Friday, April 05, 2013

Global Warming and The Common Good

Sometimes the attacks on education and the common good are very closely linked. There’s a current illustration which is pretty striking. Several--one of them is what’s called the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, which is now being proposed to state legislatures by ALEC. That’s the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s a corporate-funded lobby with tremendous wealth, that designs legislation to serve the needs of the corporate sector and the extreme wealth. It has been quite influential. Well, this particular act, which is just now being proposed, the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, mandates what they call “balanced teaching,” of climate science in K-12 classrooms. “Balanced teaching,” as you probably know, is a code word that refers to teaching climate change denial. That’s to “balance” authentic climate science--that stuff you read in science journals and other serious publications. And legislation based on these ALEC models have [sic] already been introduced in several states will probably be instituted {inaudible} soon.

This ALEC legislation is based on a project of the Heartland Institute. That's a corporate-funded institute which is dedicated to rejection of the scientific consensus on what’s happening to the climate. The Institute has a project which calls for, in their words, “a global warming curriculum for K-12 classrooms.” And its aim (I’m quoting from it)  is “to teach that there is a major controversy over whether or not humans are changing the weather.” Of course all of this is dressed up in rhetoric about teaching critical thinking and all sorts of nice things. It’s very similar and parallel, in fact, to the current assault on teaching children about evolution and about science quite generally. All of that has to be balanced with raging controversies.

And there is indeed a controversy. On one side is the overwhelming majority of scientists, all of the worlds’ greatest national academies of sciences, the professional societies of science, the professional science journals, the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the general groupings of scientists that deals with this. They all agree that global warming is taking place, that there's a substantial human component, that the situation is serious and quite possibly dire, and that very soon, maybe within decades, the world might reach a kind of a tipping point when the process will escalate sharply and will be irreversible. The end of life as we know it, very severe affects on the possibility of decent human survival. Actually it’s very rare to find such overwhelming scientific consensus on complex scientific issues like this.

Now it’s true that it’s not unanimous. There is a controversy. And the media commonly reports, presents, a controversy between the overwhelming scientific consensus, the national institutes of science, the science journals and so on the one side, and on the other side, the skeptics. Actually, among the skeptics, there are a few quite respected scientists who caution that there’s a lot that is unknown--which is correct. The fact that there’s a lot that’s unknown means that things might not be as bad as the consensus claims or they might be a lot worse. That’s what it means to say that much is not known, but only the first alternative is ever brought up. And there’s something omitted from this contrived debate. There’s actually a much larger group of skeptics among scientists, highly regarded climate scientists who regard the regular reports of the IPCC as much too conservative. That includes, for example, the climate change study group at my own university, at MIT. They’ve repeatedly been proven correct over the years. The consensus apparently is too conservative. Things are much worse. But they’re scarcely part of the public debate at all, although they’re very prominent in the scientific literatures you can find if you read the science journals.

Well, the Heartland Institute and ALEC are part of a huge campaign by corporate lobbies. To sew doubt about the near unanimous consensus of scientists that human activities are having a major impact on global warming, with perhaps ominous consequences and not that far off. The campaign is not a secret. It’s openly announced, publicly announced, including the lobbying organizations of the fossil fuel industry, American Chamber of Commerce, the major business lobby and others. It’s had a certain effect on public opinion. So, public opinion in the United States is not quite as concerned about the dangers of what we are doing to the climate as in other comparable countries. But actually a careful study showed that public opinion remains much closer to the scientific consensus than policy is, which is an interesting fact. And that’s undoubtedly why major sectors of the corporate world are launching their attack on the educational system to try to counter the tendency of the public to pay attention to the conclusions of serious scientific research.

You probably heard that at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, a few weeks ago, Governor Bobby Jindal warned the Republican leadership, as he put it, that, "We must stop being the stupid party... We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters." Actually, ALEC and its corporate backers have a different view. They want the country to be the stupid nation. And maybe, if it is, they’ll even join the stupid party that Jindal warned about.

The major scientific journals give a very clear sense of how surreal all of this is, how, what would it look like to observers, say, watching what’s going on on earth, in fact what it does look like in other countries. So, take Science magazine, the major science weekly, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement Science. A couple of weeks ago, it had three news items side by side. One of them reported that the year 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States with all kind of harmful consequences all over the country—the drought, the hurricanes, all sorts of things. And, as it pointed out, this is continuing a long trend. The second news item reported a new study by the United States Global Climate Change Research Program, which provided some new evidence for rapid climate change as a result of human activities and also discussed likely severe impacts. The third news item reported the new appointments to chair the committees on science policy chosen by the House of Representatives where a minority of voters elected a large majority of Republicans, thanks to the shredding of the democratic system in recent years. In Pennsylvania, as you probably know, a considerable majority voted for Democrats for the House, but they won barely over a third of the House seats.

So, now we have the three science committees. All of the three chairs deny that humans contribute to climate change. Two of the three chairs deny that climate change is even taking place. And one of them, who denies everything, is also a long time advocate lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry. The same issue of the journal has a detailed technical article which provides new evidence that the irreversible tipping point may be ominously close. That’s a picture of what’s going on, in the context in which the ALEC effort is being introduced to ensure that we become a stupid nation.

For those who Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind,” it’s very important that we become a stupid nation in the interest of their short term profits. Damn the consequences. That’s the conception of the Common Good that they want to institute. These are essential properties of the reigning contemporary doctrines, sometimes called the market fundamentalist doctrines, inherent in these doctrines that you have to have these things going on.

ALEC and its corporate sponsors understand the importance of ensuring that public education train children to belong to the stupid nation and not to be misled by science and rationality. Well, what I mentioned is not the only case by far of pretty sharp diversions between public opinion and public policy. That’s important. It tells us a lot about the state of current American democracy and what it means for us and in fact for the world.

The corporate assault on education and independent thought, of which this incidentally is only one striking illustration, tells us a good deal more.

Let’s turn to policy. In climate policy, the US, which is the richest country in the world with enormous advantages, lags behind other countries. I’ll quote a current scientific review. “109 countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, the United States has not adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy.”  It’s a current article. Or for that matter, has the US adopted other means that are pursued by countries that have national policies--that means virtually everyone.

Some things are being done, but sporadically and with no organized national commitment--which make some fairly ineffective. Now that’s not a slight problem for us, for your children, grandchildren, maybe not too far off, and for the world, in the light of the great predominance of American power. Indeed, it is declining. It has been for a long time as power is becoming more diversified internationally. But it’s still completely without challenge. It’s also worth mentioning that there are sectors of the world population that are really in the lead in trying to do something about these very dire consequences. It's throughout the world. It's the remnants of the indigenous populations. That’s true just about everywhere, whether they're tribal societies, first nations, aboriginals, whatever they are called.

They’re the leaders worldwide in trying to force some attention to these extremely grave matters. Actually, it’s the first time in human history that humans have been on the verge of destroying themselves, and not too far off. In the countries that have substantial indigenous populations, either majority or near majority, the countries themselves have taken very strong measures. Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority, and Ecuador, near majority, have legislation to preserve the rights of nature, as it's called. In Ecuador, which has substantial oil deposits, there are efforts by the government, under pressure from the indigenous population, to leave the oil in the ground. In fact, now their government is attempting to get some support from European Union, I don’t think they’re approaching the United States to subsidize them in leaving the oil underground so that it won’t destroy all of us. We’re doing the opposite, in fact, right here in Pennsylvania--get it to be used as quickly as possible so it can be as harmful as possible to future generations and to the world. The same is true with indigenous populations elsewhere. India is practically at war over it. Columbia, Australia, wherever you go, Canada--the indigenous populations is trying hard to save the human species while the educated, civilized sectors of the world are trying to destroy the human species.(…)

Question on Fracking

 Chomsky: …a very interesting topic, I think I mentioned that in Ecuador, where there’s a large indigenous population, they’ve … [the issue is] not to not be fracking ...  they have plenty of oil reserves. There are efforts by government not to use the oil and keep it underground because the understanding of the indigenous population is we’re better off if we don’t use it because every bit of it that we use, it harms us. It harms our children. It harms the world--and maybe severe harm. So one possibility is to take the stand of, say, the indigenous tribes in Ecuador and the same much around the world. The other is to take the stand on which, say, Obama and Romney completely agree: "Let's  get all of the oil, the hydrocarbons that are underground, huge quantities. Let's use them all as efficiently as possible. It'll give us a hundred years of energy independence. What’s the world going to look like in a hundred years? That's somebody else’s problem. What’s important is how much money I can make tomorrow." Incidentally, the oil independence issue is almost totally meaningless. I mean, if all of our oil came from, say, Saudi Arabia, we'd have no more dependence than we have today. You can easily see that. The US policies towards the Middle East, say, were exactly the same in the 1950s under Eisenhower, when we didn’t get any oil from the Middle East. In fact, we were the biggest oil exporter. And the US at that time, in the 1950s initiated a program to exhaust domestic oil in the interest of profits for Texas oil producers, so, to use domestic oil, Texas oil, instead of cheaper Saudi oil. Because Texas oil producers would make more profit and then we’d have big holes in the ground which we could fill in, later calling them “the strategic energy reserve.”

But the policies towards controlling the Middle East and controlling Middle East oil were the same. So, forget the energy independent issue. The real issue is “Do we want the consequences of extracting, as hydrocarbons, natural gas and oil to the maximum extent as possible. Well, you can figure out what the consequences are. So, take, say, fracking. I mean it has a lot of local affects. You know, I’m sure you all know about this. It harms water supplies--you know, toxic effects. It's very energy intensive. Natural gas is more efficient than oil, you know, less CO2, but it also releases methane, which is worse than CO2, and it's energy intensive to extract it. But there are other effects like the ... You know, the economic arguments are that fracking and shift to natural gas will give us a transition period in which we’ll have cheap energy which will enable us to transition to renewable energies. OK, so, therefore it's ....

A couple of problems with that. Namely it has the opposite effect. The main one: it has the opposite effect. If you have cheap hydrocarbons in a capitalist society, there’s going to be no incentive to develop renewables. So the more cheap hydrocarbons you have, the longer you put off the time until we begin to do what we got to do if we want to survive turn to renewables. And what is being done in other countries? I mentioned that out of 110 countries, the US is the only one that doesn’t have a national energy policy. If you look elsewhere, countries are doing various things, like in Ecuador. I told you what they were doing to try to keep the oil underground. In China, which is a huge polluter, but it's also by now in the lead internationally in solar energy. It’s producing most of the solar panels and advanced solar panels, the most high-tech, advanced, sophisticated solar panels. So so they’re ahead in the technology and they’re ahead in the scale. We’ve been falling behind. Germany and Denmark are pretty much switching to renewables. They're rich countries. So there are plenty of things that can be done. One of them is to try to maximize the damage, and to put off as long as possible the step towards trying to repair it, which may mean putting it off until it’s all over. That’s what the fracking is. And that’s the national consensus. From Obama to Romney, and everyone  in between. I think that’s pathological, frankly.

(Filmed at the East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, February 6, 2013) by Leigha Cohen Production