We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

Eight weeks ago, I wrote about the delusions of “green capitalism,” that there is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. That led to a vigorous discussion, and I thank all of you who contributed to it.

This week, I’d like to return to this theme, in the form of discussing an interesting paper that I could then only quote briefly. The paper, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, packs a powerful argument into its 33 pages. The paper was published in issue No. 56 (March 2011) of Real-World Economics Review. (That a publication for non-orthodox practitioners needs to take such a name speaks volumes of the field as a whole.) The author’s basic theses are:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets the limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would force out of business the coal industry or any other because the result would be recession and mass unemployment. Without carbon or other “green” taxes, the “entire green capitalist project collapses.”
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” Such a thing is not possible in capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide to agree to this and nobody would promise jobs to those displaced; this could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labor to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness, and some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith wrote:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.” [page 119]

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ” [page 120]

A part of Moofushi's bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.  (Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

A part of Moofushi’s bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.
(Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they be made “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

More efficiency leads to move consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies wrung out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The “god that failed” paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.” [page 128]

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances traveled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them, Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production off all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.” [page 131]

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such as an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fueled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.” [page 133]

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behavior lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we can not shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing overconsumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on overconsumption for its day-to-day survival.” [pages 141-142]

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Richard Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

Staying in the environmental frying pan only gets us hotter

Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns.

Such a change will not come without costs — but the costs of doing nothing, of allowing global warming to precede is far greater. Therefore it is healthy to approach with a dose of skepticism the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Almost nothing!

Wahiba Sands, Oman (Photo by Andries Oudshoorn)

Wahiba Sands, Oman (Photo by Andries Oudshoorn)

The “Summary for Policymakers” supplement of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change report, a dense 33-page document, estimates that the annualized reduction in consumption growth would be 0.04 to 0.16 percent, with the median value of various models at 0.06 percent. This estimate is based on projected global annual growth of 1.6 to 3.0 percent per year during the full course of the 21st century. [page 15]

This estimated cost is what the IPCC believes is what would be required to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent to 450 parts per million, the level at which the IPCC believes total global warming would be 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, which in turn is seen as the maximum temperature rise to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth.

Let’s unpack those last two paragraphs. In sum, what the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, no more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. And, best of all, there need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth. We can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Alas, there are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

On the current path, you’ll need scuba gear to get around

Hundreds of climate scientists from around the world (collectively, the “IPCC Working Group III”) contributed to the report, but it does appear to have been watered down to some extent for political reasons. Indeed, the Mitigation 2014 web site’s front page says the Summary for Policymakers “has been approved line by line by member governments.” Since most of the world’s governments are reluctant to do very little more than talk about global warming, a note of caution is surely warranted.

Nonetheless, the summary does acknowledge that greenhouse-gas emissions accelerated during the 2000-2010 decade as compared to the 1970-2000 period. It declares, with “high confidence,” that half of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) have been discharged in the past 40 years. Worse, population and economic growth has outstripped gains in efficiency, thus greenhouse-gas emissions have increased despite increased efficiency in, and conservation of, energy usage. Continuing on this trajectory will have potentially catastrophic consequences, the summary says:

“Without additional efforts to reduce [greenhouse-gas] emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty) (high confidence).” [page 9]

Many of the world’s cities would be underwater, or well on their way to being underwater, should such heating occur. The temperature range of the preceding paragraph represents atmospheric concentrations of 750 to 1,300 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. To instead hold that concentration to 450 parts per million will require a monumental undertaking — the concentration is already 400 ppm. The IPCC thus concludes that the level of greenhouse-gas gases will actually rise above the 450 mark, then brought down to that level under its scenario for capping the concentration at 450 ppm in 2100.

To achieve a goal of 450 ppm in 2100 would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be “40 to 70 percent lower globally” in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100. How to achieve this? The report makes these recommendations:

  • Further rapid improvements of energy efficiency.
  • Reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation.
  • Increase the use of renewable energy technologies, which would require subsidies.
  • Increased use of nuclear energy.
  • The development of carbon dioxide capture and storage technology, in particular “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS) by the year 2050.

The last of these, in particular BECCS, is the key to the IPCC’s belief that techno-fixes are the way to save the day. But there is ample reason to throw cold water on this optimism.

Bioenergy likely to increase global warming

BECCS is defined as the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. One problem with BECCS is that the technology is not yet viable. Another is that the very idea that BECCS would lead to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide is a false premise.

A Biofuelwatch study prepared by Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting reports that there are significant costs associated with carbon-capture technologies. They write:

“High costs are associated with capturing … compressing and transporting [carbon] (including building new CO2 pipelines) and pumping it underground, and major technical challenges are associated with the majority of [carbon dioxide capture and storage] proposals. Storing CO2 below ground requires access to underground spaces, beneath both ocean and land areas. Current mapping of geological formations, with the expectation that these spaces will be accessed, is setting the stage for a new form of ‘underground’ land grab. Resistance has already begun with communities opposing the injection of CO2 into the ground beneath them.” [page 2]

The Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”! The authors write:

“Crucially, the promotion of [carbon dioxide capture and storage], including BECCS for climate change mitigation and geo-engineering, coincides with the oil industry’s fast-growing demand for cheap continuous supplies of CO2. … [F]looding oil reservoirs with CO2 allows for the recovery of a far higher proportion of oil than would be possible with conventional means.” [page 2]

In a separate report, Ms. Smolker, writing in Truthout, challenges the science behind assumptions that BECCS projects will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions:

“Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is ‘carbon neutral.’ Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur, Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. … [W]e know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand — just look at the current corn ethanol debacle — that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The problem here is far deeper than wishful thinking. Optimistic scenarios such as the IPCC report rest on assumptions that the world can reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, cut pollution and enjoy another century of consumer-fueled economic growth while business as usual goes on. But that is not possible.

Short-term scramble for survival trumps the long term

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances. Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business as usual is leading humanity. Richard Smith, in a tour de force paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” summed up the dilemma:

“[T]he problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption. … [Under] capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption. … There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those … whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed. … Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” [page 121, March 2011]

“Green” enterprises will not be granted an exemption. They, too, will be pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Dr. Smith writes:

“Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.” [page 142]

All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

A duty to shareholders, not humanity

The structural necessity of continual expansion is expressed in the mandate of corporations with stock traded on exchanges to maximize profits on behalf of their shareholders above all other considerations. There are well-meaning people who wag their fingers at “excesses” of corporate plunder and claim that the focus on shareholders is not necessary, but in reply one need only observe how swiftly financiers punish companies that fail to meet expectations and the frequency with which “enhancing shareholder value” is listed by corporations as their reason for existence.

None other than the high priest of orthodox economics, Milton Friedman, put it plainly in an interview with Joel Bakan recounted in the latter’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. John Browne, then the chief executive officer of BP, launched a public-relations offensive claiming that environmental stewardship would now be a primary goal for BP. Setting aside the nonsense of this, given BP’s dreadful record even by the standards of oil majors, Mr. Friedman had this to say, according to the author:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

Putting the environment first in a capitalist economy is not realistic, and doing so anyway would be very costly due to capitalist dynamics. The IPCC is taking a head-in-the-sand approach with its claim that reversing global warming will be nearly cost-free. The more honest approach would be to acknowledge the high cost of saving the planet — and that the cost of not doing so, of continuing business as usual, will be far greater.

The European Commission estimates the cost of global warming in Europe could reach four percent of gross domestic product and estimates that almost 350,000 people per year will be displaced by flooding by mid-century. The National Resources Defense Council estimated that the U.S. government spent about $100 billion cleaning up natural disasters in 2012 — one-sixth of the federal budget’s non-defense discretionary spending and three times what private insurers paid out. Fifty billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent is being thrown into the atmosphere yearly, and a U.S. government working group estimates each ton will cause $37 in future harms in today’s dollars.

And what would the cost be of abandoning many of the world’s cities if the ice caps melt? Of the world’s bread baskets turning into deserts? Of dead oceans? Such costs are not calculated by the IPCC.

The IPCC’s flawed approach does not derive from whatever political pressures have been exerted on it. The fundamental issue is that it can’t imagine a world without capitalism. It has much company in that. But a future in which we live in harmony with nature, rather than destroying nature for profit, can only be a very different world.

Keystone XL: State Department tells the environment to drop dead

The U.S. State Department appears to be cooking the books in its studies of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Could this be a sign that the Obama administration is preparing to approve a project that potentially could be the tipping point for uncontrollable global warming?

Given President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, and the State Department’s questionable assertion that the Alberta tar sands would be further developed without the pipeline, there is no time to lose. Tucked away on page 9 of State’s Keystone XL Pipeline final supplemental environmental impact statement executive summary, is this tidbit:

“The updated market analysis in this Supplemental EIS … concludes that the proposed Project is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas.”

Were that true, extraction of the Alberta tar sands would still constitute a monumental environmental disaster, but a series of studies indicates that canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline would put the brakes on further development.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

The most recent of these reports, issued on March 3 by Carbon Tracker International, finds that the cumulative amount of greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to the Keystone XL pipeline would be approximately equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 1,400 coal-fired power plants. The study states:

“Through 2050, cumulative lifecycle [greenhouse-gas] emissions attributed to ‘KXL-enabled production’ range from 4943 to 5315 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. … Cumulative ‘KXL-enabled’ incremental emissions through 2050 are … nearly equal to total U.S. CO₂ emissions in 2013.” [page 2]

The Carbon Tracker International study concludes that the models used in the State Department’s environmental impact statement “appear incompatible” with the goal of holding the eventual rise in global average temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius. Environmentalists and climate scientists widely predict runaway climate change if temperatures rise beyond that point.

The above figure of about five billion metric tons is a conservative estimate. A discussion in Scientific American says another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, and that all the oil that could be recovered today under current technology represents 22 billion tons of carbon. To put those figures in some perspective, the total amount of carbon thrown into the atmosphere by human activity in all history is 578 billion tons — and one trillion tons would bring the world to the tipping point, according to Oxford University scientists who maintain the Trillionthtonne.org web site.

Speeding up global warming

Oil Change International bluntly says it is “shocking” that the State Department ignored the target of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius “despite the fact that even [State’s] flawed models revealed that the carbon impact of the pipeline could equal as much as 5.7 million cars each year.” The group concludes:

“By avoiding any consideration of climate safety, the State Department report is blindingly clear on one point, if only by implication: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not compatible with a climate safe world.”

As it is, human activity is warming the world. The last month in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was February 1985 and the last year in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was 1976.

Tar-sands oil requires more energy and water than other sources, leaves behind more pollution, and is more corrosive to pipelines. Extracting it therefore generates more greenhouse gases than ordinary production.

A Scientific American article, “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?,” reports that the “Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product” and “the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day.”

The State Department is attempting to duck responsibility by claiming the tar sands would be developed without the pipeline, an assertion not necessarily shared by business proponents. A RBC Dominion Securities report says production would be “deferred” without Keystone XL. TD Bank, one of Canada’s largest, issued a report stating that no further oil expansion is possible without more pipelines. The report said:

“Canada’s oil industry is facing a serious challenge to its long-term growth. Current oil production in Western Canada coupled with the significant gains in US domestic production have led the industry to bump against capacity constraints in existing pipelines and refineries. Production growth can not occur unless some of the planned pipeline projects out of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin go ahead.” [page 1]

Economic benefits are misrepresented, too

So the pipeline would enable a major boost to tar-sands production — and global warming. It is not only the environmental impact that is misrepresented, however. Pipeline opponents believe that potential economic gains are greatly overstated by the U.S. government and TransCanada Corporation, the company behind the Keystone XL project.

The State Department’s final supplemental environmental impact statement makes big claims for the pipeline:

“During construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and approximately $2 billion in earnings throughout the United States. … Construction of the proposed Project would contribute approximately $3.4 billion to the U.S. GDP. This figure includes not only earnings by workers, but all other income earned by businesses and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services demanded by the proposed Project, such as profits, rent, interest, and dividends.” [pages 19-20]

TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute go further and claim that the project would create 119,000 (direct, indirect and induced) jobs. A study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute, however, throws cold water on these grandiose assertions. At least 50 percent of the steel manufactured for the pipeline would be made outside the U.S., the Cornell report said, and that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. The report said:

“[T]he job estimates put forward by TransCanada are unsubstantiated and the project will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but that the project could actually kill more jobs than it creates. … Job losses would be caused by additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change. Even one year of fuel price increases as a result of Keystone XL could cancel out some or all of the jobs created by the project.”

Those burdens will not be borne by TransCanada nor the oil companies, but they will get to keep the profits. Just the way the “market” likes it.

They frack because clear air and water aren’t profitable

The true costs of resource extraction are never borne by energy and mining companies because they can dump the costs onto society. Those engaged in fracking are not going to act any differently, and can’t be expected to act any differently.

Having government in their pockets means they do it because they can, but the reasons go well beyond that. Pleading for them to act responsibility is of no use as capitalism requires them to act in socially irresponsible ways. Companies with stock traded on exchanges are legally required to earn the biggest possible profit on behalf of their shareholders, regardless of any other considerations. The rigors of competition also mandate this: If a company doesn’t grow, its competitors will and put it out of business.

Photo by Marc St. Gil

Photo by Marc St. Gil

One route to increasing profits is to shed as much cost and liability as possible. Indeed, a company would be shirking its legally mandated fiduciary responsibility were it to accept its responsibilities. For an energy company, these are considerable. Massive oil spills, contamination of water, degradation of soil, destruction of forests, mountaintop removal (with the debris dumped into valley streams), greenhouse-gas emissions — the list is long. But although the profits from these problems accrue to the corporations responsible, the costs aren’t charged to their bottom lines. Citizens pay for this, in many ways.

Hydraulic fracturing — the natural gas extraction process commonly known as “fracking” — promises more of the same. Fracking may prove to be profitable to the energy companies doing it, but what about the cost of ruined water supplies, soil contamination and other problems sure to follow? What is the price of clean air and water?

It doesn’t count as pollution if we say it doesn’t

Fracking is a technique in which hydraulic fluids — a mixture of water, chemicals and sand — are forced into wells to create pressure that cracks the rocks, allowing the gas to escape and flow out of the wells. Although the energy industry claims this technique has been used “safely” for decades, today’s fracking, intended to extract natural gas that until now had been uneconomical to tap, is different than previous techniques. A Food & Water Watch report on fracking says:

“[T]his next generation of horizontal fracking into hard rock is significantly different from traditional vertical well fracking. It is far more powerful — and more dangerous — than drilling methods used in the past. … Economically releasing gas from these tighter hard rock deposits requires more force, new techniques and a potentially toxic brew of chemicals to access the gas. … [D]rillers inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals (often toxic ones) known as ‘slickwater’ fracking fluid to suspend the sand and prop open the fractures, as well as lubricants to speed the fluid into the well. In 2011, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are pumped into 35,000 fracking wells annually.” [citations omitted]

Although newly developed fracking techniques represent an intensification, they are largely exempt from oversight. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption, sometimes referred to as the “Halliburton loophole” and shepherded through Congress by on behalf of his former company by Dick Cheney during the Bush II/Cheney administration, amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to “exclude … the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.’’

Graphic by geologist Mike Norton

Graphic by geologist Mike Norton

The Halliburton loophole also changes the definition of a “pollutant” under the Clean Water Act so that, according to the text of the Energy Policy Act, “this term does not mean … water, gas, or other material which is injected into a well to facilitate production of oil or gas.”

Energy companies have gotten what they have paid for. A study by Common Cause reports that, from 2001 to 2011, companies engaged in fracking spent $726 million on lobbying and another $21 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate lobbying organization that writes “model bills” for state legislatures, has its hand in this process as well, Common Cause reports:

“Prominent financial backers of ALEC’s activities include the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries, owner of the largest network of natural gas-transmitting pipelines in the country.”

Health and environmental damage from fracking

The health costs of fracking are considerable. A report by Environment America details some of the costs of ongoing fracking operations and potential costs of proposed fracking. Among them:

  • Contamination of drinking water in Colorado and Pennsylvania has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate for a handful of homes.
  • If fracking were to degrade the New York City watershed with sediment or other pollution, construction of a filtration plant would cost approximately $6 billion.
  • The inhalation of dust kicked up from silica sand, which is used in fracking, causes long-term health problems, including lung cancer. Dust-induced occupational ailments, including silicosis, imposed $50 million in medical care costs in the United States in 2007.
  • Air pollution from gas drilling in Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale region imposed estimated public health costs of more than $10 million in 2008.

The environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper, in a report noting the threat of contamination from floods overwhelming wells — New York state’s Catskills mountains have been hit hard by a series of floods in recent years — said a range of serious illnesses could take root from fracking:

“Fracking wastewater not only contains the toxic and hazardous chemicals used in fracking fluid but also contains contaminants that it picks up from deep within the earth, most notably salty brine and radioactive materials. The documented health consequences of exposure to these toxins include increased rates of asthma, infertility, ADHD, autism, diabetes, thyroid disorders, brain disorders and many types of cancer.”

Then there are the environmental costs. Some of these, Environment America reports, are:

  • The clearance of forest land in Pennsylvania for fracking could lead to increased delivery of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, which already suffers from a vast nutrient-generated dead zone. The cost of reducing the same amount of pollution as could be generated by fracking would be approximately $1.5 million to $4 million per year.
  • Emissions of methane during well completion from each uncontrolled fracking well impose approximately $130,000 in social costs related to global warming.
  • The truck traffic needed to deliver water to a single fracking well causes as much damage to local roads as nearly 3.5 million car trips. Pennsylvania estimated in 2010 that $265 million would be needed to repair damaged roads in the Marcellus Shale region.
  • The five Pennsylvania counties with the heaviest Marcellus Shale drilling activity saw an 18.5 percent reduction in milk production between 2007 and 2010.

The Star-Telegram newspaper of Fort Worth, Texas, reported in 2012 that the Texas Department of Transportation estimates that repairing roads damaged by truck traffic related to oil and gas drilling would cost $2 billion, money it does not have.

But good luck getting the polluters to pay

Across the United States, federal and state requirements for financial guarantees to cover potential damages are inadequate to protect the public, according to Environment Texas. In most jurisdictions, drillers must provide guarantees to cover the cost of plugging a well but but require nothing toward any environmental damage. An Environment Texas report says:

“Bonding levels are much too low — only eight states require drillers to post bonds of $50,000 or more per well for plugging and reclamation at well depths commonly reached by fracking, despite documented instances in which fracking wells have cost $700,000 or more to plug. In addition, most states have “blanket bonding” options that further reduce the amount of financial assurance a driller must provide — in some cases to less than $100 per well.”

Although the full list of chemicals used by drillers is secret, those most commonly used are known. Dozens of them are listed on FracFocus, the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, organizations formed by state regulatory agencies. Hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol (a poison used as an antifreeze), petroleum distillate (which attack the respiratory and central nervous systems), naphthalene (causes liver and neurological damage) and ethanol (a gasoline additive) are among the chemicals commonly used in fracking.

The economics don’t make sense, either

A remarkable level of potential long-term damage — for what? Proponents of fracking argue that short-term financial gains and the release into the market of new natural gas supplies will both be beneficial. But Deborah Rogers, executive director of Energy Policy Forum, in testimony she gave to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said there is not necessarily a gusher of gas waiting to be tapped:

“Shale wells deplete alarmingly. Overall field declines are running at the troubling rate of 30%-50% per annum. It will take approximately 7,000 new wells every year at a staggering cost of about $42 billion simply to maintain a flat production profile. Moreover, every shale gas play in the U.S., with the exception of the Marcellus, has already peaked and is in decline. Some have gone through almost a complete life cycle in a matter of a mere five years or so, negating entirely the notion of plentiful supply for 30, 40 or even 50 years. Even the Marcellus is showing signs of late middle age.

Financially, shale gas companies are struggling. The popular notion that these companies intend to provide a cheap and abundant product out of the goodness of their hearts to effect a manufacturing renaissance is nonsensical. Companies are in business to make a profit, not provide cheap inputs to the detriment of their own bottom line.”

The economics of natural gas are not robust. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration reports that the July wholesale price of natural gas (the latest for which it has data) is US$5.54 per thousand cubic feet, while import and export prices are both less than $4 per thousand cubic feet. But the cost of producing gas via fracking is considerably higher. A commentary in The Financial Times says the full cost of finding, developing and operating shale gas wells, paying an average return on capital to investors, requires a spot gas price of $7.50 to $8 per thousand cubic foot.

In other words, to make fracking profitable, natural gas prices will have to rise significantly, thereby canceling the alleged consumer price benefits of producing more gas by any means available.

The good news is that resistance to fracking is steadily increasing. France and Bulgaria have national bans on fracking, grassroots protests are frequent occurrences in Britain, and Germany is considering a ban in certain regions under pressure from brewers. The Czech Republic in 2012 passed a temporary ban, while various local and regional bans are in place in Argentina, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States.

Opponents of fracking face an uphill swim because “market forces” are arrayed against them. Markets are nothing but the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers, and multi-national energy companies hungrily looking for new profits are certainly among them. To them, pollution, environmental destruction and health damage are “external” to their bottom line and they need not, and will not, consider them. Those costs are borne by those affected by their operations, while the profits accrue privately.

Such is the logic of capitalism — of allowing the “market” to decide ever more social questions. Fracking is a continuation of the taking of the commons, the process of privatizing nature and public spaces for private profit. As the proverb says, you can’t eat money when there is no more useable air and water but putting that idea into practice will require a more rational system.

It’s not science fiction anymore: Monsanto seeks to control world’s food

The ultimate monopoly would be control of the world’s food supply. Although not the only multi-national corporation attempting to achieve the ability to dictate what you eat, Monsanto Company appears the most determined.

wheatAlready infamous for toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Agent Orange and dioxin, Monsanto’s march toward control of the world’s food supply is focused on proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms. No corporation or corporate oligarchy possessing a food monopoly would be desirable, but Monsanto is a particularly frightening contender. So powerful is the company that a special law tailored for it was snuck into a congressional appropriations bill funding U.S. government operations.

The Farmer Assurance Provision — better known by its nickname, the “Monsanto Protection Act” — was quietly slipped into an appropriations bill in March by a Missouri senator, Roy Blunt. The appropriations bill had to be passed to avert a government shutdown, providing an opportunity to do a favor for the powerful. Slipping off-topic special measures into bills hundreds of pages long is routine in the U.S. Congress.

Efforts to remove the language from the bill have so far failed. The relevant language is this:

“Directs the Secretary [of Agriculture], if a determination of non-regulated status under the Plant Protection Act has been invalidated, to authorize movement, introduction, continued cultivation, or commercialization for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status.”

In plain language, what the above passage means is the U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to ignore any court order that would halt the planting of genetically engineered crops even if the department is still conducting a safety investigation, and rubber-stamp an okay. The group Food Democracy Now! summarized the implications of that requirement:

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment.”

The Monsanto Protection Act expires at the end of the government’s fiscal year, September 30, with the expiration of the appropriations bill of which it is a part, but the language could easily be included in next year’s appropriations bills. As outrageous as the special provision is, it is consistent with the basic methodology of public safety in the United States — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe.

Sell first, ask questions later

In other words, it’s not up the company selling a product to prove it is safe; it is up to others, after the fact, to prove that it is unsafe. This is the case with, for example, chemicals and pesticides. And it is the case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No corporation has more riding on GMOs than Monsanto. That is not merely because GMOs have steadily taken an increasing share of foods grown for animal and human consumption, but because of genetically engineered seeds. A report by the Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds puts the magnitude of this change in stark terms:

“The vast majority of the four major commodity crops in the U.S. are now genetically engineered. U.S. adoption of transgenic commodity crops has been rapid, in which [genetically engineered] varieties now make up the substantial majority: soybean (93 percent transgenic in 2010), cotton (88 percent), corn (86 percent), and canola (64 percent).” [page 5]

Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to a separate report by Food & Watch Watch. These seeds have been engineered to be resistant to insects or to withstand the application of herbicides. The report, “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile,” states:

“Monsanto not only markets its own patented seeds, but it uses licensing agreements with other companies and distributors to spread its traits throughout the seed supply. … The acreage on which Monsanto’s [genetically engineered] crop traits are grown has increased from a total of 3 million acres in 1996 to 282.3 million acres worldwide and 151.4 million acres in the United States in 2009. … Monsanto’s products constitute approximately 40 percent of all crop acres in the [U.S.]. …

“A lawyer working for DuPont, the next largest competitor in the seed business, said ‘a seed company can’t stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, so if they want to stay in that business, essentially they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do.’ ” [page 8]

DuPont is one of the world’s largest chemical corporations and a major competitor in many fields. If an enterprise as powerful as DuPont finds itself at the mercy of Monsanto, what chance does a family farmer have?

The reference to “Roundup Ready” in the quote above is a reference to a suite of Monsanto agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment.

Patents on life reverses precedent

As with the consolidation of seed companies, the rise of genetically engineered crops and the right to patent living organisms is a recent development. After decades of refusal by the U.S. Congress to allow patents on food-producing plants that re-produce via seeds, it passed a law in 1970 allowing patenting of “novel” varieties produced from seeds.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in 1980 and 2001 allowing living organisms, including plants, to be patented, opening the floodgates to current corporate practices. A frenzy of acquisition of seed companies and a rapid expansion of patents on seeds and plants ensued. The report by Center For Food Safety and Save Our Seeds summarizes what these changes have wrought:

“As a consequence, what was once a freely exchanged, renewable resource is now privatized and monopolized. Current judicial interpretations have allowed utility patents on products of nature, plants, and seeds, without exceptions for research and seed saving. This revolutionary change is contrary to centuries of traditional seed breeding based on collective community knowledge and established in the public domain and for the public good.” [page 5]

The ETC Group, in its report, “Who Owns Nature?,” also highlights the privatization of a commons:

“In the first half of the 20th century, seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. In the decades since, [biotechnology companies] have used intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply — a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating farmers’ rights. … In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.” [page 11]

Proprietary seeds now account for 82 percent of the world’s commercial seed market. Monsanto, according to the ETC Group, directly accounts 23 percent of the world’s seed sales by itself. Monsanto and the next two biggest seed companies, DuPont and Syngenta, sell almost half.

Once a farmer contracts with a giant seed company, the farmer is trapped. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Monsanto aggressively litigates against farmers to enforce this provision, dictates farming practices and requires its inspectors to be given access to all records and fields. The company has even sued neighboring farmers whose fields unwillingly became contaminated with Monsanto’s seeds.

Doubts raised on ‘benefits’ of GMOs

Nobody knows the full effects on the environment or human health of these chemicals and GMOs. A recent study published in the journal Entropy found that residues of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, are found in a variety of foods in the Western diet and in turn can cause cellular damage leading to several diseases, including gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. More than 800 scientists have signed a letter calling for a moratorium on all field trials of GMOs for at least five years, a ban on patents on life forms and declaring that genetically modified crops “offer no benefits to consumers for farmers.”

Genetically modified crops, of course, are carried along by winds and don’t stop at property boundaries. Last month, genetically modified wheat was discovered in the fields of a farmer in Oregon. The Guardian reports that the wheat has never been approved for human consumption and is a variety developed by Monsanto in an experiment that ended a decade ago. Several Asian countries responded to this news by banning imports of U.S. wheat and the European Union advised wheat shipped from the U.S. be tested.

Hoping to expand its reach, Monsanto (and three other corporations) are attempting to corner the market in maize in Mexico, the staple crop’s birthplace. The companies have applied to plant genetically modified maize on more than two million hectares in two Mexican states. Already, according to a report in Truthout, farmers near Mexico City have found their crops contaminated with genetically modified maize.

Sixty-four countries currently require GMO labeling, but such labeling in the United States is bitterly fought by Monsanto and other giant agribusinesses. The companies argue that GMOs are safe, but if they are so proud of their products, why do they resist them being put on a label for consumers to see? Nor does the revolving door between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto inspire confidence.

Corporate lawyers and others who have done work for Monsanto, for instance, subsequently moved to the FDA, where they gave approval for Monsanto products. Although corporate executives going to work for the U.S. government agencies that regulate them, then going back to their companies, is a common practice, Monsanto has sent an extraordinary number of executives to government posts.

Nonetheless, this specter shouldn’t be looked at overly simplistically as Monsanto being an evil company. It and its competitors are acting in the way that capitalist competition mandates they act — grow or die is the ever present imperative. All industries move toward monopolization (a handful of companies dominating an industry, not necessarily a “pure” monopoly of one); corporations grow to such massive size that they can dominate their societies; and the surviving corporations convert ever more human activity or traditionally public spheres into their private profit centers. This is the natural result of market competition and allowing “markets” to determine social outcomes.

Monsanto happens to be the company that is most ruthless at navigating and further developing these ongoing systemic trends, just as Wal-Mart is the company that is the leader among retailers forcing the moving of production to the lowest-wage countries, squeezing suppliers and exploiting workforces. That does not mean that we should be content to allow Monsanto to grab control of the world’s food supply or make life itself a commodity. Quite the contrary. The specter of any enterprise gaining a monopoly over food is too frightening to contemplate, never mind an enterprise so dedicated to squashing anybody who gets in its way.

The idea of Monsanto (or any other corporation or bloc of corporations) wresting control of the world’s food supply sounds like a bad science fiction movie or a crazy nightmare. But modern capitalism is heading toward that previously unthinkable place. The time is to organize is now, for we never have as much time as we think we do.

Global-warming debates shouldn’t exclude role of livestock

The struggle to halt global warming ordinarily focuses on fossil fuel consumption and use, currently exemplified by the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be foolish to disregard that, but what if the rapidly expanding livestock industry has been overlooked as a major contributor to global warming?

Since I last wrote about global warming, I have had my attention drawn to a paper published in World Watch that provides a strong argument that animal agriculture is significantly undercounted as a contributor to global warming. What makes this study interesting is that, in contrast to unsupported claims about methane sometimes made by vegan and animal-rights activists, it grounds its arguments squarely on carbon dioxide.

The World Watch paper, authored by environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, concludes that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, and provocatively advocates substituting meat and dairy products with analogs as the fastest way to avoid the planet reaching a climatic tipping point. The paper argues that there is not enough time, nor sufficient political will, to make necessary changes in energy and transportation before irreversible climate changes are upon us.

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

The sources, and thus the solutions, to global warming constitute a legitimate debate. I am under no illusions that I will be settling anything here. But although the ideas under discussion are far from settled, they are scientifically grounded and merit strong consideration. And what if this paper is correct? We do ourselves no favors by dismissing it.

The starting point for the World Watch paper is the authors’ critique of a lengthy report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists for its attribution of livestock as responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Interestingly, the paper criticizes the FAO report for badly underestimating animal agriculture’s contribution.

Livestock do exhale and trees are cut down

The World Watch paper cites seven sources that are undercounted by the FAO, the most significant of which are overlooked respiration by livestock, forest destroyed to create grazing lands, undercounted methane and an significant undercounting of the number of livestock. Adding up undercounted and additional misallocated sources, greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to livestock total about 32,500 million metric tons as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. The FAO report’s estimate is about 7,500 million metric tons.

Livestock respiration is the single biggest source undercounted, contributing 13.7 percent of the global total of greenhouse-gas emissions, itself comparable to the FAO estimate of all livestock-related emissions. Professors Goodland and Anhang wrote in World Watch that the FAO report incorrectly considered livestock respiration to be not a contributor to, or possibly a net subtraction from, global warming because it viewed respiration as part of a biological cycle. They wrote:

“[L]ivestock (like automobiles) are a human intervention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has been never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in pre-industrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon-absorption system.)”

Moreover, chopping down forests removes carbon sinks, leaving more carbon dioxide to remain in the air and release the carbon that had been stored. Often this is not accounted for in determining greenhouse-gas sources. Estimates of the number of livestock range up to 70 billion and that takes a lot of space — the livestock advocacy organization International Livestock Research Institute estimates that 45 percent of the world’s land surface is dedicated to the industry.

Surprisingly, the FAO report so often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists concludes by calling for intensified factory farming! Because this is buried on page 236, it is understandable that few are aware of that. The FAO report sees the current heavy consumption of meat as a given:

“If the projected future demand for livestock products is to be met, it is hard to see an alternative to intensification of livestock production. Indeed, the process of intensification must be accelerated if the use of additional land, water and other resources is to be avoided. The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be to reduce land requirements for livestock production, including the implicit water, nutrients and other resources represented by land. This involves the intensification of the most productive arable and grassland used to produce feed or pasture; and the retirement of marginally used land where this is socially acceptable and where other uses of such land, such as for environmental purposes, are in demand.”

The practical effect of concentrating livestock production in smaller areas at current levels would be more inhumane factory farming. That is no solution, from an environmental or moral standpoint.

Can consumers induce market changes?

Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, regardless of whether we accept that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of greenhouse gases. A solution to global warming must include addressing this aspect of the problem. The World Watch paper proposes three “market incentives” to tackle the problem:

  • Because food companies already suffer from global warming-amplified weather disruptions, it is in their interest to act to slow down global warming.
  • Because rising petroleum prices and terminal decline in petroleum production will have potentially catastrophic effects on livestock production, food companies can be ahead of the competition by replacing livestock products with alternatives sooner.
  • Food companies can produce and market soy- and seitan-based alternatives to a wide variety of traditional meat and dairy products.

The authors estimate that if 25 percent of current livestock products were replaced with alternatives by 2017, a minimum of 12.5 percent reduction in global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions would be achieved, roughly equaling the goal of international climate treaties. The authors note that meat alternatives taste good and are often healthier — to that I have no argument as it dovetails my personal experience. But, in essence, the authors conceive this as a marketing solution, both to induce consumers to switch from meat-based diets and as “investment opportunities” for food companies that promote themselves as helping to slow global warming. They wrote:

“By replacing livestock products with analogs, consumers can take a single powerful action collectively to mitigate most [greenhouse gases] worldwide. Labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge.”

I fear this is slipping too close to an “individual” solution rather than a “systemic” solution. Although these ideas seek to bring change to industry, ultimately it is based on individuals changing their individual behavior. And it is based on “market solutions,” although it is unconstrained markets that have allowed the livestock, energy and other industries to grow powerful enough to run roughshod over the environment and be indifferent to the climatic damage to which they are major contributors.

Environmental damage is an external cost for corporations in the present-day capitalist system — that is, the costs of environmental destruction is borne by society, not by the company inflicting the damage — and until that externality changes, market solutions based on changes in consumer patterns and awareness can only go so far.

In answer to this, it is argued that greenhouse-gas emission taxes could be imposed to accelerate a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and promote reforestation. An additional argument is that large-scale livestock die-offs are occurring more frequently and that global warming may cause such declines in livestock population that reductions in meat and dairy consumption may become involuntary.

Professors Goodland and Anhang in their paper acknowledge that reductions in energy and transportation are desirable but that bringing about changes in the livestock industry is the fastest way to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases before we reach the climatic tipping point. Their paper concludes with a declaration that the “case for change” is not only a public-policy or ethical case, but “also a business case.”

Given the short-term mentality of modern business, driven by uncontrolled market forces, it will be difficult for business leaders to come to such understandings; indeed, agribusiness and energy corporations are the most energetic in denying the existence of global warming, even as the weather grows ever more erratic. That 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate warming is human-caused, while only 45 percent of the general public does so, is a testament to the power of entrenched industrial interests and the bottomlessly funded corporate misinformation industry. Activities remaining at the individual level are powerless against this power.

A permanent long-term solution requires a transformation in economic systems, not tinkering with consumption patterns. Yet time is not a luxury we possess. There is no alternative to tackling global warming and the enormous danger that hangs over humanity today, and the solutions suggested by Professors Goodland and Anhang provide tangible objectives, in addition to the no less difficult tasks environmentalists face in confronting the energy and transportation industries.

We ignore concrete ideas at our peril. And what if animal agriculture does account for half of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions? There is too much at stake to ignore any aspect of the problem.

Global-warming objectivity is debating “why,” not “if”

A classic example of so-called “objectivity” functioning as a mask for ideological obfuscation is the “debate” over global warming. The form over which the corporate mass media presents the issue is as if there is a question of whether Earth’s climate is changing, presenting humanity with grave challenges.

A foolish “debate,” as climate scientists are nearly unanimous in the reality of global warming, and the world’s temperatures are indisputably rising as gases that create a greenhouse effect continue to be pumped into the atmosphere. More than three decades have passed since the last year in which global temperatures were below average (1976) and each of the past twelve years ranks among the fourteen hottest years ever recorded. Droughts, severe heat waves and devastating storms are becoming more common, and Arctic Ocean ice coverage again reached an all-time low last summer.

There is no other explanation for this accelerating phenomenon other than increases in atmospheric gases that trap heat. And there is no other explanation for the sources of those accumulations other than human industrial and agricultural activities. Because oil and gas production and usage are the largest single source of human-caused greenhouse gases, companies involved in that industry have incentives to deny global warming, and the money to propagate their desired message.

Energy companies, automobile manufacturers and their lobbyists fund a variety of “research institutes” that pump out reports with pre-determined conclusions. At least two of their denialist institutes started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems. Excepting those news outlets with obvious Right-wing biases, what is often at work here is an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of many countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by lavishly funded corporate fronts that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

“Neutrality,” in any rational sense, shouldn’t mean a “balance” between reality and self-serving non-reality. A legitimate debate on global warming would center on which human activities have significant responsibility and at what point greenhouse gas emissions reach a tipping point where climate change would be beyond human ability to counter effectively.

The industry-or-livestock debate

Environmentalists and others concerned about the health of the world are in agreement that greenhouse gases are putting Earth at serious risk. The debate here concerns whether industrial activity or animal agriculture is the main culprit. Determining which is the bigger contributor to global warming partly requires determining what gases contribute most. This, too, as a byproduct of the industry/livestock debate, is itself a matter of debate.

Some groups focus on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because there is far more of it than other greenhouse gases. For example, 350.org derives it name from a consensus that humanity must reduce the level of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 392 ppm but still well above the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm. Similarly, the Oxford e-Research Centre’s Trillionth Tonne web site says that when humanity has pumped 1 trillion tons of carbon (cumulatively, for all history) into the atmosphere, runaway climate change will ensue; the web site’s calculator estimates that more than 566 billion tons have been emitted.

Both of these groups acknowledge the other greenhouse gases, but see carbon dioxide — and, thus, industrial activity — as the crucial factor. The Trillionth Tonne web site says:

“Other greenhouse gases also cause warming, while other forms of pollution cause cooling. So far, these effects very approximately cancel out, but this is unlikely to remain so. … Carbon dioxide emissions are the single most important factor in the future and, under all current scenarios, the net effect of other emissions is to add to the warming caused by carbon dioxide. So to limit total global warming caused by human activity to less than 2 °C, we clearly have to limit the warming caused by carbon dioxide to less than 2 °C.”

A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius above the long-term median is a more common way of expressing the climatic tipping point.

Some organizations see contributions from industrial activity and animal agriculture. The Skeptical Science web site maintained by an Australian scientist, for example, says:

“While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is over 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere. E.g., CO2 levels are 380 ppm while methane levels are 1.75ppm. Hence the amount of warming methane contributes is calculated at 28% of the warming CO2 contributes. … This is not to say methane can be ignored — reducing methane levels is definitely a goal to pursue.”

And then there are vegan and vegetarian activists who say that it is animal agriculture that is mostly responsible for greenhouse gases, and that changes in diet from meat consumption would mitigate the threat. The non-profit agency EarthSave, for example, says that focusing on carbon dioxide levels is a mistake:

“Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. … This is a serious miscalculation. … It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem. … The surprising result is that sources of CO2 emissions are having roughly zero effect on global temperatures in the near-term!”

Sorting out competing theories

We have a wide range of opinions. To sort it out, it is necessary to find data and make some calculations. Activists who zero in on animal agriculture as the problem say methane and other gases are the problem, not carbon dioxide. They frequently cite a United Nations report issued in 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” This is a detailed analysis that seeks to quantify the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and possible solutions to ameliorating the effects. The report says:

“The livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. … The sector emits 37 percent of [human-caused] methane. … It emits 65 percent of [human-caused] nitrous oxide, the great majority from manure.”

The methane and nitrous oxide that are pumped into the atmosphere matter, because those are much more effective greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful, according to internationally accepted standards. Those multiples are adjusted for the fact that CO2 is stable long term, while methane dissipates in an average of 12 years and nitrous oxide in 114 years. The United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes online the amount of the main greenhouse gases produced each year in the U.S., and the amounts generated by the various sources of those gases, calculated in millions of metric tons per carbon dioxide equivalent.

Using the agency’s 2010 figures to calculate the various amounts accountable to industrial activity and to animal agriculture (which are calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents, counting one methane ton as equivalent to 21 carbon dioxide tons and one nitrous oxide ton as 310 carbon dioxide tons), global-warming transmissions related to animal agriculture total three percent of industrial activity. (In making this calculation, I excluded emissions attributed to crop agriculture, natural causes and activities that contributed minuscule amounts.)

If these figures are in any way accurate, they demonstrate that industrial activity, in particular fossil fuel extraction and consumption, is overwhelmingly the main culprit. The Environmental Protection Agency report was prepared by professionals and scientists, not political-appointee higher-ups, so I see no reason to not regard its statistics as reliable. (Nor have I found any better or comparable data, which does not mean such data doesn’t exist.)

According to the report, fossil fuel consumption accounts for more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas systems are the largest contributor to methane emissions, with livestock and landfill waste also significant. Agricultural soil management accounts for about two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions (I did not count it for either side). Overall, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that, from U.S. sources, the total contribution of methane and nitrous oxide to global warming are 17 percent that of carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, animal agriculture is not fully accounted for in the above report. Some portion of fossil fuel use is attributable to animal agriculture and the carbon imbalance caused by destruction of forest to clear land for livestock production is far more acute in other parts of the world, among other issues. Another section of the United Nations report quoted earlier says:

“Livestock also affect the carbon balance of land used for pasture or feed crops, and thus indirectly contribute to releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The same happens when forest is cleared for pastures. … Some of the indirect effects are difficult to estimate, as land use related emissions vary widely, depending on biophysical factors as soil, vegetation and climate as well as on human practices.”

Those effects aren’t accounted for in the Environmental Protection Agency report. This is a debate that must continue; I am under no illusions that I have settled anything definitively. I should stress that the statistics are U.S. outputs for 2010, not global outputs, so the true planetary ratios likely vary. All sides quoted here agree that global warming is a dire problem that must be tackled now, as any reality-based analysis must do. Debating how to tackle global warming is immeasurably more productive than taking seriously tired arguments from self-interested deniers.

There is no single route to reversing global warming. Regardless of where the emphasis should be, Western consumerism is clearly unsustainable. The world’s people will not be using resources the way they now do in the not too distant future, whether changes are voluntary or imposed by the limits of nature. Endless growth on a finite planet can’t last forever.