Gaius Publius: The Building Is Burning and All the World’s Babies Are In It — Using Force to Fight Climate Change

November 28, 2017
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By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

Who’s responsible for carbon emissions? By 1890 the U.S. had taken the dominant position and held it until 2000 (source; click to enlarge).

This piece contains a small number of simple ideas:

  • It’s going to take force to fight climate change. Asking and negotiating won’t do the job.
  • There’s no time to wait. New studies show sea level rise could be as much as 11 feet by the end of the century.
  • Just because we can’t stop all of the coming disaster doesn’t mean we can’t mitigate, perhaps even halve, its effects.

Let’s look at these points one by one.

It’s Going to Take Force

Anyone who thinks that asking the billionaires who run our government, and have done so since Reagan snatched the 1980 election from Carter, to do something effective about the catastrophic effects of climate change — that person is dreaming TV-induced dreams of public figures “doing the right thing” when right things need to be done. No one with power will do the right thing when it comes to climate change, or do enough of it to actually matter (though one person perhaps would have, had he advanced far enough).

The most we can hope for from current mainstream leadership is for people to look like they’re doing the right thing, or to do some of the right things, but not enough of them to upset the money-laden apple cart that gets them elected, or to turn the mainstream press so against them that they get the “Sanders-Kucinich treatment.” Recall that even Al Gore got the Sanders-Kucinich treatment from the press, one of the under-mentioned factors in his loss to Bush. We’re going to have to use force.

What does “using force” mean when it comes to climate action? Here are just a two examples of many I could cite. So far these are orderly uses of force. (Disorderly uses of force are likely to come later, in the form of social chaos driven by global impotent anger, and are less likely to be effective. We’ll consider that set of outcomes at another time.)

The Building Is Burning and All the World’s Babies Are In It

An example of the orderly use of force, from climate activist Emily Johnston writing at The Guardian:

I shut down an oil pipeline – because climate change is a ticking bomb

Normal methods of political action and protest are simply not working. If we don’t reduce emissions boldly and fast, that’s genocide

A little over a year ago, four friends and I shut down all five pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil into the United States by using emergency shut-off valves. As recent months have made clear, climate change is not only an imminent threat; it is an existing catastrophe. It’s going to get worse, and tar sands oil—the dirtiest oil on Earth—is one of the reasons.

We did this very, very carefully—after talking to pipeline engineers, and doing our own research. Before we touched a thing, we called the pipeline companies twice to warn them, and let them turn off the pipelines themselves if they thought that was better; all of them did so.

We knew we were at risk for years in prison. But the nation needs to wake up now to what’s coming our way if we don’t reduce emissions boldly and fast; business as usual is now genocidal.

The reason this counts as “using force,” despite the fact that nothing they did was permanent, is this — it gave them access to the courts and the “necessity defense” (emphasis added):

One major hope of ours was to set legal precedent by using the “necessity defense” and bringing in expert witnesses to testify that because of the egregious nature of tar sands crude and the urgency of the climate crisis, we’d actually been acting in accordance with higher laws.

The classic example of a legitimate use of the necessity defense is when someone is arrested for breaking and entering after they hear a baby crying in a burning building, and rush in to save her.

Because it requires a high bar of proof—you must have tried everything else, the danger must be imminent, the action must be likely to be effective—courts seldom even allow this defense to be argued, or expert witnesses to be brought; their only concern, generally, is did you break and enter? Not why.

Three of our trials (which are in four states) had already rejected the use of the necessity defense. In North Dakota, the judge said essentially “I’m not going to let you put US energy policy on trial”. But recently, I and the other Minnesota defendants were finally granted it.

I have little doubt that the awful weather events of the last couple of months played some role in this—it’s not just scientists seeing the truth anymore: the building is indeed burning, and all the world’s babies are in it.

The building is indeed burning. It’s time to not think about property rights — imagine that revolution! — and save the babies instead.

Putting the Prosecutor on Trial

A final note. Recall above that the North Dakota judge said bringing climate science into the defense would allow the defendants “to put US energy policy on trial.” That’s exactly right — and exactly what’s at stake.

Johnston comments, “I was struck by the North Dakota judge’s implicit understanding that letting science be spoken in her courtroom would have had the effect of putting energy policy on trial—of reversing, in effect, who was the defendant, and who the prosecutor” (my emphasis). Putting the energy industry on trial is precisely the tack to take.

A second example of the same use of force: Climate scientist and pioneer James Hansen is doing exactly the same thing here, and for exactly the same reasons — global justice. A small handful of the powerful super-rich should not be allowed to destroy the lives of billions of their fellow humans, born and unborn, for just a short decade or so of added profit.

Will the billionaires and the governments they control stand down and “do the right thing?” I wouldn’t bet on it — it’s going to take force. Note that orderly force can take many other forms as well, for example, destroying the stock price of fossil fuel-dependent energy companies, which I’ve written about before.

There’s No Time to Wait

The second main point is that there’s no time to wait. Every day it seems there’s new news on the climate front, all with the same message — we’re constantly wrong to the slow side, constantly comforting ourselves with underestimates of the speed of this evolving crisis.

The latest is this, a new study showing that a feedback loop in the West Antarctica ice shelf may, by the end of this century, melt enough land-borne ice to sink coastal cities worldwide under as much as 11 feet of water (my emphasis):

“With marine ice cliff instability, sea-level rise for the next century is potentially much larger than we thought it might be five or 10 years ago,” Poinar says.

A lot of this newfound concern is driven by the research of two climatologists: Rob DeConto at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and David Pollard at Penn State University. A study they published last year was the first to incorporate the latest understanding of marine ice-cliff instability into a continent-scale model of Antarctica.

Their results drove estimates for how high the seas could rise this century sharply higher. “Antarctic model raises prospect of unstoppable ice collapse,” read the headline in the scientific journal Nature, a publication not known for hyperbole.

Instead of a three-foot increase in ocean levels by the end of the century, six feet was more likely, according to DeConto and Pollard’s findings. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed.

The result?

Three feet of sea-level rise would be bad, leading to more frequent flooding of U.S. cities such as New Orleans, Houston, New York, and Miami. Pacific Island nations, like the Marshall Islands, would lose most of their territory. Unfortunately, it now seems like three feet is possible only under the rosiest of scenarios.

At six feet, though, around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world’s most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map.

At 11 feet, land currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people worldwide would wind up underwater. South Florida would be largely uninhabitable; floods on the scale of Hurricane Sandy would strike twice a month in New York and New Jersey, as the tug of the moon alone would be enough to send tidewaters into homes and buildings.

There’s no time left to dawdle. If we can’t end carbon emissions in an orderly way, there’s no way we can relocate all the world’s coastal cities in an orderly way. The chaos alone of all that relocation would kill most of the would-be escapees.

Mitigating Climate Disaster Isn’t All-or-Nothing

Which leads to the last point, one last word for those who’ve thrown in the towel on the likely fate of our species. Just as the climate disaster is and will be a rolling nightmare, advancing from frontier to frontier in its destruction — meaning, it won’t all happen at once, but in stages — so is disaster mitigation a rolling series of preventions that can knock off the worst climate effects one by one. But only if we act.

If we started now, for example, we can very likely prevent the West Antarctic ice shelf disaster mentioned above, according to the authors of the study.

If the divestment movement takes firmer hold, and shareholder lawsuits increase against an industry that’s been lying for 50 years about the price instability of their in-the-ground assets, Big Oil could see financial decline well in advance of major climate collapses. If Big Oil collapses, a massive, aggressive, worldwide turn to renewables would be the only safe way left to keep the world in kilowatts — a welcome and effective turn from a climate perspective.

If the necessity defense really takes hold in American (or global) jurisprudence in climate cases against Big Oil companies, they could be threatened with bankruptcy due to damage lawsuits alone. After all, how great are the damages? More than they or their shareholders could begin to think of paying. How do you price the global devolution of a species from a smart-phone culture to the New New Stone Age?

Any number of mitigating events could and will happen in the next 10 years, events that won’t cancel climate consequences — that ship has sailed — but that could offset a great many of those effects still in doubt. In that sense, it’s not “already over” — that’s way too digital, too all-or-nothing an analysis. It’s only “already over” if no one acts at all, and that’s just not what’s happening. Many, like those cited above and a great many more, are already acting, and acting with increasing force. That’s encouraging.

It’s also encouraging that the real (and so far failed) Resistance, which started with Occupy and continued through the 2016 election, has not ended. That fight — against Rule by the Rich — is also the climate fight, and thankfully, it’s not going to stop on any of its major fronts, including the battle for a human-livable climate.

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