“There’s No Economy on a Dead Planet”: Reflections on a Missing Election Issue

By Paul Steet. First published on ZNet on October 9, 2012.

Listening to Mitt Romney and Barack Obama wonk back and forth on how to spark economic growth (a doctrinally sacred goal of American presidential candidates) during their first televised debate last week, I was reminded of a handmade poster held by a young woman protesting outside the global climate meetings in Copenhagen in December of 2009. “There’s No Economy,” the poster read, “on a Dead Planet.” [1]

There’s something missing from the presidential campaign, including the first presidential debate last week – the fate of the Earth.  

Well, not the Earth itself, really. The planet we currently inhabit will outlive us if current trends towards anthropogenic ecocide are not halted. What’s really at stake is livable ecology – the existence of a natural environment consistent with a decent and desirable future for humanity and other sentient beings.  

“We’re Losing the Earth’s Air Conditioner” 

Here we should make no mistake. The Earth, understood in this sense (as livable ecology), is in crisis thanks to catastrophic climate change and a related broader unfolding environmental apocalypse According to research released last June by the science journal Nature, humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction – a threat caused by its reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The report reveals that our planet’s biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a “tipping point,” meaning that all of the planet’s ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including… fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations,” wrote lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried,” co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said in a statement. “In fact, some are terrified.”[2]

The leading (though hardly the sole) ecological threat is climate change. The great northern ice sheet is withering ominously. The melting of Arctic ice replaces a shiny white mirror that reflects the sun’s rays back to space “with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays.”  Inland glaciers and snow-packs in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies are retreating, threatening local and global water and food supplies. They are “melting very fast,” the ecological writer and activist Bill McKibben noted two years ago in his chilling book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, “and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle” [3]

The thawing out of arctic tundra and icy ocean clathrates releases massive quantities of methane, a major heat-trapping and climate warning gas. Melting northern peat moss releases carbon in large amounts. Scientists have recently reported that northern marshes and ponds are staying unfrozen over the winter because methane is gurgling up from below.  

The 20th century’s last two decades were the hottest in 400 years and likely the warmest for several millennia. Twelve of the last 13 years are among the 13 warmest since 1850. The American State Department’s chief scientist has projected famines related to climate change and serious enough to affect a billion people in coming decades. The current and latest candidate-centered, big money major party “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky) is taking place after yet another hottest summer ever, which followed, yet another of the warmest springs and warmest winters on record.

The evidence of climate peril has deepened in the last two years. We have experienced record-setting summer heat waves in 2011 and 2012, record snowfalls in 2010 and 2011, epic droughts (Oklahoma and Texas in 2011 and the entire Midwest and much of the nation in 2012), increased numbers and intensity of tornadoes, a remarkable straight line windstorm (a “derecho”) that wreaked havoc from Illinois to the eastern seaboard and an epidemic and drought- and heat-related western wildfires this summer. No less than 222,356 daily high temperature records were set across the country by early July of this year, when New York Times columnist Timothy Egan noted that “it was 109 degrees in Nashville, 104 in Washington, D.C., and much of the West was aflame… Summer is barely two weeks old and two-thirds of the country is in the grip of a severe drought. More crops will die. More forests will burn….It sounds biblical…’[4] 

Given the dramatically altered weather and the spate of climate- and extreme weather-related disasters in the U.S. over recent years, a rising majority of Americans see global warming as a reality, as the reason for the crazy weather, and as a relevant negative factor in their own lives – not just something “about polar bears or maybe Bangladesh.”[5] It has become apparent that, global warming “is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality,” McKibben wrote in Eaarth, “already wrecking thousands of lives daily.”[6] 

A front page New York Times story three weeks ago featured a recent National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) report indicating that summer ice in the Arctic may disappear by 2020. That’s three decades ahead of what was previously expected by pessimistic experts.  

“The Arctic is the earth’s air-conditioner,” Walt Meier, an NSIDS researcher told Times reporter Justin Gillis. “We’re losing that. It’s not just that polar bears might go extinct, or that native communities might have to adapt, which we’re already seeing — there are larger climate effects,” [7] all terrible to contemplate.

“A Powerful Symbol of the Age of Man” 

Climate change is indisputably anthropogenic – human-made. The long deep-pocketed propaganda, public relations, and lobbying arms of the corporate carbon industrial complex have long insisted that global warming is a reflection of unalterable natural forces that operate independently of human control. But the preponderant majority of the climate-sentient world agrees with the overwhelming consensus finding of contemporary earth scientists that global warming is anthropogenic (“human made”) – that it reflects the visible hand of human practice, politics, and policy. It knows that the story of the world’s broken ecology is about the human release of greenhouse gases resulting from the uncontrolled extraction and use of carbon-based fossil fuels.[8]

The harsh reality has to be acknowledged in elite capitalist media. Reflecting its duty to provide its privileged readers with reasonably accurate information, even the neoliberal, arch-capitalist Anglo-American Economist magazine acknowledges the dominant role of human agency in a recent special supplemental report on “The Vanishing North.”  According to The Economist last June, “The shrinkage of the sea ice is no less a result of human hands than the ploughing of the prairies. The cause is global pollution, and the risks it carries are likewise global. The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man.”[9] 

“Accelerating the Catastrophe” 

What do the two dominant U.S. business parties offer towards the goal of saving the planet – well, its living species – from the crisis of anthropogenic global warming? Less than nothing. An escalation of the assault, in fact, making the problem worse. 

Writing about the drastic melting of “the earth’s air-conditioner,” Gillis notes a chilling lack of urgency in reacting to the problem the part of rich nation governments, whose “main response has been to plan for exploitation of newly accessible minerals in the Arctic, including more oil.”[10] 

Instead of acting to limit greenhouse emissions, those governments see the retreat of the great northern ice cover as an opportunity “to accelerate the catastrophe…The reaction,” Noam Chomsky notes, “demonstrates an extraordinary willingness to sacrifice the lives of our children and grandchildren for short-term gain. Or, perhaps, an equally remarkable willingness to shut our eyes so as not to see the impending peril.”[11] 

Nowhere is this indifference and/or blindness more apparent and deadly than in the United States, the world’s leading power and by far the greatest contributor to climate change to date. A disturbing story on the national political conventions buried at the bottom of page six of the Wall Street Journal last September 6th bore a telling headline: “Both Parties Shift to Promote More Fossil Fuels.”  The “revolution in U.S. oil and gas production over the past four years,” the story’s lead ran, “has changed the platforms of the both political parties, with Democrats and Republicans more bullish on these resources and less concerned about climate change than they were during the last presidential election.”  The story only got worse:  

“Democrats have moved so far [in the direction favored by the carbon-industrial complex] that their platform bears a striking resemblance to the GOP platform of 2008. At the same time, the 2012 Republican platform has jettisoned many of the policies it championed four years ago to focus largely on increased fossil fuel production.”  

“The new Democratic platform includes a brief, favorable mention of [so-called] clean coal…It also advocates greater production of and use of domestic natural gas. Like this year’s Republican platform, it promotes  energy development as a way to jump-start economic growth and job creation….Interior Secretary Ken Salazar talked up fossil fuels at the Democratic Convention,…[boasting that] U.S. oil production was at a 14-year high…”

“…Democrats who once favored more drastic measures to combat climate change have ended up pretty much where [John] McCain was back [in 2008].The new platform says Democrats favor ‘reducing our emission domestically’ through ‘regulation and market solutions,’ but doesn’t mention cap-and-trade legislation [which Obama favored in 2008]…..Republican presidential Mitt Romney has come out against tax credits for renewable energy, and the GOP platform is silent on the issue.” [12] 

The Wall Street Journal did not mention that this lunatic, eco-cidal, ExxonMobil- and American Petroleum Institute-funded drift right in the climate platforms of the two reigning U.S. political organizations may well mean kiss the planet (well, a decent and desirable future for humanity and other species) goodbye. “Game over” for the environment, as the leading NASA earth scientist James Hansen puts it in connection with the Keystone Pipeline project for bringing Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico? So what? 

Dumb and Dumber 

Also unmentioned by the WSJ was Obama’s dismal climate record as president. Consistent with his central role in preventing the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit from setting serious carbon emission ceilings for the rich nations that created the global warming crisis,[13] Obama has further betrayed the green-sounding promises of his 2008 campaign by significantly escalating environmentally disastrous offshore drilling and approving the lethal expansion of “fracking,” which poisons the land and watersheds in the name of jobs and energy independence. The president wants to get points from environmentalists for acknowledging that anthropogenic climate change exists even conducts policies that worsen the problem, which happens to be the single greatest existential threat faced by the species. 

In the 90-minute Obama-Romney debate last week, there was lots of talk about economic growth, health care, the deficit and federal spending, leaving little time for environmental problems. The words “oil,” “energy,” and “natural gas” came up many times, but neither “global warming” nor “climate change” received a single reference – this even after 160,000 Americans signed a petition asking debate moderator Jim Lehrer to query the candidates on their climate policies. [14] 

The two dominant business parties and their presidential candidates are not 100 percent the same. Every four years, pugilistic pockets of puffed-up radicals claim that the reigning parties are indistinguishable, that there is nothing whatsoever to choose from between them, and that the populace has no impact at all on policy via elections. All of that is technically false.[15] Climate change and the environment are no exception. As New York Times correspondent John Broder reported yesterday, Romney:  

“has pledged to reverse a half-dozen major Environmental Protection Agency pollution and public health rules [still intact under Obama] to swiftly approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada [postponed by Obama], to rewrite [Obama’s] ambitious new vehicle fuel efficiency standards and to open [more] untouched coastal and wilderness areas to oil and gas exploration [than Obama has been willing to open]. Mr. Romney envisions a nation in which coal-burning power plants are given new life, oil derricks sprout on public lands and waters, industry is given a greater say in the writing and enforcement of environmental rules and the Code of Federal Regulations shrinks rather than grows.”  

Unlike Obama so far, Romney wants to turn all permitting for hydraulic fracturing on public lands over to the states. Romney declares that there is no scientific consensus on the existence of anthropogenic climate change. He also flatly rejects the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate the disposal of coal ash from power plants and to limit mountaintop-removal coal mining. He stridently denounces Washington’s supposed “assault on coal and gas and oil,”[16] making his desire to speed-up the fossil-fuel assault on livable ecology a central part of his campaign.  

That said, there is of course far too little distance between the parties. The conservative corporate and dismal Democrats and the radically regressive corporate Republicans are certainly more alike than different in any meaningful comparative world-historical sense and they are all-too-similar and silent on global warming and numerous other key and related issues. “On one pending regulatory matter, the Keystone XL pipeline,” Broder notes, Romney and Obama will likely “arrive at the same conclusion…by different mechanisms and on different timetables. Mr. Romney has frequently said that on his first day in office he would approve the pipeline, a much-contested project to carry heavy oil from tar sands formations in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Mr. Obama has approved a nearly 500-mile section of the pipeline from Oklahoma to the gulf and has signaled that he intends to green-light the rest of the project in 2013 after environmental and routing reviews are completed” (emphasis added).[17] 

The Republicans and the Democrats both decline to take the great time bomb of climate change[18] with anything remotely like the seriousness it deserves since doing so would disrupt “the economy.” They both worship at the altar of growth and the notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats” – capitalism’s longstanding fake, eco-cidal answer to popular pressure for jobs, and end to poverty, and the downward redistribution of income and wealth.[19] They both refuse to let long-term considerations of livable ecology and human survival interfere with the short-term pursuit of material expansion and the bottom line, not to mention the short-term logic of the election cycle. 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is an author, speaker, and political commentator in Iowa City, Iowa. He can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com 

Selected Endnotes


[2]  Common Dreams Staff, “Earth Facing Imminent Environmental Tipping Point: Report,” Common Dreams (June 7, 2012) at https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/06/07-3. On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#.; Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007).

 [3] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010), 45.  

[4] Timothy Egan, “The Fires This Time,” New York Times, July 5, 2012. 

[5]According to New York Times correspondent Justin Gillis, reporting on two important polls carried out last spring: “Scientists may hesitate to link some of the weather extremes of recent years to global warming — but the public, it seems, is already there. A poll due for release on Wednesday shows that a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming….The survey, the most detailed to date on the public response to weather extremes, comes atop other polling showing a recent uptick in concern about climate change. Read together, the polls suggest that direct experience of erratic weather may be convincing some people that the problem is no longer just a vague and distant threat. ‘Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,’ said Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll. ‘People are starting to connect the dots’…Dr. Leiserowitz said that recent events might be puncturing the public’s very simplistic mental model of what global warming is supposed to be: Past survey work had suggested, he said, that people tended to see the climate change problem as ‘distant in time and space — that this is an issue about polar bears or maybe Bangladesh, but not my community, not the United States, not my friends and family’ ” Justin Gillis, “In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change,” New York Times, April 17, 2012. A July 2012 University of Texas survey showing that 70 percent of Americans now think the climate is changing, up 5 points from last March. More than half (53 percent) of Republicans now agree, as did 87 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Independents,  See Eric Klinenberg, “Is it Hot Enough for Ya?” New York Times, August 5, 2012, Sunday Review section, 4. 

[6] McKibben, Eaarth. 


[7] Justin Gillis, “Ending its Summer Melt, Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Low That Leads to Warnings,” New York Times, September 19, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/science/earth/arctic-sea-ice-stops-melting-but-new-record-low-is-set.html?_r=0 


[8] Julie Ray and Anita Pugliese, “Worldwide, Blame for Climate Change Falls on Humans,” Gallup (April 22, 211) at http://www.gallup.com/poll/147242/worldwide-blame-climate-change-falls-humans.aspx 


[9] “The Vanishing North: What the Melting of the Arctic Means for Trade, Energy and the Environment,” The Economist, June 16, 2012. 


[10] Gillis, “Ending its Summer Melt.” 


[11] Noam Chomsky, “Issues That Obama and Romney Avoid,” New York Times Syndicate, reprinted on ZNet (October 6, 2012).  


[12] Keith Johnson, “Both Parties Shift to Promote More Fossil Fuels,” Wall Street Journal,  September 7, 2012, A6. 


[13] For details and sources on this depressing episode, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), 26-28. 


[14] Russel McLendon, “Obama-Romney Debate Skirts Environment Skirts Environment,” Mother Nature Network (October 4, 2012).  


[15] As the incisive Marxist commentator and author Lance Selfa notes in a book that is highly critical of the Democrats and the corporate-capitalist party duopoly, “the two-party system would not work the way it is supposed to [for the propertied elite] if the two parties were identical. There must be at least some differences between the parties to give voters a stake in choosing which of the two will be in power after each election. So in early twenty-first century America, the Democrats are the ‘pro-choice’ party and the GOP mostly opposes reproductive rights. The Democrats tend to be friendlier to organized labor than the Republicans. Democrats tend to support provisions for immigrants to win a ‘path to citizenship,’ while the GOP harbors many more open nativists in its midst. Aside from providing these kinds of issue contrasts, a crucial role of the political parties is ‘binding citizens to the established system…’” Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 34. 


[16] John Broder, “Romney’s Goals on Environmental Regulation,” New York Times, October 6, 2012, read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/us/politics/romney-weed-whacker-on-environmental-rules-may-falter.html?ref=johnmbroder&_r=0 


[17] Broder, “Romney’s Goals.” 


[18] “The dictionary,” the prolific social critic Charles Derber notes, “defines a time bomb as ‘something that threatens to have an abruptly disastrous outcome in the future.’ Climate change – the largely imperceptible rise in our greenhouse as emissions and earth temperature is a time bomb….[it is] capitalism’s time bomb, a reflection of inner contradictions in the workings of our markets, politics, and consumerist culture.” Charles Derber, Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010) 1-2. 


[19] An important reflection here is Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007). 

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By | 2012-12-06T14:52:10+00:00 October 9th, 2012|Articles|