Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arctic Species Suicide

Thanks to Bill McKibben (once again) for making clear, in an op-ed in today's Times, just how big a disaster is Obama's decision to proceed with oil drilling in the Arctic. One reason is the enormous environmental risk incurred by drilling in this remote, stormy sea rich in wildlife and perhaps impossible to 'restore' after the inevitable spills. The Times suggests caution in its editorial, which itemizes a series of inept failures that have characterized early stages of the project.

But the incredible truth is that the Times and President Obama have completely missed the essential point, forcefully summed up by McKibben: no new exploitation of oil, arctic or tar sand, or coal, or any other fossil fuel makes ANY SENSE AT ALL in relation to our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero. This is not primarily a 'clean environment' issue--it's about survival. By framing the discussion around safety concerns, clean-up safeguards, risk management, and so forth, the Times, and President Obama, and of course Shell Oil are effectively denying, as McKibben says, that science has real consequences.

So how should we understand this extraordinary decision by the President? Obama as we know is a pragmatist. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt: he believes climate change is serious, greenhouse gases need to be reduced, renewables developed, coal replaced. But he knows that the push-back from Congress, from global corporations, from a dubious electorate, and financial interests who can't fathom the writing down of trillions of dollars in assets--he knows that all these forces are too powerful to oppose. So he continues with half-measures via executive order. He makes vague promises regarding the future, knowing he will have no say in energy policy beyond next year. And he supports a slightly reformed version of arctic drilling, with some safeguards against the threat of spills, but no barrier at all against the over-consumption of oil that continued exploration all but guarantees.

What does this mean? It makes clear that Naomi Klein and others are right: the climate change problem can't be resolved within the forcefield of our existing political and economic structures. The fight for a livable atmosphere must lead us to the struggle for a sustainable social order, not the one we have now--where Shell Oil can command policy decisions that are ultimately insane--but a cooperative system oriented to the needs of the most vulnerable. We must insist that the Paris conference speak for the poor, the islanders on the verge of inundation, the refugees from floods, storms, and desertification. Those are the voices President Obama doesn't hear. Those are the voices we need to empower.

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