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Tomgram: Todd Gitlin, Climate Change as a Business Model

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

When a crossroads doesn't lie in the woods or the fields but in our minds, we seldom know it's there or that we've made the choice to take one path and not the other until it's long past.  Sometimes, the best you can do is look for the tiniest clues as to where we're really heading.  When it comes to climate change, you can pile up the nightmares -- Super-Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the strongest such storm ever to hit land (with the usual prominent caveats about how we can never quite know whether an individual event of this sort was global-warming-induced or not); Australia, which only recently elected a climate-change denialist as prime minister and is experiencing its hottest year on record; the rest of the planet, which is living through the seventh warmest year on record; and so on.

And yet, every now and then, set against the overwhelming, you can sense change in the tiniest of things. Here, for instance, may be a little sign when it comes to global warming: on November 1st, the New York Times featured a piece prominently placed on its front page about how climate change might affect global food production (badly). The story was based on a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The piece wasn't itself particularly striking, but given that paper's treatment of climate change over the years, its placement was. Just over two weeks later, after the devastation of parts of the Philippines and with a U.N. climate meeting underway in Poland that normally might hardly have been noticed, it front-paged a far more striking report whose title caught the mood of the moment: "Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Change."  Recorded was the growing anger and frustration particularly of island nations that had, in greenhouse gas terms, contributed little to climate change and were feeling the brunt of it anyway.  Like many other mainstream publications, the Times hasn't exactly been stellar in the placement and attention it's given to what almost certainly is the single most important issue of our era. So consider this a (rising) sea change, an indication that, for the paper of record, global warming has just jumped somewhere nearer the front of the line.

And here's another little surprise and possible sign of changing times.  In case no one noticed, Red State America (RSA), the land of climate deniers, has in recent years been hit hard by record droughtsheatwildfiresfloods, and storms, by what our news likes to call "extreme weather" (with little or no reference to climate change).  So how has that everyday reality been absorbed, if at all? The British Guardian recently reported new polling research by a Stanford social psychologist, who has long been taking the American pulse on the subject, indicating that the inhabitants of RSA -- we're talking about Texas and Oklahoma, among other states -- now overwhelmingly believe climate change is a reality, and that a significant majority of them want the government to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two stories placed strikingly in a major paper and one passing poll.  Not exactly a typhoon of evidence, but sometimes you take your straws in the wind where you find them.  In the meantime, young activists (and older ones, too) are trying to take the typhoon by the horns and, with a growing campaign to pressure universities and colleges to divest from the giant energy companies, to change the mood and calculations of our moment.  Let TomDispatch regular Todd Gitlin tell the rest of the story -- and stay tuned because, whatever may be happening now, there will be crossroads ahead, choices to be made on a planet that's guaranteed to be in increasing turmoil for the rest of our lives. Tom

How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse 
Why the Divestment Movement Against Big Energy Matters 
By Todd Gitlin

Apocalyptic climate change is upon us.  For shorthand, let's call it a slow-motion apocalypse to distinguish it from an intergalactic attack out of the blue or a suddenly surging Genesis-style flood.

Slow-motion, however, is not no-motion. In fits and starts, speeding up and slowing down, turning risks into clumps of extreme fact, one catastrophe after another -- even if there can be no 100% certitude about the origin of each one -- the planetary future careens toward the unlivable. That future is, it seems, arriving ahead of schedule, though erratically enough that most people -- in the lucky, prosperous countries at any rate -- can still imagine the planet conducting something close to business as usual.

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To those who pay attention, of course, the recent bursts of extreme weather are not "remote "or "abstract," nor matters to be deferred until later in the century while we worry about more immediate problems. The coming dystopian landscape is all too real and it is already right here for many millions. (Think: the Philippines, the Maldives Islands, drowned New Orleans, the New York City subways, Far Rockaway, the Jersey Shore, the parched Southwest, the parched and then flooded Midwest and other food belts, the Western forests that these days are regularly engulfed in "record" flames, and so on.)  A child born in the United States this year stands a reasonable chance of living into the next century when everything, from available arable land and food resources to life on our disappearing seacoasts, will have changed, changed utterly.

A movement to forestall such menaces must convince many more millions outside Bangladesh or the Pacific islands that what's "out there" is not remote in time or geographically far away, but remarkably close at hand, already lapping at many shores -- and then to mobilize those millions to leverage our strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the institutions arrayed against us that benefit from destruction and have a stake in our weakness.

There is a poetic fitness to human history at this juncture.  Eons ago, various forms of life became defunct.  A civilization then evolved to extract the remains of that defunct life from the earth and turn it into energy. As a result, it's now we who are challenged to avoid making our own style of existence defunct.

Is it not uncanny that we have come face-to-face with the consequences of a way of life based on burning up the remnants of previous broken-down orders of life?  It's a misnomer to call those remains -- coal, oil, and gas -- "fossil fuels."  They are not actually made up of fossils at all.  Still, there's an eerie justice in the inaccuracy, since here we are, converting the residue of earlier breakdowns into another possible breakdown.  The question is: will we become the next fossils?

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Subsidizing Big Energy

The institutions of our ruling world have a powerful stake in the mad momentum of climate change -- the energy system that's producing it and the political stasis that sustains and guarantees it -- so powerful as to seem unbreakable.  Don't count on them to avert the coming crisis.  They can't.  In some sense, they are the crisis.

Corporations and governments promote the burning of fossil fuels, which means the dumping of its waste product, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere where, in record amounts, it heats the planet.  This is not an oversight; it is a business model.

Governments collude with global warming, in part by bankrolling the giant fossil fuel companies (FFCs). As a recent report  written by Shelagh Whitley for the Overseas Development Institute puts it,

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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 (more...)
 

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