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'This Changes Everything' Including the Anti-Fracking Movement
[Editor's note: Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change is launching tomorrow. It’s not an endlessly ringing alarm bell. It’s a navigation system for our time—equipped with flashlights to illuminate the road ahead. There is a message here for everyone, says Sandra Steingraber, including those caught up in the fight against fracking and all its metastasizing infrastructure.]
Among its many demonstrations, This Changes Everything, reveals how the grassroots anti-fracking movement is right where it should be—except for decades-old backroom deals between Big Green groups and the oil and gas industry that hold the movement down like a cartoon ball and chain.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, let me start again: You need to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, which delivers a message so big that the title alone pushes both the author’s name and the subtitle (“Capitalism vs. the Climate”) right off the front cover.
All your friends and loved ones need to read the book, too, and that fact alone can end all further thinking about holiday gifts.
And if you live anywhere near Washington DC, you are lucky because those gifts can come as autographed copies. On Friday, Sept. 19, Klein is reading and signing at Sidwell Friends Meeting House as part of a book-launch event that is hosted by the inimitable Politics and Prose Bookstore and co-sponsored by Food & Water Watch and 350.org—both member organizations of Americans Against Fracking. [Full disclosure: I’m the science advisor for AAF.]
After she signs her last book, the author is heading to New York City for the People’s Climate March—presumably along with much of her audience, as next Sunday’s march for climate justice is on course to deliver an equally outsized and powerful message.
In other words, this is the book that speaks to our time.
Simply put, This Changes Everything is a literary enactment of the old adage that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. For Klein, the crisis—and she rightly sees it as a moral one—is the ongoing destruction of our agriculture-enabling, freshwater-providing, weather-regulating, life-nurturing climate system, which is under attack by heat-trapping gasses that are the unpriced, unregulated, untaxed, unmonitored consequences of a global economic system that runs amok on fossil fuels.
(Amok—from the Malay language: sudden mass assault following a period of brooding; now more widely viewed as an episode of psychopathological behavior).
The opportunity is to remake that economic system, which, even before it went berserk on Earth’s climate, wasn’t really meeting human needs very efficiently or very equitably—for all the reasons Klein has explicated in her previous two best-selling books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine.
(Berserk—from the Old Norse: bear-skin-clad warrior, frenzied by battle, who believes himself invulnerable; now more widely understood as crazed, reckless, defiant violence … that believes itself invulnerable.)
The best science available, says Klein correctly, shows that 80 percent of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground for us to attain even a break-even chance of avoiding multiple planetary tipping points. These lie just ahead, like so many landmines that could, if triggered, blow us into uncharted, civilization-ending territory.
So, what about disciplining the current economic system until it becomes responsive to the findings of climate science? Sort of like … hmm … anger management counseling for pro-football players who punch out their women?
Answer: Such attempts invariably fail.
In chapter after chapter, Klein walks us, tour guide-style, through a veritable museum of these failures. The double-crossed U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The star-crossed 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The stultifying shell games of cap-and-trade. The bait-and-switch Pickens Plan. The abandoned Virgin Earth Challenge. The half-abandoned Kyoto Accord. And, my personal favorite: the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which is the love child of the natural gas industry and the Environmental Defense Fund. (“The very name makes it clear that it will not be questioning whether ‘sustainable’ extraction of fossil fuels from shale is possible in the age of climate change.”)
The fundamental problem, Klein tells us right away, is this:
[W]e have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things conflict with deregulated capitalism … our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
To put a finer point on the essential quarrel between the reigning economic ideology and the irreducible needs of the ecological world, Klein observes that the business model of the fossil fuel industry is predicated on burning five times more fossil fuels—all of it used as collateral with Wall Street—than our climate models tell us is compatible with a living planet.
To be sure, Naomi Klein is not the first to point all this out. Bill McKibben ran these numbers in his now iconic 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” And, in a larger way, environmental writers—Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe), and Dianne Dumonowski (The End of the Long Summer) are just two—have been thoughtfully exploring the collision between insatiable growth and finite resources since at least 1972 (Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth).
Indeed, the gap between how many tons of carbon we can still ignite without burning down our planetary house and how many tons the largest corporations in the world already have on their balance sheets as proven reserves against which they borrow, bet, stake their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and otherwise make the financial world go ‘round (the former would be “80 percent less than what we are burning now” and the latter, “a whole shitload more than that”) gave rise to the now-popular notion of stranded assets and carbon bubbles. The conversation around those topics animates the fossil fuel divestment campaign and did not start with Klein.
But at least two elements set Klein’s book apart and make it essential reading for all those new to these issues, as well as those of us who feel steeped in them already.
One is an uncanny sense of zeitgeist. Klein offers science, economic analysis and political solutions to climate change—and exposes false solutions for what they are—at just the moment when a mass climate justice movement is awakening and seeking just those things that she provides here. This Changes Everything is both a mirror of that movement and its midwife. Unlike so many other chroniclers of the climate crisis, Naomi Klein is not ahead of her time. And that’s a very good thing.
Second, Klein’s deft command of diverse material—from climate debt to austerity measures, from indigenous rights to corporatization of the Big Green groups, from geoengineering to impacts of oil spills on fertility, from the psychology of climate denial to the lessons of the abolitionist and civil rights movements—help reveal not only how entrenched and multi-causal the problem but also where lie possible and multiple points of intervention.
[Aside: you really need to read the chapter titled “Dimming the Sun.” Here, Klein reports on a meeting of elite engineers, during which men with PhDs seriously contemplate the pros and cons of shooting pollution into the stratosphere in order to dim the sun’s rays, along with other maneuvers—like dumping iron into the ocean to prompt plankton to absorb more carbon dioxide. Manipulating the global environment to make it less of a greenhouse is increasingly viewed in policy circles as a sensible workaround to abject lack of progress on the “just stop emitting greenhouse gases” front. Having myself heard an Environmental Protection Agency research scientist say just a few months ago, that geoengineering, rather than mitigation, was the focus of his own work now, I assure you that this is a real trending thing.]
Because climate change is revealed by Klein as the misbegotten monster of a flawed economic model, readers see how the climate movement can—and must—join forces with other wide-awake, already organized movements that also have a serious issue with globalized, boom and bust, water-destroying, air-polluting extractivist projects—along with the elected officials for which the fossil fuel industry serves as ventriloquist. Among them: indigenous nations, labor unions, faith communities, farmers and anti-poverty campaigns:
With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.
In other words, the path to get off carbon—which requires reinvesting in local economies, local infrastructure and public transportation; rebuilding democracy; creating sustainable jobs; curtailing corporate power; and recapitalizing rural America—also happens to be the way forward for income and racial equality. In Klein’s words, it’s the “unfinished business of liberation.”
That’s a convenient truth. And it’s meticulously footnoted.
Based on its commodious length and ambitious scope, it would be easy to call This Changes Everything a “sprawling” book. It’s not. It’s too smoothly designed and tightly drafted to sprawl. All its through-lines, sub-plots and thematic elements are finely woven. Indeed, each chapter deserves its own review.
Instead, I’ll circle back to where I began—to the ball and chain—and highlight the sections of the book devoted to fracking. These not only contain important reportage for those of us on the frontlines of this fight but are also among the best-written sections of the book.
The historical chapter called “Fruits not Roots” examines why and when many Big Green groups cozied up to natural gas and still, to this day, in spite of all manner of damning evidence, cannot issue a full-throated condemnation of fracking as villainous for the climate. The stage was set, says Klein, during the pro-corporate conversions of environmental groups and their supporting foundations during the 1980s. Market-based solutions and partnerships with industry groups, rather than lawsuits, bans and confrontations, became the favored strategies. Green groups began going after low-hanging fruits that offered winnable victories to show to funders—but no chance of actually solving the problem—rather than striking boldly at root causes.
Klein does not really examine how the gas industry began to market itself as the “white meat” of fossil fuels or what role the environmental community played in providing green cover for that narrative, but what she does make clear is the industry itself—in the early 1980s—came up with the metaphorical claim that gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future, and, then, the mainstream environmental community, at the dawn of the Clinton years, began to echo that pitch.
Just how deep into the fossil fuel tank many Big Green groups plunged becomes clearer as Klein follows the money. The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund are all selected out for mention here.
All together, This Changes Everything holds the Big Greens accountable for redirecting public attention away from the need for big, systemic change and toward lifestyle and consumer approaches to climate change—complete with on-line carbon calculators—that did little to actually lower emissions. What’s worse, this appeal to green shopping choices—
may have even played a role in weakening public belief in the reality of human-caused climate change. [Perhaps] because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was dire … wouldn’t the environmental movement be asking the public to do more than just switch brands of cleaning liquid …? Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?
The excerpt above will likely be flagged as one of the most controversial passages of the book: Klein lays the blame for widespread climate change denial at the feet of the environmental community!
But as a biologist and educator working actively on climate change during the 1990s, I think Klein is exactly right. I watched many readers and students first become deeply affected by the evidence for global warming and then retreat back into indifference once they realized it was only about light bulbs and carbon offsets for purchase after all. And backing up Klein and me both is the excellent 2007 book, Shopping Our Way to Safety, by sociologist Andrew Szasz, who demonstrates how a focus on shopping and self-protection actually undermines the goal of meaningful, systemic environmental reform.
To speak of undermining: to me, the most tragic tale told in This Changes Everything is concerns the devolution of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Taking up Rachel Carson’s unfinished work after her death from breast cancer, EDF began as a pugnacious “sue the bastards!” shop of the 1970s. Against all odds, and after years of uncompromising work—EDF succeeded in winning an enduring national ban—first on DDT and then on PCBs.
By contrast, in its current incarnation, EDF is as an open collaborator with the gas industry. Far from seeking to ban this carcinogenic, accident-prone industry, EDF and its allies have actively expanded its market.
In 2012, EDF shocked the fracking activist community by accepting from Bloomberg Philanthropies a grant of $6 million to advocate for model regulations for fracking (i.e. industry proposals dressed up in Sunday clothes), even though there is no scientific evidence to say that regulations can make fracking safe for people and the climate. Meanwhile, EDF undercuts the work of grassroots fracking abolitionists while professing to represent the reasonable environmental center.
More recently—and just in time for the People’s Climate March—EDF has clarified its position and its language. Fracking holds no hope for actually solving the climate crisis, blogged Mark Brownstein, EDF’s vice president and chief counsel, last week. And natural gas is not a bridge, it’s an exit ramp. But EDF remains realistic. It doesn’t see the oil and gas industry going away anytime soon. So, when in Rome:
Someone has to fight for those rules—and that’s what EDF is doing aggressively, every day. Sometimes that means sitting across the table from energy companies. And that kind of engagement wouldn’t be possible if we were simultaneously calling for bans and moratoria.
Seems to me that’s just the sort of rationalization Eldridge Cleaver had in mind when he intoned, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” (Do you agree, Naomi?)
Oh, hang in there a few more years, EDF, and watch your exit ramp become a boat launch.
I have just a few quarrels with This Changes Everything. I wish Klein had turned her formidable intellect on the fossil fuels that aren’t burned but rather become feedstocks for the petrochemical industry. What is the plan for our materials economy in a fossil fuel-free world? (Okay, I’ll take up that question and research it myself).
And I found myself wincing when she characterized grassroots activists as die-hard volunteers who pass the hat to raise cash. It’s so much harder than that. I work with people who have taken out second mortgages on their homes in order to fight fracking, who have cashed out their retirement, who have spent their kids’ college fund. If you want to hold press conference in Albany with a bunch of angry farmers, somebody has to charter the bus. Somebody lays their credit card down. I’ve been that person.
These are small complaints. This Changes Everything is a wonderful book narrated by a likeable, really smart and sometimes funny author who makes her readers feel smart, too. It provides us sufficient reasons for the imperative to recreate our economic world in ways that align it with our physical world and our only home. And, in broad strokes, it shows us how.
We have to do it right away, and all of us are required to help.
There is no guarantee it will work, but all the other alternatives are worse.
In the end, my reaction to this big book was not so unlike my reaction to the New York City subway system the first time I confronted it as a transplant from Peoria. “Wow.” I thought. “This is complicated. This is useful. This is scary. This is fantastic.”
(Fantastic—from the Greek: to imagine, to have a vision.)
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Tuna auctions are a tourist spectacle in Tokyo. Outside the city's most famous fish market, long queues of visitors hoping for a glimpse of the action begin to form at 5 a.m. The attraction is so popular that last October the Tsukiji fish market, in operation since 1935, moved out from the city center to the district of Toyosu to cope with the crowds.
gmnicholas / E+ / Getty Images
Kristan Porter grew up in a fishing family in the fishing community of Cutler, Maine, where he says all roads lead to one career path: fishing. (Porter's father was the family's lone exception. He suffered from terrible seasickness, and so became a carpenter.) The 49-year-old, who has been working on boats since he was a kid and fishing on his own since 1991, says that the recent warming of Maine's cool coastal waters has yielded unprecedented lobster landings.
"The temperature of the Gulf of Maine is creating the right conditions for lobster, so it's helped our industry—and it's been a big boost for the Maine economy," Porter, the current president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said. "But you never know what lies ahead. If it continues to warm, it may end up going the other way."
The Gulf of Maine is setting frequent temperature records and warming faster overall than 99 percent of the world's oceans, due in large part to climate change. Meanwhile, its lobster population skyrocketed by 515 percent between 1984 and 2014. In 1990, for example, lobster landings in Maine totaled 28 million pounds. Ten years later that figure was up to 57 million pounds. And in every year since 2011, the take has exceeded 100 million pounds, peaking at 132.6 million pounds in 2016 and turning lobster into a half-billion-dollar industry for the state.
Fishermen like Porter have been reaping the benefits of the boom, but he's right — as the Gulf of Maine's waters inevitably continue to warm, lobster populations will almost certainly decrease. The crustaceans thrive at temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water hits 70 degrees, its oxygen levels plummet, to the detriment of a host of marine plants and animals, lobsters included. According to a 2018 study, the gulf's lobster population could fall by 40 to 62 percent over the next 30 years, returning the industry — the nation's most valuable fishery — to early-2000s numbers.
"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."
Maine lobsters are normally brown, but about one in every two million is blue.
Richard Wood / Flickr
Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."
State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)
Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)
Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."
The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.
The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.
While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."
Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.
"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."
Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.
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As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.
Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.
AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.
"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."
Big Oil is now using its political power to try and criminalize protests of oil & gas infrastructure.— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 19, 2019
"This legislation has potential to punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment."https://t.co/bmiHjONEhy
The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.
"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.
As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."
"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."
Many of the state bills restricting the right to protest have been "drafted by companies and passed through groups like ALEC, the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people." @greenpeaceusa https://t.co/ZxpTjWdrwT— Stand Up To ALEC (@StandUpToALEC) May 6, 2019
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.