Climate change, capitalism, and community

By Jack Russell

Climate change is the great paradox of our time. Not the science. That is settled. The politics.

A majority of humankind senses the crisis. Hundreds of millions with some access to analysis know that burning carbon at current levels wounds the biosphere and risks our future. Yet national governments and international organizations still plod and palaver.

A cacophony of voices on the politics of climate change crowds our airwaves. Deniers deliver their lines in fora funded by carbon billionaires: Fox, ALEC and Congress. Fatalists wearily anticipate doom, certain it’s already too late. Free market fundamentalists pimp algorithms contra Al Gore to prove that carbon-dependent capitalism will cure itself.

Geo-engineers offer miraculous techno-fixes that would seed the stratosphere with billions of tiny sun-reflecting mirrors, comforting those confident that “science” will always find a way. Localists hunker down to eco-sane daily lives hoping others will turn politics green.

Enter, stage left, Naomi Klein, already the author of two widely praised and read books who, six years ago, trained her skills on the political economy of climate change. The result, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” flows like a welcome spring wind that clears haze and spreads pollen.

Klein, who is speaking at College of the Atlantic’s graduation on Saturday, sees the problem. Burning carbon as its primary energy source at an accelerating rate for the past 240 years, capitalism has created a near-climate-future that will drive mass extinctions, threaten the life-prospects of billions and create risks for our own species that cannot be solved by market forces.

She states what is to be done. We must limit future temperature rise to no more than two degrees centigrade and then achieve a long, gradual reduction by keeping most of the remaining carbon “reserves” in the ground. Also, we need an aggressive change to renewable energy sources through firm regulation by governments from local to global and smart subsidies to renewable energy sources for as long as necessary.

Others before Klein have addressed both the challenge and the solution. But five distinctive virtues put “This Changes Everything” on the top shelf of important 21st century books.

Klein argues forcefully that the market relations and energy path of capitalism since James Watt’s coal-fired steam engine are the source of the climate change crisis – and that we cannot generate a viable solution from markets. Liberals who still believe that a carbon tax and cap-and-trade regime will be sufficient to walk the world back from climate catastrophe should read Klein’s critique of this conceit.

“This Changes Everything” offers a trenchant message that there must be losers as we address the climate change crisis – most obviously, the multinational corporations and their shareholders who own trillions in carbon reserves. The disinvestment movement begins this contest, which will culminate when other fractions of capital deliver a stern message to carbon corporations: Your assets are toxic to the planet and the political legitimacy of our economic order and must be written off.

The most gratifying virtue of “This Changes Everything” is the optimism of the author. This is anchored by the concluding third of her book where she reports and reflects on many local movements to block the machinations of global carbon corporations. This is a natural act for Klein, who obviously feels at home with communities in resistance.

Klein shares these stories as early evidence of a prospective larger movement she calls Blockadia. Her optimism sustains the hope that resistance to climate change caused by carbon corporations can grow to the national, continental and global scale she knows is necessary for a planet-preserving victory. We shall all see.

We welcome Naomi Klein to our island. Thank you, COA seniors!

But I see a deeper connection between her themes and our community. The challenge of climate change is global, but the actions of most will be local. Each community will contribute as it can. I believe our own contribution can be distinctive. Our region can be a living laboratory to understand climate change. This view is based on the convergence of many factors in the natural and human history of the Acadian region.

Love of nature, place and science compelled 19th century researchers to begin documentation of the natural history of Mount Desert Island. Their work helped inspire the conservation of Acadia National Park and started datasets on the evolving flora and fauna of our region. Founding Superintendent George B. Dorr envisioned the future importance of scientific inquiry for our region and contributed to the establishment of The Jackson Laboratory and the MDI Biological Laboratory.

From its creation and still today, Acadia has been an organization with a public mandate and staff capacity to observe, assess and understand natural processes within the conserved domain. This mandate has endured for a century. More than 70 research projects take place every year within Acadia, many exploring ecosystem dynamics relevant to climate change. Anchored by Acadia, citizen scientists are engaged in a broad suite of research initiatives in the region.

This convergence gives a special opportunity and responsibility to our region in our time. We can work in solidarity with all who study climate change “in place” to build understanding and resilience.

Jack Russell is a resident of Mount Desert.

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