Archive for November, 2010

COP-16 in Cancún: day 1

November 30, 2010

NB: Also published on Climate & Capitalism

Entering the city of Cancún—site of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change’s sixteenth Conference of Parties (COP-16), which began today—one is struck immediately by the number of ‘areas de revisión’—checkpoints, effectively—maintained by the Mexican police, with the support of the Mexican military.  The checkpoints on the highway leading north from the coastal Yucatan cities of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Chetumal, like their counterparts throughout Cancún itself, seem for the most part to be mere formalities:  drivers are asked to slow down but not stop and are then subsequently hailed on.  The purpose for these checkpoints, beyond that of being able to project force and control movement, may then in part be to intimidate onlookers and passersby, to remind members of the subordinated classes of the presently ubiquitous power of the State:  any other explanation for the stationing of Hummers that have soldiers manning machine-gun mounts in locations in which large numbers of people congregate would defy the imagination.

It is estimated that a total of six-thousand police and military are present in Cancún:  one-thousand hailing from Cancún and the state in which the city finds itself, Quintana Roo, with the remaining five-thousand being federal units split between the police, the army, and the navy.1 The police and military can readily be seen at various points in the streets of Cancún, assault rifles at the ready, and both forces regularly conduct patrols through much of the city.  Jaime Hernández, mayor of Cancún, has requested that police not forget to behave with “friendliness [and] courtesy” during the two weeks of the COP, while Tomás Contreras, secretary of Cancún’s city hall, has asserted that police may well have to act with a “strong hand” against protestors.2 The navy, furthermore, has declared nearly 600 km² of coastal and littoral area south of Cancún closed for the duration of COP-16, thus negatively affecting fishermen and other sea-workers who depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods.

Via Campesina is planning a peaceful march to the Moon Palace—a highly exclusive hotel, center of the COP negotiations, which, being far-removed from Cancún’s populated areas, reminds one of the castles of antiquity—for Tuesday 7 December; it is at this point unclear if other mobilizations will be held against the COP before this time.

Beyond the official talks being held at the Moon Palace, two alternative summits are planned for the duration of COP-16:  Klimaforum10, which takes after the Klimaforum held in Copenhagen last December, and the Via Campesina is organizing an “Alternative Global Forum for Life and Social and Environmental Justice.”  The former, which began on 27 November, is being held in Puerto Morelos, some 50 kilometers south of Cancún, while the latter is slated to begin on 5 December and end three days later.

In addition to these three sites, and much closer in political terms to the official talks, is the Villa de Cambio Climático, a space erected by the federal government some seven kilometers south of Cancún.  Located within a stone’s throw of a McDonald’s restaurant along a stretch of highway colonized by gargantuan installations owned by big-name multinational corporations, the Villa is adorned in a festive manner that would belie the gravity of the subject-matter it purports to deal with:  the campus is plastered with photos of butterflies, flowers, and sites of natural beauty located in Mexico—Los Arcos at the southernmost tip of Baja California, natural reserves in the state of Morelos, and so on.  A live band at the Villa even plays triumphant traditional Mexican music—a sense of triumph radically contradicted by the enormity of the climate predicament.  Among the exhibitions featured at the Villa is “La Neta del Planeta” (roughly translated as ‘the best of the world’), a family-oriented museum sponsored by Coca Cola, Walmart, and Unilever, among other power-groups.  “La Neta” attempts to explore anthropogenic climate change by means of an appraisal of its causes and an examination of possible alternatives to climate catastrophe, but the perspectives it advances are highly limited, as is to be expected of an event whose description stresses the “importance of adopting small sustainable actions.”  The individualist-patriarchal hegemony advanced by La Neta’s “sustainable family” exhibit is particularly disconcerting in this regard.

Also present at the Villa—a far more Kafka-esque experience than that to be had at La Neta—is the “pavilion of exposition/cultural forum,” which features a number of booths that putatively address aspects of the climate crisis at which are represented different governmental institutions, non-governmental institutions, and corporations.  One such booth promotes the concept of ‘green hotels,’ while another—sponsored by Hewlett-Packard—allows visitors to employ face-to-face video technology to communicate their concerns regarding COP-16 to an HP worker located in the Moon Palace who may by chance come across a COP delegate—itself commentary on the nature of political participation favored by hegemonic groups today.  Worryingly, Biofuels México—an organization that, as its name suggests, promotes the expansion of the cultivation and use of agrofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons—is present at the pavilion, as are a number of telecommunications companies:  Oracle, Symantec, Nextel.  When the present author questioned representatives of these companies as regards their place at the Villa, the responses stressed the importance of corporate social responsibility as a means of addressing climate change, with vague comments regarding the development of less energy-intensive electronic technologies thrown in as well.  Ford and Mitsubishi were also present at the pavilion, showing off their ‘green’ automobile-models.

Nonetheless, not everything at the Villa’s pavilion is entirely alienating.  The center sets aside some space for the exhibition of climate-related art, a fair bit of which is rather subversive:  one poster in particular calls on spectators to not forget the innumerable victims of climate change.  A photograph-gallery to be found in the Villa also explores the alarming phenomenon of glacier-retreat across the globe.  In addition, the booth entitled “Que hablen los niños” (‘Let the children speak’) has on display an impressive array of art made by pre-teens that protests against the present environmental crisis:  worthy of mention are the two Earths made by the children, one of which sees calamity radiant in pollution, deforestation, and species-extinction; an alternative Earth as envisioned by the child-artists has much of the world’s ecosystems restored and humanity living in reconciliation with nature.  The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association, also represented at the Villa, cogently calls for a general abandonment of meat-consumption as a means by which to avert climate catastrophe.

It remains to be seen if oppositional forces of sanity and compassion will be able to prevail against entrenched power-interests, whether at COP-16 or more generally with regard to the climate predicament as a whole.  It should not need to be emphasized that the present array of forces militates rather distressingly against such an outcome, as was well-reflected in comments made by Mexican president Felipe Calderón on the occasion of the inauguration of an immense wind-power generator in Cancún on the eve of the summit’s opening:  “This dilemma between […] combating climate change and economic growth is a false dilemma.”3 In light of the profundity of the threats posed by climate catastrophe, to continue on with economic growth and the system which gave rise to it—capitalism—would be a negation of world-historical scope:  it would likely amount to the “final denial of humanity,” in the words of Guy Debord.4


1 “No se descuidarán los patrullajes en la ciudad: Seguridad Pública,” Por Esto! de Quintana Roo, 27 November 2010; “Equipan a la policía municipal,” Por Esto! de Quintana Roo, 28 November 2010

2 “Equipan a la policía municipal,” Por Esto! de Quintana Roo, 28 November 2010

4 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1990 [1988]), p. 39

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Can there be hope after Copenhagen?

November 13, 2010

NB: Published originally on Countercurrentsin December 2009

“consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”
— Theodor W. Adorno1

Is there reason to hope today? Can we say that present reality justifies hope for the amelioration of the human condition and for life on Earth generally considered? It is evident that merely raising such questions could be seen as an absurd undertaking, or perhaps even a dangerous one. For all that, reflection on such questions is decidedly important, as the profundity of the present crisis—indeed, of looming catastrophe—is undeniable, however much it is ignored or dismissed by hegemonic power groups privileged by existing arrangements. If, as Adorno argues, “progress today really does mean simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe,”2 and if our hopes for social life are to be tied at minimum to the prospect of the success of this project, then surely the marked failure of the world’s constituted powers to endorse something approximating a rational response to the specter of catastrophic climate change at the recent Copenhagen summit problematizes the very ground for social hope today.

Writing over twenty-five years ago, Ronald Aronson opens his Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope3 by considering much the same question. Examining some of the various horrors of the twentieth century—the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, the ‘Soviet Holocaust’ prosecuted by Leninism and Stalinism after 1917, the ‘bourgeois-democratic holocaust’ of the Vietnam War, the dispossession and oppression visited on the Palestinian people by Zionism, and the possibility of human annihilation by means of nuclear warfare—Aronson comes to several conclusions regarding the reasons for the emergence of such social disasters. One commonality he finds to have been central in the perpetuation of several of the disastrous episodes he explores is simply the complicity of social majorities with prevailing reality—the often-remarkable lack of popular resistance to inhuman socio-political projects. Echoing Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism at points,4 Aronson stresses the importance that repressive ideologies—nationalism, racism, corrupted senses of Hegelianism—have had in legitimizing decidedly illegitimate practices. He laments the failure to date of the historical establishment of anti-authoritarian socialist polities, and he decries the attendant madness into which the powerful of the world have led humanity.

Though his account of modernity is surely often devastating, Aronson insists that the constitution of global society is ultimately the result of human action, and he thus finds hope in the prospect of collective human action aimed at “bring[ing] about survival, peace, and well-being,” at instituting “the peaceable kingdom” against its various enemies. He claims that the enormity of past social disasters need not repeated in the future, if enough people thoughtfully reflect on historical terror and concomitantly engage in action that seeks to prevent its re-occurrence; writing on the threat of nuclear holocaust, he holds out the prospect that humanity “awaken from [its] delusions, as the Nazis never did, to attack the social structures responsible for the impending disaster.”

As helpful as Aronson’s analyses could surely be for the current predicament in which we find ourselves, the relevance of his argument could well be improved today through consideration of a present holocaust he could not have seen coming: that of what Gideon Polya, among others, refers to as climate genocide.5[5]. It is this dynamic that Sudanese negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping identified in his comments at the conclusion of the Copenhagen summit on 18 December when he claimed the dominant approaches endorsed by the global powers among the Conference of Parties assembled at Copenhagen—approaches that mandate no binding carbon-reduction trajectory for any society and set no date for the goal of peaking global carbon emissions—to be based on maxims similar to those that “funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces.”6 Various recent analyses of the likely future average global temperature increases that would follow from existing national and international carbon-reduction commitments claim that such temperatures will rise by at least 3° or even 4° C beyond pre-industrial temperatures by 2100.7 According to the findings of British environmental journalist Mark Lynas,8 a world experiencing such average global temperature increases would be marked by various unmitigated horrors: as the Kalahari Desert expands, much of southern Africa would simply be rendered uninhabitable to life; the Amazon rainforest, victim of unprecedented conflagration, would have collapsed; vast swathes of Central America and Australia would be unable to support agricultural production; the Himalayan glaciers, the current source of water for half of existing humanity, would be drastically reduced in size; and the El-Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon, which Mike Davis finds to have synergized with the onset of Western colonialism in South Asia and Eastern Africa to produce the most devastating famines recorded in human history,9 would come to be a permanent terrestrial reality.

From this, then, it should be clear that the failure of the Copenhagen summit reflects a profound indifference among the powerful of the world toward suffering humanity—a form of coldness, an “inability to identify with others,” that, in Adorno’s view, was instrumental in allowing for the emergence of Auschwitz.10 Considering the clearly horrendous toll climate change stands to have on human life across the globe, the ease with which premier U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern dismissed the historical responsibility of industrial-capitalist societies for the climate predicament during the Copenhagen talks11 is in ways reminiscent of Adolf Eichmann’s claim, when facing prosecution for his crimes against European Jewry, that “[r]epentance is for little children.”12 The radical evil represented by climate change—the 300,000 people who in the present die each year due to the dangerous anthropogenic interference with the world’s atmosphere that has already taken place,13 as well of course as the various horrifying life-negations that global warming stands to visit upon the peoples of Earth—has it seems become banal, in the sense that constituted power finds little reason in the prospect of the mass suffering and death that results from climate change to recognize the present as an emergency necessitating radical action. Instead of such, however, we are left with a pathetic interstate agreement that Di-Aping rightly sees as “devoid of any sense of responsibility or morality,”14 one that centrally features the “antireason of totalitarian capitalism,” which, as Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer melancholically observe, “makes the satisfaction of needs impossible and tends toward the extermination of humanity.”15

If the argument advanced in the above analysis is a rational one, then surely the outlook for humanity today can be considered nothing less than decidedly bleak. Perhaps the only analogous historical situation that we can look to for help is the threat of nuclear war—though it must be said that, even relative to this most extreme of threats to human survival, the present predicament is perhaps bleaker still: barring mechanical failures or mistakes, the prospect of a nuclear-weapons exchange ultimately depends upon human choice at a certain point, whereas the laws of atmospheric physics have no such failsafe mechanisms. The atmosphere, as recently observed on Countercurrents by Andrew Glikson,16 is not “waiting for human decision.” As such, it seems merely to be a matter of time before the world-historical negations of catastrophic climate change set in, unless somehow matters are made radically otherwise desperately soon. Given this, then, we return to the original question: can we have hope today? If so, how? If not, then what exactly are we left with?

To begin, let us consider some of the claims of the famously desperate leftist Max Horkheimer. Writing in the late 1950s, Horkheimer asserts that “[r]adical evil asserts its dominion over all created being everywhere and reaches as far as the sun.”17 If we inquire into the relevance of this claim to the present, we can surely conclude that radical evil undoubtedly does hold sway—that, as Aronson asserts, “[e]vil […] certainly appears ascendant over the oppositional forces of sanity and humanity.”18 The world is, in many ways, a “world of horror,” as Horkheimer writes elsewhere;19 [19]; one need only cursorily examine recent statistics on global material poverty or reflect briefly on the prospect of climate genocide to confirm the truth of such a view. Nonetheless, Horkheimer’s assertion here on radical evil seems to be something of an exaggeration, as it rather strangely overlooks the very oppositional forces that Aronson favorably mentions in his account on hope. It is certainly undeniable that anti-systemic movements—the core, perhaps, of what Adorno refers to as a “self-conscious global subject” that must “develop and intervene” if total catastrophe is to be prevented and avoided20—can as currently organized and constituted do little to effectively reroute the catastrophic terminus toward which (post)modernity is driving humanity and life on Earth generally considered, but it would be both unfair and counter-productive to deny the existence of subjectivities and practices that would have matters be entirely otherwise.

But I do not wish to close these reflections on so dark a note. The importance of the line with which these thoughts opened is enhanced rather than negated by the prospect of total negation that climate change represents: as Horkheimer writes, in terms similar to those of Adorno, “The concept of the negative […] contains the positive as its opposite.”21 Throughout his Dialectics of Disaster, Aronson stresses that hope for the victory of ‘the positive’ is to be grounded in the mere fact of resistance to absolute negativity—inhumanity. Arendt herself comes to similar conclusions when she lauds the example of those few social forces that resisted Nazi terror in Europe; she finds in the mere fact of the non-compliance of these actors the very basis for the justification that the Earth “remain a place fit for human habitation.”22

Unfortunately, however, the most obvious difference between the conditions Arendt concerns herself with in Eichmann in Jerusalem and those that prevail today is that the latter arguably constitute the “final denial of humanity”23: if the threat of catastrophic climate change is not somehow removed, that is, “there will be no more human history,” and “all will be lost.”24 Against the prospect of such world-historical regression, as well as against those forces that perpetuate such while thoughtlessly presenting their projects as promotive of hope, we have the words of Walter Benjamin: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”25 Perhaps the only practical call that can follow is the slogan Günther Anders conceived of in the 1950s while reflecting on the prospect of humanity’s collective suicide by means of nuclear war26: “Imperiled of all lands, unite!”

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1Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 247

2History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006), p. 143

3 London: Verso, 1983

4The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest, 1968 [1948])

5 Cf., inter alia, “G8 Failure Means Climate Genocide for Developing World,” Countercurrents, 11 July 2009; see also Polya’s website on the issue (http://sites.google.com/site/climategenocide/home)

6 Qtd. in Simon McGee, “Anger at delegate’s Holocaust jibe against climate deal—as his country shares £62bn bonanza [sic],” The Daily Mail, 20 December 2009

7 See Climate Interactive’s Climate Scoreboard (http://climateinteractive.org/scoreboard) or Ecofys’s Climate Action Tracker (http://www.ecofys.com)

8 Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), p. 123-181

9Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002)

10Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 201

11“U.S. vows sharp CO2 cuts, but will not pay climate ‘reparations,’” Yale Environment 360, 9 December 2009

12 Qtd. in Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), p. 24.

13 John Vidal, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank,” The Guardian, 29 May 2009

14 McGee, op. cit

15 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1944]), p. 43

16 “The Atmosphere Is Not Waiting for Human Decision,” Countercurrents, 30 November 2009

17Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926-1931 & 1950-69 (New York: Seabury Press, 1978 [1974]), p. 162

18Op. cit., p. 290.

19 Horkheimer and Adorno, op. cit., p. 93

20Op. cit. (2005), p. 144

21Op. cit., p. 236

22Op. cit. (2006 [1963]), p. 233

23 Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1990 [1988]), p. 39

24 Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London: Athlone, 2000), p. 68; Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 1997), p. 80

25 Qtd. in Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 257

26Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1982), p. 381.

The Holocaust and climate genocide: an eco-socialist review of Nations Have the Right to Kill

November 11, 2010

NB: Originally published on Countercurrents in October 2009

The prospect of reviewing a recent book on the Holocaust from an eco-socialist perspective may strike some as unexpected or even strange. The relevance of the attempted extermination of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators to the present predicament may perhaps appear questionable. It will however be the not uncontroversial assertion of this review that Richard A. Koenigsberg’s Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War can help to illuminate some of the factors that currently threaten the continued existence of much of humanity by means of what will here be called climate genocide.

If Koenigsberg is to believed, Nations Have the Right to Kill constitutes the culmination of the forty years he has spent investigating the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. His book, though not terribly well-written, and plagued as it is by a maddening tendency of his to literally repeat his points verbatim on multiple occasions throughout the text, presents an intriguing perspective on why it is that the Holocaust took place. Though radical critics of the existent may not finds his conclusions particularly new, his argument is nonetheless important to contemplate, especially in light of the looming climate catastrophe.

Koenigsberg situates the mass-industrial murder of European Jews during the Nazi era within the framework of sacrifice and nationalism. Problematizing the seemingly widespread view of warfare as a ‘normal’ occurrence in human affairs, Koenigsberg finds war and genocide to result from the historical establishment of the state in human society. It is devotion to the state, or nationalism, that Koenigsberg sees as having played a rather significant role in legitimizing many of the most brutal episodes of violence of the twentieth century: in World War I as in its sequel, says Koenigsberg, soldiers of each respective country were led to believe that sacrificing one’s own life in battle constituted the very meaning of strength, virility, and even love. Such ideology was central to Nazism, claims Koenigsberg: it was willingness to give one’s life for the community, the “overcoming of bourgeois privatism,” that was supreme in both Hitlerism and in the German people’s support for such totalitarianism.

As he develops his argument, Koenigsberg comes to assert that the mass murder of the Jews followed from the demands placed by the Nazi regime upon German soldiers. Given that, beginning in September, 1939, Hitler had sent millions of ‘good’ Germans to lay down their lives in furtherance of his war aims, Koenigsberg tells us that the Führer felt no compunction about the prospect of killing those ‘inferior’ peoples deemed, as a “plague bacillus,” to be the enemy of the German people and their state. The mass killings of Eastern European Jews by the Einsatzgruppen together with the implementation and prosecution of the Final Solution as well as the euthanasia programs that predated and presaged these atrocities, then, are to be understood as decidedly extreme illustrations of the total domination demanded by Nazi totalitarianism—specifically, that all were obligated to suffer and die for Germany, to give over their bodies to the German state.

In an illustrative historical parallel, Koenigsberg briefly compares the Nazi war project and the Final Solution with Aztec warfare. According to Koenigsberg, the Aztecs saw the very purpose of warfare as sacrifice: war was necessary, on this account, to capture enemies and later sacrifice them to the gods who in Aztec thought required the blood of humans for nourishment. The very continuation of life, in this sense, demanded human sacrifice. Koenigsberg claims much of Western state violence to have been prosecuted for a similar end: that is, precisely to “produce dead and wounded soldiers” so as to “establish the truth of a society’s ideology.” The Nazi genocide of the Jews is little different, in Koenigsberg’s view: the Jews were sacrificed by the Nazis to the god they worshipped, the German state.

There is much of value, in the opinion of the present author, in Nations Have the Right to Kill . The critique of nationalism and the state that permeates the work seems entirely justified, as does the claim that the devaluation of the lives of German soldiers was easily transferred to those of the European Jews. Koenigsberg’s brief examination of the Nazi euthanasia program as operating on terms that also allowed for the sacrifice of German soldiers and Jews seems legitimate; it calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s comments on the question in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Other than for the typographical errors and the sometimes-bizarre writing style employed in Nations Have a Right to Kill , one of the major weaknesses with the work seems to be a marked lack of discussion regarding the odious views promoted by Nazism vis-à-vis the Jewish people—the various ideologies that legitimated the Holocaust. The argument of the book almost seems to assume the radical separation between German and Jew as a given and as such seems to beg the question central to the book’s very thesis.

Above all, nonetheless, it is surely in its relevance to the present that Koenigsberg’s work is most important. Besides the value Nations Have the Right to Kill has for critical analyses of such currently prevailing realities as imperialist war, ethnic conflict, colonialism and neo-colonialism, and all other forms of racist violence, it is to be imagined that this work can help shed light on the present problem of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the global climate—that is to say, the catastrophic changes that capitalist societies have wrought on the atmosphere and the very life that depends upon it for continued existence.

As is well-known, climate change stands to threaten agricultural production across much of the globe, radically diminish the global supply of freshwater, inundate low-lying coastal settlements currently home to hundreds of millions of people, prompt widespread desertification, and literally eradicate some countries that today exist. The specter of such life-negating realities seems to find its genesis in capitalist society, a form of totalitarianism that essentially values profitability above all else. The response of nearly every advanced-capitalist country to the now well-established reality of climate change has been entirely inadequate toward the end of allowing much of humanity and life itself the chance to flourish or even survive the projected consequences of anthropogenic global warming; their lack of meaningful action on this question—a lack which results from the desire to hold existing society more or less unchanged—is systematic. It cannot merely then be stated that the mass murder—the rendering-impossible of human life—that follows from reformist inaction is a mistake, an unintended consequence, an ‘externality.’ Such horrifying consequences are today essentially inevitable in contemporary capitalism; as such, dominant Western treatment of these questions bears much in common with other genocidal episodes of human history.

The tactics and methods of climate genocide are undoubtedly different than those exhibited in the genocide with which Koenigsberg concerns himself in Nations Have the Right to Kill —there are no extermination camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka in the present, just as there seems to be no conscious attempt to murder millions more generally. However, present reality, along with the likely future capitalist societies have engendered through both their contributions to climate change and their decidedly weak responses to it, speaks for itself: 300,000 people die annually in the present day as a result of the 0.7-0.8° C increase in average global temperatures that has already taken place because of past emissions.1 Essentially all of the deaths, economic cost, and other misfortune for which climate change is responsible are borne in the present by what has been termed the developing world.2

As horrible as this is, considerations of the future for the Earth’s social majorities are more distressing still: a 2° C increase in average global temperatures beyond pre-industrial levels, the ‘safe target’ to which most hegemonic global institutions have claimed to be working to aim for, would likely see the total disappearance of the Andes glaciers and thus problematize the source of life for the millions who currently live in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile.3 It would, among other things, also cause at least three-quarters of the population of Mali to starve.4 An average global temperature increase of 3° C, for its part, sees much of southern Africa desertified, its environment nearly rendered uninhabitable for life, as well as the desertification of the Indus basin, the collapse of agricultural productivity in Central America, and the instauration of a permanent El Niño Southern Oscillation5—this last being a cyclical climatic variation that Mike Davis has found to have synergized with the onset of European colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century to result in the most catastrophic famines recorded in human history.6. Reflecting on these matters, it seems that some of the likely realities of a world with an increased average global temperature beyond 3° C need not be quantified: of their myriad horrors there can be no doubt.

The world-historical negations that climate change threatens to introduce to history seem to require at the very least something akin to what Hannah Arendt calls a revolutionary “new guarantee,” a “new law on earth” protective of human welfare, dignity, and freedom.7 Clearly, the constituted powers of the world have completely failed to deliver in this sense, just as they have failed severely countless times in the past. There is little indication that they will consent to, let alone encourage, radical action aimed at mitigating their contributions to climate change in the near future, even as numerous reports are released concluding that such approaches would make catastrophic climate change inevitable— inter alia , warnings from climatologists that the world would likely fail to stabilize temperature increases to 2° C,8 a study that claims that the average global temperature increase could reach 4° C by 2060,9 and another that estimates that such temperatures could well increase by over 7° C in the present century.10

Indeed, amidst the prospect of such horrors, the U.S. Congress produces legislation that would decrease U.S. emissions by 17-20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020—a mandate that amounts to a reduction in emissions of between 4 to 8 percent in 1990 levels to be realized by 2020, or more or less what the Kyoto Protocol had demanded of the U.S. by 2012. As such, this policy falls dramatically short of the proposed 25 to 40 percent reductions from such levels to be achieved before 2020, as called for by the governments of nearly all poor countries, most serious climate scientists, and the United Nations.11 Such a decidedly weak response by the society most responsible for climate change is entirely outrageous and illegitimate; it belies Obama’s absurd claims, as recently presented at the UN, that the U.S. “understand[s] the gravity of the climate threat” and “will meet [its] responsibility to future generations.”

The remarkable lack of action aimed at mitigating future climate change up to this point taken by the industrialized world as well as the surfeit of money thus far made available by advanced-capitalist societies for poorer societies to adapt to catastrophic change amount to collaboration with the future death of a decidedly overwhelming number of human beings—this, on a scale far greater than any other in human history. The deaths of these individuals would result not from ‘natural’ causes but rather human-induced ones; they would consequently be killed, theirs deaths homicide.

What is currently occurring, then, is the mass-murder of the global South by much of the global North. There has of course been a marked tendency toward this dynamic now for some time in human history, but it seems climate genocide constitutes the most final of these historical denials. The very ability for most humans currently existing as well as those expected to soon be born to survive has been problematized by the behavior of most capitalist societies: the lives of the myriad victims of climate change, both present and future, stand to be sacrificed to the exigencies of the capitalist system. Though the nameless, foreign others sacrificed by climate change are not usually referred to as a “plague bacillus” or an “epidemic” against which one had to struggle, it is largely assumed in the main that the ‘normal’ operation of capitalist society need not be interrupted by concern over the very prospects for the continued existence of much of humanity—it is expected, indeed, that humankind and even life itself be subordinate to the demands of capital.

Just, then, in Koenigsberg’s words, as “[t]he Holocaust depicts the ugliness, futility and meaninglessness of submission to the nation-state,” so does the prospect of climate genocide illustrate the naked abomination of capitalism. Dialectically, of course, it also holds out the necessity of the institution of eco-socialism: it demands that humanity cut the fuse, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “[b]efore the spark reaches the dynamite.”12

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2 Ibid

3 Mark Lynas, Six Degrees (Washington , D.C. : National Geographic, 2008), p. 102-107

4 Ibid , p. 112

5 Ibid , p. 123-127, 134-137, 159-153

6 Late Victorian Holocausts (London: Verso, 2002), p. 7

7 The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest: San Diego, 1968 [1948]), p. ix

8 David Adam, “World will not meet 2C warming target, scientists agree.” The Guardian, 14 April 2009

10 David Chandler, “Climate change odds much worse than thought.” MIT News, 19 May 2009.

12 One-Way Street and Other Writings (Harvest: London, 1997), p. 80

Angst and hope amidst the prospect of climate catastrophe: a review of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren

November 9, 2010

NB: this article first saw public light on Countercurrents in December 2009

Published in the U.S. last December with the intention that its release coincide with the beginning of the Copenhagen climate summit, James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity has an impressive-sounding title, however less than impressive its content at times is. Currently a professor at Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen is a world-renowned climatologist widely regarded as having been instrumental in bringing the specter of anthropogenic climate change to public attention with his remarks on the question before the U.S. Congress in the late 1980s, and he has engaged in lesser and greater forms of public advocacy on climate issues since then: he has denounced the liberal-parliamentary process for its failures meaningfully to address climate change to date,1 written an open letter to U.S. President Obama stressing the absolute imperative of taking urgent action on climate change within the new president’s first term,2 been arrested at a protest against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia,3 and most recently seen what he calls the “fundamentally wrong” approach taken at the current Copenhagen negotiations as necessitating the summit’s failure.4 Hansen is, then, a decidedly important voice whose contributions should be thoughtfully considered; as we shall see, though, his Storms of My Grandchildren is flawed in many ways, despite the rationality of many of its claims.

In Storms, Hansen casts himself in the role of a “witness”: someone, he quotes Robert Pool as saying, who “believes he [or she] has information so important that he [or she] cannot keep silent.” As a witness, his general claim is that, due to the historical and contemporary mass burning of fossil fuels, “Planet Earth […] is in imminent peril,” “in imminent danger of crashing.” Hansen finds the urgency of the matter to be absolute: the very survival of humanity and millions of non-human species is in question. He spends much of the book reviewing the evidence for climate change, finding human-induced contributions to increased average global temperatures to be in “total dominance” over naturally occurring ones; as such, he claims those who deny such realities—global-warming contrarians, as Hansen refers to them—to have no basis for their views. In reflecting on the seriousness of the present situation, Hansen reserves much of his ire for what he calls “scientific reticence”—positivistic approaches that undermine the relevance and necessity of applying the precautionary principle as well as a marked reluctance among individuals knowledgeable about the present predicament to take public stands on this most important of issues. His discourse, furthermore, mirrors a growing disappointment among self-styled progressives with the ascendancy of the Obama administration in the U.S.: Obama, in Hansen’s estimation, “does not get it,” and Obama’s approach of greenwashed compromise is seen here as fundamentally flawed, since, as Hansen writes, “nature and the laws of physics cannot compromise.”

The gravity of the present situation notwithstanding, Hansen believes that hope for a “brighter future” has not yet been entirely stifled. Transitioning from the current atmospheric carbon concentration of 387 parts per million to the “appropriate initial target” Hansen finds in 350 ppm is in his view still practically achievable, though “just barely.” (Strangely enough, Hansen does not address the question of an appropriate CO2-equivalent concentration—that is, a measurement of atmospheric concentrations that includes greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, such as methane, etc.; a CO2-e target of 350 ppm would call for a carbon-dioxide concentration of much lower than 350.) Central to the project of realizing a peak in global carbon emissions and a concomitant return to 350 ppm is the phasing-out of coal emissions as rapidly as possible, says Hansen: slowing down the rate of such emissions, in his view, does no good; all such emissions must end by 2020 in the ‘developed’ world. Hansen tells us that most of the world’s remaining supply of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas, as well as tar sands and shale oil—must be kept in the ground if future generations are to have a “livable planet.” He sees oil and gas as having to play a role in the transitional period that must begin immediately, but emissions from coal, tar sands, and oil shale are to eliminated—which is not to say that the use of the latter sources is to be discontinued, for Hansen feels that they can be allowed to continue if adequate capture and sequestration technologies can be developed and implemented on a mass scale. He does stress the importance of energy-efficiency gains and renewable-energy sources, but he finds it “extremely irresponsible” to depend entirely on these two strategies to combat global warming; instead, he writes favorably of the prospect of a “nuclear renaissance” driven by the development of fourth-generation nuclear power plants, which he seems to find to be the only viable means by which drastically to reduce carbon emissions in the near term. Both forest preservation and reforestation, moreover, are to play a role in his favored carbon-reduction trajectory, though he warns that tree-planting cannot be taken as a substitute for—an offset of—existing carbon emissions. Though initially skeptical about the place that geo-engineering schemes should have in the struggle against climate change, Hansen does conclude that such options may become necessary if business-as-usual is continued for the foreseeable future, and as such he suggests that research be made into exploring such schemes. Furthermore, he eschews the hegemonically favored cap-and-trade approach for what is referred to as “fee-and-dividend,” a framework whereby fees are collected at the mine or port of entry of a given fossil fuel and then divided equally among legal adult residents of the public, the idea being that those who outstrip their share of carbon-emissions—in most cases, Hansen assures us, economically wealthier individuals—will be financially penalized and hence face incentives to reduce their carbon footprints. Hansen envisions these fees as rising over time, so as to allow households and individuals to adjust their lifestyles accordingly; to prevent more carbon-intensive production from simply shifting their operations to a location where such regulatory frameworks are non-existent, he also insists that the fee-and-dividend approach be globalized.

His questionable views on nuclear power aside, much of what Hansen proposes in Storms of My Grandchildren seems reasonable, and as such certainly can be considered useful for informing action aimed at working to mitigate some of the more catastrophic life-negating realities that the prospect of climate change promises, however foreign many of his recommendations seem to be to the approaches favored by those currently negotiating in Copenhagen. Much of Hansen’s commentary on matters not directly related to his programmatic vision for the necessarily urgent reduction in carbon emissions, though, is both frustrating and misleading, and as such merits discussion and refutation. To begin with, Hansen discloses that he is, within the spectrum of mainstream U.S. politics, a “registered Independent” who has cast votes in the past for both Democrats and Republicans. He tells us that he supported the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000 (adding unnecessarily that he contributed a thousand dollars to the campaign), felt “enthusiasm” at one point for the candidacy of John McCain in 2008, and experienced “moist eyes” during Obama’s Election-Day speech in November of that year. Despite his disappointment in the remarkable lack of action on climate change that Obama has thus far taken, Hansen still maintains that the current U.S. president is “still our best hope.” Moreover, Hansen claims rather bizarrely that he feels the “captains of industry” have to be a “big part of the global warming solution”; he claims that the realization of his carbon-reduction vision “require[s] their leadership.” He also writes elsewhere that he finds the U.S. Constitution to be “remarkable,” and he claims it to have been designed with an eye to preventing the “subversion of the democratic principle for the sake of the powerful few.”

That a document written in large part by slaveholders who decided to count some 700,000 enslaved former Africans as three-fifths of a human being—or, indeed, that allowed for the continued existence of formal slavery in the first place—can be considered remarkable is astounding, as is the faith Hansen seems to have in the U.S. oligarchy. Expressing enthusiasm for the prospect of a McCain presidency is clearly a horrifying position; little more need be said on that. Hansen’s final take on the newest occupant of the White House, though, is similarly of marginal value: claiming that Obama—who, to briefly review, has overseen the transfer of trillions of dollars to the very financial institutions that precipitated the current economic downturn, entirely jettisoned hope for transition to a single-payer health-insurance program in the U.S., requested a ‘defense’ budget larger than that of Bush, backpedaled on curbing Israel’s ongoing colonization of the West Bank, moved toward normalizing relations with the very leadership that has overseen genocide in Darfur, escalated war in Afghanistan, and endorsed the Congress’s pathetic proposals to reduce carbon emissions by around 4 percent by 2020 relative to 1990 levels—is “still our best hope” is entirely unjustified and obfuscatory in the extreme.

Indeed, Hansen’s fairly uncritical view of the representatives of the present system is reflected in a lack of expressed criticality toward the totality of that very system. There is in Storms of My Grandchildren no critique of the environmentally destructive consequences of consumerism, as stressed in Hervé Kempf’s How the Rich are Destroying the Earth; 5 of economic growth, which James Gustave Speth denounces in his The Bridge at the End of the World;6 or of capitalism and its myriad manifestations, all of which various Marxist and anarchist critics have long sought to abolish. It is probable that Hansen, who fashions himself an “objective scientist” who should refrain from disclosing “personal opinions,” feels that explicitly making such conclusions may prove to alienate his intended audience—the U.S. public—or, perhaps, affect book-sales or even result in his being publicly discredited and his concerns for the climate dismissed. It may also be the case that Hansen himself does not share these critical views on the present state of affairs; he did, after all, see grounds for enthusiasm in the presidential candidacy of John McCain. It should be said, though, that Hansen may well be doing a disservice to his readers in not making linkages between the profundity of the climate predicament and the necessity for a radical politics: the clear responsibility that capitalism and the State bear for the specter of climate catastrophe should be taken as representing the very limits of their continued existence, not as grounds to re-affirm such. Not to find currently prevailing power relations illegitimate in the extreme is simply absurd, and to see in the madness propagated by presently constituted power “our best hope” is in the view of the present author to consign the future of life on Earth to what Hansen calls “the Venus syndrome”: runaway catastrophic climate change that violently transitions the Earth’s climate to one similar to that of Venus, where life simply cannot exist.

Perhaps one of the most problematic aspects of Storms of My Grandchildren is the selective concern expressed in the text by Hansen for the victims of climate change, both actual and potential, present and future. The main subject of Hansen’s concern seems to be the recently born eponymous kin of his, whose pictures we find in several of the work’s chapters. Fear for the possible future that the children of his own children will likely have to face because of dangerous anthropogenic interference with global climatic processes is entirely legitimate, but it seems deeply limiting and even reactionary to find in the prospect of climate catastrophe grounds for concern only or primarily for one’s family members, who in Hansen’s case happen to be white Americans. To his credit, it is true that Hansen recognizes that millions of non-human species are similarly threatened by global warming, but one strives in vain to find in his argument a serious acknowledgment of the profoundly unjust effects climate change stands to have on human society in geographical and socio-economic terms. There is no mention in Hansen’s book, for example, of the Global Humanitarian Forum’s May 2009 report that estimated that some 300,000 humans, living almost entirely in less materially wealthy Southern societies, are being killed annually in the present day as a result of the 0.7-0.8° C increase in average global temperatures that has already occurred because of past emissions,7 nor is any concern other than vague generalities expressed for the plight of the billions of presently impoverished, oppressed peoples whose very continued existence is problematized by climate change. Significantly, Hansen does not endorse or even consider the concept of ecological debt,8 a framework whereby ‘advanced’ industrial-capitalist societies are to engage in massive redistribution schemes to the ‘developing’ world due to their historical and contemporary appropriation of far more than their legitimate share to the world’s commons, especially the atmosphere. These omissions may again speak to his worries regarding public support in the U.S., where racism and imperialism unfortunately seem to hold hegemonic positions, but they should serve as reminders that one’s obligations with regard to climate change should be general rather than particular, that what Emmanuel Levinas refers to as responsibility for the Other should be limited to nothing less than life itself—Eros, in Herbert Marcuse’s formulation.9

This review of Storms of My Grandchildren should not be taken as dismissive of Hansen’s contributions in the book as a whole: while it seems clear that Hansen should not have the last word on the present crisis, there is certainly much of value to be found in Storms. Many of Hansen’s practical recommendations for stepping away from the climatic abyss surely merit attention and implementation, as do some of the perspectives advanced in the fictional future-historical account with which he closes the work’s final chapter: Hansen there has one of his characters, a member of a human-like species that developed on a distant planet called Claron, dismiss humans as “primitive,” given the “irrationality in their politics,” the “dividing lines they draw on maps,” their “abuse of animals,” “the fighting” they engage in, and “the starving people” they ignore. Against the life-negating realities that he correctly criticizes as having long plagued the human condition, Hansen offers the beautiful possibility that Earth be made “an intergenerational commons,” a world which would make available its “fruits and benefits” to “every member of every generation.”

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2 Elizabeth Kolbert, “James Hansen Arrested,” The New Yorker, 24 June 2009

3Robin McKie, “President Obama ‘has four years to save Earth,’” The Observer, 18 January 2009

4 Suzanne Goldenberg, “Copenhagen climate summit must fail, says top scientist,” The Guardian, 2 December 2009

5 White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2008

6 New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009

8 Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: Global Warming & the Wealth of Nations (London: Pluto, 2009)

9Emmanuel Levinas, Totality & Infinity (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1969); Herbert Marcuse, Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).