Grotesque Greed, A Burning Planet, & Climate Justice — Two Scenarios

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Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. That pretty much sums up the situation the human race finds itself in as the Earth’s environment spirals out of control due in large part to the pollution created when fossil fuels are burned to power our machines and create electricity. There are calls everywhere for climate justice as we struggle to confront the damage caused by rampant wildfires, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, and crippling droughts.

One Climate Justice Scenario

One way to deal with the emergency is to create a world government with the power to pass — and enforce — laws that would prohibit the production and sale of coal, oil, and methane. Most people would object to such a heavy-handed approach, but it is one possibility. What would such a world look like?

No more motor vehicles, airplanes, or ships. No new highways, no new structures made of steel or concrete, and none of the fertilizers and pesticides the world depends on today to grow the food we humans need to survive. No internet, crypto mining, or movies. People would walk or ride bikes if they needed to go somewhere. Horses and oxen would replace tractors in the fields.

Probably half of us would die of starvation and the other half would likely envy them, as life on Earth returned to being nasty, brutish, and short. For those who revel in remembrances of the “good old days,” that’s what they were like.

The payoff would be that the only energy permitted in this brave new world would come from sunshine, wind, hydro or other renewables. After a century or two, average global temperatures would decline, the seas would stop rising, and the ice caps would begin forming again. 10 or 12 generations of humans would shoulder the burden of the transformation.

Is that too much to ask to create a sustainable planet where people could live in abundance for millennia to come? There have been many hundreds of generations of humans. On a percentage basis, asking a dozen of them to make sacrifices for the greater good would be statistically negligible.

Another Climate Justice Scenario

Do you find that first climate justice scenario appalling? Many of you will, but is it any more appalling than the idea of packing a few intrepid cosmonauts into rockets and blasting off to Mars, leaving 8 billion of their fellow humans behind to experience a sort of slow motion funeral pyre?

The issue is fossil fuels. For the past century, they have powered human civilization but the amount of pollution they have created is staggering. Writing in The Guardian, Hamilton Nolan explains the blessing and the curse of fossil fuels in a brutally honest (and lightly edited) way.

“It is useful to think of capitalism as a robotic savant, spectacularly gifted at doing one thing and cripplingly blind to everything else. Global capitalism is an incredible machine for extracting fossil fuels from our planet, refining them, shipping them to every corner of the Earth and making staggering amounts of money doing so. The humming of this machine, the fuel and the money that it spits out, has powered a century of unprecedented production and consumption by the Earth’s first-world nations. Unfortunately the machine is also poisoning us all. But one of its exquisitely evolved functions is to make it almost impossible to turn it off.”

The staggering profits reported so far this year by the world’s fossil fuel companies have been extraordinary, driven in large part by Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres described them as “grotesque greed” and called upon the nations of the world to tax them and use the money to help the poor and disadvantaged, something no nation so far has indicated it has any intention of doing. “It is immoral for oil and gas companies to be making record profits from this energy crisis on the backs of the poorest people and communities, at a massive cost to the climate,” he said. Nolan adds his own take to this situation.

“In this, we see another key characteristic of the machine: the fortunes of nations may rise and fall, but the oil companies will always survive and thrive, floating above the chaos of the world like passengers on a private jet, shaking their heads performatively at all the problems below.

“The price of oil fluctuates, but that short term volatility masks the industry’s long term certainty of success. A recent study showed that for the past 50 years, the oil industry has made profits of more than $1 trilliion a year, close to $3 billion a day. These profits are driven not by some fantasy of free enterprise and perfect competition, but by the exact opposite — cartels, mega-corporations and the regulatory capture of governments, conspiring to create a market free of both competition and of a price that reflects the actual cost to the world of the product that is being sold.

“The machine does not just extract and sell fossil fuels. It also concerns itself with ensuring that the entire world is arranged in a way conducive to maintaining the demand for those fossil fuels. The growth of oil profits even as the reality of climate change is burning before our eyes is proof that no single crisis, no matter how existential, will be enough to shut this machine down naturally. The machine must either be broken by us, or it will break us all (emphasis added).”

Nolan focuses his remaining comments on capitalism, the engine that drives all industries, including the fossil fuel sector.

“Capitalism is not designed to look several generations down the road. It is not designed to sacrifice for the greater good. It is designed to maximize profits. To pump every last barrel of oil on Earth, sell it, take the money and build a luxurious space ship to leave the planet that has been destroyed by burning all of that gas is a perfectly rational course of action according to the logic of capitalism. As long as there is a trillion dollars a year to be made, the fossil fuel industry will take the money. It is enough money to build a nice villa far, far away from the wars and droughts and floods and wildfires that fossil fuels are causing.”

Illusory Profits

Nolan writes that these profits are an illusion, however. The great truth of capitalism is that it is utterly dependent on customers. If all your customers are dead, where will your profits come from?

“These profits are illusory. They are plagued by an externality large enough to outweigh a trillion dollars a year – the costs that the climate crisis will impose on billions of people who are alive now and many generations to come. The fact that capitalism is unable to properly price a barrel of oil to account for all the pain it will cause to your grandchildren whose home is wiped out by rising seas is proof that the whole idea of an impartial system of costs and rewards for labor and risks is a big sham.

“The fossil fuel industry as a whole is not just another business, providing a service to meet a demand. It is a predatory drug dealer that works every day to keep the world addicted to its poisonous product, knowing full well that it will eventually prove fatal (emphasis added). It fights to keep the population fooled about its costs, to keep the political power structure incapable of keeping the public safe from its damages, and to keep the flow of supply coming at full blast despite any human or environmental toll. It is not something to be applauded. It is a problem to be solved.”

Taxing Externalities

Elon Musk likes to talk about untaxed externalities. That’s a term economists use to describe the portions of a commercial transaction that create costs that are passed on to others to pay. The word “tax” confuses people. They think of it in terms of a levy imposed by a government, but economists use the word differently to refer to anything that properly belongs on the debit side of a ledger.

If a company can convince someone else to pay for health insurance for its employees, that becomes an untaxed externality that fattens the bottom line. The same goes for forcing society as a whole to pay for the destruction of the planet we call home with poisonous emissions. Some refer to this as privatizing the profits while getting society to pay for the economic burden created by an economic activity.

“It’s no big mystery how to change this toxic dynamic. Merely putting a price on fossil fuel that accurately reflects its costs — for example, through a carbon tax — would do the trick, with time, as it rapidly became economically unfeasible to mortgage the health of the planet’s future on a carbon credit card. Better, and faster, would be straightforward regulations paired with enormous public investments to transition to cleaner energy sources, a la the Green New Deal.

“It is folly to assume that a system that has been constructed in part by the corporate power of the energy industry will find a way to rein in that same industry against its wishes. It’s willfully stupid to imagine that electoral politics will be up to this task. This is an issue that is, more than most, begging for radicalism. For all of us, it will take treating the tremendous but slow moving threat of climate change with the deadly seriousness it deserves.

“So next time you see young people sitting in at a senator’s office or blocking the streets or hollering at Joe Manchin’s yacht, don’t mock them. Join them. They will be living through a grim future long after all that sweet oil money has been spent.”

As Bill McKibben points out, even older people can be climate justice advocates, too. Even nuns can do it.

The Takeaway

George Carlin told us the way things really are when he said America is nothing more than an oil company with an army. That description applies to many other nations as well. In the next part of this discussion, we will look more closely at climate justice and what it means to nations in Africa who have suffered at the hands of the developed world for decades and now want their piece of the fossil fuel profits pie.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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