Science without politics

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The grandfather of American climate change research got himself arrested June 23 in West Virginia. James Hansen wants to see an immediate moratorium on building new coals mines, and the shut down of existing mines over the next 20 years. King Coal, the original fuel of the industrial revolution must be overthrown, and if it takes citizen protest action to do it, he was ready.


Interviewed for an insightful New Yorker portrait penned by Elizabeth Kolbert, Hansen said he no longer believes putting the right facts in front of the right people is good enough. Citing new findings that reveal a much more rapid advance of global warming than previously expected, Hansen explains he has gone from being a shy retiring lab scientist, to a protester at mining shafts, with his own grandchildren in mind.


He believes fossil fuel companies are "knowingly spreading misinformation about global warming." He deplores environmental groups that have adopted the Washington D.C. philosophy "going along to get along."


Kolbert points out, chillingly, what Hansen may not understand: "Just because the world desperately needs a solution that satisfies both the scientific, and political constraints does not mean one exists."


There is no theory of politics with the same scientific standing as the geophysics of climate change pioneered by Hansen. But we do know enough politics to understand what needs to be done to stop lacing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions at a rate 10,000 times greater than our capacity to absorb them.


Electing governments with an understanding of the issue and the courage to confront the problem would be better than putting climate change deniers in charge of the state treasury (as in Canada with Harper and in the U.S. under former President Bush). But putting progressive governments into place does not ensure fossil fuel producers will be brought under control. Internationally concerted efforts on the part of the leading world powers would be needed to do it, and no government is leading such initiatives, and none will until forced by world public opinion, the other superpower.


Using carrots and sticks to change market behavior is what is currently on offer from governments. But a comprehensive carbon tax, or the current U.S. favorite, cap and trade rely on faith that market pricing can, and will choke demand for carbon generating production. Such faith is sadly misplaced.


Seeing John Manley chosen to succeed Tom d'Aquino as President of the CCCE (Canadian Council of Chief Executives) reminds us that market forces include major business outfits that work constantly to control national policy outcomes, and neuter international efforts to control their economic power. Direct state regulation through imposing hard caps on polluters suggests governments can control economic actors, when the opposite is the norm.


What is undeniable is what Kolbert sees as unlikely: a political revolution is needed for industrial societies to do what scientific knowledge shows is needed to reverse climate change. Canada is a major producer, consumer, importer and exporter of coal, and no political party, or government is contemplating having us cease to use it.


It remains that the military, industrial, agricultural society built on fossil fuels is destroying the habitat and endangering human survival, let alone well-being, and needs to be overthrown, peacefully.


How can this be done? Only through citizen-led action. We need to be putting the right facts before everybody, not just decision-makers. The only way corporate chiefs and political leaders will be forced to recognize the perils of our addiction to carbon is when it becomes so clear to the world who is out of step with reality, that carbon denial becomes a subject of public ridicule, instead of environmental activists.


Small steps, such as giving up meat, can have large consequences, when according to the FAO, 18 per cent of green house gas emissions (CO2 equivalent) are rooted in raising animals for slaughter.


Creating citizen awareness not just of the steps to be taken as consumers and producers to reduce green house gases, and not just of the scientific arguments -- but of the political barriers to change -- is the pre-condition for a peaceful green revolution. Single-issue groups calling for a social mobilization of people for environmental change often have insufficient knowledge of the economic and political context to appreciate what obstacles are being thrown up at them.


The greening of the planet is the challenge of the 21st century. Reversing existing power relations is the only way to stop our selves from destroying the atmosphere. That means not allowing domestic U.S. politics to set the world agenda without a worldwide fight for control of American public opinion, and it means transforming the very way we produce goods and services, and exploit natural resources through changing our daily activities and habits.


James Hansen did not set out to get himself arrested, he has just refused to give up a fight he knows he can not win, alone.


Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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