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Rebecca Solnit: The Future Needs Us

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Marching band in New Orleans

As 2013 closes, Rebecca Solnit looks to the future from New Orleans.

‘Tis the season of tradition and, as it turns out, TomDispatch has one seasonal tradition of its own.  For the last nine — count ‘em: nine! — years, Rebecca Solnit has stepped into the breach (“dear friends!”) and ended the TomDispatch year for us with her usual panache.  In 2006, she was dreaming of 2026; in 2008, she was looking back at the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in lawless New Orleans; in 2010, it was iceberg economies and hope in the shadows (and as I wrote in my introduction that year, with the Bush administration’s approach to war in mind, “As they privatized, I’ve privatized hope, farming it out to Rebecca Solnit, who from her first appearance at TomDispatch has filled the endowed Hope Chair brilliantly”); in 2011, it was the Occupy movement that preoccupied her; and this year, she returns to her most essential métier, the theme with which she changed my view of how the world works when she first arrived at TomDispatch back in May 2003 in the dismal months after the invasion of Iraq began and the antiwar movement collapsed in despair.

As for myself, on this disaster planet in 2013, let me admit to finding hope in a single young man, Edward Snowden, who in his act of disobedience, which was civil but for many here in the U.S. hard to swallow, he truly awoke a world to the dystopian possibilities lurking in the global security state that Washington has been building.  If TomDispatch were Time magazine, he would be my person of the year, a theme I’ll undoubtedly take up in 2014. Tom

The Arc of Justice and the Long Run
Hope, History, and Unpredictability
By Rebecca Solnit

North American cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they emerge as adults. Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.

Three years ago at this time, after a young Tunisian set himself on fire to protest injustice, the Arab Spring was on the cusp of erupting. An even younger man, a rapper who went by the name El Général, was on the verge of being arrested for “Rais Lebled” (a tweaked version of the phrase “head of state”), a song that would help launch the revolution in Tunisia.’

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Dahr Jamail: The Climate Change Scorecard

7:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Since a nuclear weapon went off over Hiroshima, we have been living with visions of global catastrophe, apocalyptic end times, and extinction that were once the sole property of religion.  Since August 6, 1945, it has been possible for us to imagine how human beings, not God, could put an end to our lives on this planet.  Conceptually speaking, that may be the single most striking development of our age and, to this day, it remains both terrifying and hard to take in.  Nonetheless, the apocalyptic possibilities lurking in our scientific-military development stirred popular culture over the decades to a riot of world-ending possibilities.

In more recent decades, a second world-ending (or at least world-as-we-know-it ending) possibility has crept into human consciousness.  Until relatively recently, our burning of fossil fuels and spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere represented such a slow-motion approach to end times that we didn’t even notice what was happening.  Only in the 1970s did the idea of global warming or climate change begin to penetrate the scientific community, as in the 1990s it edged its way into the rest of our world, and slowly into popular culture, too.

Still, despite ever more powerful weather disruptions — what the news now likes to call “extreme weather” events, including monster typhoons, hurricanes, and winter storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts, and global temperature records — disaster has still seemed far enough off.  Despite a drumbeat of news about startling environmental changes — massive ice melts in Arctic waters, glaciers shrinking worldwide, the Greenland ice shield beginning to melt, as well as the growing acidification of ocean waters — none of this, not even Superstorm Sandy smashing into that iconic global capital, New York, and drowning part of its subway system, has broken through as a climate change 9/11.  Not in the United States anyway.

We’ve gone, that is, from no motion to slow motion to a kind of denial of motion.  And yet in the scientific community, where people continue to study the effects of global warming, the tone is changing.  It is, you might say, growing more apocalyptic.  Just in recent weeks, a report from the National Academy of Scientists suggested that “hard-to-predict sudden changes” in the environment due to the effects of climate change might drive the planet to a “tipping point.”  Beyond that, “major and rapid changes [could] occur” — and these might be devastating, including that “wild card,” the sudden melting of parts of the vast Antarctic ice shelf, driving sea levels far higher.

At the same time, the renowned climate scientist James Hansen and 17 colleagues published a hair-raising report in the journal PLoS.  They suggest that the accepted target of keeping global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is a fool’s errand.  If global temperatures come anywhere near that level — the rise so far has been less than one degree since the industrial revolution began — it will already be too late, they claim, to avoid disastrous consequences.

Consider this the background “temperature” for Dahr Jamail’s latest piece for TomDispatch, an exploration of what climate scientists just beyond the mainstream are thinking about how climate change will affect life on this planet.  What, in other words, is the worst that we could possibly face in the decades to come?  The answer: a nightmare scenario.  So buckle your seat belt.  There’s a tumultuous ride ahead. Tom

Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?
Scientists Consider Extinction 
By Dahr Jamail

I grew up planning for my future, wondering which college I would attend, what to study, and later on, where to work, which articles to write, what my next book might be, how to pay a mortgage, and which mountaineering trip I might like to take next.

Now, I wonder about the future of our planet. During a recent visit with my eight-year-old niece and 10- and 12-year-old nephews, I stopped myself from asking them what they wanted to do when they grew up, or any of the future-oriented questions I used to ask myself. I did so because the reality of their generation may be that questions like where they will work could be replaced by: Where will they get their fresh water? What food will be available? And what parts of their country and the rest of the world will still be habitable?

The reason, of course, is climate change — and just how bad it might be came home to me in the summer of 2010.  I was climbing Mount Rainier in Washington State, taking the same route I had used in a 1994 ascent.  Instead of experiencing the metal tips of the crampons attached to my boots crunching into the ice of a glacier, I was aware that, at high altitudes, they were still scraping against exposed volcanic rock. In the pre-dawn night, sparks shot from my steps.
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Tomgram: Todd Gitlin, Climate Change as a Business Model

7:52 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When a crossroads doesn’t lie in the woods or the fields but in our minds, we seldom know it’s there or that we’ve made the choice to take one path and not the other until it’s long past.  Sometimes, the best you can do is look for the tiniest clues as to where we’re really heading.  When it comes to climate change, you can pile up the nightmares — Super-Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the strongest such storm ever to hit land (with the usual prominent caveats about how we can never quite know whether an individual event of this sort was global-warming-induced or not); Australia, which only recently elected a climate-change denialist as prime minister and is experiencing its hottest year on record; the rest of the planet, which is living through the seventh warmest year on record; and so on.

And yet, every now and then, set against the overwhelming, you can sense change in the tiniest of things. Here, for instance, may be a little sign when it comes to global warming: on November 1st, the New York Times featured a piece prominently placed on its front page about how climate change might affect global food production (badly). The story was based on a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The piece wasn’t itself particularly striking, but given that paper’s treatment of climate change over the years, its placement was. Just over two weeks later, after the devastation of parts of the Philippines and with a U.N. climate meeting underway in Poland that normally might hardly have been noticed, it front-paged a far more striking report whose title caught the mood of the moment: “Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Change.”  Recorded was the growing anger and frustration particularly of island nations that had, in greenhouse gas terms, contributed little to climate change and were feeling the brunt of it anyway.  Like many other mainstream publications, theTimes hasn’t exactly been stellar in the placement and attention it’s given to what almost certainly is the single most important issue of our era. So consider this a (rising) sea change, an indication that, for the paper of record, global warming has just jumped somewhere nearer the front of the line.

And here’s another little surprise and possible sign of changing times.  In case no one noticed, Red State America (RSA), the land of climate deniers, has in recent years been hit hard by record droughtsheatwildfiresfloods, and storms, by what our news likes to call “extreme weather” (with little or no reference to climate change).  So how has that everyday reality been absorbed, if at all? The British Guardian recently reported new polling research by a Stanford social psychologist, who has long been taking the American pulse on the subject, indicating that the inhabitants of RSA — we’re talking about Texas and Oklahoma, among other states — now overwhelmingly believe climate change is a reality, and that a significant majority of them want the government to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two stories placed strikingly in a major paper and one passing poll.  Not exactly a typhoon of evidence, but sometimes you take your straws in the wind where you find them.  In the meantime, young activists (and older ones, too) are trying to take the typhoon by the horns and, with a growing campaign to pressure universities and colleges to divest from the giant energy companies, to change the mood and calculations of our moment.  Let TomDispatch regular Todd Gitlin tell the rest of the story — and stay tuned because, whatever may be happening now, there will be crossroads ahead, choices to be made on a planet that’s guaranteed to be in increasing turmoil for the rest of our lives. Tom

How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse 
Why the Divestment Movement Against Big Energy Matters 
By Todd Gitlin

Apocalyptic climate change is upon us.  For shorthand, let’s call it a slow-motion apocalypse to distinguish it from an intergalactic attack out of the blue or a suddenly surging Genesis-style flood.

Slow-motion, however, is not no-motion. In fits and starts, speeding up and slowing down, turning risks into clumps of extreme fact, one catastrophe after another — even if there can be no 100% certitude about the origin of each one — the planetary future careens toward the unlivable. That future is, it seems, arriving ahead of schedule, though erratically enough that most people — in the lucky, prosperous countries at any rate — can still imagine the planet conducting something close to business as usual.

To those who pay attention, of course, the recent bursts of extreme weather are not “remote “or “abstract,” nor matters to be deferred until later in the century while we worry about more immediate problems. The coming dystopian landscape is all too real and it is already right here for many millions. (Think: the Philippines, the Maldives Islands, drowned New Orleans, the New York City subways, Far Rockaway, the Jersey Shore, the parched Southwest, the parched and then flooded Midwest and other food belts, the Western forests that these days are regularly engulfed in “record” flames, and so on.)  A child born in the United States this year stands a reasonable chance of living into the next century when everything, from available arable land and food resources to life on our disappearing seacoasts, will have changed, changed utterly.

A movement to forestall such menaces must convince many more millions outside Bangladesh or the Pacific islands that what’s “out there” is not remote in time or geographically far away, but remarkably close at hand, already lapping at many shores — and then to mobilize those millions to leverage our strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the institutions arrayed against us that benefit from destruction and have a stake in our weakness.

There is a poetic fitness to human history at this juncture.  Eons ago, various forms of life became defunct.  A civilization then evolved to extract the remains of that defunct life from the earth and turn it into energy. As a result, it’s now we who are challenged to avoid making our own style of existence defunct.

Is it not uncanny that we have come face-to-face with the consequences of a way of life based on burning up the remnants of previous broken-down orders of life?  It’s a misnomer to call those remains — coal, oil, and gas — “fossil fuels.”  They are not actually made up of fossils at all.  Still, there’s an eerie justice in the inaccuracy, since here we are, converting the residue of earlier breakdowns into another possible breakdown.  The question is: will we become the next fossils?

Subsidizing Big Energy

The institutions of our ruling world have a powerful stake in the mad momentum of climate change — the energy system that’s producing it and the political stasis that sustains and guarantees it — so powerful as to seem unbreakable.  Don’t count on them to avert the coming crisis.  They can’t.  In some sense, they are the crisis.

Corporations and governments promote the burning of fossil fuels, which means the dumping of its waste product, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere where, in record amounts, it heats the planet.  This is not an oversight; it is a business model.

Governments collude with global warming, in part by bankrolling the giant fossil fuel companies (FFCs). As a recent report written by Shelagh Whitley for the Overseas Development Institute puts it,

“Producers of oil, gas, and coal received more than $500 billion in government subsidies around the world in 2011… If their aim is to avoid dangerous climate change, governments are shooting themselves in both feet.  They are subsidizing the very activities that are pushing the world towards dangerous climate change, and creating barriers to investment in low-carbon development and subsidy incentives that encourage investment in carbon-intensive energy.”

Of course a half-trillion dollars in subsidies doesn’t just happen.  It cannot be said too often: the FFCs thrive by conniving with governments.  They finance politicians to do their bidding.  Seven of the ten largest companies in the world are FFCs, as are four of the ten most profitable (just outnumbering three Chinese banks, which presumably have their own major FFC connections).  These behemoths have phenomenal clout when they lobby for fossil-fuel-friendly development and against remedial policies like a carbon tax.  And if this were not enough, they flood the world with fraudulent claims that climate change is not happening, or is not dangerous, or that its dimensions and human causes are controversial among scientists whose profession it is to study the climate.

The Cascade

Fossilized corporations do their thing while frozen governments produce (or opt out of) hapless and toothless international agreements. By default, initiative must arise elsewhere — in places where reason and passion have some purchase as well as a tradition, places where new power may be created and deployed.  This counterpower is, in fact, developing.

Given the might and recalcitrance of the usual culpable and complicit institutions, it falls to people’s initiatives and to other kinds of institutions to take up the slack.  This means universities, churches, and other investment pools, now increasingly under pressure from mushrooming campaigns to divest funds from FFCs; and popular movements against coal, oil, fracking, and other dangerous projects — in particular, at the moment, movements in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere to stop tar sands pipelines.

Those in the growing divestment movement suffer no illusions that universities themselves wield the magnitude of power you find in investment banks or, of course, the FFCs themselves.  They are simply seeking leverage where they can.  The sums of capital held by universities, in particular, are small on the scale of things.  Harvard, the educational institution with the largest endowment (some $32.7 billion at last count), reports that only 3% of its direct holdings are in the top 200 energy outfits.  (The amount of its money held indirectly and opaquely, through private capital pools, and so also possibly invested in FFCs, is unclear.)  Though millions of dollars are at stake, that’s a drop in the bucket for Harvard, whose holdings amount, in turn, to nowhere near a drop in the total market capitalization of those energy giants.

Set against a landscape in which people have lost faith in the principle sectors of power, however, universities still have a certain legitimacy that grants them the potential for leverage. Divestment will make news precisely because such movements are unusual: universities biting the hands of the dogs that feed them, so to speak.

We won’t know how much influence that legitimacy can bring about until the attempts are made.  What we do know, from historical precedent, is that such efforts, even when they start on a small scale, tend to inspire more of the same.  As Robert Kinloch Massie argues in his fine book on South African sanctions, Loosing the Bonds, divestment campaigns such as those over apartheid and Big Tobacco (phased out by Harvard in 1990) worked by creating a cascade effect.

With climate change, the stigmatization of the FFCs is already spreading from universities and churches to city and state pension funds.  Eventually, if it works, the cascade changes the atmosphere around private and public investment decisions.  Then those decisions themselves begin to change and such changes become part of a new market calculation for investors and politicians alike.

That’s why it matters so much that some 400 divestment campaigns are currently underway at American colleges and universities. Cascades of influence can move institutions, often in surprising ways.  Every time a divestment demand is put forward, the conversation changes in elite board rooms where investment decisions are made.  Children of FFC executives go home for Christmas and their nagging questions make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable.  (This dynamic, though seldom credited, undoubtedly played some role in ending the Vietnam War.)

At Harvard, my alma mater, a fierce campaign by courageous and strategic-minded students has spun off a parallel campaign by alumni.  They are being asked to withhold contributions to the university and to donate to an escrow fund until Harvard divests from its direct holdings in FFCs and undertakes to divest from its indirect holdings as well.

Is this sort of demand just a gesture of moral purity?  Not necessarily.  Indeed, there may well be an economic payoff for morally motivated divestment and reinvestment.  My fellow alumnus Bevis Longstreth, a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, makes a strong case that the policies of the FFCs are shortsighted and risky.  (During the year 2012 alone, the top 200 sank $674 billion into acquiring and developing new energy reserves and working out ways to exploit them.)  Significant parts of the capital they are now investing will likely be “wasted,” since in a climate-change world, large portions of those reserves will have to stay in the ground.

Looked at in the long term, the FFCs may not turn out to be such smart investments after all. Indeed, in the boilerplate language of financial prospectuses, past results are no guarantee of future results; and there are already investment models showing that non-FFC funds deliver better proceeds.

These efforts and arguments have yet to convince Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust that climate change is one of those “extraordinarily rare circumstances” when divestment is justified.  Instead, she proposes “engagement” with the boards of the energy companies, as if sweet reason by itself stood a chance of outtalking sweet crude oil.  She touts Harvard’s teaching and research on climate issues, while neglecting the way those corporations fund disinformation meant to blunt the effect of that teaching and research.  Having declared that the issue is not “political,” she defends Harvard’s investments in the chief funders of propaganda against climate science.  Some rejection of politics!  Meanwhile, for saying no to divestment, President Faust wins the applause of an Alabama coal company front group.

Still, Divest Harvard is undeterred. By conducting referenda, organizing panels and rallies, gathering signatures, and activating alumni, it and like-minded groups are in the process of changing elite conversations about wealth and moral responsibility in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse.  They are helping ensure that previously unthinkable conversations become thinkable.

Something similar is taking place on many other campuses.  At the same time, writers in influential conservative publications have already begun taking this movement seriously, and the first signs of a changing state of mind are evident.  A report out of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, for example, recently warned against the risks of “stranded assets” (all those fossil fuels already bought and paid for by the FFCs that will never make it out of the ground). The Economist has begun to doubt that oil is such a great investment. The Financial Times heralds the spread of divestment efforts to city governments.

Hinges Open Doors

Transforming the world is something like winning a war.  If the objective is to eliminate a condition like hunger, mass violence, or racial domination, then the institutions and systems of power that produce, defend, and sustain this condition have to be dislodged and defeated.  For that, most people have to stop experiencing the condition — and the enemy that makes it possible — as abstractions “out there.”

A movement isn’t called that for nothing.  It has to move people.  It needs lovers, and friends, and allies.  It has to generate a cascade of feeling — moral feeling.  The movement’s passion has to become a general passion.  And that passion must be focused: the concern that people feel about some large condition “out there” has to find traction closer to home.

Vis-à-vis the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change, there’s plenty of bad news daily and it’s hitting ever closer home, even if you live in the parching Southwest or the burning West, not the Philippines or the Maldive Islands.  Until recently, however, it sometimes felt as if the climate movement was spinning its wheels, gaining no traction.  But the extraordinary work of Bill McKibben and his collaborators at 350.org, and the movements against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and its Canadian equivalent, the Northern Gateway pipeline, have changed the climate-change climate.

Now, the divestment movement, too, becomes a junction point where action in the here-and-now, on local ground, gains momentum toward a grander transformation. These movements are the hinges on which the door to a livable future swings.

Todd Gitlin, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, the chair of the PhD program in communications, and the author of The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left; The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

[Note: Thanks go to the sociologist Gay Seidman, elected as an anti-apartheid candidate to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1986, and to Eric Chivian, M.D., who got me thinking about the concept of a slow-motion apocalypse.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin

Michael Klare: A Climate Change-Fueled Revolution?

7:15 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Family standing in Typhoon Haiyan rubble

Can revolution save us from climate change apocalypse?

There’s a crossroads moment in our recent history that comes back to me whenever I think of our warming planet.  (2013 is shaping up to be the seventh warmest year since records began to be kept in 1850.  The 10 warmest years have all occured since 1998.)  In the six months from July 1979 to January 1980, as Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency was winding down, he urged two approaches to global energy on Americans.  One was dismissed out of hand, the other taken up with alacrity — and our world is incommensurately the worse for it.  Here’s a description I wrote back in May that is worth quoting again:

On July 15, 1979, at a time when gas lines, sometimes blocks long, were a disturbing fixture of American life, President Jimmy Carter spoke directly to the American people on television for 32 minutes, calling for a concerted effort to end the country’s oil dependence on the Middle East.  ‘To give us energy security,’ he announced, ‘I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation’s history to develop America’s own alternative sources of fuel — from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun…’

It’s true that, with the science of climate change then in its infancy, Carter wouldn’t have known about the possibility of an overheating world, and his vision of ‘alternative energy’ wasn’t exactly a fossil-fuel-free one.  Even then — shades of today or possibly tomorrow — he was talking about having ‘more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias.’  Still, it was a remarkably forward-looking speech.

Had we invested massively in alternative energy R&D back then, who knows where we might be today?  Instead, the media dubbed it the ‘malaise speech,’ though the president never actually used that word, speaking instead of an American ‘crisis of confidence.’  While the initial public reaction seemed positive, it didn’t last long.  In the end, the president’s energy proposals were essentially laughed out of the room and ignored for decades.

Carter would, however, make his mark on U.S. energy policy, just not quite in the way he had imagined.  Six months later, on January 23, 1980, in his last State of the Union Address, he would proclaim what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: ‘Let our position be absolutely clear,’ he said. ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’

No one would laugh him out of the room for that.  Instead, the Pentagon would fatefully begin organizing itself to protect U.S. (and oil) interests in the Persian Gulf on a new scale and America’s oil wars would follow soon enough.  Not long after that address, it would start building up a Rapid Deployment Force in the Gulf that would in the end become U.S. Central Command.  More than three decades later, ironies abound: thanks in part to those oil wars, whole swaths of the energy-rich Middle East are in crisis, if not chaos, while the big energy companies have put time and money into a staggeringly fossil-fuel version of Carter’s ‘alternative’ North America.  They’ve focused on shale oil, and on shale gas as well, and with new production methods, they are reputedly on the brink of turning the United States into a ‘new Saudi Arabia.’

Could there have been a sadder choice in recent history? If, in 1979, the U.S. had invested in a big way in solar, wind, tidal power, and who knows what else, imagine where we might be today. Imagine a world not facing a future in which storms like Super-Typhoon Haiyan, which recently leveled part of the Philippines, its winds devastating, its storm surge killing staggering numbers, threaten to become the norm for our children and grandchildren.

So oil wars, yes! — which meant transforming the Greater Middle East into a region of chaos, instability, and death.  An oil-ravaged planet, yes indeed! — which meant potentially transforming a future version of Earth into a planet of chaos, instability, and death!  A green energy revolution, not on your life! — not while the giant energy corporations have so much invested in underground reserves of fossil fuels and such gigantic profits to make, not while so many governments are deeply intertwined with those energy giants or are themselves essentially giant energy companies.  No wonder TomDispatch regular Michael Klare suggests that it falls into our hands to ensure that a green energy revolution arrives ahead of a human-created, fossil-fueled apocalypse. Tom

Surviving Climate Change
Is a Green Energy Revolution on the Global Agenda?
By Michael T. Klare

A week after the most powerful “super typhoon” ever recorded pummeled the Philippines, killing thousands in a single province, and three weeks after the northern Chinese city of Harbin suffered a devastating “airpocalypse,” suffocating the city with coal-plant pollution, government leaders beware! Although individual events like these cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to increased fossil fuel use and climate change, they are the type of disasters that, scientists tell us, will become a pervasive part of life on a planet being transformed by the massive consumption of carbon-based fuels.  If, as is now the case, governments across the planet back an extension of the carbon age and ever increasing reliance on “unconventional” fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas, we should all expect trouble.  In fact, we should expect mass upheavals leading to a green energy revolution.

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Bill McKibben: Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?

5:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Oil and Honey cover

Bill McKibben’s latest book

Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.

From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!

And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.

There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground — or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.

Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom

X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Latest News in Fossil Fuel Addiction

6:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The news couldn’t be better — and it couldn’t be worse.  Or ask yourself this: What do these two headlines have in common: “U.S. expected to be largest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons in 2013,” “Shift to a new climate likely by middle of the century, study finds”?

A great deal, it turns out. Evidently, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports, the U.S. will surpass Russia as the leading combined producer of oil and natural gas this year.  For the time being, Saudi Arabia remains the globe’s number one oil producer.  And yes, according to a new study in the journal Nature, sometime around the year 2047 (give or take the odd decade), the world will hit a “climate takeoff point.”  Think of it as the moment when, according to the researchers, “the old maximum average temperatures become the new minimum temperatures, extending beyond any climate we have experienced since 1860,” that is, when systematic records first began being kept.

So for the U.S., we may be talking record fossil fuel production, while for the globe we are going to be talking record heat, record storms — of which a preview could be seen in the monstrous cyclone “half the size of India” that just came out of the warming waters of the Bay of Bengal — and record weather disruptions as the new norm on planet Earth.  The connection, of course, is record emissions of carbon dioxide from the record burning of all those fossil fuels.  It couldn’t be a nastier combo, something potentially straight out of Dante’s inferno.  And, as always, TomDispatch has Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left, on the case. Tom

Fossil Fuel Euphoria
Hallelujah, Oil and Gas Forever!
By Michael T. Klare

For years, energy analysts had been anticipating an imminent decline in global oil supplies.  Suddenly, they’re singing a new song: Fossil fuels growing scarce?  Don’t even think about it!  The news couldn’t be better: fossil fuels will become ever more abundant.  And all that talk about climate change?  Don’t worry about it, they chant.  Go out and enjoy the benefits of cheap and plentiful energy forever.

This movement from gloom about our energy future to what can only be called fossil-fuel euphoria may prove to be the hallmark of our peculiar moment.  In a speech this September, for instance, Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission (that state’s energy regulatory agency), claimed that the Earth possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and natural gas.  Not only that — and you can practically hear the chorus of cheering in Houston and other oil centers — but many of the most exploitable new deposits are located in the U.S. and Canada.  As a result — add a roll of drums and a blaring of trumpets — the expected boost in energy is predicted to provide the United States with a cornucopia of economic and political rewards, including industrial expansion at home and enhanced geopolitical clout abroad.  The country, exulted Karen Moreau of the New York State Petroleum Council, another industry cheerleader, is now in a position “to become a global superpower on energy.”

There are good reasons to be deeply skeptical of such claims, but that hardly matters when they are gaining traction in Washington and on Wall Street.  What we’re seeing is a sea change in elite thinking on the future availability and attractiveness of fossil fuels.  Senior government officials, including President Obama, have already become infected with this euphoria, as have top Wall Street investors — which means it will have a powerful and longlasting, though largely pernicious, effect on the country’s energy policy, industrial development, and foreign relations.

The speed and magnitude of this shift in thinking has been little short of astonishing.  Just a few years ago, we were girding for the imminent prospect of “peak oil,” the point at which daily worldwide output would reach its maximum and begin an irreversible decline.  This, experts assumed, would result in a global energy crisis, sky-high oil prices, and severe disruptions to the world economy.

Today, peak oil seems a distant will-o’-the-wisp.  Experts at the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) confidently project that global oil output will reach 115 million barrels per day by 2040 — a stunning 34% increase above the current level of 86 million barrels.  Natural gas production is expected to soar as well, leaping from 113 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to a projected 185 trillion in 2040.

These rosy assessments rest to a surprising extent on a single key assumption: that the United States, until recently a declining energy producer, will experience a sharp increase in output through the exploitation of shale oil and natural gas reserves through hydro-fracking and other technological innovations.  “In a matter of a few years, the trends have reversed,” Moreau declared last February.  “There is a new energy reality of vast domestic resources of oil and natural gas brought about by advancing technology… For the first time in generations, we are able to see that our energy supply is no longer limited, foreign, and finite; it is American and abundant.”

The boost in domestic oil and gas output, it is further claimed, will fuel an industrial renaissance in the United States — with new plants and factories being built to take advantage of abundant local low-cost energy supplies.  “The economic consequences of this supply-and-demand revolution are potentially extraordinary,” asserted Ed Morse, the head of global commodities research at Citigroup in New York.  America’s gross domestic product, he claimed, will grow by 2% to 3% over the next seven years as a result of the energy revolution alone, adding as much as $624 billion to the national economy.  Even greater gains can be made, Morse and others claim, if the U.S. becomes a significant exporter of fossil fuels, particularly in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Not only will these developments result in added jobs — as many as three million, claims energy analyst Daniel Yergin — but they will also enhance America’s economic status vis-à-vis its competitors.  “U.S. natural gas is abundant and prices are low — a third of their level in Europe and a quarter of that in Japan,” Yergin wrote recently.  “This is boosting energy-intensive manufacturing in the U.S., much to the dismay of competitors in both Europe and Asia.”

This fossil fuel euphoria has even surfaced in statements by President Obama.  For all his talk of climate change perils and the need to invest in renewables, he has also gloated over the jump in domestic energy production and promised to facilitate further increases.  “Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003,” he affirmed in March 2011.  “And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half of the liquid fuel we consumed.  So that was a good trend.  To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production.”

Money Pouring into Fossil Fuels

This burst of euphoria about fossil fuels and America’s energy future is guaranteed to have a disastrous impact on the planet.  In the long term, it will make Earth a hotter, far more extreme place to live by vastly increasing carbon emissions and diverting investment funds from renewables and green energy to new fossil fuel projects.  For all the excitement these endeavors may be generating, it hardly takes a genius to see that they mean ever more carbon dioxide heading into the atmosphere and an ever less hospitable planet.

The preference for fossil fuel investments is easy to spot in the industry’s trade journals, as well as in recent statistical data and anecdotal reports of all sorts.  According to the reliable International Energy Agency (IEA), private and public investment in fossil fuel projects over the next quarter century will outpace investment in renewable energy by a ratio of three to one.  In other words, for every dollar spent on new wind farms, solar arrays, and tidal power research, three dollars will go into the development of new oil fields, shale gas operations, and coal mines.

From industry sources it’s clear that big-money investors are rushing to take advantage of the current boom in unconventional energy output in the U.S. — the climate be damned.  “The dollars needed [to develop such projects] have never been larger,” commented Maynard Holt, co-president of Houston-based investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Company.  “But the money is truly out there.  The global energy capital river is flowing our way.”

In the either/or equation that seems to be our energy future, the capital river is rushing into the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, while it’s slowing to a trickle in the world of the true unconventionals — the energy sources that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere. This, indeed, was the conclusion reached by the IEA, which in 2012 warned that the seemingly inexorable growth in greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide is likely to eliminate all prospect of averting the worst effects of climate change.

Petro Machismo

The new energy euphoria is also fueling a growing sense that the American superpower, whose influence has recently seemed to be on the wane, may soon acquire fresh geopolitical clout through its mastery of the latest energy technologies.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” crowed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in an April address at Columbia University.  Increased domestic energy output, he explained, will help reduce U.S. vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price hikes.  “It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

A new elite consensus is forming around the strategic advantages of expanded oil and gas production.  In particular, this outlook holds that the U.S. is benefiting from substantially reduced oil imports from the Middle East by eliminating a dependency that has led to several disastrous interventions in that region and exposed the country to periodic disruptions in oil deliveries, starting with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.  “The shift in oil sources means the global supply system will become more resilient, our energy supplies will become more secure, and the nation will have more flexibility in dealing with crises,” Yergin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

This turnaround, he and other experts claim, is what allowed Washington to adopt a tougher stance with Tehran in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.  With the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so goes the argument, American leaders need not fear Iranian threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf to international markets.  “The substantial increase in oil production in the United States,” Donilon declared in April, is what allowed Washington to impose tough sanctions on Iranian oil “while minimizing the burdens on the rest of the world.”

A stance of what could be called petro machismo is growing in Washington, underlying such initiatives as the president’s widely ballyhooed policy announcement of a “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia (still largely words backed by only the most modest of actions) and efforts to constrain Russia’s international influence.

Ever since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency of that country, Moscow has sought to sway the behavior of its former Warsaw Pact allies and the former republics of the Soviet Union by exploiting its dominant energy role in the region.  It offered cheap natural gas to governments willing to follow its policy dictates, while threatening to cut off supplies to those that weren’t.  Now, some American strategists hope to reduce Russia’s clout by helping friendly nations like Poland and the Baltic states develop their own shale gas reserves and build LNG terminals.  These would allow them to import gas from “friendly” states, including the U.S. (once its LNG export capacities are expanded).  “If we can export some natural gas to Europe and to Japan and other Asian nations,” Karen Moreau suggested in February, “we strengthen our relationships and influence in those places — and perhaps reduce the influence of other producers such as Russia.”

The crucial issue is this: if American elites continue to believe that increased oil and gas production will provide the U.S. with a strategic advantage, Washington will be tempted to exercise a “stronger hand” when pursuing its “international security goals.”  The result will undoubtedly be heightened international friction and discord.

Is the Euphoria Justified?

There is no doubt that the present fossil fuel euphoria will lead in troubling directions, even if the rosy predictions of rising energy output are, in the long run, likely to prove both unreliable and unrealistic.  The petro machismo types make several interconnected claims:

* The world’s fossil fuel reserves are vast, especially when “unconventional” sources of fuel — Canadian tar sands, shale gas, and the like — are included.

* The utilization of advanced technologies, especially fracking, will permit the effective exploitation of a significant share of these untapped reserves (assuming that governments don’t restrict fracking and other controversial drilling activities).

* Fossil fuels will continue to supply an enormous share of global energy requirements for the foreseeable future, even given rising world temperatures, growing public opposition, and other challenges.

Each of these assertions is packed with unacknowledged questions and improbabilities that are impossible to explore thoroughly in an article of this length.  But here are some major areas of doubt.

To begin with, those virtually “boundless” untapped oil reserves have yet to be systematically explored, meaning that it’s impossible to know if they do, in fact, contain commercially significant reserves of oil and gas.  To offer an apt example, the U.S. Geological Survey, in one of the most widely cited estimates of untapped energy reserves, has reported that approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% percent of its natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle.  But this assessment is based on geological analyses of rock samples, not exploratory drilling.  Whether the area actually holds such large reserves will not be known until widespread drilling has occurred.  So far, initial Arctic drilling operations, like those off Greenland, have generally proved disappointing.

Similarly, the Energy Information Administration has reported that China possesses vast shale formations that could harbor substantial reserves of oil and gas.  According to a 2013 EIA survey, that country’s technically recoverable shale gas reserves are estimated at 1,275 trillion cubic feet, more than twice the figure for the United States.  Once again, however, the real extent of those reserves won’t be known without extensive drilling, which is only in its beginning stages.

To say, then, that global reserves are “boundless” is to disguise all the hypotheticals lurking within that description.  Reality may fall far short of industry claims.

The effectiveness of new technologies in exploiting such problematic reserves is also open to question.  True, fracking and other unconventional technologies have already substantially increased the production of hard-to-exploit fuels, including tar sands, shale gas, and deep-sea reserves.  Many experts predict that such gains are likely to be repeated in the future.  The EIA, for example, suggests that U.S. output of shale oil via fracking will jump by 221% over the next 15 years, and natural gas by 164%.  The big question, however, is whether these projected increases will actually come to fruition.  While early gains are likely, the odds are that future growth will come at a far slower pace.

As a start, the most lucrative U.S. shale formations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Texas have already experienced substantial exploration and many of the most attractive drilling sites (or “plays”) are now fully developed.  More fracking, no doubt, will release additional oil and gas, but the record shows that fossil-fuel output tends to decline once the earliest, most promising reservoirs are exploited.  In fact, notes energy analyst Art Berman, “several of the more mature shale gas plays are either in decline or appear to be approaching peak production.”

Doubts are also multiplying over the potential for exploiting shale reserves in other parts of the world.  Preliminary drilling suggests that many of the shale formations in Europe and China possess fewer hydrocarbons and will be harder to develop than those now being exploited in this country. In Poland, for example, efforts to extract domestic shale reserves have been stymied by disappointing drilling efforts and the subsequent departure of major foreign firms, including Exxon Mobil and Marathon Oil.

Finally, there is a crucial but difficult to assess factor in the future energy equation: the degree to which energy companies and energy states will run into resistance when exploiting ever more remote (and environmentally sensitive) resource zones.  No one yet knows how much energy industry efforts may be constrained by the growing opposition of local residents, scientists, environmentalists, and others who worry about the environmental degradation caused by unconventional energy extraction and the climate consequences of rising fossil fuel combustion.  Despite industry claims that fracking, tar sands production, and Arctic drilling can be performed without endangering local residents, harming the environment, or wrecking the planet, ever more people are coming to the opposite conclusion — and beginning to take steps to protect their perceived interests.

In New York State, for example, a fervent anti-fracking oppositional movement has prevented government officials from allowing such activities to begin in the rich Marcellus shale formation, one of the largest in the world.  Although Albany may, in time, allow limited fracking operations there, it is unlikely to permit large-scale drilling throughout the state.  Similarly, an impressive opposition in British Columbia to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, especially by the native peoples of the region, has put that project on indefinite hold.  And growing popular opposition to fracking in Europe is making itself felt across the region.  The European Parliament, for example, recently imposed tough environmental constraints on the practice.

As heat waves and extreme storm activity increase, so will concern over climate change and opposition to wholesale fossil fuel extraction.  The IEA warned of this possibility in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook.  Shale gas and other unconventional forms of natural gas are predicted to provide nearly half the net gain in world gas output over the next 25 years, the report noted.  “There are,” it added, “also concerns about the environmental impact of producing unconventional gas that, if not properly addressed, could halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks.”

Reaction to that IEA report last November was revealing.  Its release prompted a mini-wave of ecstatic commentary in the American media about its prediction that, thanks to the explosion in unconventional energy output, this country would soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer.  In fact, the fossil fuel craze can be said to have started with this claim.  None of the hundreds of articles and editorials written on the subject, however, bothered to discuss the caveats the report offered or its warnings of planetary catastrophe.

As is so often the case with mass delusions, those caught up in fossil fuel mania have not bothered to think through the grim realities involved.  While industry bigwigs may continue to remain on an energy high, the rest of us will not be so lucky.  The accelerated production and combustion of fossil fuels can have only one outcome: a severely imperiled planet.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left (Picador).  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Rebecca Solnit: The Age of Inhuman Scale

6:28 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Arctic melt pools

Rebecca Solnit on the unprecedented environmental devastation of the modern era.

It was the stuff of fantasy, of repeated failed expeditions and dreams that wouldn’t die. I’m talking about the Northwest Passage, that fabled route through Arctic waters around North America. Now, it’s reality. The first “bulk carrier,” a Danish commercial freighter with a load of coal, just traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Finland, cutting a week off its voyage, skipping the Panama Canal, and even, according to the Finnish steel maker Ruukki Metals, for whom the coal was intended, “reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings.”

When dreams come true, it’s time to celebrate, no? Only in this case, under the upbeat news of the immediate moment lies a far larger nightmare. Those expeditions from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries failed to find the Northwest Passage because Arctic sea ice made the voyage impossible. There simply was no passage. No longer. Thanks to global warming, the melting of ice — glaciers are losing an estimated 303 billion tons of the stuff annually worldwide — staggers the imagination. The Greenland ice shield is turning into runoff ever more rapidly, threatening significant sea level rise, and all of the melting in the cold north has, in turn, opened a previously nonexistent Northwest Passage, as well as a similar passage through Russia’s Arctic waters.

None of this would have happened, as the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in its latest report, if not for the way the burning of fossil fuels (like that coal the Nordic Orion took to Finland) has poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, we created that Arctic passage and made it commercially viable, thus ensuring that our world, the one we’ve known since the dawn of (human) time, will be ever less viable for our children and grandchildren. After all, the Arctic with its enormous reservoirs of fossil fuels can now begin to be opened up for exploitation like so much of the rest of the planet. And there can be no doubt about it: those previously unreachable reserves will be extracted and burned, putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere, and anyone who tries to stop that process, as Greenpeace protestors symbolically tried to do recently at an oil rig in Arctic Russia, will be dealt with firmly as “pirates” or worse. That dream of history, of explorers from once upon a time, is now not just a reality, but part of a seemingly inexorable feedback loop of modern fossil-fuel production and planetary heating, another aspect of what Michael Klare has grimly termed the Third Carbon Age (rather than a new Age of Renewables).

If we don’t need a little perspective on ourselves and our world now, then when? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is here to offer us both that perspective and some hope for what we can do in the face of well-funded climate denialism and fossil-fuel company boosterism. Tom

Bigger Than That 
(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world. The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.

Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge.

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust

7:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer.  I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier.  Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day.  Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.

And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas.  Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.

Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon.  In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry.  For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115.  An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well.  So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.

In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today.  If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040.  If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink.  As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom

Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare

What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040?  Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs?  And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health?  If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable.  All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.  This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system.  Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.  Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies.  The IEO assumes otherwise.  It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today.  Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies.  It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments.  It is not visionary.  Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation.  Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%.  (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia.  Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering.  To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change.  Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.

To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels

Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook.  Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.  In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking.  Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia.  The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable.  Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling.  But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions. 

The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.  Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.

The Rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities.  But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.  Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations.  These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast.  Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%.  Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones.  In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced.  As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions

By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010.   The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons.  No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit.  Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.  Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.

New Geopolitical Tensions

Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments.  Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy.  While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.

One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status.  Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict.  Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.” 

At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.  Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies.  As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders.  The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.

The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this.  However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University.  “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines.  Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.

The World of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all.  But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.  Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated.  Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.

If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts.  Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how reliable is the IEO assessment?  Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason.  As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies.  This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates. 

Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight.  Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables.  Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place.  But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here. 

[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces.  The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Ariel Dorfman, Martin Luther King and the Two 9/11s

7:34 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Dorfman Cover

Ariel Dorfman’s most recent book

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the words pour out.  Ten years ago on the 40th anniversary, TomDispatch asked the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman to consider what Martin Luther King had meant to him in the struggle that followed the first 9/11, the brutal U.S.-backed military coup of September 11, 1973, against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.  Just two years after the second 9/11, Dorfman wrote a unique piece — or, at least, a piece from a unique perspective.  It was a moving evocation of King’s significance in the context of the two 9/11s (one of which North Americans, then and now, prefer to disappear from history).  A decade later, Dorfman, the author, most recently, of Feeding On Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, has had the urge to rewrite and update that piece, reconsidering that King moment in the context of our increasingly grim drone assassination and global surveillance moment.  Somehow, to my mind at least, good as it was then, it’s both more moving and more relevant now. Tom

A Time for Creative Suffering
Martin Luther King’s Words in a Surveillance World
By Ariel Dorfman

So much has changed since that hot day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A black family lives in the White House and official segregation is a thing of the past. Napalm no longer falls on the homes and people of Vietnam and the president of that country has just visited the United States in order to seek “a new relationship.”

A health-care law has been passed that guarantees medical services to many millions who, 50 years ago, were entirely outside the system. Gays were then hiding their sexuality everywhere — the Stonewall riots were six years away — and now the Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Only the year before, Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking ecological classic Silent Spring, then one solitary book.  Today, there is a vigorous movement in the land and across the Earth dedicated to stopping the extinction of our planet.

In 1963, nuclear destruction threatened our species every minute of the day and now, despite the proliferation of such weaponry to new nations, we do not feel that tomorrow is likely to bring 10,000 Hiroshimas raining down on humanity.

So much has changed — and yet so little.

The placards raised in last week’s commemorative march on Washington told exactly that story: calls for ending the drone wars in foreign lands; demands for jobs and equality; protests against mass incarceration, restrictions on the right to an abortion, cuts to education, assaults upon the workers of America, and the exploitation and persecution of immigrants; warnings about the state-by-state spread of voter suppression laws. And chants filling the air, rising above multiple images of Trayvon Martin, denouncing gun violence and clamoring for banks to be taxed. Challenges to us all to occupy every space available and return the country to the people.

Yes, so much has changed — and yet so little.

In my own life, as well.

Words for an Assassination Moment

I wasn’t able to attend last week’s march, but I certainly would have, if events of a personal nature hadn’t interfered. It was just a matter of getting in a car with my wife, Angélica, and driving four hours from our home in Durham, North Carolina.

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Bill McKibben: A Movement for a New Planet

6:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Earth from space

Is there hope for Planet Earth?

In his stunningly insightful book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell suggested that there were two world-changing inventions for the twentieth century, nuclear weapons and nonviolence, and described the way their histories and powers were intertwined. After all, Gandhi’s unarmed revolution against British colonialism in India succeeded just as nuclear weapons makers were claiming that ultimate weapon as the ultimate power on the planet.  Today, Schell’s former New Yorker colleague and friend Bill McKibben implies that the later twentieth and early twenty-first century may be noteworthy for two intertwined phenomena: computers and digital technology, which have decentralized power in some ways, while concentrating it in others, and the next phase in the development of nonviolent, direct-action, people-powered movements, the recent leaderless rebellions.

The 1960s now seems like a transitional age in which the new anti-authoritarianism now in ascendancy first dawned. In those years, members of cults (from Synanon and the Manson Family to the Moonies and the Symbionese Liberation Army) and others followed their leaders into madness and mayhem, even as some movements started to experiment with new forms of self-governance and to learn how to campaign without charismatic leaders.  They began trying to transform liberation, equality, and democracy into internal processes as well as goals. The problem wasn’t just the cults, but the way political campaigns of every sort would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the people who assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all and lead the rest of us (yeah, dudes, mostly).

As it turned out, for a rebellion against conventional authority, an unconventional version of authority wasn’t what was needed, but an alternative to authoritarianism altogether. Feminists and other radical democrats in many movements, notably the great antinuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered new anti-authoritarian techniques, still widely used and prominent in the Occupy movement, including consensus process, facilitators, and spokescouncils. These tools distributed power more equitably and rendered leaders of the old sort superfluous.

All through my activist life, I’ve seen police looking for leaders to negotiate with or suppress.  A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep — which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.

In this essay, Bill McKibben is essentially announcing that he might at last be pulling back from a grueling, exhausting, continuous tour of the world as the most charismatic, witty, and effective catalyst for what has become a global climate movement with an ever-strengthening U.S. component. That’s good news.  Because he understood more deeply than any of us how urgent and catastrophic our situation on this overheating planet of ours really is, he has pushed himself beyond human limits to address it.  If this piece of his is a sidelong announcement that we can expect more writing and less showing up in every corner of the Earth, then it’s two kinds of good news — for sustainable Bill and more of his magnificent writing. (In fact, there’s a new book about to appear that sounds kind of great.)

The work needs doing, but the duty is all of ours, not just his, even if he has already roused crowds about the issue in hundreds of places on nearly every continent, including Antarctica. His books, in case you’ve missed them, do a remarkable job of laying out how dire the problem of climate change is, but also how alluring and within our grasp the solutions to it are; both Deep Economy and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet are oddly hopeful about what we could do.

The beautiful thing about them, spelled out clearly in his latest post for TomDispatch, is that they are deeply anti-authoritarian in that the solutions they imagine involve the dispersal of power — both the literal power that runs our homes and vehicles and farms and factories, and the power that is politics (which are both consolidated in corporations like Chevron, as he highlights below). He spotlights just where what’s left of our hope resides: in a decentralized, grassroots, youth-oriented global climate movement, including the extraordinary young people doing the lion’s share of the work at 350.org.

What all this means is that the power is also yours: you are potentially a catalyst for this moment. Welcome aboard what might just be Earth, Version 2013. Rebecca Solnit

Movements Without Leaders 
What to Make of Change on an Overheating Planet 
By Bill McKibben

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King.  There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.

A Movement for a New Planet

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