Robert Hunziker. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: How do you explain the failure of all climate conferences? And what is still the utility of these conferences?
Robert Hunziker: The reason for failure of the Conference of the Parties (“COP”) has primarily been a result of sharp differentiation of opinion between “developed countries” and “developing countries” with the latter insisting that the developed countries should carry the burden of resolving, and controlling or reducing planetary climate change as a result of their spewing excessive emissions, principally carbon dioxide (CO2).To date, the principle utility of the conferences has been to bring the issue into the public domain, creating universal awareness, and this, itself, has been very worthwhile.
Otherwise, it could be argued that, without the organized worldwide effort, i.e., the conferences, the issue would be localized or regionalized and fragmented to the extent that numerous efforts for renewable energy already underway would not have occurred.
The simplest explanation behind a value proposition for the conferences is that, without the conferences, climate change would not have had a “worldwide stage” from which the world woke up to the fact that a serious problem exists.
For example, it could be argued that Germany’s 25-30% renewable energy today is because of the worldwide exposure of climate change, as a result of COP, and several other countries have taken aggressive action to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. This is something very positive that is quietly happening all across the planet.
According to Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change, one hundred fifty-five countries have already submitted their plans, including the top developing nations of China and India. Thus, it appears COP21 wanted result in worldwide agreement with the goal of maintaining global warming below an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. However, only time will tell if the various countries meet their quotas.
However, it should be said that the likelihood of maintaining below 2°C is nearly impossible simply because of what is already in the atmospheric pipeline; several prominent scientists agree with this, for example, Kerry Emanuel of MIT says: “Throughout paleoclimatology any doubling of CO2 increased temperatures by 4°C, and we are on track to double during current lifetimes.” Hopefully, a powerful effort by COP21 participants wanted deter that timeline, but it must be really powerful, getting off fossil fuels.
After all, since 900 AD, CO2 in the atmosphere was relatively stable at around 275 ppm, but in a little over 200 years it has shot up by 45% to 400 ppm. That’s a huge change in a short time span as for climate change. Historically, these things took thousands of years to happen, with some few exceptions.
As it happens, the global warming problem, according to several esteemed scientist I know, is already nearly so far out of control that only a colossal movement amongst nations, similar to the Marshall Plan, will save the planet from serious ecosystem destruction and overheating to the point that life as we know it is gone forever.
And, it is a fair statement based upon current trends in the climate system that some repercussions from anthropogenic global warming, like desertification and ocean acidification, may not be fixable and appear to be headed in a very bad direction, regardless of COP21, even as it holds out hope.
For example, heat waves and droughts 50 years ago only covered 0.20% of Earth’s land area. Today, because of global warming, they cover 10% (James Hansen). Again, one should take notice of this huge change in a short timeframe. This is global warming accelerating at its worse.
As for another example, atmospheric CO2 is accelerating: From 1960-70 CO2 emissions averaged 0.85 ppm annually. Whereas, the 2000-2014 period saw emissions average 2.0 ppm annually, or an increase of 135% over prior decades. Today CO2 in the atmosphere registers 400+ ppm.
Which brings up an interesting consideration because, assuming no exponential growth of CO2 (but it is increasing exponentially), at current rates of increase, by 2040 the planet will be at 450 ppm, which according to the paleoclimate record will cause enough warming to melt most of Antarctica (James Hansen). That’s a potential sea rise, over an indeterminate period of time, of anywhere from 50 to 200 feet, submerging every coastal city in the world, and then some.
So, the risk of doing nothing is huge. Whether COP21 will be enough to alleviate the risk of an out-of-control planet is unknown, but it is obviously fair to say that something, anything is better than doing nothing.
I should also mention one of the pitfalls of public perception of climate change, and it is this: Climate change is most pronounced, most noticeable where nobody goes, except scientists and oil exploration teams. Who really travels to the Arctic or to the Tibetan glaciers or to Antarctica or into the ocean?
Those are the regions of Earth where climate change is most exposed, as worldwide glaciers melt like crazy, for example, Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier is losing ice today at twice the speed of 2003, which was twice as fast as 1997 (therein is a prime example of accelerating global warming), and Arctic ice has shrunk by over 50% of mass over 40 years, and some of Antarctica’s glaciers, like the Totten Glacier (90 x 20 miles) are irreversibly cascading, which will measurably increase sea levels. These are unprecedented events in the history of Western Civilization, and we should be paying a lot of attention.
Ours is the Age of Climate Change, but problematically, it is accelerating as if it were a wild banshee hovering over all life forms. This is not good; it is really bad.
Can we protect the environment with a mode of capitalist consumption?
No, capitalism is responsible for the mess in the first place, but your question references “a mode” of capitalist consumption, which I will address further on.
But first, regarding the problem of present-day capitalism; it literally threatens to “flatten” the planet with ecosystem collapse.
Capitalism has changed radically over just the past few decades; nowadays it is an expression of a neoliberalism school of thought first propagated in a serious public manner in the 1950s by Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. Subsequently, PM Thatcher and President Reagan put neoliberalism into high gear. I have studied and written extensively about the subject.
In essence, neoliberalism is commoditization of anything and everything on the planet, including people. Everything has a price, and as a result, moral or ethical values go up in smoke. Only price, only profit, only total control, only wide-open free markets, only privatization taking assets out of the public domain, only economic survival of the fittest counts. Nature is left out in the cold as an adjunct to commodities that command a price.
Unfortunately but true, first and foremost, neoliberalism must turn a profit regardless of how much CO2 it emits or regardless of massive wetland removal/destruction, which is nature’s most prolific mechanism for cleansing water. In other words, today’s brand of capitalism does not recognize the scale of a finite planet, and this is extraordinarily dangerous. This is precisely what’s behind the climate change issue today.
Regarding your question of whether there is “a mode” of capitalist consumption that protects the environment. Yes, there is a better way that is inclusive of capitalism, but it requires an entirely different way of thinking amongst academia and political scientists, which frankly is doubtful.
The answer is Eco Economics for which there is an established school of thought. This brand of economics ties the whole picture together, the externalities outside of the market as well as everything inside markets. Thus, biophysical limits are integrated into the market system, as capitalism is nothing if not a market system of “bids and asks.”
With Eco Economics, natural capital conjoins with labor and human-made capital. For example, a forest or a fishery is capable of producing a perpetual harvest, year after year. The forest or fish stock is the natural capital; the sustainable harvest is the natural income.
The British economist Sir John Richard Hicks (1904-1989) was instrumental in formulating the theory of natural capital, which brings forth natural income, which is defined as the level of consumption that can be sustained from one period to another period without reducing natural wealth, a brilliant way for sustainability of life on the planet.
Today’s capitalism ignores natural wealth. For example, the average person in industrialized countries uses 2-5 hectares of productive land to sustain material consumption, whereas there are only 1.5 hectares per capita of ecologically productive land available (World Resources Institute). Thus, a lot of people are left out when 20% of the world’s population consumes 100% of ecological productive capital. This helps clarify why 2.7 billion people live on $2 per day, and it certainly brings into focus why so many people are mindlessly wandering the planet in search of a decent livelihood.
It is simply not possible for everybody in the world to consume at current industrial levels without risking irreversible resource depletion and ecosphere collapse.
Along the same lines, in order to counter the insatiable capitalistic consumerism compulsion of “buying for glory,” which is a social externality that drains nature’s capital, economist Robert Frank of Cornell suggest a progressive consumption tax. Ergo, luxury goods cost more whereas investing in socially productive items means no tax at all.
Under sustainability theory, Wal-Mart’s sustainability would consist of 100% renewable energy, zero waste, and selling products that sustain both people and environment. Imagine the quantities of frivolous merchandise that would be eliminated with likely scaled-down stores.
In nature things do not grow forever, if otherwise, sunflowers would grow into the clouds and we’d have 900-pound hamsters, which conversely grow into a “steady state,” staying small. If economies follow the course of nature, growth stages would compensate by moving into a steady state, like all natural systems. This means the end of cutthroat competition to grow, grow, grow; alternatively, the answer is cooperatives, (presidential candidate Bernie Sanders oftentimes mentions cooperatives where the workers own the businesses) and collaboration for a steady state of development, a sustainable ecosphere.
Along these same lines, some leftist economists, as well as a few on the right, have suggested “common asset trusts,” e.g. making the atmosphere an asset with property rights. Anyone who damages it is charged for the damage. Ocean trusts and watershed trusts could be set up.
Nevertheless, as things stand today, capitalism’s rampant, unchecked growth-to-profit scheme is hell bent on flattening the earth, meaning total ecosphere collapse, including acidification of the oceans – blanketing the planet with harmful emissions – runaway global warming – resulting in worldwide warfare of brutal combat for salvation on a planet that is scorched to the bone.
The dystopian action film Mad Max (1979) is a likely prototype of our future world, as people gather in tribes to fight over the last remnants of nature’s bounty. In fact, this is already starting to happen, as the forces of global warming and neoliberalism compel people to migrate in search of livelihood. The horrendous drought in Syria a few years ago is an example of climate change, strongly influenced by years of climate neglectful neoliberal policies, disrupting an entire nation. The drought displaced hundreds of thousands of people, a precursor to civil war.
How do you explain the indifference of the various political and economic elites, while today the climate is the central issue?
There is no logical reason for indifference to a monumental problem that could lead to ecosystem collapse. But, as suggested by your question, the indifference is there, flagrantly in the United States.
As for a partial answer, I have studied and written about transnational capitalism, which goes to the heart of your question. U.S. capitalism has expanded its reach by morphing into a Transnational Capitalist Class that binds together by free market capitalism aka: neoliberalism. It is the heartbeat of a worldwide network of capitalists that thrive off profits and wealth creation, the 1% if you like. It’s reach and power and influence make it the most formidable political entity in the history of humankind. Because of this, political democracy has become archaic, no longer an effective mechanism as nation-state borders disappear in effectuating middle class living standards.
The notion that a company or corporate executive or wealthy entrepreneur is bound by an allegiance to their country of origin is passé. The elite capitalists of today are bound to one another, not to countries.
They meet at the same conferences, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or the The Bilderberg Group annual geopolitic forum, or in Asia it is the Boao Forum on China’s Hainan Island each spring, or the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, or Herb Allen’s Sun Valley gathering for media moguls, or the Google Zeitgeist conference, all defining the characteristics of today’s plutocrats; they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to the multitudes back home.
This then leads to the indifference question of the elite and the ruling class. Why the indifference to climate change? The answer has everything to do with the status quo. One remarkable consistency amongst the wealthy class, which is unified by transnational interests, is a reluctance to change that which has worked so well for so long. After all, it created their wealth in the first place. So, the rich elite does not like change. And, climate change, the fix, calls for one of the most radical economic changes in history, e.g., eliminating billions, maybe trillions, of dollars of fossil fuel infrastructure. After all, the entire Middle East is built upon a sandy infrastructure of holes poked into the ground to retrieve oil.
Having said that, it is interesting to note that China is making vast strides with renewable energy, investing over $80 billion last year alone, more than the U.S. and the EU combined. So, not all elites are totally indifferent.
Furthermore, 2013 marked a significant turning point for renewable energy as the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity versus 141 gigawatts of new fossil fuel plants. So, the world is not quite as indifferent as one would suspect.
Still, the point is well taken that the elites and political powers are relatively indifferent. Of course, it is also true that fossil fuel interests along with a few right wing wealthy elites have poured millions upon millions into phony web sites, paid-for-scientist, and ghostwriters and charlatan speakers to spread a sense of “doubt” about anthropogenic causes behind global warming. This, in large measure, confused the public, casting doubt for years. And, this is a strong reflection of more than mere indifference; it is strong opposition to the issue of climate change. The only answer for their outrageous behavior has to be the powerful desire to maintain the status quo because it is so bloody profitable, and they want to drain every last drop of profit.
Do not you think that we will experience more and more environmental disasters if we do not become aware of the threat to our planet?
Yes, there is absolutely no doubt about that. In fact, that is already happening today.
I’ll give a prime example, the Arctic. Global warming is taking a horrible toll on the integrity of the ice at the Arctic. According to one the world’s foremost experts on Arctic ice, Peter Wadhams (University of Cambridge) and numerous other professional sources, Arctic ice thickness has gone down by over 50% the last thirty-forty years, which itself is a powerful indicator of global warming. The problem arises as the Arctic warms, which is happening 2-3 times faster than average worldwide temperatures, which, in turn throws off the jet streams in the upper atmosphere above the Arctic, thus causing massive changes in weather patterns throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere, like prolonged droughts and like torrential storms resulting in the 2013 Colorado floods costing over $1 billion, taking 8 lives with 6 missing.
The list of disasters, as a result of global warming, is indeed a very long list and it is getting worse by the year. Already methane (“CH4”) that has been trapped by ice in northern latitudes for millennia is starting to emit ever-larger quantities into the upper atmosphere. This is another dangerous heat-trapping element, which is increasing nearly four-fold over recent decades. This is a deadly trend that can lead to runaway global warming, and we’ll all turn to toast.
Russian scientists, like Natalia Shakhova, who leads the Russia-U.S. Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center has repeatedly warned of an advancing methane threat that could be disastrous for the entire planet. CH4 is considerably more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than is CO2. This threat alone should be sufficient to turn COP21 into a worldwide “Marshall Plan” to defeat anthropogenic global warming, eliminating fossil fuels.
Faced with what you describe as genocide climate, can we maintain hope?
Last year I wrote an article about David Attenborough’s film “Are We Changing Planet Earth?” and he described the changes, for the worse, compared to the film he did in 1979 “Life on Earth,” he said this: “I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We’re very clever and extremely resourceful – and we will find ways of preserving ourselves, of that I’m sure. But whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question.”
I tend to agree with him, especially as I see vast strides already taking place in the world of renewable energy. I tell you it is happening right before our eyes in large fashion, and that is very positive. Although, I am not a Pollyanna and am fully aware of the challenges and of how advanced the global warming problem is already. I am acutely aware of how perilous several global warming blowback situations are today.
It is not an easy way forward, but yes, I agree with Attenborough “whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question.” In that regard, I seriously doubt, with the brutality of global capitalism so entrenched, whether richness of life can hold up for much longer, except for the transnational capitalist class, and they too are at risk.
How does it happen that Hillary Clinton maintains her candidacy for the US presidential despite scandals of Benghazi gate?
Hillary Clinton is essence of the Democratic Party in America. She is the party favorite and nearly unbeatable. She and Bill have thrived for decades in the face of continual scandals, one after another. Maybe American voters, in secret, like politicians that get their hands dirty. That could be the answer, but of course, I am only guessing.
You are correct to mention the negative impact of the scandal, but American voters have a tendency to vote in a “comfort zone,” meaning voters favor well-known candidates with whom they’ve developed a comfort zone. It’s kind of like once you get to know a person, you start to appreciate them simply because you know them.
After all, elections these days have become popularity contests, as dictated by polling, which poll numbers seem to revolve around who had the best one-liners in the most recent debate or in a TV interview. In so many respects, the entire election process has become a farce. Our political polemic has become punch lines on TV. And, Hillary is good at that.
Why such relentlessness of the US administration to want to destabilize progressive governments in Latin America? Why the US administration does not it retains the lessons of history from its bloody past in Latin America?
The root cause of America’s Latin American policies goes back to the days of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles head of the CIA in the 1950s. The Dulles brothers were mean sons-of-bitches that set American foreign policy on a course of interventionism. Both Iran and Guatemala suffered considerably at their hands. Their foreign policy interventionism is practiced to this day.
And, of course, American interventionism in South America really goes back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which stated that any efforts by European nations to colonize land or interfere in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring U.S. intervention.
Well, the United States of America has never deviated from the Monroe Doctrine, rather expanded it, but the heart of the problem goes well beyond the Monroe Doctrine as the CIA and other American agencies “plant stories and initiate coups and install dictators” throughout the region. This is an established fact, e.g., John Perkins’ book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” spells out America’s involvement in overturning and overpowering and capturing indirect as well as direct control over foreign nation-states.
In this context, I should also mention Andre Vltchek’s “Exposing Lies of the Empire” (800 pages), which is a tour de force about American empire building, and control of the world in favor of capitalist’s interests.
As far as American foreign policy goes, entire continents, north and south, are fiefdoms of the U.S. This is U.S. policy for nearly 200 years now, and nobody is going to change it any time soon, which is why Venezuela has been so demonized and surreptitiously interfered with, even though the country has achieved remarkable advancement for the people, cooperative ownership, health care, and education.
In point of fact, progressive governments in South America are a threat to the U.S. because progressive governments open up nation-state resources to all of the people of the country, but U.S. interests are much more narrow than “all of the people.”
When US imperialism destabilizes many Latin American countries, how do you explain its rapprochement with Cuba?
U.S. rapprochement with Cuba may be the result of exhaustion of U.S. attempts, over decades, to destabilize the country. Starting with the Kennedy administration, the U.S. demonized and covertly interfered in the affaires of Cuba, but to no avail. Therefore, it is likely that, since Cuba is one of the few countries that the U.S. has not been able to alter to its liking, the new approach is to befriend it. Obviously, this is a radical change in policy, but I am not sure the real reason behind it is fully understood neither by the public nor by me.
One other possible rational behind the rapprochement could be the renewed cold war attitude towards Russia over the past year, and by aligning with Cuba, the U.S. hopes to remove Russian influence over an ally that is immediately offshore the U.S. After all, why risk Russian warplanes 90 miles to the south, as vintage cold war efforts resume the vanguard?
The worldwide checkerboard of competing interests moves in a mysterious fashion that often only becomes truly evident well after the fact.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Interview of Robert Hunziker on KBOO 90.7FM RADIO in December 8, 2015
KBOO Radio 90.7 FM Portland
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Who is Robert Hunziker?
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles, over 200, have been translated into more than 10 foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z Magazine, The Ecologist, and CounterPunch. He has been extensively interviewed on radio and TV about climate change issues, as well as neoliberal economics.
Robert Hunziker’s research of scientific primary sources about climate change was initially inspired by Dr. James Hansen’s testimony before a Congressional committee in 1988, stating: « Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming, » adding: « It is already happening now. »
Published in Oximity, January 6, 2016:https://www.oximity.com/article/Robert-Hunziker-The-United-States-of-A-1