John Buell

Changing the Political Climate

President Obama assures us that he takes climate change seriously and that prompt attention to it is a responsibility to subsequent generations. Nonetheless, as in many areas, his actions and his policy proposals fall far short of his words.

Even his words, if carefully parsed, tell a disappointing story. Consider his recent speech on the topic: “Now, one thing I want to make sure everybody understands — this does not mean that we’re going to suddenly stop producing fossil fuels. Our economy wouldn’t run very well if it did. And transitioning to a clean energy economy takes time. But when the doomsayers trot out the old warnings that these ambitions will somehow hurt our energy supply, just remind them that America produced more oil than we have in 15 years. What is true is that we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face. That’s not possible. I put forward in the past an all-of-the-above energy strategy …”

His “all- of- the- above” approach implies a need for renewable energy and conservation, but also relies on and even advocates increasing exploration for and exploitation of fossil fuels. He has endorsed that great oxymoron, clean coal, as well as offshore drilling.

The problem is that with regard to fossil fuels, not only will we be engaged in business as usual, many remaining sources of fossil fuels are both especially carbon- intensive and require massive energy expenditures to discover and process. One economist has described projects like the Canadian tar sands as a kind of Ponzi scheme.

Perhaps the most basic reason an all- of- the- above policy won’t work lies in the economics of the oil companies. Bill McKibben points out that the fossil fuel industry already has “five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80% of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. ...Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it … It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.”

In short, the oil companies enjoy inordinate profits and their whole business model relies on exploiting all the assets, that is the hydrocarbons, they own. These profits are in turn recycled not only into further exploration and development but also into the political process.

The reference to a Ponzi scheme of course suggests another current crisis. That crisis is the increasing financialization of the US economy and the instability it encourages. These may seem to be distinct issues, but they relate in several ways. Just like climate, financial markets are dynamic, highly unstable systems. Not only is there instability at the macro or total economic level but in addition investment banks play a role in encouraging commodity speculation via the derivative market. That very instability in the price of essentials and their increasing cost evokes concern with one’s immediate situation. In addition, financialization has been a major cause of extreme economic inequality. That inequality in turn gives financial elites the confidence that they have the wherewithal to withstand whatever stresses the environment may deal out. 

Environmentalists often emphasize impending disaster but then respond with relatively minimal proposals such as stronger regulation of coal power. The concern among many environmentalists, even some who have generally a left orientation, is to avoid other controversial issues, such as income distribution or the role of finance, or alternatives to our consumer society. Warnings about the death of civilization, however, although understandable and necessary to a degree, may only encourage denial and a focus on the here and now, which our financial situation only encourages.

Environmentalists might better go big, describe how a world of energy conservation, public transit, and alternatives to the consumer society’s focus on individual goods offer a superior quality of life.  And although tighter regulation of coal powered plants, better fuel and energy standards for cars and appliances are good first steps they clearly will not prevent the oil giants from cashing in on all those “assets.”

The devil is in the details. Tighter regulation will be negotiated with the industries and states, thereby risking watering down their effect. Even better fuel economy would be partially negated if we do more driving.

How effective either of these steps will be depends on the coalitions that lobby the administrative agencies and pursue other complementary reforms such as transit investment, gas and carbon taxes, and land use planning.

With extreme weather events happening all around us, we do need to build an infrastructure that is better able to accommodate and respond to such occurrences. Our best procedures, designs, and technologies will not obviate all death and suffering. We must acknowledge this tragic dimension even as we herald the possibility of new forms of heroism. And since death, especially sudden, unpredictable, and on large scales often brings existential anxiety, we must be attentive to the already overly prevalent scapegoating of marginalized groups. Nonetheless, the longer we wait to slow the warming and mitigate future damage the greater the loss of life and suffering. Investments in mitigation, conservation, public transit, and alternative energy must be far in excess of anything currently planned.

The ways to get there must include several radical steps. These might include public control over big oil, even if that meant compensation of existing stockholders financed by a steeply progressive income tax. In addition it would include a ratcheting down of the role of predatory finance, both to increase stability and to find the resources for our transition. Finally, to those who say these steps are too controversial, I would reply that the temporizing strategy thus far has achieved little. Further, neither oil companies nor investment banks are popular today. A bolder strategy offers the prospect of coalitions that have more chance of success.

Of course Obama cannot say these things without the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly landing all over him. Obama’s disclaimer that it has taken a long time to generate this problem and will thus require many years to address it amounts to a declaration of surrender to the status quo. We need a crash program to build the infrastructure of a different way of life, but at the same time we need to be enacting elements of that life in our day-to-day activities.

It is not our job to put ourselves in Obama’s shoes and limit ourselves to what he can get away with. It is rather to articulate and enact broader and more radical options in order to change the field of what can be uttered. We should highlight Obama’s words as the limited and cautious reflections they are. And we can act in various ways, even through such mundane acts as car pooling, downsizing our lives, and sharing our grown-up toys like kayaks and bikes.

On a moral level we must resist the notion that imminent crises or disasters like hurricane or drought must always lead to a culture characterized by every person, class, or ethnic group for themselves.

Humans are capable of and can further nurture the capacity for pro-social behaviors and expanded empathy amidst crisis. One task today is both to articulate the radical limits of business as usual and fashion ever- broader coalitions committed to alternatives.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013

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