This Changes Everything…Capitalism vs The Climate Part Two: Magical Thinking

Richard Snyder
Thursday, December 1, 2016


   Naomi Klein opens the introduction to her book with a quote from the American Association for the Advancement of Science

"Most projections of climate change presume that future changes–greenhouse gas emissions, temperature increases and effects such as sea level rise –will happen incrementally. A given amount of emission will lead to a given amount of temperature increase that will lead to a given amount of smooth incremental sea level rise. However, the geological record for the climate reflects instances where a relatively small change in one element of climate led to abrupt changes in the system as a whole.

In other words, pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO 2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden climate brake and steering failure where the problem and its consequences are no longer something we can control."

—Report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, 2014

                               Part II.  Magical Thinking

In chapter 6, Fruits Not Roots:  The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green:

    In this section she sets out a series of examples on how, what we have always thought were wonderful environmental organizations, had been co-opted by the big dollars of big business.  She shocks her readership by showing those dollars contributed to groups like The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Conservation Fund, World Wildlife Fund and even the Environmental Defense Fund were really going to environmental organizations that have been in bed with the interests of  major energy, extractive and development corporations.

   The shopping list of these corporations include the likes of Shell,  BP, Statoil, Chevron, Duke Energy, American Electric Power,  Walmart, Monsanto and that is just the beginning of the list. Not only have these organizations become dependent on these corporate dollars they often have top level corporate leadership  people dominating their boards.

   Naomi goes further by setting out the facts that many of these Organizations have much of their endowments invested in the very companies whose practices they allegedly stand against.  The most egregious example is the Nature Conservancy, the richest of the so called environmental organizations, developing their own oil and gas wells on its 2,303 acre preserve in Texas that Exxon had donated to them.  It was a preserve dedicated to saving the prairie chicken from extinction. There are now only 16 of the birds left.

   There are several examples of organizations that have not wavered from their stated purpose. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and Food and Water Watch stand out as chief amongst them. The Sierra Club, which has battled coal for years has sold all of its extractive gas energy investments and has re-joined the groups that are leading the efforts against fossil fuels.

   Naomi continues to detail the merger of big business with big green. For so many of the Big Greens their approach to the environment changed from courtroom battles of the 60’s to board room partnerships.   Partnerships were forged that provide big $ to those Big Greens. For those dollars they stopped the court room challenges and they started supporting such actions as Natural Gas as a bridge to the future as well as schemes such as “Cap and Trade” which allowed major polluters to keep on polluting. Big bucks were to be made by companies that no longer polluted by selling the value of not polluting to polluters who then had a license to continue polluting. These concepts are still a major thrust of many of the Big Greens today.

   Naomi writes that “The problem is that by adopting this model of financing…….for every ton of carbon dioxide …kept out of the atmosphere, a corporation is able to pump a ton into the air.”

The Natural Gas bridge promoted by many Big Greens as the future became as Naomi quotes an oil and gas engineer who helped create the system of shale fracking  “gas extraction from  shale deposits is not a bridge to a renewable energy future….it’s a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy  investment.”

Part II   Magical Thinking…..In chapter 8,  No Messiahs

    Enter the billionares….Buffett, Branson, Bloomberg, Pickens, Gates and more. All promising and supporting schemes to allegedly solve the issue of global warming. All are based on development of high tech answers that would allow us to maintain our consumptions.

     Two examples are:

    ****Warren Buffett, the wonderful humble investment guru. A few years ago he studied and visited the Alberta Tar Sands and now has heavy holdings in the tar sands giant, Suncor. He also spent  $26 billion to buy the final share of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad which is a critical part of the system  of providing supplies, materials and heavy equipment to the ongoing development of the tar sands oil fields.

   He has also ordered a fleet of the most modern oil tanker cars which will be used to transport oil from the Tar Sands if the Keystone XL pipeline does not get built. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad is one of the biggest haulers of western coal and some think he is betting on hauling crude and coal to the ports of Mexico for shipment to China.

   ****Richard Branson is another story that Naomi tells.

    A “flamboyant” billionaire who in 2006 pledged $3 billion dollars to develop alternatives to oil and gas. In 2007 he offered a prize of  $25 million dollars to any scientist who could develop a way  to sequester one billion tons of carbon a year out of the air.  In the 6 years since his 10 year pledge he is reported to have only spent about $300,000,000 of his $3 billion pledge.  He claims he has not fulfilled the pledge because the airline industry has that with the fact that his wealth has grown from 2.8 billion to 5.1 billion in the past 6 years.


     Quoting Naomi

"The idea that capitalism and only capitalism can save the world from a crisis created by capitalism is no longer an abstract theory; it’s a hypothesis that has been tested and retested in the real world. We are now able to set theory aside conglomerates that were supposed to model chic green lifestyles who have long since moved on to the next fad; at the green products that were shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were supposed to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed miserably to lower emissions; at the natural gas sector that was supposed to be our  bridge to renewables but ended up devouring much of their market instead. And most of all, at the parade of billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided that, on second thought, the old one was just too profitable to surrender."   Page 252.

                                Part II…… Magical Thinking

   Chapter 9, “Dimming the Sun”, Naomi subtitles the chapter “The Solution to Pollution is…Pollution”.

She opens the chapter with a quote from 1895 in which William James states “Our Science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.”   The information in this chapter proved to me that things have not really changed that much in the past 120 years.   If people really believe in the concepts of a magic “dimming of the sun” please forgive me for feeling that our collective ignorance has become at least two seas.

    In 2011 Naomi was invited to attend a 3 day retreat called by the Royal Society, Britain’s legendary academy of science. In the preceding years the Society had become an advocate of geoengineering as the Royal Society  believed, and rightly so, that there has been no progress in reduction of emissions.

They declared a need for planetary scale interventions that would block a portion of the sun’s rays which “may be the only option for reducing global temperatures quickly in the event of a climate emergency”. The Environmental Defense Fund has, like they did natural gas, describe geoengineering as a “bridging tool”.  Approaches like….injection of particles into the  atmosphere to reflect sunlight and its heat back to space which is called Solar Radiation Management through options like………space mirrors……cloud brightening…….spraying sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere are just some of the concepts they are exploring. Naomi reflects as she walks around the conference grounds….

"Wandering the perfectly manicured gardens at Chicheley Hall —through the trees sculpted  into lollipops, through the hedges chiseled into daggers —realize that what scares me most is not the prospect of living on a “designer planet,” to use a phrase I heard at an earlier geoengineering conference.  My fear is that the real-world results will be nothing like this garden, or even like anything we saw in that technical briefing, but rather something far, far worse. If we respond to a global crisis caused by our pollution with more pollution —by trying to fix the crud in our lower atmosphere by pumping a different kind of crud into the stratosphere —then geoengineering might do something far more dangerous than tame the last vestiges of “wild” nature. It may cause the earth to go wild in ways we cannot imagine, making geoengineering not the final engineering frontier, another triumph to commemorate on the walls of the Royal Society, but the last tragic act in this centuries-long fairy tale of control." Page 267.

To quote Sallie Chisholm, a world-renowned expert on marine microbes at MIT,

“Proponents of research on geoengineering simply keep ignoring the fact that the biosphere is a player (not just a responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second —a ‘self-organizing, complex, emergent properties” that simply cannot be predicted. We all know geoengineering research leaves that out of the discussion."  Page 267.  


Later she goes on to quote a General  Motors VP that was leading a portion of the retreat……

"Adding to the controversy was the fact that this chapter of the report was led by Robert A. Frosch, then a vice president at General Motors. As he explained at the time: “I don’t know why anybody should feel obligated to reduce car bon dioxide if there are better ways to do it. When you start making deep cuts, you’re talking about spending some real money and changing the entire economy. I don’t understand why we’re so casual about tinkering with the whole way people live on the Earth, but not tinkering a little further with the way we influence the environment."  Page 282.

Continuing Naomi  says……

"When we marvel at that blue marble in all its delicacy and frailty, and resolve to save the planet, we cast ourselves in a very specific role. That role is of a parent, the parent of the earth. But the opposite is the case. It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely. That knowledge should inform all we do —especially the decision about whether to gamble on geoengineering."  Page 285


And then she quotes Barbara Ward….

"When we marvel at that blue marble in all its delicacy and frailty, and resolve to save the planet, we cast ourselves in a very specific role. That role is of a parent, the parent of the earth. But the opposite is the case. It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely. That knowledge should inform all we do —  "  page 286.

In closing my part of this panel, I have to say that two of Jared  Diamond’s  books from a decade ago…..”Guns, Germs and Steel”, which gave me new appreciations of where and how humankind  had arrived at our place on the planet today….and “Collapse”,  which gave me insights as to what happens to great societies in  our past now have to share their special place in my mind and  heart with Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”.