Don’t be hoodwinked on climate change
Review by Simon Butler
Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: False Solutions to Climate Change
By Rising Tide North America
Available for download
Climate change presents an enormous challenge. We have to overhaul our economy, energy, agriculture, transport, consumption, and our entire social system to have a chance of avoiding its worst impacts.
The science of climate change is scary. The potential for a 21st century wracked by dangerous global warming is already leading some to give up on hope for the future.
The environmental scientist and originator of Gaia theory James Lovelock has given voice to this gloomy outlook on humanity’s chances of survival.
In his 2007 book The Revenge of Gaia he said: “Despite all our efforts to retreat sustainably, we may be unable to prevent a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal war lords on a devastated Earth.”
Should we then, as Lovelock suggests, start to put together “a guidebook for our survivors to help them rebuild civilisation without repeating too many of our mistakes”
The barriers to rapid, widespread and sustainable change are not technical – the technical means to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero already exist. Rather, the core obstacles are political and cultural. These obstacles can only be overcome by a powerful grassroots movement for social change.
Humanity is not somehow “fated” to destroy itself. But inaction on climate change, whatever reason is given for it, will make disastrous outcomes a certainty. Giving up without a fight is both a form of inaction and a poor excuse for it.
Fatalism might be the ultimate non-solution to climate change, but support for a range of false solutions – dressed-up as failsafe answers – is far more widespread in society and pose a much bigger danger.
Typically, the false solutions offer the promise of a “technofix” or the wisdom of the market to solve what is a result of an anti-ecological economic and social system.
Some of these, such as carbon offsets and carbon cap-and-trade schemes, have gained a certain credibility. This is not only due to their powerful backers, but also because they exploit people’s fear of change and the unknown.
A new booklet released by the US-based climate action group Rising Tide North America, Hoodwinked in the Hothouse, is a useful primer on many of the bogus answers to runaway climate change offered up by business and governments.
Unlike Lovelock’s idea, it’s the kind of “guidebook” we really need right now.
“Only a few years ago, some companies were saying climate change wasn’t a problem”, it says. “Now, as its impacts becomes apparent, corporations are suddenly scrambling to claim leadership on the issue.
“Desperate to avoid regulation that may hit their profits, they present a dizzying array of ‘false solutions’, quick fixes that perpetuate inequalities in our society and attempt to cash in on the crisis.”
Carbon capture and storage (“clean coal” in industry PR speak) heads the list. “Clean coal” is based on the lie that carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations can be safely captured and stored underground.
Even though its biggest supporters admit it can’t be rolled out for two decades at the earliest, it’s still very handy for the coal corporations. It “legitimates the continued dominance and expansion of the coal industry under the notion that coal can someday be clean”.
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is often hailed as a clean alternative to coal. It’s less damaging than other fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean it’s climate friendly.
LNG mining operations are environmentally harmful and shipments of LNG around the world adds 15% to 25% to its emissions – unacceptable at a time when the climate science says there is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere.
The growth of the biofuels industry is causing havoc in the poorest regions of the world. Promoted as a “clean” alternative to oil, biofuels convert food for people into fuel for cars.
The industry played a big part in the sharp rise in food prices in 2008, which threw a further 100 million people into the ranks of the world’s 1 billion malnourished.
Biofuels are hardly carbon-neutral as its backers claim. Because they are grown as monoculture crops on large plantations they have caused greater deforestation, encouraged unsustainable water use and led to a higher use of chemical fertilisers. As a result, the industry rivals the burning of fossil fuels as a contributor to climate change.
The nuclear power industry is working hard to cast off its radioactive image and rejuvenate itself as a clean, green, CO2 free technofix for global warming.
But building nuclear plants, and the mining, processing and transportation of uranium, is highly energy intensive and wastes huge amounts of water. There is no safe way to store radioactive waste and the potential for uranium to be converted into doomsday weapons by unscrupulous governments remains.
Uranium is not a renewable energy source. The tragic Chernobyl disaster shows it’s not a safe source either.
Grassroots climate activists globally have denounced carbon trading schemes as another false solution, which delay the transition to a zero-carbon society.
A big problem is that carbon trading schemes seek to privatise the atmosphere and make pollution a tradable commodity. Traders find them hugely profitable, but none of the schemes give an incentive for a rapid shift away from fossil fuels.
In recent years, a new market for carbon offsets has emerged, cashing in on public concerns about environmental breakdowns. Carbon Trade Watch’s Kevin Smith has likened carbon offsets to the selling of “indulgences” by the medieval Catholic Church.
Church indulgences could be bought to forgive a sinner’s transgressions. Modern-day offsets promise to forgive our “carbon sins”.
The spread of the carbon offset myth has had a damaging ideological effect on many.
“Offsetting encourages us to think we can buy our way out of the change we need to make to the way we live, but the reality is that the vast majority of offsets projects are either scientifically dubious or minor tweaks that distract us from the large changes we need to make in our backyard”, the booklet says.
A dizzying array of geoengineering proposals have also emerged, which rely on industrial-scale manipulation of sensitive ecosystems.
Some of the wackiest include: using battleship guns to fire tonnes of sulphates into the sky (sulphates have a cooling effect – they also cause acid rain); erecting giant sunshades in space (about 16 trillion would be needed); planting forests of genetically engineered trees to drawdown CO2; fertilising the oceans to make them better carbon sinks; and coating deserts with shiny, white plastic to reflect sunlight back into space.
However, there is one technology the backers of business-as-usual responses to climate change are anxious to avoid. Hoodwinked in the Hothouse includes British journalist George Monbiot’s summary of how it works.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have the answer! Incredible as it might seem, I have stumbled across the single technology which will save us from runaway climate change!”, Monbiot said.
“From the goodness of my heart I offer it to you for free. No patents, no small print, no hidden clauses. Already this technology, a radical new kind of carbon capture and storage, is causing a stir among scientists. It is cheap, it is efficient and it can be deployed straight away. It is called … leaving fossil fuels in the ground.”
A human-centred response to the crisis would place the repayment of the ecological debt owned to the global South by the rich nations at its heart. Countries like Australia have a obligation to cut domestic emissions fast, and do everything possible to help the Third World avoid ruin.
A zero-emissions economy would look very different to today’s profit-driven capitalism. “Replacing ‘growth’ as the main objective of the economy is a fundamental change that must be made to address climate change”, the booklet says.
The battle to halt climate change will be a process of fundamental social change. “The hold that corporate interests and centuries-old colonial mindsets have over political decision-making must be broken.”
Hoodwinked in the Hothouse points out we need to reject the deceptive appeal of technological “silver bullets” and market-based schemes. Instead climate change calls for us to “restructure our relationships to the earth and its peoples to achieve a zero carbon society; short cuts are clearly insufficient”.