If you incentivize pollution, you incentive death

The cost of pollution in human lives is often abstract due to the long-term nature of such deaths. The cost, however, is quite concrete: A new report estimates that 4.1 million people died as a result of ambient air pollution in 2016. And that’s a conservative estimate.

Globally, only five causes of death took a higher toll. (High blood pressure and smoking were the leading causes.)

That sobering report was issued this month by teams of researchers at the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Their report, State of Global Air 2018, sought to analyze worldwide air pollution exposures and health impacts; data for 2016 is used because that is the most recent data available. The report states:

“Worldwide exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections in 2016. PM2.5 was responsible for a substantially larger number of attributable deaths than other more well-known risk factors (such as alcohol use, physical inactivity, or high sodium intake) and for an equivalent number of attributable deaths as high cholesterol and high body mass index. Ozone, another important component of outdoor air pollution, whose levels are on the rise around the world, contributed to 234,000 [additional] deaths from chronic lung disease.”

“PM2.5” refers to particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. Because particle pollution can travel deep into the lungs and cause or aggravate heart and lung diseases, there are numerous health hazards associated with it, including reduced lung function, development of respiratory diseases in children, aggravation of existing lung diseases and premature death of people with lung diseases, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overview that the Trump administration appears to not have gotten around to censoring. Sources include incomplete combustion, automobile emissions, dust and industrial activity.

Smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (photo by Hafiz Noor Shams)

This pollution is a global problem — the State of Global Air 2018 report notes that 95 percent of the world’s population lives in areas exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air, and almost 60% live in areas that do not meet even the WHO’s least-stringent air quality target. That widespread pollution adds up. The report states that “In 2016, long-term exposure to ambient PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths and to a loss of 106 million [disability-adjusted life-years], making PM 2.5 exposure responsible for 7.5% of all global deaths and 4.4% of all global DALYs.” (The term “DALY” refers to losses of healthy life and are calculated as the sum of the years of life lost from a premature death and the years lived with disability.)

Different countries have different source characteristics. In China, for example, industrial coal, transportation and residential biomass burning are the major sources of deaths attributable to air pollution, accounting for more than 400,000 deaths. In India, residential biomass burning is by far the single biggest culprit, responsible for an estimated 268,000 deaths. China has recently begun to slowly reverse an earlier rise in air-pollution deaths, but these remain on the increase in India. The report estimates that India could avoid up to 1.2 million deaths in 2050 through instituting more aggressive measures rather than simply keeping current practices in place.

Further costs of pollution

The actual global total of 4.1 million might actually be an under-estimate. The report says its calculation does not include causes of death and disability for which evidence for a causal relationship with exposure to ambient PM2.5 is growing, such as the development of asthma in children, low birth weight and pre-term birth, type 2 diabetes and neurological disorders.

By no means does the State of Global Air 2018 report exhaust the literature of the toll of pollution. A United Nations study, Towards a Pollution-Free Planet (an advanced copy of which was posted in December 2017), cites the World Health Organization estimate that 12.6 million people died from environmental causes in 2012, or almost one-quarter of the world’s deaths that year. The cost of pollution is enormous, not only in lives shortened but in economic costs. The UN study says:

“In 2013, the global welfare costs associated with air pollution were estimated at some $5.11 trillion. The welfare costs from mortality relating to outdoor air pollution were estimated at $3 trillion; for indoor air pollution the figure was $2 trillion. … With regard to human health, the welfare cost of mortality from unsafe water is considerable in many developing countries. In 2004, losses stemming from inadequate water and sanitation services in developing countries were estimated at $260 billion per year – the equivalent of 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) for some poor countries.”

Although deaths from pollution are much higher in developing countries, the total is significant in the advanced capitalist countries. Earlier studies, for example, estimated 200,000 premature deaths in the United States annually and 29,000 per year in Britain.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

What is often missed in these sorts of reports is the externalization of costs. Industrial activity by large corporations is responsible for a significant amount of deadly pollution — but those corporate entities don’t bear the costs of that pollution. Rather, the costs are externalized onto society, leaving the profits to be grabbed by a handful of executives and speculators while the rest of the world must absorb the costs.

These economic costs are not insignificant. One corporate report, not intended for the public’s eyes, estimates that external costs total US$7.3 trillion per year, with greenhouse-gas emissions accounting for more than one-third of that total. The report, “Natural Capital at Risk–The Top 100 Externalities of Business,” finds that coal-fired power in East Asia and North America alone account for $770 billion per year in damage from the impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution. These social costs exceeded the value of these sectors’ production value. Those two were among the top three sources of damages, along with South American cattle ranching, estimated to cost $350 billion.

It’s awful for us but great for profits

Getting closer to assessing responsibility, a separate United Nations report found that the world’s 3,000 biggest corporations cause $2.2 trillion of environmental damage in 2008. That total represents one-third of those corporations’ profits. This report appears never to have been released, although The Guardian was able to report briefly on its contents in February 2010. The true environmental cost, however, might have been yet higher, The Guardian reported:

“The biggest single impact on the $2.2tn estimate, accounting for more than half of the total, was emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Other major ‘costs’ were local air pollution such as particulates, and the damage caused by the over-use and pollution of freshwater.”

All the more absurd then, that fossil fuels are subsidized to enormous extents — $5.6 trillion per year. That, unfortunately, is not a misprint. That total comes from calculating not only the huge direct government subsidies and tax breaks provided to fossil-fuel companies, but the cost of environmental damages borne by the public rather than the corporations themselves. The subsidized cost of air pollution and global warming combined account for two-thirds of the $5.6 trillion total, according to the researchers who prepared the working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?.”

Although some of these reports, by implication, hint at the corporate responsibility for these massive costs, none dare to address the system that encourages such waste, instead offering boilerplate advice that humanity pollute less. The State of Global Air 2018 report discussed above, for example, concludes with a recommendation that “decision-makers” should be engaged in “identifying and taking action to control the major sources that contribute to them” and see to it that less coal is burned. The United Nations report Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, also discussed above, suggests a “framework for action” that is “founded on strong science to ensure that burdens and negative effects are not simply shifted from one area to another.”

There is nothing wrong with such suggestions, but if the source of the problem is never mentioned, how is a solution to be found? The massive environmental problems the Earth faces are not some deus ex machina or a natural variable such as ocean tides. They have concrete sources, rooted in the global economic system. Capitalism requires constant growth for which all incentives are for planned obsolescence, more growth, more industry and more pollution. That pollution in turn is mostly the result of activity by large corporations that are unaccountable and thus able to foist the costs of their activities onto society.

Once again, it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. The current global rate of consumption is 1.7 Earths for the provision of resources and the absorption of waste. It is impossible to indefinitely consume more than can be replenished, nor can rational and sustainable consumption and resource-use patterns be maintained in a system in which prices, taxation and incentives are so badly out of alignment with the environment. Our future ability to prosper can only be based on a steady-state economy that provides for need rather that private wealth accumulation, an impossibility under a system based on relentless competition.

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China can’t save capitalism from environmental destruction

A year ago at the World Economic Forum, China’s president, Xi Jinping, won plaudits from Davos elites for his commitment to open trade. Of course, because China’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, so-called “free trade” is in its interest, so President Xi’s stand was no surprise.

What has drawn less attention are President Xi’s statements on the environment, something the elites of capitalism find rather less convenient. This past October, at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, for example, he delivered this statement: “Man and nature form a community of life; we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it. Only by observing the laws of nature can mankind avoid costly blunders in its exploitation. Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us. This is a reality we have to face.” He set a goal of “restor[ing] the serenity, harmony, and beauty of nature” and elevated the environmental-protection agency to the level of a ministry.

Given China’s huge contribution to global warming and the heavy pollution it suffers from, such statements are welcome. But does this truly mean that China will now become a country that puts the environment first and, perhaps, save capitalism from its excesses? That is very unlikely, given Beijing’s integration into the world capitalist system and the dynamics of capitalism, in which all incentives are for more growth — a system that requires growth.

Air Pollution in Hong Kong (photo by Yym1997)

In addition to the basic laws of capitalism, an interesting paper by Richard Smith, an economic historian who frequently writes on the impossibility of “green capitalism,” argues that the nature of China’s system is a further barrier to any turn toward environmental primacy. In his paper, “China’s drivers and planetary ecological collapse,” Dr. Smith argues that despite the power that President Xi has seemingly gathered into his hands, changing the country’s economic incentives are far beyond his capability. Dr. Smith writes:

“Xi Jinping cannot lead the fight against global warming because he runs a political-economic system characterised by systemic growth drivers — the need to maximise growth beyond any market rationality, the need to maximise employment, and the need to maximise consumerism — which are, if anything, even more powerful and even more eco-suicidal than those of ‘normal’ capitalism in the West, but which Xi is powerless to alter. These drivers are responsible for China’s irrational ‘blind growth,’ ‘blind production’ and out-of-control pollution, what Xi himself describes as ‘meaningless development at the cost of the environment.’ ” [pages 4-5]

Three factors drive Chinese growth, Dr. Smith writes: import-substitution industrialization (the need to compete successfully as a national economy against the U.S. and other leading capitalist countries); employment generation (the main reason for Chinese authorities to not allow companies to go out of business); and consumerism. In his paper, he argues that, for all the market reforms introduced in recent decades, China’s state-owned enterprises don’t operate by the rules of the market. He writes:

“For all the market reforms since 1978, the government has not allowed a single major SOE to fail and go bankrupt, no matter how inefficient, no matter how indebted, because those industries serve a different purpose. They do not exist just to make money. They exist to fulfil the wishes of China’s Communist Party rulers, especially as they contribute to import substitution and national industrialisation.” [page 6]

Tens of millions laid off from state enterprises

Ensuring social stability is unarguably a goal of Chinese leaders, but Dr. Smith appears to under-estimate the extent of ordinary capitalist behavior of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs). A 2006 paper published by the China Labour Bulletin, “Swimming Against the Tide,” notes not only the continuing consolidation of SOEs, but the resulting mass loss of jobs resulting from those restructurings. The report says:

“In the late 1990s, however, the government massively intensified the restructuring of SOEs. This process disenfranchised and marginalized tens of millions of workers, while at the same time creating a new class of powerful capitalists with close and highly influential links to local government. Crucially, at this time, the central government seemed to abandon any thoughts of additional remedial measures and basically gave local government officials and SOE managers free rein to carve up the state’s assets between them.

From 1995 to 2002, SOEs cumulatively laid off as many as 30 million workers. … Meanwhile, SOE managers used their power and connections with local governments to work behind the scenes to secure enterprise assets at ridiculously low prices, elevating themselves from being mere managers to actual owners of the enterprise. According to one survey, over 20 percent of the private enterprises created in the first half of 2006 emerged from the restructuring of state-owned and collective enterprises.”

Beijing (photo by ahenobarbus)

Minqi Li, in his book, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, in examining the development of the Chinese economy, pulled no punches in describing the lack of concern for working people:

“Throughout the 1990s, most of the state and collective-owned enterprises were privatized. Tens of millions of workers were laid off. The urban working class was deprived of their remaining socialist rights. Moreover, the dismantling of the rural collective economy and basic public services had forced hundreds of millions of peasants into the cities where they became ‘migrant workers,’ that is, an enormous, cheap labor force that would work for transnational corporations and Chinese capitalists for the lowest possible wages under the most demanding conditions. The massive influx of foreign capital contributed to a huge export boom.” [pages 64-65]

By July 2017, SOEs accounted for just 16 per cent of China’s jobs and less than a third of industrial output, according to an HSBC report.

Capitalist dynamics are firmly in place in China’s economy, a development that will only intensify, given the Communist Party leadership switching the role of the market from “basic” to “decisive” in 2013 at a key Central Committee plenum, and the continuity with this course that was laid down by the party at the October 2017 party congress, again stressing the “decisive role” of the market.

Waste, planned obsolescence add to consumerism

Nonetheless, Dr. Smith is correct is noting that there is more state guidance of the economy than in ordinary capitalist economies. China is by far the biggest consumer of industrial raw materials, a function of the country’s frenzied pace of investment. Wastefulness extends to consumer items as well, he writes. Planned obsolescence is out of control. Because of the incentives to produce beyond any rational demand, unnecessary infrastructure, to the point of “ghost cities,” is built; buildings are demolished after a couple of decades; and large appliances, such as refrigerators, are designed to break down within only a few years to spur more consumption.

He argues that the introduction of market reforms has amplified, instead of reducing, tendencies in the old bureaucratic economy toward redundant investment. Provincial and local officials seek to build their own industrial bases, which discourages cooperation and efficiency. Although the Communist Party can remove millions of people to clear the path for construction projects, it can’t enforce dictates on the environment or excess development. There are too many interests, according to Dr. Smith:

“[M]inisterial officials, provincial governors, local officials, and SOE bosses mostly need not worry. Why is that? How is it that a highly centralised neo-totalitarian police state cannot force its own subordinate officials to obey its own orders, laws, rules, and regulations? This is a most interesting question. The answer, I suggest, is to be found in the collective nature of China’s ruling class. Beijing can’t systematically enforce its writ against resistance from below because it can’t systematically fire subordinates for insubordination: they’re not just employees, as in capitalism. They’re Communist Party members, members of the same ruling class as the leaders in Beijing.

If you’re head of a ministry or an SOE, especially a big ‘national champion’ SOE that Beijing wants to forge into a world-beating industrial competitor, then Beijing is willing to overlook your pollution. … China’s coal and oil ministries and its giant SOEs are very powerful and profitable, with millions of party bureaucrats and employees. Heads of large SOEs have ministerial rank. Of the 120 SOEs directly managed by the central government, fully fifty-four heads of those firms enjoy ministerial rank. They like things the way they are and they intend to keep them that way.” [page 16]

China’s de-centralized administration leaves each province striving to achieve as high a measure of self-sufficiency as possible. This includes energy, meaning that energy is produced for local consumption, and not necessarily in an economically rational manner:

“In 2015, China spent a record $102 billion on wind, solar, geothermal, and other low- or no-carbon renewable energy. Yet in 2016 wind turbines produced just 4 percent of China’s electricity generation, and solar barely reached 1 percent. By comparison, the US invested just $44 billion in 2015 but in 2016 wind produced 6.9 percent of its electric generation — nearly double China’s production with less than half the investment. The reason China produces so little renewable energy despite all the investment is that so much of its renewable energy is ‘curtailed’ (wasted). Nationally, the government concedes that about 21 percent of wind energy is curtailed, as much as 40 percent in some provinces and even more than 60 percent in Xinjiang (ironically, the province with the most installed wind power).” [page 22]

Enough housing for half the world’s population

That investment will continue at a breakneck pace is exemplified by news that when all the plans for new housing are added up, there will be enough housing in China for 3.4 billion people by 2030, which an article reporting this in Shanghaist dryly notes “seems a tad excessive.” The source of this overdevelopment, Shanghaist reports, is “more than 3,500 county-level new urban areas planned by local governments.”

Just one project, the Xiongan New Area, will cover an area three times the size of New York City, The Guardian reports. This planned city, near Beijing, set off a real estate frenzy so intense that it was said to create gridlock on roads leading to the area, and land prices were reported to have doubled in hours after the government announced its plans. And of course Chinese investment is not limited to within its borders. People’s Daily Online estimates that as of 2016, approximately 30,000 Chinese companies had invested $1.2 trillion in China’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative.

People’s Grand Hall in Chongqing (photo by Chen Hualin)

Private profit, and all the problems that revolve around that, has become the driving force of the Chinese economy. Timothy Kerswell and Jake Lin, in their recent Socialism and Democracy article, “Capitalism Denied with Chinese Characteristics,” noted that SOEs operate like like private firms and are controlled by “a handful of wealthy businessmen and executives, who mostly are the [party] princelings and their families.” By the early 21st century, they wrote:

“Urban China had gone from a highly protected ‘iron rice bowl’ system that guaranteed state workers’ permanent jobs, cradle-to-grave benefits — and a relatively high degree of equality — to a market-determined contract-based employment system at its core, and massive informal and unprotected sectors at its periphery.” [page 45]

Land speculation on the part of local governments is rapidly paving over farmlands, another contributor to global warming. Land sold to commercial interests can be 40 times higher than what is paid to farmers, Dr. Kerswell and Dr. Lin write:

“In many respects, urbanization in China can be understood as the process of local government driving farmers into buildings while grabbing their land. The pseudo-collective-ownership of rural land has also increasingly become a front for rural cadres’ rampant corruption and cronyism in pursuit of personal interest in the process of transferring use rights. From 2005, surveys have indicated a steady increase in the number of forced land requisitions, and about 4 million farmers were losing their land annually.” [page 39]

Incentives for more investment, more global warming

This is not a system that is going to give priority to the environment. And because so much of China’s sweatshop-based economy is built on assembling parts made elsewhere into final products — first the parts are shipped from around the world and then the final product is sent elsewhere as well — the transport inherent in these global production chains hugely contributes to pollution and global warming. So however much we might quibble with Dr. Smith’s characterization of SOEs, he is quite correct that all incentives are for China’s contribution to global warming to continue to increase and thus Beijing can not contribute to reversing global warming and future environmental collapse.

There is no substitute to consuming less. Dr. Smith concludes his paper with these lines:

“[T]he only way to effectively meet the climate emergency we face is with an emergency shutdown of useless, superfluous, unnecessary and harmful industrial production around the world, but most particularly in China and the United States, the biggest polluters. … If the Chinese don’t organise a rationally managed retrenchment and shutdown of unsustainable industries, Mother Nature is going to shut those industries down for them and in a much less pleasant manner. There’s no way around this very inconvenient truth: Making too much staff has to stop.” [page 27]

Not that Beijing should be asked to shoulder all blame. Western multi-national corporations willingly moved their production to China, greatly adding to global warming. Nor should Western capital’s role in facilitating Chinese projects be soft-pedaled. The World Bank provided loans for the Three Gorges Dam project that displaced 1.3 million people, and Canadian, French, German, Swiss, Swedish and Brazilian capital were also necessary to build the dam.

It’s hard to avoid the argument that the Western peoples were allowed to enjoy highly consumptive lifestyles, and it would be unfair to force lower living standards on those in the global East or South. That is a reasonable argument. But we only have one Earth, and humanity is consuming resources far beyond sustainability — at the rate of 1.6 Earths. If the entire world consumed at the rate that the U.S. does, we’d need four Earths. (Kuwait is tops in this category, with a ratio of 5.1 Earths, followed by Australia at 4.8.)

Such consumption is quite impossible in the long run. Those living in the advanced capitalist countries are going to have to consume much less. Yet that is impossible in a global economic system that requires growth, and will not provide jobs for those dependent on polluting industries. Industrializing the solar system, even if that proves possible, would only delay the inevitable. We can have a sustainable future with production geared toward human need, or we can continue to produce for private profit until we find out the hard way that you can’t eat money.

The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

Frequently lost in the arguments over financial costs and benefits when it comes to pollution is the cost to human health. Not only illness and respiratory problems but premature death. To put it bluntly: How many human lives should we exchange for corporate profit?

Two new studies by the World Health Organization should force us to confront these issues head on. This is no small matter — the two WHO studies estimate that polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year.

Spent shale from a Shale oil extraction process (photo by U.S. Argonne National Laboratory)

Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene all contribute to these 1.7 million annual deaths, accounting for more than one-quarter of all deaths of children age five or younger globally. A summary notes:

“[W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

One of the two reports, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, notes that most of humanity lives in environmentally stressed areas:

“92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies. Air pollution accounts for over 50% of the overall disease burden of pneumonia which is among the leading causes of global child mortality. Growing evidence suggests that air pollution adversely affects cognitive development in children and early exposures might induce development of chronic disease in adulthood.” [page 3]

These types of calculations on health and mortality are absent from debates on environmental regulations. And not only is the human toll missing from cost/benefit analyses, but this pollution is actually subsidized.

Trump administration’s assault on the environment

These World Health Organization reports were published in the same month that the Trump administration mounted a full-scale assault on the U.S. environment. Not only has the Trump administration proposed draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and signaled its intention to rescind air-pollution rules for motor vehicles scheduled to come into force between 2022 and 2025, it has issued an executive order requiring a “review [of] existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”

One of the targets of this order is the Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 2030, compared to 2005 emission rates. The standard, implemented by the Obama administration, was already seen as inadequate. The increased danger raised by President Donald Trump’s order was succinctly summed up by this headline on a Weather Underground article written by Jeff Masters: “Trump’s Executive Order Threatens to Wreck Earth as a Livable Planet for Humans.”

Threats don’t get much graver than that, do they?

Given the gigantic size of the United States economy and the pollution thrown into the atmosphere, this is of serious concern to the entire world. The World Resources Institute estimates that the U.S. accounts for almost 15 percent of Earth’s current greenhouse-gas emissions, second only to China’s 20 percent. Russia and the U.S. emit more than twice the global average on a per capita basis, as does Canada, which, due to its heavy reliance on fossil fuel extraction, has the world’s largest per-person greenhouse-gas footprint.

When greenhouse-gas emissions are calculated on a cumulative basis, then the responsibility of the global North comes into sharper focus: The United States has accounted for 27 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1850, and the countries of the European Union contributed another 25 percent.

Carbon dioxide is the biggest single contributor to global warming — which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had sought to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant — but methane is also a significant contributor. The EPA in 2016 issued an order requiring that owners and operators of oil and gas facilities provide data needed to help it determine how to best reduce methane and other harmful emissions. But the Trump administration has withdrawn the order to provide data.

Not everything can be reversed at the stroke a pen, however. The larger attack on the Clean Power Plan will likely take years to carry out, Dr. Masters wrote:

“The Clean Power Plan will be difficult to undo quickly. The plan was finalized by EPA in 2015, and is currently being reviewed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Under the new executive order, the Department of Justice will ask the court to suspend the case until the EPA can review and write a new version of the rule. (Before that happens, the court may still rule on the Plan as written, which will influence how the EPA can rewrite the rule.) Once the case is removed from the court, the EPA will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to take its place, a process that could take years, as the new rule will have to be justified in court, and would likely be challenged in court by environmental groups.”

Hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance

Nonetheless, a fightback is essential. Lives are literally at stake, in large numbers, if regulations safeguarding air quality are reversed. The EPA estimates that 160,000 premature deaths were prevented in 2010 by the Clean Air Act, and estimates that 230,000 lives will be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the act is left intact. The EPA said the benefits of the act “exceeds costs by a factor of more than 30 to one.” This study, at least for the moment, hasn’t been expunged from the Internet by the Trump administration.

A separate study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the United States alone. The two biggest contributors to that death toll, the MIT report found, are emissions from road transportation and power generation, which together account for just more than half the total. One of the study’s authors, MIT professor Steven Barrett, said a person who dies from an air pollution-related cause typically dies about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have.

The Canadian government estimates that a 10 percent reduction in particulate-matter and ozone levels would result in a net social welfare benefit for Canadians of more than $4 billion. A separate study estimates that the cost to Canadian health care from air pollution will total $250 billion by 2031 without significant reductions.

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

This exercise can be repeated around the world. A 2015 World Health Organization study estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution costs European economies as much as €1.2 trillion annually in deaths and diseases. This includes £54 billion and 29,000 deaths per year in Britain. For Australia, the cost from air pollution was estimated at $5.8 billion in 2010, a doubling in only five years.

Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

Only a drastic reduction in emissions can reverse these costs in human health and the mounting dangers of global warming.

We’ll have to go well beyond current plans

Cap-and-trade schemes, promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats, simply don’t work. The European Union system, for example, issued so many free certificates that the price of pollution is a small fraction of the target price, and attempts by environmentalists to reduce the number of certifications are consistently rebuffed. Moreover, cap-and-trade plans often allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level, allowing polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions elsewhere for real reductions locally.

Nor are renewable energy sources, as vital as they are to any rational future, a substitute for reducing energy usage. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming. Wind power and biomass, for example, have their own problems. The primary source of bioenergy is wood, which portends an increase in logging, counter to winning a struggle against global warming. Denmark and Britain are among the biggest users of biomass but must import wood to sustain that. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Production of rare earths are environmentally destructive; increasing their extraction means more pollution and toxic waste.

The argument here certainly isn’t that a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as practical isn’t necessary; of course such a switch needs to be made. But if reversing pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions is the goal, then renewables are at most a partial measure.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park in August 2015, during the hottest and driest summer in Pacific Northwest history. (photo by Pete Dolack)

The Paris Climate Summit ended with a surprise decision by the world’s governments to limit the rise of the global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution average instead of the previously intended limit of 2 degrees. The difficulty here, however, is that even if every national goal were met, the Earth’s temperature would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees by 2100 with more to come, and the Paris summit contains no mechanism to enforce these goals.

Adding to the difficulty of reducing fossil fuel usage sufficiently to meet the Paris summit’s goals (and which would also reduce the damage to human health) is the astounding total of subsidies for them. A 2015 study that attempted to quantify the size of these subsidies on a global basis estimated them at US$5.6 trillion! That includes not only direct government subsidies through tax breaks and other programs, but damage to the environment — these are not inconsequential as the costs of air pollution and global warming transferred to society account for nearly two-thirds of that total.

“Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) of rock to blast out natural gas alone accounts for billions of dollars of damages through contaminated water, health problems from the chemicals used in the process, air pollution, methane that contributes to global warming, disruption to agriculture and damage to roads from trucks. That the cost of those is transferred to society is another mammoth subsidy to the energy industry.

Overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity

The most recent estimate of planetary consumption is that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths per year. By 2030, at present rates of increase, we’ll be consuming two Earths — that is, twice the capacity of our planet to sustain.

Then there is the matter of global warming. Two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

What is the price of making Earth uninhabitable? No amount of strip-mining the Moon or the asteroid belt will reverse mass die-offs on Earth.

Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us really must be abandoned. Beyond that capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society, every incentive is for more production. Adding to that, capitalist economics discounts the future so much that future life is seen as nearly worthless. Thus, in this type of accounting, there is no cost for future pollution.

Authors Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster put this plainly in a thoughtful May 2009 article in Monthly Review. They wrote:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

As for the present day, capitalist enterprises aren’t going to guarantee jobs to workers displaced from energy-extraction industries, and if those workers don’t have any viable alternatives, it can’t be expected they will do anything other than join their bosses in fighting for their industry. Thus any rational plan to drastically shrink fossil fuel extraction has to be able to provide alternative jobs. Nor do the costs in human lives discussed above factor into capitalist economic calculations.

The drastic changes that are necessary to reverse the human and environmental tolls of pollution will come with a hefty price tag. But the cost of continuing business as usual is much higher — a price our descendants will pay if we don’t move to an economic system that values life rather than only profits.

Turning national parks into corporate profit centers

Given the corporatization of ever more commons, we may yet be visiting Golden Arches National Park or Disneyland Dinosaur National Monument. Even if the most extreme right-wing plans to auction off public lands don’t ever come to fruition, ongoing neglect can only promise creeping corporate colonization of the United States National Park system.

Commercialization is still relatively minimal in national parks, but worrying signs are there. Infrastructure improvements in Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, have been accomplished through funds raised by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which gets much of its funding through “business partners.” The list of businesses are mostly local and likely are motivated by a desire to maintain the park so as not to damage a tourism-dependent local economy. Such a motivation is not unreasonable, but if the underfunding of parks like Glacier gets more severe, the temptation of such private conservatories to reach out to bigger and more powerful national corporations is not likely to be avoided.

Giant corporations are likely to see “donations” to parks as a marketing ploy. Will we begin to see corporate logos in the parks? Outright corporate sponsorship of parks, in the manner of sports stadiums? Will the parks be expected to show a profit? This may sound outlandish, but we are talking about the United States here: A country in which governments ask for advertising dollars and borrow money rather than taxing corporations or the wealthy, and where pervasive corporate ideology insists that “private enterprise” runs everything better.

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The idea that a park should generate a profit actually already exists. In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park along the waterfront near downtown Brooklyn actually is expected to be profitable. This is not a joke: A high-rise luxury condominium building is being built inside the park to pay for its maintenance.

When the government runs something for the common good, it doesn’t need to generate a profit as a private enterprise does — privatization, or creeping “public-private partnerships,” inevitably make a good or service more expensive. And a favorite tactic of right-wing ideologues is to starve a government service of funds so it doesn’t work well, then demand it be taken over by a corporation (and usually sold at a fire-sale price).

Whatever the reasons may be, the neglect of national parks has gone on for so long that the backlog of deferred maintenance is now $11.5 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the entire fiscal year 2015 budget for the National Park Service is about $2.6 billion.

This neglect is bipartisan — the maintenance backlog reached $5 billion under Bill Clinton and ballooned to $9 billion under George W. Bush. The Bush II/Cheney administration instructed park superintendents to use language like “service-level adjustments” instead of “budget cutbacks” in public. The National Park Service budget suffered more cutbacks under Barack Obama — from 2010 to 2015, the National Park Service budget was cut 12 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, including a reduction of more than 60 percent to the construction budget.

White House offers crumbs, Congress takes them away

The Obama administration is proposing an increase in parks funding for fiscal year 2016, in deference to the service’s 100th anniversary; an increase that would put nothing more than a small dent in the maintenance deficit. Unfortunately, this increase includes more money for a “private-public partnership” challenge — more corporate money. But Congress shows no sign of agreeing even to this modest funding increase. The House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees park operations proposes to provide $680 million less than what the Obama administration asks and the Senate’s equivalent subcommittee proposes only $50 million more than the House.

So are we going to see corporate branding in our national parks to make up for such losses of funding? The signs are not good. In a commentary, Jim Hightower notes that opponents of public services want to convert the parks into “corporate cash cows.” He writes:

“First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2007, the multibillion-dollar colossus became a ‘Proud Partner’ with Park Service by donating a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the Park Service fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was allowed to veto a Park Service plan to ban sales of bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are that park’s biggest source of trash, but Coke owns Dasani, the top-selling water, so bye-bye, ban. Public outrage forced officials to reverse this crass move, but the Park Service’s integrity has yet to recover.”

Nor has The Coca-Cola Co. or other bottled-water companies such as Nestlé S.A. given up. On their behalf, Republicans have slipped an amendment into a budget bill that would prohibit the National Park Service from instituting any prohibitions on bottled water, such as plans to provide spigots to re-fill bottles in place of buying new bottles. (No surprise there, as Nestlé’s chairman believes water should be a market commodity rather than a human right.)

Corporate sponsorship, however, is not the worst of it. Demands to allow more resource extraction on public lands, extraction that is a windfall for energy companies, continue to be insistent. Oil and gas royalties charged by the U.S. government are among the world’s lowest, unchanged since 1920, and are lower than any U.S. state charges for extraction on state-owned lands. Already, extraction sometimes comes right up the borders of parks. The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, notes that fracking is occurring right outside Glacier National Park. In its report, “National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing,” the association wrote:

“[N]ational parks in relatively undeveloped regions have also seen fracking arrive at their doorstep: From Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and their associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery that is capable of forcing millions of gallons of pressurized fluids into energy deposits hiding thousands of feet beneath the earth. … Visitors heading east from Glacier National Park encounter road signs urging caution against the poisonous gases that fracking operations emit.”

Fracking and fires

Having just spent a week and a half visiting the park, I fortunately didn’t see that — perhaps a function of the smoky haze that filled the air for weeks there. (This smoke was a result of northwestern Montana being downwind from dozens of wildfires throughout the Northwest U.S., augmented by several local fires. There was no denial of global warming in my earshot; several Northwest cities have endured their hottest summer on record, and Kalispell, the nearest major town to Glacier, has suffered through its driest summer on record.)

The association reports that fracking wells near Grand Teton National Park increased from about 500 in 2008 to 2,000 by 2012. Unfortunately, perhaps not willing to upset its corporate benefactors or fearful of offending conservatives, the association shrinks from demanding an end to such incursions, instead offering liberalism of the weak-tea variety:

“National parks are managed under a precautionary principle designed to err on the conservative side of any potentially negative impacts. The same principle should be applied to fracking activities on lands adjacent to our national parks. At the National Parks Conservation Association, our goal is to prevent an unexamined embrace of an oil and gas extraction method that can have far-reaching consequences for America’s most cherished landscapes. Now is the time to investigate the impacts of fracking on America’s national parks.”

As fracking involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into wells to create pressure to crack rocks, and results in polluted water supplies, human health problems, disruptions to agriculture and ruined roads from massive truck traffic — damage that adds up to billions of dollars in costs — more studies really aren’t necessary. Are such costs really worth whatever royalties might be collected?

The Good Nature Travel blog gives these grim results from energy extraction near two Western parks:

“Wyoming’s boom in natural gas and oil development is causing habitat fragmentation and the blocking of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near Grand Teton National Park. Concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of the park have been linked with regional ozone problems, with pollution levels high enough to cause respiratory problems. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, oil rigs can be seen from several parts of the park, and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire national park system.”

No parks, no problem

There is a corporate solution to this problem: Get rid of the national parks! I wish this were only a joke, but a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for the selling off of other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. And lest we chalk that up to the energy industry’s disdain for the environment, such ideas are being floated at the state level. In Kentucky, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both advocate selling of some of Kentucky’s 49 state parks — this in a state that spends a paltry $83 million on maintaining those parks. In Wisconsin, a private contractor operates the reservation system for state parks, forcing fees there higher than neighboring states. Gannett Wisconsin Media reports that a $9.70 reservation fee is added to regular fees, and of that $9.70, all but $1 goes to the private company.

Perhaps as a concession to the neoliberal times, park advocates often present their arguments in terms of economic benefit rather than making the worthy case that parks are a social benefit and necessary havens for wildlife, and a human responsibility to the environment. We really shouldn’t need any further arguments. Nonetheless, the National Parks Conservation Association argues that every dollar invested in the National Park Service yields nearly 10 dollars in economic activity.

A study published in PLOS Biology goes further. The seven authors of the study, “Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas,” studied visitor records from more than 500 protected areas in 51 countries to determine the economic benefit of tourism to those areas. The authors conclude that $10 billion was spent maintaining these sites but more than $600 billion in economic activity was generated from them — a ratio of 60 dollars returned for each dollar spent.

Calculating such ratios is in reality more complicated, but the idea that parks generate income for local areas and thus — dare we say it? — are profitable in a broader surface economic calculation is hardly unreasonable. That has its own drawbacks, of course, as such areas are often overwhelmed by heavy traffic and environmental impact, associated costs that don’t appear to have been factored into the above calculations and which would therefore reduce those ratios. But, again, a civilized country ought to preserve wilderness and properly maintain parks as a value unto itself, outside any economic considerations.

That profit-and-loss calculations are made on something as basic to life as parks speaks volumes as to the brutality and mindless instrumentalism of capitalism.

Fossil fuel subsidies total trillions of dollars per year

Most of the cost of fossil fuels is hidden because environmental harms such as pollution and global warming are kept outside ordinary economic calculation. Energy companies externalize these costs (among others) — that is, they don’t pay them. The public does.

And we do, to a remarkable extent. When we think of corporate subsidies, we naturally think of taxes not paid, real estate giveaways and other ways of taking money from the public and shoveling it into corporate coffers. Then there are the environmental costs, something prominent if we are talking about fossil fuels. These, too, should be thought of as subsidies since these constitute costs paid by the public. A first attempt at seriously quantifying the magnitude of the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels leads to a conclusion that the total for 2014 was US$5.6 trillion, a total expected to be matched in 2015.

Yes, you read that correctly: 5.6 trillion dollars. As in 5.6 million million. Or, to put it another way, more than seven percent of gross world product.

A lot of money.

These calculations are, interestingly, the product of an International Monetary Fund working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” The paper, prepared by economists David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears and Baoping Shang, sought to provide a fuller accounting of the costs of the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels, and found that those costs greatly exceed direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. The authors foresee huge benefits should all fossil-fuel subsidies be eliminated. They write:

“Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO₂ emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).” [page 7]

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

As dramatic as the preceding paragraph is, the International Monetary Fund is not suddenly questioning capitalism. The paper carries the caveat that it is “research in progress” and does not represent the views of the IMF. Nor does the paper devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such astounding distortions, not to mention the hideous social effects of massive inequality and power imbalances. Nonetheless, it does present an implicit challenge to business as usual and helps conceptualize the massive costs of profligate energy usage. The paper lays out in plain language the environmental, fiscal, economic and social consequences of energy subsidies, stating that energy subsidies [page 5]:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Paying for air pollution and global warming

The biggest subsidized cost is air pollution, which the paper’s authors estimate accounts for 46 percent of fossil fuel subsidies. Global warming is the next biggest subsidy, at 22 percent, with corporate and consumer subsidies, foregone taxes and other items accounting for smaller amounts. From this calculation, the authors argue that local benefits from ending subsidies are high enough that doing so should be done in the absence of action in other countries. They write:

“An important point, therefore, is that most (over three-fourths) of the underpricing of energy is due to domestic distortions — pre-tax subsidies and domestic externalities — rather than to global distortions (climate change). The crucial implication of this is that energy pricing reform is largely in countries’ own domestic interest and therefore is beneficial even in the absence of globally coordinated action.” [page 21]

When the costs are broken down by forms of energy, it is no surprise that coal is the most subsidized form. Coal subsidies alone total almost four percent of global GDP, according to the paper, with “no country … impos[ing] meaningful taxes on coal use from an environmental perspective.” Petroleum is also heavily subsidized.

If we could at a stroke eliminate all forms of fossil fuel subsidies, the gains would be significant. The authors believe that global revenue gains would be $2.9 trillion for 2015, a total less than the current cost of subsidies because it accounts for a reduction in energy usage from higher prices and an assumption that some tax money would be used for emission-control technologies. The authors also calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So if so much good can come from rationalizing the fossil fuel industry, why does this sound like an impossible dream? Unfortunately, in real world of capitalism, there is very little to prevent corporations from externalizing their costs.

With increased corporate globalization, capital can pick up and move at will, inducing political office holders to hand out subsidies, waive taxes and refuse to enforce safety and environmental laws. They do this because the alternative is for corporations to move elsewhere in a never-ending search for the lowest wages and weakest regulations with an accompanying disappearance of jobs. And this globalization, fueled by “free trade” agreements that arise from relentless competition, aggravates global warming as components are shipped around the world for assembly into finished products that are shipped back, greatly adding to the environmental damage imposed by transportation.

Environment doesn’t count in orthodox economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Mainstream economists are trained in the promotion of private profits as the singular ‘bottom line’ of society, even at the expense of larger issues of human welfare and the environment. The market rules over all, even nature. For Milton Friedman the environment was not a problem since the answer was simple and straightforward. As he put it: ‘ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.’ ” [May 2009, page 4]

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capital and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

“[T]he ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics [is] a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future. …

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [pages 9-10]

Tinkering versus analyzing the structure

The International Monetary Fund paper does offer a brief discussion of social disruptions should fossil-fuel subsidies be removed, suggesting a need for “transitory” programs such as worker retraining and protection of vulnerable groups. [page 31] But their proposed program centers on environmental taxes as a way to align fossil fuels with their costs to make energy prices “efficient.” Certainly, polluters and causers of global warming should be required to absorb those costs. But given that market forces tilt overwhelmingly in favor of large polluters, the fact of massive imbalances in power, and that governments have handcuffed themselves in terms of confronting capital (a trend itself a product of market forces), it is unrealistic to believe such a program is currently politically feasible.

The disruptions to a capitalist economy with a forced large reduction in energy usage are also significant. It is not only that a capitalist economy can’t function without growing (and a growing economy uses more, not less, energy, especially because of ever more complex machinery and lengthening supply chains), but that a capitalist economy doesn’t offer millions of workers who lose their jobs new work in new industries. Every incentive under capitalism is for more energy usage; thus “the market” will object to dramatically higher energy prices, no matter how rational those higher prices.

Ultimately, the authors of the IMF paper are trapped in the same inability to imagine anything outside the present capitalist system, similar to those who claim that stopping global warming will be virtually cost-free. Their paper has done a necessary service by providing the first real quantification of the gigantic costs of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies they receive. Subsidies for renewable energy, in comparison, are minuscule. The massive subsidies for nuclear energy, which is a complete failure on any rational economic basis before we even get to the physical dangers, demonstrate that nuclear is no solution, either. These should also be eliminated.

The size of the social movement that would be necessary to eliminate all these subsidies would be enormous. Why should such a movement ask for mere reforms that fall well short of what is necessary, worthy as they would be. Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving “the market” to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Canada targets tar sands critics in new criminalization of dissent

Canada’s Harper régime has invented the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” and equating such a stance with terrorism. Evidently believing it is in danger of losing the fight against pipeline projects intended to speed up Alberta tar sands production, its response is to place environmentalists under surveillance.

A secret report prepared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country’s national police agency, claims that public activism against the problems caused by oil and gas extraction is a growing and violent threat to Canada’s national security. The report goes so far as to challenge the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. At least 97 percent of environmental scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming. The basis on which a police force can declare otherwise is surely not clear.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

Whether police officials truly believe they understand the global climate better than scientists who are expert in the field or are merely providing “intelligence” [sic] that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to hear, I will leave to others more familiar than I with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Regardless, the RCMP report, leaked to Greenpeace, makes for amusing reading. For example:

“[T]here is an apparent growing international anti-Canadian petroleum movement. In their literature, representatives of the movement claim climate change is now the most serious global environmental threat, and that climate change is a direct consequence of elevated anthropogenic greenhouse gases which, reportedly, are directly linked to the continued use of fossil fuels.” [page 5]

And whom might the police rely on for that statement? No, not those pesky scientists who refuse to say what is demanded of them by oil and gas companies and the right-wing governments who love them. Instead, the RCMP quotes the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, cites a poll commissioned by a foundation connected to the oil industry, and a columnist at the Toronto Sun, a hard-right tabloid in the Murdoch mold. The Sun columnist, as quoted in the police report, said “environmental radicals” seek “to undermine the development of Canada’s oilsands — an insignificant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Actual experts in the field would disagree. A Scientific America analysis that quotes several climate scientists reports that if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere. The total amount of carbon that has been thrown into atmosphere by humanity in all of history is estimated at 588 billion tons.

Are going to believe the police or your lying eyes?

The Globe and Mail of Toronto quoted a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman denying any intention of spying on peaceful protestors:

“There is no focus on environmental groups, but rather on the broader criminal threats to Canada’s critical infrastructure. The RCMP does not monitor any environmental protest group. Its mandate is to investigate individuals involved in criminality.”

But the newspaper’s report noted that the spokesman “would not comment on the tone” of the report, which even The Globe and Mail, a leading establishment publication, found difficult to accept as it earlier in the article noted the RCMP report’s “highly charged language.” Moreover, Canadian human rights organizations filed complaints earlier in February over spying on opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, a project intended to move tar sands oil from Alberta to a port in northern British Columbia, passing through hundreds of miles of environmentally sensitive lands.

Environmentalists and Indigenous peoples have been subjected to spying by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, according to a complaint filed by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. The association is also opposing a new measure, the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, or Bill C-51, intended to “dramatically expand the powers of Canada’s national security agencies.” The association reports:

“Bill C-51 makes massive changes to many aspects of Canada’s spying and security system. Any one of the changes – making it easier to lock people up without charge; criminalizing expression; vastly expanding the powers of Canada’s spies; gutting privacy protections – is significant, raises constitutional questions, and must be the subject of serious debate. Lumping them all together into one bill, and proposing to speed that bill through Parliament, virtually guarantees that democratic debate on these proposed measures will be insufficient.”

Such speed is consistent with the Harper government’s attitude toward activists. A previous environment minister, Peter Kent, called parliamentary opponents of tar sands “treacherous” and had a long history of dismantling every regulation he could. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, while less inclined to frontal attacks, nonetheless also doubts climate change.

From smoking is good for you to the weather is just fine

Global-warming denialism is well-funded, with oil and gas companies often the heaviest contributors to “think tanks” that specialize in doubting scientific evidence on behalf of their corporate benefactors. An excellent roundup of these deniers, written by physics professor John W. Farley for the May 2012 edition of Monthly Review, noted that Exxon Mobil Corporation, the Koch brothers and other special interests have spent tens of millions of dollars.

One of these corporate-funded “think tanks” is the Heartland Institute, which began life as a Big Tobacco outfit issuing reports denying links between smoking and cancer. Another global-warming denial outfit, The George C. Marshall Institute, originated as lobby group for Ronald Reagan’s crackpot Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as the “Star Wars” program. Another was the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition, which included major oil companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and automobile manufacturers; it actually operated from the offices of the National Association of Manufacturing.

A scientist who is often trotted out by global-warming deniers is Wei-Hock (“Willie”) Soon, who was recently revealed to have taken more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry. The New York Times reports that at least 11 papers Dr. Soon has published since 2008 omitted disclosures of this funding and at least eight violate the ethical guidelines of the journals that published him. The Times reports:

“[D]ocuments show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.”

The world is facing an environmental catastrophe as it is; increasing production from the Alberta tar sands will only hasten it. The capacity of railroads to ship oil is reaching its limit (and in itself is dangerous as a recent flurry of crashes demonstrate). Thus pipelines are critical for tar sands expansion. Not only the Keystone XL pipeline across the United States, but the Northern Gateway and other proposed pipelines that would cross Canada to eastern ports. U.S. President Barack Obama’s February 24 veto of a congressional bill designed to force Keystone construction by no means puts that issue to rest; the State Department’s inaccurate claim that the pipeline would not add to global warming and falsehoods that tens of thousands of jobs would result remain an official document.

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipelines has not slackened and strong resistance continues against the Northern Gateway, which would not only send oil through sensitive mountains and forests, but would require ocean tankers to travel more than 100 kilometers just to reach the Pacific Ocean from the pipeline terminus in northern British Columbia. From there, the oil would be shipped to Asia. First Nations peoples, who have the right to block projects from crossing their lands, are leading that fight, and vow physical resistance.

TransCanada Corporation, the same company that wants to build Keystone XL to the Gulf of Mexico, is also proposing an Energy East pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to terminals in Québec City and St. John, New Brunswick. This project, if it comes to fruition, would alone produce the same amount of carbon each year as seven million new cars on Canada’s roads, according to 350.org. Some of this project would use existing natural gas lines; these are not designed for oil, a heavier substance, elevating the risk of ruptures.

The RCMP reports asserts that “extremists pose a realistic criminal threat to Canada’s petroleum industry.” Advocating for clean air and water is a crime? The fight against one of these pipelines must be a fight against them all; increased oil profits surely won’t be compensation for drowned cities and farmlands turned to dust bowls.

Ethics and morality at the end of history

Strange, isn’t it, that the system supposedly representing the apex of human development — even the end of history — has no place for ethics or morality.

Perhaps this becomes inevitable when an ideology develops to the point where the economy is considered to be outside the environment. From that dubious — to put it overly modestly — vantage point, the journey to seeing the environment, and the natural resources and life it contains, as nothing more than a cow to be milked at will is not a long one. A forest counts as nothing unless it can be monetized, which often means knocking it down. Clean air? Clean water? Luxury items for those who can afford them, and thereby profits for those who can bottle it and create a market for them.

Photo by Alex Proimos

Photo by Alex Proimos

A thoughtful article in the May 2009 issue of Monthly Review caused me to think more about this. The authors of this article, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” written by Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, discuss the models used by mainstream economists, which vary only on the degree to which they discount future life. Yes, that is as cold-blooded as it sounds.

Neoclassical economists base their increasingly insane conclusions that global warming is no big deal and, at worse, will cause little economic damage, on the convenient, self-serving assumption that future generations will be wealthier and therefore it will be cheaper for our descendants to clean up our messes than it would be for us.

The authors write:

“Where they primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.” [page 9]

From that, orthodox economists slide down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value. Such a mentality is exemplified by Lawrence Summers’ infamous memo, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

Summers’ attitude, although usually not expressed in such a direct way, is not out of step with his profession. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors lay bare the ramifications of this type of thinking:

“[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the [global] economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … This economic ideology, of course, extends beyond just human life, such that all of the millions of species on earth are valued only to the extent they contribute to GDP. Thus, ethical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [page 10]

This is the irrationality and immorality that underlies industrialists’ and financiers’ drive to allow the “market” to make all social decisions. Markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers. They in turn, through their stranglehold on the world’s economic heights, are able to have decisive sway over governments, which are not disembodied entities somehow floating above society but rather are reflections of the relative strengths and weaknesses of social forces.

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Even without “corporate personhood,” however, the relentless competition of capitalism would induce this behavior, and the winners of that competition are those most willing to crush all obstacles, human and environmental, while foisting the costs onto others.

Really, we can’t do better than this?