Bill McKibben is Wrong, We Must Not Forget That “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”


by Nicholas C. Arguimbau

Editor’s Note: We raged in disgust when Vice President Dick Cheney said, “”the American lifestyle is non-negotiable,” but this author’s sober analysis shows that his statement was more correct than many of us were willing to admit at the time. Are we willing to admit it now? Are we willing to prove him wrong?

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe

This is a response to Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is,” Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. Bill McKibben has once again put his heart and soul into an attempt to stop global warming. That’s more than most of us can say, and I’m afraid much more than I can say. Remember that. He is, like every living, breathing being on this earth, our friend. The stunningly well-written call to arms has apparently at this time already been read 450,000 times on-line and received 3105 written comments. The attention is well-deserved. He tells us, as do the oppressive heat and drought that have overtaken the earth, that the time is now to protect our home from turning into a living – or dying – hell.

For all that, I have a bone to pick with Bill McKibben. Just so you know, on a much smaller scale I’ve put my heart and soul into the environmental movement, too. 33 years ago the Sierra Club’s grass roots San Francisco Bay Chapter gave me its “Conservationist of the Year” award, primarilly for forcing the Sierra Club at the state and national levels to rescind steps that were politically, pragmatically and morally wrong. Sigh. Here we go again. Mr. McKibben says the numbers “make clear who the enemy is.” He is a great man with a great mind, but I’m not sure, and I don’t think he or any of us should be sure, that he has chosen the only or most important “enemy.” Just as an example, ninety per cent of the oil in the ground is in the hands of public agencies with no shareholders, and there is China, whose major oil companies also have no public shareholders. So he seems, if I understand him, to be taking aim at only 10% of the target.

But that’s not the most serious question I have. Let me quote Mr. McKibben as he tries to sort out who the “enemy” is. He first dismisses John Q. Public. Says he:

“People perceive – correctly – that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2; by 2010, a poll found that “while recycling is widespread in America and 73 percent of those polled are paying bills online in order to save paper,” only four percent had reduced their utility use and only three percent had purchased hybrid cars. Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter – but time is precisely what we lack.”

That certainly has a comforting ring to it. If my “individual actions will not make a decisive difference,” then I am free to go on driving my car as much as I want. I am even free to demand that gas prices get lower, even though I know full well that higher gas prices cause lower emissions. Indeed, Mr. McKibben has been careful to explain elsewhere that his constituents need not be concerned that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline will cause Americans’ gas prices to go higher.

So Mr. McKibben is telling us that he won’t ask us to change our lifestyles for the sake of global warming. That’s the same route George Bush took a decade ago. When Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked whether President Bush would ask Americans to reduce fuel consumption in the interests of a cooler, cleaner planet, Fleischer replied decisively,

“That’s a big no. The President believes that it’s an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.”

Soft Energy Paths and Politics

Soft Energy Paths/Politics

President Bush wouldn’t ask the American people to alter “the American way of life.” Mr. McKibben, a decade and too many tons of carbon dioxide closer to disaster than I want to to contemplate, won’t ask them to alter their “lifestyles.” Is there a practical difference? No. The American way of life, our lifestyles, have to change. The emissions ARE our way of life, our lifestyle. We have already passed the level of atmospheric CO2 called for by the governments of the world at Copenhagen to prevent a temperature increase of 2 degrees C and the level Mr. McKibben’s organization, “,” has made its mission. We have no time at all to postpone implementing reductions, at least 80% overall if I am not mistaken. We can’t wait until there are carbon-free alternatives, because the full technology has yet to be invented: for instance, ultracheap batteries that to date have eluded the engineers, must be designed and brought on line by the billions. Nor are non-fossil home furnaces with non-fossil ultimate energy sources going to be put in every home tomorrow. Nor are our cars going to be turned to electricity or even to natural gas tomorrow. We don’t have the technology. We don’t have the capital. Mr. McKibben seems effectively to be limiting us to a search for new technology, which is the course that has failed us for decades.Technological changes of necessary magnitude are not going to happen in the five years the International Energy Agency gives us when we can no longer prevent even a dangerous 3.5 degree increase and will be on the way to a 6-degree increase (ELEVEN degrees F!), which will make a large portion of the earth uninhabitable, as well as drowning out the world’s coastal cities and some whole nations. So by failure to address lifestyles, the only physically possible means for reducing emissions in a timely fashion however difficult it may be, we are bequeathing a largely uninhabitable planet to future generations.

But Mr. McKibben has another comforting, if inadequate answer: “Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter – but time is precisely what we lack.” We might of course ask ouselves, isn’t that at least partially because the environmental “leaders” have never, ever asked their followers in a serious way to conserve? The trouble is, until lifestyle changes are made, the emissions are still happening. Isn’t it a tautology that to reduce emissions of CO2, you have to reduce emissions of CO2? And that to reduce emissions of CO2 you have to change lifestyles? Not quite a tautology, because if we could reduce our emissions by adopting alternative fuels, the presently nonexistent ultracheap batteries, solar-electric cars, solar-electric home-heating furnaces, whatever, we wouldn’t have to change our lifestyles too much. But is that going to happen in four years? Of course not. It is absolutely impossible. We’re not talking mere political or practical or economic infeasibility here. The technology isn’t there. The infrastructures aren’t there. The capital to make it happen isn’t there. It absolutely cannot happen. So we have no choice. As he says himself, “Time is precisely what we lack.”

If I understand things correctly, there is no fixed figure as to the emissions reductions we need to make in five years, but one thing is certain – it has to be sufficient to demonstrate that we have turned around, that we are no longer on a grow-forever track, but on a track that will make costly new investments in energy facilities unnecessary and unwanted and uneconomical. For starters, there must never again be an annual global INCREASE in CO2 emissions. And the beauty of conservation is that saving energy saves money. It is ALWAYS technically and economically feasible. It is “austerity.” Nothing other than lack of willpower can block it.

But instead, to make sure we understand that the public will not be blamed in any way or asked to make any sacrifices, Mr. McKibben makes a radical change to the Earth Day 1970 poster and call to arms that was “the rallying cry for a generation of environmentalists”, Walt Kelly’s immortal quotation from Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Instead, says Mr, McKibben, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is Shell.”

And I thought the steps to curing an addiction, any addiction, must include admitting the addiction, making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and admitting to ourselves and others “the exact nature of our wrongs,” Wikipedia, Twelve-Step Program. Mr. McKibben is not off to a good start.

This is certainly not the way for Americans to get the rest of the world to see us as serious about global warming, regardless of realities. One reason global warming agreements have failed to date is a global perception that in fact Americans ARE “the enemy.” Even if it isn’t true, we need to overcome the perception. We are not going to make much headway at bringing about a meaningful global emissions-reduction program if we continue to be perceived, as Mr. Putin puts it, as “parasites.” See Mr. Putin’s remarks on the subject, Reuters, Putin says U.S. is “parasite” on global economy. We will not be perceived as parasites if we are taking the lead in showing we can live with less.

Here’s a cut from the Executive Summary of the 2011 edition of World Energy Outlook, the annual projections report of the International Energy Agency, which incidentally has fought the US government and oil industry “no problemo” scenarios for years and finally parted company. The IEA is I believe the first agency (public or private) to identify the “lock-in” effect of capital investments to be made in the near future in additional CO2-emitting facilities. The economic “tipping point” to preserve a precariously high a 3.5-degree increase in average global temperatures, well above the 2 degrees mandated by the world community at Copenhagen, is identified by the IEA as coming in 2017, now only five years away. Listen to them:

Steps in the right direction, but the door to 2°C is closing

We cannot afford to delay further action to tackle climate change if the long-term target of limiting the global average temperature increase to 2°C, as analysed in the 450 Scenario, is to be achieved at reasonable cost. In the New Policies Scenario, the world is on a trajectory that results in a level of emissions consistent with a long-term average temperature increase of more than 3.5°C. Without these new policies, we are on an even more dangerous track, for a temperature increase of 6°C or more.

Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly.

Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

New energy efficiency measures make a difference, but much more is required. Energy efficiency improves in the New Policies Scenario at a rate twice as high as that seen over the last two-and-a-half decades, stimulated by tighter standards across all sectors and a partial phase-out of subsidies to fossil fuels. In the 450 Scenario, we need to achieve an even higher pace of change, with efficiency improvements accounting for half of the additional reduction in emissions. The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes from the energy that we do not consume.

“The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes from the energy that we do not consume.” That is the the marching order we must impose on ouselves because we have postponed and postponed and postponed real reductions in emissions. Things would have been different thirty years ago, but our only choice is to achieve the near impossible today. Even now, every year is a year of record emissions. That cannot continue, and it cannot await our achievement of some sort of moral victory against Shell or any other private oil company.

If the public does not demonstrate by 2017 an ability and willingness to make the conservation steps to eliminate the need for the “lock-in” capital investments, it is our own damn fault if the “lock-in” investments happen. We shall have effectively asked for them. Saying, as McKibben does, that we have met the enemy and it is someone else, is a cop-out, and I hope he and the rest of us are willing to see that. (This writer thinks he is willing, because to his credit he is said in his personal life to be making many of the cuts we must all make.) We can and should complain about the billions of dollars in subsidies that continue to help the fossil fuel industry along its way, but they are as nothing compared to the trillions every year that we willingly pay them for the billions of tons of poison we spew into our breathing space.

We also need to recognize that from an economic point of view, energy conservation consistently saves money rather than costing money, so financial constraints from an ill economy are reasons for rather than against such measures. Conservation is, as the current buzzword calls it, “austerity.” The capital investments IEA talks about wil be good for the very wealthy and the large corporations, but will only further burden the 99% and put the earth in ever-greater danger. McKibben and all the major environmental groups, as well as all individuals and oganizations concerned about global warning, need to understand these facts, and start collecting and implementing pledges to reduce emissions necessary to halt or postpone the “lock-in.”

Listen to what the IEA says. Despite the weaseling of the world’s governments and the banks and oil companies and even environmental groups from which they take a lead, the International Energy Agency is unafraid to say what must come next.

Why are the lead environmentalists afraid to say, simply, “We must use less”? It has apparently long been thus. John Kenneth Galbraith, the first and perhaps greatest economist for the 99%, noted over half a century ago:

“If we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to increase the supply, to decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!”

John K. Galbraith, “How much should a country consume?” in Jarrett, Henry (editor), Perspectives on Conservation. John Hopkins Press. 1958. (Courtesy Lance Olsen of Montana, far better read than this writer.) Why is conservation a “forbidden question” among leading environmentalists, over which “hangs a nearly total silence”? If the earth is to survive, that can be no more.

I don’t know the answer. Didn’t Nobel prizewinner Al Gore get into considerable embarrassment about the sincerity of his concerns on global warming when he simply stepped aboard an aircraft? Maybe it has to do with many environmental ‘leaders” and environmental “followers” having one foot in John Muir’s wilderness and one foot in the one per cent’s conspicuous consumption. How, after all, can a wilderness experience be enhanced by a propane stove, freeze-dried gourmet food, a titanium-framed backpack, a satellite-led GPS, an ultralight rip-stop-nylon tent with a sleeping bag to match, the latter stuffed with some chemical concoction from Dow? For an amusing comparison, Thoreau said that what you needed to take along for twelve days on a canoe trip in the Maine woods included

“Wear, a check shirt, stout old shoes, thick socks, a neck ribbon, thick waistcoat, thick pants, old Kossuth hat, a linen sack.

“Carry, in an India rubber knapsack, with a large flap, two shirts (check), one pair thick socks, one pair drawers, one flannel shirt, two pocket handkerchiefs, a light India rubber coat or a thick woollen one, two bosoms and collars to go and come with, one napkin, pins, needles, thread, one blanket, best gray, seven feet long.”

Thoreau, The Maine Woods, Conscious Living Foundation.

At very least, there will be a great deal of grumbling from the troops as we march forward. Wherefore do many of our leaders and those of us they need to convince, follow the petrochemical and Silicon Valley industries into the woods rather than follow Henry David Thoreau? Maybe the answer relates to why many environmental leaders fail to see us consumers as well as Shell as “the enemy.” If that’s the problem, perhaps they (and we!) need to spend some time in a Tibetan monastery to prepare for the battle. But I don’t know.

Maybe it’s a matter of practicality or “political realism” – not wishing to alienate potential supporters. But that is not true practicality or “political realism”. Realistically, “realism” will only lead us away from saving the world. The only way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce CO2 emissions, a problem we do not solve by avoidance. Avoidance costs us time, and as IEA points out to us, “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Maybe it’s more fundamental As most “green” types know, many years ago, three towering minds in the environmental/conservation movement – John Holdren, Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner – put into a formula the primary ingredients of adverse environmental impacts:

I = P x A x T

(See Wikipedia, “I = PAT,”.) Galbraith identified “A” as a “forbidden question,” over which “hangs a nearly total silence.” The same is true, unfortunately, of “P.” There is in the environmental movement a conspiracy of silence over the population issue (“P”) as well. What to do about population is, like what to do about conservation, a “forbidden question,” over which “hangs a nearly total silence.” See Diane Francis, The Real Inconvenient Truth, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, “Speaking Out on Population: A conspiracy of silence is limiting action on the world’s most basic environmental problem,” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1988-89, at 36-37, Julia Whitty, Population: the Last Taboo, May 2010, Mother Jones, Maher, How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection, Population and Environment, Volume 18, Number 4, March 1977.

In short, it seems, although this writer certainly could be “wronger,” the mainline environmental grops won’t touch “P” and won’t touch “A.” What is PxA? The GDP, of course. The “growth”- oriented corporate world does not smile upon nonprofits that advocate policies that might interfere with the GDP or “growth.” Neither (I am told but cannot verify personally) do the foundations on which nonprofits depend for funding. So the mainline environmental groups attacking global warming and many other problems have largely confined themselves to “T” – the regulation of “fracking” technology rather than its prohibition or discouragement of fossil-fuel home heating, hybrid vehicles rather than fewer vehicles or fewer vehicle miles driven, solar energy rather than less energy – the list is endless. Indeed, a cursory examination of the major federal environmental legislation that followed on the heels of Earth Day One, reveals that they are silent as to “P” and”A.” putting almost all their emphasis on “T.” A focus exclusively on technology is largely just another fruitless attempt at avoidance, a perception confirmed by “The Limits to Growth: a Thirty Year Update”.

The days of limitless growth are over. Notwithstanding Harvard’s recent venture into the “peak oil” field, the fact is that “Peak Oil is a Done Deal.” (For citation to the latter and many other articles in the field, see The Imminent Crash Of the Oil Supply. This writer suspects that analyses in coming weeks of the Harvard report will prevent it from outlasting the Presidential elections.) “Peak minerals” is now clear. Vernon, 2007, “Peak Minerals”, Oil Drum Europe. “Peak water” is here. See, for example, Matthew Power, 2008, “Peak Water: Aquifers and Rivers Are Running Dry. How Three Regions Are Coping”. That, of course, was four years before the present universal drought. “Peak food” is not far away, and “peak grain” has already happened. See “Peak Food: Can Another Green Revolution Save Us?. So people who believe in growth forever or even for a decade, are living in a dream world and are not being helped by those, like the mainline environmentalists, who go along with the pretense.

Put another way, the proponents of “economic feasibility,” however “realistic” they may pride themselves in being, are going up a dead end. The rules are changing, VERY rapidly. It is literally “economically infeasible” to save the world from destruction. Why? Because economists use the discount rate to make that determination, and the discount rate mathematically eliminates planning for “the seventh generation.” Indeed, on the short term, preventing a collapse may be “economically infeasible” because the supplies of the ultimate commodities, humanity and biodiversity, exceed the demand. But can that deter us from trying? We have to abandon the old ways in a hurry.

I agree absolutely with Mr. McKibben when he says, with Bob Massie, “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.” YES!

I agree absolutely with Mr. McKibben when he says, “The more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue.” YES!

But there we have to part company. McKibben is apparently talking not about consumers but about investors, for whom much of the industry has none. Iraq, for example, has no private investors in the great majority of its oil. China has no private investors in the oil reserves it now controls. So what is Mr. McKibben doing here when he talks about universities withdrawing their investments in oil company stock? It would be a fun campaign to run, getting college students to picket their administrative offices if they held Shell shares, but it would have little or no effect in the industry, public or private, for the near future. The campaign he reminds us of to free South Africa was painfully slow. A similar campaign now against the private oil industry would create some embarrassment in limited locations, but would it cut emissions? No, because the emissions reductions must come from us the consumers, won’t come until we change our lifestyles, and won’t come out of a campaign that promises to leave lifestyles alone.

And to return to the moral question, we are by far the ones with the ties that matter the most. We give the industry, both public and private, trillions of dollars per year. We ARE their profits. We are their raison d’etre.

Can we say that WE, who are the means by which the industry profits, the means by which it creates the poison, the means by which the poison is distributed to do its damage, do NOT “have ties with those who profit from climate change”? That is a lie. And it is a moral issue. This writer discussed at considerable length why it is a moral issue in “A Greeting For 2012: Looking Back At Durban And Other Progressive Failures, And “Occupying” Ourselves”, and will not repeat.

If we do not NOW put a halt to all emissions we can conceivably avoid, if we do not now eliminate the demand necessary for the “lock-in” capital investments IEA has identified (or at least start reducing demand so quickly that would-be capital investors see the writing on the wall, then those investments will be made under the correct observation that it is what we want. We shall burn in a hell of our own creation, just as hot as if the only “enemy” were Shell.

We can seek to sever indirect ties we have with the “enemy” private oil companies with shareholders, engaging in entertaining student sit-ins if we wish, thus perhaps in a few years “severing our ties” with the ten per cent or less of oil owners with public shares. It will indeed make a moral point. But what about the negative moral point we make by our failure to stop giving trillions to the industry, to stop creating the emissions that cause global warming: we want to go on paying the industry its trillions in profits, we want to go on poisoning the earth, as President Bush said, “to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.” That is NOT the right message to try to convince the world that we are seriously concerned about global warming.

Thank you Mr. McKibben, for all you have done and propose to do. And thank you for looking at what we need to do in moral terms. Pure pragmatism, like “growth” for its own sake, must come to an end if we are to avoid environmental Armageddon. Your approach is long overdue. But your direction is futile unless you insist on much more. It will not save the earth. It will not save our souls. Remember, “The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes from the energy that we do not consume.” It’s that simple. So we must get on with that task, forthwith.   Φ

Nicholas C. Arguimbau, is an appellate and environmental lawyer licensed in California and residing in Western Massachusetts. Nicholas is a lawyer with a BA in physics from Harverd, who spent 35 years defending California air and water, the Constitution, and denizens of California’s Death Row. He now presides over 49 acres and on the select board of of the purest democracies in the United States.

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