The Climate of Obamaland

27 Jun


By Sasha

To begin his speech on climate change at Georgetown, President Obama evoked the image of earth as seen from space in 1968. “[W]hile the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time.” Imagine what it looks like today—the Alberta tar sands’ vast tailing ponds expanding into the boreal forest, plumes of smoke from brush fires obscuring parts of Australia, algae blooms clogging the rivers, widening deserts, retreating glaciers.

If Obama’s speech made one lasting impression, it was that the US “will reduce its greenhouse-gas pollution to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.” Really, that’s only a 5 percent drop from today. While the reduction in greenhouse-gases in the US will come through a very complex system of tax breaks, emissions caps, techno-fixes, and carbon trading schemes, a recent report published in Energy Policy admits that the US and other developed countries will require a 50 percent reduction in 1990 levels—this report places Obama’s target far from the mark. The national climate change policy has its head in the clouds, and obscures what is happening on the ground.

Just this week, two separate direct action protests against the construction of an Enbridge pipeline set to carry tar sands oil out of Alberta. One protest in Michigan included an activist entering the pipeline and locking down, while the other in Elsipogtog involved an extensive multiple-day occupation and numerous lock-downs. Obama has focused, along with much of the Climate Justice Movement, on the Keystone XL pipeline miles away, and Obama even mentioned in his speech that he would ensure the pipeline would be halted unless the State Department could certify that it would not significantly contribute to climate change. The trouble is, the State Department already made such claims, so it looks like the pipeline will be accepted.

Oil production, largely derived from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, hit the sharpest spike in decades in the years 2011 and 2012. Concomitant with this increase of oil production is the rise of sexual assault and violence, as oil workers invade small towns looking for a good time. Judging by this “male dystopia,” the jobs-jobs-jobs agenda stinks with the residue of structural misogyny and rape culture. At the same time, due to the drive to frack oil wells, Texas oil production may double by 2020. Obama did not mention that shipments of petroleum by train increased 46 percent in 2012, and new routes for coal exports are projected for the West Coast in spite of a heated protest movement spearheaded by community groups. Meanwhile, coal production continues to rise steadily over the past several years, as the “Saudi Arabia of Coal” in the Powder River Basin finds new routes out of the North America.

Obama’s strongest defense is, “even as we’re producing more domestic oil, we’re also producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth.” US natural gas production hit an all-time record high in 2012, and is projected to increase in coming years—in Obama’s speech, he insisted that such production boosts jobs, promotes clean energy, and calls for more infrastructure. Gas production is, however, often facilitated by alterations to residential zoning laws that have become possible through subversion of the democratic process by public-private partnerships. That the frack wells have poisoned aquifers, making life virtually impossible in some areas, only provides more fodder for contemporary enclosures and residential market speculators. Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air keeps a growing list, currently over a thousand people driven from their homes and/or suffering from long-term health problems throughout the Marcellus Shale, as well as in the fracking hubs of Colorado and Texas. In just one of numerous accidents, on May 24, a natural gas processor spilled 241 barrels of natural gas liquid into Parachute Creek, polluting local irrigation reservoir with carcinogenic benzene.

Obama continues, “sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.” The reductionist logic of such liberal platitudes to the Climate Justice Movement ignore the industrial poisoning of the land. Anything will work, as long as it is “clean burning” or promotes “clean energy.” Obama states, “we’ll keep working with the industry to make drilling safer and cleaner, to make sure that we’re not seeing methane emissions”—this notion of “not seeing methane emissions” is especially strange, considering scientists and engineers like Cornell University’s Anthony Ingraffea insist that methane emissions have made natural gas into a failed climate solution. According to Ingraffea, “It is not enough of a benefit to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand natural gas when that money could be put to use in deployment of renewables.” Of course, renewables have their own problems.

Comparing the rush for “clean energy” to the Space Race, Obama announced that the US ought to compete with Chinese production of solar panels. This is by all accounts a frightening declaration, considering that solar panel factories happen to emit extremely toxic fumes and pollutants into the air and water, while using rare earth metals that require extremely damaging mining enterprises. The problem with these factories came to a head in China in 2011 when the workers at a Zhejang plant forced the factory to close its doors, due to terrible health effects, including, among other things, cancer. Although solar factories may create more jobs, the workers in China have already met with their negative aspects. Obama calls upon the developing world to meet the same standards of pollution control as the US, while simultaneously encouraging regimes around the world to produce more fossil fuels (in Libya, for instance), while mandating that the US increases its own extractive industries. It is, indeed, a fact that the US has obstructed climate change proceedings around the world since at least the Kyoto Protocols, and Obama himself helped scuttle the optimistic attempts of the African Union to put forward a real climate change policy during COP15 in Copenhagen.

Focusing on emissions, Obama completely overlooked one of the worst contributors to climate change and biggest destroyers of land and water—deforestation. Deforestation contributed nearly twice the amount of emissions of heat trapping gases in 2010, yet Obama’s Forest Service has mandated a 20 percent increase in volume of board feet harvested from National Forests by 2014. This hike is alarming, considering that the forest service already considers “public lands” to be “plantation lands” on a thirty-year cycle. The FS and Bureau of Land Management have been hacking away at everything they can get their saws through since the RARE II report in 1977—what’s left is either short growth or critical late successional reserve forest that has been left to mature since the massive clear cuts of the 1950s and 1980s. These forests are teeming with endangered species, and they are the country’s last carbon banks—according to the Wilderness Society, almost all of the most critical national forests are up in the Pacific Northwest Cascadia bioregion.

In Mount Hood, the US’s most hiked glacial peak, the FS is sharpening the blades of the timber industry to reap 6,000 acres out of an area sweeping the north face of the mountain, but environmental groups were afforded no fair chance at field checking the sales. Before local biodiversity group, Bark, helped stop it, another 2,000 acre timber sale was slated for the western side of Mount Hood, putting the most beautiful part of that temperate rainforest up for grabs, including 150-year-old trees, the probable stomping grounds of the endangered Sierra Nevada Red Fox, and the last thriving salmon habitat on the mountain, the wild Sandy River.

Most bioregions are not so privileged as to have enough biodiversity groups to ensure that the Endangered Species Act and Environmental Protection Act are followed. Since the Clinton Administration’s heinous “Salvage Rider,” which allowed timber industries to cut down old growth for “fire prevention,” and the Bush Administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” (check-marked by Oregon’s finest Democrats), budgetary items that went to enforcement of environmental standards—namely, requirements for federal checking of timber sales—have been cut.

While conservatives like to blame environmentalists for the decline in the timber industry’s employment rolls, it is the timber industry’s all-out assault on the working class that should be blamed first. There are frequent claims that 13 percent of Oregon’s economy comes from timber. In Oregon, however, property taxes, income taxes, and tree severance taxes on timberlands paid by the timber barons rarely account for more than 5 percent of the counties’ total. Sixty-to-seventy percent of timber harvested on the West Coast is shipped overseas to China with minimal tariffs, much of it without even touching local sawmills, which once were bastions of union labor. The seasonal employment of logging is notorious, up there with coal mining as a non-unionized and highly dangerous career with very little rewards.

The amount of board feet harvested today is roughly equivalent to that harvested in 1940, yet in timber states, the industry employs as little as 15 percent of their previous workforce. In 1990, timber production was more than four times what it is today, yet, between 1990 and 2007, the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries Timberland Index reported an annual compounded return of 12.88 percent, nearly 20 percent higher than the S&P index. The decline in harvested timber since the early 1990s does not seem to have impacted the corporations’ bottom line, in fact, the return price for stock in timber companies like Weyerhauser has increased as much as 60 percent since April 2012. Still, taxpayers subsidize the logging roads, sometimes using the FS and BLM’s ability to bypass environmental impact analyses to cut roads straight through old growth. In a strange inversion of the expected reality, the federal government is known to spend more on constructing logging roads for a given timber sale than it receives for the lease of the land. And the seasonal loggers get screwed along with the good old Spotted Owl.

Throughout the world, the general pattern of the World Timber Total Return Index shows that timber industry stocks have risen 215 percent between 2009 and 2011. Since the beginnings of the global food crisis, moneyed interests, multinational corporations and national elites have captured billions of acres across the Global South. The ramping up of the timber harvest in the US is only a small part of the resource push spearheaded by extractive industry throughout the world. It extends to other industries in the US as well, and increasing solar and wind production will not help to mitigate the problem. An average of 8 percent of land in every state of the Union is owned by foreign investors, with the exception of Maine where foreign investors own twice that. Half of this land is forest, much of it owned by timber companies from Canada and the Netherlands like Irving Woodlands. The Dutch pension fund is typically pointed to as the reason for their expansive investment in the US—the Dutch are staking their future on US land while we here are hemorrhaging social wealth (whether this points towards a larger pattern of the chicken coming home to roost, we will have to wait and see).

The rural farming sector of the US is also increasingly falling into the hands of outside investors. In Illinois, outside investment in farm sales increased by 66 percent in 2011, to 73 percent of all sales. This trend echoes a larger buy-out of land in the US. Between 2005 and 2010, the total amount of privately held farmland rose by 65 percent. Foreign direct investment leaped 6.7 percent in 10 months during 2010, reining in a total area the size of Indiana. While the features of the Global Land Grab are different in the US than they are in the rest of the world, it appears as though what is happening in the US is similar to what is happening in the Global South. First of all, the amount of available land in the North Atlantic countries is far less than that of the Global South. It is also more expensive, so the stakes are different—while foreign investment in land is rising, it does not touch the levels at which corporations are buying up land in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Land grabs are “legitimized” and enforced in the US by police and facilitated by courts and private-public partnerships, but that does not make what is happening in the US any more “legal” in terms of democratic control over public lands and resources. Instead, there is a run on natural resources in the US, and the financialization of the economy has provided the pretext to siphon the revenue directly to the upper class.

By all accounts, if Obama is calling for an increase in solar panel construction, emissions caps, and so on, he is also responsible for a simultaneous increase of extractive industry throughout the world. In his speech, Obama insisted that subsidies to coal-fired power plants worldwide must end, but only if those plants do not have carbon capture technology, which is highly dubious in terms of its proposed positive impacts. Since, forecasts show that coal, oil, and natural gas are only set to increase, it will clearly take concerted citizens’ campaigns to overthrow the industry barons and empower workers to take their fair share from the economy. While Obama speaks of climate change and the future of ecology in the US, he will not attempt to delink from the imperialist economy he has helped to build out of fossil fuels and deforestation, and the security state he has helped enfranchise to keep it in place.

12 Responses to “The Climate of Obamaland”

  1. Steve Ongerth June 27, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Good critique. Here are a few others that approach it from a slightly different angle:

    System Change not Climate Change –

    International Socialist Organization –

    My own –

    One small quibble about rare earths: (Note: I didn’t write this; one of my fellow IWW members did, but I agree with his conclusions).

    • Ben Pachano June 27, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

      Well, about that “quibble”:

      First of all, where does the author think the energy to recycle rare earths comes from? I’m guessing it comes from coal and fracked gas. And although the author touches on this at the end, it’s still worth saying explicitly: depending on benevolent economic decision makers to suddenly shift to recycling instead of mining is horribly naive and, frankly, suicidal.

      Second of all, questions of rare earths aside — solar and wind electric production still depend on strip-mined copper…and fossil fuels.

      Third of all, a large-scale shift to alternative energy sources requires the construction of massive new transcontinental transmission lines, with all the destruction that entails.

      Fourth of all, can we really take seriously a supposedly environmental perspective that classifies hydropower dams as “clean”?

      • Steve Ongerth June 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm #

        Ben, in response to your comments: the IWW would NEVER propose leaving ANY decisions in the hands of the capitalist class. Inherent in any proposed alternative we make is the abolition of the wages system, so we’re not naively expecting anything, much less a sudden shift from the capitalist class; that’s why we organize.

        There is no requirement that the energy to do anything come from fracking, coal, or gas. To simply give up hope and assume that all energy that is consumed must automatically come from the dirtiest, most centralized source is reflexive pessimism.

        For that matter, you assume–without any evidence to support your argument–that the process of recycling and the energy used in that process will require all new energy sources and all new infrastructure. There was nothing inherent in my fellow worker’s article that implied that the energy used would come from ready existing sources and be budgeted from the energy NOT used in mining the materials raw. Besides, what do you propose as an alternative to the discarded parts that were proposed as the materials’ source? Landfills?

        As for the copper, a recent article in Grist suggested that THIS could be sourced from recycled material as well (dug up from under city streets no less).

        Of course, your position begs a big question: if we don’t let business continue as usual (and it would be suicidal to try) and we don’t use renewable energy as alternative, what DO you propose?

        While it is indeed naive to hold out hope for the capitalist system to save us, it is substantially MORE naive to assume that most people will adopt a no electricity, low tech future. Perhaps one might be imposed on us by circumstance, but that would represent a FAILURE to overthrow the death machine rather than a triumph.

      • Ben Pachano June 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

        Steve: I think some of these are points on which reasonable people can disagree. And frankly, I don’t even flat-out disagree with some of the assertions you make in your comment here (although I stand by my critiques of the original IWW post).

        The main point of our disagreement seems to be whether there can be a sustainable industrial future. And I’ve simply never seen a compelling argument for how the laws of nature will allow us to keep living in a way that exceeds our local landbases’ energy budgets. The entire industrial way of life is premised on being able to extract massive amounts of energy quickly, so that we don’t have to rely on muscle power and natural (i.e., slow) biological processes. But in the long term, those are the only things we’ve got.

        Industrialism is also premised on toxic processes that require “sacrificing” the health of certain areas, populations and professions. It’s nice to hope that we can find some way that won’t be the case, but to date it ALWAYS has been.

        So here’s my problem with recycling and “alternative” power in a nutshell: relying on these technologies as a “bridge” to a lower-consumption future has the same pitfalls as relying on fracked natural gas. We’re expecting fundamentally energy-intensive, industrial-scale solutions to save us from problems that are caused by energy-intensive, industrial scale living. We’re also expecting that techniques designed to PRESERVE the modern way of life will somehow miraculously lead to that way of life’s dissolution.

        Yes, we need to get to a low- or no-electricity future. And I agree with you that this will not occur voluntarily, nor should we wait for it to be imposed by circumstance.

        We should do our utmost NOW to bring down the global economic system (and industrial civilization along with it), all the while working hard to build alternatives to that system and defending those alternatives from the forces of repression. (

        But recycling and alternative energy? They won’t help us far along that path.

      • Ryan June 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

        To jump in as the author of the rare earths piece I’ll address a few points on your argument.

        First off it was never my intent to imply we should be waiting on the capitalists to shift to recycling rare earths as the major source. Rather it is to point out that they are putting money into it which suggests it is a feasible avenue worth exploring. After all, these are the kind of people whose lives are built on using money to make more money. They don’t put their resources into a project they do not expect results from and if they think recycling rare earths is worth their money then it is at least worth looking into to see if it can be done in a sustainable, worker-controlled, non-capitalist fashion.

        Second off I think you are grossly underestimating the potential of all forms of recycling for mineral extraction, not just of rare earths. Electronic waste, for example, produces between 1.5 to 2 million tons of material each year, most of which is tossed into landfills. That’s before you go into all other forms of waste which include the core components for solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. When you think of how many tens, even hundreds, of millions of tons of potentially recyclable material are in US landfills alone that’s more than enough to build all the green energy materials and components needed and overhaul our power lines (we don’t need new ones, contrary to what your link claims) to maximum efficiency. We would be emptying out landfills and filling in mines rather than the status quo of emptying mines to fill landfills. On top of that repurposing all of that garbage would clean up the major environmental problem that is landfill seepage, impact on nearby communities, and the long-term harm done from buried toxic materials.

        If anything ignoring that would do far more harm in the short, medium, and long-term to our planet and the biosphere than using it.

        Third, yes it will take fossil fuel energy RIGHT NOW to make green energy components. As more green energy power sources come online, functioning, and replace dirty sources the less it will take until we reach a point where instead of needing dirty energy to make clean it will be possible to use clean to make more clean. If you outfit solar and wind production facilities with their own products that will come even quicker. You also demonstrate some ignorance on the possibilities of hydropower; there’s a lot more to it these days than high-impact dams. The best example is in the form of tidal power which is VERY lower impact, no pollution, and high energy yield: There’s some newer designs that involve putting tidal power generators on the same structures as offshore windfarms to maximize the green energy potential. It’s definitely a far cry from the usual image one has of hydropower and has far more potential.

        Fourth and finally I have to point out the larger moral issue you seem to be whistling past. To get to your no-tech, no energy future quickly and on your own terms a whole lot of people are going to die. At the bare minimum six billion when you pull the plugs on what’s keeping modern medical equipment on, water flowing to homes, food being transported to markets, and everything else that depends on industrial infrastructure and production. And while those people are dying it’s not going to be some nice, pretty dieoff like The Happening or something like that. It’s going to be messy, people are going to kill each other, and most importantly people are going to loot the land further in a desperate attempt to eke out a few more days of existence. In the end you will probably be left with a burned out husk that once was planet Earth. You speak so casually of tearing down industrial civilization but have you really stopped to think about the consequences such actions would have no just on the human species but on the entire biosphere? The natural world does not depend on us to exist but you can bet that humanity’s death ride would drag it down into the grave with it.

        To add to that most of those people whose death warrants you are so casually signing are just as much victims and prisoners of this system as the biosphere is. Would you demand they pay for their suffering and often ignorant, coerced compliance with their lives. What of those who created the crisis in the first place who are the ones who most likely have the resources needed to ride out any apocalyptic scenario? Your strategy would lead to the greatest suffering possible for the largest number of innocents imaginable while leaving the guilty relatively unscathed by comparison.

        A better solution is to find sustainable, non-capitalist solutions, slowly work to a low-energy, low-population future through voluntary means, and to work to rebuild the damage done to the environment. When you light the entire world on fire it’s a bit difficult to control what gets burned and what doesn’t.

      • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office June 28, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

        I’ve personally visited squats that have made their own wind and solar energy and are self-sufficient. It is possible to do this via recycled parts and a little know-how (and possibly one or two things ordered from a catalog).
        There is space for imagining what the future could look like “after” capitalism, or what we call technological/industrial civilization. This would rely, as Javier Sethness-Castro explains, on a massive popular effort—one that I think we are seeing rising every day, but for the terrible repression of the state against the workers and unemployed. If “the People” hold together, an opposition must be formed, and the question is, should that opposition be to capitalism or to oppression, in general?
        I think a huge issue today is the privileging of the critique of capitalism over the critique of “extractivism” as a technological facet to political economy. This new tendency has a lot to do with Bolivia’s Lineras, and his excuse mongering about the developmentalist subversion of the indigenous political base that ushered MAS into power. The argument is, “extractivism is not a mode of production, it is technological, so if you use extractivism to get to a socialist mode of production, you’re fine.” If we go back to, say, Marcuse’s book on Soviet Marxism, we find that both state socialism and state capitalism crush the people under brutal assault on nature. We can recognize that Obama’s plan is crap, and anything under capitalism will be crap, but also that any form or facet of accumulation that oppresses some cannot stand over all. An injury to one is an injury to all.
        I look towards Pannecoek, for instance, to note the possibility of a horizontal internationalism that would define itself by every element of the world economy and every person living within or without it.

      • Ben Pachano June 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

        I’ll also put in a plug against getting trapped into an either-or mentality here. Saying that industrial civilization is not sustainable does not mean that no industrial methods ever can or will be used to get us to a post-industrial place. Small-scale, scavenged and recycled electric setups probably will all have important roles to play. The problem is putting all your eggs in that basket, or denying that post-industrial is where we need to end up if we want a world not founded on repressing the land and, by definition, all land-based cultures including campesin@s and indigenous peoples. You can’t exploit one without exploiting the other.

        I have no intention of “whistling past” the fact that no matter what we do at this point, massive numbers of people who are victims of this system will probably continue to be horribly murdered by it. Whether that is in the form of climate catastrophe, the ongoing function of industrial genocide and ecocide, or mass starvation when the petroleum-based food production system finally gives out (along with our soil and water) … we are all staring down the barrel of a gun. And guess what? In all those scenarios, people killing each other and looting the land will also be likely. Those things are happening *right now.* Those things will keep happening if we continue to prop up an industrial system with techno-fixes.

        Just because we *want* the Earth to be able to produce enough food and electricity for everyone into eternity doesn’t mean it *can.* And frankly, remember that large portions of the global population are still rural and indigenous people struggling to hang on to an earth-based way of life that is under constant assault. The longer this system hangs on, the worse off those people will be. Meanwhile, those of us who have no idea how to produce our own food will be in real trouble without industrial food production and distribution. So it’s not as simple as “all the poor people will suffer and the privileged folks will be OK” if civilization starts to collapse.

        Yes, I’ve “stopped to think about the consequences.” At length. That’s a big part of my work, actually. And the desire to minimize horrendous suffering in the wake of an industrial crash is the reason we need to be building radical alternatives immediately (e.g., community farms, free/barter-based schools for survival and medical skills, and yes, scavenged electric getups). But the desire to have a living planet is also why we need to work to bring down this system now.

        Again, we can reasonably disagree on how to protect the most living beings as this fossil fuel nightmare thrashes reluctantly into its grave. But I have trouble taking seriously any solutions that are not willing to openly confront the reality of our ecological limits, or the dark sides of the technologies they promote.

        (mean dig about me being “ignorant” on hydropower by the way, since you explicitly included hydro dams as an option in your original piece)

      • Earth First! Journal Cascadia Office June 29, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

        I think part of the question that needs to be hashed out is the question of insurrection versus transition. Personally, I don’t see the latter as a real possibility under capitalism. I doubt anyone on this thread would disagree with that estimation. If insurrection stands for popular uprising throughout the world, interconnected and communicating, organizing together, and working in solidarity on a bioregional level, then it is really the only possibility. The reason why revolution is not necessarily my watch-word here is obviously the problematic history of revolutionism merely re-enfranchising the State in more potent forms.
        So, I’m in favor of mass popular insurrection, which is possible above all other means through education and communication. Hydro-power and wind energy are things we should all look on with a skeptical eye, but that is the nature of science — to look at things empirically and recognize that a law is only law until it has been disproven. We are all ignorant, in this regard, and will never truly achieve any kind of enlightenment beyond the simple, practical matter of telling the truth and seeking honest discussion with all people each and every day.

  2. rwe2late June 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    This article shares one thing in common with Obama and his cohorts.
    Namely, it “overlooks” the role of militarism in environmental destruction.
    Although Obama’s “overlooking” may differ in being deliberate, the effect is similar.

    The global Pentagon/NATO is the world’s single worst polluter and destroyer of the environment. The military is the world’s biggest user of petroleum and petroleum products. The military pollutes and poisons land, water, and air with chemicals, biological agents, and nuclear materials, from defoliants to cluster bombs.

    The production of munitions and supplies for the military only adds to the mayhem.
    But the resources wasted on militarism do not just preclude better, wiser use.

    Oil and other resources become designated as “vital” to the military and “security”.
    And in the name of “securing” vital resources, alliances and military protectorates are made with corrupt governments whose protected rule depends on securing those resources.

    Nonetheless, the military is typically a taboo subject in the negotiations for treaties protecting the environment, and the US always insists on exempting the military from treaty provisions.

  3. Exposing the Big Game June 29, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    Reblogged this on Exposing the Big Game.


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