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Global Problem, Global Solution—the Role
of the United States in the Climate Emergency

Never before has there been a situation like the climate emergency. It impacts everyone on our planet, requires global unity to solve it, and a failure to unite has a high probability of endangering the survival of humanity.

Humans have never before united globally to call for urgent action on any issue, yet we must do so now. People everywhere must insist that we come together to solve the crisis with the world’s climate, even if our governments can’t act, or can’t act fast enough.

The people of the United States can play a unique role because what we do or don’t do will make such a big difference. Excellent organizing is happening in the United States, but more people need to get involved. And we will be more effective if we have a full picture of the role the U.S. government and U.S. corporations play internationally in climate change.

I wrote the following to help us understand that role and why it is important for us to take action now.

The U.S. government and economic system (the corporations and banks in particular) play an especially negative role globally by deceiving people about the climate emergency, continuing to engage in practices that worsen it, and blocking important initiatives that address it.

Those of us who live in the United States must get our government to rejoin international efforts to rapidly address climate change. We must illuminate the role of our economic system and fossil fuel industry and change them. And we must make deep and lasting changes in our patterns of consumption.

We have to maintain a global perspective. We have to challenge distresses deeply embedded in U.S. society that would hold us apart from the rest of the world as we work to transform our system into a sustainable one. And we must build unity and act.

U.S. GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

The United States is historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Most of the GHGs in the atmosphere have come from us—because of the rapid pace of U.S. industrialization, the size of our military (the world’s single largest user of fossil fuels), our patterns of consuming more than we need, and the actions of large U.S. corporations and banks.

Currently, we are the second-largest emitter of GHGs. Also, our emissions are still rising, and neither our government nor the U.S. fossil fuel industry has made any commitment to slow them down. In addition, measures taken by past U.S. administrations to reduce emissions have been rescinded.

U.S. corporations make the United States the world’s largest producer of oil and gas and the third-largest producer of coal. And the oil and gas industry, supported by the current administration, is gearing up to greatly expand fracking, so as to rapidly produce oil and gas in the coming decades (against much organized opposition working to “keep it in the ground”). The industry plan is to put large quantities of irresistibly cheap fossil fuels on the market to compete with renewable energy, like solar and wind, which because of its rapidly falling costs is becoming competitive with fossil fuels. The resulting emissions would be catastrophic to global efforts to curb global warming. (Already far more coal, gas, and oil are being produced than we can safely burn and stay below 2°C—and the international goal is to stay below 1.5°C.)

THE EFFECT OF THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY ON U.S. PEOPLE

The fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government have lied about climate change for so long (since the 1970s) that many U.S. citizens are unaware of the proven facts about fossil fuels, climate change, and the role our government plays in the world with respect to them.

Workers in the U.S. fossil fuel industries have also been deceived by the campaign of misinformation and (for the most part) support the fossil fuel economy and the expansion of fossil fuel production. The fossil fuel industry has provided good-paying, often unionized jobs, and the workers are concerned that no other good-paying jobs are available to them. The industry and government have only made minimal
efforts to help them transition to environmentally sustainable jobs. Also, because the environmental movement has historically failed to think well about workers, workers often feel at odds [in conflict] with people working on climate change.

U.S. DISTRESSES

Although more and more USers believe that climate change is a reality and is caused by humans, most don’t realize how critical it is to act now, the extent to which we have to curtail the use of fossil fuels, and how important it is for our government to take a leading role internationally to solve the crisis. 

We are saddled with distresses from growing up in U.S. society under U.S. capitalism—distresses that rigidly proclaim the United States as the most advanced nation and leave us uninterested in and not caring about much of the world. This nationalism can make us believe that we understand every situation better than other groups of people and can solve our problems ourselves. In fact, we are behind much of the rest of the world in understanding and acting on the new global reality of the climate emergency, and we will suffer the same dire consequences from it.

Working with the other nations of the world, we need to challenge our patterns, stop U.S. fossil fuel expansion, and rapidly and massively reduce our emissions.

THE UNITED NATIONS AND THE IPCC REPORT

For the past twenty-five years the international work on climate change has been steered primarily by the United Nations (UN). Most nations have signaled their intent to address the crisis by signing the 2015 Paris Agreement and agreeing to reduce their GHG emissions. The commitments made to date under the Paris Agreement aren’t strong enough to limit global warming to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, but reaching the agreement was a huge milestone. And the UN is pushing hard for nations to strengthen their commitments to take action. Global cooperation to implement the Paris Agreement, which has been bolstered by the 2018 IPCC report (see below), is critical to tackling the climate emergency.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the UN body that assesses the science related to climate change—issued a report, <https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/>, calling on the world to greatly increase efforts to reduce GHG emissions and limit global warming or risk catastrophic consequences. It was the compilation of three years of work done by an international team of leading climate scientists (ninety-one lead authors and 133 contributing authors, from forty countries) who assessed six thousand scientific papers on the subject of climate change. There has been no substantial argument put forward against this report.

I believe that the best course for the world now is to embrace the IPCC report as a roadmap for acting on climate change. As we gain more information from authoritative sources, we can adapt our course of action. But currently there is no better guide, and we should waste no time in debating the science or the broad framework for action.

The United States was one of four oil-producing countries (the others being Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia) at COP24 (the UN climate talks in Poland in 2018) that refused to welcome the IPCC report as an official document of the COP, thus undermining the important work happening there. The U.S. government has also welcomed the fossil fuel industry into the UN climate talks, greatly limiting the talks’ effectiveness. Currently the United States and its ally nations are blocking efforts toward a “conflict of interest” policy that would keep the oil industry from participating. (Oil industry executives hold high positions in the current U.S. administration.)

The IPCC report makes clear that climate change is a global catastrophe that will get progressively worse until it’s effectively addressed. The increasing temperatures will have widespread consequences, ranging from heat waves and drought, to melting ice and rising sea levels, to frequent and intense storms. People and other life forms will be further impacted by diminishing food and water supplies, land becoming uninhabitable, and increasing insect-borne diseases. Large numbers of people will die. Others will be forced to leave their homes—many for places where the people living there will shun them. No part of the world will be spared devastating consequences.

The IPCC report details how, because our efforts to address climate change have been so slow and meager, the problem is now so large that we will need tremendous resources to address it quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. It says that we have twelve years, starting from October 2018, to make huge reductions in GHG emissions (forty-five percent by 2030), and emissions are still rising.

All nations must curb GHG emissions. If the world continues to burn fossil fuels and damage (by deforestation, draining wetlands, and so on) the planet’s natural ability to store carbon, temperatures will rise above 1.5°C. In that case, given our economic system, global powers are likely to push for using profitable, untested, and dangerous technologies to try to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. And by that time, our planet and its inhabitants will have been greatly damaged in many ways.

The United States has a historic role as a global power and vast resources at its disposal. Thus when the U.S. government threatens to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, it undermines the agreement significantly. It influences other countries to think that they, too, could benefit by withdrawing, or reducing their commitment.

If the United States withdraws in 2020, it could cause the failure of the agreement, leading to irreparable worldwide damage. Past a certain point—which the IPCC report says would likely be triggered if we don’t act decisively within eleven and a half years—no recovery would be possible for several millennia.

Membership in the United Nations is international, but wealthy nations dominate much of the organization’s work. There are also huge divisions among sub-groupings of nations. And the historic effects of oppression, imperialism, and colonialism continue to play large roles.

The biggest division is between wealthy nations and developing nations. In the developing nations, the climate crisis is already devastating significant percentages of the lands and population. These nations, and sovereign Indigenous tribes, have consistently advocated for the wealthy nations to take faster, more comprehensive action on the climate crisis. They have also asked for financial aid to help them make their societies more climate resilient, address the harm already done by climate change, and make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. (As developing nations build their economies, they must simultaneously move away from fossil fuels.) The U.S. government (working with the fossil fuel industry) has for many years been leading its ally nations in the UN to slow their action on climate change and limit their assistance to developing nations.

A HUGE REALLOCATION OF RESOURCES

As the wealthiest nation in the world, the United States, together with other wealthy nations, must use its wealth to help the developing nations address the climate crisis.* There won’t be enough resource to solve it unless we provide a large share.

Given world history, the ongoing influence of global capitalism, and people’s distress recordings, it’s hard to build a rationale that will persuade the governments and populations of the wealthy nations, including the United States, that they must spend a significant part of their budget on assisting other nations. We can say it is the right thing to do, we can talk ethics and morals, we can point out that the United States is responsible for most of the emissions. But these arguments are not persuasive to most people and can restimulate people and so interfere with their thinking. Perhaps a simple fact could be persuasive: if the U.S. government does not aid developing nations (in addition to rapidly reducing our own emissions), the world will not be able to reduce emissions fast enough to avoid global catastrophe. And if we delay, the cost of taking action in the future (if it’s even possible to do so) will greatly exceed the cost of assisting developing nations now.

To address climate change everywhere on the planet will require a huge reallocation of resources. Governments, including the U.S. government, will need to spend great sums of money to restructure the global energy sector, responsibly remove emissions already in the atmosphere, address the damage already caused by climate change, transition workers to new environmentally responsible jobs, move people forced from their homes by climate change to new homes, and much, much more. And allocating these funds must not further impoverish people in any part of the world who are already struggling to meet basic needs.

It won’t work to leave existing wealth and military budgets intact and take the money from basic services—like education, health care, and transportation—and infrastructure. And if governments do take from poor and working-class people, the lack of support from these people (most of the population in all countries) will undermine the efforts to address the climate crisis fast enough. (A good example of what we can expect is the reaction of the French working class in November 2018 to a carbon tax enacted immediately after a tax cut for the wealthy.) We can’t leave capitalism, military spending, and war unchallenged and meet the need.

It is the nature of capitalism to demand profit from its investments, so capitalism cannot stop the expansion of fossil fuel production so long as it is profitable—we will have to stop it. And military actions can’t be on the table [be considered] as “solutions” to the increasing tensions created by the climate crisis, as they will only multiply the effects of climate change in addition to the huge damage from war.

Changing our patterns of consumption

Finally, in the United States we are encouraged by our economic system to consume far more than we need to have full, good lives, and the extra consumption drives our GHG emissions higher. By changing our patterns of consumption, we can significantly reduce GHG emissions.

A recent study (“Climate Change Needs Behavior Change,” <https://rare.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2018-CCNBC-Report.pdf>) shows that individual behavioral changes on a massive scale could reduce emissions by nineteen to twenty-five percent. Such behavioral changes could include (not in order of priority) substituting other forms of transportation for gas-powered individual vehicles, electrifying homes, cutting power usage, installing rooftop solar panels and water heaters or micro-wind turbines, recycling, using energy-efficient lighting and appliances, not purchasing items unless there is a real need for them, composting, eating more plant-based foods, and reducing food waste. Many of us have the means to make these changes now.

A SUMMARY OF STEPS WE CAN TAKE

In summary, I propose that we in the United States do the following:

  • Increase our awareness that U.S. capitalism has played a huge role in creating and furthering the climate crisis by deceiving people about the dangers of fossil fuels and continuing to promote and expand fossil fuel production
  • Understand that the U.S. government is seriously obstructing progress toward the global climate goals of rapidly reducing emissions and addressing the impacts of the climate crisis
  • Advocate to stop our government from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in 2020, as threatened
  • Demand that our government implement the recommendations in the IPCC report for making major changes in our society by 2030—including increasing the “nationally determined contribution” of the United States (our commitment in the Paris Agreement) to the level described in the IPCC report
  • Organize to end support of the fossil fuel industry by the U.S. government and U.S. capitalism
  • Insist that our government use the resources of our nation (including its military budget) to make the necessary changes in our own nation and ensure that developing nations can transition to renewable energy and afford the costs of addressing the climate crisis
  • Speak up and say that we want a future for our families and for all people of all nations, and that we want to join the world to reach a common solution
  • Give up the illusion that our country stands above others or can survive on its own and insist that our government and U.S. corporations share our resources to insure a future for humanity

It may be difficult for us to take these steps, but we clearly need to take them.

And as Co-Counselors in the United States we can discharge about the climate emergency and, in particular, the role of the United States in this global crisis. We can discharge on the distresses we carry from living in an advanced capitalist country that has exerted global domination for almost a century and would steer us to annihilation to preserve its domination and wealth. We can discharge on anything that stops us from assuming our full personal power and working together to help build an inclusive global movement that will take charge of everything quickly enough to end the climate crisis.

Diane Shisk

Alternate International Reference
Person for the RC Communities

Seattle, Washington, USA

 


*Our government must also use its resources to address the impact of climate change within the United States, where People of the Global Majority, Native people, and poor and working-class people are already being affected and the government’s response has been slow and inadequate.


Last modified: 2021-01-27 00:13:09+00