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.

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.

World Bank’s call for slowing global warming ignores own role

Global warming appears, or so it seems, to have begun to be taken more seriously this week as none other than the World Bank issued a report sounding the alarm bells. But let us not grow warm in our hearts just yet that corporate leaders have suddenly decided to yield to science and reality.

What we have here is a case of truly monumental hypocrisy. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.

The World Bank’s report, “Turn Down the Heat,” prepared for it by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, does incorporate the latest thinking of climate scientists. It paints a dire picture of a world in which the average temperature will increase by four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century without large-scale policies to reverse the trend. Among the effects of such a rise in temperatures, according to the report:

“[T]he inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

The World Bank report advocates that the century’s temperature rise be held to less than two degrees Celsius. The bank says that “more efficient and smarter use of energy and natural resources” can reduce the climate impact of development “without slowing poverty alleviation or economic growth.” Despite the bank’s neo-liberal agenda, a goal stated in these terms is consistent with Center-Left political parties around the world. Among the initiatives proposed by the report are:

“[P]utting the more than US$ 1 trillion of fossil fuel and other harmful subsidies to better use; introducing natural capital accounting into national accounts; expanding both public and private expenditures on green infrastructure able to withstand extreme weather and urban public transport systems designed to minimize carbon emission and maximize access to jobs and services; supporting carbon pricing and international and national emissions trading schemes; and increasing energy efficiency.”

In other words, the very economic system that has brought the world to the brink of a disaster that could arrive in the lifetimes of many people alive today is supposed to magically eliminate the problem, and without significant changes to consumption patterns. Alas, that is wishful thinking.

The very energy corporations that stand to most profit from continued high energy use and increasingly damaging resource-extraction techniques are the biggest sources of misinformation intended to deny the reality of global warming or to claim that climate change is “natural” and to do anything about it would wreck the economy.

Increase in extreme weather events

Those executives who peddle that ideology will have long ago lined their pockets with outsized profits and will have left this Earth by the time the environmental bill comes due. Last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coasts of New Jersey and New York, can’t be seen as anything other than a harbinger of what is coming; similar to the heat waves that destroyed crops in Russia and North America in 2010 and 2012, respectively, and the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice cap.

Of course, no single storm or single heat wave can be attributed to global warming. But global warming increases the odds of destructive, deadly weather events. One measure is the number of “extreme” weather events (top or bottom ten percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, and drought) as measured by the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through the end of October, 38 percent of the contiguous U.S. land mass had experienced at least one of these extreme weather events in 2012, the second-highest figure since records began to be kept in 1910. The average for the past century is 20 percent; all but four years since 1991 have exceeded this average.

Consistent with the initiatives proposed by the World Bank report, the Obama administration has advocated “green capitalism” to deal with global warming, although in practice (particularly during the just-concluded presidential election campaign) Barack Obama has offered little better than the standard head-in-the-sand ideas of ramping up oil and gas extraction, salted with chimera like “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” — two concepts that are the epitome of oxymoronic construction.

Coal throws more global-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source and the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl should be sufficient warnings against building more nuclear power plants even before we contemplate the impossibility of safely disposing nuclear waste.

Energy companies continue to sue to overturn regulations

Hydraulic fracturing of rock — or “fracking” — using jets of water and chemicals to force natural gas from underground is the latest offer from the world’s energy companies. Bitter battles across North America are raging over fracking and the pollution and destruction of water sources left in its wake. But lest we believe the latest World Bank report might induce a pause for thought, consider this: A U.S.-incorporated energy firm, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to overturn Québec’s regulations against fracking.

Lone Pine, which is actually headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, despite its formal incorporation in the U.S. tax-haven state of Delaware, is seeking $250 million in compensation, reports The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto. (More corporations are incorporated by far in Delaware than any other U.S. state because of its laws specially tailored to benefit corporate executives; the state even has a special court that only adjudicates business disputes.)

Technically, Lone Pine is suing the Canadian government because only the three national governments can be sued under NAFTA. The company is suing under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which authorizes corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. The Wall Street Journal reports that Québec “banned shale-gas exploration in parts of the Saint Lawrence Valley and revoked previously issued mining rights as it studied the environmental consequences.”

NAFTA allows a Canadian company to sue the Canadian government in a way it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do — an excellent deal for polluters.

Because the rules of NAFTA are heavily tilted in favor of business and against labor or environmental regulation, almost every case brought to a tribunal under NAFTA ends with either a hefty payout to the suing corporation or an overly generous settlement by governments seeking to avoid an even bigger payout, and a reversal of regulations passed by democratic governments. These decisions are handed down in secret tribunals in which many judges are attorneys who specialize in representing companies in disputes with governments.

The rules of NAFTA, draconian as they are, are merely the starting point for still harsher rules under the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by nine countries. Moreover, the TPP would require the use of a tribunal controlled by the World Bank, a tribunal already in common use under many existing trade agreements. Each time a tribunal overturns a regulation or protection, it becomes a precedent — that is, a new starting point from which further corporate control of national laws can be launched.

World Bank policies fuel global warming

Environmental laws are frequently the target of corporate assaults under free-trade rules, and the most frequent initiators of these assaults are energy and chemical corporations. Tribunals controlled by the World Bank or other institutions that promote corporate globalization ensure that environmental, labor and other legal protections are eviscerated, thereby accelerating the destructive activities that fuel global warming.

The World Bank has long imposed harsh austerity on countries around the world, in exchange for drowning those countries in debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and itself, which enforces those interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The bank also plays a direct role in global warming, having provided billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world in the past few years.

The World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. To issue a report on the likely future destruction to be wrought by global warming without acknowledging its own role and without calling for a fundamental change in the global economic system that it enforces — which is the root cause of a potentially runaway chain of environmental disasters — is beyond chutzpah.

Capitalism is incapable of reversing global warming. All of its incentives are for private profit without regard to public effect. The maximization of profit in the short term is the aim of a capitalist corporation (indeed, for one listed on a stock exchange, it is required by law to have no other purpose). Its incentive, then, is to shed costs whenever possible — not only to reduce wages, but to offload the costs of pollution and other public nuisances onto governments and, ultimately, taxpayers.

The rigors of competition require that ever bigger profits be made and expansion continually undertaken, under pain of going under if a competitor does this more successfully. Because of the necessity of endless growth, and the lack of need to take into account pollution and of the amount of carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere because those are not assigned to the corporate bottom line, every systemic incentive exists to extract and use more natural resources, regardless of long-term costs.

It is impossible for such a system to clean up its own mess. At best, it might, in the future, innovate new technologies for renewable energy, but not in a rational manner. The Chinese government has so over-invested in solar-energy equipment, for example, that it is estimated that capacity is now three times more than demand. This explains why U.S. solar-equipment companies are going out of business despite being granted significant government subsidies.

Capitalism has developed to the point where the very existence of humanity could be at stake in the future; where ever more inequality leads to deepening crises and an inability for humanity to deal logically with these crises, even ones that carry the potential for catastrophic destruction. What could be more unsustainable?

Hotter than the Dust Bowl, but not hot enough for denialists

By Pete Dolack

There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?

Wherever on the anti-science continuum lies the point we might wish to pinpoint, surely global-warming denialists have slid past, riding a toboggan down a slope so steep it threatens to become a cliff. And with the snow rapidly melting, there are many exposed rocks that could bring the ride to a sharp halt.

Unless you live in Seattle, Dublin or Edinburgh, this Northern Hemisphere summer has been difficult to ignore. The United States last month experienced its hottest month in recorded history, breaking the record set in July 1936 at the peak of the Dust Bowl, when farming became nearly impossible in the Great Plains because of heat and drought. As the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s still weigh heavily in the U.S. psyche, that is a particularly dramatic record.

A small sampling of trends creates a cumulative picture. Here are four:

  • The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987.
  • Nine of the ten hottest years have occurred since 2001.
  • June marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average.
  • For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low.

Global warming increases the likelihood of unusually severe heat waves and makes them more intense. No single hot day or event can necessarily be attributed definitively to global warming; at least that has been conventional thinking. But recently the climatologist James Hansen, who has been sounding the klaxon for years, was the lead author of a research paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has found, through statistical analysis, a tighter link.

There has been considerable push-back on this paper, but as Hansen has consistently been ahead of the curve on global warming, it is difficult to dismiss the research. The U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in its announcement of the paper:

“A new statistical analysis by NASA scientists has found that Earth’s land areas have become much more likely to experience an extreme summer heat wave than they were in the middle of the 20th century. … The statistics show that the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming. …

“Hansen and colleagues analyzed mean summer temperatures since 1951 and showed that the odds have increased in recent decades for what they define as ‘hot,’ ‘very hot’ and ‘extremely hot’ summers. … The researchers detailed how ‘extremely hot’ summers are becoming far more routine. ‘Extremely hot’ is defined as a mean summer temperature experienced by less than one percent of Earth’s land area between 1951 and 1980, the base period for this study. But since 2006, about 10 percent of land area across the Northern Hemisphere has experienced these temperatures each summer.”

Other studies have shown a correlation between increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures (methane is also a contributor); carbon dioxide and other pollutants are a direct result of industrial activity and correlate with the increase in it.

At times, one or another denialist will acknowledge rising temperatures but attempts to blame the Sun, either claiming that the Sun is becoming brighter (completely untrue) or connecting it to the sunspot cycle (there is no basis for this, either). Those who attempt to advocate the sunspot cycle rely on a period known as the “maunder minimum,” a Medieval period when the Sun stopped producing sunspots for several decades that coincides with a period of unusually cold weather in Europe.

But it is not known if that extraordinary cold period in Europe was replicated elsewhere. There seem to be no conclusive evidence of similar cold spells elsewhere; at most, a somewhat colder than normal series of winters in North America but not on the scale of what Europe experienced.

The next logical step is to compare the sunspot cycle (which has been reliably observed for centuries) with global temperatures. And we find no correlation whatsoever. During a normal 11-year cycle, sunspots dwindle to almost zero at the bottom of the cycle before rising to an active peak, but there is no matching temperature pattern. In fact, we just experienced an unusually lengthy period of solar inactivity, with the minimum period lasting about three years instead of the usual much briefer period.

Sunspot activity has remained well below normal since 2008. That has not seemed to have cooled the weather.

So what could have caused that long spell of cold winters in Europe? An analysis on Discover Magazine’s marvelous “Bad Astronomy” web pages concludes that during the depth of the cold spell, in the 1690s, there was an unusually intense period of volcanism (based on natural records of atmospheric sulfur) and a persistent dip in the jet stream that allowed Arctic air to pour into Europe. The jet stream’s behavior was due to its being weaker than normal, which the “Bad Astronomy” analysis said was due to a reduction in ozone that in turn resulted from weaker magnetic activity on the Sun.

The dearth of sunspot activity was arguably a contributing factor toward cold European winters, but “Bad Astronomy” cautions against making too much of the connection:

“Mind you — and this is fairly important — there’s evidence that the Little Ice Age began long before the Maunder Minimum. It may have actually been more like series of cold pulses that started centuries earlier. So any connection between the solar cycle and ice ages is pretty weak.”

A similar jet stream pattern caused unusually snowy winters in eastern North America during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 winters, but, perversely, that was due to global warming. As explained in a series of articles on the Weather Underground web site, dramatically warmer weather in the Arctic caused a decline in the difference of strength between the semi-permanent Icelandic low and Azores high, weakening the jet stream; a weakened jet stream becomes more variable and when it dips to the south persistently, cold air pours in as was the case during those snowy eastern North American winters.

We’re left with the only plausible explanation for global warming: human activity. So we should ask the obvious question: Who profits from the activity that causes global warming (i.e., pumps carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere) and who funds the anti-science global-warming denialist groups?

Surprise, surprise: They are the very same organizations, principally oil and gas companies.

Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world (which recorded the largest yearly profit of any corporation in history in 2008 at US$41 billion) is well established as the largest paymaster. Exxon Mobil is reported to have spent $16 million funding various denialist groups just from 1998 to 2005, according to a May 2012 article in the Monthly Review (and that is a small fraction of what it spends on lobbyists). Exxon, however, is far from unique — all major petroleum companies (including Koch Industries), all three U.S. automobile manufacturers and the infamous U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a relentless and powerful pressure group that regularly flexes its ample muscle, all contribute. At least two of their denialist “think tanks” started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems.

A favorite tactic is to claim, falsely, that global warming is a matter of controversy. It is not. Climatologists are virtually unanimous that global warming is real and caused by human activity (in contrast to a split among television weather reporters, who are not so trained). The only real controversy is how fast temperatures will rise during this century and what level of carbon dioxide concentration will trigger feedback loops that will cause more dramatic changes.

Groups that are paid propagandists for oil and gas companies and other industries concerned with short-term profits rather than long-term good flood the corporate mass media with misinformation, which is given equal time in yet another misguided application of the news media’s concept of “neutrality.” Nor does the news media distinguish between what is true, what is genuinely controversial and what is false, instead using the cover of “neutrality” to simply quote the various sides and allow readers, listeners and viewers to sort it out themselves. But we aren’t all experts in science.

There is no grand conspiracy at work here, nor any need for one. Although some obviously biased Right-wing news outlets consciously slant in favor of their corporate benefactors, more often there is nothing at work here other than an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of the U.S. and many other countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

A lack of scientific knowledge among the general public plays into these hands as well. All these groups need do — as leaked documents from a couple of them confirm — is to sew doubt among the public. The acquiescence of their representatives in the legislatures is all else that is needed. Keep those profits coming!

Ultimately, even energy-company executives won’t be able to avoid the effects of global warming. Blithe soundbites that crops will be grown further North ignore that whatever small benefit there may be from longer growing seasons in high latitudes in North America, for instance, will be more than countered by the Great Plains turning into a desert and the Midwest becoming more susceptible to drought and debilitating hot weather (as it has during the summer of 2012).

There are some wealthy executives who seem to believe they can build a high enough wall or a deep enough moat to keep the world’s troubles away from them, or who simply believe the misinformation pumped out by their paid propagandists. People who spend their lives frantically scrambling for ever bigger piles of money tend to possess very narrow personalities; many are ignorant of the world outside their business interests. (Which is why the concept of businessperson as natural political leader is nonsense.) Wrapped in a mantle of nationalism and riddled with fear-mongering, their propaganda appeals to those who refuse to believe anything that might contradict their own narrow worldview.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of scientific evidence overwhelmingly backing it.

As the saying goes, when there is no more clear air, water and food, you’ll find out you can’t eat money.