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By the Way, Your Home Is on Fire, The Climate of Change and the Dangers of Stasis

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Call it a nightmare that passes for good news. Recently, the New York Times optimistically headlined a front-page piece by reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger, "U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin." It offered an eerie overview of where the administration of the president who came into office committed to reversing global warming has ended up.  If there's "green" left in his presidency, it's evidently the green of envy -- that's what some of his advisors believe countries like Russia will feel on learning that, with our new frackable energy wealth, we are going to be "Saudi America" in a decade or two.  Then, the implication is, Washington will really be able to throw its weight around geopolitically.

The Times piece began, "The crisis in Crimea is heralding the rise of a new era of American energy diplomacy as the Obama administration tries to deploy the vast new supply of natural gas in the United States as a weapon to undercut the influence of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, over Ukraine and Europe."  Admittedly, given the lack of facilities for exporting those new reserves of natural gas, this isn't going to happen any time soon.  Still, filled with hair-raising quotes -- "'In World War II, we were the arsenal of democracy,' said Robert McNally, who was the senior director for international energy issues on the National Security Council during the Bush administration. 'I think we're going to become the arsenal of energy'" -- it describes an approach that's been caught with eerie accuracy by Michael Klare under the label "petro-machismo" in a piece at the Nation  magazine.

According to the Times, in 2011 Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, set up an 85-person bureau to channel "the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool to advance American interests around the world." In a sentence that goes right to the heart of the matter in the sixth year of Barack Obama's presidency, the Times article pointed out that "the administration's strategy has attracted unlikely allies, including major oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill..."  Amusingly, in the online version, that ill-chosen phrase "unlikely allies" has been expunged and the sentence rewritten (without any indication of a change or correction) -- since, in the Green Revolution president's new version of energy geopolitics, ExxonMobil and its big energy compatriots are now clearly "likely" allies.

There's little new in an imperial power (or wannabe) using its control over energy resources as a source of geopolitical influence.  (See: the United States in the twentieth century; see: Russia today.)  In fact, in normal times on a different planet, the Obama administration's new energy path would pass for a sensible approach to maximizing national strength.  As it happens, these are not normal times and we are not on the planet we once thought we knew.  As a result, this supposed renaissance of American global energy and power, which will put the production of ever more fossil fuels on the American agenda for decades, is in climate change terms the path to hell.  No matter who hails it, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit makes vividly clear, the new normal, the logical, the obvious, the prudent is these days a formula for, and a guarantee of, a planetary train wreck.  And if anyone cares about irony at all a couple of decades from now, this could well be Barack Obama's true legacyTom

By the Way, Your Home Is On Fire 
The Climate of Change and the Dangers of Stasis 
By Rebecca Solnit

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren't getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for, and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story. 

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere -- not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, "They're back."

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator.  In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided -- as did many others in that lobby -- to go down the stairs instead.  When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale. 

The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. The advisors in the towers were giving excellent instructions for a previous crisis that happened to be profoundly different from the one at hand. That many had the good sense to disobey and evacuated early meant the stairwells were less crowded when the second round of evacuations began. Amazingly, the vast majority of people below the levels of the impacts made it out of both buildings -- largely despite the advice of the building's management, not because of it.  

Going Nowhere Fast

Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That's easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It's less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data.

Right now, you can think of the way we're living as an office tower and the fossil fuel economy as a plane crashing into it in very, very, very slow motion. Flaming jet fuel is a pretty good analogy, in its own way, for what the burning of fossil fuel is doing, although the death and destruction are mostly happening in slow motion, too -- except when people are drowning in Hurricane Sandy-style superstorms or burning in Australian firestorms or dying in European heat waves. The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.)  How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?

That gathering in which I was daydreaming was a board meeting of the San Francisco Employees Retirement System. Ten months before, on April 23, 2013, in a thrilling and unanticipated unanimous vote, the city's Board of Supervisors opted to ask the retirement board to divest their fund of fossil fuel stocks, $616,427,002 worth of them at last count -- a sum that nonetheless represents only 3.3% of its holdings. That vote came thanks to a growing climate change divestment movement that has been attempting to address the problem of fossil fuel corporations and their environmental depredations in a new way.

Divestment serves a number of direct and indirect causes, including awakening public opinion to the dangers we face and changing the economic/energy landscape. As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves -- those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be -- have no intention of letting that happen.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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