August 06, 2007

[Part One] Political Economy of Global Warming

Towards the end of 2006, the frenzy of global warming seemed to be at an all time high. This was when Al Gore's movie was becoming ever popular, and campaigns to save the polar bears were growing on campuses across North America, and when the scientific community finally agreed unanimously that climate change was not just a figment of our imaginations. This media proliferation of doomsday scenarios was all fine and dandy in my opinion, because, one would hope, it might provoke action and change. But as the "solutions" to global warming were contemplated in parliament, it struck me that we were continually failing to see the link between our POLITICAL ECONOMIC STRUCTURE and our society's overconsumption of fossil fuels. So I wrote this two part diatribe on the Political Economy of Global Warming. (I also attached a photo of the latest craze: Hummer Limos, which in my opinion are a physical embodiment of our society's consumption disease)

A Political Economy of Global Warming

Part One: The Banality of Individualist Solutions

It’s Christmas Eve, 2006, and there is no snow to speak of. Pretty soon we will all be dreaming of the white Christmases we used to have – forever gone. The experts have commented in droves, and the facts are indisputable – the world is experiencing global warming. As former American Vice-President, Al Gore, makes painfully clear in his popular climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the average global temperature is increasing year by year. Hurricanes and typhoons are more plentiful and more deadly. Rains, hail, tornadoes, floods and heat waves are more erratic and more dangerous. The destruction of the Earth’s environment, it turns out, is the closest thing we’ve ever had to genuine threat of apocalypse (far more realistic a threat than the “Millennium glitch” of New Years 2000). Unfortunately, try as they might, the majority of Canadians will not be able to significantly contribute to climate change solutions - until it is far too late. There are a number of reasons why this is so, all of which demonstrate a severe problem with the way our neoliberal society overemphasizes individualism.

The sad truth is that most people in Canada stand to benefit – in the short run – from warmer temperatures. Let’s face it – unless you are an outdoor winter sports enthusiast (hockey doesn't count here - it's an indoor sport for the most part these days), warmer winters are not as loathsome as people lead on. Sure, the fact that this is going to be the warmest winter in recorded history is a scary thought, but only when we internalize the higher temperatures within the context of apocalyptic climate change. On a day-to-day basis though, warmer temperatures will have relatively little impact on the individual Canadian. Warmer winters will mean that more “snowbirds” will spend their winters here, that more time can be spent outside, that less driveways will have to be shoveled, that cars will actually start in the morning, and that hairdos won’t get mucked-up by wearing toques! No more senseless shivering, no more replacing your supply of mitts and scarves every fall. In other words, from an individual standpoint, the short-term benefits of climate change in Canada will translate into day-to-day apathy about this issue.

But that's just the surface of our problem. The irony is that as neoliberal policies promote the mantra of hyper-individualism in our society, the more everyday Canadians will contribute to carbon emissions, which will only exacerbate the problem of global warming in the long run. This has to do with the relative wealth of Canada within the world system. Canadians have gotten so used to buying their way out of discomfort. As climate change brings extreme weather patterns and disasters such as floods and heat-waves, most individuals will respond with their wallets. This, in turn, will likely contribute to further carbon emissions, because the production of goods is inextricably linked to energy use. A classic example is the typical Canadian summer heat wave: Canadians are so accustomed to turning on their personal air conditioners (which most people in the world can’t afford), that in the summer of 2003 electricity usage surged so high in Southeastern Ontario that a massive power outage swept across the entire region. The unfortunate event was highly indicative of the paradox of individualism: On a personal level, each individual felt the need to create their own bubble of cool weather, while the cumulative effect of these millions of personalized climates ultimately yielded the dysfunction of all air-conditioners. This is the individualist response to climate change in a nutshell.

It goes to show that the global warming problem is a one of overconsumption – relating in particular to an industrial sector completely reliant on fossil fuels. Thus we can not even begin to confront the global warming issue unless we curb our consumption in general. Here's another example of the "buying our way out of global warming paradox": A typical environmentally conscious "green" individual may very likely go out and buy a new hybrid vehicle, replacing an older gas guzzler, in order to "do their part" for climate change. But this individual usually fails to calculate the enormous amount of energy required to produce that new car (and consequently the amount of emissions, pollution and toxins that are being added to our planet for each new purchase). Unless that person plans to use the new hybrid vehicle A LOT (which will expend yet more energy), the net emissions will likely NOT be a reduction, but an increase in total emissions in comparison to just keeping the gas guzzler. Instead of buying new cars, we should be trying to consume less by using larger, public forms of transit (triple-checked for efficiency) that significantly reduce the net emissions per person. This is why we need a communitarian approach to climate change, not an individual consumerist one, since the problem affects all of humanity.

Unfortunately, even a nationally oriented response to climate change here in Canada is unlikely to yield successful results. This is because the same conundrum of individual self-interest that exists in the domestic setting is also prevalent in the world system of nation states. Again, while climate change will effect the entire world, it has been shown that global warming will be much more devastating in the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. This is why stories of floods and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis are growing and becoming increasingly deadly in the "Global South". Yet here in Canada (and the rest of the "Global North" for that matter), the number of warm months will only serve to extend our agricultural seasons and even allow new species of flora to thrive in our continent. Olive trees in Ontario are no longer a pipe dream. The impending desertification of the Earth will have horrific consequences for the tropical regions of the Earth, but not for Canada (at least not for another few decades). It's true that the summers here will also be warmer, and heat waves may yield potentially deathly hot temperatures, but these heat waves will likely only last a few days, and furthermore, Canadians historically don’t tend to care too much about heat waves because they have their personalized air conditioners to cool off (which as explained above, only adds to the problem).***

This brings us to the main reason why most Canadians won’t do anything about global warming: They are rich. They can buy their way out of nature’s wrath: for now. North Americans are relatively some of the richest people on the planet. They have cars and they have travel agents. They have air conditioners and they have furnaces. They have steady access to food and they have health care, and they have insurance. And if all else fails, they have powerful militaries to coerce other countries into giving them valuable resources. Let us put it this way: If they are too cold, they can use their money to make their private climate-spaces. If they are too warm, they can equally create or travel to colder spaces. If there are hurricanes, they can afford to get out of harms way days in advance. If there are tornadoes, they can hide in the bunkers that they can afford to build, and they can rebuild their houses if they get destroyed. If there are floods, they can escape, or move elsewhere. And they can always fall back on insurance claims. In other words, while rising sea levels will sink both the the Maldives and Manhattan, most Maldivians will end up living in refugee camps in India, while most Manhattanites can easily avoid the impending floods by moving to their cottages in New York state's interior.

If most Canadians can't do anything significant about global warming, then we are faced with two options. Either a) we accept our doomed fate and seize the day while we still can, or b) we force Canadians to stop contributing to global warming, NOW. Some readers may be of the inclination that we just seize the day and prepare for the impending weather chaos. Others, like myself, feel the only responsible option is to act now, and to stop this cycle before it reaches the threshold of no return. But it won’t be easy. We can all watch Al Gore’s film and sit around depressed for a few days, we can forward the dismal facts to others and remind people to stop idling their cars, we can start riding our bikes or taking the bus and leaving the car at home a little more; We can even take Al Gore’s advice and use new energy-efficient lightbulbs; we can re-use and recycle, and try to take the train instead of short haul flights. Yet while we should do all these things, the fact is that they really won’t make enough of a difference.

The REAL inconvenient truth about climate change is that our well-meaning individuals are failing to see the heart of the problem: Our political economic structure. Again, the real nemesis is basic way we have organized our economy to completely rely on using our own personal wealth to satiate our every personal desire. What we really need is a new social understanding, new laws, new property relations and modes of production that are less focussed on individual consumption and economic growth. This kind of talk makes stock brokers and their political cronies very nervous. It makes them feel threatened and they start to lash back at the public with corporate tax cuts and investment incentives and the securitization of our state to protect the interests and property of the economic elite. But we as a public have no choice but to call for change, massive revolutionary changes to the political and economic structure of our society. We are already one step closer to this, given our societal understanding of the threat of climate change.

Finally, if I may end with a quick caveat, I use the term "rich Canadians" in an accusatory tone, because, as a white middle-class male with Canadian and American citizenship, I am one of them. As a member of this community I feel it is my responsibility to put forth an argument for change, as WE are the ones who are wreaking havoc on this planet. Let us unite together to stop this nonsense now.

*** I realize that many Canadians from the middle and lower classes don't have air conditioners and can't afford them. So my comment about Canadians "not caring about heat waves because they all have air conditioners" should be read as a sarcastic remark about individualist attitudes of those who only look out for themselves. Ironically, it is the poor in Canada who will be less able to cope with severe weather caused by climate change, rather than the rich folk who contribute the vast majority of emissions.

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