking in water at an increasing rate. Various people are pretending to do something about it. The scientists are trying to figure out how much water the ship can hold before it sinks. The engineers are designing pumps to keep the leaking ship afloat. The economists just want to keep the casino open. And everyone agrees that it will be the people traveling in third class who will drown first. Strangely enough, very few people seem interested in plugging the holes. On the contrary, the most lucrative job on the ship is drilling new ones. The second most lucrative is making sure that poor people remain on the lower decks.
When it comes to climate change, this metaphor is too close for comfort. The greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are rising at an accelerating rate, and unless we break this trend, any discussion over carbon budgets is pointless. The only reason for the increase is that we have drilled holes in the crust of the Earth, from which we extract coal, oil, and gas. We know that the fossil fuels in the ground and the oxygen in the air were both created by the same process – almost a billion years of photosynthesis – but we have reversed it to enable economic growth. Somehow, capitalism and short-term profits are still considered more important than the future of humanity and the global ecosystem. We keep arguing over technologies rather than focusing on the most important task: phasing out gas, coal, and oil as quickly as possible. How can anyone believe that we will prevent the climate crisis when fossil fuel extraction is still the world’s most lucrative business? Why does anyone think that governments are serious about stopping climate change when they continue to subsidize fossil fuels and spend twice as much money on protecting their borders as on protecting the climate?
The problem is that the governments of the Global North have decided that climate change cannot be prevented at a reasonable cost and are now preparing for the inevitable climate disaster by strengthening their defenses to keep the huddled masses out. As their armies require large quantities of oil to operate, they are essentially “feeding the crocodile, hoping that it will eat them last.” They cannot openly admit this and therefore resort to the kind of political language brilliantly described by George Orwell in 1946:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
If you are looking for modern examples of this phenomenon, the mission statement of Frontex is an excellent place to start: The European Area of Freedom, Security and Justice. There are good reasons for keeping climate refugees out of Europe, but they are hardly compatible with the notion of universal human rights and the avowed aims of our political parties.
We live in faux democracies, where the public is encouraged to participate in the political process on irrelevant issues but is kept in the dark on important matters. We saw this during the financial crisis of 2008, and we see it today with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fundamental decisions about saving the global financial system and rewriting national defense and security policies are made behind closed doors without any involvement of the public. Germany, a country that has spent decades arguing over speed limits on the Autobahn, was prepared to change its entire post-war approach to foreign policy and massively boost defense spending without any political debate. Whether this decision was correct or not is irrelevant. The point is that a major crisis was used to ram through political decisions that would otherwise have been difficult. This is Disaster Capitalism at its best.
The rich and the powerful who run the show are not stupid but rather rational, unscrupulous, greedy, and power-hungry. They realized a long time ago that their lifestyle is incompatible with a finite planet and that the kind of global collaboration and solidarity required to prevent climate disaster is extremely unlikely. However, they are delighted to hear that the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the worst consequences, especially in the Global South. The choice between sacrificing power and wealth or letting poor people die is easy.
As long as you continue to drill holes in the hull, you are not really trying to salvage the ship. Likewise, saving the only habitable planet in the known universe does not involve extracting non-renewable natural resources and destroying ecosystems at an accelerating rate. Stating that we never tried to stop climate change would be too polite. The truth is that the people in charge decided that it was not worthwhile. And as usual with significant decisions, they did not bother to consult the rest of us.
The people running the show always knew that they were wrecking the planet, which is why additional research was never going to change anything. For them, climate protection was simply a “cure worse than the disease.” In the short run, they are probably right. And in the long run, we are all dead.
How do we get out of this mess? Appealing to the sense of altruism of the global elite is not going to work. On the other hand, launching a popular uprising to abolish capitalism is also likely to fail, as the global elite is too powerful, and we do not have a generally accepted alternative to the existing system. Because of this, revolutions in the past have typically been chaotic and bloody affairs with disappointing outcomes.
To defeat the people in power, we need to divide and conquer. The introduction of a global carbon tax would deal a major blow to global capitalism by invalidating any business models dependent on fossil fuels. Without access to cheap fossil fuels, most large corporations would not be able to operate. If the tax revenue were fairly distributed, the poor would not have to suffer. Oil companies do not care whether they generate their profits from destroying the planet or taking money from the rich, as long as they make a profit. After all, it is easier to sell one barrel of oil for $1000 than ten barrels for $100 each. But the impact on the environment is a lot smaller with one barrel.
Rather than attacking the fossil fuel companies directly, Global Climate Compensation uses them as tax collectors. They are allowed to continue to operate as long as they take money from the rich and give it to the poor. In the short run, this would solve their image problem without significantly hurting their bottom line. And we know that they do not care about long-term consequences.